Augustine is one of the very few persons who simply cannot be overlooked in any historical, religious or political understanding of Western civilisation. A central figure in Western thought, Augustine was one of the architects of the unified Christian faith that survived the invasions of the fifth century and emerged as the predominant religion of medieval Europe. He was by choice a scholar of Christian theology, a pastor and teacher in the Christian community, and yet it has come about that his contributions to the larger heritage of Western civilisation are hardly less important than his services to the Christian Church.
Over the course of half of a century Augustine prepared, almost single-handedly, the intellectual foundation for Western Christian thinking for the following centuries. Until Thomas Aquinas became accepted, Augustine was the Western theologian. Not only do we find in him a deeply religious and mystical longing and experience, but here was one of the most inquiring minds of the time.
His philosophical ability and the penetrating psychological insight his studies show would make him important entirely apart from his Christian connections. In the study of philosophy, his gave his insights on the problems of being, the character of evil, the relation of faith and knowledge, of will and reason, of time and eternity, and of creation and cosmic order.
His ideas on this topic have enriched philosophy and psychology. At the same time the hallmark of Augustinian philosophy is its insistent demand that reflective thought be practical. For example, no study of the end of life is adequate unless it discovers the means by which people are led to it.
In the study of theology, his great volume of writing created a theology that has remained basic to the Western Christian church, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, ever since. As an organised scholar of theology, Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages would replace him as the spokesman of Catholic theology who was most often quoted; however, there continued to be a strong Augustinian element in the Catholic Church. Even Aquinas himself quoted Augustine in his Summa Theologica (his "Theological Summary") more frequently than any other person except Saint Paul.
Some great leaders have made an impact on a whole generation. A select few have influenced a whole century, but Augustine was a major influence in many aspects of society throughout the entire Middle Ages. Indeed, his definition of society ("societas") as a community identified and held together by its loyalties and love became an integral part of the general tradition of Christian social teaching and of the medieval vision of "Christendom."
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466 - 1536) described Augustine as "the singularly excellent Father, and the chief among the greatest ornaments and lights of the Church. - Eximius pater, inter summa ecclesiae ornamenta ac luminia princeps." In many ways Augustine also shaped the foundations that gave impetus to great thinkers who helped to generate our modern world - Machiavelli, Newton, Descartes, Gibbon, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Marx and Darwin, to name but a few.
Augustine was the last and possibly the greatest of the men referred to as the Church Fathers in either the East or the West. Although the Christian church has produced many prominent intellectuals during the past two thousand years, Augustine may well have been the most influential Christian teacher of all time outside of the Bible. (The greater gravitas of Aquinas within the Roman Catholic Church may be counterbalanced by the additional area of influence that Augustine has within the tradition of the Protestant Reformers.)
Not only is Augustine’s literary output far greater than any of the other Church Fathers but also the number of monographs and research papers on his work subsequently far exceeds that of any of his peers. His theological and philosophical views significantly influenced great Roman Catholic authors such as Saint Anselm, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Blaise Pascal, as well as the major Protestant reformers Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, and John Calvin. Of this reality, the contemporary Augustinian scholar, Prof James O'Donnell of Georgetown University, Washington D.C., has commented on the unusual situation that different thoughts of Augustine fuelled both sides of the Reformation controversy. He wrote, "Catholic scholars were slow to forgive Augustine for the aid and comfort he offered Luther, but Protestants were no less slow to forgive him for the medieval church and its practices."
Augustine can also accept be given some credit for being part of the foundation that gave impetus to the great minds that helped generate our modern civilisation of the West - Machiavelli, Newton, Descartes, Gibbon, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Kant, Marx and Darwin, to name but a few. It is doubtful whether Augustine would have guessed the extent of his legacy to Western civilisation and to the Church. From a human point of view, his life ended on a note of discouragement and tragedy because they were made bitter by his debate with the Pelagians, and by the spectre of an attack on Hippo by the Vandals.
His immediate legacy
Even so, the testimony of an eyewitness in the person of Possidius, Augustine's fellow bishop and biographer, was that Augustine wrought an effect on the church of his day. This occurred not only throughout Africa but also across the Mediterrenean in Europe. In his Life of Augustine, Possidius wrote: "He taught and preached in public and in private, in the house and in the church, the Word of God; confuting with great confidence the heretics of Africa, especially the Donatists, Manicheans, and pagans, in sermons and books which the Christians, filled with joy and admiration, diffused everywhere."
"And thus, with the help of God, did the Church of Africa begin to raise her head, after having been so long oppressed by heresies, especially by the Donatists, who had seduced a greater part of the people. And the heretics rivalled the Catholics in their ardour to hear him; so that note-takers were employed to take down his words, which were thus scattered over all Africa, to the great joy even of the Church beyond the sea." (Continued on the next page.)AN1323