Augustinian Attitudes To Victory Over Temptation 

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) has been one of the most influential teachers in the Church throughout history. He has made many wonderful contributions to the Church through many of his Bible-based comments on the Fall, original sin, substitution, love, faith, the Trinity, God’s unlimited power, His omnipresence, Christ's two natures and the inerrancy and supreme authority of the Scriptures.

Two of Augustine’s most important emphases were his teachings about the extreme sinfulness of human nature and the necessity for our conversion and walk with God to be based totally on His undeserved grace through Jesus Christ. In Augustine’s battles with the heretical Pelagians, who emphasised self-help and self-effort, Augustine continually stressed the Biblical teaching about the utter sinfulness of human nature without God. Augustine’s Biblical teachings on this matter are needed today in many churches in Western countries where new self-help philosophies with “Christianised” exteriors are running rampant.

But sadly Augustine also introduced or furthered the cause of a number of unbiblical errors in the Church. He helped develop the doctrine of purgatory. [1] He taught Mary gave birth to Christ without her womb being opened and without the signs of her virginity being removed.[2] He argued Mary was totally delivered by God from original sin despite her being born with such sin. He also said she lived a sinless life. [3] He said Mary and Joseph never had sexual intercourse after Jesus’ birth. [4] He taught eleven books of the Apocrypha are a part of the Bible. [5] Augustine believed in venerating so-called “Saints” and highly venerating Mary. He also tended towards the idea that sanctification is a part of justification.

Another major problem with Augustine’s teaching was he did not emphasise the Biblical teaching about how the unmerited grace of God manifested through Jesus Christ living within us by His Holy Spirit has given us His ability to resist each known sin that may tempt us. We cannot blame Augustine for all the wrong teaching in following centuries about this matter. But because of his widespread popularity even up to the present time, we can say he did contribute to its spread.

The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology refers to Augustine’s views of sin and the physical creation as being closely linked to pagan Greek philosophy in numerous ways. It says:

“He tended to equate sinfulness with humanness in general and with concupiscence in particular and saw the path to perfection as one of celibacy and virginity. While rejecting the attainment of perfection in this life, Augustine made great contributions to spirituality with his emphasis on contemplation, although he tended to diminish the humanity of Christ because of his aversion to the physical. He was certainly correct in his rejection of Pelagius’s exclusive emphasis on moral effort and in his emphasis on grace, but his tendency to identify sinfulness with the physical world is an unnecessary vestige of Greek philosophy”. [6]

Prior to being a Christian, Augustine had followed the pagan philosophies of Manichaeism and Neoplatonism. Augustine never really rid himself totally of his previous Manichean and Neo-Platonist attitudes to the physical world and the human physical body. Because of not ridding himself fully of pagan attitudes to the physical body, Augustine could not accept the Biblical teaching that born-again Christians living in non-resurrected physical bodies could have a large measure of victory over temptation in this life.

Augustine rightly rejected the teaching of permanent sinless perfection in this life. But he went too far towards the other extreme by painting a picture of normal Christianity as involving a certain amount of known sin in almost everything we do. For example, his teaching that sex in Christian marriage always involved a certain degree of known sin is an illustration of this. His attitude that Jesus Christ could not be carried by a mother, who after Jesus’ birth, had sex with her husband, also demonstrates the pagan influences in some of Augustine’s teaching. Augustine’s pagan ascetic attitudes to sex can be seen in his following words:

“It is, however, one thing for married persons to have intercourse only for the wish to beget children, which is not sinful; it is another thing for them to desire carnal pleasure in cohabitation, but with the spouse only, which involves venial sin…(not only by fornication and adultery, which are damnable disgraces, but also by any of those excesses of cohabitation such as do not arise from any prevailing desire of children, but from an overbearing lust of pleasure, which are venial sins in man and wife), yet, whenever it comes to the actual process of generation, the very embrace which is lawful and honourable cannot be effected without the ardour of lust, so as to be able to accomplish that which appertains to the use of reason and not of lust. Now, this ardour, whether following or preceding the will, does somehow, by a power of its own, move the members which cannot be moved simply by the will, and in this manner it shows itself not to be the servant of a will which commands it, but rather to be the punishment of a will which disobeys it. It shows, moreover, that it must be excited, not by a free choice, but by a certain seductive stimulus, and that on this very account it produces shame.” [7] Pagan attitudes such as the above are partly based on the Neo-Platonist attitude that the human body is evil and on Stoic philosophers’ hatred or indifference to pleasures and bodily passions. Augustine’s teachings here have brought millions of churchgoers throughout history into bondage.

Augustine’s attitude to sex in marriage was not derived from the Bible but from pagans like the Roman Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus. In the first century A.D., Rufus said that sexual intercourse should only ever be used for bearing children and never for “mere pleasure-seeking”. [8]

Augustine never encouraged believers to use God’s grace as a licence for sin. But his concentration on Biblical verses referring to the sinfulness of human nature and his lack of emphasis on the possibility of regular victory over temptation, provided by God’s grace through Christ, can easily lead to churchgoers abusing God’s grace as a licence to sin.

To be a truly effective witness for Jesus Christ to the unsaved, we as believers need to start thanking God continually for His power He has given to us through His Holy Spirit. This power enables us to resist whatever temptation to known sin which comes against us.

 

 

Study Questions

 

1.              What wonderful contributions did Augustine of Hippo make to the Church?

2.              What was wrong with Augustine’s attitudes to the possibility of believers through God’s grace and His Spirit’s power being able to resist every known sin that may tempt us?

3.              What pagan influences were evident in Augustine’s attitude to sex between a married Christian couple?

 


 


[1] Earle Cairns, “Christianity Though the Centuries”, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1967, page 161.

[2] Augustine, “Sermon 186”, 1:215.3.

[3] Cairns, page 174.

[4] “The Works of St Augustin”, Volume 5, pages 268-269.

[5] Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine II”, 8, 12.

[6] Walter Elwell (Editor), “Evangelical Dictionary of Theology”, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1984, page 841.

[7] Augustine of Hippo, “On Marriage and Concupiscence”, Book 1, Chapters 17 and 27.

[8] Musonius Rufus, Discourse 12.

 

 


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