Erika Santiago

Lessons from the Early Church on Addressing Cultural Christianity

Introduction

Lessons learned from the response of the early church to the culture around them contributed to forming the foundations of Western Christian theology. Responding to the dominant Roman and pagan culture of his time, Augustine developed scripturally based responses to cultural influences similar to those faced by modern Christianity. This paper will explore how his responses to heretical views, paganism and other cultural influences can inform a strategic response to similar concerns facing the church today in America. 

Augustine lived and served the church in North Africa. He was born in 354 in a small town in “Roman North African province of Numidia”[1] He was educated to be a Latin rhetorician and was employed for a time as a communications instructor before his conversion to Christianity.[2] In this role as Bishop of Hippo, he participated in the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) where the New Testament canon was initially affirmed.[3] “Augustine believed that the canonical Scriptures were inspired, authoritative and the basis for sound doctrine.”[4] Thus, it is beneficial to study and learn from how Augustine chose to respond so that we might respond well ourselves to the false teachings today.  Augustine lived out the message from Paul in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”

Augustine’s Response to Heresy and False Teaching

The fifth century church benefited from a long tradition of Christianity in Northern Africa. Traditional trade routes throughout the Mediterranean region along with the roads built by the Romans allowed for a natural evangelism to take place finding homes with the early church Fathers like Cyprian and Augustine in Africa.[5] There were several major heresies in the early church that the church fathers had to work diligently to expose and address both internally and externally. In this context, a heresy is a “willful propagation of a position or perspective that runs against the grain of apostolic teaching and tradition.”[6] In the fifth century, Augustine in his role as Bishop of Hippo participated in developing a theological practice to refute false claims in love and with clarity. He specifically addressed Manichaeism, Donatism and Pelagianism in his sermons, letters, writing and church councils. African church councils, pre-Nicea stood boldly against civic religious idolatry. Tertullian believed that heresy amounts to any teaching that is not supported in scripture.[7] Cyprian developed the conciliar process based on scriptural study that eventually became the foundation of the ecumenical movement helping believers with cultural differences find unity based on scripture and not philosophy. Augustine benefited from and continued these new traditions as Bishop of Hippo.[8] Commanding a knowledge of biblical languages, geography, philosophy, the sciences and building upon his years of training and success in rhetoric, Augustine was able to explain the scriptures in proper context to correct alternative narratives of the gospel message.[9] It was his educated perspective that influenced his initial concern that orthodox Christianity was less sophisticated than other religions and thus he fell into this false belief system. Manichaeism rejected the Old Testament claiming that all religions work together to form a complete doctrine.[10]  “After his conversion to Nicene Christianity, in 386, however, Manichaeism was an enduring threat” in Augustine’s view. Responding to Manichaeism for him begins with his second conversion when he realizes that this version of the gospel is not only incomplete but incorrect and so he strives to fix his outlook. He shares his development and journey away from Manichaeism in his “Confessions” and some in “City of God.” The challenge with this particular heretical teaching was that not only had Augustine followed it initially, it did not follow the truth in apostolic tradition or scripture.  The reasoning behind this teaching was that creations role was confused and treated equally with the Creator.[11]

 “The question at the heart of the Donatist controversy was this: Were the rites and sacraments of the church, such as baptism and ordination, validly exercised and practiced by those who had lapsed during a time of persecution?”[12]Historically, under persecution the church leaders responded in ways that were considered shameful by some. Augustine’s approach was to respond with scriptural focus on love and specifically what Jesus taught. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them.” Matthew 13:28-29 (NIV)

The Donatists were strictly focused on purifying the church to which Augustine responded that that was an unrealistic objective. He used the example of the “wheat and the chaff” as he described a “mixed society or “permixta ecclesia” drawing from Matthew 13.[13] While the Donatists seemed focused on a limited view of : “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 10:22) Augustine believed that the “desire for a pure church in the present age can tempt the genuine believer to leave the church in a misguided quest for holiness and purity.”[14] Out of this controversy, Augustine’s doctrine of original sin was formed.[15]

Another heretical teaching that became popular enough to require a response from Augustine and the church resulted from Pelagius believing that Augustine’s “Confessions” were too extreme in the idea of original sin and suggested that all people are inherently good and if they do good works in their lives that will be enough. Augustine responded that Pelagius could not confirm his claim with scripture. Augustine argues that scripture does not back up Pelagius’ idea that only the grace of God helps humans to choose to do God’s will. [16] He drafts personal letters to the Pope in Rome (Innocent I) and the Bishop of Jerusalem as well as a letter on behalf of the African bishops to put forward his position of orthodox beliefs against Pelagianism.[17] Augustine knew what it was to be a pastor and do deal frequently with his parishioners’ struggles with the dynamics of temptation and sin.”[18] Augustine’s clear appeal to both an exegetical system developed by earlier church fathers and church leadership in Rome and Jerusalem demonstrates his objective to deliver agreement in orthodox challenges to heresy.[19] “Pelagius desired to combat any tendency within the Christian community to excuse their sinful actions because of a deficit in human nature itself.”[20] To which Augustine argues that “disobedience is the consequence of sin, not the cause of sin.”[21] His response carried through the Council of Carthage in 411 where Pelagianism was convicted by the church.[22] It was not uncommon well into the 5th century that erroneous schools of thought developed and emerged with small and large followings. Interestingly, many of the erroneous philosophies in some shape or form continue into the 21st century where it becomes necessary to look toward the past lessons from Augustine in order to respond adequately. 

Responding to False Teaching Today

We can learn how to respond to heresy and false teaching in the Western church today from Augustine’s method of teaching in community, relationship, love and soundly scriptural practice. Unfortunately, some of the same heresies Augustine fought against have been revisited upon the church today. Donatism is resurfacing as Protestants and Roman Catholics deal with controversies within their organizations and we can see hints of the pagan Roman Emperor cult through nationalism and extreme patriotism. We are also seeing Pelagianism rebound through the post-modernalism and universalism. How does the church today respond? While we are not under empirical authority, there is much to learn from the way that early church leaders worked inside and outside of the political power structures of their time. practice in worship, prayer and the many relationships of life must always remain one piece. The idea that worship, prayer and our relationships with others are lived out together become our theology that informs our orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Augustine modeled the community life as an engaged pastor and church leader in his time. His writings provide valuable insight to how we can respond in love grounded in scripture. 

Today we have groups within the church who believe that the church should be pure now and not be working towards sanctification. Augustine’s response to the Donatists took into consideration the pastoral perspective of spiritual growth in the lives of his parishioners. Augustine maintained that the church will always be a “permixta ecclesia, a mixed society of both genuine and false believers.”[23]  He references scriptures found in Matthew 3:12, 13:24-30, 13:47-49.  Augustine concedes as perhaps we should as well that “for the present time, the city of God and the city of this world “are interwoven and intermixed… and await separation at the last judgment.””[24]As we follow the teachings and writings of Augustine, we cannot help but notice that he writes within the context of his culture.  His education in rhetoric and philosophy is apparent in how he structures his thoughts and messages to his parishioners and recipients of his letters or audiences of his writing.  In fact, City of God was intended to be embraced by both pagan and Christian audiences.[25]Neoplatonism as a systemic philosophy influenced the organization of Augustine’s communication through his sermons and writings.[26] Likely unbeknownst to the thinkers themselves, it is evident that the late antiquity and medieval theologians drew upon a foundation of Platonic tradition.[27] The framework Neoplatonism provided assisted Augustine with reaching those who might otherwise not be familiar with traditional Judaism or Jewish philosophy that makes up the scriptures of the New Testament. An example found in “City of God” of this type of language is “But the true and highest good, according to Plato, is God, and therefore he would call him a philosopher who loves God; for philosophy is directed to the obtaining of the blessed life, and he who loves God is blessed in the enjoyment of God.”[28]

Today, churches have insider and outsider language… Augustine seems to prefer to utilize the outsider language to reach unbelievers. This is a model worth following in structuring modern arguments against false teaching.  The use of the Latin vernacular benefited Augustine as a teacher to write contextually about how the syncretic system of the Roman religion was counter to the Christian ideal of exclusivity. “As Roman religion was syncretistic and included Persian, Egyptian, and Phoenician deities in its pantheon, while also venerating the Roman emperor, the exclusive claims of Christianity were certainly repulsive to the imperial cult.”[29] We see this syncretistic value system today in the American patriotism infused in some of our churches. Events are planned around the 4th of July including gospel concerts masked as evangelism and outreach but probably not clearly defining the gospel message separate from American elitism. While patriotism has its place in society, American Christians have confused many non-believers with a trend to blend patriotism with Christianity. The reaction of the church today can be modeled after Augustine’s educational approach to studying scripture. “In early Christianity the principal educational challenge facing the Church was twofold: how to deal with (a) the legacy of Jewish thought and (b) the challenges arising from the encounter between Christianity and Hellenic philosophy.”[30] In Augustine’s worldview, education via friendship and community was important. Influenced certainly by the monastic traditions, he set up his church in Hippo to function similar to a monastery.[31] It was in this environment that Augustine was able to write and study and discuss but most importantly disciple future church leaders. There he “offered a holistic synthesis centered on the study of Sacred Scripture” developing a congruency of learning that accessed the Jewish scriptural tradition and the neo-platonic philosophical style of learning through inquiry.[32] As a result of his emphasis on education through community and discipleship, his biographer noted that “as many as ten church leaders came from Augustine’s clerical monastery.”[33] “Augustine’s ecclesiastical “career” is most fully understood as an extended teaching moment that synthesized the best of Christian thought and Greek philosophy and is mediated, although not exclusively, through his trilogy of writings on Christian education: On the Teacher—De magistro; On the catechizing of the uninstructed—De catechezandi rudibus; on Christian doctrine—De doctrina Christiana.”[34] In his work, “Confessions” Augustine ponders how we learn and retain information: 

“Wherefore we find that to learn these things, whose images we drink not in by our senses, but perceive within as they are by themselves, without images, is nothing else but by meditation as it were to concentrate, and by observing to take care that those notions which the memory did before contain scattered and confused, be laid up at hand, as it were, in that same memory, where before they lay concealed, scattered and neglected, and so the more easily present themselves to the mind well accustomed to observe them.”[35]

Toward the end of Augustine’s life, he set the example of reformulating and revising his beliefs as a disciple who makes disciples through his work, “Retractions.” 

“For a long time I have been thinking about and planning to do something which I, with God’s assistance, am now undertaking because I do not think it should be postponed: with a kind of judicial severity, I am reviewing my works—books, letters, and sermons —and, as it were, with the pen of a censor, I am indicating what dissatisfies me.”[36]

Conclusion

The early church leaders had to focus on explaining theology, orthodoxy and orthopraxy to an audience unfamiliar with many of the key ideas of Christianity so much so that it was completely counter-cultural. Using the familiar language of their culture, Augustine was able to connect ideas that have stood the test of time and are well worth discussing today. One of the most useful ideas from Augustine is the idea of being a life-long learner. Being teachable is a key component to discipleship. In the Western Church today, we have the extraordinary opportunity to learn from Augustine’s style of leadership, discipleship, education, and pastoral care that demonstrates how to respond effectively to false and heretical teaching. 

Augustine was profoundly pastoral and altruistic in his responses to heretical teachers of his time. We can learn that diffusing heresy or false teaching in the church today should take the approach modeled by Jesus as well as Augustine that a pastoral or relational connection will encourage a truthful worldview over fire and brimstone or condemnation.  Augustine believed “we have not truly understood the Bible until we have applied it in such a way that our love for God and neighbor is evident.”[37]


[1] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 121.

[2] Leonardo Franchi (2011) Healing the Wounds: St. Augustine, Catechesis, and Religious Education Today, Religious Education, 106:3, 302, DOI: 10.1080/00344087.2011.569656

[3] Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2010), 179.

[4] Elmer L. Towns and Benjamin K. Forrest, A Legacy of Religious Educators: Historical and Theological Introductions (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2017), 23.

[5] Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2010), 21.

[6] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 30.

[7] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 29.

[8] Thomas C. Oden, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2010), 49.

[9] Elmer L. Towns and Benjamin K. Forrest, A Legacy of Religious Educators: Historical and Theological Introductions (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2017), 24.

[10] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 122.

[11] Johannes Van Oort, “Manichaeism in Augustine’s Sermons: The Case of Sermo 182,” Journal of Early Christian History 5, no. 1 (2015): 151, doi:10.1080/2222582x.2015.11877321.

[12] Christopher A. Hall, Worshiping with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 76.

[13] Christopher A. Hall, Worshiping with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 77.

[14] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 242.

[15] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 123.

[16] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 137.

[17] Anton Adamut, “Some Aspects of the Pelagian Controversy.” Hermeneia, no. 16 (2016),  http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/1833036423?accountid=12085, 129.

[18] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 134.

[19] Anton Adamut, “Some Aspects of the Pelagian Controversy.” Hermeneia, no. 16 (2016),  http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/1833036423?accountid=12085, 130.

[20] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 134.

[21] Anton Adamut, “Some Aspects of the Pelagian Controversy.” Hermeneia, no. 16 (2016),  http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/docview/1833036423?accountid=12085, 130.

[22] Ibid, 129.

[23] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 242.

[24] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 243.

[25] Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 112.

[26] Stephen Gersh, “The First Principles of Latin Neoplatonism: Augustine, Macrobius, Boethius,” Vivarium 50, no. 2 (2012): 113, doi:10.1163/15685349-12341236.

[27] Stephen Gersh, “The First Principles of Latin Neoplatonism: Augustine, Macrobius, Boethius,” Vivarium 50, no. 2 (2012): 138, doi:10.1163/15685349-12341236.

[28] Augustine, “The Works.” The City of God: Volume I, by Aurelius Augustine–A Project Gutenberg EBook. Accessed June 01, 2019. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/45304/45304-h/45304-h.htm.

[29] Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 25.

[30] Leonardo Franchi (2011) Healing the Wounds: St. Augustine, Catechesis, and Religious Education Today, Religious Education, 106:3, 301, DOI: 10.1080/00344087.2011.569656

[31] Elmer L. Towns and Benjamin K. Forrest, A Legacy of Religious Educators: Historical and Theological Introductions (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2017), 26.

[32] Leonardo Franchi (2011) Healing the Wounds: St. Augustine, Catechesis, and Religious Education Today, Religious Education, 106:3, 302, DOI: 10.1080/00344087.2011.569656

[33] Elmer L. Towns and Benjamin K. Forrest, A Legacy of Religious Educators: Historical and Theological Introductions (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2017), 27.

[34] Leonardo Franchi (2011) Healing the Wounds: St. Augustine, Catechesis, and Religious Education Today, Religious Education, 106:3, 302, DOI: 10.1080/00344087.2011.569656

[35] Translated by J.G. Pilkington. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff.(Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.<http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1101.htm>.

[36] Sister Mary Inez Bogan. “Prologue.” In The Retractions (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 60), 3-5. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1968. doi:10.2307/j.ctt32b3rt.5.

[37] Elmer L. Towns and Benjamin K. Forrest, A Legacy of Religious Educators: Historical and Theological Introductions (Lynchburg, VA: Liberty University Press, 2017), 24.