Church Fathers: Augustine, The Doctor of the Church

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We cannot overstate that no person outside the Bible has been as influential to Christian theology as Augustine.

“[God], for You, evil does not exist at all, and not only for you, but for your created universe [as well].”

Such is the conclusion of a middle-aged Roman-African, Augustine. It is his contribution to the problem of evil. What is going on? Does Augustine really believe that evil “doesn’t exist at all” for God and us in creation? Yes, he does; he believes evil doesn’t exist, and not only that, this conclusion is what leads him to embrace the God of the Bible instead of the god he had been worshiping in a Roman religious cult.

If you are intrigued, maybe a bit concerned, and curious to hear more, then you’ll like Augustine. We’ll return to his reasons for evil’s nonexistence at the end of this article, but for now, let’s try to gauge why this man’s books are still in print (he lived from AD 354-430) and are still producing new insights for theology today.

Take a look at the following questions and see if they are relevant to you or if you have ever wondered about them yourselves:

  • How can God be love if he allows our loved ones to die (often too early or by unjust means)?

  • Why do all humans seek happiness but never really find it?

  • Why is lust such a hard temptation to deal with compared with others?

  • Why does it seem that “knowing God” is not enough sometimes?

  • What is the role of our wills in choosing God? Aren’t our motives always a mixture of good and evil, so how can we trust the will ever to choose rightly?

  • Where did evil come from? If it came from the devil, who was created good, where did the evil in him spring up from in the first place?

  • What is a sacrament?

  • When is the right time for war and peace?

  • If countries become Christian (like Rome), why does God allow them to fall (by pagan barbarians) who will not support the work of the Church?

There are so many more. But as you can see, Augustine’s mind is never at rest. It’s always probing, asking, and seeking. Augustine sees this seeking both as a good and a burden. For him, the goal of seeking is an indicator of something missing within us, something we lack and need, like a hungry stomach that rumbles for food. For him, what satisfies that hunger is God—specifically, the God incarnate, Jesus, who offers us a home. Happiness in his thought is finding your way home, where Christ is, and where you can rest. One of Augustine’s most famous lines is, “Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir men to take pleasure in praising you because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Summing up Augustine is challenging because his work is prodigious. Books, sermons, treatises, letters, polemical and philosophical writings—there is no quick way to summarize him. But we will try, as long as we accept there is far more than what we say here.

Augustine was born in the waning days of the Roman Empire. In his older age, Rome will be sacked, creating a worldwide crisis of identity, soul-searching, and questioning. He is born in a small town, Thagaste, in North Africa, the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. We do not know if he was black or white-skinned, nor do we have any description of what he looked like. We know he was born into a family of moderate means, certainly not a wealthy one. His father was a low-level Roman official and a pagan. His mother was an overbearing devout Christian. He is a good student and eventually gets educated in oratory and rhetoric and becomes moderately successful. But, he can’t shake an internal quest for meaning, and around 17 years old, he joins a religious cult called the Manicheans (to his mother’s horror and sadness). The Manicheans will be influential in his early life, and he is devoted to their religion. But, as he gets older, he finds that they cannot answer his most nagging question: the origin of evil. Eventually, through a new context of teachings which he was exposed to in Milan by the Christian Bishop Ambrose (and gave his thought a new direction), Augustine finds peace about the origins of evil and converts to Christianity. He trains under Ambrose and becomes a priest and then Bishop of the North African town of Hippo, where he remains until his death.

Augustine receives quite a bit of fame within his lifetime because of his sharp intellect, clear writing style, and the success of his book Confessions. Over his life, he will write all sorts of theological and philosophical works and foray into developing Christian controversies (almost all of which, in the end, he will “win”—that is, his argument will win out and eventually become doctrinal). We cannot overstate that no person outside the Bible has been as influential to Christian theology as Augustine. Other than St. Paul, he remains the most important Christian theologian, so Christians should familiarize themselves with him and his writings. Here are just a few of his significant contributions:

  • Augustine gives us the view of “original sin” that Adam’s sin and guilt are passed on to all humanity and that we are totally fallen and depraved, in need of a savior since we cannot self-save.

  • Augustine develops the first theology of predestination.

  • Augustine advances sacramental theology; he convinces the Church that the power and efficacy of sacraments rests in the Word of God, not the person performing the sacrament.

  • Augustine convinces the Church that grace saves, not works, by showing the comprehensive fallenness of the human will and its inability to choose God freely. We do not have a free will to choose God.

  • Augustine gives the West the sense that God is “inside” us. For Him, this is where we find God most intimately. We look deep into ourselves and then, projecting upwards, see God (this is sometimes called the “inner turn”). “Be true to yourself” and “be authentic”—these modern concepts, when they have a deep sense of identity, can be traced in no small part to Augustine’s theology.

  • Augustine gives us a theology of love. For him, love is a good that unites us with its object. False or bad loves are called concupiscence, but if we love God we can be united to him, find a home, and find rest.

These are a sampling of Augustine’s contributions, and readers of this article are encouraged to read Augustine for themselves (start with his book, Confessions). But, in closing, let’s return to the idea that evil has no existence. How can Augustine say that? Here’s a (very short) summary of his argument.

Augustine claims that evil does not exist. For him, this means it does not have substance, is not a thing-in-itself, has no being nor independent reality. Augustine says God created everything good—everything—all creation, humanity, and even the devil. So, how did evil happen? Well, it happened because there are different kinds of goods.

God is the Supreme Good because he is God; he has to be the best of all good things by definition. But this good God creates other good things. But those things aren’t other little gods. They are creations, not gods. But they, too, are good; they are just not the same kind of quality of good as God (Nothing can be. Otherwise, it would also be God). So, more specifically, what makes a Supreme Good (God) different in goodness from the other, lesser goods? Augustine says that the Supreme Good (God) “cannot be corrupted.” He is so good that he cannot ever go bad. Why? Because to go bad, something more powerful than himself would have to come in and convince, contrive, deceive, overpower, or overwhelm him. And nothing can do that. So, God can’t be corrupted.

This is what Augustine means by evil; evil is simply where God’s goodness is not because it has been corrupted. And, this corruption, evil, can’t exist on its own.

But the creation is a “lesser good,” which means that it’s “liable to corruption.” Like a perfect ice cream cone right out of the freezer, all creation is truly and 100% good. But put it in the sun, and it melts. So if you could envision a perfect ice cream cone, you could say it was, well, perfect. No evil or bad in it whatsoever. But, it is – conceivably – able to go bad. And that’s what makes it a lesser good.

OK, all well and good (see what I did there?). But how then does evil enter creation? What makes the perfect ice cream cone melt (i.e., what is the hot sun)? Augustine says the problem was that he was thinking of evil just like we are thinking of that hot sun—that evil is a thing (i.e., a substance). But what if evil were not that at all? What if evil was non-being? Then, strictly speaking, it would not exist. Still with me? Let’s try this:

Imagine the following objects: a doughnut hole, a hole in a shirt, a missed opportunity. What do all these things have in common? They don’t exist. They are just labels for spaces or experiences that do not have their own substance. There is no such thing as a hole in a shirt—the hole is just the place where the shirt is not. You can’t buy a shirt hole; it can’t exist independently. A shirt hole is a designation of lack; it is a privation or corruption of a perfect shirt. It needs the shirt to claim identity. If you have no shirt, you can’t have a shirt hole. This is what Augustine means by evil; evil is simply where God’s goodness is not because it has been corrupted. And, this corruption, evil, can’t exist on its own. It’s not a thing, a substance, or a being. Therefore, goodness exists (the perfect shirt), but evil is just a lack. What causes this corruption? When the good creation uses its good gifts to seek after a prohibited good or a misuse of goods. That’s sin.

Thus, God is not the author of evil; we are! God does not create evil, for there is nothing to create if evil has no being. Instead, evil is the result of misused goods. And misused goods (sins) have real effects. They corrupt everything. And when that happens, Augustine says, we need a Savior. For him, Christ offers us true love, a place where we find our other loves “in him” and where our restless hearts can find Sabbath rest in the home he prepares for us.

Further reading suggestions:

(Primary sources)

Augustine’s Confessions. Two translations are usually used in college and seminary classrooms, and both are excellent:

  • Augustine, and Henry Chadwick. 1992. Confessions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Augustine, and R.S. Pine-Coffin. 1961. Confessions. Penguin Classics.

(Secondary Sources)