Faith & Freedom

Benjamin Hart

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Augustine's Mistake

Constantine laid the institutional foundation for unifying church and state, while Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa provided the philosophical justification. Augustine was a great man and a great Christian. He was the father of Christian theology and the father of the monastic movement. His precise and relentless intellect enabled orthodox Christianity to withstand formidable and savage assaults by the Manichaean, Arian, and Pelagian heresies. His classic Confessions is one of the most moving accounts ever written of a sinner dedicating his life to Christ.

Strangely, however, it was this great saint whose thought paved the way for the medieval church compelling the uncon-verted to believe. Seeing the awful destruction wrought by dangerous heresy and heathen practices in the waning days of the Roman empire, Augustine became obsessed with preserving church unity. He saw the church as the last bulwark against the savagery of the encroaching barbaric hordes. The political ap-paratus of the state during his day was in disarray, divided, al-most non-existent, with one despot succeeding another. The only hope for civilization, in Augustine's mind, as he peered over the abyss around the year 429 into the long night of the Dark Ages, was to bring administrative conformity to a universal church. To survive the onslaught of the barbarians and heresy, he thought, the church could not be defined as merely the body of believers, but had to be a specific all-encompassing institutional structure.

At this juncture, it is worth making a brief digression into the background of this brilliant but tortured church father because he is such a pivotal figure in the history of the West, and because the story of his conversion provides insight into his thinking on matters of church and state. As detailed in his Confessions, Augustine's youth was a tale of debauchery. His mother Monica tried to raise him as a Christian. But Augustine, his mental agility obvious from childhood, scoffed at the Scriptures and took delight in pointing out apparent contradictions. He recounts his exploits in the brothels of that infamous city of sin, Carthage, with his friend Licentius. He took part in the orgiastic feasts of Bacchus in which no depravity was considered too perverse. He took delight in the bloody spectacles of the circus. He had mistresses and an illegitimate son named Adeodatus. His mother Monica wept and prayed for her lost son.

But young Augustine was troubled. He found the tem- porary pleasures of the senses unsatisfying. He longed for true joy, but did not know where to find it. He was a consumer of pagan philosophy, and he sought frantically to find an answer to the problem of evil. He rejected Christianity at first because he did not see how a good and compassionate God could preside over a creation where there was so much obvious pain and suffering. For nine years, Augustine took refuge in Manichaeism, a philosophy of dualism.

According to the Manichaeans, the material world was under the dominion of evil; the spiritual world, including the soul, was under the dominion of good. The evil material world and the good spiritual world were in constant war with each other. Evil, according to the Manichaean view, would continue to triumph over the material body until the soul was liberated from the flesh by death. Manichaeism permitted Augustine to continue in his licentious ways because, according to this doctrine, man was powerless to overcome evil so long as he was held captive by the evil body. To Augustine, it seemed to explain why he was incapable of controlling his sexual appetites. Manichaeism contradicted the Book of Genesis, in which God pronounces that his creation is good.

But Augustine eventually rejected Manichaeism because the Manichaean intellectuals could not answer Augustine's main objection. To him, there appeared to be too much beauty in the material world for it really to be inherently evil. The world seemed good, yet tainted. He turned to the writings of Plato and Plotinus (a neoplatonist) for answers. He thought there was some truth in Plato's notion that the material world is an imperfect representation of the true reality which is spiritual, but which we can perceive through our minds. According to Plato, abstract ideas are superior to physical objects. Thus, our conception of a table is the perfect table, while the material table, though good, is flawed; moreover, the idea, according to Plato, actually exists in some spiritual sphere. Though these notions would later strike Augustine as absurd, Plato induced him to begin thinking more about the transcendent, and helped shed light on the mysterious passage at the beginning of the Book of John. Augustine wrote:

I read, not indeed, in these words but much the same thought, enforced by many varied arguments, that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him nothing was made.

To Augustine, it became obvious that Plato was inade- quate, that he had taken man as far as unaided human reason could go. Meanwhile, Augustine had started taking an interest in the preaching of the great Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. He admired Ambrose's intellect, abandoned his bias against Christianity as a religion for the ignorant, and began studying the Scriptures. The problem of evil, though, continued to bother Augustine. What makes us sin? Why can't we make ourselves stop?

Over time, Augustine came to the conclusion that it was not argument that prevented him from believing. It was sin. "Oh Lord," he once exclaimed, "make me chaste, but not yet." He wanted to turn his back on the pleasures of the flesh, but every time he tried, he heard the same tyrannical voice of ephemeral joy: "Do not cast us off" - "you cannot live without us." For many years he believed what those ephemeral joys continued to tell him.

But then one day, late in the summer of the year 386, the troubled Augustine was strolling through a garden in Milan. As recounted in the eighth book of the Confessions, suddenly he collapsed under a fig tree, wept, and began to pray: "And you, O Lord, how long? Will you be angry forever? Remember not our past iniquities. How long, how long? ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow?' Why not now? Why not this very hour an end to my uncleanness?"

He then heard the voice of a little girl singing wistfully in the distance: "Tolle, lege. Tolle, lege [Take up and read. Take up and read]," she seemed to say with her melodious voice. Augustine reached for the New Testament, opened the book to Paul's letter to the Romans, and read the first lines upon which his eyes fixed: "Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts" (Romans 13:13-14).

At that moment Augustine renounced everything-worldly ambition, sensual delights, intellectual pride - and he "put on the Lord Jesus Christ." He had been born again. He would subject his life to rigorous discipline and prayer. He threw off his ornate african garb, and put on a black robe, a leather belt and sandals, a uniform that for him would never change. All his life, however, Augustine would take precautions against his major weakness-promiscuity. He would never permit a woman in his residence, not even his sister; when he spoke with a member of the opposite sex, he made sure a witness was present; and, when he went to bed at night, he always kept the door open. He had known evil firsthand; he knew that if extreme precautions were not taken in regulating his personal life, sin would swallow him again.

In the light of this background, we can see the source of Augustine's bias in favor of compulsion. The human will was extremely weak, in his experience, and subject to all sorts of temptation. Without external support the individual seemed almost helpless in his battle against Satan. Moreover, he saw that orthodox Christianity was on the brink of extinction. He lashed out furiously at the Arian heresy, which said Jesus was not divine but only an instrument of God; and the Pelagian error, which said that we are not condemned by original sin, but that each individual has the opportunity to live without the stain of Adam's fall from grace. Augustine said no, Jesus is divine, and He came to earth to pay for our sins with His death, because "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

Meanwhile, the state had completely abdicated its responsibility to protect the people from disorder. Christian-hating bands of robbers, often marching under the banner of Arius, constantly burned and pillaged farms owned by Catholics. Christians were routinely kidnapped and tortured, and their bodies desecrated in the most foul ways. Augustine saw priests' eyes burned out with chalk and vinegar, married women and nuns being violated, and blood flowing daily in the gutters of the streets. He himself was beaten severely by a rampaging band of fanatical heretics. At first, he believed that to force people to become Catholics would only lead non-believers to lie about their conversion. But the horrors he witnessed around him suggested that compulsory measures on behalf of Christian ideals were called for: "Why should not earthly kings who serve Christ," he wrote, "not make laws in favor of Christ?"

Alaric's hordes sacked Rome on August 24, 410, raping, slaying, and burning. Fortunes were lost, priceless art destroyed. There was massacre and carnage as the Goths reveled in their rampage. after news of this event reached frica, Augustine sat down at his table in Hippo and wrote at the top of a blank page the title of his greatest book: Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans.

Augustine would have liked nothing more than to write in isolation and meditate on God. He envied the solitary life of Anthony in the desert. But circumstances demanded that he become an administrator, that he take a part in saving civilization. The world, as he saw it, was in crisis, and stern measures were called for, a view that was reinforced by the fact that he was a convert, a man who knew darkness, as he himself recognized:

"Within the soul of a convert who has been an unbeliever and a sinner there develops a sort of fanatical anxiety. Remembrance of past errors exasperates him," he wrote.

Augustine's darkest moment as a Christian was in his treatment of the Donatists in Northern Africa. The Donatists rejected the Roman political order, and lambasted the official church for its corrupt and ungodly alliance with the state: "What has the emperor to do with the church?" they often asked. They attacked idols, the special powers of the priesthood, held church services in the vernacular, and may have even possessed copies of Scripture translated into their native tongues. They also denounced the institution of slavery, and many slaves abandoned their masters and became influential in the Donatist church. In a sense, the Donatist's were the first Separatist Protestants, similar to those who fled Europe on the Mayflower in 1620 to establish in the New World Christian communities undefiled by a worldly lust for power. Donatist-style dissent against worldly church power and extravagance would become a major force within Christianity: St. Francis of Assisi, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and Martin Luther are examples of men leading movements agitating for a return to the pure Christianity of the Apostle's. Donatists outnumbered the Catholics in many North african region's. The center of their movement was Hippo. Augustine, according to a letter he wrote to a friend, was commissioned by the emperor Honorius to help bring the Donatists "over to the Catholic unity by fear of the imperial edicts."

In 411, a church tribunal was held at Carthage and presided over by Marcellinus, a functionary of the emperor. Two hundred seventy-eight Donatist bishops arrived to make the case that they represented the true Catholic Church. Augustine did not like the role into which he was thrust. But he also saw the unity of both church and empire as crucial: "The eyes of the Christian world," he said, "are fixed on this assemblage in Carthage. The people have forgotten the origin of the schism. We have seen the contemptible chicanery of individual's substituted for the great issue of Christian solidarity. When the barbarians are in Rome, when all mankind is eager to learn of the things of God, we are here engaged in miserable litigation."

The Donatist schism was then condemned by the emperor's man Marcellinus. In reality, the decision had been made before the tribunal had assembled. Augustine wrote the minutes of what had transpired. The emperor Honorius levied heavy fines on all members of the Donatist church, ordered them to return to the Catholic fold, and had their places of worship turned over to the Catholic authorities. Those who refused were either executed or imprisoned; some fled to the desert; others committed suicide rather than submit to the imperial decision.

Augustine did not enjoy his role as inquisitor, but all Catholics looked to him as a lighthouse in the midst of a turbulent sea. He took it upon himself to repair the cracks in the foundation of civilization and guide disabled Christian ships into tranquil waters. If persuasion did not work, force might be necessary. "Compel them to come in," he sometimes said during these years of distress. Always looking at his own experience, he recalled: "I was treated as I deserved, since instead of being given the bread of instruction, I was made to feel the lash of the whip." "Ah, how quickly you will be disabused of these ideas if you will but seek out in the Catholic Church those best instructed in sacred doctrine." For the Catholic Church "knows how to form men by instructions and exercises proportioned to the strength and age of each one, which in its salutary teachings has foreseen and understood everything."

Augustine did not want to use force. But his extremely dark (probably correct) view of human nature drove him to do so. "What else is the message of the evils of humanity?" he asked. ". . . quarrels, disputes, wars, treacheries, hatreds, enmities, deceits, flattery, fraud, theft, rapine, perfidy, pride, ambition, envy, murder, patricide, cruelty, savagery, villainy, lust, promiscuity, indecency, fornication, adultery, incest, unnatural vice in men and women (disgusting acts too filthy to be named), sacrilege, collusion, false witness, unjust judgment, violence, robbery, and all other such evils which do not immediately come to mind, although they never cease to beset this life of man ..." Leave people to their own devices and "men's brazen capacity to do harm, their urge to self-indulgence, would rage to the full. No king in his kingdom, no general with his troops, no husband with his wife, no father with his son, could attempt to put a stop, by any threats or punishments, to the freedom and sheer, sweet taste of sinning."

But Augustine failed to transfer this bleak view of the human heart to human institutions. His City of God Against the Pagans portrays Rome as a holy citadel, as having made possible the rise of Christianity, and as a mighty fortress that protected civilization from the savagery that awaited man without the protection of Caesar's armies. In his view, the state played an important role in man's ‘salvation; a position that would dominate Christian thinking until the 17th century. Though he opposed the death penalty for heresy, he provided the rationale for the Spanish Inquisition of the 13th century, as historian Paul Johnson has pointed out. Near the end of his life, we find this great saint corresponding with the fanatical Spanish heretic hunter Paul Orosius.

It is easy, of course, to sympathize with Augustine, given the age in which he lived. For in his last days a Vandal army, estimated at 80,000 men who were following the doctrines of Arius, moved from Spain into africa, everywhere destroying churches and monasteries. Catholic priests and virgins were disemboweled; bishops burned alive. There was desolation from Tangier to Tripoli. "Who could have believed such a thing!" Augustine wrote. "They ravage and pillage, change into a desert this prosperous and populous land. Not even a single fruit tree remains standing." Errors were not merely errors, as Augustine saw them, but often led to the most brutal butchery. In this light, we can understand Augustine's reasons for allying the kingdom of God with the kingdom of Caesar. For mankind was about to enter into the long night of barbarism.

Nevertheless, Augustine's marriage of church and state was counter to the entire spirit of the New Testament, and ultimately failed. It led to a savagery of its own. Augustine cited the parable of the great banquet, which contains the line "cornpel them to come in" (Luke 14:23), to justify using force to bring the unconverted into the church. In this parable people were giving weak excuses for why they could not attend the great feast planned by the householder. Try harder, the host told his servants; "compel them to come in." This was certainly strong language, but it was not a mandate to employ the coercive powers of the state. The host, who represents God, was invoking His servants (Christians) to make their arguments for coming to the feast (Heaven) more compelling. People failed to respond to God's invitation to the banquet because the case made by His evangelists was so feeble that many did not think the offer worthwhile. Augustine's misuse of the parable is a good illustration of the danger of pulling an isolated phrase out of the context of the Scriptural whole. The true meaning of that parable is this: if presented properly, and with urgency, by evangelists, Christ's message should "compel them to come in." This was by no means a call for yoking church and state together.

Augustine's "unity" was a political unity, dependent upon human structures - whereas the unity of which Paul speaks is a spiritual fellowship: "[Be] diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:3). Jesus explicitly commands his followers not to use force in the conversion process: "[The] rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you . . . " (Mark 10:42-43, italics mine). Peter, the Apostle, in his letter, exhorts the elders of the church to "shepherd the flock of God among you, not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according the will of God" (1 Peter 5:2). And Paul's call to universalism is not an invocation to the church to conquer more territory: "There is . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:4-6). The Christian unity suggested here is spiritual, not material. God is not tied down by an alliance with a particular government, geographical location or race of people; nor does Caesar have anything to say about man's salvation: "No one comes to the Father, but through Me," Jesus says (John 14:6). The Augustinian vertical church structure, and its integration with Caesar's political reach, in fact, made the universal church impossible, a's the political realm will always be limited. Augustine's fatal twist on Christ's view of Christian unity would later lead to the Protestant Reformation, and fuel the dissenting spirit that brought the Mayflower Pilgrims from the Old World to the New.

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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.

© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart