Happy 1660th Birthday: Augustine's Enduring Appeal Is His Personal Passion for the Living Lord

Paul de Vries is an exclusive CP columnist.
Paul de Vries is an exclusive CP columnist. | (By CP Cartoonist Rod Anderson)

Of the hundreds of thousands of published Christian writers over the centuries since the Scripture books were completed, none have had a level of influence to compare to Augustine. Even now in 2014, he remains a #1 favorite for huge numbers of both Evangelical leaders and Roman Catholic leaders. He was a scholar and an evangelist; he was a faithful senior leader of the church universal and a charismatic healer who made house calls. Now he is 1660 years old. Happy Birthday, Augustine!

How does this ancient, African, Christian writer sustain such a broad and faithful following throughout the centuries, and around the world? In this brief article, let me suggest what I think is the main reason for Augustine's continued profound influence.

I was first introduced to Augustine's ideas by my 5th grade Sunday School teacher "Uncle Floyd Clemmons" – who was both my spiritual uncle and one of my biological uncles. For my birthday he gave me a book that included a chapter on Augustine. For the first time in my life I learned about a scholar who was passionate for Jesus. At that time the senior pastor of our large Baptist church was fond of saying that he would "rather be a fool on fire than a scholar on ice." Now in Uncle Floyd's gift book I read about a scholar on fire for Jesus, exposing the tragic false dichotomy of our pastor. The testimony of Augustine was for me a liberating, unsettling, transforming fact.

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Augustine (November 13, 354 – August 28, 430) came to Jesus about the time of his 32rd birthday, after already earning his reputation as a world-class pagan scholar. At the time of his new birth in Christ, Augustine had already become convinced of the truth of the Gospel for months. In Milan where Augustine was living at the time, the local Bishop Ambrose convinced Augustine that the arguments against the Gospel were weak, and that the Gospel in fact answered all the crucial questions. Augustine became convinced of the Gospel in his mind, but even his redeemed mind was not strong enough to liberate Augustine from the powerful attractions of his celebrated pagan life-style.

The needed personal encounter with Jesus came through a tearful reading of the end of Romans 13:  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, NASB] It was not just the timely moral instruction and behavioral change taught in this text. Much more than that, Augustine was invited by the Romans text intimately to "put on" the Living Lord Jesus Christ as his spiritual armor, his personal covering. He had embraced the Gospel, now he embraced God the Son. And the Living Lord Jesus made all the difference.

Then in the six months between his new birth and his baptism on Resurrection Sunday of AD 387, Augustine wrote four profound books about our walk with the Living Lord. In the next 43 years he wrote and published more than another 200 books while keeping an active life of Christian ministry and leadership. From the beginning of his Christian writing career, as a fresh "escapee" from the bondages of pagan living, he knew vividly the differences Jesus makes, and he wrote with precision, purpose, and passion even in his earliest books. Accurate, cogent teaching about Biblical ethics and Biblical doctrine come through in all his writings. He wrote boldly, courageously, engagingly, convincingly – and always with a remarkable humility. "If what I have written has helped the reader in some way, may God be praised. And for my mistakes, reader please forgive me," he also said. Effectively, the focus was never to be on Augustine the remarkable human, the gifted writer, the respected Bishop, the compassionate pastor, the Godly healer, the engaged Bible teacher, the friend of emperors – but the focus was always on the Living Lord Jesus Christ.

Contra Academicos was one of Augustine's very earliest books, written in the autumn AD 386, just after his Romans 13:14 encounter with Jesus and months before his baptism. The title means that the book was written "against academics," but the point of the book is to address directly the challenges of intellectual skepticism as exemplified by the self-appointed remnant of Plato's Academy. An English translation of the book has been titled "Against the Skeptics."

In this early book Augustine dismisses the usual anti-skepticism arguments. Of course the skeptic knows that "2+3=5," and does not really doubt that. Of course the skeptic know that "water is wet," "this sheet is white," and such like. The skeptic is troubled by deeper issues such as how our senses can deceive us, how our memory sometimes fails us, how our reasoning can mislead us. And because of these existential epistemic failings, the skeptic questions whether life has meaning, and whether even having personal purpose is possible.

Augustine's approach is remarkable. From the start, he fully embraces the skeptic's critique. He agrees that senses often deceive, memory often fails, and reasoning often misleads. The Christian should not only agree whole-heartedly with the skeptic on these epistemic concerns, but should also magnify them. It is not only in our (a) finite condition that our senses, memories, and reasoning fail – we humans are also (b) fallen beings, alienated against the Creator. That active alienation adds greatly to the well-known failings of our senses, memory, and reasoning. Consequently, skeptics should know that Christians fully agree with skeptics on all of these epistemic doubts – and with even greater conviction. Good Christians are intensely skeptical of the products of human senses, memory and reasoning.

How are Christians different from skeptics? According to the freshly reborn Augustine in the fall of AD 386, we Christians are different from skeptics chiefly in two regards.

First, unlike skeptics, we Christians believe that there are real, objective truths and purposes – even if we should question, doubt, and critique any and every formulation of those truths and purposes. As I have said elsewhere, for us Christians honest doubt is good because true knowledge and meaning matter.

Second, unlike skeptics, we Christians know the one who knows the objective truths and purposes. The knowledge that matters most is not sensory knowledge, memory knowledge, or reasoning knowledge, but something much deeper: the existential knowledge of the Presence of the Eternal God, experienced especially in relationship with the Living Lord Jesus Christ.

Now you see why the great Augustine was not defensive about the Church or Christian doctrine or Biblical ethics – or even defensive about the cogent and influential books he wrote on these and other hugely consequential topics. These topics continue to matter – but not nearly so much as "knowing the one who knows" the whole truth and the full meaning for life.

This honest, humble, vibrant, relevant focus on the Living Lord Jesus is what draws Evangelicals and Roman Catholics back to Augustine, a true soul-mate for the leaders and scholars who know and love Jesus. Like Augustine, there is an enduring place for other gifted Church leaders who love Jesus. And there remains a crying need for more "scholars on fire."

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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