The Ancient Church gives us three great gifts: the doctrine of the Trinity, the canon of the New Testament, and the works of the African pastor-theologian Augustine (354–430).
Some might be surprised to see the last in this list, but the truth of the matter is that we, who are heirs of Western Christianity, are all Augustinians, so profound has been his influence.
One gets an idea of his impact when one realizes that 95% of his written corpus survived his death when the Vandals, originally from Denmark, took the city of Hippo Regius at the time of his death in 430. Of his City of God, for instance, there are some 375 manuscript copies from late antiquity that can be used to establish the text of this work. So, what then is his theological legacy and how has he shaped us?
We know so much about Augustine because of his Confessions, which is actually one extended prayer of thanksgiving for the grace shown to him as a sinner by the Triune God. It establishes a new genre, that of the conversion narrative. Thus one sees its influence in such works as John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners and John Newton’s An Authentic Narrative. Through the account of his life, Augustine also establishes a theology and spirituality of grace. Augustinian theology and piety are strongly shaped by a perspective that does full justice to human depravity and therefore the necessity of sovereign grace for conversion. This is developed at greater length in Augustine’s anti-Pelagian treatises (411–430) but, in a non-polemical form, it is fully present in his Confessions.
The Confessions also set forth a perspective on God that has had enormous influence on Western thought: God is a being of ultimate beauty. At the very onset of his Christian life, Augustine was deeply concerned about the question of beauty. What is it? What is its impact on the human frame? The Confessions, in a number of its prayers (see, for example, Confessions 10.27), is Augustine’s answer in part, as it develops a vision of God that will enthrall Christians down to the close of the 18th century.
Augustine’s second major work is On the Trinity, which clearly establishes the full deity of the Son and the Spirit from scripture. Because the West by and large did not read Greek, Augustine’s Trinitarianism was what was read and pondered down to the Reformation, and even beyond that to the close of the 18th century.
Most helpfully, Augustine avoids modalism because of his emphasis on the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal generation of the Spirit. Sadly, the rediscovery of Trinitarian thought by evangelicals in the late-20th century was not a return to Augustine, for eternal generation and eternal procession have been questioned and even rejected, and the distinction of persons found in the authority of the Father and so-called eternal submission of the Son. But this move fails to adequately distinguish the Spirit: how does his submission differ from that of the Son? And, more importantly, this move separates the will of the Son from the will of the Father. But if we look at the incarnation we see that will is tied to nature: there are two natures in the God-man Jesus of Nazareth and therefore two wills. But if we apply this to the Father’s relationship with the Son, then we must have two divine natures, and thus at least two – and probably three – gods, or tritheism. No: the Augustinian distinction of eternal generation and eternal procession is the only way to distinguish the persons.
Then, the Augustinian conception of the Spirit as the bond of love between the Father and the Son gives rise to (to name but three good examples of Augustinian influence): (a) the defence of the double procession of the Son and the Spirit from the Father by Anselm of Canterbury in the 12th century; (b) the spirituality of Bernard of Clairvaux as found in his sermons on the Song of Songs; (c) and the Trinitarian thought of Jonathan Edwards in hisEssay on the Trinity. This is a tremendous vision of the inner life of the Godhead: it is one ruled by love (note: the emphasis on the eternal submission of the Son presents us with a vision of God in which the keynote is power).
The City of God
Finally, Augustine’s third major work, The City of God, gives to the church a full-blown theology of history in which the church, ruled by love for God and humility, runs its course through history as a pilgrim body. It also develops a very important way of reading culture and politics – through the lens of love. Cultures and political structures are defined by what they love.
To be sure, not all of Augustine’s thought is helpful – one thinks of his view of human sexuality – but there is so much that is gold, that we should never be ashamed to own that our Christian faith is profoundly Augustinian!
Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.