Augustine of Hippo
Warrior of the word
May 12th 2005
From The Economist print edition
LORD, how right those early Christians were. And how wrong everyone else, not least their fellow Christians. And didn't they just know it. Today's Trotskyite factions ferociously dispute their rival claims to be the true and sole heirs of the butcher of Kronstadt. Claiming a nobler heritage, no doubt, but with not vastly more brotherly love, the early fathers of the church did likewise.
One such was Augustine, from 396AD to his death in 430, bishop of
Hippo, a town in the far north-east of what is now
Augustine was born in 354AD in North Africa, studied philosophy
and rhetoric, fell for Manichean dualism, went at 28 to
Then, as now, there was not a church but churches--—though
them claimed supremacy.
And what were the rivals split about? Well, the Donatists thought
sinners must be re-baptised, the Caecilianists that one baptism was for ever.
Over this pinhead, not just Christian ink but blood was spilt; not as much or
cruelly as in the "“crusad"” set afoot by Pope Innocent III against the
Albigensian heretics, or in
Even as he was winning this battle Augustine set about another, against Pelagius. Who he, you ask? Or Petilian or Priscillian or Julian of Eclanum, other victims of Augustine's pen, driven by the righteous certainty that he knew best. Or even the earlier Origen or Arius? And did the points of difference matter anyway? To Augustine and his opponents, like today's Trotskyites, yes, enormously.
Indeed, the church having more divisions and longer
life-expectancy than Marxism, they matter still. Time has labelled the losers
heretics. Mr O'Donnell does well to make plain how much less clear-cut
orthodoxy was in 400AD. And oddly, Augustine, rightly seen in some matters as
the father of Catholicism, won his anti-Pelagian battle but in the end lost the
war. Pelagius thought each man free to choose good or evil. To Augustine that
choice was preordained--—an idea closer to Calvinism than to those, today,
One war, alas, Augustine did not lose. Like many church notables then and now, he was obsessed with the sins of the body. Few who smile at the engaging young man seeking virtue postponed will know how in the end he achieved it: by dumping his (at least common-law) wife. Some might think that a sin of the spirit.
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