Heroes of the Faith
Concise stories of significant Christian leaders
© Peter J. Blackburn 1999
Heroes of the Faith
Augustine of Hippo Augustine of Hippo
354-430 AD

Augustine was born in 354 AD in Tagaste, a little town in what is now Algeria. His father, Patricius, was not a Christian, and had relatively little influence on him. His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian and played an important role in his life, even during the years when he rejected her Christianity.
In spite of limited means, his parents determined to give him the best education available. Thus, he went to school, first near home and then in the North African capital, Carthage.
From the time of his first visit to Carthage at the age or 16, he seldom lost an opportunity to pursue one sin after another, so he tells us in his Confessions. He took a mistress when he was 17 or 18 and fathered an illegitimate son before he was 20. They lived together for thirteen years. Augustine always felt that sex was his defiling passion. It coloured his view of sin and marked the depravity from which he later felt himself rescued by God's grace.
In his nineteenth year he read a treatise by the Latin author, Cicero, which convinced him intellectually that he should make truth his life's search. For a time he became interested in Manichaeanism, a religious and philosophical system which claimed that two principles, Light and Dark, God and Matter, are eternal. It appeared to Augustine that this offered a superior answer to the problem of evil than he could find in his mother's Christianity. Also, because it made fewer moral demands, he could be a Manichean and continue to live as he pleased.
By his late twenties, he was beginning to have serious doubts about Manicheanism. The leaders seemed unable to answer his questions. In 383 he crossed the Mediterranean to Rome with his mistress and son to teach rhetoric. But he left Rome for Milan in 384 for the more secure position of public orator. There he became friendly with Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who helped him to see that many of his objections to Christianity were based on misconceptions of the faith.
So Augustine rejected Manicheanism to become a skeptic. During this period he studied the writings of the Platonists. This in fact helped to remove many of his remaining intellectual obstacles to becoming a Christian.
It was in 386, in a villa outside of Rome that he underwent a dramatic conversion (recorded in Confessions, book 8). After hearing a voice say, "Take up and read; take up and read," he picked up the volume of the Apostle - "I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell. 'No orgies or drunkenness, no immorality or indecency, no fighting or jealousy. Take up the weapons of the Lord Jesus Christ; and stop giving attention to your sinful nature, to satisfy its desires.' I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of faith flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled."
In the years following his conversion, Augustine studied philosophy, theology and the Scriptures and wrote a number of short books. He was ordained in 391, and four years later was consecrated bishop of Hippo Regius in Numidia in Roman North Africa.
In 400, he completed The Confessions. This is more than an autobiography - he was concerned that his readers understood the moral, intellectual and spiritual struggles he went through in his search for the truth about God and himself. He was using "confession" in two senses - to acknowledge his many sins, but also to glorify God who had delivered him from them.
Following the sacking of Rome in 410, he began writing The City of God. The major theme is the existence within the world of two cities or societies - the City of God and the City of Man. They coexist throughout human history and will only be separated at the final judgment so that they may go to their appropriate destinies. Augustine's many other writings included a long and influential study of the Trinity. His writings massively influenced almost every sphere of Western thought in later centuries.