Anybody who has heard my podcast, listened to my theological lectures, reviewed my Reflections blog, or read my books will know that I have a special appreciation for St. Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430). He is my favorite Christian thinker outside of the Bible, though just a little ahead of other great Christian thinkers like St. Athanasius, Blaise Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. I also realize that not everybody shares my appreciation.

I am attracted to Augustine for many reasons, including the notion that I think a contemporary Christian philosopher needs to hitch their wagon to a robust philosophical-theological tradition within Christendom. In such a system, philosophy serves as a handmaid to historic Christian theology. And for me as an evangelical Protestant, Augustine in particular and the tradition of Augustinianism in general comprise a vibrant orthodox system of Christian thought. While Augustine’s ideas aren’t without reasonable theological challenges and difficulties, I think Augustine and the broad tradition that bears his name got the most important doctrinal issues right (God, creation, sin, salvation) and they reflect a broad ecumenical part of Western Christendom.

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But while I am glad to associate myself with Augustine, some people have challenged me by asserting that Augustine is not an appropriate theological model because he led the ancient church astray. I recently received that criticism from someone who reads my blog posts, and I would like to respond.

Criticism of St. Augustine

“As for Augustine, he was a man with a great experience of God, it would appear, but he was [also] the author/inventor of the most misleading doctrines; doctrines which had never appeared in church history previously and which have blighted the life of the church ever since. It is not for me to evidence what I’m saying in a brief comment like this—I would simply recommend reading God’s Strategy in Human History by Roger Forster and Paul Marston, a book whose appendix in particular takes the Augustinian view apart. Forster is an important church leader/thinker in England, formerly a mathematician at Cambridge; Marston’s area is history and philosophy of science.”

My Response

Here’s my brief response to a couple of the critic’s comments:

“He [Augustine] was the author/inventor of the most misleading doctrines.”

St. Augustine was the champion of such essential Christian doctrines as creation ex nihilo, original sin, salvation by grace, and the Trinity. These doctrines generally reflect the consensus of Christian orthodoxy.

Even Augustine’s somewhat controversial view of predestination is very similar to that of other great theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, and John Calvin. Some within Christendom, though certainly not all, would even argue that Augustine’s view largely reflects the views of the apostle Paul as set forth in the Book of Romans (specifically chapters 8 and 9).

Also, some people criticize Augustine for his attachment to Neoplatonism, but I think the criticism is overstated. Neoplatonism does influence some of his thinking, but Augustine’s final authority is Scripture. For example, his body of writing, which extends to five million words, includes some 40,000 biblical references. He is the most prolific author of antiquity, surpassing all other Latin and Greek writers.

“[Augustine’s] doctrines . . . had never appeared in church history previously and . . . have blighted the life of the church ever since.”

Augustine is not highly regarded in Eastern Christendom, but he is still one of the great shapers of Christian orthodoxy overall. His theological influence covers an extensive range: anthropology, hamartiology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

Among patristic scholars, Augustine is often spoken of as the greatest of the church fathers. Rather than being a “blight” on the church, his theological influence has shaped much of Catholic and Protestant thinking about the very nature of the church itself.

We might also consider Augustine’s tremendous influence on other areas such as philosophy (e.g., faith seeking understanding), psychology (e.g., the examined self), and Christian apologetics (e.g., the problem of evil). Thus, I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that St. Augustine is arguably the most influential Christian thinker outside of the New Testament and one of historic Christian theology’s deepest shapers and defenders.

For more details, I recommend my book Classic Christian Thinkers, which includes chapters on Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, and Lewis.

Although anyone is welcome to disagree with Augustine (many scholars, including me, disagree with some of his views), in such areas as creation, sin, grace, and the triune nature of God his thinking has been held in high regard and he has, without question, shaped virtually all of Western Christendom.

Final Thoughts

St. Augustine was far from a perfect man, and he humbly admitted making mistakes in his theological thinking. His most popular book Confessions testifies to his state as a sinner who was in desperate need of God’s gracious gift of salvation in Christ. And his last book Retractions shows that he wrestled with various theological issues—even changing his mind on some important matters.

Even if you do disagree with some of Augustine’s views, like my friend above, I hope you’ll consider reading his writings and not merely listening to or reading what others, including me, say about him. A good place to start is with his book Confessions. You’ll be reading a Christian and literary classic of Western civilization.

Reflections: Your Turn

Have you read any of St. Augustine’s writings? Do you have a favorite Christian thinker outside of the Bible? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Resources

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



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