Over the course of my last two years in Seminary at Western I have been struck by the importance of knowing and being anchored to church history. Being intimately acquainted with what those who have run the race before us have said and written develops a more sound and robust theology, and helps guard against making similar gaffes in thinking. We learn from their strengths as well as their weaknesses. This past semester I had the privilege of studying Augustine. Three primary lessons stand out to me. 1) Augustine helped me to appreciate further the tie that the church today has with gospel of Jesus Christ. It is exciting for me to read a statement about Jesus by a man who lived seventeen hundred years ago, and know that I make the same claim of Christ today when I preach and teach. The gospel of salvation alone in Christ has not changed. We live in a day when Pluralists, Inclusivists, and Universalists demand that all theologies bow to the standard of political correctness and affirmation of all. Augustine reminds us, however, that “our heart is unquiet until is rests in [Jesus].” 2) Augustine points to the great depravity of man and the unfathomable grace of God. I am convinced that a man will not cherish the grace he has received in Christ until he comes to terms with the utter despair and helplessness of his state in sin without him. Augustine understood the depravity of his heart. He thought about it often, wrote about it in his Confessions, and constantly encouraged all men to look away from any good or merit in themselves (which would never be found) and to trust only in the grace of God. Indeed, Augustine attributed even this turning towards grace to the gracious enablement of God. In this he helped me to see afresh the great mercy of God and the sweetness of worshipping him. 3) Augustine challenged my theology in the area of baptism. I am a Baptist….a Southern Baptist to get specific. I affirm believer’s baptism as the most appropriate and biblical mode of baptism in the church. Augustine, however, was a staunch advocate of infant baptism and the notion that baptism was a requirement for salvation. I believe he goes too far here, but my concern has been how I account for the rich history of infant baptism in the church. I know the early church was not infallible, but when the church suddenly stops a fifteen hundred year practice (stopping after the Reformation), you better have a good answer. This has led to a question that nags me, and research paper to be written this semester (I’ll let you know what I decide. All my Presbyterian friends don’t get too excited yet!).
If you have never studied Augustine, please do. I highly recommend Peter Brown’s biography, Augustine of Hippo, for a great introduction and overview of his life and significant works. Writings by Augustine that are greatly worth the read are: Confessions (Augustine’s autobiography of his conversion and struggle with sin), On the Free Choice of the Will (Augustine’s early discussion on the nature of freedom of the will and God’s responsibility for evil), Enchiridion (A type of systematic theology of what Augustine affirmed the church to teach), and The City of God (specifically the last ten Chapters…a Masterpiece!). You won’t be disappointed.