Saint Augustine’s Agenda

I’m going way out on limb here.

On a road trip I listened to a Great Courses lecture on St. Augustine. A remarkable fellow. Brilliant and charismatic.

At one point Augustine founded a college. But before he could get it fully established, the church snatched him up with offers he apparently couldn’t refuse. Before long he was a Bishop. About this time a schism occurred. A group called the Donatists became a threat to the established Catholic Church. Then for years, Augustine’s philosophy and theology was guided by the agenda of overcoming the threat.

Here’s a link to one of his most famous sermons, from a series on the Book of John.

“If any of you should wish to act out of love, brothers, do not imagine it to be a self-abasing, passive and timid thing. And do not think that love can be preserved by a sort of gentleness – or rather tame listlessness. This is not how it is preserved. Do not imagine that you love your servant when you refrain from beating him, or that you love your son when you do not discipline him, or that you love your neighbor when you do not rebuke him. This is not love, it is feebleness. Love should be fervent to correct. Take delight in good behavior, but amend what is bad. Love the person, but not the error in the person: God made the person, but the person alone made the error. Love what God made, not what the person made. If you love one thing, you remove another. When you esteem one thing, you change another. But if you are severe, let it be out of love, for the sake of correction. This is why love was represented by the dove which descended upon the Lord. [Matt. 3:16] Why did the Holy Spirit, who pours love into us, take the form of a dove? The dove has no bitterness, yet she fights with beak and wings for her young; hers is a fierceness without bitterness. In the same way, when a father chastises his son he does so for discipline. As I said earlier, the kidnapper inveigles the child with bitter endearments, in order to sell him; a father, for the sake of correction, chastises without bitterness. “

These days we might call Augustine’s angle tough love. If people misbehave, discipline them, even if it means beating or otherwise punishing them into submission. So this perspective at one point resulted in Augustine’s convincing the Imperial authorities to imprison and otherwise persecute the Donatists.

Here’s another perspective on love, from St. Paul ‘s 1 Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

I have to wonder if Augustine’s position on love arose out of the pure, loving heart Paul describes, or at least in part from a professional agenda.

Who but God knows the answer to that one? I certainly don’t. Still, I can imagine an alternate reality wherein Augustine used his intellectual and persuasive powers in favor of winning souls and amending behavior by other than martial means, and in which the church, so influenced by Augustine, didn’t have the power of his words to justify collusion with government, advocacy of crusades, or inquisitions.

Though I wouldn’t blame the Inquisition entirely on Augustine, I will argue that writers or preachers influenced by practical agendas, political, monetary, or whatever, can be dangerous. Even the best, most sincere humans are not entirely objective or reasonable. In fact, given a powerful enough motive, most and probably all of us can convince ourselves of almost anything, and if we’re skilled with words, we can write or speak persuasively about it.

Preachers are usually beholden to the agendas of their particular church or denomination.

So the world needs independent writers. Ones who are free to, in the words of Augustine, “Love and do what you will,” uninfluenced by any agenda except their own vision of truth.

As Augustine might’ve been if he had passed on the Bishop job and stuck with the college he founded.


  1. I especially appreciate the timing of this blog.
    Did Jesus say to love or judge? Which did the righteous Pharisees do and how did Jesus react to them? He brought a new perspective, not eye for eye, but turn the other cheek. I know it drives some people crazy, but as a believer, I can’t see that I have a choice but to “speak the truth in love,” not bitterly reject “sinners.”
    From Jesus’ words, it sounds as though it is impossible for unbelievers to act righteously, being unregenerate. Shall I, then, one who grew up in the same stewpot, now point a finger and blast them because they haven’t found the Way yet? “God proves His love for us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Can I hate those people God loves? I think, nope.

  2. Cheryl,

    Amen to your thoughts. It seems to me that one largely overlooked quality of love is to allow others to find their own way, with as much help as we can offer, sure, but without judgement or coercion.