18

THE EMERGENCE OF CATHOLIC CHRISTIANITY IN THE WEST, 395–640

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Traditional Catholic histories of Christianity present Peter in his later years as a man who brims with conviction, energy and vision. His ambivalence about his mission to the Gentiles (as seen in the dispute with Paul at Antioch) had been resolved after God commanded him to extend his mission to the Gentiles (Acts of the Apostles 10). He set off to Rome because it was the capital of the empire, and he knew that it was the ideal place to establish the Church. 1 A later tradition even suggests that he was bishop of Rome for no less than twenty-five years before his martyrdom. Yet, while there is no reason to doubt Peter’s convictions, he was actually heading to the far edges of the Christian world. The early church was predominantly Greek and flourished far more vigorously in the eastern than in the western empire, and from an eastern perspective the city of Rome was the “wrong” side of Italy. In Acts Paul tells of his great difficulties in travelling from Judaea to Rome (though admittedly his voyage was at a time of year when the weather had broken). Some six centuries later Pope Gregory the Great summed up the remoteness of Rome from the traditional Greek centres of Christianity. “Separated from you by great stretches of land and the sea,” he wrote to his brother bishops in Antioch and Alexandria, “yet I am bound to you in my heart.” The geographical separation was intensified by the linguistic gulf between the two parts of the empire, which grew as the Roman community became Latin—rather than Greek-speaking as it had been originally. The works of many of the Greek Church Fathers never reached the Latin west in translation. There were even difficulties in getting hold of Latin texts of the ecumenical councils.2

Even within Rome the Christian community was marginal in a city where the pagan senatorial aristocracy remained powerful to the end of the fourth century. In the dispute over the Altar of Victory in the Senate house in the 380s, it was Ambrose in Milan, where he had direct access to the emperor, a vital consideration so far as ecclesiastical power was concerned, who masterminded its removal, rather than Damasus, the bishop of Rome. Although lip service was paid to the concept of Roman primacy, particularly in the western empire where Rome had no rivals, attempts by the bishops of Rome to enforce this primacy had not been successful. In particular, as the conflict between Stephen and Cyprian of Carthage in the third century had shown, the Christians of north Africa were vigorous, independent-minded and reluctant to submit to anyone. Rome’s political position within the empire atrophied over the centuries and received a further blow when the first Christian emperor himself set up his new capital at Constantinople. Then, at the Council of Constantinople of 381, Constantinople was made second in honour only to Rome as a bishopric. What hurt Rome in particular was that this move implied that a bishopric’s authority was based as much on its political importance as on its Christian origins. This was the situation when the empire was split in 395.

Part of the problem was, of course, the difficulty of translating a movement deeply rooted in the Greek cultural and philosophical world into the Latin one. The first significant theologian to write in Latin was Tertullian, the son of a centurion, born in the north African trading city of Carthage. He has to be seen as much as a representative of the ebullient north African Christians as of western Christianity as a whole. Centurions were highly respected members of the Roman state, and Tertullian was well educated, able to speak both Greek and Latin. He may have trained and served as a lawyer until his conversion to Christianity, probably in the 190s when he was in his thirties, and, if so, he conforms to the stereotypes of his profession in his conservatism, his rigid approach to social issues and his ability to use uncompromising rhetoric with great emotional effect. There is something of Paul in the way that Tertullian castigates intellectuals and glories in paradox. How could one have answered his most famous statement, “The Son of God died; it must needs be believed because it is absurd. He was buried and rose again; it is certain because it is impossible”? Like many Latin Christians, he taunted the Greek philosophers: “Wretched Aristotle who taught them [the heretics and philosophers] dialectic, that art of building up and demolishing . . . self-stultifying since it is ever handling questions but never settling them . . . what is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?”

He was, writes one scholar, “pre-eminently a theologian of revelation and an opponent of all curiositas beyond the church’s rule of faith.”3 He had much more of the Stoic in him than the Platonist. So Tertullian helped to keep the western church outside the great debates over theology raging in the eastern empire. In general, western theologians were wary of the more sophisticated easterners’ readiness to accept that “Christian” insights might be embedded in Greek philosophy. On the other hand, his attempt to formulate his own theology led him to devise specific Latin terms for Greek concepts. One of these was the word Trinitas. (In “his” Trinity the divine logos exists in the mind of God from the beginning of time but is “shot out” at the moment when the cosmos begins.) Here are the first stirrings of a specifically western theology expressed in its own language rather than in translation from the Greek.

Although Tertullian was to argue that Christians posed no threat to the state, in his ethical writings he portrayed the world as essentially hostile to Christians. As a Christian one was unable ever to relax one’s guard. The threat of sexual temptation, in particular, was ever present, and Tertullian does not seem to have believed that sexual urges could be fully tamed until old age had exhausted them. (He argued that a church community should be run by the elderly as only they might have gone beyond temptation.) Tertullian contributed an abiding fear of woman as temptress to the western tradition, and his views became more rigid with age. Beset with the continuing “immorality” of those around him, he came to believe that God would have to continually update his message to mankind, and in his last years he joined the Montanists, who claimed to be in direct contact with God. He passes from the scene (his last known writings date from A.D. 212) and the date of his death is unknown but perhaps as late as 240.

One westerner deeply influenced by Tertullian was Jerome; in fact, much of what is known about Tertullian’s life comes from Jerome himself. 4 As has already become clear, Jerome (c. 345–420) seems to have been an isolated and troubled individual, tormented by his sexuality, vulnerable to any hint of personal betrayal (and vituperative in response) and obsessive about the necessity for asceticism. So he is hardly an attractive figure; yet his mastery of Latin (his native language, in which he wrote with great elegance), Greek and Hebrew and his meticulous knowledge of the scriptures gave him the reputation as the leading scholar of his day. His monument remains the Latin translation of the Old and New Testaments, the Vulgate, which reigned as the official Latin translation of the Bible for the Roman Catholic Church until the 1960s. (Although the whole of the Vulgate is traditionally attributed to Jerome, it is probable that of the New Testament only the Gospels are his.)

Jerome was born, probably about 345, on the border of Dalmatia but was educated in Rome and baptized as a Christian there. Then he set out to the east, first staying in Antioch, where he was ordained a priest, and next retreating to the Syrian desert, where he was to spend several years. Here he was tortured by his sexual desire, but he also later recorded a terrible dream in which he was flogged for preferring Cicero to the scriptures. He was warned that if he ever read non-Christian writers again he would suffer worse torments. He seems to have resolved his guilt and continued his reading (or at least he continued to fill his writings with classical allusions). Naturally, while in the east he perfected his Greek, but, more unusually, he learned Hebrew (apparently, so he said, to be able to fight the Jews on their own ground). No Christian other than Origen had studied it in such depth, and Jerome’s knowledge served to distinguish him from his fellow theologians.

When he returned to Rome in the 380s, Jerome’s breadth of learning recommended him to Damasus, bishop of Rome, as a personal secretary, and it was Damasus who first suggested that he provide a proper translation into Latin of the Bible. The “Old Latin” versions, as they were known, dated from the second century; they were poorly translated and varied from one copy to the next. They urgently needed revision and correction. The task gave Jerome the purpose in life that he seems to have craved, and these next three years in Rome were the most emotionally settled of his life. He reached out to a group of ascetic women, who adopted him as a sort of father confessor. Emboldened by their respect, Jerome produced some of his most weighty letters, notable among them the somewhat oppressive but highly revealing Letter XXII to the young Eustochium on virginity. Yet Jerome could never be fully at peace with his fellow men. His aggressive asceticism and apparently baleful influence on so many leading women of the city created resentment among their class, and he compounded this by accusing his fellow priests of laxness and hypocrisy. His relationship with a wealthy ascetic, Paula, mother of Eustochium, aroused particular scorn, and so on Damasus’ death he was in effect driven from the city, the scandal intensifying when Paula left with him. Jerome was never to forgive the Roman clergy, that “senate of Pharisees,” for the rejection. For Jerome, Rome itself was indeed “the whore of Babylon” of the Book of Revelation.

Jerome and Paula eventually settled in Bethlehem, where Paula’s wealth was used to found two monasteries to support them and their followers. The new Latin version of the Gospels had now been completed and for the next twenty years Jerome worked on his translation of the Hebrew scriptures. At first this work aroused deep suspicion. The Greek Septuagint version had achieved a canonical status, and there was much unease over a rival version that might threaten its dominance. Augustine prophesied that there would be a break between east and west if the west abandoned the Septuagint, which Greek-speaking Christians believed to have been divinely inspired, for the Jewish original. It was only in the ninth century, in the great Bibles produced by Charlemagne, that Jerome’s version was fully accepted (and by that time the breach was in any case complete).

Translation seems to have been Jerome’s forte; he was notably less at ease with original and creative work. Many of his commentaries on the Old Testament are drawn almost entirely from earlier commentators (despite his abuse of Ambrose for doing the same). He was thoroughly caught out as late as 1941 when the discovery in the Egyptian desert of a voluminous five-book commentary on the prophet Zachariah by Didymus the Blind showed how heavily Jerome had relied on Didymus in his own commentary on the prophet. It has to be remembered that before the invention of printing there were very few copies of most works available and the opportunities for successful plagiarism were widespread. Also, to be fair to Jerome, there are many occasions in these commentaries when he does record his sources. Perhaps Jerome’s greatest inspiration came from Origen, whose works were available in manuscript in nearby Caesarea, where Origen had spent his last years. Origen had been the first Christian to compare systematically Hebrew versions of the scriptures with the Septuagint and was a model for Jerome on those grounds alone, but he had also written major commentaries on many of the books of the Old and New Testaments, adaptations of which appear in Jerome’s own work. It has been shown, for instance, that in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians, which can be compared to parts of Origen’s own commentary, Jerome passed off Origen’s ideas as his own, even to the extent of unwittingly repeating under his own name some of Origen’s errors!

Yet it was also the legacy of Origen which exposed Jerome at his weakest. The sheer creativity and originality of Origen had left him vulnerable to critics, and by the end of the fourth century these were gathering. Epiphanius, the ardently orthodox bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, included Origen as one of a long list of heretics he had compiled, on the grounds that Origen had been an inspiration for Arius. An intransigent and forceful man, Epiphanius then began to approach scholars such as Jerome to win them over to his rigid brand of orthodoxy. He sent a group of monks to Bethlehem, and, for reasons that have never fully been understood, they were able to persuade Jerome to abandon his mentor. Perhaps the reason lies in Jerome’s fundamental lack of selfconfidence, which made him particularly vulnerable to pressures of this kind. Others, however, were not to be so easily bullied, among them the bishop of nearby Jerusalem, John, and Rufinus, a friend of Jerome’s from his school days who had settled in a monastery on the slopes of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and had been responsible for the Latin translation of works of several of the great Greek theologians, among them the Cappadocian Fathers. Rufinus now set about a translation of Origen’s major work, On the First Principles (De Principiis in Rufinus’ Latin version, which is the only one to survive). He was aware that in Rome, where the Latin version would be read, Origen was already being treated with suspicion, so he prefaced his translation with the comment that he believed that Origen had been unfairly represented by his critics. He also proclaimed that he was only following in the footsteps of a far greater scholar then himself, Jerome, the well-known enthusiast for Origen! Jerome was outraged, as he had some right to be (Rufinus knew of his change of heart), but his response, dispatched to Rome in a letter intended to be made public, was vituperative. Rufinus was branded as a heretic who had covered himself with infamy through translating such a heretical work as De Principiis. Jerome went on to create distorted versions of the translation so as to associate Rufinus with extreme views he had never expressed. Although Jerome later wrote a more moderate personal letter to Rufinus, it never reached him, and the damage was done—an old friendship had been rudely shattered. Rufinus retaliated by quoting passages of Jerome’s where he had borrowed from Origen without any acknowledgement. While things moved Jerome’s way when, as we have seen, in 400, Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, also branded Origen a heretic, Jerome’s inability to control his vindictiveness and his unashamed readiness to distort the writings of an opponent has lingered across the centuries.

Among Jerome’s many correspondents was a younger and brilliant theologian from north Africa, Augustine. Augustine’s first letter, in 394 or 395, actually asked Jerome to make more Latin translations of Greek theologians for those in north Africa, such as himself, whose Greek was weak (“especially,” one reads with some unease “that Origen you mention in your writings with particular pleasure”).5 However, the main purpose of the letter was to comment on Jerome’s suggestion that the famous/notorious row between Peter and Paul recounted in Galatians was a deliberate simulation, with both Apostles acting a part in collusion with each other. Augustine argued that Galatians was describing the event as it actually took place and that once one began to suggest things may have been otherwise, the authenticity of any other part of the scriptures might be challenged. A sermon of Augustine’s only recently discovered in Mainz shows that he believed that Peter’s humble acceptance of rebuke by Paul actually enhanced the former’s authority as a moral leader. This correspondence was interrupted for some years by postal problems, but the very hint of criticism was enough to launch Jerome into another of his vindictive letters. This time he had met his match: Augustine replied with a letter of conciliation and magnanimity.6 Although he tried to shift the blame for the controversy onto others (including Rufinus), Jerome appears to have been genuinely moved by the care Augustine had taken. At heart Jerome was a lonely man, and his last years, during which Paula and Eustochium, who had herself come out to Bethlehem, died, and even his monastery was sacked by a mob, were unhappy ones. Nevertheless, his last surviving letter to one Donatus (of whom nothing else is known, the name being a common one in north Africa) inveighs against the Pelagian heretics and expresses the hope that the new bishop of Rome, Boniface, will “cut them to pieces with Christ’s sword, for neither plasters nor soothing medicaments can enable them to recover sound health.”7 Combative to the last, Jerome died in 419 or 420.

So we come to Augustine. Through his sheer intellectual power, probing curiosity, originality, extraordinary range of concerns and enormous output of work (it has been said that anyone who claims to have read all of Augustine’s works must be lying), Augustine has come to be seen as the cornerstone of the western Christian tradition.8 There is no other Christian theologian (Origen possibly excepted) who shows such uninhibited philosophical curiosity. It is truly through Augustine that we pass from the classical world to the medieval, in that Augustine brought to fruition much of earlier Christian theology and gave it powerful expression, vigour and coherence. Thomas Aquinas cites Augustine in his works nearly ten times as often as he cites Jerome. When printing was invented, Augustine’s works were the earliest to be printed after the Bible; a complete edition of his massive City of God was published at Subiaco in Italy as early as 1467. Martin Luther was deeply influenced by Augustine, often using Augustine’s theology as a starting point for his own.9 He remains a deeply controversial figure, his reputation burdened with the responsibility of integrating sinfulness into human nature (at least in the western Christian tradition if not elsewhere): “the man who fused Christianity together with hatred of sex and pleasure into a systematic unity,” as the German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann has put it.10 The truth is necessarily more complex, and Augustine, while undeniably pessimistic by temperament and increasingly so with age, is certainly a more remarkable man than he is often portrayed by his critics. Nevertheless, his legacy, developed as it was by his successors, remains an awkward one. In particular, his gradual subjection of reason to faith and authority did much to undermine the classical tradition of rational thought.

Like Tertullian, Augustine came from northern Africa; he was born in the inland city of Thagaste in 354. It is impossible to discuss Augustine without assessing the impact on his character of his mother, Monnica, a Christian. His preoccupation with her still pervades the Confessions, which he wrote in his forties, ten years after her death. In comparison to Monnica, his father, Patricius, a civil servant, who was not baptized until the end of his life, is a shadowy figure hardly mentioned by Augustine. Monnica appears to have been stifling in her love for her son; any lapse on his part brought out agonies in her as crippling, her son commented, as the pains of labour. However, determined that he should succeed, she, supported by her husband and the help of a patron, insisted on the best education for him, and by the age of seventeen he was at university in Carthage, the ancient port on the north African coast, specializing in law. His curriculum, in the traditional Latin authors, may have been restricted (he never properly mastered Greek, for instance), but he received a firm grounding in rhetoric, and this was to be the skill which gave him hope of advancement in the imperial service. However, a reading at the age of eighteen of Cicero’s Hortensius, a now-lost “exhortation to philosophy,” convinced Augustine that a life of philosophy was the true one, especially when he compared the sophistication of Cicero’s prose with the clumsy and incoherent scriptures that he was also reading for the first time. This in itself was a form of conversion, a dedication to the path of knowledge rather than to an imperial career, and one senses that Augustine had also achieved a precarious form of psychological independence from his mother. He lived with a woman (whose name has not been recorded). Far from being debauched (a legend propagated by himself and indicative of his own deep sense of guilt about even minor peccadilloes), his life appears to have been stable. The relationship lasted some fifteen years, and he had a son, Adeodatus, who survived until his late teens. Apart from a brief visit home in 375, Augustine remained based in Carthage as a teacher of literature until 383.

Augustine desperately needed a spiritual home, and he was prepared to leave the mainstream to find it. For nine years he was attached to the Manicheans, an isolated and somewhat elitist sect whose beliefs centred on the teachings of Mani, an influential Persian prophet of the previous century. With Persia so often at war with Rome, emperors distrusted the Manicheans’ Persian origins and the sect was often persecuted, giving its members even more of a sense of exclusiveness. The Manicheans drew heavily on Christianity and accepted the authenticity of Jesus as an important spiritual leader, but their main teachings centred on the nature of evil. Evil, symbolized by darkness, and to be found in all matter, was involved in an endless struggle against Good, the forces of light that it often defeated and fragmented. However, uncontaminated light remained in the sun and the moon, and these acted as rallying points for the forces of light themselves, with God as the ultimate force of life. The human body, like all matter, was evil, and had been deliberately designed by the forces of evil as a mechanism for keeping the soul, a potential source of light, imprisoned. The soul had to be set free, and this was the role of Christ, but, in contrast to orthodox Christians, the Manicheans believed that he could never have entered a human body, as thereby he would have lost his power. The Manicheans, in fact, saw themselves as teachers of a pure “scientific” Christianity closer to the truth than that of the church. They derided the scriptures for their contradictions and the Old Testament prophets for the immorality of their lives. The more committed Manicheans were profoundly ascetic and attempted to remove themselves as far as they could from matter, even going so far to employ “hearers” who served them by handling their food and other needs. Augustine was a “hearer,” in other words outside the elite, and as such he was allowed to have sexual relationships, although having children (in other words, producing more evil matter) was frowned on.

Augustine appears to have valued the comradeship of the Manichean group and the apparent coherence of their teachings, but he gradually came to be disillusioned with them. Not all Manicheans lived up to the high standards they set themselves, and Augustine’s wider readings in philosophy showed him that far from being “scientific” they disregarded the findings of Greek science. He found the definition of all matter as evil too crude, especially in the implication that the forces of Good could be defeated by it. His instinct was to find “a Good” that was unassailable, and it was this search that was to lead him to Platonism.

Augustine had by this time left Africa. First in 383 he had gone to Rome, in the hope, he tells us, of finding a better living as a teacher with more disciplined students than the unruly ones he found in Carthage. His mother continued to dominate him—his father had died when he was about eighteen. She had already been deeply upset by his Manicheism but made matters worse by turning up on the quayside in Africa, apparently hoping either to drag him back home or go with him to Rome. When he gave her the slip and boarded the ship alone, she was distraught at his betrayal. The matter troubled Augustine deeply, and it is possible the illness which struck him while he was in Rome was some form of breakdown associated with the break with his mother. (In the Confessions Augustine dwells on the terrible blow it would have dealt to his mother if he had died of his illness, still mired in evil and assuredly on his way to hell.) Rome was not a success, but then he had the break he needed. The prefect of the city, Symmachus, the Symmachus of the diptych discussed earlier, had been asked to find an imperial orator for Milan, and having heard Augustine speak, recommended him to the emperor. The post was granted, and Augustine set off north. One of his first encounters in his new home was with none other than Symmachus’ adversary in the dispute over the Altar of Victory, Ambrose, bishop of the city.

Augustine came to Milan not as a Christian but as a man still searching for truth. It was the Platonists who first impressed him there. Platonism was popular among both Christians and non-Christians, although those Platonists whom Augustine met appear to have been Christians who had drawn their Platonism from Plotinus and Porphyry (even though the latter was strongly anti-Christian). It is not known exactly what authors Augustine read (although it appears that they did include Plotinus and Porphyry), but Platonism now gave him much of what he was looking for: the sense of an ultimate incorporeal reality, eternal, unassailable and all powerful, the source of creation, good and happiness, which a human soul, if committed to the task, was able to grasp. Evil, far from being the powerful and destructive force preached by the Manicheans, could be seen in Platonism as a departure from goodness. This was a foundation on which Augustine could build. Yet Platonism was not fully satisfying. The traditional Platonic view had been that, while it might take many years, the ultimate reality could be grasped by reason. Augustine wanted to avoid, perhaps needed to avoid, this long journey. His stay in Milan was marked by another emotional crisis, and he suffered asthmatic attacks so debilitating that he had to give up his post as orator. He yearned for a more immediate means of bridging the gap between the human soul and the incorporeal God. Into the void came Christianity.

Augustine was deeply impressed by Ambrose’s preaching and personality. Here was a man brought up in the classical world who was true to his background yet who had espoused Christianity. When Augustine, still under the influence of the Manicheans, expressed his concern with the “grossness” of the Old Testament, the urbane Ambrose said that he should see the “gross” passages as allegories, as Origen had done. As his doubts dissolved, Augustine now began to believe that Christ was the intermediary he searched for, and that through accepting the authority of the church, its tradition and the scriptures he could gain a direct relationship with God. While Platonism might represent the highest intellectual and spiritual point of the pagan world, Christianity went beyond it and provided an everlasting haven. As Augustine later put it in the City of God, Christianity “is the religion that embodies a universal path to the liberation of the soul, since the soul can be liberated no other way but this. For this is the royal road that alone leads to the kingdom, a kingdom not doomed to sway uneasily upon a pinnacle of time but solidly founded on eternity.”11 His actual conversion, as he described it in the Confessions, was sudden. While in emotional torment in a garden he heard the voice of a child in a nearby house saying over and over, “Take it and read, take it and read.” He took up Paul’s Epistles and came across a verse from Romans (13:13–14), “Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites.” This was for him the final piece of the puzzle. He had found a spiritual home and was now ready to embrace celibacy.12

A major psychological benefit of conversion was that Augustine could now make his peace with his mother. She had appeared in Milan, arranged a suitable marriage for him (now that he appeared to be well established in the imperial administration) and was probably responsible for sending his lover of so many years back to Carthage. (Augustine was distraught and sought comfort in another relationship.) In his new state he felt that marriage was impossible, although reconciliation with Monnica was not. One of the most moving parts of the Confessions describes Augustine and Monnica together leaning from a window in Ostia, the port of Rome, shortly before Monnica’s death.

And while we spoke of the eternal Wisdom, longing for it and straining for it with all the strength of our hearts, for one fleeting instant we reached out and touched it. Then with a sigh, leaving our spiritual harvest bound to it, we returned to the sound of our own speech, in which each word has a beginning and an ending—far, far different from your Word, our Lord, who abides in himself for ever, yet never grows old and gives life to all things.13

It is a significant passage, partly for its spiritual beauty, but also because it shows that an intellectual can share with a devout and less-educated believer a recognition of the divine.

Augustine returned to north Africa in 388, at a time when orthodox Christianity was on the defensive there. Christians were outnumbered by the Donatists and (as studies of inscriptions show) still surrounded by pagans. A man of Augustine’s learning and personal qualities was desperately needed by the orthodox Christian communities, not least to act as a mediator with the civil authorities. So he was persuaded to become a priest (391) and then a bishop, of Hippo on the coast (395–96). Here Augustine was to remain until his death in 430. His hopes that he would live a life of intellectual discussion in semi-monastic seclusion with a chosen group of friends were disappointed, while his busy life as pastor was made more onerous by the mass of legal work that now came any conscientious bishop’s way. The challenges were many, from the Donatists, the Manicheans and his own flock, most of whom were illiterate. Yet for the thirty-five years during which he was bishop, Augustine appears to have been an excellent pastor, and he was particularly concerned with bridging the gap between himself, as a highly educated man, and the mass of his congregation. In this he seems to have been exceptional for his time, above all in the way he thought deeply on how to present the complexities of theology to uneducated minds. In such a busy and committed life, the scale and breadth of his writings were remarkable, but as the years went by they were marked increasingly by Augustine’s cultural isolation. He was gregarious by nature and perhaps he needed the intellectual vitality of a Rome or a Milan. Hippo was a backwater in comparison, and the African tradition of theology bleakly authoritarian. The combination of increasing age (Augustine was over forty when he became bishop) and remoteness from any centre of debate narrowed his perspectives as the years passed. His debates were no longer set among friendly equals with whom there was a genuine attempt to explore issues but became polarized confrontations conducted on an imperial stage. They did not always show his subtle mind at its best. The use of reason in his writings diminishes as his reliance on faith increases, and the results were not happy. As far as his intellectual development goes, moving back to Africa seems to have been a mistake.

None the less, it was in these early years as bishop that Augustine wrote his most famous and accessible work, the Confessions, which reviews his early life and his path to conversion. The word “confessions” carried connotations of testimony or witness as much as “confession” as such, although the work is certainly infused with Augustine’s revelation of his past “sins.” It is not a coherent work. While the first nine chapters deal with Augustine’s past life and chapter ten with his present one, the last three chapters are unrelated reflections on the Book of Genesis. One can, however, bind the three parts together as the story of a soul coming to accept God and the implications of reaching the end of the search. Even so, many scholars feel that when the suddenness of his conversion is put alongside his writings from the mid-380s, he represented the process as much more coherent and final than perhaps it was. It has been suggested, for instance, that, for his readers, he deliberately modelled his own dramatically sudden conversion on Paul’s own.14

What is remarkable about the Confessions is that for the first time in western literature the world of the interior mind—with, in this case, all its guilt and uncertainty—is explored in detail in what is essentially a dialogue with God. Augustine knows he is breaking new ground. “Men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers, the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their courses. But they pay no attention to themselves.” He will pay attention to himself, and in the breach of convention required in doing so one senses just how deeply inward his creative mind had been driven by his upbringing. One cannot read the Confessions without being aware of Augustine’s preoccupation with his own sinfulness. He is deeply overcome, for instance, by what seems a fairly harmless prank of shaking down the ripe pears from a tree and stealing them. His sexual feelings and experiences, even if in reality they were relatively limited, disturb him continuously. Augustine talks in the Confessions, as throughout his writings, of the supreme importance of the love of God, but the dominant picture he gives in the Confessions is of a God who is angry and punitive.

I broke all your lawful bounds and did not escape your lash. For what man can escape it? You were always present, angry and merciful at once, strewing the pangs of bitterness over all my lawless pleasures to look for others unallied by pain. You meant me to find them nowhere but in yourself, O Lord, for you teach us by inflicting pain, you smite so that you may heal and you kill us so that we may not die away from you.15

Far from being a Platonic God—above earthly things and free of emotion—this is a God who actively punishes as a form of showing love (as, Augustine was often to remark, a schoolmaster would). It is a confused and unsettling picture and becomes even more disturbing as Augustine elaborates his doctrine of original sin. God’s punishment even extends to life on earth, so that the slave is a slave because God wishes him punished. The contrast with Origen’s loving God who welcomes all souls, even that of Satan, back to him is obvious.

Yet Augustine had found his home, and from within its confines he set about sweeping floors clean, exploring the nooks and crannies, transforming the decor, even if with the most sombre of hangings, while preserving and strengthening the foundations. However, the house had walls outside of which he did not venture. It was also under continual attack. Much of Augustine’s work is developed in responses to challenges from the Manicheans, the Donatists and later the Pelagians. Against all these he worked within the orthodox tradition. One sees this in his major study on the Trinity, De Trinitate, which he worked on over many years (it was completed only in 427). It is largely a defence of the Trinitarian creed developed at Nicaea, though with the western bias towards emphasizing the common divinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, somewhat at the expense of their individual “personalities.” (There is no evidence that Augustine knew of the creed’s endorsement at Constantinople in 381.) Augustine reviews the Arian and Homoean positions and interprets the scriptures so as to discredit them. Any saying of Jesus that seems to suggest he is subordinate to the Father is attributed to his human nature and, Augustine argues, does not detract from his divinity. There is nothing here that contradicts the new orthodoxy, but where there are loose ends Augustine ties them up. He sorts out some of the philosophical confusions caused by the use of Latin terminology, preferring to use essentia instead of substantia, which had caused difficulty when translated into Greek, for the “substance” of which God was made. He worried, too, that describing the Holy Spirit as “processing” from the Father but making no mention of a procession from the Son might give the impression that the Son was lesser than the Father. So he added “procession” from the Son (the so-called “double procession”). While this became dogma in the west, the east regarded it as no more than a private idea of Augustine’s, and it has never been accepted there. It was later to become one of the doctrines on which the schism between east and west was consolidated. Also within De Trinitate is an imaginative and original development of human psychology. Augustine suggests that when creating the soul, God endowed it with self-awareness, understanding and will. Will is an essential element of Augustine’s thought—intelligent life is always lived with energy and purpose and the will is the embodiment of this. It has been suggested that “the notion of will, as used in many philosophical doctrines from the early Scholastics through to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, was invented by St. Augustine.”16 These qualities are linked to each other within the soul but also have their distinctive roles, and so provide a mirror, as it were, of the Trinity. If God chooses to give an individual his grace, the human soul, because of its “trinitarian” make-up, will be better able to respond: through knowing God, Augustine suggests, one knows oneself. For Augustine, therefore, the soul is naturally Christian, with the implication that a rejection of Christianity is a rejection of one’s human nature. De Trinitate is typical of Augustine’s work in so far as it is rooted in orthodoxy, but uses that orthodoxy as a springboard for further highly original speculation. This work was so much more sophisticated than that produced by any other western theologian on the Trinity (Augustine went far beyond his mentor Ambrose in originality, perceptiveness and depth) that Augustine’s dominance in western Christianity was assured.

The springs of Augustine’s theology soon came to lie in faith rather than reason. In his earliest writings from the 380s Augustine appears to have accepted the importance of reason in finding truth. In his On Order, written about 386, for instance, he outlines a rational ascent towards the incorporeal through the academic disciplines in much the same way as plotted by Plato. However, there are now signs of an intellectual struggle in which Augustine explores whether one can ever know anything fully. He concludes that some things have to be taken on trust and this involves the acceptance of the authority of others. This acceptance of authority in itself requires humility, and here the humility of Christ in becoming human provides the model for one’s own humility. Augustine follows Paul’s example in deriding “the philosophers” as arrogant in the belief that they can find truth for themselves. “For Augustine the root of sin lies in pride, and this includes pride in one’s own intelligence.”17

From here Augustine moves to the authority of the church and thence to the authority of the scriptures. “I would not have believed the Gospels, except on the authority of the Catholic Church.” The problem remains that while it is true that in many situations one has to rely on the authority of others, there is no reason why that authority should be accepted blindly or uncritically; perhaps Augustine’s own psychological need for certainty was the most important factor here. One of the benefits of making the leap to faith, Augustine argues, is that in doing so one breaks through a barrier and reaches a higher level of understanding. “Unless you believe you will not understand,” as the prophet Isaiah had put it. By 396 Augustine had progressed to saying belief in God, faith, is a gift of God. Reason now plays only a supporting role as the means through which one learns that authority must be accepted. “The main use of reason by the mature Augustine,” writes Adrian Hastings, “is unquestionably to understand what is already believed.”18 Augustine’s later stress on the debilitating effects of the Fall provided him with further support for his beliefs—man, now corrupted, is incapable of using reason to grasp the incorporeal and can only rely on God to reveal himself.

Parallel to these developments is Augustine’s growing acceptance of miracles. In the 380s Augustine was sceptical and distanced himself from those who were “daunted by the hollow claims of the miraculous.” Later, in about 390, in True Religion, he argues that “miracles would not have been allowed to stretch into our time, or the soul would always be looking for sensations, and the human race would go jaded with their continual occurrence.”19 By the end of his life, however, Augustine is reporting miracles as everyday occurrences and using them to encourage faith. He regaled his congregations with a long list of cures that had been effected at the shrine to St. Stephen in Hippo, including those of a number of people who had been raised from the dead. A local landowner had brought back some earth and baptismal water from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. These brought about so many cures that Augustine advised him to place them in a special shrine so that they could be available to the public at large. 20 In Augustine’s own development, we can see in microcosm a crucial shift away from the Greek tradition of rational thought.

From the 390s Augustine studied the scriptures intensively, writing commentaries on them, among which those on the Psalms and the Gospel of John are the best known. The basis for interpretation of scripture, he argued, was the love of God and love of one’s neighbour (drawing on Matthew 22:37–40), and ultimately the scriptures had to be used to play a full role in the daily life of the church, in service, in fact, of its pastoral activity. This approach enabled Augustine to relate the scriptures to the real world around him. As a biblical scholar, however, Augustine was severely handicapped. He could not read Hebrew and had relatively little Greek (and in any case there is no evidence that he ever saw any original Greek version of the Gospels). The Latin versions of the scriptures he used were often so badly translated as to be near to incomprehensible. (When he came across passages he could not understand, far from blaming the translation, Augustine argued that God had deliberately made them difficult so as to humble those who thought interpretation would be easy.) Yet he was not to be deterred. He followed conventional thinking in being convinced that all scripture had an inner coherence and that passages could not contradict each other. Similarly, as the truth according to the doctrines of the Catholic Church is already known, exegesis is mainly a matter of interpreting texts, allegorically and thus imaginatively if necessary, to fit orthodoxy (as in the opening of John’s Gospel described earlier) or the life of the contemporary church. So a verse of the Song of Songs in which the bridegroom addresses his bride with the compliment “Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are shorn” (4:2) is interpreted by Augustine to refer not only to the saints (“the teeth of the church, tearing men away from their errors and bringing them into the church’s body, with all their hardness softened down, just as if they had been torn down and masticated by the teeth”) but also to the newly baptized, who are like shorn sheep in that they have laid down their fleeces, a metaphor for the burdens of the world.21 With imagination allowed such a free rein, difficulties in finding scriptural sources for church doctrine are easily dissolved.

Augustine believed that every other form of learning had to be subordinated to the scriptures, so in De Doctrina Christiana, his major work on the exegesis of scripture, worked on throughout his later life, secular knowledge, whether provided by mathematicians, scientists or philosophers, is said to be valid only in so far as it leads to an understanding of scripture. However, in this respect Augustine was more broad-minded than those scholars who would have nothing to do with secular learning at all; witness John Chrysostom’s exhortations to Christians to empty their minds of secular knowledge. The result was that Augustine thought less critically about the scriptures, believing that they could be interpreted only in such a way as supported orthodoxy. Augustine’s uncritical reliance on the inadequate Latin translations of the original Greek and Hebrew versions made things worse. For instance, he interpreted the Latin of verse 12 of chapter 5 of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans to mean that all individuals sinned through Adam, hence to support the doctrine of an original sin, whereas if he had gone back to the original Greek he would have found that sin, which entered the world as a result of Adam’s transgression, was a “cosmic” force burdening all humanity in general rather than being born uniquely in each individual. No wonder the concept of original sin never travelled to the Greek world.

In so far as he came to take refuge in scriptures, Augustine was particularly influenced by Paul, and, as noted above, it was from a misreading of Paul that Augustine developed his doctrine of original sin.22 He was tackling a major theological and philosophical problem, perhaps the most profound and challenging of all, the cause of evil. There are various ways of approaching the problem of evil. Clearly human beings can act, knowingly or unknowingly, so as to produce evil consequences for those around them. In the Platonic tradition evil was the result of the withdrawal of the soul from God/the Good and its increasing subjection to the material body with its emotions, passions and desires. The focus here was on the individual soul, which in the interpretation offered by Origen could move “upwards” or “downwards” of its own free will, closer to God, or away from him, away from the demands of the body, or more deeply into its snares—even to the point of becoming a demon. However, all was not lost if one could posit that God was benevolent and ready to reach out to the soul, which might have its own innate desire to reach back. Here was the basis of a coherent theology incorporating free will, giving God a role that was providential and offering the hope and possibility of reward for all. It also accepted the reality of human evil, making it the responsibility of its perpetrators. There remained unresolved issues. In so far as there were those souls that refused or failed to begin the return to God and sank themselves into the lower reaches of the material world and thus into commission of evil, there was the implication either that God lacked the power to prevent them from doing so or that he was willing to allow the continuation of evil in the world. One response has been to argue that free will is God’s gift and that he considers that it is better to be used even for evil purposes than to be constrained; in other words, he condones evil.23

In Augustine’s writings in the 380s there are indications that he accepts the existence of free will. In the opening of On Free Will, begun in 388, he argues that “what each one chooses to pursue and embrace is within the power of his will to determine.” Man must take responsibility for the evil he commits. This was in line with established thinking on the issue. Earlier Christian commentators had stressed how Jesus’ exhortations to his followers (in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) seem to take for granted that they could act freely in making the choice to care or not to care for those around them. The essence of Jesus’ message appears to be that human beings have choice, and he, in his teachings, is pointing out the way in which that choice should be exercised.24 As he continued to write On Free Will over the next eight or nine years, however, Augustine’s position changed. The later parts of the book accept only one true instance of the exercise of free will: Adam’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit. (There remains a significant issue. If Adam was the perfect man, created as such by God, why did he give in to temptation so easily?) As a result of the Fall, Adam becomes imbued with sin, “original sin,” as it came to be known, which he then passed down to the human race. The power of this sin is so debilitating that it even limits the extent to which human beings can enjoy free will. Mankind is now, Augustine writes in his Letter to Simplicianus (397), no more than “a lump,” infused with the guilt of Adam. As a result of this corruption all are deprived of the power to save themselves. Here Augustine follows in the tradition of human sinfulness stressed by Athanasius, although it is possible that he may still have been influenced by Manicheism, with its own stress on the power of evil. The effect of being burdened by sin is profound; it not only makes our lives on earth ones of certain wrongdoing that our own efforts can do little to avoid, it makes damnation (which Augustine, drawing on Jesus’ words in Matthew, believes to be eternal) very likely.

While Augustine retained the idea that human beings had a sense of the truth of God and yearned for it—in De Trinitate he argued that God had provided the soul with the means of recognizing him when grace was offered—the truth could not be gained except through God’s grace. Grace was possible through the sacraments, but even baptism did not necessarily relieve (fallen) man of sin, nor could good works. Augustine rejected the idea that those who are in the church are more likely to be saved than those who are not. “Many who seemed to be without are within, many who seem to be within are without.” Good and bad, saved and unsaved, are mingled together on earth, until the last judgment divides them. God alone knows who will be saved; as one of Augustine’s critics remarked, “God does not desire all men to be saved, but only the fixed number of the predestined.” Sin is passed on through sexual intercourse; so once again sexual desire is woven into evil, this time through its very transmission.25

This is the doctrine of a deeply pessimistic, isolated and guilt-ridden mind, although there were precedents for Augustine in the north African theological tradition. Augustine had moved far from an optimistic assessment of human nature. “The consoling, confidence-inspiring certainties of a rationally ordered universe, controlled and subject to man’s free will, which Augustine had enjoyed in his earlier works, were now taken from under his feet,” as Carol Harrison puts it. By the late 390s Augustine’s rejection of reason and the wider philosophical tradition of the classical world had led him to a philosophical dead end. The scriptural backing for original sin was flimsy; only five texts from the whole of scripture can be claimed to support it, and it has been argued that three of those, including the crucial verse from Romans, rest on mistranslations into Latin from the original Greek. To accept original sin is to accept that one generation can be held responsible for the guilt of another, an assumption alien to most ethical systems. As guilt is independent of any action, good or bad, by the individual, even a baby can be damned to eternal fire. Augustine’s God, for all his apparent “love,” is credited with little in the way of compassion. Later Augustine even argued that we should be grateful that God is prepared to save even a minority, so terrible was the sinfulness of mankind as a result of the Fall.26 Augustine expects human beings to fail.

Augustine’s theology was, of course, challenged. His first major opponent was Pelagius. Pelagius, who originally came from Britain, is first recorded as living in Rome in the 390s and subsequently in Jerusalem. He knew Jovinian and Rufinus and was sympathetic to their views, hence giving Jerome the opportunity to condemn him—in his usual robust way—as “that fathead bloated with Scotch porridge.” Pelagius stressed the possibility that human beings might conduct their own salvation through the power of reason and the exercise of free will. “By our reason, we are superior to those who live by their senses.” The Fall had had no effect on the natural abilities of human beings. “It is on this choice between two ways, on this freedom to choose either alternative, that the glory [sic] of the rational mind is based.”27 Given free will, the individual was not dependent for salvation on the grace of God, although Pelagius argued that those who had set out to find God would be helped to do so. He provided the analogy of a man who sets out of his own accord to row across a lake but who is helped by God, symbolised as a following wind. For Pelagius the sacrament of baptism was crucial in that it ensured forgiveness of prior sins and released the power of reason, enabling the individual to turn to God. Essentially he offered optimism as a contrast to the pessimism of his adversary. The path Pelagius offered was not, however, an easy one. Despite his connections with Jovinian, Pelagius was profoundly ascetic, critical of corruption and social injustice, and he expected his followers to be as well. According to him, we have free will to be perfect and therefore perfection is obligatory. The weakness of Pelagianism was that it was designed for an ascetic elite who, in the tradition of Christian asceticism, declared themselves in opposition to contemporary society. It was always an unsettling movement, and it has been noted that Pelagianism attracted more supporters in areas where invasion and social breakdown had been prevalent than it did in the more settled areas of the empire.

In 415 the debate over free will and original sin burst into open conflict. It seems that Pelagius cited Augustine to defend his own position, thus demanding a response from Augustine and his supporters. It was soon apparent that the church was divided. One synod, at Jerusalem, condemned Pelagius; another endorsed his views. Two councils in north Africa (where both the tradition of original sin and Augustine’s own influence were strongest) condemned the Pelagians in 416. They were supported by the bishop of Rome, Innocent, after Augustine wrote to him suggesting that too great a stress on the free will of an individual threatened to undermine the authority of the bishops. However, Innocent’s successor, Zosimus, a Greek with no loyalties to Augustine or the African tradition, proved sympathetic to Pelagius, who had come to Rome to plead his case personally. The emperor Honorius, apparently disturbed by news of rioting in Rome that was blamed on Pelagius’ supporters, but that the Pelagians themselves attributed to the supporters of Augustine, condemned the Pelagians in an imperial edict of April 418 and ordered them to leave Rome. Honorius’ motives are unclear, but it appears that he took exception to Pelagius’ forceful condemnation of corruption. It was also said that a colleague of Augustine’s, the bishop of his home town, Thagaste, employed bribery at the court in his cause. The imperial condemnation was then endorsed by a synod of north African bishops held in Carthage. At this juncture Zosimus changed sides and himself condemned Pelagianism; there was further disarray when eighteen of the Italian bishops refused to support him. Few issues of doctrine have been settled less satisfactorily. Pelagius, forbidding though his strictures were, was entirely sincere in his commitment to Christianity. He was certainly no heretic. Once again it was the emperor, whose primary concern was good order, who settled the issue.

One of the eighteen dissenting Italian bishops, Julian of Eclanum, who was forced into exile by the debate, set out the clearest and most powerful objection to Augustine’s position in a letter addressed to Augustine himself.

Babies, you say, carry the burden of another’s sin, not any of their own . . . Explain to me, then, who this person is who sends the innocent to punishment. You answer, God . . . God, you say, the very one who commends his love to us, who has loved us and not spared his son but handed him over to us, he judges us in this way; he persecutes new born children; he hands over babies to eternal flames because of their bad wills, when he knows that they have not so much formed a will, good or bad . . . It would show a just and reasonable sense of propriety to treat you as beneath argument: you have come so far from religious feeling, from civilized standards, so far indeed from common sense, that you think your Lord capable of committing kinds of crime which are hardly found among barbarian tribes. 28

Augustine’s confusing concept of God, a loving but punitive deity, was exposed with great clarity. Augustine nevertheless stood firm and was preaching to worried and perplexed enquirers on the issue until his death.

Running alongside Augustine’s battles with the Pelagians were disagreements with the Donatists, the largest Christian community in north Africa; Augustine’s orthodox Christian church was much smaller. The battles arose, of course, because the state had decreed that there could only be one orthodox church, which would have undisputed access to state patronage. It was a particularly difficult issue in that, quite apart from their size, the Donatists had a compelling case for representing the Christian church in north Africa. Their bishops were the leaders of those communities who had refused to bow to persecution and surrender their scriptures. Their pedigree was unchallengeable. Their bishops and clergy held their offices in direct descent from the original Apostles, and they argued that they drew on a purer tradition than the orthodox church in that they had never compromised with the Roman state, the state that had, after all, been responsible for the execution of Jesus. They had adopted orthodox doctrine and so could not be classed as heretics (who by now were beyond the law), and they preached austerity in the tradition of Tertullian. They would welcome back those whose faith had lapsed under persecution so long as a rebaptism took place (any orthodox Christian converting to Donatism needed to be baptized because the original baptism was not valid). Here again they represented tradition, in that rebaptism had been required by Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage martyred in the third century, whose own prestige and authority was immense. While Cyprian had stressed the need for unity in the church, the Donatists argued that unity had been undermined by those Christians who surrendered the sacred scriptures to the authorities. Crucial to the Donatists was their sense of being a national African church, representing African traditions against those of the more cosmopolitan orthodox church, with its ties to the imperial government. Although many Donatist bishops were sophisticated men, presiding over wealthy city sees, Donatism reached far into the rural areas in a way orthodox Christianity did not. Yet Donatism should not be idealized. The Donatists were also prone to internal dissensions and schism, and outside the cities Donatists, perhaps as much imbued with anti-imperialist as with anti-orthodox feeling, often used violence against orthodox Christians, even though their bishops tried to discourage them. Constantine had isolated the Donatists by refusing them state patronage. Now, ninety years on, it was increasingly difficult for a state that had taken the radical and unprecedented step of insisting on religious uniformity to allow them to persist, yet one could hardly deny that they were committed Christians. Any attempt to persecute them would only confirm their belief in themselves as the true church, that of the martyrs. It was a matter of some embarrassment to orthodox Christians that the Donatists could claim the backing of the influential Cyprian, whom the orthodox themselves wanted to use as champion of episcopal authority. Augustine found himself in the difficult position of having to distinguish the Donatists from the minority orthodox church in such a way as to allow the former to be condemned. And yet this could be done only by declaring them to be heretics, which they were clearly not. Augustine was reduced to inadequate statements such as “Anyone separated from the church would end by saying false things” and “A characteristic of heretical sects is to be incapable of seeing what is obvious to everyone else.”29

Once again the state had come to the rescue of the orthodox church. In 405 Honorius issued an edict ordering the unity of both churches, branding the Donatists as heretics, partly on the grounds of their insistence on rebaptism, thus making them subject to the rigour of the law. Their property was to be confiscated, their services forbidden and their clergy exiled. Augustine ejected the Donatists from Hippo and, taking over their bare churches—they did not believe in decoration and whitewashed their church walls—he posted his own anti-Donatist texts on the walls. When persecution was relaxed, Augustine petitioned the emperor to summon a conference, and this, presided over as it was by an orthodox Christian, Marcellinus, could only end in a further condemnation of the Donatists, who were represented by nearly 300 bishops. Donatism in itself became a criminal offence (only just over a hundred years previously, of course, the last edicts of Diocletian treated Christianity as a whole in a similar way), and Donatists were now actively compelled to join the orthodox church.30

In his earlier works Augustine was reluctant to condone the compelling of outsiders into the church. “Words should be our instruments, arguments our weapons, reason our means of conquest [sic] and we should avoid making enforced Catholics out of those whom we had known as open heretics.” There was no support from New Testament texts for persecution (in fact, the Donatists were to taunt Augustine with Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . .”), and Christianity itself had its own recent memories of how destructive persecution could be. The saintly and highly orthodox Gregory of Nazianzus had specifically condemned coercion: “Whatever is done against one’s will, under the threat of force, is like an arrow artificially tied back, or a river dammed in on every side of its channel. Given the opportunity it rejects the restraining force. What is done willingly, on the other hand, is steadfast for all time. It is made fast by the unbreakable bonds of love.” 31 However, the works of Athanasius and the edicts of 380 and 381 enforcing Trinitarian orthodoxy were loaded with condemnation of “heretics.” It was Augustine who developed a rationale of persecution.

Augustine’s earlier, more tolerant, views were to change in the early fifth century. He began with the argument that Donatism intimidated many ordinary Christians and it was the duty of the “true” church to release them from such coercion. Furthermore, his experience of ordinary former Donatists was that most became excellent Christians when forced to do so. Therefore, compulsion was permissible. Just as God could punish in the exercise of his love, so too could the church, knowing as it did so that it was saving sinners from everlasting hell fire. “What then does brotherly love do? Does it, because it fears the short-lived fires of the furnace for the few, abandon all to the eternal fires of hell? And does it leave so many . . . to perish everlastingly . . . whom ‘others’ [i.e. the Donatists] will not permit to live in accordance with the teaching of Christ?” 32 Not for the last time in Christian history, fantasies about hell fire were being used as a means of manipulating Christian behaviour on earth. As for coercion, God himself had shown the way. The conversion of Paul had been effected by God throwing him to the ground; Augustine finds comparable examples of forced conversions in the Old Testament. Yet Augustine’s views on the sinfulness of every individual left him with a problem. Since even orthodox Christians were still burdened with sin, how was it possible to be sure that persecution was not an exercise of sinfulness? Augustine fell back on assertions that the church was divinely inspired and that any action undertaken in “love” must have God’s support. While Augustine pleaded for restraint (he never condoned the death penalty, for instance, on the grounds that it deprived the sinner of the possibility of repentance), he had nevertheless provided a rationale for persecution, however circumscribed, which was to be exploited in the centuries to come. By the thirteenth century a papal legate reported on the extermination of the Cathars, a sect which preached a return to the ascetic ideals of early Christianity: “Nearly twenty thousand of the citizens were put to the sword regardless of age and sex. The workings of divine vengeance have been wondrous.” 33

The Donatist dispute challenged Augustine to develop another line of thinking. The Donatists, drawing on the teachings of Cyprian, argued that baptism at the hands of a priest or bishop who had apostatized could not be valid. Those who ministered the sacraments must be worthy men, in fact the church itself must be a community of saints. So long as the orthodox church, whose bishops had their succession from those who had lapsed, was, so far as the Donatists were concerned, in schism, their ministers could not be worthy. Augustine was forced to argue in reply that the quality of the minister was not essential to the sacrament. It was a direct expression of the grace of God and passed from God to the recipient without losing its purity (as water passed down a stone channel). So long as the sacrament was administered in the name of Christ and the correct form was used, it was valid (although as already seen, baptism did not necessarily free the recipient of original sin, so that Augustine raised the possibility of a “valid” sacrament that brought no benefit to its recipient!). The church could be made up of sinners without losing its unique role as the conduit of God’s grace. However badly its members, even those in the hierarchy, behave, the church can never lose its true role as guardian of orthodoxy. The role of the church was further elaborated in Augustine’s last and perhaps greatest work, The City of God, finally completed just four years before he died, in 426.

Augustine lived in a disintegrating world; the first sack of Rome by (Homoean Christian) Gothic invaders in 410 sent a shock wave through the empire. Refugees scattered even as far as Africa. Many Christians had claimed that the empire had been instituted by God so that Christianity could flourish; now, in the west at least, it was collapsing around them. Other Christians saw the fall of Rome as the beginning of the last times so vividly forecast in the Book of Revelation. Pagans claimed that it was precisely because their gods had been abandoned through the coming of Christianity that the city had fallen. Augustine’s position, by contrast, was detached, as if such disasters meant little in God’s great scheme of things; this was the attitude that he spelled out at length in The City of God. His elaboration of two cities, one of the world and one of God, drew on earlier ideas of his own as well as echoing the opening chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans (and later theologians who talked in terms of the “saved” versus the “unsaved”). But The City of God set these ideas into a specific historical context, spending many pages on the failure of the pagan gods to support Rome in its past history. 34 Augustine rejected Eusebius’ claim that Constantine had inaugurated a Christian state. The state, however Christian it may appear, can only be a community in which saints and sinners are mingled. The work of a providential God can be discerned in human history through studying the Bible and enters a new, final stage with the coming of Christ, but the true “City of God” can only be in heaven after death, when the unsaved have been segregated and sent to hell. We cannot identify those who will be saved in advance; while they are on earth they are like pilgrims, wandering in exile in the hope of finding their promised land in heaven. So “the city of the world” must be by definition flawed; in The City of God Augustine dwelled on the imperfections of human societies with their continual wars and corruption, so far from “the peace of the Heavenly City . . . a perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and a mutual fellowship in God.”35 Here Augustine consciously rejected the classical ideal, espoused by both Plato and Aristotle, that it was within the city that an individual reaches his higher state. As J. S. McClelland puts it, Augustine “signals the definitive end of the ancient idea that the state is the school of the virtues and the stage on which the virtues are to be seen at their best advantage.” 36 However, Augustine also discussed the nature of the ideal state on earth. It is worth working towards good order, he argued, because although absolute peace and justice cannot be reached on earth, a state that works towards them can relieve the burdens of earthly life. Nor can the church survive except in conditions of good order.

The Christian can, and should, participate in the state’s activities, as a soldier or administrator, and Augustine expected the Christian to uphold the authority of the state and play an active part in supporting its values. (“What is more horrible than the public executioner? Yet he has a necessary place in the legal system, and he is part of the order of a well governed society.”) War was to be avoided if possible, but Augustine accepted it as part of life: Christians should not shrink from it if their state was threatened or if it would secure peace and safety for human society. Once Christians were in the army, it was not wrong to kill in the obedience of orders, even if they were unjust. Hierarchy, where those below have the duty to obey those above them, is the natural way of things, whether in church, state or family. Even at its best, however, the state can only be an echo of the “City of God.” The greatest happiness on earth is as utter misery compared to the joys of heaven. Augustine had little faith in the possibility of progress. As we have seen, he accepted slavery, claiming that it was God’s punishment of the slave. In short, Augustine was a social conservative: he saw human beings as inevitably flawed, reforms as bringing illusory benefits and the maintenance of good order as a priority. The Christian could only act within the world as it existed, never change it for the better. The City of God proved to be the foundation document of Christian political thought, though it presents a view of society which seems radically different from that of the Gospels.

Even the briefest familiarity with Augustine’s writings convinces one that he is an intellectual giant in the range of issues he tackles, in the creative way in which he approaches each one and in his sensitivity to human psychology; he has, pace Freud, been credited with the discovery of the unconscious. He deals with issues independently and often creatively so long as established orthodoxy is not challenged. When one compares the obsessively vindictive attitude to the Jews of Ambrose or John Chrysostom, for instance, with the more thoughtful, even tolerant, attitude of Augustine, the latter’s greater intellectual and personal maturity is clear. Augustine recognized that Jews and Christians have a common father in Abraham and share in man’s fallen nature, and that the Jews (even if they proved blind to Christ’s presence among them) had been given a providential role by God as witness to the prophecies of his coming. They should not be totally cast out. The Catholic Church, anxious to reject charges of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century, has felt able to use Augustine’s writings in its cause.37 In Book 2 of De Doctrina Christiana, he considers the value of secular learning with some objectivity, even if only as an aid to understanding the scriptures more profoundly. Yet Augustine’s achievements are flawed by the underlying pessimism and guilt that permeate his theology. His personal tragedy was that he could never bring himself to trust that his “loving” God would save all those who committed themselves freely to him in the hope of receiving his love—becoming Christian, in other words, did not bring with it the assurance of salvation. Perhaps somewhere deep in his psyche there was irreparable damage that distorted his perspective so that, at least in the second half of his life, he could see human existence on earth only at its very bleakest, without even any certain hope of divine rescue. Whatever its sources, the theology that emerged was to Augustine the truth for all time; as his role in the Pelagian controversy showed, he expected his views to prevail in the church as a whole. “One of Augustine’s failings,” writes Christopher Stead, “was that he was apt to read off lessons from his own experiences and erect them into principles equally applicable to all mankind.” Unlike Paul, who, as we have seen, had no reason to expect his writings to last, Augustine expected his to become the orthodoxy.38 In the words of John Rist:

Part of the tragic side of Augustinianism is that his work was received uncritically for so long . . . He would be the authority; his views would be canonized as authoritative proof-texts rather than as starting points for more impartial investigations. A nearly inevitable side effect of such reverence . . . was the likelihood that Augustine himself would be misread, even tendentiously, so that he might be harmonised with someone else’s convictions. 39

Augustine’s intellectual stature has earned him an unassailable place in Christian theology. But while his writings had an understandable relevance to the troubled times within which he lived, and in other contexts in which mankind needs to be reminded of the evil of which it is capable, they give little room for hope or optimism. For Augustine the reality of life on earth cannot be transformed by human effort as it will always be mired in sin. Augustine’s rationale for persecution was to be used to justify slaughter (as of the Cathars or the native people of America). In the seventeenth century the French saint John Eudes could even argue that “it is a subject of humiliation of all the mothers of the children of Adam to know that while they are with child they carry within them an infant . . . who is the enemy of God, the object of his hatred and malediction and the shrine of the demon.”40

In 430 the Vandals, one of the Gothic tribes, swept across north Africa. Hippo itself was besieged, but Augustine died on August 28, before the city fell. Even though Hippo was partially burnt, Augustine’s library miraculously survived. Both orthodox and Donatist Christians were overwhelmed by that old heresy, Homoean Christianity, which the Goths had adopted with some fervour before it had been outlawed by Theodosius.

It was, however, in this context, with imperial authority crumbling in the west, that the role of the bishops of Rome gradually expanded. One by one the ancient senatorial families of Rome had converted to Christianity; in the city we can see the shift in patronage from the old and now decaying ceremonial centre to the great new basilicas which were being built around it.41 If there is one figure who symbolizes the growing power and influence of Rome, it is Leo, one of only two popes to be termed “the Great.” Leo, who became bishop of Rome in 440 and reigned until his death in 461, is an outstanding figure, not only by virtue of his forceful personality but also for his determination to enforce his authority as heir of Peter over the other bishops of the west. He interpreted the Roman law of succession to suggest that he had even assumed the legal personality of Peter by virtue of the unbroken line of bishops of Rome since Peter’s time, an interpretation reflected in his confident dealings with bishops in Africa, Italy, Spain and Gaul. His sermons, like the man himself, are direct and lacking in rhetorical flourish, and they are supplemented by a growing number of decrees, on church government, the authority of bishops and the ordination of clergy. Heretics were dealt with firmly, a council of bishops in northern Italy issuing a further condemnation of Pelagianism. Shrewdly, Leo also tied his authority to the state by acting through Valentinian III (emperor of the west 425–55) in civil affairs. He asserted his own authority in the secular sphere in 452, when he personally led a delegation from Rome to confront Attila the Hun, whose armies were ravaging northern Italy. When Attila withdrew, possibly because of a lack of resources, Leo successfully took the credit. Three years later he had another coup when he persuaded the Vandal leader Gaiseric, who entered Rome unopposed, to deal leniently with the city.

As we have seen, Leo was also the first bishop of Rome to play a decisive part in the making of Christian doctrine. His Tome, a formulation of the two natures of Christ in one person, was adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. While Leo saw this as an acceptance of his primacy over the whole church, the eastern bishops claimed that they had accepted it because it represented what had already been agreed at earlier councils. The disagreement was but one stage in the long and complicated process by which east and west were separating from each other.

Leo’s ascendancy, however, was as much a reflection of his determination and personality as it was of Rome’s rise to preeminence. A century later, by contrast, Vigilius, bishop of Rome 537–55, was unable to resist the forceful Justinian. While the Chalcedonian formula had been accepted in the west, as it still is, controversy over the nature of Christ continued in the east. In order to gain support from Monophysites, Justinian decided to condemn their opponents, the Nestorians, by declaring the Three Chapters, texts in which Nestorian views had been expressed by Theodore of Mopsuestia and others, to be heretical. Justinian needed to have the support of the bishop of Rome. Vigilius had apparently promised the empress Theodora that he would favour Monophysitism in return for help in gaining the bishopric. Called on to honour his promise, Vigilius became aware that there was intense opposition in the west to any imperial attempt to revise or reverse the decisions of Chalcedon. He hesitated and in 545 was kidnapped on the orders of Justinian and eventually taken to Constantinople. Here, worn down by the emperor’s demands, he was persuaded to condemn the Three Chapters—to the outrage of the clergy in the west. Feelings ran so high that he was excommunicated by the African bishops. Eight years later, Vigilius refused to attend the sessions of the council of 553 in Constantinople, where the Three Chapters were formally condemned, on the grounds that there was no proper representation from the west, but a year later he came out in support of the rulings of the council. Further embarrassment resulted from the publication of his secret correspondence with Justinian over the issues. Finally released from Constantinople, Vigilius died on his return to Italy but was so unpopular in Rome that he was refused burial in St. Peter’s. Justinian’s own army in Italy then imposed a new bishop, Pelagius, on the city, creating such resentment that at first no other bishop could be found willing to consecrate him.42

It was in these years, perhaps inevitably given the developments described above, that the relationship between east and west began to disintegrate. There had been virtually no western representation at the Council of Constantinople—in fact the bishops of the Balkans had met in a synod of their own to condemn it. As a result of the weakness of Rome, the bishops of Milan declared themselves out of communion with the city and remained so for twenty years: in Aquileia the bishop set up a separate patriarchy. All this at a time when the cultural unity of the empire was breaking down, classical learning was fading, the main diet of scholars was made up of Christian rather than secular texts, and east and west were forgetting each other’s languages. Greek was virtually unknown in the west after 700, just at the point when Latin was being eclipsed by Greek in the court at Constantinople.43

The new world that was emerging in the west was symbolised by Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome 590–604, “the harbinger,” as Judith Herrin puts it, “of a purely Latin and clerical culture of the medieval west.”44 Gregory was the son of a Roman senator and had served as prefect of the city before he sold his vast properties and diverted the proceeds to the relief of the poor and the founding of monasteries. He himself spent several years as a monk, the vocation to which he always felt most drawn. Later he was sent by the bishop of Rome as an emissary to Constantinople, but, unlike Vigilius, he successfully avoided becoming caught up in the intrigues of the imperial court, and when he returned to Rome, as abbot of his monastery, he was uncompromised by his experience in the east (he had even managed to avoid learning Greek). He became pope (the term was now in use with specific reference to the bishop of Rome) in 590, but his was a decaying city. The great aqueducts that had supplied the city with water for centuries had been cut, many of the old senatorial families had left and large parts of the city were now deserted. Northern Italy was held by the Lombards. So while Gregory is remembered for his careful and charitable management of the papal estates around Rome (their produce being passed on to the poor), his temporal power did not extend much further. In the event, the mission he sent to effect a conversion of the Angles in Britain was a triumph. Despite his lack of power, Gregory showed no inhibitions in standing up to the emperors in Constantinople and insisting on the ancient privileges of his position.

Gregory was not an original thinker; he relied heavily on his forerunners in the western theological tradition—Augustine (and hence Paul), Ambrose and, in monastic affairs, Cassian. He distrusted secular learning, and for him the deadliest of the seven deadly sins was pride, by which he meant intellectual independence. “The wise,” he said, “should be advised to cease from their knowledge,” to be “wise in ignorance, wisely untaught.” The philosophers, he went on, were so concerned with finding the immediate causes of things that they were blind to the ultimate “cause,” which was the will of God.45

Gregory celebrated miracles, even telling how the bishop of Placentia had been able to quell a flood in the river Po by dropping a letter of command into its waters. By this time, however, when traditional philosophy had been long suppressed and with it the stabilizing force of reason, Gregory was expressing the conventional wisdoms of his time. These views should not overshadow his major achievements as a moral teacher. His writings are free of the obsession with heresy that make those of many of his predecessors so dispiriting—he preferred instead to stress good example—and he thought deeply and with much sensitivity about how bishops and pastors could exercise their authority. The ideal priest, said Gregory, must be “intimately close to each person through compassion, and yet to hover above all through contemplation.” He was a champion of the rule of St. Benedict (c. 540), that balance of austerity and humanity that in itself drew on the works of Cassian and the rule of Basil of Caesarea, and he extolled those church leaders, such as Benedict, whom he felt provided a model for Christian living. He resisted extremes. When a fellow bishop threw out all the statues in his church on the grounds that they encouraged idolatry, Gregory reproached him with the shrewd advice that “to adore images is one thing; to teach with their help what should be adored is another.”46 (A story that he threw the surviving pagan statues in Rome into the Tiber appears to have been a later fabrication.) His method of converting the Angles was also sensitive when compared with the more robust methods of many of his fellow Christians. Despite being a devotee of Augustine, Gregory moved to moderate the more extreme consequences of Augustinian theology. He refused to believe that God was so harsh that a sinner who died by accident before he could complete a penance set for his sins would necessarily end up in hell, and it is in Gregory that one finds an early definition of purgatory, a halfway house where sins are purified before the sinner progresses to heaven. Those left on earth are given the role of interceding with God to speed the process, and, unlike Augustine, Gregory accepts that their good works and pious practices are of value to God. He stressed the importance of music in worship, and he is the Gregory of the Gregorian chant (although a direct link to plainsong has never been proved). He put aside the problem of evil as an unfathomable mystery, although he argued that suffering does act to test the faith of believers. Nor was he as obsessed with sexuality as many others. If clergy found it difficult to remain celibate, then they should be free to marry. It was just this kind of leadership, humane but unquestioned in its moral authority, which was needed to establish the papacy’s independence of the east, and Gregory is usually seen as the founder of the medieval papacy. His legacy endured and the office gained in stature. In 800 the emperor Charlemagne travelled to Rome to receive coronation at the hands of a successor of Gregory’s, Pope Leo III.

The provinces of north Africa had been reconquered by Justinian in the 530s and restored to orthodox Christianity, but in the seventh century they were overrun by the Arabs. For good or ill, Rome lost those provinces of the west that had provided the most effective challenge to her authority, with the result that, in the words of Robert Markus, “Rome’s world became radically simplified; and the Roman see emerged as the single, isolated, religious centre of the barbarian west.”47 The history of western Christianity was rewritten so successfully to reflect this fact that many western Christians are hardly aware of the predominently Greek nature of the early church. In fact, it is still possible to read of the eastern churches “breaking away” from Catholicism. Though the story is necessarily complicated, it seems rather to have been one of “the final detachment of the papacy from Byzantine political allegiance and the creation of a new western empire” in the eighth century.48

A story survives of one Fursey, an Irish ascetic of the seventh century, who dreamed that he had died and was facing the last judgment. He was assailed by a mass of demons, who pointed out that many of his deeds, apparently good in themselves, were tainted because they had not sprung from love alone. There would be no justice, the demons told him, if God was to accept him in paradise. They even doubted, they told him, that God was as fully aware of his shortcomings as they were! To remind him of his peril, as he passed through the flames of hell, the required route to reach heaven, the body of a burning sinner, to whom on earth he had given a light penance in return for a gift of clothing, brushed against him, leaving a scar on his face. Although with the help of protecting angels Fursey did make it to heaven, the scar remained on his cheek when he awoke from his dream, and every time he recounted his terrifying experience he was seen to break out into sweat. 49

Ever since Paul described the last judgment as “a day of anger,” anxiety had formed a significant part of the Christian experience; reading the writings of the western Church Fathers, it is easy to see why this was so sustained. They expressed intense anxiety over authority, over sex, over the punitive powers of their God. No one who follows Augustine can be sure of salvation. What has been particularly important has been the conceptualisation, following Plato, of the human psyche as at continual war with itself. We are caught as individuals in a cosmic drama, and one can never relax in case the demons take hold. (There is an interesting analogy here with Freud, who saw the unconscious ready to ambush our rational behaviour at any moment.) It deserves repeating that this is only one possible way of conceptualising the psyche; others, following Aristotle, would prefer to stress its potential for harmonious eudaimonia. However, in medieval Christianity preoccupation with internal battles and the inherent sinfulness of humankind took an ever more powerful hold. As so often, art reflects the process. As Neil MacGregor has put it in his thoughtful study of Christian art, Seeing Salvation, “as the number and scale of our wrong doings grow, so, necessarily do his [Christ’s] sufferings.”50 The rare depictions of crucifixion in the fifth century show no sign of Christ’s humiliation and suffering— perhaps Christians still found it difficult to accept the degradation of crucifixion. The words “who was crucified for us” were added to the litany for the first time in the 470s in Antioch. 51 By 1300 his suffering is shown in prurient detail. Christ’s agony on the cross makes sense only in the context of man’s sinfulness; if Christ brings salvation, then it follows that humanity is in need of it and the nature of man is defined accordingly. Thus the profound rupture with the classical world’s conceptions of “man.” And the rupture was firmly associated with the attack on rationalism, as can be seen in Augustine’s assertion that man’s power to think rationally had been corrupted forever by Adam’s sin.

Yet at the same time, what was now the Roman Catholic Church was assuming responsibility for the poor and unloved. The tradition of learning was narrow, particularly by comparison with the classical world, but in so far as education was preserved it was through the Church, as was a system of health care. These centuries were also a time when imperial authority had disappeared and the Church in the west began to fill the vacuum. The Church preserved Roman law and the bishops a structure of institutional authority. The different cultures of western Europe may have adopted different kinds of Christianity as they fused their local cultural and spiritual traditions with those of the church, but there was a sense of a common language, even if it was a restricted one, with which communities could communicate with each other across Europe. If imperial Christianity—the Christianity of the empire in its death throes, in which even Jesus emerges as a warrior— was far removed from the Christianity of the Gospels, Christianity now takes on a new role as an agent of social cohesion in a world built out of the ruins of the empire. What remained was a tension between the obedience demanded by institutional Christianity and the original Gospel message of ambivalence to authority. (Paul provided a much more effective model than the Gospels for those who wished to stress the importance of authority, one reason, perhaps, why he became so prominent in the fourth century.) It is a tension which has persisted throughout Christian history and remains alive today, as reformers, in most cases drawing directly on the words of Jesus, have challenged the power, wealth and social conservatism of the established churches.

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