Saint Augustine of Hippo is the undisputed giant of Western Christian theology in the Early Church. He lived from 354 to 430AD, after the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, amidst a time when false Christianities proliferated, and leading up to the fall of Rome and what was essentially the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. His was a tumultuous time in which to live: the Church was under siege by schismatic groups claiming to hold the true faith and the centuries-old Roman state was falling to the “barbarians” that surrounded them. It really felt like it could be the end of the world.
Raised by a Christian mother, Augustine was reluctant to pay heed to Christian teachings; he found other philosophies and religious movements far more interesting in his young adulthood, not least because he was able to indulge his appetites for lust and pride therein. But his saintly mother continued to pray for him and eventually he ran into a saintly bishop, Ambrose, in Milan. Unlike other clerics before him, Ambrose was able to defend the faith intelligently, able to use rhetoric and reason, philosophy and poetry, to explain Christian teaching. Eventually Augustine gave in to the truth of Christ, and redirected his powerful rhetorical skills and analytical mind towards the cause of the Church. He went on to become the Bishop of his home region, Hippo, in northern Africa.
His two most-remembered works are his Confessions (one of the first spiritual autobiographies in Christian literature) and The City of God (a massive volume of writing about the Church as the true Jerusalem, weaving together such themes as God’s love, the ordering of human loves, understanding human history, and not putting our hope in earthly cities and empires like Rome). But he also wrote hundreds of sermons and lectures and treatises which survive to this day, giving us a wealth of knowledge about him, his beliefs, and (a rare treat for historical figures this far back in time) how his beliefs matured over the course of his life.
Some of his major theological emphases were the love of God (first from God, second to God) and the ordering of loves; the purity of the Church despite her sinful members (opposing the Donatists who split away to found a “purer” church); and the inability of the human being to do good without God’s grace (against the Pelagians who taught that we only sin because we imitate the bad example of Adam). He also laid the foundation for some doctrines that didn’t come to full fruition until the Protestant Reformation such as the bondage of the will (our inability to choose Christ on our own) and predestination (God’s saving work before we even turn to him).
Saint Augustine died on August 28th in the year 430 during the Vandals’ siege of Hippo. He has been commemorated on that date ever since.