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Augustine’s life, centuries later, noted for modern-day relevance

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–St. Augustine was an “ecotonic” theologian, as Timothy George put it. Confused?

George introduced students to the obscure word “ecotone” in opening the 2004 Day-Higginbotham Lecture series at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Feb. 3.

“An ecotone is the place where one ecosystem meets another,” said George, founding dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala. “A good example is where the Mississippi River flows into the Gulf of Mexico. … Ecotones are always characterized by instability, fluidity, change, transformation, danger and risk. … This idea applies not only to the physical world, but it applies also to history and time.”

George, who also serves as an executive editor of Christianity Today, has authored more than 20 books, with his “Theology of the Reformers” being a standard textbook on Reformation theology.

With the idea of an ecotone set forth, George went on to describe the ecotonic nature of the life and times of Augustine, bishop of Hippo.

Augustine was born in present-day Algeria in A.D. 354, just 40 years after the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and brought an end to the age of Christian martyrs. Christianity was emerging from an obscure, persecuted sect on the fringe of society to become the global, institutionalized, official religion of the Roman Empire.

Augustine died in A.D. 430. In those 78 years, the world around Augustine was crumbling, George said.

“He lived in the midst of what [Edward] Gibbon taught us to call ‘the fall of the Roman Empire.'” Those who had been persecuted became the persecutors, George recounted. Internal pressures caused by the ambiguous relationship between Christianity and the civil authorities and external pressures from Barbarian hordes had brought the once-mighty Roman Empire to a fiery end.

Augustine was the product of a mixed marriage. His father, Patricius, was a pagan; his mother, Monica, was a Christian. As a young man, he moved to the nearby city of Carthage. There he took advantage of everything a dynamic, urbane, worldly culture had to offer.

He encountered several “worldviews,” academic skepticism and neo-Platonism, and he even became a member of a heretical sect for seven years, George said. In many ways, Augustine’s Christian writings were responsively adversarial to each of these.

George commented on Augustine’s “famous conversion” that occurred after he began listening to the teaching of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. “He loved Ambrose because he was such a good speaker; he could hold him spellbound,” George said.

Initially, Augustine was merely entertained by Ambrose. “Ambrose’s theology was old-fashioned: he was a biblical literalist who believed Jesus’ miracles really happened. But Augustine kept listening, and suddenly what Ambrose was saying began to take root in Augustine’s heart,” George said.

Considering Augustine’s spiritual pilgrimage and lengthy pre-conversion association with Ambrose, “Augustine’s conversion was at once a momentary event, but also a result of a long period of events,” not the least of which, George said, were his mother’s and Ambrose’s faithfulness to the Gospel.

Applying these events to the ministry of preachers and Bible teachers today, George said, “Sometimes it is a discouraging task. We do not see all the response we want every single time; we know there are people out there who do not know the Lord, our hearts are burdened for them, and we preach our hearts out. Nothing seems to happen,” George said.

“Do not give up. Do not quit. The Word of God is alive and powerful, and it can penetrate into the hardest soil. Do not underestimate the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. … Who knows but that God may be using all the struggles in their lives to bring them to Him. Do not write them off.”

The “Osama bin Laden of the time” was a Barbarian chieftain named Alaric. In A.D. 410, Alaric sacked and burned Rome. The world was stunned. Christian leaders were dumbfounded. It was inconceivable to think that this powerful, “eternal” city was in ashes and under the control of a fifth-century terrorist, George said.

This historic shockwave spurred Augustine to write “The City of God.” Working on this treatise until his death 20 years later, Augustine taught that Christians “must not equate the world, any political reality [like] the Roman Empire, or whatever else, with the Kingdom of God,” George said.

“This is the problem with the kind of politicization of the Christian faith, whether it is of the raucous right, loony left or mushy middle: It does not matter. None of these are equivalent with the Kingdom of God.”

There are two extremes evangelicals can learn to avoid by heeding Augustine: At one extreme is utopianism, at the other extreme is cynicism, George said.

“Ministry is always done on a thin line between … engaging the world by bearing witness to the Gospel of Christ, but never to become so embraced by the world that we lose our identity and lose the very Gospel itself that we are sent to proclaim,” George said.

“As we live as the body of God on earth, as we exhibit the characteristics of Christ on the earth, as we are faithful by proclaiming with clarity and integrity the Word of God, as we celebrate and worship the one holy God of time and eternity, and as we love one another with holy purity, the world around us will see us and they will know that we have been with Jesus, and it will make a difference.”

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  • Brent Thompson