Posted by Mike
Most of us know Augustine from his autobiography, Confessions; however, Augustine, published in 2005, by James O’Donnell, gives us a much broader picture of the man later called Saint Augustine, throughout his life and in his work. In addition, the book describes the doctrinal and theological conflicts that plagued the early church, of which most of us are completely unaware, and that prefigured the later sectarian conflicts between the Eastern and Western churches, as well as the disagreements between Catholicism and the Protestant movement and those within the Protestant church in the post-Renaissance years. Doctor O’Donnell is a professor of classics and currently Provost at Georgetown University. He also has a new book out, published in 2008, The Ruin of the Roman Empire, that can be read in conjunction with Augustine, and that provides a comprehensive description of the events that led to the collapse of the Western Roman empire in the period from about 300 to 500 AD.
Augustine was a prolific writer throughout his life and especially after his ordination in his late thirties and during the many years when he was a bishop at Hippo, in North Africa. He wrote many books and he sent copies of them to friends, colleagues and benefactors all over the Roman Empire of the time. We must remember that Augustine lived long before the invention of the printing press. Yet volumes of his writings were hand-copied, were preserved, and are available to classical, historical researchers today. O’Donnell reconstructs Augustine’s life from his formal published writings, but in addition and perhaps more importantly, from letters and sermons that are available, that provide a perspective on Augustine that is less formal than the picture of the man that is provided primarily from his more formal writings.
Augustine of Hippo lived from 354 to 430 AD, at the tail edge of the ascendance of the Roman Empire and immediately prior to the time when the north African possessions were severed from the Empire by rebellion. O’Donnell gives us a picture of Augustine’s entire life, much of which would be missing by those who choose to read only The Confessions. The focus in the book is both biographical and theological, as much of Augustine’s later life was occupied with defending the religion that was supported by the Emperor in Rome and in sparring with other contenders, who had nearly equally powerful supporters throughout the Empire. At that time, of course, the protagonists and antagonists were all Christian; however, they had quite different notions of emphases in theological purity, such that many convicted believers were even willing to die for to support.
The biography briefly reviews Augustine’s early life in North Africa, his training and teaching of rhetoric there, his move to Italy and involvement with Manichaeanism, his subsequent move to Milan and the influence of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, and Augustine’s subsequent conversion to Christianity. Prior to his conversion and despite his mother’s Christianity, Augustine was a Manichaean, a student of the Persian religion that had spread throughout the Roman Empire and that taught that knowledge was the key to salvation. We learn of his return to North Africa and somewhat unexpected ordination and election as bishop in the rather unassuming town of Hippo, which lay several hundred miles to the west of Carthage, the governmental and economic center of the province. The majority of the book recounts Augustine’s theological concerns with a variety of what he considered heresies and which he fought against over the years.
It should be noted that being a bishop in Augustine’s time was not quite the same as being a bishop today. Even most rather small cities had their own bishop. In addition, when Augustine returned to North Africa, his sect was the minority brand of Christianity in the area. Donatism, which flourished in North Africa at the time, was the ascendant variant of Christianity, a sect which strongly censured and refused to readmit to the church those who had fallen away during the Diocletian persecution (303-305 AD). Theological battles between Augustine’s Caecilianists and the schismatic Donatists lasted for a generation; however, the minority party was supported by Emperor, and by the time of Augustine’s death, the party of Rome had won out, and the bishops of Rome had also nearly succeeded in their invention of themselves as the legitimate standard-bearers of Western Christianity. Augustine spent the final years of his life battling Pelagianism, another heresy, which denied the validity of Original Sin. As a postscript to Augustine’s life, shortly after his death, North Africa was overtaken by Vandals, who had entered the area on invitation from the rebellious general Boniface, but who had decided to subdue not only the Roman citizens but also Boniface and his co-revolutionaries as well. The Vandals were Arians, and they, by force, stopped non-Arian Christian practices in North Africa after conquering the area. Arianism was a “heretical” sect to which the Germanic tribes subscribed, that had a different understanding of the nature of the relationship between Jesus and God the father than Roman Christianity.
The frequent flashes of brilliance in the author’s writing and the insights that he offers are well worth the more tedious recounting of Augustine’s continual efforts at ridding the church of heresy and supporting conformity to the established Church of the Western Empire. Read in conjunction with the author’s Ruin of the Roman Empire broadens further the reader’s understanding of the so-called barbarian invasions and of the sectarian conflicts within the Christianity of the time.