By anyone’s reckoning, the North African pastor Augustine of Hippo was the single most important theologian in the minds of the medieval scholars. Prominent alongside the searching spiritual narrative of Augustine’s Confessions are his remarks about the influence of his mother Monica. According to Augustine’s testimony, Monica was reared by Christian parents with the aid of a wise older maidservant (1). Although her husband was not yet a Christian, Monica had Augustine signed with the cross and rubbed with salt at birth (2).
Even as Augustine became an adherent of a false religion known as “Manichaeism,” Monica refused to give up her concern for her son’s soul, weeping more for him “than ever mothers wept for the bodily death of their children.” Her prayers for her son seemed to have been answered in a dream; in Monica’s dream, a voice told her, “Where you are, he will be.” Confident that the Lord had assured her of her son’s eventual salvation, she shared this dream with Augustine. Although Augustine suggested that his mother had misunderstood the message, Monica steadfastly denied any misunderstanding.Her prayers for him continued, even after he moved to Italy to advance his teaching career.
Of course, the Lord did not leave Augustine in that state. After he moved from Rome to Milan, Augustine began to listen to the sermons of Ambrose-not because of any interest in Christian faith but because of Ambrose’s renowned rhetorical skills. Eventually, Augustine was converted, and Monica lived to see Ambrose baptize her son.
Augustine never specifically mentioned any attempts by his mother to provide formal instruction for her son in the Christian faith. Yet, whether or not Monica attempted to teach her son the Apostles’ Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, or even to read Scripture to him, her influence upon his spiritual life is undeniable. Her prayers, dreams, and confidence in God’s sovereignty had an obvious impact upon Augustine’s pilgrimage to faith. Perhaps as a testimony to his mother’s influence, when Augustine taught on marriage as pastor of the church in Hippo he frequently emphasized the important role that a parent plays in the discipleship of children.
Marriage and the Discipleship of Children in the Theology of Augustine
Marriage was a controversial topic in Augustine’s day. Asceticism, the physical discipline of the body and denial of bodily desires, was a popular approach to sanctification. Theologians were suspicious about the wholesomeness of sexual intercourse, even within the context of marriage. Jerome, a prominent churchman and controversialist, had written a scathing response to a Roman Christian named Jovinian, simply because Jovinian contended that marriage and lifelong virginity were equal in holiness. Jerome’s response to Jovinian was so harsh that many considered his tirade to be an attack upon the institution of marriage itself (3).
Augustine’s view of marriage, though still negatively influenced by the asceticism of his day, was more measured than Jerome’s. According to Augustine, God ordained marriage before humanity’s fall into sin for the purpose of begetting children. Ever since humanity’s fall into sin, intercourse-even between a husband and wife-has been tainted by lust and sin (4). This does not, however, negate the value of marriage. Marriages, Augustine stated, can produce children honorably, lawfully, and chastely “in a social role. . . . They educate those children without favoritism, soundly, and perseveringly” (5). Despite disagreement with Augustine’s view of sexual relations between a husband and wife, contemporary evangelicals can still glean wisdom from Augustine: At a time when many Christians elevated asceticism above marital relations, Augustine saw value in this relationship precisely because marriage provided an opportunity for parents to educate children in the Christian faith.
Augustine’s understanding of the importance of the parents’ role in training children is further underscored by a treatise that he wrote to provide encouragement to a widow whose daughter had decided to remain a virgin for life. All the widow’s children had evidently turned out well. “They were,” Augustine declared, “born because of your fertility, they live because of your good fortune, but their development like that is due to your good will and ability. . . . In [your daughter] you participate in something you do not have” (6). According to Augustine, the widow received spiritual benefit from the daughter’s commitment because the widow had worked to develop her daughter spiritually. Though Augustine believed that virginity was a state deserving special merit, he demonstrated that parenthood also provided an opportunity for a worthy endeavor of another kind, the discipleship of children. Surely his own mother’s unwavering dedication had not been forgotten.
Next: Gregory the Great
(1) Augustine, Confessiones 9.8.17.
(2) This was a rite which was at the time given to catechumens, only later in history to be used during the service of baptism. See John K. Ryan, “Notes to Book 1,” in Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, trans. John K. Ryan (New York: Doubleday, 1960), 373. Augustine, Confessiones, 1.11.17, in The Confessions, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Part I, vol. 1, trans. Maria Boulding, ed. John E. Rotelle (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997), 51.
(3) For the background on Augustine’s treatises on marriage, see David Hunter, “Introduction,” in Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, The Works of Augustine: a Translation for the 21st Century, Part I, vol. 9, trans. Ray Kearney, ed. David G. Hunter (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1999).
(4) For Augustine’s important works on marriage, see Augustine, Marriage and Virginity, The Works of Augustine: a Translation for the 21st Century. See also Augustine, De Civitate Dei, 14.10-26.
(5) Augustine, Holy Virginity, in Marriage and Virginity, 74.
(6) Augustine, The Excellence of Widowhood, in Marriage and Virginity, 124.