The Role of Augustine of Hippo in Western Theology

Taken from John W. Morris, “The Historic Church: An Orthodox View of Christian History”

staugustineIt is virtually impossible to over state the role of Augustine in the development of Western Christian thought. His works not only shaped Roman Catholic theology, but played a major role in the development of Protestantism. One Roman Catholic patristic scholar wrote,

“If we were faced with the unlikely proposition of having to destroy completely either the works of Augustine or the works of all the other Fathers and Writers, I have little doubt that all the others would have to be sacrificed. Augustine must remain.” Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. III, p. 1

Some historians argue that interest in Augustine stimulated by the printing of his works between 1490-and 1506 by Johann Amerback of Basil helped cause the Protestant Reformation. There is no doubt that all sides in the religious crisis looked to the greatest Western theologian during their debates. One historian,  Diarmaid MacCulloch, describes the Reformation as a “debate in the mind of long-dead Augustine.” Martin Luther, the founder of the Protestant Reformation, based much of his thought on the writings of Augustine. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion contains hundreds of quotes from Augustine. Significantly, Calvin, one of the most influential theologians of the Protestant Reformation, only cites Sts. Basil, Irenaeus, and Gregory the Theologian twice each. He does not consult Sts. Gregory of Nyssa, Athanasius, John of Damascus or the other great Eastern theologians.

This excessive reliance on Augustine and failure to consider the insights of the Eastern Fathers is the major theological difference between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. Although Augustine’s ideas played a decisive role in the development of Western theology, they had almost no influence on the Christian East. Although the Eastern Orthodox Church considers Augustine a Saint and a Father of the Church, Eastern theologians only knew of Augustine through his reputation. Until at least the thirteenth century, his works were not available in Greek. As a result, Eastern Orthodox theologians could not respond to Augustine because they had read only a few isolated quotes from his works.

Many of the doctrinal differences between Orthodoxy and both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism can be traced to the influence of Augustine. The North African theologian shaped the Western doctrine of original sin, which reinforced a legalistic understanding of salvation inherited from Tertullian. The Western doctrine of original sin implied a denial of free will which laid the foundation for Luther’s doctrine of the “bondage of the will,” and for Calvin’s more extreme doctrine of predestination. Augustine is also the chief author of the doctrine of the double procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. This led to the famous filioque controversy because it influenced the Western Church to add the words, “and the Son” to the creed after, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.” The debate over the procession of the Holy Spirit and the filioque was the major doctrinal dispute that led to the Great Schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Finally, Augustine’s negative attitude toward human sexuality greatly stimulated the movement to require compulsive celibacy of all Western clergy, another important cause of the conflict between Orthodoxy and the Roman Catholic Church.

It is important to remember that Augustine probably would not recognize as Augustinian many of the ideas that others have taken from his work. Augustine was a very intelligent and complex person. During the heat of intellectual combat, he often over stated his arguments. He never systematized his thoughts into a coherent discussion of Christian doctrine, like St. John of Damascus’ “On the Orthodox Faith.” As the conflict with Pelagianism and other heresies continued, he expressed himself in ways that contradicted what he wrote in his early works. Before the dispute with Pelagianism, Augustine was much more sympathetic to the idea of free will. He wrote that “even I myself have not in all things followed myself…” At the end of his life, he advised his readers to reject what is “wrong” in his writings. In any case, without the balance provided by the other Fathers, an excessive reliance on Augustine or any other Father at the expense of the rest can produce all sorts of theological disasters.

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