Today was Friday the 13th. While the paraskevidekatriaphobic among us may shiver at the date, the rest of us can rejoice that, 1655 years ago, Augustine was born. The Bishop of Hippo was one of the greatest church fathers and theologians in the early history of Christianity. Daniel D. Williams has said that if Alfred North Whitehead is right – that Western philosophy has been a series of footnotes to Plato – then Western theology can be said to be a series of footnotes to Augustine. But the African bishop’s brilliance was not just in theology; his writings (the most significant of which are Confessions and City of God) also exhibited enormous philosophical reach. In comparing Confessions with Plato’s Republic or Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, it is difficult not to be struck by the differences. Augustine does not offer us any less of a comprehensive philosophical vision than those works, but while Plato’s Republic is written as a dialogue and Kant’s Critique is written as a treatise, the Confessions is written stunningly as a prayer.
And it is Augustine’s legacy of piety and theological acuity that has strongly influenced the church. It is difficult to find a highpoint that has been unaffected by him. In the medieval period, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas depended upon him, while in the sixteenth century Luther and Calvin’s reaffirmation of the importance of God’s grace in salvation was rooted in Augustinian thought. In fact, B. B. Warfield once confidently claimed: “It is Augustine who gave us the Reformation.” It is difficult to overstate his importance and for anyone who wishes to grapple with the foundational ideas of the Christian tradition and Western philosophy, even after sixteen centuries, Augustine remains one of the most penetrating and significant guides.
What art Thou then, my God?
Most highest, most good,
most potent, most omnipotent;
most merciful and most just;
most hidden and most present;
most beautiful and most strong,
standing firm and elusive,
unchangeable and all-changing;
never new, never old;
ever working, ever at rest;
gathering in and [yet] lacking nothing;
supporting, filling, and sheltering;
creating, nourishing, and maturing;
seeking and [yet] having all things.
And what have I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy?
or what says any man when he speaks of Thee?
And woe to him who keeps silent about Thou,
since many babble on and say nothing.
Augustine, Confessions 1.4.4