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Nicene and Post Nicene-Fathers, Vol. I:
Prolegomena: St. Augustin’s Life and Work: Chapter 3

Early Church Fathers  Index     

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CHAPTER III.—Estimate of St. Augustin.

Augustin, the man with upturned eye, with pen in the left hand, and a burning heart in the right (as he is usually represented), is a philosophical and theological genius of the first order, towering like a pyramid above his age, and looking down commandingly upon succeeding centuries. He had a mind uncommonly fertile and deep, bold and soaring; and with it, what is better, a heart full of Christian love and humility. He stands of right by the side of the greatest philosophers of antiquity and of modern times. We meet him alike on the broad highways and the narrow footpaths, on the giddy Alpine heights and in the awful depths of speculation, wherever philosophical thinkers before him or after him have trod. As a theologian he is facile princeps, at least surpassed by no church father, schoolman, or reformer. With royal munificence he scattered ideas in passing, which have set in mighty motion other lands and later times. He combined the creative power of Tertullian with the churchly spirit of Cyprian, the speculative intellect of the Greek church with the practical tact of the Latin. He was a Christian philosopher and a philosophical theologian to the full. It was his need and his delight to wrestle again and again with the hardest problems of thought, and to comprehend to the utmost the divinely revealed matter of the faith. 17 He always asserted, indeed, the primacy of faith, according to his maxim: Fides præcedit intellectum; appealing, with theologians before him, to the well known passage of Isaiah vii. 9 (in the LXX.): “Nisi credideritis, non intelligetis.” 18 But to him faith itself was an acting of reason, and from faith to knowledge, therefore, there was a necessary transition. 19 He constantly looked below the surface to the hidden motives of actions and to the universal laws of diverse events. The Metaphysician and the Christian believer coalesced in him. His meditatio passes with the utmost ease into oratio, and his oratio into meditatio. With profundity he combined an equal clearness and sharpness of thought. He was an extremely skilful and a successful dialectician, inexhaustible in arguments and in answers to the objections of his adversaries.

He has enriched Latin literature with a greater store of beautiful, original, and pregnant proverbial sayings, than any classic author, or any other teacher of the church. 20

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He had a creative and decisive hand in almost every dogma of the Latin church, completing some, and advancing others. The centre of his system is the free redeeming grace of God in Christ, operating through the actual, historical church. He is evangelical or Pauline in his doctrine of sin and grace, but catholic (that is, old-catholic, not Roman Catholic) in his doctrine of the church. The Pauline element comes forward mainly in the Pelagian controversy, the catholic-churchly in the Donatist; but each is modified by the other.

Dr. Baur incorrectly makes freedom the fundamental idea of the Augustinian system. But this much better suits the Pelagian; while Augustin started (like Calvin and Schleiermacher) from the idea of the absolute dependence of man upon God. He changed his idea of freedom during the Pelagian controversy. Baur draws an ingenious and suggestive comparison between Augustin and Origen, the two greatest intellects among the church fathers. “There is no church teacher of the ancient period,” says he, 21 “who, in intellect and in grandeur and consistency of view, can more justly be placed by the side of Origen than Augustin; none who, with all the difference in individuality and in mode of thought, so closely resembles him. How far both towered above their times, is most clearly manifest in the very fact that they alone, of all the theologians of the first six centuries, became the creators of distinct systems, each proceeding from a definite idea, and each completely carried out; and this fact proves also how much the one system has that is analogous to the other. The one system, like the other, is founded upon the idea of freedom; in both there is a specific act, by which the entire development of human life is determined; and in both this is an act which lies far outside of the temporal consciousness of the individual; with this difference alone, that in one system the act belongs to each separate individual himself, and only falls outside of his temporal life and consciousness; in the other, it lies within the sphere of the temporal history of man, but is only the act of one individual. If in the system of Origen nothing gives greater offence than the idea of the pre-existence and fall of souls, which seems to adopt heathen ideas into the Christian faith, there is in the system of Augustin the same overleaping of individual life and consciousness, in order to explain from an act in the past the present sinful condition of man; but the pagan Platonic point of view is exchanged for one taken from the Old Testament.…What therefore essentially distinguishes the system of Augustin from that of Origen, is only this: the fall of Adam is substituted for the pre-temporal fall of souls, and what in Origen still wears a heathen garb, puts on in Augustin a purely Old Testament form.”

The learning of Augustin was not equal to his genius, nor as extensive as that of Origen and Eusebius, but still considerable for his time, and superior to that of any of the Latin fathers, with the single exception of Jerome. He had received in the schools of Madaura and Carthage the usual philosophical and rhetorical preparation for the forum, which stood him in good stead also in theology. He was familiar with Latin literature, and was by no means blind to the excellencies of the classics, though he placed them far below the higher beauty of the Holy Scriptures. The Hortensius of Cicero (a lost work) inspired him during his university course with enthusiasm for philosophy and for the knowledge of truth for its own sake; the study of Platonic and Neo-Platonic works (in the Latin version of the rhetorician Victorinus) kindled in him an incredible fire 22 ; though in both he missed the holy name of Jesus and the cardinal virtues of love and humility, and found in them only beautiful ideals without power to conform p. 9 him to them. His City of God, his book on heresies, and other writings, show an extensive knowledge of ancient philosophy, poetry, and history, sacred and secular. He refers to the most distinguished persons of Greece and Rome; he often alludes to Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Plotin, Porphyry, Cicero, Seneca, Horace, Vergil, to the earlier Greek and Latin fathers, to Eastern and Western heretics. But his knowledge of Greek literature was mostly derived from Latin translations. With the Greek language, as he himself frankly and modestly confesses, he had, in comparison with Jerome, but a superficial acquaintance. 23 Hebrew he did not understand at all. Hence, with all his extraordinary familiarity with the Latin Bible, he made many mistakes in exposition. He was rather a thinker than a scholar, and depended mainly on his own resources, which were always abundant.

Notes.—We note some of the most intelligent and appreciative estimates of Augustin. Erasmus (Ep. dedicat. ad Alfons. archiep. Tolet. 1529) says, with an ingenious play upon the name Aurelius Augustinus: “Quid habet orbis christianus hoc scriptore magis aureum vel augustius? ut ipsa vocabula nequaquam fortuito, sed numinis providentia videantur indita viro. Auro sapientiæ nihil pretiosius: fulgore eloquentiæ cum sapientia conjunctæ nihil mirabilius.…Non arbitror alium esse doctorem, in quem opulentus ille ac benignus Spiritus dotes suas omnes largius effuderit, quam in Augustinum.” The great philosopher Leibnitz (Præfat. ad Theodic. §34) calls him “virum sane magnum et ingenii stupendi,” and “vastissimo ingenio præditum.” Dr. Baur, without sympathy with his views, speaks enthusiastically of the man and his genius. Among other things he says (Vorlesungen über Dogmengeschichte, i. i. p. 61): “There is scarcely another theological author so fertile and withal so able as Augustin. His scholarship was not equal to his intellect; yet even that is sometimes set too low, when it is asserted that he had no acquaintance at all with the Greek language; for this is incorrect, though he had attained no great proficiency in Greek.” C. Bindemann (a Lutheran divine) begins his thorough monograph (vol. i. preface) with the well-deserved eulogium: “St. Augustin is one of the greatest personages in the church. He is second in importance to none of the teachers who have wrought most in the church since the apostolic times; and it can well be said that among the church fathers the first place is due to him, and in the time of the Reformation a Luther alone, for fulness and depth of thought and grandeur of character, may stand by his side. He is the summit of the development of the mediæval Western church; from him descended the mysticism, no less than the scholasticism, of the middle age; he was one of the strongest pillars of the Roman Catholicism, and from his works, next to the Holy Scriptures, especially the Epistles of Paul, the leader of the Reformation drew most of that conviction by which a new age was introduced.” Staudenmaier, a Roman Catholic theologian, counts Augustin among those minds in which an hundred others dwell (Scotus Erigena, i. p. 274). The Roman Catholic philosophers A. Günther and Th. Gangauf, put him on an equality with the greatest philosophers, and discern in him a providential personage endowed by the Spirit of God for the instruction of all ages. A striking characterization is that of the Old Catholic Dr. Huber (in his instructive work: Die Philosophie der Kirchenväter, Munich, 1859, p. 312 sq.): “Augustin is a unique phenomenon in Christian history. No one of the other fathers has left so luminous traces of his existence. Though we find among them many rich and powerful minds, yet we find in none the forces of personal character, p. 10 mind, heart, and will, so largely developed and so harmoniously working. No one surpasses him in wealth of perceptions and dialectical sharpness of thoughts, in depth and fervour of religious sensibility, in greatness of aims and energy of action. He therefore also marks the culmination of the patristic age, and has been elevated by the acknowledgment of succeeding times as the first and the universal church father.—His whole character reminds us in many respects of Paul, with whom he has also in common the experience of being called from manifold errors to the service of the gospel, and like whom he could boast that he had laboured in it more abundantly than all the others. And as Paul among the Apostles pre-eminently determined the development of Christianity, and became, more than all the others, the expression of the Christian mind, to which men ever afterwards return, as often as in the life of the church that mind becomes turbid, to draw from him, as the purest fountain, a fresh understanding of the gospel doctrine,—so has Augustin turned the Christian nations since his time for the most part into his paths, and become pre-eminently their trainer and teacher, in the study of whom they always gain a renewal and deepening of their Christian consciousness. Not the middle age alone, but the Reformation also, was ruled by him, and whatever to this day boasts of the Christian spirit, is connected at least in part with Augustin.” Villemain, in his able and eloquent, “Tableau de l’éloquence Chrétienne au IVe siècle” (Paris, 1849, p. 373), commences his sketch of Augustin as follows: “Nous arrivons a l’homme le plus êtonnant de l’Eglise latine, à celui qui portat le plus d’imagination dans la théologie, le plus d’éloquence et même sensibilité dans la scholastique; ce fut saint Augustin. Donnez-lui un autre siècle, placez-le dans meillêure civilisation; et jamais homme n’aura paru doué d’un génie plus vaste et plus facile. Métaphysique, histoire, antiquités, science des moers, connaissance des arts, Augustin avait tout embrassé. Il écrit sur la musique comme sur le libre arbitre; il explique le phénomène intellectual la de mémoire, comme il raisonne sur la décadence de l’empire romain. Son esprit subtil et vigoureux a souvent consumé dans des problèmes mystiques une force de sagacité qui suffirait aux plus sublimes conceptions.” Frédéric Ozanam, in his “La civilisation au cinquième siècle” (translated by A. C. Glyn, 1868, Vol. I. p. 272), counts Augustin among the three or four great metaphysicians of modern times, and says that his task was “to clear the two roads open to Christian philosophy and to inaugurate its two methods of mysticism and dogmatism.” Nourrisson, whose work on Augustin is clothed with the authority of the Institute of France, assigns to him the first rank among the masters of human thought, alongside of Plato and Leibnitz, Thomas Aquinas and Bossuet. “Si une critique toujours respectueuse, mais d’une inviolable sincérité, est une des formes les plus hautes de l’admiration, j’estime, au contraire, n’avoir fait qu’exalter ce grand coeur, ce psychologue consolant et ému, ce métaphysicien subtil et sublime, en un mot, cet attachant et poétique génie, dont la place reste marquée, au premier rang, parmi les maîtres de la pensée humaine, á côté de Platon et de Descartes, d’Aristote et de saint Thomas, de Leibnitz et de Bossuet.” (La philosophie de saint Augustin, Par. 1866, tom. i. p. vii.) Pressensé (in art. Aug., in Smith & Wace, Dict. of Christ. Biography, I. 222): “Aug. still claims the honour of having brought out in all its light the fundamental doctrine of Christianity; despite the errors of his system, he has opened to the church the path of every progress and of every reform, by stating with the utmost vigour the scheme of free salvation which he had learnt in the school of St. Paul.” Among English and American writers, Dr. Shedd, in the Introduction to his edition of the Confessions (1860), has furnished a truthful and forcible description of the mind and heart of St. Augustin. I add the striking judgment of the octogenarian historian Dr. Karl Hase (Kirschengeschichte auf der Grundlage akademischer Vorlesungen, Leipzig 1885, vol. I. 522): “The full significance of Augustin as an author can be measured only from the consideration of the fact that in the middle ages both scholasticism and mysticism lived of his riches, and that afterwards Luther and Calvin drew out of his fulness. We find in him both the sharp understanding which makes salvation depend on the clearly defined dogma of the church, and the loving absorption of the heart in God which scarcely needs any more the aid of the church. His writings reflect all kinds of Christian thoughts, which lie a thousand years apart and appear to be contradictions. How were they possible in so systematic a thinker? Just as much as they were possible in Christianity, of which he was a microcosmus. From the dogmatic abyss of his hardest and most illiberal doctrines arise such liberal sentences as these: ‘Him I shall not condemn in whom I find any thing of Christ;’ ‘Let us not forget that in the very enemies are concealed the future citizens.’”



Or, as he wrote to a friend about the year 410, Epist. 120, C. 1, § 2 (tom. ii. p. 347, ed. Bened. Venet.; in older ed., Ep. 122): “Ut quod credis intelligas…non ut fidem resinas, sed ea quæ fidei firmitate jam tenes, etiam rationis luce conspicias.” He continues, ibid. c. 3: “Absit namque, ut hoc in nobis Deus oderit, in quo nos reliquis animalibus exccellentiores creavit. Absit, inquam, ut ideo credamus, ne rationem accipiamus vel quæramus; cum etiam credere non possemns, nisi rationales animas haberemus.” In one of his earliest works, Contra Academ. l. iii. c. 20, § 43, he says of himself: “Ita sum affectus, ut quid sit verum non credendo solum, sed etiam intelligendo apprehendere impatienter desiderem.


Ἐὰν μὴ πιστεύσητε, οὐδὲ μὴ συνῆτε. But the proper translation of the Hebrew is: “If ye will not believe [in me, בִּי for כִּי], surely ye shall not be established (or, not remain).”


Comp. De præd. sanct. cap. 2, § 5 (tom. x. p. 792): “Ipsum credere nihil aliud est quam cum assensione cogiitare. Nom enim omnis qui cogitat, credit, cum ideo cogitant, plerique ne credant: sed cogitat omnis qui credit, et credendo cogitat et cogitando credit. Fides si non cogitetur, nulia est.” Ep. 120, cap. 1, § 3 (tom. ii. 347), and Ep. 137, c. 4, § 15 (tom. ii. 408): “Intellectui fides aditum aperit, infidelitas claudit.” Augustin’s view of faith and knowledge is discussed at large by Gangauf, Metaphysische Psychologie des heil. Augustinus, i. pp. 31–76, and by Nourrisson, La phliosophie de saint Augustin, tom. ii. 282–290.


Prosper Aquitanus collected in the year 450 or 451 from the works of Augustin 392 sentences (see the Appendix to the tenth vol. of the Bened. ed. p. 223 sqq., and in Migne’s ed. of Prosper Aquitanus, col. 427–496), with reference to theological purport and the Pelagian controversies. We recall some of the best which he has omitted:

“Novum Testamentum in Vetere latet, Vetus in Novo pates.”

“Distingue tempora, et concordabit Scriptura.”

“Cor nostrum inquietum est, donec requiescat in Te.”

“Da quod jubes, et jube quod vis.”

“Non vincit nisi veritas, victoria veritatis est caritas.”

“Ubi amor, ibi trinitas.”

“Fides præcedit intellectum.”

“Deo servire vera libertas est.”

“Nulia infelicitas frangit, quem felicitas nulla corrumpit.”

The famous maxim of ecclesiastical harmony: “In necessarlis unitas, in dublis (or, non ccessarlis) libertas, in omnibus (in utrisque) caritas,”—which is often ascribed to Augustin, dates in this form not from him, but from a much later period. Dr. Lucke (in a special treatise on the antiquity of the author, the original form, etc., of this sentence, Göttingen, 1850) traces the authorship to Rupert Meldenius, an irenical German theologian of the seventeenth century. Baxter, also, who lived during the intense conflict of English Puritanism and Episcopacy, and grew weary of the “fury of theologians,” adopted a similar sentiment. The sentence is held by many who differ widely in the definition of what is “necessary” and what is “doubtful.” The meaning of “charity in all things” is above doubt, and a moral duty of every Christian, though practically violated by too many in all denominations.


Vorlesungen über die christl. Dogmengeschichte, vol. 1. P. 11. p. 30 sq.


Adv. Academicos, 1. ii. c. 2, § 5: “Etiam mihi ipsi de me incredibile incendium concitarunt.” And in several passages of the Civitas Dei (viii. 3–12 xxii. 27) he speaks very favourably of Plato, and also of Aristotle, and thus broke the way for the high authority of the Aristotelian philosophy with the scholastics of the middle age.


It is sometimes asserted that he had no knowledge at all of the Greek. So Gibbon, for example, says (ch. xxxiii.): “The superficial learning of Augustin was confined to the Latin language.” But this is a mistake. In his youth he had a great aversion to the glorious language of Hellas because he had a bad teacher and was forced to it (Conf. i. 14). He read the writings of Plato in a Latin translation (vii. 9). But after his baptism, during his second residence in Rome, he resumed the study of Greek with greater zest, for the sake of his biblical studies. In Hippo he had, while presbyter, good opportunity to advance in it, since his bishop, Aurelius, a native Greek, understood his mother tongue much better than the Latin. In his books he occasionally makes reference to the Greek. In his work Contra Jul. i. c. 6 § 21 (tom. x. 510), he corrects the Pelagian Julian in a translation from Chrysostom, quoting the original. “Ego ipsa verba Græca quæ a Joanne dicta sunt ponam: διὰ τοῦτο καὶ τὰ παιδία βαπτίζομεν, καίτοι ƒμαρτήματα οὐκ ἔχοντα, quod est Latine: Ideo et infantes baptizamus, quamvis peccata non habentes.” Julian had freely rendered this: “cum non sint coinquinati peccato,” and had drawn the inference: “Sanctus Joannes Constantinopolitanus [John Chrysostom] negat esse in parvulis originale peccatum.” Augustin helps himself out of the pinch by arbitrarily supplying propria to ἁμαρτήματα, so that the idea of sin inherited from another is not excluded. The Greek fathers, however, did not consider hereditary corruption to be proper sin or guilt at all, but only defect, weakness, or disease. In the City of God, lib. xix. c. 23, he quotes a passage from Porphyry’s ἐκ λογίων φιλοσοφία, and in book xviii. 23, he explains the Greek monogram ἰχθύς. He gives the derivation of several Greek words, and correctly distinguishes between such synonyms as γεννάω and τίκτω, εὐχή and προσευχή, πνοή and πνεῦμα. It is probable that he read Plotin, and the Panarion of Epiphanius or the summary of it, in Greek (while the Church History of Eusebius he knew only in the translation of Rufinus). But in his exegetical and other works he very rarely consults the Septuagint or Greek Testament, and was content with the very imperfect Itala, or the improved version of Jerome (the Vulgate). The Benedictine editors overestimate his knowledge of Greek. He himself frankly confesses that he knew very little of it. De Trinit. 1. iii Proœm. (“Graæcæ linguæ non sit nobis tantus habitus, ut talium rerum libris legendis et intelligendis ullo modo reperiamur idonei”), and Contra literas Petiliani (written in 400),1. ii. c. 38 (“Et ego quidem Græcæ linguæ perparum assecutus sum, et prope nihil”). On the philosophical learning of Augustin may be compared Nourrisson, l. c. ii. p. 92 sqq.

Next: Chapter 4

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