Shocking Beliefs of Augustine

“A spiritually minded man will never come to you with the demand – “Believe this and that;” but with the demand that you square your life with the standards of Jesus. We are not asked to believe the Bible, but to believe the One Whom the Bible reveals (cf. John 5:39-40).”

~ Oswald Chambers

If you’re new to the “Shocking Beliefs” series, I’ll open this post by quoting from the preface to the first installment on the Shocking Beliefs of C.S. Lewis.

This explains why – precisely – I’m producing this series.

A well-known Christian author whom I greatly respect encouraged me to begin a series on the shocking beliefs of some of the great Christians who have impacted church history.

Every follower of Jesus is a rough draft. Over time, the great Editor – the Holy Spirit – shapes our lives and views. But until we see the Lord and “know even as we are known,” we’re are in process.

This is also true for those Christians who have gone before us.

Therefore, one of the mistakes that we must guard against is to dismiss a person’s entire contribution because they may hold (or have held) to ideas that we find hard to stomach.

Speaking personally, if I demanded that a person’s views on every subject under the sun be identical to mine as a condition to be helped by them, then if I had met myself 20 years ago, I’d have to disfellowship myself!

The truth is, my views on some topics have changed over the years.

And so have yours.

Point: we are all in process. None of us gets everything right all the time. That stands true for every Christian who has ever breathed oxygen.

So my purpose in highlighting some of “the shocking beliefs” of those upon whose shoulders we all stand is not to burn these folks in effigy. Nor is it to dismiss their positive contribution to church history.

Rather, it’s to demonstrate that even though they may have held to views that would raise the eyebrows of most evangelicals today, that doesn’t overturn nor negate the valuable ideas they contributed to the body of Christ.

Unfortunately, many evangelicals are quick to discount — and even damn — their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ over alleged doctrinal trespasses, even if those same brothers and sisters hold to the historical orthodox creeds (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.). Such discounting and damning can always be avoided and it serves no one on the Kingdom side of the aisle.

When diversity within orthodoxy is encountered, grace should be extended. Just as we would want grace extended to us, seeing that none of us sees perfectly (Matthew 7:12).

The words of Paul of Tarsus contain thunder and lightning for us all, “Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete . . .” (1 Corinthians 13:9, NLT).

Today, we’ll be looking at some of the shocking beliefs of Augustine.

NOW HOLSTER YOUR WEAPONS AND READ THIS BEFORE PROCEEDING: This series is written for evangelicals. The beliefs stated below aren’t shocking to me necessarily and they won’t be surprising to Catholics or Anglicans. However, they will be surprising to many evangelicals who claim Augustine as their own. You can read the other installments of this series at the bottom of this article to learn about other movers and shakers of evangelicalism and some of their surprising beliefs. But please keep in mind the point of this post – and this series – which is stated above.

I hope you read that last sentence because the Blog Manager tells me that if you post a comment that says (with testosterone-infused chest thrown outward), “I don’t find any of these to be shocking!,” your comment will be deleted. We’ve already covered this in the blue statement above. 😉


There is no question that evangelical Christianity owes an enormous debt to Augustine. In fact, there’s wide consensus among historians that next to Jesus and Paul, Augustine is the most influential figure in the history of Christianity.

Even TIME magazine named Augustine “a major intellectual, spiritual, and cultural force” that continues until this day.

Even though Augustine was a Catholic, many Protestants claim him, including countless evangelicals.

In fact, Augustine’s influence on both Calvin and Luther (and modern-day evangelicalism) was monumental. Even today, many Reformed theologians claim Augustine for their camp. And some historians have pointed out that the Reformation was essentially a triumph and revival of Augustine’s theology.

Augustine was the bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the 4th and 5th centuries. In his undisputed classic, The City of God, Augustine answered the prevailing criticism of his day that the Christians were responsible for the fall of Rome.

The City of God was written over roughly a 13-year period. Largely as a result of Augustine’s work, paganism was all but defeated. It survived in the practical sense as the indulgence of fleshly appetites, but as a religion, it only survived in the form of ancient rites and customs.

Augustine wrote more than 1,000 written works, including 242 books (all in a day when laptops, desktops, typewriters, and Dragon dictation software didn’t exist!).

He’s known to have written the first autobiography in history. His Confessions is still considered to be a classic in our day. Interestingly, some of Augustine’s sermons were rediscovered as recently as the 1980s.

Knowing that the Trinity was a stumbling block to intellectuals, Augustine spent 15 years on his systematic work The Trinity, struggling to use human analogies to depict the three Persons in the one God. Theologians still refer to it today.

Famed historian Will Durant said of Augustine, “he is the most authentic, eloquent, and powerful voice of the Age of Faith in Christendom.”

Living on a vegetarian diet, Augustine was short, thin, weak in physical stature, easily excited with a keen imagination and a brilliant intellect. He died at the age of 76 and left no will, no goods, and wrote on his own epitaph: “What makes the heart of the Christian? The fact that he is a pilgrim, and longs for his own country.”

Despite Augustine’s titanic intellect, he wrote humbly. He shamelessly admitted that many things are beyond our understanding. And even additional study of the Scriptures may not resolve them. On this score, he said,

“In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different Interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.”

Much of Augustine’s writings are incredibly insightful, forming the basis of the best of evangelical theology. However, there are some views in Augustine that some evangelical Christians will find surprising, shocking, or just plain wrong.

Before we launch into our list, here are some of Augustine’s more enduring quotes that I happen to like.

(To the both of you who believe Catholics should never be quoted favorably or permitted to come near small children or pets, calm down. Just because I like these quotes doesn’t mean I’m becoming a Catholic, although I personally have no problem with Catholics. I don’t ascribe to Catholic theology, but I have many friends who are Catholic and some of them are among the most godly people on the planet.)

Augustine quotes:

“You are not required to understand in order to believe, but to believe in order to understand.”

“You have made us for yourself, Oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”

“Love, and do what you like.”

“The Bible was composed in such a way that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.”

“What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”

“If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.”

“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.”

“Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you.”

“To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek Him the greatest adventure; to find Him, the greatest human achievement.”

“But my sin was this, that I looked for pleasure, beauty, and truth not in Him but in myself and His other creatures, and the search led me instead to pain, confusion, and error.”

“There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”

Now for some of Augustine’s beliefs that won’t sit well with evangelicals:

1. Augustine believed that the purpose of marriage is procreation, and that lust during sex — even among married Christians — was wrong.

In his Confessions, Augustine talked openly about his losing battle with sexual lust during his youth. At age 32, he became celibate. For Augustine personally, being a Christian for him meant abandoning marriage.

He believed that all sexual intercourse, even within the bounds of Christian marriage, involved concupiscence (sinful desire, lust). Regardless, he did not disparage marriage. He believed it was honorable and permissible. But to his mind, celibacy was better.

Undergirding his views on this subject was Augustine’s belief that the purpose of sex in marriage is procreation. Even so, he did believe it was pardonable if married people enjoyed sexual relations without intending procreation. But he recommended sexual abstinence for married couples if they mutually agreed to it.

His views of sex and marriage became the basis of a large part of the official Roman Catholic teaching on the matter.

2. Augustine believed that the use of contraception to prevent children was perverting the purpose of marriage, “committing adultery within marriage” and “turning the bed-chamber into a brothel.”

Even though he was speaking in the context of a certain doctrine, consider what Augustine says about preventing the birth of children within marriage (a la, contraception).

“The doctrine that the production of children is an evil, directly opposes the next precept, “Thou shall not commit adultery;” for those who believe this doctrine, in order that their wives may not conceive, are led to commit adultery even in marriage. They take wives, as the law declares, for the procreation of children; but from this erroneous fear of polluting the substance of the deity, their intercourse with their wives is not of a lawful character; and the production of children, which is the proper end of marriage, they seek to avoid. As the apostle long ago predicted of thee, thou dost indeed forbid to marry, for thou seekest to destroy the purpose of marriage. Thy doctrine turns marriage into an adulterous connection, and the bed-chamber into a brothel.“[1]

3. Augustine believed that if you are going to teach Scripture, you must have a knowledge of the natural world, mathematics, music, science, history, the liberal arts, and a mastery of dialectics (the science of disputing).

This would rule out most Bible preachers and teacher today. Interestingly, despite his strong emphasis on the need for mastering academic subjects, Augustine could read very little Greek (the original language of the New Testament) and zero Hebrew. More on that later.

4. Augustine believed that sacramental baptism produces regeneration and is necessary for the forgiveness of sins.

On this point, Augustine’s view is in line with Roman Catholic teaching today and historically. Some examples:

“The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration.” [2]

“Baptism washes away all, absolutely all, our sins, whether of deed, word, or thought, whether sins original or added, whether knowingly or unknowingly contracted.” [3]

“When you shall have been baptized, keep to a good life in the commandments of God so that you may preserve your baptism to the very end. . . . Baptism was instituted for all sins. . . . In the church, therefore, there are three ways in which sins are forgiven: in baptisms, in prayer, and in the greater humility of penance; yet, God does not forgive sins except to the baptized.” [4]

5. Augustine believed it was permissible to use force against heretics.

The prime example here are the Donatists. The Donatists claimed that the Catholic bishop was ordained by a spiritual traitor (one who denied the faith under persecution). Therefore, they believed traitors didn’t deserve to remain church leaders and their ordination was invalid. So the Donatists set up their own bishop in Carthage (Donatist) from whom they were named.

Augustine bitterly criticized the Donatists and developed his doctrine of the church out of that debate. To Augustine’s mind, the essence of the church is people who are in union with Christ, not the personal character of the Christians who make it up.

Augustine advocated the use of force against the Donatists, asking “Why . . . should not the church use force in compelling her lost sons to return, if the lost sons compelled others to their destruction?”

Part of the reason for this is because the Donatists engaged in violence against other Christians. As a result, Augustine urged the government to exercise its power against them vigorously, retracting his earlier view that no one should be coerced into the unity of Christ, that we must fight only by arguments and prevail only by the force of reason.

To Augustine’s mind, it was better that a few Donatists suffer than for all to be damned due to a lack of coercion. At the same time, he plead consistently that the state officials no enforce the death penalty against heretics.

6. Augustine believed that the Lord’s Supper (the Eurcharist) was necessary for salvation.

On this score, he wrote:

“Whence, however, was this derived, but from that primitive, as I suppose, and apostolic tradition, by which the churches of Christ maintain it to be an inherent principle, that without baptism and partaking of the supper of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and everlasting life?” [5]

7. Augustine believed that alms-giving and forgiving others was necessary for receiving God’s forgiveness.

Augustine insisted that the evidence of grace in the giving of alms propitiates one from past sins. Present or continual sins aren’t excused by regular alms-giving, but alms-giving are a necessary part of suitable repentance. According to Augustine, Jesus decides who will enter into the Kingdom based on this very virtue (Matt 25:31-36).

For Augustine, alms giving is multifaceted. We must forgive others who have sinned against us from the heart. This is Jesus’ standard for our own forgiveness as outlined in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:14-15).

8. Augustine held to a dualistic view of the world which was heavily influenced by non-Christian philosophy.

The third-century theologian Tertullian believed that faith and human philosophy had no points of contact. This idea was summed up in his famous question, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?”

Augustine’s work contained a prolific reply.

Augustine was heavily into the classical philosophical tradition of Platonism and Neoplatonism. As such, some historians have said that Augustine molded the Medieval mind more than any single author.

In fact, the European universities founded in the 12th century followed the same teaching curriculum as outlined in Augustine’s book On Christian Doctrine. In short, his writings synthesized the Bible with classical learning and culture.

In this connection, some historians have alleged that Augustine blurred the lines between Christianity and paganism, marrying faith and philosophy and creating a world in which paganism seemed to disappear. (Some have argued that paganism really didn’t disappear; it was merely baptized in Christian garb.)

Even so, Augustine’s platonic views reemerged by Thomas Aquinas, adding Aristotle’s philosophy to the Christian mix.

Being heavily influenced by the dualistic sect of the Manichaens (with whom he spent 9 years), Augustine continued to embrace a dualistic viewpoint within his theology.

According to Manichaenism, the physical is bad, the spiritual good. The physical constitution is inherently sinful and impure, the spirit is light and life. So the two are pitted against one another instead of seeing things through a Hebraic mindset, which views humanity and the world in terms of wholes.

Augustine’s dualism provoked him to retreat from society to a life focused on the pursuit of the spiritual. (Dualistic thinking is where we get the idea of the secular vs. the spiritual.) This dualism also influenced some of Augustine’s theological views. Particularly his views on sex. (Namely, that sexual desire is sinful and sexual lust in procreation transmits that sin.)

9. Augustine believed that a person can fall from grace and lose their salvation.

While some evangelicals agree with this idea, others bitterly disagree with it. Augustine wrote,

“But if someone already regenerate and justified should, of his own will, relapse into his evil life, certainly that man cannot say: “I have not received’; because he lost the grace he received from God and by his own free choice went to evil.” [6]

“Man, therefore, was thus made upright that, though unable to remain in his uprightness without divine help, he could of his own mere will depart from it.” [7]

When you shall have been baptized, keep to a good life in the commandments of God so that you may preserve your baptism to the very end . . . [8]

10. Augustine rejected a literal reading of the creation story.

In his book, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine stated that Christians who understood the creation story literally were a laughingstock and appeared as idiots in the eyes of non believers. [9]

In speaking of a literal six-day creation, Augustine wrote,

“It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly someone meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.”

11. Augustine believed that Mary (mother of Jesus) was a perpetual virgin as well as sinless.

On this subject he wrote,

“Virgin in conceiving, virgin in giving birth, virgin with child, virgin mother, virgin forever.” [10]

“Did not holy Virgin Mary both give birth as a virgin and remain a virgin?” [11]

“Thus Christ by being born of a virgin, who, before she knew Who was to be born of her, had determined to continue a virgin, chose rather to approve, than to command, holy virginity.” [12]

“We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin. Well, then, if, with this exception of the Virgin, we could only assemble together all the forementioned holy men and women, and ask them whether they lived without sin whilst they were in this life, what can we suppose would be their answer? [13]

12. Augustine believed in praying for the dead.

His words,

“It is not to be doubted that the dead are aided by prayers of the holy church, and by the salutary sacrifice, and by the alms, which are offered for their spirits . . . For this, which has been handed down by the Fathers, the universal church observes.” [14]

“Prayer, however, is offered for other dead who are remembered.” [15]

“For some of the dead, indeed, the prayer of the church or of pious individuals is heard; but it is for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not spend their life so wickedly that they can be judged unworthy of such compassion, nor so well that they can be considered to have no need of it.” [16]

Three More Views to Be Noted

Consider this an Appendix as they don’t fit neatly into the surprising beliefs section.

Some scholars and theologians criticize Augustine because he could only read a small amount of Greek and no Hebrew. While reading Greek isn’t a problem for preachers and teachers today with the wide array of accurate Bible translations and Greek commentaries at our disposal (the same with Hebrew), for a 4th-century theologian who influenced most of Catholicism and Protestantism, it presents a big problem in the minds of some people.

The reason being is that Augustine had to rely on a poor Latin translation of the Bible to do his theology. For this reason, some of Augustine’s theological interpretations have been called into question by some scholars. Namely, these three . . .

(1) Augustine and Original Sin

The first view along this line is Augustine’s idea of original sin, which has gained wide attention and debate among evangelicals in recent years. Augustine didn’t formulate the doctrine of original sin, but he gave it a central place in theology.

Original sin, according to Augustine, was a hereditary disease as well as a crime. All humans sinned in Adam and thus all share in Adam’s guilt and punishment. To Augustine’s mind, Adam didn’t commit his offense in isolation from the rest of humanity. All humans sinned in him and inherited his same sinful predisposition, as well as his guilt. Consequently, for Augustine, every infant was subject to eternal death unless it was baptized.

While some evangelicals hold to this view of original sin, others contest it, believing that although every person is born with a sin nature, their guilt arises from their actual sinful deeds rather than from Adam’s sin.

Some scholars believe that Augustine’s view is misinformed because he was using a poor translation of the Bible to craft it. The Latin translation he used was excessively literal and ambiguous. Thus, they argue, he misinterpreted Romans 5:12. (See Douglas Moo’s commentary on Romans in the NICNT for an excellent discussion on Romans 5:12 via Augustine, et al.)

In this connection, , one of Augustine’s his fiercest theological sparring partners was Pelagius, the British monk who rejected the idea of original sin. Pelagius believed that the tendency to sin was man’s free will choice, not something inherited from Adam. The views of Pelagius were carried on by a bishop named Julian, in which Augustine refuted in his book, Against Julian.

And just to add an interesting bit of history, Charles Finney didn’t like Augustine’s view of original sin (that’s putting it mildly). In his own Finney style, here’s what he wrote about Augustine’s view of natural inability, original sin, and the idea that humans have an inherent sin nature:

“This doctrine is a stumbling-block both to the church and the world, infinitely dishonorable to God, and an abomination alike to God and the human intellect, and should be banished from every pulpit, and from every formula of doctrine, and from the world. It is a relic of heathen philosophy, and was foisted in among the doctrines of Christianity by Augustine, as everyone may know who will take the trouble to examine for himself.”

By the way, I wish Charles didn’t hold back and told us how he really felt about it.

(2) Augustine and Justification

The second view that’s also debated among evangelicals today is Augustine’s view of justification. Augustine held to an idea called infused righteousness opposed to imputed righteousness, which was held by Luther and Calvin. Some writers believe that Augustine “goofed” on this subject and the entire Medieval world followed his goof for a thousand years. (John Wesley held that infused righteousness works in tandem with imputed righteousness while the “New Perspective” scholars set the debate in a context outside of the imputed vs. infused framework.)

Since the intention of this post isn’t to provoke a doctrinal smackdown that gets bogged down in the wheels of arcane theological minutia, I’ll just leave the point there and you can pursue it further on your own if it interests you.

(3) Augustine and Hell

The third view that some evangelicals today reject — while others strongly believe it — is Augustine’s idea that hell was conscious and eternal torment. Augustine claimed that since the salamander can live in fire, it follows that God can make physical bodies that are susceptible to the pain of fire and yet not be damaged by it.

Augustine also believed that hell was under the earth and that the suffering of hell is compounded because God continues to love the people in hell who are not able to return that love.

(Incidentally, please don’t ask me for an analysis on the anatomy of hell. I’ve never been there and don’t intend to go – thanks to the Lord Jesus Christ. But whatever you surmise it to be, the Scriptures are clear that it’s not a place in which you’ll want to land.)

WARNING: The Blog Manager who moderates comments is an Augustine fan. Consequently, to those of you who found this post on the Web somewhere and are starting to march toward the comments box with pitch forks, blow torches, and blunt objects in order to delegitimize, castigate, or marginalize Augustine beyond repair, your uncivil remark will vanish into the electricity after the Blog Manager hits the DELETE key. So . . .

In the comments, please do one of two things. 1) Share a favorite quote by Augustine, or 2) share another shocking belief of Augustine’s (with source). Or do both.

Other Posts in the Series with More to Come

Shocking Beliefs of John Calvin

Shocking Beliefs of Jonathan Edwards

Shocking Beliefs of John Wesley

Shocking Beliefs of C.S. Lewis

Shocking Beliefs of D.L. Moody

Shocking Beliefs of Martin Luther

Other Posts in the Series – The Rest will Appear in the Upcoming “Shocking Beliefs” Book



[1] Against Faustus, Book XV, 7 in Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1, Vol. IV.

[2] Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants, A.D. 412; 1:24:34 and 2:27:43.

[3] Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, A.D. 420, 3:3:5.

[4] Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed, 7:15; 8:16; Jurgens, William A., editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, three volumes, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970 and 1979, III, 35. See also Augustine’s On Baptism, Against the Donatists.

[5] On Forgiveness of Sins and Baptism, 1:34 in Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1, V, 28.

[6] Admonition and Grace [c. 427], 6,9; Jurgens, William A., editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, three volumes, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970 and 1979, III, 157.

[7] Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love, chapter 107 in Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1, Vol. III.

[8] Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed 7:15, 8:16; Jurgens, William A., editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, three volumes, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970 and 1979, III, 35.

[9] St. Augustine Volume 1: The Literal Meaning of Genesis (Ancient Christian Writers), ed. James H. Taylor.

[10] Sermo 186, 1 [Christmas homily]; Gambero, Luigi, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, Thomas Buffer, translator, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, revised edition of 1999, 220.

[11] Sermo Guelferbytanus, 1, 8; Miscellanea Agostiniana, 447-448; Gambero, Luigi, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, Thomas Buffer, translator, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, revised edition of 1999, 224.

[12] Of Holy Virginity, section 4; Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1, Vol. III, 418.

[13] A Treatise on Nature and Grace, chapter 42 [XXXVI]; Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1, Vol. V.

[14] Sermon 172, in Joseph Berington and John Kirk, The Faith of Catholics, three volumes, London: Dolman, 1846; I: 439.

[15] Sermons: 159, 1; Jurgens, William A., editor and translator, The Faith of the Early Fathers, three volumes, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1970 and 1979, III, 29.

[16] The City of God, XXI, 24, 2; Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1, Vol. II.

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