Thursday, February 13, 2014

St. Augustine : The Miserable Bishop (354-430 AD) by Chris White

“Thou hast created us for Thyself, and our heart is not quiet until it rests in Thee.

“ And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled.”   Luke 14:23

     St. Augustine was a bishop in Roman North Africa and is best known for his devotional classic The Confessions of St. Augustine.  During his tenure he also presided over two great controversies in the early church and brought them to a resolution that is definitive for Christian behavior and belief even today.
     Of all the people who were ever elected bishop, Aurelius Augustine was probably the most miserable. Augustine was a man of scripture, prayer, and deep reflection but in his day the work of a bishop was short on preaching and long on settling legal squabbles between people in his diocese.  This was not the best career match for a person was more a thinker than a man of action, but God’s placement of Augustine in a position of authority meant his thinking would have a greater influence in a wide circle of people.

     Augustine was to write many books but perhaps his most influential was his Confessions.  Augustine was not confessing his secrets but rather was confessing his faith in God after God chased him down in his unbelief and drew his heart to himself while he was reading Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Prior to this, no one ever wrote books from the perspective of the interior self and about how God orchestrated their conversion.  In a way, Augustine invented a new kind of literature that might be called autobiographical testimony.  In  any event, many others have imitated this style ever since.

     Long before Augustine’s birth the Christians in North Africa went through a terrible persecution where many ministers and parishioners compromised the faith out of fear of torture and execution.  It was a terrible failure and when the persecution was over feelings about it ran so high that the church was torn in two.  Some Christians took the viewpoint that this could never be forgiven especially if you were clergy, where others took the view that restoration was possible.  Eventually what started as a divided and torn church was turned into two churches. The one group (called the Donatists) claimed they were the true church because none of their leaders had compromised.  They also held the belief that if you were baptized or had received communion from a pastor who had lapsed, it was null and void.

     When Augustine had become a bishop this problem had been raging for decades.  Augustine was of the view of reconciliation and forgiveness but also felt that there was only one church and to break away and start another was a terrific sin as well.  Eventually the Roman government, which had become predominantly Christian by this stage in history, was to bring about reunion by force.  Augustine had counseled differently but when patience didn’t work, he came to the parable of great master throwing a banquet and telling his servant to “compel them to come in” and took that to mean that under certain conditions unity must be maintained in the church by force if necessary.  While we may not approve of such heavy-handedness in present world, the ancient Christians held strongly to Paul’s words that there was “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” and therefore there was no room for factions or even denominations in the church.  

     As Augustine thought through the implications of this division in the church, his reasoning led him to a view the church still holds.  Any sacrament, when received by faith, is valid and operative in the life of the believer regardless of the spiritual state of the minister who offered it.  Put another way, if you were baptized by a minister who had fallen away from Christ either publicly or secretly, if you were walking in faith and receiving baptism in obedience, your baptism is completely valid in the eyes of God for it is a gift from Him for which the church plays a minor role in dispensing.

    Throughout history leaders in the church were to continually go back to theological writings of this great bishop as a means of understanding the teaching of Scripture.  For his insight and deep devotion to understanding the depths of Jesus Christ, Augustine will always be considered a shaper of the Christian faith.

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