There is little doubt that Augustine of Hippo is the most influential Christian theologian of the post-New Testament era. Blessed with a tremendous mind, an unquenchable zeal for Christ, and the ability to write and teach in safety and security over his long life, Augustine is unparalleled in the depth and breadth of his theological writing and reflection. His influence over Baptist thinking, though indirect, can scarcely be measured. In this post and a few subsequent ones, I will try to highlight Augustine’s thinking as it influences Baptist life in the doctrines stemming from his views on God’s providence and nature and grace.
To begin, I will give a very brief snapshot of Augustine’s life. He was born in 354 in North Africa to a pagan father and Christian mother. He was educated well due to his tremendous mind. He had a concubine for several years and a son was born to their union. He spent nine years as an auditor (non-baptized “seeker”) of a North-African sect of Manichaeism. Manichaeism, named after its founder Mani, was a dualistic blend of Greek and Christian religions (dualistic means that good and evil are unable to conquer the other and struggle eternally). After finding the Manichees lacking, he turned toward Neo-Platonic philosophy. This did not quench his intellectual and spiritual thirst either. He finally converted to Christianity around 386 under the preaching of Ambrose of Milan. He became Bishop of Hippo (a North African city) a few years later and held that position until his death in 430. He is famous for his major works such as Confessions, City of God, and On the Trinity. He produced hundreds and hundreds of letters, sermons, essays, doctrinal correspondences, and books. His output is truly massive. I do not normally endorse Wikipedia, but the article there on Augustine is a really good introduction.2
For our purposes, Augustine introduced some novel ideas into Christian doctrine—ideas that had never been taught by Christians before his time. These include:
- Meticulous divine providence (God wills all that occurs)
- Original sin via the real headship of Adam (all humans present and participant in the first sin)
- Original guilt (eternal damnation spread to all humanity via real-participation original sin)
- Unconditional election of some to salvation based upon God’s choice alone
- Irresistibility of the grace of God
That these are Augustinian innovations will be shown in this series of posts. It is rather easily verifiable that no Christian before Augustine ever taught anything that resembled what Augustine and his followers made of these doctrines. One just has to read the Fathers thoroughly and closely and not yield to the temptation (as John Gill did, for example) and read his or her own thoughts back into them.
Now, in order to close this first post, I want to make it clear that Augustine was indeed a Christian. He, like all the rest of us, struggled to make sense of the whole of Christian revelation and tradition. His philosophical roots and pastoral heart caused him to want to tackle the tough questions, such as why is there evil in a good God’s world? (A question that has not disappeared, by the way!) In his lifelong quest to answer this question, I believe he drew upon his past associations (Neo-Platonism and Manichaeism) for a couple of cardinal assumptions that guide his thinking, thereby introducing foreign belief into the received tradition. These assumptions often go unstated and unchallenged, especially among 21st century American Southern Baptists. The next two posts will examine each of these assumptions in detail: the absolute divine omnipotence and the infralapsarian view of humanity driven by his interpretation of original sin. I welcome your questions and comments and thanks to Peter for allowing me to post.
Dr. Gifford is Head of Department of General Studies and professor of theology and church history at New Life Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC1
1for a short vitae about Dr. Gifford, see my "Coming Series on Saint Augustine by Dr. James D. Gifford Jr."
Below are links to the entire series by Dr. Gifford:
- Coming Series on Saint Augustine and Southern Baptists by Dr. James D. Gifford Jr
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: an Introduction
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine and Divine Omnipotence
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine and Human Nature: Part 3A; Part 3B
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: The Upshot of Augustine's Assumptions: Divine Determinism
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine's Exegetical and Hermeneutical Method
- Augustine and Southern Baptists: Augustine's Critics and Legacy: Part A; Part B