Augustine’s View of Man
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works” (vv. 13–14).
- Psalm 139
Without a doubt, Augustine of Hippo is the most significant of all the church fathers of the West. His thought has impacted not only the entire course of Western theology but also Western philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines. In redeeming Augustine, God gave us a great thinker and pastor.
Augustine, who was born in AD 354, left many works in which he explores the depths of sin, free will, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the sacraments, to name but a few. His musings on the nature of wickedness are especially illuminating, as in the case when he recounts his theft of some pears during his youth. Augustine noted that he could understand why a starving person would steal food — hunger drives him to take from others to feed himself. Of course, Augustine was not excusing the behavior; he was only explaining that theft of food in the case of starvation has some kind of rational basis. Yet Augustine said he was not hungry when he stole the pears, and, moreover, he did not really like pears to begin with. In other words, he did evil for the thrill of doing evil. Such is the degree and irrationality of sin.
Long before John Calvin wrote the same thing in the first chapter of his Institutes, Augustine said that to know God we must know ourselves, and at the same time we cannot know ourselves unless we know God. This is no contradiction; Augustine is only showing how knowledge of self and knowledge of God are reciprocal. When we honestly examine ourselves, we come face to face with the fact that we are creatures, giving us a sense of our Creator in His transcendent majesty. Yet such knowledge of ourselves is not complete unless we study God’s character. In learning who He is, we learn more about ourselves in relation to Him; thus, we gain a fuller understanding of our own dispositions, both the excellencies of which we are capable and the depths of our depravity.
Knowledge, Augustine said, is based on an ultimate standard of truth. We begin to know our wickedness and excellence only because we can compare ourselves to the perfectly holy God. In like manner, the acquisition of learning in any area is possible only through relating data to the final measure of truth.
Those who are not Christians still seek understanding based on Christian assumptions. For example, scientists can draw universally applicable conclusions from experiments only by assuming a regularity to how the world operates. Such regularity is possible only if a covenant-keeping Lord upholds all things. A person who claims to be an atheist but is then sure of his own knowledge reveals how hollow his beliefs are.
Passages for Further Study
- Psalm 19
- Proverbs 1:7
- Romans 1:18–32
- Colossians 2:1–3
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