June 15, 2023

Saint Augustine, His Life and Teachings (From the Patrology of Stylianos Papadopoulos) - Part One

Augustine of Hippo (+ 430): 
The Great Church Father of the West

By Stylianos Papadopoulos,
Professor of Patristics

General View: Introduction

1. Saint Augustine was the greatest and most prolific of the Church Fathers and theologians of the West and a writer of enormous influence on Western Christianity. Multi-talented and a genius, he dominated medieval thought (theology, philosophy, methodology), mainly until the era (12th-13th centuries) when Aristotelianism was adopted - in the place of Plato and Neoplatonism - as the ultimate instrument of construction and proof of the Church's teaching. Of course, mainly through the Franciscans (Bonaventure et al.) he continued to deeply influence Roman Catholic - but also later Protestant - theological thought, while sociologists, political scientists and historians of philosophy always refer to his texts. Western theology, in general, is unthinkable without the constant presence of Augustine, both positively and negatively. In the Christian East for centuries Augustine remained almost unknown and that is why his influence was negligible to zero.
2. From about 386 until the end of his life (+ 430), his purpose was: to give a defense for his conversion to the Church and to convince himself and others of the correctness of his decision; to combat the pagans and Manichaeans, who had initially attracted him; to overthrow the Donatists and Pelagians, who falsified the Church's teaching or threatened its unity; to edify the faithful, solving practical problems of moral and spiritual life; to analyze and support the dogmatic teachings; to explain the relationship of the saving Church (civitas Dei) and the secular state (civitas terrena) in history; and to interpret Holy Scripture.
3. All this presupposes a combination of many interests, but also skills, theoretical and practical. Augustine engaged in the sport of combination with only relative success. A dominant role in his spirit was played by the practical issues of life and primarily the relationship of the soul with the highest good, God, for the sake of a blessed life (vita beata). This topic, with mainly conceptual conditions, moved him from the younger years of his studies in the texts of Cicero (and especially in his lost work Hortensius), Varro et al. It is, in other words, a popular philosophy and philosophical ethics, which with "religious Neoplatonism" had deeply permeated him and which with their climate he would reflect on until the end of his life.

That is why it is no coincidence that the theological topic that preoccupied him was divine grace, how it acts in man and what relation it has to the human will. He fought Manichaeism by promoting the freedom of the will. Then Pelagius and his deviations only served as an occasion for him to deal again and again with the crucial issue of the freedom of the will and divine grace, so that he was described as doctor graciae (teacher of grace). Thus he formulated contradictory views: Before becoming a bishop he maintained that faith and doing good belong to the possibilities that God gave to all people (Exp. quorund prop. ep. Rom., c. 68); from 396 he argued that man's will is from the beginning destined for good or evil "and cannot be changed" (De libcro arbitrio 3. 3, 8). Fighting cacodoxies, he himself arrived at theological-doctrinal deviations.

4. When he philosophizes, he mainly theologizes with the ultimate goal toward the purity of faith; and when he theologizes, he often philosophizes with the aim of convincing about the moral life of believers and the superiority of the morals of the Church in relation to the morals of heretics or pagans/idolaters. These can be easily seen especially in his two major works, De Trinitate (On the Trinity) and De civitate Dei (On the City of God), which researchers describe as "systematic", although they lack an organized and consistent structure and dialectical precision.

But this is preferable (in theological works) to a slavish submission to methods and scholastic outlines. Such submission, to the extent that it occurs, leads him to the illusion that he can answer correctly not only to the problems caused by the theological deviations of his time, but also to what, in his opinion, would complete the teaching of Christianity.

5. Augustine did not avoid this temptation, but he had enough self-awareness and humility so that around 400 he accepted honest criticism from his readers (De Trinitate I 1, 1) and three years before his death in 427 he wrote the work Retractiones (Retractions). Already in the Prologue of this work he explains that his texts were written over a long series of years and that he himself, knowing the evolutionary course of his thought, is now making some revisions or corrections of some of his earlier opinions. So this work is a unicum, a unique case, in ecclesiastical literature. It reaches the point where its editor bravely notes that not all of them need to be read, especially his early texts because he wrote them "as he went along".

The Philosophical Tradition of Augustine

A lot has been said and is being said about the dense presence of philosophy in the work of Augustine, who indeed tried consciously to combine it with the faith and teaching of the Church. It is claimed that he Christianized Neoplatonism, but Augustine was mainly moved by, already from the time of his stint with Manichaeism, Neoplatonism or the Academics, the religious and more specifically the ethics of practical philosophy, which dominated in Roman times. From the philosophical field he was interested in what mainly referred to the problems of life and especially the blessed life (beata vita) and not the various theories of actual being or the Platonic theory of the triadic flow (emanatio) of beings.

He mainly adopted the practical elements of philosophy and presented them, as far as he judged and was able, imbued with the spirit of the Church. It is no coincidence that God is the highest good, the perfect, the ultimate, to which the soul must return and with which it must unite. This union constitutes beatitude, beata vita. It is the result of participation in the divinity, but in which it does not distinguish between divine nature and uncreated energies. So he seeks a participation/relationship with the divine nature. Augustine, while confessing that he had been "talking for so many years as a connoisseur" of philosophy (Confessions VII 20, 26), was convinced that the Platonic philosophers said and taught many true things. That is why he affirms that every truth he knew from the "Platonists" was found in the apostle Paul. But they, despite all their correctness, did not know the way to Christ, because they did not live with piety (Confessions V 4). Even "if they find the truth and know God, they do not honor him as God and do not thank him" (Ibid.).

"... I understood (= reading Paul "simply") that every truth that I had read in the Platonists was also said here, but here it was founded on your Grace, so that he who sees cannot boast that he saw for himself and acknowledge that he was given not only what he sees, but also the ability to see. But what does he have that you didn't give him?" (Confessions VII 21, 27. See also VII 10, 16).

Philosophers, therefore, have many truths, but God reveals and provides them all to believers, so that they may not be proud. Concepts more or less naive, which partially bring back the climate of the Apologists of the 2nd and 3rd centuries and they show how difficult it is to draw a line between theological thought and folk-philosophical concepts. And while with his theory of absolute predestination he excludes the possibility of man moving towards God, if God himself has not already predestined him to this, around 427, when he was finalizing matters on predestination, he explained that "corruption passed" in human nature, but this continues to be a "great nature": because "it is not the highest (= the divine nature), yet because it is capable and can be partaker of the highest nature, it is a great nature" (De Trinitate XIV 4). Despite the fall, that is, human nature can become a "partaker" of the divine nature.

Even in his most composite works, researchers sometimes find it difficult to clearly distinguish the philosophical from the theological discourse, when it is a question of philosophical truth and reflection and when it is a clear teaching of the Church. In this unclear climate, the phrase "intellige ut credas, crede ut intelligas" ("understand that you may believe, believe that you may understand) is also understood (see Sermo 43, 7). You must think in order to believe, and believe in order to think/understand (De pruedestinatione 2, 5; De vera religione 24, 45). It is obvious that Augustine struggled a lot to combine or rather reconcile philosophical thought and the faith of the Church, but he ended his life wavering, doubting his own views and unable to provide a solution to the problem.


Saint Augustine is a great and multifaceted figure, and the sources of his life and work are also rich and reliable. It is found in the Life (Vita) of Augustine, compiled by his student Possidius (PL 32, 33-66) between 431 and 439, but more so in the autobiographical elements which Augustine himself gave in his works. These in chronological order are the Prologues to De beara vita, Contra Academicos and De ordine (of the years 386-387), the Confessiones (from 397 to 407), the Retractiones (of the years 426/7 ) and Sermons (355 and 356) written in 425. In these texts we have an abundance of biographical elements and evaluations, but there are historical and philological and other gaps, which painstaking research cleared up and clears up, without always reaching generally accepted conclusions.

Augustine, Aurelius Augustinus, was born on November 13, 354 in Thagaste in mountainous Numidia (Algeria, Africa) (today Suk Ahras). His father, a patrician, relatively only financially sufficient, was interested in the studies of his brilliant son, whom he wanted to see as an eminent orator or a senior administrative official. His mother Monica, probably of barbarian origin and a very fervent Christian, inspired him with love for the Church and even enrolled him in the catechumens, but he quickly turned to the pursuit of education and worldly life.

He learned his first letters in Thagaste and continued to study first in neighboring Madura and then in Cartagena. He was distinguished and made impressions for his performance in rhetoric and in general in Latin writing, from which he was greatly moved by Virgil, Terentius and Cicero, whom, from time to time, he mentions in his texts. He also attended Greek lessons, but only learned elements of it, completely insufficient for understanding a Greek text, a fact that will have negative consequences in his theological course (see his confession in De Trinitate III, Prologus). That is why the knowledge of the Greek philosophers (first Aristotle and then Plato and the Neoplatonists) was due to Latin translations, such as Marius Victorinus.

In 374 he began working as an orator in his hometown and did the same between 375 and 383 in Carthage. From an early age he was associated with a young woman, with whom he had a son (373), Adeodatus, while practically and psychologically he had already abandoned Christianity. In Carthage he read Cicero's lost work Hortensius, a eulogy on the timeless value of wisdom, and quickly turned to the study of philosophy and the simple reading of Scripture. Hortensius directly gave birth to the idea that true happiness - beatitude - is found only in immortal wisdom and indirectly the interest in the problem of God. From the time of Carthage he was impressed by representatives of Manichaeism, whose circles he followed for almost nine years, probably without becoming a member of this sect. Tracing Platonic and Neoplatonic thought, he pointed out the contradictions and inconsistencies in Manichean dualism and other views. But he was convinced of them, especially after the discussion he had with their bishop in Mileve, Faustus, their theoretical representative.

But instead of returning to Christianity, he turned for a while to the "academic" philosophers, who projected sharp skepticism. He distanced himself from the mother of Adeodatus' son, connected with another woman and planned a marriage with a child of the aristocracy. In 383 he traveled to Rome, and the following year found himself in Milan as a teacher of rhetoric and a frequent listener of Bishop Ambrose, whose thought, or hermeneutical method, and or physiognomy impressed him positively and deeply. The great hour of his return had begun. His mother Monica also arrived in Milan. The study of the works of Plotinus and other Neoplatonists continued, which helped him to solve the problem of materialism, while the deepening of the Epistles of Paul helped him to deal theologically with the problem of evil and finally to recognize in Christ not only the teacher, but mainly the Savior. At the same time of his internal reorganization, he read the Latin translation of the Life of Saint Anthony, and in August 386 he took the difficult decision to deny himself the brilliant career of the orator or senior commander and the life of free marriage and marriage.

In October 386 he retired to the estate of Cassiacum (perhaps today's Cassago) accompanied by like-minded friends. There he debated, lived almost communally, wrote philosophical texts and prepared for baptism, which he received on the night of Easter 387 (April 24 to 25). In August he started for Africa, but stopped at Ostia (near Rome), where his mother fell ill and died, which led him to Rome for a while. There he stayed until the summer of 388, writing and studying, when he traveled to his birthplace of Thagaste, with the prospect of a philosophical and monastic life with lay friends. This was partly done, but in 391, being at Hippo, Hippo Regius of Numidia (present-day Annaba in Algeria), he was pressed to be ordained a priest, and in 395 a bishop as assistant to the aged bishop Valerius, whom he succeeded in 397.

After Augustine accepted the priesthood and especially the high priesthood, he created a significant and multifaceted pastoral and ecclesiastical-theological work. In his diocese, which belonged to the Diocese of Carthage, the schismatic Donatists prevailed, whom he fought theologically, just as he fought with his writings the Manichaeans, the Arians, the Pelagians and the Semi-Pelagians, without omitting to write against the pagans, philosophers or not. The catechism of the faithful, the education of the clergy and the spread of monasticism in the region were overseen with his diligent care. He himself lived coenobitically with many of the clergy of Hippo in the diocese and played the role of theological head (recognized as the leading theologian) in the episcopal synods of Africa (of the years 393, 397, 411, 413, 418). As a leading theologian, he was also recognized throughout the Western Church, while his fame indirectly reached the East as well. In 426/7, shortly before finishing his great work De civitate Dei, he wrote the famous Retractiones, in order to judge, sometimes harshly, his earlier works and indeed to state that certain views in them he did not share.

He reposed on March 28, 430, while the Vandals were besieging the city. On this day, the Roman Catholic Church honors his memory. The Orthodox Church honors his memory on June 15, which happened very late, at the beginning of the 19th century.


Become a Patreon or Paypal Supporter:

Recurring Gifts

Contact Form


Email *

Message *