|« Prev||Chapter 21. St. Augustine (AD 354–430)||Next »|
CHAPTER XXI: ST. AUGUSTINE (AD 354–430)
The church in the north of Africa has hardly been mentioned since the time of St. Cyprian (Chapter VIII). But we must now look towards it again, since in the days of St. Chrysostom it produced a man who was perhaps the greatest of all the old Christian fathers—St. Augustine.
Augustine was born at Thagaste, a city of Numidia, in the year 354. His mother, Monica, was a pious Christian, but his father, Patricius, was a heathen, and a man of no very good character. Monica was resolved to bring up her son in the true faith: she entered him as a catechumen of the Church when a little child, and carefully taught him as much of religious things as a child could learn. But he was not then baptized, because (as has been mentioned already—p 39) people were accustomed in those days to put off baptism, out of fear lest they should afterwards fall into sin, and so should lose the blessing of the sacrament. This, as we know, was a mistake: but it was a very common practice nevertheless.
When Augustine was a boy, he was one day suddenly taken ill, so that he seemed likely to die. Remembering 109what his mother had taught him, he begged that he might be baptized, and preparations were made for the purpose; but all at once he began to grow better, and the baptism was put off for the same reason as before.
As he grew up, he gave but little promise of what he was afterwards to become. Much of his time was spent in idleness; and through idleness he fell into bad company, and was drawn into sins of many kinds. When he was about seventeen, his father died. The good Monica had been much troubled by her husband's heathenism and misconduct, and had earnestly tried to convert him from his errors. She went about this wisely, not lecturing him or arguing with him in a way that might have set him more against the Gospel, but trying rather to show him the beauty of Christian faith by her own loving, gentle, and dutiful behaviour. And at length her pains were rewarded by seeing him before his death profess himself a believer, and receive Christian baptism.
Monica was left rather badly off at her husband's death. But a rich neighbour was kind enough to help her in the expense of finishing her son's education, and the young man himself now began to show something of the great talents which God had been pleased to bestow on him. Unhappily, however, he sank deeper and deeper in vice, and poor Monica was bitterly grieved by his ways. A book which he happened to read led him to feel something of the shamefulness and wretchedness of his courses; but, as it was a heathen book (although written by one of the wisest of the heathens, Cicero), it could not show him by what means he might be able to reach to a higher life. He looked into Scripture, in the hope of finding instruction there but he was now in that state of mind to which, as St. Paul says (1 Cor. i. 23), the preaching of Christ sounds like “foolishness,” so that he fancied himself to be above learning anything from a book so plain and homely as the Bible then seemed to him, and he set out in search of some other teaching. And a very strange sort of teaching he met with.
About a hundred years before this time, a man named 110Manes appeared in Persia (AD 270), and preached a religion which he pretended to have received from Heaven, but which was really made up by himself, from a mixture of Christian and heathen notions. It was something like the doctrines which had been before taught by the Gnostics, and was as wild nonsense as can well be imagined. He taught that there were two gods—a good god of light, and a bad god of darkness. And he divided his followers into two classes, the lower of which were called “hearers,” while the higher were called “elect”. These elect were supposed to be very strict in their lives. They were not to eat flesh at all;—they might not even gather the fruits of the earth, or pluck a herb with their own hands. They were supported and were served by the hearers, and they took a very odd way of showing their gratitude to these; for it is said that when one of the elect ate a piece of bread, he made this speech to it:—“It was not I who reaped or ground or baked thee; may they who did so be reaped and ground and baked in their turn!” And it was believed that the poor “hearers” would after death become corn, and have to go through the mill and the oven, until they should have suffered enough to clear away their offences and make them fit for the blessedness of the elect.
The Manichaeans (as the followers of Manes were called) soon found their way into Africa, where they gained many converts; and, although laws were often made against their heresy by the emperors, it continued to spread secretly; for they used to hide their opinions, when there was any danger, so that persons who were really Manichaeans pretended to be Catholic Christians, and there were some of them even among the monks and clergy of the Church.
In the humour in which Augustine now was, this strange sect took his fancy; for the Manichaeans pretended to be wiser than any one else, and laughed at all submission to doctrines which had been settled by the Church. So Augustine at twenty became a Manichaean, and for nine 111years was one of the hearers,—for he never got to be one of the elect, or to know much about their secrets. But before he had been very long in the sect, he began to notice some things which shocked him in the behaviour of the elect, who professed the greatest strictness. In short, he could not but see that their strictness was all a pretence, and that they were really a very worthless set of men. And he found out, too, that, besides bad conduct, there was a great deal very bad and disgusting in the opinions of the Manichaeans, which he had not known of at first. After learning all this, he did not know what to turn to, and he seems for a time to have believed nothing at all,—which is a wretched state of mind indeed, and so he found it.
Augustine now set up as a teacher at Carthage, the chief city of Africa; but among the students there he found a set of wild young men who called themselves “Eversors”—a name which meant that they turned everything topsy-turvy; and Augustine was so much troubled by the behaviour of these unruly lads, that he resolved to leave Carthage and go to Rome. Monica, as we may easily suppose, had been much distressed by his wanderings, but she never ceased to pray that he might be brought round again. One day she went to a learned bishop, who was much in the habit of arguing with people who were in error, and begged that he would speak to her son; but the good man understood Augustine's case, and saw that to talk to him while he was in such a state of mind would only make him more self-wise than he was already. “Let him alone awhile,” he said, “only pray God for him, and he will of himself find out by reading how wrong the Manichaeans are, and how impious their doctrine is.” And then he told her that he had himself been brought up as a Manichaean, but that his studies had shown him the error of the sect and he had left it. Monica was not satisfied with this, and went on begging, even with tears, that the bishop would 112talk with her son. But he said to her, “Go thy ways, and may God bless thee, for it is not possible that the child of so many tears should perish.” And Monica took his words as if they had been a voice from Heaven, and cherished the hope which they held out to her.
Monica was much against Augustine's plan of removing to Rome; but he slipped away and went on shipboard while she was praying in a chapel by the seaside, which was called after the name of St. Cyprian. Having got to Rome, he opened a school there, as he had done at Carthage; but he found that the Roman youth, although they were not so rough as those of Carthage, had another very awkward habit— namely, that, after having heard a number of his lectures, they disappeared without paying for them. While he was in distress on this account, the office of a public teacher at Milan was offered to him, and he was very glad to take it. While at Rome, he had a bad illness, but he did not at that time wish or ask for baptism as he had done when sick in his childhood.
The great St. Ambrose was then Bishop of Milan. Augustine had heard so much of his fame, that he went often to hear him, out of curiosity to know whether the bishop were really as fine a preacher as he was said to be; but by degrees, as he listened, he felt a greater and greater interest. He found, from what Ambrose said, that the objections by which the Manichaeans had set him against the Gospel were all mistaken; and, when Monica joined him, after he had been some time at Milan, she had the delight of finding that he had given up the Manichaean sect, and was once more a catechumen of the Church.
Augustine had still to fight his way through many difficulties. He had learnt that the best and highest wisdom of the heathens could not satisfy his mind and heart; and he now turned again to St. Paul's epistles, and found that Scripture was something very different from what he had supposed it to be in the pride of his youth. He was filled with grief and shame on account of the vileness of his past life; and these feelings were made still stronger by the 113accounts which a friend gave him of the strict and self-denying ways of Antony and other monks. One day, as he lay in the garden of his lodging, with his mind tossed to and fro by anxious thoughts, so that he even wept in his distress, he heard a voice, like that of a child, singing over and over, “Take up and read! take up and read!” At first he fancied that the voice came from some child at play; but he could not think of any childish game in which such words were used. And then he remembered how St. Antony had been struck by the words of the Gospel which he heard in church (p 60); and it seemed to him that the voice, wherever it might come from, was a call of the same kind to himself. So he eagerly seized the book of St. Paul's Epistles, which was lying by him, and, as he opened it, the first words on which his eyes fell were these, —“Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” (Rom. xiii. 13f) And, as he read, the words all at once sank deeply into his heart, and from that moment he felt himself another man. As soon as he could do so without being particularly noticed, he gave up his office of professor and went into the country, where he spent some months in the company of his mother and other friends; and at the following Easter (AD 387), he was baptized by St. Ambrose. The good Monica had now seen the desire of her heart fulfilled; and she soon after died in peace, as she was on her way back to Africa, in company with her son.
Augustine, after her death, spent some time at Rome, where he wrote a book against the Manichaeans, and then, returning to his native place Thagaste, he gave himself up for three years to devotion and study. In those days, it was not uncommon that persons who were thought likely to be useful to the Church should be seized on and 114ordained, whether they liked it or not; and if they were expected to make very strong objections, their mouths were even stopped by force. Now Augustine's fame grew so great, that he was afraid lest something of this kind should be done to him; and he did not venture to let himself be seen in any town where the bishopric was vacant, lest he should be obliged to become bishop against his will. He thought, however, that he was safe in accepting an invitation to Hippo, because it was provided with a bishop named Valerius. But, as he was one day listening to the bishop's sermon, Valerius began to say that his church was in want of another presbyter, whereupon the people laid hold of Augustine, and presented him to the bishop, who ordained him without heeding his objections (AD 391). And four years later (AD 395), he was consecrated a bishop, to assist Valerius, who died soon after.
Augustine was bishop of Hippo for five-and-thirty years, and, although there were many other sees of greater importance in Africa, his uncommon talents, and his high character, made him the foremost man of the African church. He was a zealous and exemplary bishop, and he wrote a great number of valuable books of many kinds. But the most interesting of them all is one which may be read in English, and is of no great length—namely, the “Confessions”, in which he gives an account of the wanderings through which he had been brought into the way of truth and peace, and humbly gives thanks to God, whose gracious providence had guarded and guided him.
Augustine had a great many disputes with heretics and others who separated from the Church, or tried to corrupt its doctrine. But only two of his controversies need be mentioned here. One of these was with the Donatists, and the other was with the Pelagians.
The sect of the Donatists had arisen soon after the end of the last heathen persecution, and was now nearly a 115hundred years old. We have seen that St. Cyprian had a great deal of trouble with people who fancied that, if a man were put to death, or underwent any other considerable suffering, for the name of Christ, he deserved to be held in great honour, and his wishes were to be attended to by other Christians, whatever his character and motives might have been (p 27). The same spirit which led to this mistake continued in Africa after St Cyprian's time; and thus, when the persecution began there under Diocletian and Maximian (AD 303—see Chap. IX), great numbers rushed into danger, in the hope of being put to death, and of so obtaining at once the blessedness and the glory of martyrdom. Many of these people were weary of their lives, or in some other respect were not of such character that they could be reckoned as true Christian martyrs. The wise fathers of the Church always disapproved of such foolhardy doings, and would not allow people who acted in a way so unlike our Lord and His apostle St. Paul to be considered as martyrs; and Mensurius, who was the bishop of Carthage, stedfastly set his face against all such things.
One of the ways by which the persecutors hoped to put down the Gospel, was to get hold of all the copies of the Scriptures, and to burn them; and they required the clergy to deliver them up. But most of the officers who had to execute the orders of the emperors did not know a Bible from any other book; and it is said that, when some of them came to Mensurius, and asked him to deliver up his books, he gave them a quantity of books written by heretics, which he had collected (perhaps with the intention of burning them himself), and that all the while he had put the Scriptures safely out of the way, until the tyranny of the heathens should be overpast. When the persecution was at an end, some of the party whom he had offended by setting himself against their wrong notions as to martyrdom, brought up this matter against the bishop. They said that his account of it was false, that the books which he 116had given up were not what he said, but that he had really given up the Scriptures; and that, even if his story were true, he had done wrong in using such deceit. They gave the name of “traditors” (or, as we should say, “traitors,” from a Latin word meaning someone who hands something over) to those who confessed that they had been frightened into giving up the Scriptures; and they were for showing no mercy to any traditor, however much he night repent of his weakness.
This severe party, then, tried to get up an opposition to Mensurius. They found, however, that they could make nothing of it. But when he died, and then Caecilian, who had been his archdeacon and his righthand man, was chosen bishop in his stead, these people made a great outcry, and set up another bishop of their own against him. All sorts of people who had taken offence at Caecilian or Mensurius thought this a fine opportunity for having their revenge; and thus a strong party was formed. It was greatly helped by the wealth of a lady named Lucilla, whom Caecilian had reproved for the superstitious habit of kissing a bone, which she supposed to have belonged to some martyr, before communicating at the Lord's table. The first bishop of the party was one Majorinus, who had been a servant of some sort to Lucilla; and, when Majorinus was dead, they set up a second bishop, named Donatus, after whom they were called Donatists. This Donatus was a clever and a learned man, and lived very strictly; but he was exceedingly proud and ill-tempered, and used very violent language against all who differed from him, and his sect copied his pride and bitterness. Many of them, however, while they professed to be extremely strict, neglected the plainer and humbler duties of Christian life.
The Donatists said that every member of their sect must be a saint: whereas our Lord himself had declared that evil members would always be mixed with the good in His Church on earth, like tares growing in a field of wheat, or 117bad fishes mixed with good ones in a net; and that the separation of the good from the bad would not take place until the end of the world (St. Matt. xiii 24–30, 36–43, 47–50). And they said that their own sect was the only true Church of Christ, although they had no congregations out of Africa, except one which was set up to please a rich lady in Spain, and another at Rome. Whenever they made a convert from the Church, they baptized him afresh, as if his former baptism were good for nothing. They pretended to work miracles, and to see visions; and they made a very great deal of Donatus himself, so as even to pay him honours which ought not to have been given to any child of man; for they sang hymns to him, and swore by his grey hairs.
Shortly after Constantine got possession of Africa by his victory over Maxentius, and declared liberty of religion to the Christians (AD 311–313, p 37), the Donatists applied to him against the Catholics (p 44),— and it was curious that they should have been the first to call in the emperor as judge in such a matter, because they were afterwards very violent against the notion of an earthly sovereign's having any right to concern himself with the management of religious affairs. Constantine tried to settle the question by desiring some bishops to judge between the parties; and these bishops gave judgment in favour of the Catholics. The Donatists were dissatisfied, and asked for a new trial, whereupon Constantine gathered a council for the purpose at Arles, in France (AD 314). This was the greatest council that had at that time been seen: there were about two hundred bishops at it, and among them were some from Britain. Here again the decision was against the Donatists, and they thereupon begged the emperor himself to examine their case; which he did, and once more condemned them (AD 316). Some severe laws were then made against them; their churches were taken away; many of them were banished, and were deprived of 118all that they had; and they were even threatened with death, although none of them suffered it during Constantine's reign.
The emperor, after a while, saw that they were growing wilder and wilder, that punishment had no effect on them, except to make them more unmanageable, and that they were not to be treated as reasonable people. He then did away with the laws against them, and tried to keep them quiet by kindness, and in the last years of his reign his hands were so full of the Arian quarrels nearer home that he had little leisure to attend to the affairs of the Donatists.
After the death of Constantius, Africa fell to the share of his youngest son, Constans, who sent some officers into the country with orders to make presents to the Donatists, in the hope of thus bringing them to join the Church. But Donatus flew out into a great fury when he heard of this—“What has the emperor to do with the Church?” he asked; and he forbade the members of his sect (which was what he meant by “the Church”) to touch any of the money that was offered to them.
By this time a stranger set of wild people called “Circumcellions” had appeared among the Donatists. They got their name trom two Latin words which mean “around the cottages”; because, instead of maintaining themselves by honest labour, they used to go about, like sturdy beggars, to the cottages of the country people, and demand whatever they wanted. They were of the poorest class, and very ignorant, but full of zeal for their religion. But, instead of being “pure and peaceable”, (St. James iii. 17), this religion was fierce and savage and allowed them to go on without any check, in drunkenness and all sorts of misconduct. Their women, whom they called “sacred virgins,” were as bad as the men, or worse. Bands of both sexes used to rove about the country, and keep the peaceable inhabitants in constant fear. As they went along, they sang or shouted 119“Praises be to God!” and this song, says St. Augustine, was heard with greater dread than the roaring of a lion. At first they thought that they must not use swords, on account of what our Lord had said to Peter (St. Matt. xxvi. 52.); so they carried heavy clubs, which they called “Israels”, and with these they used to beat people, and often so severely as to kill them. But afterwards the Circumcellions got over their scruples, and armed themselves not only with swords, but with other weapons of steel, such as spears and hatchets. They attacked and plundered the churches of the Catholics, and the houses of the clergy; and they handled any clergyman whom they could get hold of very roughly. Besides this, they were fond of interfering in all sorts of affairs. People did not dare to ask for the payment of debts, or to reprove their slaves for misbehaviour, lest the Circumcellions should be called in upon them. And things got to such a pass, that the officers of the law were afraid to do their duty.
But the Circumcellions were as furious against themselves as against others. They used to court death in all manner of ways. Sometimes they stopped travellers on the roads, and desired to be killed, threatening to kill the travellers if they refused. And if they met a judge going on his rounds, they threatened him with death if he would not hand them over to his officers for execution. One judge whom they assailed in this way played them a pleasant trick. He seemed quite willing to humour them, and told his officers to bind them as if for execution; and when he had thus made them harmless and helpless, instead of ordering them to be put to death, he turned them loose, leaving them to get themselves unbound as best they could. Many Circumcellions drowned themselves, rushed into fire, or threw themselves from rocks and were dashed to pieces; but they would not put an end to themselves by hanging, because that was the death of the “traditor” (or “traitor”) Judas. The Donatists were not all so mad as these people, and some of their councils condemned the practice of self-murder. But it went on nevertheless, and those who made 120away with themselves, or got others to kill them in such ways as have been mentioned, were honoured as martyrs by the more violent part of the sect.
Constans made three attempts to win over the Donatists by presents, but they held out against all; and when the third attempt was made, in the year 347, by means of an officer named Macarius, the Circumcellions broke out into rebellion, and fought a battle with the emperor's troops. In this battle the Donatists were defeated, and two of their bishops, who had been busy in stirring up the rebels, were among the slain. Macarius then required the Donatists to join the Church, and threatened them with banishment if they should refuse, but they were still obstinate: and it would seem that they were treated hardly by the government, although the Catholic bishops tried to prevent it. Donatus himself and great numbers of his followers were sent into banishment; and for a time the sect appeared to have been put down.
Thus they remained until the death of the emperor Constantius (AD 361), and Donatus had died in the mean time. Julian, on succeeding to the empire, gave leave to all whom Constantius had banished on account of religion to return to their homes (p 56). But the Donatists were not the better for this, as they had not been banished by Constantius, but by Constans, before Constantius got possession of Africa: so they petitioned the emperor that they might be recalled from banishment; and in their petition they spoke of Julian in a way which disagreed strangely with their general defiance of governments, and which was especially ill-suited for one who had forsaken the Christian faith and was persecuting it at that very time. Julian granted their request, and forthwith they returned home in great triumph, and committed violent outrages against the Catholics. They took possession of a number of churches, and, professing to consider everything that 121had been used by the Catholics unclean, they washed the pavement, scraped the walls, burnt the communion tables, melted the plate, and cast the holy sacrament to the dogs. They soon became strong throughout the whole north of Africa, and in one part of it, Numidia, they were stronger than the Catholics. After the death of Julian, laws were made against them from time to time, but do not seem to have been carried out. And although the Donatists quarrelled much among themselves, and split up into a number of parties, they were still very powerful in Augustine's day. In his own city of Hippo he found that they were more in number than the Catholics; and such was their bitter and pharisaical spirit that the bishop of the sect at Hippo would not let any of his people so much as bake for their Catholic neighbours.
Augustine did all that he could to make something of the Donatists, but it was mostly in vain. He could not get their bishops or clergy to argue with him. They pretended to call themselves “the children of the martyrs” on account of the troubles which their forefathers had gone through in the reign of Constans, and they said that the children of the martyrs could not stoop to argue with sinners and traditors. Although they professed that their sect was made up of perfect saints, they took in all sorts of worthless converts for the sake of swelling their numbers, whereas Augustine would not let any Donatists join the Church without inquiring into their characters, and, if he found that they had done anything for which they had been condemned by their sect to do penance, he insisted that they should go through a penance before being admitted into the Church.
But, notwithstanding the difficulties which he found in dealing with them, he and others succeeded in drawing over a great number of Donatists to the Church. And this made the Circumcellions so furious that they fell on the Catholic clergy whenever they could find them, and tried to do them all possible mischief. They beat and mangled some of them cruelly; they put out the eyes of 122some by throwing a mixture of lime and vinegar into their faces; and, among other things, they laid a plan for waylaying Augustine himself, which, however, he escaped, through the providence of God. Many reports of these savage doings were carried to the emperor, Honorius, and some of the sufferers appeared at his court to tell their own tale: whereupon the old laws against the sect were revived, and severe new laws were also made. In these even death was threatened against Donatists who should molest the Catholics; but Augustine begged that this penalty might be withdrawn, because the Catholic clergy, who knew more about the sect than any one else, would not give information against it, if the punishment of the Donatists were to be so great. And he and his brethren requested that the emperor would appoint a meeting to be held between the parties, in order that they might talk over their differences, and, if possible, might come to some agreement.
The emperor consented to do so; and a meeting took place accordingly, at Carthage, in 411, in the presence of a commissioner named Marcellinus. Two hundred and eighty-six Catholic bishops found their way to the city by degrees. But the Donatists, who were two hundred and seventy-nine in number, entered it in a body, thinking to make all the effect that they could by the show of a great procession. At the conference (or meeting), which lasted three days, the Donatists behaved with their usual pride and insolence. When Marcellinus begged them to sit down, they refused, because our Lord had stood before Pilate. On being again asked to seat themselves, they quoted a text from the Psalms, “I will not sit with the wicked” (Ps. xxvi. 5); meaning that the Catholics were the wicked, and that they themselves were too good to sit in such company. And when Augustine called them “brethren,” they cried out in anger that they did not own any such brotherhood. They tried to throw difficulties in the way of arguing the question fairly; but on the third day their shifts would serve them no longer. Augustine then took the lead among the Catholics, and showed at 123great length both how wrongly the Donatists had behaved in the beginning of their separation from the Church, and how contrary to Scripture their principles were.
Marcellinus, who had been sent by the emperor to hear both parties, gave judgment in favour of the Catholics. Such of the Donatist bishops and clergy as would join the Church were allowed to keep possession of their places; but the others were to be banished. Augustine had at first been against the idea of trying to force people in matters of religion. But he saw that many were brought by these laws to join the Church, and after a time he came to think that such laws were good and useful; nay, he even tried to find a Scripture warrant for them in the text, “Compel them to come in” (St. Luke xiv. 23). And thus, unhappily, this great and good man was led to lend his name to the grievous error of thinking that force, or even persecution, may be used rightly, and with good effect, in matters of religion. It was one of the mistakes to which people are liable when they form their opinions without having the opportunity of seeing how things work in the long run, and on a large scale. We must regret that Augustine seemed in any way to countenance such means; but even although he erred in some measure as to this, we may be sure that he would have abhorred the cruelties which have since been done under pretence of maintaining the true religion, and of bringing people to embrace it.
While some of the Donatists were thus brought over to the Church, others became more outrageous than ever. Many of them grew desperate, and made away with themselves. One of their bishops threatened that, if he were required by force to join the Catholics, he should shut himself up in a church with his people, and that they would then set the building on fire and perish in the flames. There were many among the Donatists who would have been mad enough to do a thing of this kind; but it would seem that the bishop was not put to the trial which he expected.
The Donatists dwindled away from this time, and were 124little heard of after Augustine's days, although there were still some in Africa two hundred years later, as we learn from the letters of St Gregory the Great.
Of all the disputes in which Augustine was engaged, that with the Pelagians was the most famous. The leader of these people, Pelagius, was a Briton. His name would mean, either in Latin or in Greek, a “man of the sea,” and it is said that his British name was Morgan— meaning the same as the Greek or Latin name. Pelagius was the first native of our own island who gained fame as a writer or as a divine; but his fame was not of a desirable kind, as it arose from the errors which he ran into. He was a man of learning, and of strict life; and at Rome, where he spent many years, he was much respected, until in his old age he began to set forth opinions which brought him into the repute of a heretic. At Rome he became acquainted with a man named Celestius, who is said by some to have been an Italian, while others suppose him an Irishman. It is not known whether Celestius learnt his opinions from Pelagius, or whether each of them had come to think in the same way before they knew one another. But, however this may be, they became great friends, and joined in teaching the same errors.
Augustine, as we have seen, had passed through such trials of the spirit that he thoroughly felt the need of God's gracious help in order to do, or even to will, any good thing. Pelagius, on the contrary, seems to have always gone on steadily in the way of his religion. Now this was really a reason why he should have thanked that grace and mercy of God which had spared him the dangers and the terrible sufferings which others have to bear in the course of their spiritual life. But unhappily Pelagius overlooked the help of grace. He owned, indeed, that all is from God; but, instead of understanding that the power of doing any good, or of avoiding any sin, is the especial gift 125of the Holy Spirit, he fancied that the power of living without sin was given to us by God as a part of our nature. He saw that some people make a wrong use of the doctrine of our natural corruption. He saw that, instead of throwing the blame of their sins on their own neglect of the grace which is offered to us through Christ, they spoke of the weakness and corruption of their nature as if these were an excuse for their sins. This was, indeed, a grievous error, and one which Pelagius would have done well to warn people against. But, in condemning it, he went far wrong in an opposite way: he said that man's nature is not corrupt; that it is nothing the worse for the fall of our first parents; that man can be good by his own natural power, without needing any higher help; that men might live without sin, and that many have so lived. These notions of his are mentioned and are condemned in the ninth Article of our own Church, where it is said that “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, as the Pelagians do vainly talk” [that is to say, original sin is not merely the actual imitation of Adam's sin]; “but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness” [that is, he is very far gone from that righteousness which Adam had at the first]. And then it is said in the next Article—“The condition of man, after the fall of Adam, is such that he cannot turn and prepare himself by his own natural strength and good works to faith and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works, pleasing and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us [or “going before” us], that we may have a good will, and working with us when we have that good will.” Thus at every step there is a need of grace from above to help us on the way of salvation.
After Rome had been taken by the Goths, in the year 410 (p 93), Pelagius and Celestius passed over into Africa, from 126which Pelagius, after a short stay, went into the Holy Land. Celestius tried to get himself ordained by the African church; but objections were made to him, and a council was held which condemned and excommunicated him. Augustine was too busy with the Donatists to attend this council; but he was very much alarmed by the errors of the new teachers, and soon took the lead in writing against them, and in opposing them by other means.
Pelagius was examined by some councils in the Holy Land, and contrived to persuade them that there was nothing wrong in his doctrines. He and Celestius even got a bishop of Rome, Zosimus, to own them as sound in the faith, and to reprove the African bishops for condemning them. The secret of this was, that Pelagius used words in a crafty way, which neither the synods in the Holy Land nor the bishop of Rome suspected. When be was charged with denying the need of grace, he said that he owned it to be necessary; but, instead of using the word grace in its right meaning, to signify the working of the Holy Spirit on the heart, he used it as a name for other means by which God helps us; such as the power which Pelagius supposed to be bestowed on us as a part of our nature; the forgiveness of our sins in baptism; the offer of salvation, the knowledge and instruction given to us through Holy Scripture, or in other ways. By such tricks the Pelagians imposed on the bishop of Rome and others; but the Africans, with Augustine at their head, stood firm. They steadily maintained that Pelagius and Celestius were unsound in their opinions; they told Zosimus that he had no right to meddle with Africa, and that he had been altogether deceived by the heretics. So, after a while, the bishop of Rome took quite the opposite line, and condemned Pelagius with his followers; and they were also condemned in several councils, of which the most famous was the General Council of Ephesus, held in the year 431. Augustine did great service in opposing these dangerous doctrines; but in doing so, he said some things as to God's choosing of his elect, and predestinating them (or “marking 127them out beforehand”) to salvation, which are rather startling, and might lead to serious error. But as to this deep and difficult subject, I shall content myself with quoting a few words from our Church's seventeenth Article—“We must receive God's promises in such wise as they be generally set forth to us in Holy Scripture; and in our doings, that will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared to us in the word of God.”
Augustine was still busied in the Pelagian controversy when a fearful calamity burst upon his country. The commander of the troops in Africa, Boniface, had been an intimate friend of his, and had been much under his influence. A rival of Boniface, Aetius, persuaded the empress, Placidia, who governed in the name of her young son, Valentinian the Third, to recall the general from Africa; and at the same time he persuaded Boniface to disobey her orders, telling him that his ruin was intended. Boniface, who was a man of open and generous mind, did not suspect the villainy of Aetius; and, as the only means of saving himself, he rebelled against the emperor, and invited the Vandals from Spain to invade Africa. These Vandals were a savage nation, which had overrun part of Spain about twenty years before. They now gladly accepted Boniface's invitation, and passed in great numbers into Africa, where the Moors joined them, and the Donatists eagerly seized the opportunity of avenging themselves on the Catholics, by assisting the invaders. The country was laid waste, and the Catholic clergy were treated with especial cruelty, both by the Vandals (who were Arians) and by the Donatists.
Augustine had urged Boniface to return to his duty as a subject of the empire. Boniface, who was disgusted by the savage doings of the Vandals, and had discovered the tricks by which Aetius had tempted him to revolt, begged the Vandal leader Genseric to return to Spain; but he 128found that he had rashly raised a power which he could not manage, and the barbarians laughed at his entreaties. As he could not prevail with them by words, he fought a battle with them; but he was defeated, and he then shut himself up in Augustine's city, Hippo.
During all these troubles Augustine was very active in writing letters of exhortation to his brethren, and in endeavouring to support them under their trials. And when Hippo was crowded by a multitude of all kinds, who had fled to its walls for shelter, he laboured without ceasing among them. In June, 430, the Vandals laid siege to the place, and soon after, the bishop fell sick in consequence of his labours. He felt that his end was near, and he wished, during his short remaining time, to be free from interruption in preparing for death. He therefore would not allow his friends to see him, except at the hours when he took food or medicine. He desired that the penitential psalms—(the seven Psalms which are read in church on Ash Wednesday, and which especially express sorrow for sin)— should be hung up within his sight, and he read them over and over, shedding floods of tears as he read. On the 28th of August, 430, he was taken to his rest, and in the following year Hippo fell into the hands of the Vandals, who thus became masters of the whole of northern Africa.
|« Prev||Chapter 21. St. Augustine (AD 354–430)||Next »|