The Influence of Augustine upon Posterity and his Relation to Catholicism and Protestantism.
Before we take leave of this imposing character, and of the period of church history in which he shines as the brightest star, we must add some observations respecting the influence of Augustine on the world since his time, and his position with reference to the great antagonism of Catholicism and Protestantism. All the church fathers are, indeed, the common inheritance of both parties; but no other of them has produced so permanent effects on both, and no other stands in so high regard with both, as Augustine. Upon the Greek church alone has he exercised little or no influence; for this church stopped with the undeveloped synergistic anthropology of the previous age.2196
FIRST Augustine, in the first place, contributed much to the development of the doctrinal basis which Catholicism and Protestantism hold in common against such radical heresies of antiquity, as Manichaeism, Arianism, and Pelagianism. In all these great intellectual conflicts he was in general the champion of the cause of Christian truth against dangerous errors. Through his influence the canon of Holy Scripture (including, indeed, the Old Testament Apocrypha) was fixed in its present form by the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). He conquered the Manichaean dualism, hylozoism, and fatalism, and saved the biblical idea of God and of creation and the biblical doctrine of the nature of sin and its origin in the free will of man. He developed the Nicene dogma of the Trinity, completed it by the doctrine of the double procession of the Holy Ghost, and gave it the form in which it has ever since prevailed in the West, and in which it received classical expression from his school in the Athanasian Creed. In Christology, on the contrary, he added nothing, and he died shortly before the great Christological conflicts opened, which reached their ecumenical settlement at the council of Chalcedon, twenty years after his death. Yet he anticipated Leo in giving currency in the West to the important formula: “Two natures in one person.”2197
SECOND Augustine is also the principal theological creator of the Latin-Catholic system as distinct from the Greek Catholicism on the one hand, and from evangelical Protestantism on the other. He ruled the entire theology of the middle age, and became the father of scholasticism in virtue of his dialectic mind, and the father of mysticism in virtue of his devout heart, without being responsible for the excesses of either system. For scholasticism thought to comprehend the divine with the understanding, and lost itself at last in empty dialectics; and mysticism endeavored to grasp the divine with feeling, and easily strayed into misty sentimentalism; Augustine sought to apprehend the divine with the united power of mind and heart, of bold thought and humble faith.2198 Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventura, are his nearest of kin in this respect. Even now, since the Catholic church has become a Roman church, he enjoys greater consideration in it than Ambrose, Hilary, Jerome, or Gregory the Great. All this cannot possibly be explained without an interior affinity.2199
His very conversion, in which, besides the Scriptures, the personal intercourse of the hierarchical Ambrose and the life of the ascetic Anthony had great influence, was a transition not from heathenism to Christianity (for he was already a Manichaean Christian), but from heresy to the historical, episcopally organized church, as, for the time, the sole authorized vehicle of the apostolic Christianity in conflict with those sects and parties which more or less assailed the foundations of the gospel.2200 It was, indeed, a full and unconditional surrender of his mind and heart to God, but it was at the same time a submission of his private judgment to the authority of the church which led him to the faith of the gospel.2201 In the same spirit he embraced the ascetic life, without which, according to the Catholic principle, no high religion is possible. He did not indeed enter a cloister, like Luther, whose conversion in Erfurt was likewise essentially catholic, but he lived in his house in the simplicity of a monk, and made and kept the vow of voluntary poverty and celibacy.2202
He adopted Cyprian’s doctrine of the church, and completed it in the conflict with Donatism by transferring the predicates of unity, holiness, universality, exclusiveness, and maternity, directly to the actual church of the time, which, with a firm episcopal organization, an unbroken succession, and the Apostles’ Creed, triumphantly withstood the eighty or the hundred opposing sects in the heretical catalogue of the day, and had its visible centre in Rome. In this church he had found rescue from the shipwreck of his life, the home of true, Christianity, firm ground for his thinking, satisfaction for his heart, and a commensurate field for the wide range of his powers. The predicate of infallibility alone he does not plainly bring forward; he assumes a progressive correction of earlier councils by later; and in the Pelagian controversy he asserts the same independence towards pope Zosimus, which Cyprian before him had shown towards pope Stephen in the controversy on heretical baptism, with the advantage of having the right on his side, so that Zosimus found himself compelled to yield to the African church.2203
He was the first to give a clear and fixed definition of the sacrament, as a visible sign of invisible grace, resting on divine appointment; but he knows nothing of the number seven; this was a much later enactment. In the doctrine of baptism he is entirely Catholic,2204 though in logical contradiction with his dogma of predestination; but in the doctrine of the holy communion he stands, like his predecessors, Tertullian and Cyprian, nearer to the Calvinistic theory of a spiritual presence and fruition of Christ’s body and blood. He also contributed to promote, at least in his later writings, the Catholic faith of miracles,2205 and the worship of Mary;2206 though he exempts the Virgin only from actual sin, not from original, and, with all his reverence for her, never calls her mother of God.2207
At first an advocate of religious liberty and of purely spiritual methods of opposing error, he afterwards asserted the fatal principle of the coge intrare, and lent the great weight of his authority to the system of civil persecution, at the bloody fruits of which in the middle age he himself would have shuddered; for he was always at heart a man of love and gentleness, and personally acted on the glorious principle: “Nothing conquers but truth, and the victory of truth is love.”2208
Thus even truly great and good men have unintentionally, through mistaken zeal, become the authors of much mischief.
THIRD But, on the other hand, Augustine is, of all the fathers, nearest to evangelical Protestantism, and may be called, in respect of his doctrine of sin and grace, the first forerunner of the Reformation. The Lutheran and Reformed churches have ever conceded to him, without scruple, the cognomen of Saint, and claimed him as one of the most enlightened witnesses of the truth and most striking examples of the marvellous power of divine grace in the transformation of a sinner. It is worthy of mark, that his Pauline doctrines, which are most nearly akin to Protestantism, are the later and more mature parts of his system, and that just these found great acceptance with the laity. The Pelagian controversy, in which he developed his anthropology, marks the culmination of his theological and ecclesiastical career, and his latest writings were directed against the Pelagian Julian and the Semi-Pelagians in Gaul, who were brought to his notice by the two friendly laymen, Prosper and Hilary. These anti-Pelagian works have wrought mightily, it is most true, upon the Catholic church, and have held in check the Pelagianizing tendencies of the hierarchical and monastic system, but they have never passed into its blood and marrow. They waited for a favorable future, and nourished in silence an opposition to the prevailing system.
Even in the middle age the better sects, which attempted to simplify, purify, and spiritualize the reigning Christianity by return to the Holy Scriptures, and the reformers before the Reformation such as Wiclif, Russ, Wessel, resorted most, after the apostle Paul, to the bishop of Hippo as the representative of the doctrine of free grace.
The Reformers were led by his writings into a deeper understanding of Paul, and so prepared for their great vocation. No church teacher did so much to mould Luther and Calvin; none furnished them so powerful weapons against the dominant Pelagianism and formalism; none is so often quoted by them with esteem and love.2209
All the Reformers in the outset, Melancthon and Zwingle among them, adopted his denial of free will and his doctrine of predestination, and sometimes even went beyond him into the abyss of supralapsarianism, to cut out the last roots of human merit and boasting. In this point Augustine holds the same relation to the Catholic church, as Luther to the Lutheran; that is, he is a heretic of unimpeachable authority, who is more admired than censured even in his extravagances; yet his doctrine of predestination was indirectly condemned by the pope in Jansenism, as Luther’s view was rejected as Calvinism by the Form of Concord.2210 For Jansenism was nothing but a revival of Augustinianism in the bosom of the Roman Catholic church.2211
The excess of Augustine and the Reformers in this direction is due to the earnestness and energy of their sense of sin and grace. The Pelagian looseness could never beget a reformer. It was only the unshaken conviction of man’s own inability, of unconditional dependence on God, and of the almighty power of his grace to give us strength for every good work, which could do this. He who would give others the conviction that he has a divine vocation for the church and for mankind, must himself be penetrated with the faith of an eternal, unalterable decree of God, and must cling to it in the darkest hours.
In great men, and only in great men, great opposites and apparently antagonistic truths live together. Small minds cannot hold them. The catholic, churchly, sacramental, and sacerdotal system stands in conflict with the evangelical Protestant Christianity of subjective, personal experience. The doctrine of universal baptismal regeneration, in particular, which presupposes a universal call (at least within the church), can on principles of logic hardly be united with the doctrine of an absolute predestination, which limits the decree of redemption to a portion of the baptized. Augustine supposes, on the one hand, that every baptized person, through the inward operation of the Holy Ghost, which accompanies the outward act of the sacrament, receives the forgiveness of sins, and is translated from the state of nature into the state of grace, and thus, qua baptizatus, is also a child of God and an heir of eternal life; and yet, on the other hand, he makes all these benefits dependent on the absolute will of God, who saves only a certain number out of the “mass of perdition,” and preserves these to the end. Regeneration and election, with him, do not, as with Calvin, coincide. The former may exist without the latter, but the latter cannot exist without the former. Augustine assumes that many are actually born into the kingdom of grace only to perish again; Calvin holds that in the case of the non-elect baptism is an unmeaning ceremony; the one putting the delusion in the inward effect, the other in the outward form. The sacramental, churchly system throws the main stress upon the baptismal regeneration to the injury of the eternal election; the Calvinistic and Puritan system sacrifices the virtue of the sacrament to the election; the Lutheran and Anglican system seeks a middle ground, without being able to give a satisfactory theological solution of the problem. The Anglican church allows the two opposite views, and sanctions the one in the baptismal service of the Book of Common Prayer, the other in her Thirty-nine Articles, which are moderately Calvinistic.
It was an evident ordering of God, that the Augustinian system, like the Latin Bible of Jerome, appeared just in that transitional period of history, in which the old civilization was passing away before the flood of barbarism, and a new order of things, under the guidance of the, Christian religion, was in preparation. The church, with her strong, imposing organization and her firm system of doctrine, must save Christianity amidst the chaotic turmoil of the great migration, and must become a training-school for the barbarian nations of the middle age.2212
In this process of training, next to the Holy Scriptures, the scholarship of Jerome and the theology and fertile ideas of Augustine were the most important intellectual agent.
Augustine was held in so universal esteem that he could exert influence in all directions, and even in his excesses gave no offence. He was sufficiently catholic for the principle of church authority, and yet at the same time so free and evangelical that he modified its hierarchical and sacramental character, reacted against its tendencies to outward, mechanical ritualism, and kept alive a deep consciousness of sin and grace, and a spirit of fervent and truly Christian piety, until that spirit grew strong enough to break the shell of hierarchical tutelage, and enter a new stage of its development. No other father could have acted more beneficently on the Catholicism of the middle age, and more successfully provided for the evangelical Reformation than St. Augustine, the worthy successor of Paul, and the precursor of Luther and Calvin.
Had he lived at the time of the Reformation, he would in all probability have taken the lead of the evangelical movement against the prevailing Pelagianism of the Roman church. For we must not forget that, notwithstanding their strong affinity, there is an important difference between Catholicism and Romanism or Popery. They sustain a similar relation to each other as the Judaism of the Old Testament dispensation, which looked to, and prepared the way for, Christianity, and the Judaism after the crucifixion and after the destruction of Jerusalem, which is antagonistic to Christianity. Catholicism covers the entire ancient and mediaeval history of the church, and includes the Pauline, Augustinian, or evangelical tendencies which increased with the corruptions of the papacy and the growing sense of the necessity of a “reformatio in capite et membris.” Romanism proper dates from the council of Trent, which gave it symbolical expression and anathematized the doctrines of the Reformation. Catholicism is the strength of Romanism, Romanism is the weakness of Catholicism. Catholicism produced Jansenism, Popery condemned it. Popery never forgets and never learns anything, and can allow no change in doctrine (except by way of addition), without sacrificing its fundamental principle of infallibility, and thus committing suicide. But Catholicism may ultimately burst the chains of Popery which have so long kept it confined, and may assume new life and vigor.
Such a personage as Augustine, still holding a mediating place between the two great divisions of Christendom, revered alike by both, and of equal influence with both, is furthermore a welcome pledge of the elevating prospect of a future reconciliation of Catholicism and Protestantism in a higher unity, conserving all the truths, losing all the errors, forgiving all the sins, forgetting all the enmities of both. After all, the contradiction between authority and freedom, the objective and the subjective, the churchly and the personal, the organic and the individual, the sacramental and the experimental in religion, is not absolute, but relative and temporary, and arises not so much from the nature of things, as from the deficiencies of man’s knowledge and piety in this world. These elements admit of an ultimate harmony in the perfect state of the church, corresponding to the union of the divine and human natures, which transcends the limits of finite thought and logical comprehension, and is yet completely realized in the person of Christ. They are in fact united in the theological system of St. Paul, who had the highest view of the church, as the mystical “body of Christ,” and “the pillar and ground of the truth,” and who was at the same time the great champion of evangelical freedom, individual responsibility, and personal union of the believer with his Saviour. We believe in and hope for one holy catholic apostolic church, one communion of saints, one fold, and one Shepherd. The more the different churches become truly Christian, or draw nearer to Christ, and the more they give real effect to His kingdom, the nearer will they come to one another. For Christ is the common head and vital centre of all believers, and the divine harmony of all discordant human sects and creeds.
In Christ, says Pascal, one of the greatest and noblest disciples of Augustine, “In Christ all contradictions are solved.”
Schaff, Philip and David Schley Schaff. History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910.