Augustine: Asset or Liability?

No one has had a greater influence on the church than Augustine of Hippo. He was and remains a colossus. In an article published in “Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics” ed. James Hastings, pp.219-224, and reprinted in “Calvin and Augustine” pp.305-324, B.B.Warfield rightly said early in the twentieth century that Augustine determined the course of the history of the church in the West up to the present day. Both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism were deeply indebted to him, and his impact on the theology of the Eastern Church was also substantial.

In the 21st century the situation has scarcely changed, and the Church usually remains eager to claim for itself the support of his name.

The Churches have regularly had their heroes and all readers of the history of dogmatics can, like the author of Hebrews (ch.11), reel off the names of the great men of the Church – Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Wesley and so forth. The question that prompts itself, however, is whether these men have always been assets rather than liabilities. In general, while Protestants have entertained doubts about Aquinas, Catholics have tended to regard the influence of Luther and Calvin as baneful. On the other hand, as I have already intimated, Augustine is highly regarded by both Catholic and Protestant. Augustine always claimed he was a Catholic Christian, and even if Roman Catholic theology in the course of history lost some of his emphasis on grace, its doctrine of sin and its ecclesiology remain greatly indebted to him. In contrast, Luther and Calvin’s stress on sin and grace is perceived to be central to their theology even if their ecclesiology, the latter’s in particular, deviated somewhat from that of Augustine.

Warfield points out that despite the “irrefragable authority” (p.309) granted to him by various Roman bishops and almost equal standing with the apostle Paul himself (p.363), the teaching of Augustine never achieved perfect consistency. Like Irenaeus he was not a systematic theologian of the type that was to appear on the scene later in the history of the church. Warfield draws attention to “the amazing variety of doctrine, on almost every conceivable subject throughout the Middle Ages, and later in the Church of Rome (which has) sought support for itself in some saying or other of his”. Considering Augustine’s enormous output, this is hardly surprising, but it again prompts the question of whether or not it has always been helpful. So far as evangelical Protestants are concerned, Augustine’s legacy is most noticeable in, but by no means confined to, Reformed theology whose pedigree its advocates triumphantly trace back through the Puritans, the Reformers and ultimately to Paul. Most of us come to know Augustine as the champion of grace in the battle with Pelagius who emphasized good works and imitation (cf. Art. 9 of the C of E; Needham, p. 49). They tend inevitably on that account alone to see him through rose-coloured spectacles and refer to him with uncritical hagiographic hyperbole. But while the stress of Augustine on grace may be said to be Pauline, it is imperative to ask if Paul was as Augustinian as is frequently claimed? The question, though in a sense anachronistic, is worth examining.

The Goodness of Creation

First, Augustine’s journey through a pagan education, Manicheism and Neo-Platonism hardly fitted him to understand the early chapters of Genesis (cf. e.g. Hick, pp.49ff.,176ff.). While conceding its mutability, Augustine laid such heavy stress on the goodness of creation as the work of the all-good Creator that he failed to appreciate the basic differentiation the Bible makes between the two. For him creation was good but was now corrupted; it had fallen away from its original state of perfection (cf. Hick, p. 90). In contrast, Paul tells us that creation is still good, that is, useful or serving a definite purpose like Eve’s fruit (Gen. 3:6; 1 Tim. 4:3f., cf. 1 Cor. 10:26,30; Ps. 65:9-13; 67:6; 85:12, etc.). For him, as for the author of Genesis, the reason why creation sometimes fails to yield its full richness and abundance is not because it is now cursed or fallen but because it is either uninhabited (Isa. 6:11, etc.) or sinful man fails to exercise his proper dominion (cf. Gen. 3:17-19; 4:12; Lev. 26:19f.; Prov. 24:30-34; 28:19, etc.). However, the pervasive witness of Scripture is that unlike its Creator, it is as God’s handiwork (“made by hand”) inherently corruptible (Ps. 102:25-27, etc.). The mere fact that its fruit can be used for food testifies to this (cf. Gen. 1:30), for man who is himself naturally perishable cannot live on perishable bread alone (Mt. 4:4; John 6:27). In any case, the material creation being temporal (Gen. 1:1) is also ultimately futile (Rom. 8:18-25) like the flesh which stems from it (John 6:63). And to worship an intrinsically temporal creation is inevitably to derogate from the glory of the eternal Creator (Dt. 4:19; Rom. 1:25).


The natural goodness of creation in Augustine’s estimation inevitably involved the moral goodness, even the perfection, of Adam and Eve, our first parents. Thus we see the original beauty of mankind only in them. For Augustine, since our first parents’ time, all mankind has been corrupted not so much because they were made in Adam’s image but because they sinned in him (cf. Latin Vulgate: “in quo omnes peccaverunt”). How do we respond to this? We need to recognize that according to Scripture, far from being good in the Augustinian sense, Adam and Eve, though designed as God intended them to be, were morally neutral; not having (the) law they knew neither good nor evil (Gen. 2:17; 3:5,22) and were, as we might expect, though physically adult, spiritual babies (cf. 1 Cor. 15:46). As a consequence, since like produces like (Gen. 1; John 3:6), all their posterity, being made in their image (cf. Gen. 5:1-3), without knowledge of the law and hence of good and evil, were also morally neutral (Dt. 1:39, etc.). Certainly Adam and Eve like all parents had, contrary to the teaching of Pelagius, an impact for weal or woe on their descendants, but their sin was their own (Lev. 26:39; Ps. 106:6; Ezek. 18, etc.). It, and it alone, was subject to punishment (Dt. 24:16) and judgement (Rom. 2). So while the Augustininian view of Adam (mankind) is patently idealistic like that of the rabbis (cf. Hick, p.71), that of Paul, who sees Adam as stemming from earthly corruption, is pejorative (Rom. 5:12ff.; 1 Cor. 15:21f.; 45-50)! The same can certainly be said of John who sees all earthly things as being unprofitable (1:13; 3:31; 6:63, etc.).

In order to explain the “evil” that characterizes this world, Augustine was compelled to posit a “Fall” from a previous state of perfection. While Adam and Eve were originally holy and righteous, they inexplicably “fell” into sin and in so doing brought ruin and curse to the “good” creation they were called to rule! But the Bible knows nothing of this. In fact, original righteousness and original sin are clearly felonious fabrications which pervade the whole of Augustinian and so-called Christian theology. The truth is that man, like the creation from which he emanates according to the flesh, is as I have already intimated naturally mortal and corruptible. Adam did not, as Augustine contended, lose the immortal life he once possessed; rather he failed to attain to it when it was offered (Gen. 2:17, cf. Rom. 3:23). The glory and honour, which he was promised if he properly exercised dominion (Gen. 1:26,28; Ps. 8:5f.), failed to emerge because he failed to obey the commandment. As one who was made in the image of God and his vice-regent, man should have ruled over nature as God himself had done (Gen. 1:2). He should have reigned as a man rules over the horse he is riding (cf. James 3:2f., cf. Isa. 31:3). In effect, however, he allowed his flesh to rule his spirit (Gen. 3:6, cf. 4:7). Such has been the pattern of sin ever since (Rom. 7:14; Eph. 4:22, etc.). All men and women in the weakness of their flesh sin for the same reason: they give way to the world, the flesh and the devil they are meant to rule over. Consequently, they all in their turn come short of the glory of God and have to be rescued.

Contrary to the teaching of Augustine, the problem is not generation (we are all born sinful) but imitation or recapitulation (as those made in their image we all follow in the pattern established by our forebears, Jer. 7:26; 9:14; 16:11f.; Dan. 9:5,11, etc.). The idea that the children are punished for the sins of their forefathers is explicitly denied. What Irenaeus had taught at an earlier stage of the Church’s history was eclipsed by the misunderstandings or fabrications of Augustine whom Bentley-Taylor, perhaps truer to his word than he intends, describes as a “biblical magician” (p.61)!


So man does not need to recover a lost earthly paradise to which he cannot by nature return (cf. John 3:4) but to aspire to a heavenly one which was the goal of his creation from the start. Even the sinless Jesus, who recapitulated the life of Adam and his pre-Christian descendants, had to leave the womb, the Eden of his earthly gestation, endure slavery in Egypt (Mt. 2:15,cf. Gal. 4:1), keep the law and embark on a pilgrimage to the heavenly Eden (Mt. 3:15; Rev. 22). He who descended had to ascend by succeeding where Eve, Adam, Gentiles and Jews had so abjectly failed (John 3:13; 6:62; 16:28; 17:5, etc.). As a man he also had to undergo the trials and tribulations inevitably associated with life in this naturally corruptible world (Heb. 4:15). Since his aim from the start was to return to the glory he had shared with his Father in eternity, he had to conquer on the same battlefield where the first Adam had been defeated (cf. John 16:33). Furthermore, he had to give his life for his fellows who like Adam had failed and, as their representative, take them in tow (Heb. 2:9f.; 12:2; John 17:24).

The Flesh

Augustine was convinced that the flesh, as a result of Adam’s sin, was evil (Needham, pp.123, 243). But Paul and John saw it rather as the creation of God which emanated from the corruptible earth (Gen. 2:7). Though ultimately unprofitable (John 3:1-8; 6:63), it was good or useful to the extent that it served as the earthly tent in which Jesus dwelt (1 Cor. 15:45-49; John 1:14). So the problem with the flesh, which features so prominently in Scripture, is that, like the earth from which it derives it requires cultivation and control, discipline and dominion (1 Thes. 4:4, etc.). Being earthly, it is naturally corruptible, mortal, weak, subject to temptation and, when confronted by the law, prone to sin. According to the OT, to go no further, no man or woman in the entire course of history had tamed it. That was left to the Lion of the tribe of Judah (Rev. 5:5)! All had given way before it just as Adam and Eve had (1 K. 8:46; Ps. 106:6; 130:3; 143:2; Jer. 17:5, etc.). This, however, was in accordance with the plan of God whose intention was that no ‘flesh’ should boast before him (Rom. 3:19f.,27; 1 Cor. 1:29; Eph. 2:8f.). His goal was that he himself should be the Saviour of his people, and this he became in Christ (Isa. 45:22f.; Phil. 2:9-11; Rom. 11:32; Gal. 3:22).

Whereas Augustine taught original righteousness and subsequent fall, Paul taught original innocence followed by sin on the arrival of the commandment (cf. Rom. 7:9f.). Whereas for Augustine Jesus had to avoid the taint of sin by being born of a virgin apart from carnal concupiscence, for Paul and the author of Hebrews he was born like Adam of an earthly mother by the same Father (Luke 3:38) and in every respect just as we are (Heb. 2:17). But whereas Adam’s original womb was the earth (Gen. 2:7; Ps. 139:15; 1 Cor. 15:45-49) that of Jesus was the bosom of the Father (John 1:14,18). The essential difference between the first and second Adams lies here, and it has nothing to do with carnal desire which, so long as it does not contravene the written law (Ex. 20:14), is wholly natural and ordained by God (Gen. 1:27f.). And whereas the first Adam failed to conquer the world, the flesh and the devil, the second Adam brilliantly succeeded and that in first Adamic flesh (John 8:46; 14:30; 16:33; Rom. 8:3).

Proclivity to Sin

So what the Bible is teaching is not our fall ‘in Adam’ – a travesty of the teaching of Scripture which pervasively rejects the imputation or transmission of sin apart from faith – but the universal susceptibility of all fleshly men and women under the law to come short of the glory of God with the single exception of Jesus (Rom. 8:3). He alone in the weakness (2 Cor. 13:4) and corruptibility of his flesh (John 8:57) triumphed over temptation and never sinned (Mt. 4:1-11; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22, etc.). He alone earned the approbation of his Father being publicly acknowledged as his Son, and he alone, for the first and only time in the history of man, attained to eternal life in fulfillment of the promise made long before to the first Adam (Gen. 2:17).

Jesus’ Universal Relevance

It is this, of course, that gives Jesus his universal relevance. Christians do not promote Jesus in a spirit of superiority and triumphalism. What they do, or should do, is testify to his unique perfection as man (Mt. 5:48; Heb. 2:10; 7:28). If God promised ultimate perfection and glorification to man by keeping the law in both letter and spirit (Gen. 1:26,28; 2:17; Ps. 8:5f.; Heb. 2:9; Rom. 2:7,10), it had to be achieved by man. The only man to achieve it was Jesus who as the second Adam did it as mankind’s representative (Heb. 5:9f.; 6:20; 12:2). And it is to him that we must all, without exception, turn in humble submission (Phil. 2:9-11).

While Augustine presented the first Adam as holy and righteous by creation, Scripture presents him as a spiritual baby. He is ‘born’ innocent and weak like the second Adam who in order to secure the salvation of his fellows has to recapitulate his experience (cf. Isa. 7:15f.). And when the parental ‘no’ is impressed on his developing mind (cf. Gen. 2:17) he, along with Eve, gives way and loses his innocence. As such he becomes the father of all his offspring who, like father like son and like mother like daughter (cf. Ezek. 16:44), follow in his footsteps and become by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:1-3; Tit. 3:3, cf. John 8:34). Paul specifically describes his own early life in terms of Eve and Adam (Rom. 7:9ff.), and what is true of Paul is certainly true of the rest of us. Augustine’s problem was that he put the cart before the horse. Instead of seeing that the material creation was but the temporal testing ground preceding eternal life in heaven and man as flesh as but part of it and imperfect, that is, immature by nature, he put the creation/creature on a par with its Creator and hence had to posit the “Fall” and its consequent cosmic curse. Of this Scripture knows nothing.


It is one of the ironic quirks of history that those who claim Augustine as their doctrinal mentor implicitly undermine their own belief in perseverance. For if Adam was originally righteous (justified!) and did not remain so, then there is no reason to believe that anyone can. The conviction of Arminians that even regenerate believers can fall away from salvation would appear to be supported by Adam’s fall. Of course, it can be replied that Adam was not confirmed in his righteousness, that he was not regenerate, if you like, and had to be tested (though in the rest of Scripture righteousness achieved by keeping the law is the indispensable prerequisite of life, Gen. 2:17; 3:22-24; Rom. 5:21; 1 John 2:29, etc.). But if he was already righteous such testing was superfluous. Having begun at the end, he had nowhere to go! He had arrived before he set off. It is noticeable, however, that his later descendants who were said by Augustinians to be born sinful were also subject to testing (Ex. 20:20; Dt. 8:2,16, etc.). The obvious lesson to be learned from this is that both original sin and original righteousness are false. They both have to be gained. Where there is no law, as in the case of babies (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15f., etc.), there is no transgression (Gen 2:16; Rom. 4:15; Gal. 5:23). But when the law is announced, it determines the moral standing of the one to whom it is addressed (cf. Rom. 7:9f.). He who keeps the law is thereby constituted righteous (Dt. 6:25; 1 John 3:7); he who like Adam breaks the law is thereby constituted unrighteous (Gen. 2:17; 3:22). Here lies the practical difference between the two Adams: the first broke the law and paid for it in death (Gen. 3:19), the second kept the law, received eternal life and thus confirmed his pedigree as God’s Son (Mt. 3:17). We also like Adam sin, die (Rom. 5:12) and forfeit our fleshly bodies (Gen. 3:19; Ps. 49; 104:29; Rom. 8:10), but by the grace of God we also believe in Christ, share his righteousness and along with him inherit life, sonship (by adoption) and glory (John 11:25; Rom. 5:21; 8:12-17,29f.). And, as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 15:45-50, our bodies follow the pattern established by both. If the first Adam’s flesh was the prototype of ours on the earth (cf. Phil. 3:19), the second Adam’s body is the prototype of ours in glory (Rom. 8:23; Phil. 3:21, cf. 2 Cor. 5:1).


Nowadays Augustine’s influence is felt by evangelical Protestants perhaps most noticeably through commentaries on Paul’s letter to the Romans. These continue to be dominated by Augustinian thinking even though the Bishop of Hippo, with his limited understanding of Greek, gave up his own attempt to write one himself (cf. Bentley-Taylor, pp.51,55). While Paul teaches actual sin (i.e. like our parents including Adam and Eve, cf. Ex. 32:33; Lev. 26:39; Ps. 106:6; Jer. 32:18f.; Ezek. 18, etc., we all sin on our own account, 1:18-3:20), Augustinians promote imputed sin (i.e. we all sin ‘in Adam’). Though Paul differentiates between actual sin (wages, cf. 6:23) and righteousness (free gift by faith, 4:1-8), Augustinians insist that in Romans 5:12 death comes to all who sin ‘in Adam’! In doing so they add to Scripture and completely pervert Paul’s meaning, for death for man is the wages of sin (cf. Gen. 2:16f.). By contrast, on the Augustinian showing, death is a free gift (imputation!) granted to babies apart from faith and knowledge! If this is true, God is the author of evil on the one hand and guilty of injustice by imputing sin to those who do not have it on the other. Elsewhere in Scripture condemning the guiltless is always reprobated (e.g. Gen. 18:25; 1 Sam. 22:15; 1 K. 21; Mt. 12:7) except in the sole case of Jesus to whom our sin was imputed by faith (John 10:17f.; 2 Cor. 5:21).

So, to sum up, while for Paul sin is a work which is committed in violation of the law and earns wages, for Augustine sin is a free gift of God which also earns the wages of death!!! Alternatively expressed, Augustine made sin a gift of grace (!) instead of a work of the flesh (see espec. Gal. 5:19-21). This flatly contradicts what the apostle teaches in 4:1-8 where imputation and wages are shown to be mutually exclusive.

Once the dogma of original sin has been established to the satisfaction of Augustinians in Romans 5, it is inevitable that their distortion of Romans 7 follows. While Paul clearly teaches, as I noted above, that as a child he went through the same process of sin as, first, Eve, who was deceived (cf. 7:11), then Adam in his rebellion against the commandment/law before he became a Christian (Rom. 8), Augustinians usually maintain that the chapter at issue describes the Christian life. Having failed completely to appreciate Paul’s covenant theology and his position with regard to the flesh, for them belief in original sin and its resultant deadness exclude the possibility that the chapter can describe anything but the Christian life. The truth is, of course, that the flesh, like the earth from which it derives, is a problem throughout our lives. It was in Jesus’ case, though he overcame it (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22); it is so in ours, and we have to be warned even as Christians not to give way to it (Rom. 13:14, etc.).

In some ways the worst blunder comes in Romans 8:18-25. Here Paul is intent on contrasting eternal heavenly glory with temporal earthly corruption. As in John 3:1-7 and 1 Corinthians 15:35-50 there is no reference to sin here. All the emphasis falls on nature as created by God. Difficulties in its interpretation arise mainly from the word ktisis. Does it mean creation or creature (cf. KJV), or is Paul playing on words as he does elsewhere (e.g. with regard to Adam, Israel, seed, etc.)? Augustinians tell us that there is little doubt (sic) that the passage in question reflects Genesis 3:17-19 (e.g. Cranfield, p.413). But does it? There is not the slightest evidence that it does, and to my knowledge the contention has never been substantiated. Surely, what Paul is saying is not that creation was cursed on account of Adam’s sin (see e.g. Collins, pp.162-166) but that God himself of express purpose subjected it to corruption from the beginning. He made it that way. Even Genesis 1:1 implies this and, as we have seen above, creation’s perishable food cannot sustain eternal life. Just as creation itself is subject to aging (Heb. 1:11, cf. 8:13), so is all that stems from it – even the incarnate Jesus (John 8:57, cf. Mt. 5:36; 6:19f.). And while it may be true that sin exacerbates the difficulties man encounters in the world over which God has given him dominion, it is nonetheless naturally subject to corruption and inherently futile. In the event, the letter to the Romans, which Augustinians regard as peculiarly their own, has been subject to massive distortion.

Augustine a Liability

In fact, we may go further. On account of his enormous influence, Augustine has proved perhaps the greatest perverter of our understanding of Christianity that ever lived. While it may be true he won a great victory over a potentially pernicious Pelagianism and gloriously upheld the grace of God, he did it at tremendous cost.


First, as I have noted above, his virtual equation of the goodness of creation with the goodness or perfection of the Creator and his exclusive stress on sin as an explanation of nature’s corruption have been disastrous: they have given us a worldview that is not merely at odds with that of the Bible but is patently absurd. In this area, modern science can give us more help in understanding the meaning of Scripture than Augustine. But if the Reformed have erred at this point, how much more the (dispensational) premillennialists who, while objecting to Augustine’s rejection of chiliasm, have basically accepted his worldview (original sin, universal curse, etc.) and would have us believe that the Jesus, who has passed through the heavens, attained to glory (John 17:5,24) sits at the right hand of the Father (Rev. 3:21) and exercises universal authority (dominion, cf. Mt. 28:18; Heb. 1:6; 2:5), will return in the flesh (sic) to reign for a thousand years on this corruptible earth which he has already conquered (John 16:33; 17:4f.; Heb. 2:9; 9:28; Rev. 5:5,12f.).

So, whereas for Augustine the problem with the earth arose from the curse, for Paul it was a ‘country’ (cf. Heb. 11:16) of temporal bondage like Egypt from which it was necessary for exiles (1 Pet. 1:1) to escape through the wilderness of the world in hope of reaching the heavenly Promised Land (Rom. 8:18-25, cf. 1 Pet. 2:11). And whereas for Augustine the primary problem with the fleshly body was that is was radically affected by Adam’s sin, for Jesus (John 3:1-8) and Paul (1 Cor. 15:42-50; 2 Cor. 4:16-5:5) it was that it stemmed from the earth and was inherently subject to corruption (cf. Gen. 6:3). In other words, even apart from sin, it was never designed to last forever. It necessarily required transformation or replacement (1 Cor. 15: 51ff., etc.).


Next, the impact of Augustine’s understanding of the new birth has been immense. While he presented it exclusively as the means of countering the effects of sin, especially original sin (Needham, pp. 59,121, etc.), Jesus taught that birth from above was necessary means of overcoming the inability of the flesh, or the natural man, to inherit eternal life. (This is not to deny its relevance to sin, cf. 2 Cor. 5:17, and the natural man’s spiritual incapacity which Paul deals with in 1 Cor. 2:14-16.) In the Bible, since the eternal heaven and the temporal earth are naturally incompatible, a spiritual body, which succeeds the spiritual new birth, is paramount for survival in heaven (3:6, cf. 1 Cor. 15:50). So whereas for Augustine regeneration was to all intents and purposes a moral imperative on account of sin, for Jesus and Paul it was a natural necessity. Of course, it needs to be recognized that sin prevented the attainment of life in all cases apart from that of Jesus and that regeneration in this world plays a fundamental role in sanctification (Eph. 2:1-3; Tit. 3:3-7, etc.). No matter what, faith in him as Saviour became indispensably necessary. For he alone brought life and incorruption (Gk.) to light (2 Tim. 1:10).

The Order of Salvation

But, third, the Augustinian view of regeneration did untold damage in another way. As the cure for original sin, it had to be placed first in the order of salvation (ordo salutis). This has at least three appalling implications. First, the new birth precedes the righteousness which is meant to lead to it (Rom. 5:21). (1* Note how in Romans 6 obedience leads to righteousness, v.16, righteousness leads to sanctification ,v.19, and sanctification leads to eternal life, v.22.) In other words, we are sanctified before we are justified, given life before we are righteous and implicitly cemented eternally in our sin. This idea is ruled out of court by Genesis 3:22-24 where we read that Adam was prevented from having access to the tree of life precisely because he had sinned and was regarded as unrighteous. Second, if we have eternal life before we even aspire to holiness and righteousness, why bother? Antinomianism is the logical and often practical result. And, third, since we are born sinful, Christian baptism, which in the NT signifies repentance, faith and regeneration, has to be imposed on us as babies by the hand of man like circumcision. This implies that since we are born unconscious flesh in the image of Adam, our temporal flesh is eternalized! Sadly, this is apparently what some Christians believe.

Baptism and Sin

Thus, fourth, the “exact” (Piper, pp.90ff.) or “perfect parallel” (Berkhof, p.214, cf. Murray, pp.20,34,40) beloved by Augustinians between the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity in Romans 5 (apart from faith!) led willy-nilly to infant baptismal regeneration and nurtured the false ecclesiology which Warfield attacked as unbiblical. Warfield was apparently convinced that grace would have triumphed completely in Augustine’s theology had he lived longer (p.382). This hypothesis is extremely unlikely. And for such a fine theologian to assume that it did so at the Reformation borders on the naïve (pp.322,383). Even today the battle is far from won. It is rendered acutely uncertain by the blatantly inconsistent advocates of Reformed theology of which he was such an able exponent! Perhaps that is why Warfield himself never wrote a systematic theology. His essay on the human development of Jesus, to go no further, begged all sorts of questions (Selected Shorter Writings, pp. 158ff.).

The Flesh Evil

Fifth, Augustine’s belief that the flesh, following Adam’s sin, was evil, as opposed to inadequate, temporal and provisional like the law (2 Cor. 3; Heb. 7:18f.) and the material cosmos (Mt. 5:18), has led even modern translators of the Bible into error. The tendentious NIV in particular constantly translates “sarx” as “sinful nature” thereby distorting Paul’s meaning most blatantly in verses like Romans 8:13 and Galatians 6:8. (These verses are rightly seen for what they are by James Dunn, pp.52, etc.).


Sixth, Augustine’s views on sex are an embarrassment even to modern Roman Catholics. His failure to fully accept with Scripture that sex is the gift of God but one that must be managed according to law has had catastrophic effects. It has led inevitably to the imposition of celibacy on the priesthood and to the cult of the Virgin Mary which Protestants and many Catholics find deeply disturbing.

Saint or Sinner

Though a book or books would be necessary to deal properly with his theology, so far as this essay at entering the lions’ den is concerned, it would perhaps be unfair to leave Augustine at this point. The question must be asked: Was Augustine a saint or a sinner? Of course, the answer cannot be exclusively the one or the other, for the illustrious Bishop of Hippo was, like all Christians, both, or, as Luther put it, “simul justus et peccator”. It is, however, difficult to read Warfield on his Confessions or Brown’s full-length biography without concluding that despite his faults, which included his persecution of the Donatists and churlish dismissal of valid points made by Pelagius and others like Julian of Eclanum (see e.g. Chadwick, pp.111ff., Rist, 321ff.), that Augustine was committed and sincere and, on Catholic assumptions, justly canonized by the Church. Ultimately, the problem is not so much Augustine himself but his teaching and writings which have also been uncritically canonized by Catholic and Protestant alike despite his own reservations or Retractations. What we all have to learn is that sincerity, not to mention public stature or religious fanaticism, does not equate with veracity. Our job is not to decide whether or not Augustine went to heaven – God will do that – but whether or not what he taught accords with the word of God. I myself have concluded that he erred profoundly and that the Reformers though accomplishing much failed to rectify many of his mistakes. (The Reformation was never more than a half-way house.) While they dealt impressively with the mass, they came well short of recognizing that practically all of NT theology is subsumed under baptism. The real tragedy is that their successors have succumbed to the same traditionalism that the Reformers themselves criticized. And thus Reformed orthodoxy, despite its heart-warming emphasis on grace, has from a biblical point of view become today’s heresy. (Perhaps this is why IVP books like “The God of Covenant” ed. Grant and Wilson, “Christian Zionism” by S.Sizer, “Always Reforming”, ed. McGowan and “Who Can Be Saved” by T.L.Tiessen have been recently published. There is clearly a strong undercurrent of feeling that all is not well in the evangelical camp. In fact, as I have tried to indicate, the situation is somewhat worse than most are aware.)

The mere fact that Jesus himself was baptized on the threshold of adulthood after being tested and proved under the law (Ex. 20:20) should have alerted all to the absurdity of infant baptism which according to Augustine prevented babies from being consigned to hell. But about this the NT, not surprisingly, says nothing. What it does say militates overwhelmingly against it. If we want complete reformation and full understanding of NT Christianity, we would all do well to ponder the issue in all its ramifications.

In these days when the world religions are resurgent and rampant, it is vital for Christianity, or the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), to be presented in all its glorious truth and not in the various forms of its Augustinian distortion. Failure at this point will involve the perpetuation of what is perhaps one of the greatest frauds in all history.


D.Bentley-Taylor, The Apostle from Africa, Fearn, 2002.

L.Berkhof, Systematic Theology, London, 1959.

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, rev. ed, London, 2000.

H.Chadwick, Augustine, Oxford, 1986.

C.J.Collins, Genesis 1-4, Phillipsburg, 2006.

C.E.B.Cranfield, ICC Romans 1-8, Edinburgh, 1975.

J.D.G.Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, London/New York, 1998.

J.Hick, Evil and the God of Love, Fontana ed. London, 1968.

J.Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, Phillipsburg, 1979.

N.R.Needham, The Triumph of Grace, London, 2000.

J.Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ, Wheaton, 2002.

J.M.Rist, Augustine, Cambridge, 1996.

B.B.Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, Philadelphia, 1956.
Selected Shorter Writings 1, ed. Meeter, Nutley, 1970.