Great Christian Biographies – Augustine of Hippo

Dear reader,

Just like you, I have been influenced by the stories of others. Listening to and telling good stories, especially about people, passes along encouragement and inspiration. That is what this series on Great Christian Biographies is all about. I hope you enjoy!


You can read the previous installments of Charles Spurgeon and Kwame Bediako by clicking on the links.

The story of Augustine needs to be told afresh to modern day African youth. Several reasons qualify this statement. First, he was born in modern day Algeria, and although it was a Latin-speaking, Roman-occupied territory, he was born and bred in a cosmopolitan African context.[1] Second, in his teenage and young adult years, he was given to the carefree living of his popular youth culture. Third, he was converted through the grace of God and his transformed life as a Bishop and Christian apologist, is a testament that the grace of God can transform the worst of sinners and misfits. His major writing is the Confessions which gives details of this personal transformation, in a way that echoes the authenticity and audacity of David in the Psalms.

Early Years: Birth to Young Adult

354 AD saw the birth of a young boy to Patricius, an African with Roman roots, and Monica, a godly mother and a native of Thagaste. Though Patricius was a leader in the elitist circles of the city, it is Monica who is credited with bringing up the young Augustine in godly ways.[2] Thus, his father focused more on the worldly and intellectual growth of Augustine, later on influencing his study of rhetoric and philosophy. On the other hand, living in an unfaithful marriage, Monica’s life, formed through her Catholic upbringing, would be characterized by tearful prayers and concerns for her closest men, a piety that would see both of them later on turn to the Lord.[3] Before then however, Augustine’s childhood was dotted with the naughtiness that points to the state of man as a fallen creation – In fact, David under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit notes that, far from the romantic ideas of newborns as angels, they are born under the stunting influence of the sinful nature (Psalm 51:5, Psalm 58:3-6).

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)

Proving this to be true in Augustine’s life, one biographer records the story of how Augustine with his naughty friends stole a bunch of pears from a neighbor’s farm, ate some of them and since they cared little for the remaining pears, gave them away to pigs.[4] Augustine himself in his own words agrees with David when he says “For in your sight, no one is free from sin, not even the infant whose life is but a day upon the earth” and his struggle with sin and temptation is clear when he wonders, “but how many great waves of temptation seemed to hang over me after my childhood!”[5]

Augustine and his Struggle of Ideas

Indeed these temptations would gather momentum in his young adult years, when his intellectual struggles would lead to the birth of Adeodatus, a child whom he had with a girl that he was living with and never married.[6] By this time, he had moved from his hometown Thagaste to the urban and cosmopolitan city of Carthage. Starting to develop his intellectual abilities, Augustine started reading Cicero, a respected politician and orator, and finally joined the cult-like sect called Manicheanism.[7] Mani, an Iranian prophet and founder of the sect, taught that Light and Darkness governed the material world, and since human beings belonged to the Light, they could find moral purification and progress through a process of enlightenment.[8] These were the ideas that gave Augustine some solace to the philosophical problem of evil and his nominal Christianity. He would remain captivated by this teaching, and after a decade of disillusionment and through God’s intervening grace, he would come to embrace Christ.

From Worldly Living to Christian Service

In his own account, though these readings aroused his desire for wisdom, he remained morally bankrupt. In book eight of his Confessions, his desperation is clear:

“But I was mad for health, and dying for life; knowing what evil thing I was, but not knowing what good thing I was so shortly to become.”[9]

The good thing that he was shortly become, is a story that has remained a captivating story of Christian conversion. As his friend Alypius waited for him as the angst-ridden man wrestled with God in the garden, Augustine recounts his turning point:

I was saying these things and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. . . By such an oracle he was forthwith converted to thee.[10]

“Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.”

He would later report this story to his mother to her jubilation at what God had done. This turning point would see a man transformed in his worldview, discarding the Manichean philosophy and embracing Christ in his entire being for his transformation. He resigned from his professorship of Rhetoric at the school in Milan, the “school of pride” showing that his intellectual labors outside the true knowledge of God had been in vain. Under the tutelage and example of both the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, and his believing mother, Augustine would begin a devotional life that formed much of his life and thought: “O my God, how did I cry to thee when I read the psalms of David, those hymns of faith, those paeans of devotion which leave no room for swelling pride!”

Hall of Faith

As such, Augustine merits our consideration of his life as one among “the great cloud of witnesses” who has been of edifying value to the church down the ages. His spirituality set the tone for devotional literature, himself a forerunner of great devotional writers such as Thomas à Kempis and John Bunyan.[11] His reverence in the diverse and catholic (universal) church, both among the early church fathers as well as respected leaders in the middle ages, the reformation era and contemporary church proves his influence. Secondly, his monumental theological literature has been of contemporary cultural and political ramifications. In his City of God, he notes the downfall of the Greco-Roman civilization and the enduring nature of the Kingdom of God, showing that Christ’s church will endure the ages. Here he stands in agreement with inspired scripture that always shows the contrasting nature of the City of God and the City of Man (Ps. 48:1-3, Jude 1:7, Heb. 11, Rev. 21). The implication of this is not societal withdrawal of Christians, but the pursuit of the good of the city for the display of God’s glory.[12]

Lessons for Today

  1. God’s intervening grace: From Rags to Riches

Witnessing to a culture that is growing weary of religion and of God can sometimes be discouraging to believers. However, the story of Augustine as of Paul, shows that the grace of God brings life “to dead bones” and can soften the hardest of hearts. From the rags of self-righteousness and self-pride, the grace of God revealed through the work of Christ on the Cross clothes those who believe in him with his righteousness.

  1. Grace helps us to deal with the shame and guilt of our past

In light of especially the sexual abandon that our youth culture has grown accustomed to, many who come to Christ have to deal with the shame and guilt of the past. As we see Augustine struggling, we can see that the freedom that Christ gives us can help us to forgive ourselves because God has forgiven us, and thus push us forward in our growth and maturity as believers. Whereas the Law of God tells us what’s right and what’s wrong showing us that we cannot do right, the Grace of God empowers us to deal with our blemishes and blind spots. It frees us to rest in the love and power of God to fully renew us as we walk in faith.

  1. Our Past Experiences as Witnessing Opportunities

Armed with a high view of God, we are able to use our past as a bridge to reach out to others. Having experienced the false promises of worldly sub-cultures, Augustine helps us to see that we too can speak truth to power, based on our historical story. We do this because as we ponder God’s Sovereignty in our lives, we learn that our history is His Story. Augustine was thus able to respond to the false philosophies of his time “with a strikingly poignant demeanor of love.”[13] Based on historical experiences, such love would compel us to reach out to others and point them to the Redeemer.

we learn that our history is His Story.

  1. Godly Parenting: Prayer & Training.

Finally, the story of Monica gives credible insight on parenting unruly children. The persistent prayers borne out of heart-felt tears and humble service in her home and country, even despite her difficult marriage and motherhood, points to the dependence on God’s faithfulness in difficult parenting seasons. Monica’s story speaks even to those who are not parents, by reminding us that illustrating our trust in God through difficult seasons of pain and anguish, can be a springboard for God’s purposes.

End Notes

[1] A group of writers and thinkers in countries (especially Africa and Latin America) that have experienced colonial domination do their work in a manner to deal in a positive light with this form of oppression. They are termed post-colonials. For the case of this biography, a post-colonial interpreter would appreciate both the Roman-ness and African-ness of Augustine, instead of only the former. See for instance David Wilhite, “Augustine the African: Post-colonial, Postcolonial, and Post-Postcolonial Readings,” Journal of Postcolonial Theory and Theology 5.1 (July 2014): 1-34.

[2] Jonathan Allbaugh, “Augustine as a Culture Migrant: An Integral Historical Analysis with Contemporary Applications,” Emerging Leadership Journeys, 9.1 (2016): 74-105.

[3] Matthew Haste, ““So many voices”: The Piety of Monica, Mother of Augustine,” JDFM 4.1 (2013): 6-10

[4] Simonetta Carr, Augustine of Hippo (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Heritage Books, 2009), 11

[5] Hal M. Helms (Ed.), The Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo (Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2010).

[6] Nick Needham, “Augustine of Hippo: The Relevance of His Life and Thought Today,” SBJT 4 (Sumer 2004): 38-50.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Introduction to Peter King (Ed.), AUGUSTINE: On the Free Choice of the Will, On Grace and Free Choice, and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[9] Augustine, Confessions (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classic Ethereal Library)

[10] Ibid., Book Eight, Chapter 12.

[11] Nick Needham, 43.

[12] Ibid., 45

[13] Jonathan Allbaugh, Emerging Leadership Journeys, 99

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