St. Augustine’s 3 Key Doctrines for Analyzing His Culture

Hey folks – I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations regarding the St. Augustine/Culture post last week. This week is solely dedicated to that topic (pardon the academic tone, lots of this comes from my recent research paper). Today we’ll answer: “Why is Augustine important?” and “What doctrines helped formulate Augustine’s cultural perspective?” Enjoy!

Why does St. Augustine matter?

It’s been said that all modern theology is a commentary on St. Augustine[1]. Justo Gonzalez says: “Throughout the middle ages, no theologian was quoted more often than he was, and he thus became one of the great doctors of the Catholic Church. But he was also a favorite theologian of the great Protestant Reformers[2].” Certainly St. Augustine contributed much in his time to the realm of theology. His influence of the church and the broader world, especially in the realm of literature (he wrote what some consider the first autobiography) and philosophy is undeniable.

What is perhaps most unique about St. Augustine, however, is his view of culture. Augustine was as a youngster at the top of his class in rhetoric, a successful orator and a professor at a well-known university.[3] Augustine shocked his teachers with his ability to comprehend complex philosophical books without aid; he even wrote his own philosophical treaties on aesthetics that were well-received by prominent minds. One wonders if Augustine saw himself in Moses, a man used by God who was “learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians[4].” This background and gifting made for a unique perspective of Roman culture, and this is what will be examined in the following posts.

Three Formative Doctrines

After his conversion, St. Augustine was a theologian above all else. His truly God-soaked vision of life influenced all of his thinking, not just concerning religion, but also art, government, philosophy, theater, politics, fashion, history, music, etc. In order to capture, then, Augustine’s theological vision of Christians and culture, we must first examine its theological underpinnings. While all of Augustine’s doctrine contributed to his unique viewpoints in some manner, it is especially his understanding of common grace, the goodness of creation and the nature of evil that helped form his overall view of culture.

   First, St. Augustine had a powerful view of common grace. For Augustine Romans 1 was the single most important chapter in describing the world around him[5]: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”[6] From this, St. Augustine extracted several ideas, one of which is that of “common grace.”

St. Augustine believed that common grace is seen especially in man’s powers of reasoning and his search for happiness. He compares our search for happiness now to searching for a distant memory, which he supposes remains from the memory of our first father, Adam[7]. “When we lost happiness,” he says, “we did not lose the love of it.[8]” It is on the basis of this common grace that Augustine appeals to his audience, especially the philosophers, whose proclaimed chief end is to find true happiness[9].

St. Augustine also concludes from Romans 1 that God has made Himself evident to all who search for happiness, especially by endowing man with intellectual capacity. This nature he compares to the light of creation, “…which is light because it contemplates the Light.”[10] He affirms that before his conversion, he himself “found pleasure in the truth”, especially under the influence of Cicero[11]. His intellectual capacity he attributes to the grace of God, even in his dead condition[12]. Augustine even attributes the good that came from his secular teaching of rhetoric to God, especially in his lecture which dissuaded his friend Alypius from attending the gladiatorial games[13]. Because of this doctrine, Augustine finds no shame in regularly quoting Plato, Cicero or Porphyries in hearty agreement.

     However, Augustine also qualifies this common grace by making it explicit that this knowledge cannot ultimately lead to the Truth. Referencing his own reading of Cicero’s writings, which spurred him to search for wisdom above all else, he says: “…the only check to this blaze of enthusiasm was that they made no mention of the name of Christ.[14]” On reading Plato, he asserts: “In the same books I also read of the Word, God, that his birth came not from human stock, not from nature’s will or man’s, but from God. But I did not read in them that the Word was made flesh, and came to dwell among us[15].” He compares this time in his life to seeing a blurry image, which only taught him his distance from God[16]. This principle he extracts especially from John 1:6-9, distinguishing the light that comes from the intellect, and the “illumination from another, the true Light.” [17]

    The reason we cannot attain true Light through the light of our own intellect, Augustine says, is taken from Romans 1: we “suppress the truth.” We do this by, first, looking to the creation for “pleasure, beauty and truth” rather than to the Creator[18]. Even in our pursuit of truth, that which appears to be virtuous is rather a vice “so long as there is no reference to God in the matter[19].” By using our natural light for extraneous endeavors, we are even in our search for truth abandoning the Creator, for although “much of what they say about the world is true…they do not search with piety for Truth, its Creator[20].” The man who knows only the outer exterior of a tree, in fact, is better than another who “measures it and counts all its branches, but neither owns it nor knows and loves its Creator[21].” In this sense, says Augustine, men are more interested in talk than in truth[22]. This is because the Light from above sheds negative light on the men who search, this horrifies the natural mind[23]. Therefore, although God has endowed man with the search for happiness and the gift of natural light, because men suppress the truth, they cannot know it without the divine aid of the true Light of the World.

      The second doctrinal principle St. Augustine extracts from Romans 1 is that of creation. Augustine carefully and meticulously counters the Gnostics over and again, affirming that the created order is good, and that man is both a physical and spiritual being[24]. The creation, in fact, is meant to point us to God, for all creation has “the same message to tell, if we can only hear it…We did not make ourselves, but he who abides ever made us[25].” Poetically, Augustine recounts the days he searched for God in creation, and creation replied whole-heartedly ‘We are not God!’[26] He compares the created order to the “footsteps” of God, which are meant to lead us not to themselves, but to He who made them[27].

Why, then, did Augustine reject any part of culture? If God gives common grace, and the created order is good, why should we reject the theater, the gladiatorial games, the philosophy of this world and the like? The answer lies in St. Augustine’s unique doctrine of the essence of evil.

The third major doctrine, then, is Augustine’s doctrine of evil. Evil, Augustine believed, was not a substance[28]. Rather, it is a word we use to describe the absence of good, or as he states more explicitly: evil is wrongly ordered affections[29]. Once again drawing from Romans 1, Augustine believed that evil was misplacing our affections on the created order, rather than the Creator. In this, Augustine was able to maintain the goodness of creation and even culture, while affirming that our use of it is evil. “When the miser prefers his gold to justice,” says Augustine, “it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing[30].” This, in part, is what obscures our view of the Truth, though it is plain. “He is able to catch sight of God’s invisible nature through his creatures, but his love of these material things is too great. He becomes their slave, and slaves cannot be judges[31].” The created world, though good, is not worthy to be worshiped as is its Creator, for the created world is “the lowest order of good” and though created things gives joy, they cannot give “such joy as my God, who made them all, can give[32].” The only virtue, then, is directing our affection toward the highest virtue, which is found in God alone[33]. And so Augustine staunchly affirmed that nothing could be totally evil; rather, all things that are called “evil” are simply disordered in their affections, or abused on account of the affections of another[34].

These three doctrines together formulate Augustine’s complex view of the culture around him. God gives common grace to all men, through which they can see His divine attributes. However, even our pursuit of God is obscured, because we suppress the truth. While the raw tools of culture are gifts of God, because of our sinful bent we worship them rather than the creator. Even in this, however, no product of culture can be wholly evil, and some good can be extracted from every pursuit of happiness. With these principles in mind, tomorrow and the next day we’ll examine how these doctrines formulate Augustine’s view of music, psychology, poetry, art, government, philosophy, theater, fashion, medicine and education. From these case studies we will draw the practical principles Augustine would implant into modern cultural analyses.


[1] CH501 “Church History to the Reformation”, Dr. Rosell, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. Lecture 10.

[2] Gonzalez 252

[3] Confessions. 58, 71.

[4] City of God, 583-584

[5] City of God, 227

[6] Romans 1:18-23, ESV Study Bible

[7] Confessions, 226

[8] City of God, 780

[9] Ibid. 605-606

[10] Confessions, 291

[11] Ibid. 40-41

[12] Ibid. 89

[13] Ibid. 120-121

[14] Ibid. 59

[15] Ibid. 144-145

[16] Ibid. 147

[17] City of God. 273-274

[18] Confessions 40-41

[19] City of God 638

[20] Confessions, 94

[21] Ibid. 95

[22] Ibid. 281

[23] Ibid. 230

[24] City of God. 332-333

[25] Confessions 198

[26] Confessions, 212

[27] City of God, 335

[28] Ibid. 318

[29] Ibid. 461

[30] Ibid. 460

[31] Confessions 213

[32] Ibid. 48

[33] City of God 144

[34] City of God, 344-345

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nmcdonal

3 Comments

  1. Looks like your edjumucayshun is really paying off, Nick!

    That point about longing for the original good which was lost in the Fall sounds similar to C.S. Lewis’s statement about longing for something unobtainable here on earth being an indication that perhaps we are made for another world, doesn’t it?

    • Funny you say that, Tim. As I read through Augustine it made me wonder if he wasn’t C.S. Lewis’ go-to theologian. They have a lot in common. Points where Lewis diverges from evangelicalism, he finds some common ground with Augustine on.

      • Speaking of Augustine as go-to theologian, my wife and I were watching Sproul’s video on predestination and guess who he relied on even more than Calvin and Luther: Augustine.

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