De vera religione (“On true religion”) is possibly more valuable today for what it reveals about Augustine’s thinking at its time of composition than for its actual content. Composed probably late in the year 390, this was the final work of Augustine before he became a priest (most probably in January 391). By then he had undergone the process of intellectual conversion and moral conversion to Christianity in 386. Even so, as could be expected, De vera religione shows that Augustine’s thought as a Christian then only three years baptised was still very much in development.
De vera religione is addressed and dedicated to Romanianus, who was Augustine’s principal student during his time of retreat at Cassiciacum immediately before his baptism at Easter 387. The purpose of the work was to persuade Romanianus to follow Augustine’s earlier example by moving from Manicheanism to “the true religion.” It contains an introduction, two teaching sections and a conclusion. The first teaching section (chapters 11 – 23) gives an overview of salvation and a refutation of the Manichean explanation of the problem of evil. It had been the dualism in Manicheanism (i.e., the existence of dual opposing forces, Good and Evil) that had attracted Augustine to become a Manichee auditor (“hearer”) when he had been an adolescent in Carthage in 372, eighteen years previously.
The second section (Chapters 24 – 54) of De vera religione is more philosophical. It begins with an explanation of the difference between faith and reason, which Augustine later developed at far greater length in his major work, De trinitate (“On the Trinity”). The ascent of the human mind to God is an ascent to beauty and truth itself. Even vice can serve as a prompt to ascent to God.
In the conclusion (Chapter 55), Augustine exhorts the reader to adore the triune God. In De vera religione Augustine provides the first glimpses of a number of his thoughts that blossomed later into some of his major theological themes. It is the last work where he leaned much on the philosophy of Neoplatonism, which was the vehicle of philosophy that had greatly facilitated his intellectual conversion to Christianity. When, however, during his few years as a priest before becoming a bishop, Augustine obtained “study leave” to delve into the Scriptures, the Bible henceforth gained priority as his primary mentor and yardstick in what he wrote. AN2117