Many Protestant Evangelicals assume that their theological foundations are poles apart from that of Roman Catholicism. They are blithely unaware that both can be said to share the same 'Founding Father' : Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.
On the staunchly Roman Catholic website New Advent, in the article, 'Teaching of St Augustine of Hippo' one may read the following,
"It is first of all a remarkable fact that the great critics, Protestant as well as Catholic, are almost unanimous in placing St. Augustine in the foremost rank of Doctors and proclaiming him to be the greatest of the Fathers."
Later in the article the writer goes on to say this,
"Luther and Calvin were content to treat Augustine with a little less irreverence than they did the other Fathers, but their descendants do him full justice, although recognizing him as the Father of Roman Catholicism."
There is no doubt that Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354-430AD) became the major theological 'heavyweight' whose writings largely influenced and fashioned not only Roman Catholicism, but also Protestantism, and - through that route - modern evangelicalism.
Many modern evangelicals are unaware that it is from Augustine that we get Baptismal Regeration (salvation is impossible without baptism, as administered by a priest of the church), and this is but a part of a whole system of Sacramental Theology which went straight into Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Under this system a whole elaborate framework of 'sacraments' was believed to govern one's walk with God. Of course Cyprian of Carthage and others also refined and developed this but - make no mistake - Augustine himself believed that infants that died unbaptized were headed straight for Hell - without possibility of remedy.
The 7 sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church are Baptism, Eucharist, Sacrament of Reconciliation, Confirmation, Marriage, Anointing of the Sick, and Holy Orders. But Protestantism has sought explicit words from the lips of Jesus Himself to give authority to 'sacraments' reducing the number to just Baptism and Communion (or, Eucharist). For Protestants, it is the grace of God which these ordinances represent which is the all-important thing. In other words, if God's grace and favour is not with the individual, those ordinances, or procedures, become meaningless. And here - at once - is a superb irony, for the emphasis on grace itself also largely comes from Augustine, who wished to closely follow the apostle Paul in this matter.
Nobody can deny that Augustine, bishop of Hippo, is one of the greatest of all Christian theologians, but how much of Manichaeism did he take with him when he left that cult?
At the time of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, Luther and Calvin were quick to revisit Augustine and to rediscover Augustine's great stress on the grace of God. But they were unquestionably selective about the doctrinal writings of the bishop of Hippo - they had to be! So here we may observe a seeming paradox: Protestantism's Justification by Faith Alone and Roman Catholicism's Sacramental Theology both strongly credited to the influence of one influential theologian!
Augustine had unquestionably been the most pre-eminent of the Latin Church theologians. A former Manichaean sect/cult member, he had converted to Christianity in 387AD. As a Christian theologian he would strongly major on the doctrine of original sin (seen almost as a disease passed on at birth), he also 'majored' on predestination and election (apart from his aforementioned stress on grace). But I think we can say little more without some consideration of Manichaeism itself.
The Teachings of Manichaeism
Manichaeism has been called the best organized, most consistent, tenacious and dangerous form of Gnosticism. Christianity had to wage a very long and persistent war against this heresy. It was, in a real sense, a rival religion and formed a syncretistic form of "Christianity." Augustine was much influenced and soon joined this group.
But what did these people teach?
Their metaphysical foundation was a radical dualism between good and evil, light and darkness, largely derived from Persian Zoroastrianism. They also upheld a most rigid asceticism which strongly resembled Buddhism. Based on the false presupposition that matter is necessarily and intrinsically evil, the morality of Manes was severely ascetic. The Manichaean’s chief aim was to become entirely unworldly, as in Buddhism. To renounce and destroy all longing for pleasure, especially all pleasures of the flesh, and, eventually, to set a pure inner soul free from all the trappings of matter. It seems without question that these ideals later developed into the monasticism of Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.
John Calvin's contribution to theology is undeniably outstanding, but was the Geneva reformer overly affected by an already decided Augustinian approach on Election and Predestination?
A very close look at the doctrines of the Manichaeists appears to show that when Augustine finally cast this cult aside in favour of true Christianity, he did indeed take some of its 'baggage' with him. Manichaeism taught a radical dualism between spirit and matter, and a hierarchical division between the elect and the unsaved, and there are suspicions that this extreme pessimism towards human salvation went straight into a slightly distorted view of predestination which went into Augustinianism (and later into Calvinism).
Augustine's concepts of predestination and election contributed to a Christian Fatalism which seemed to come close to denying human responsibility for sin and granted divine sanction to a hierarchical society. Of course, the concepts of Election and Predestination are certainly biblical but those concepts are less bleak and more optimistic in Holy Scripture than one finds in Augustine, and much later, in hyper-Calvinism. For a consideration of the biblical teaching of predestination, for example, the reader may wish to consult Predestination of the Saints: Biblical; Double Predestination: Unbiblical!
Augustine can be praised for his God-centered theology with its stress on divine grace, yet evangelicals must be honest here and admit that they have purposely avoided quite major areas of his teaching (mainly those areas which went into Roman Catholic theology). But one area has surely affected both strands of theology: The almost manichaeistic extreme pessimism on human election and salvation which focuses on certain Scriptures (whilst ignoring others) has gone into both Catholicism and much of Protestantism and is quite strong in certain areas of modern evangelicalism. We cannot deny this.
Conservative Evangelicalism likes to consider that it is the most supremely biblical of all strands of theology and the evidence to back up this belief is undeniably strong - but Christians must ever be on guard against spiritual complacency and might it not be time for evangelical theologians and writers to revisit their roots and to again consider whether there are areas of common acceptance among evangelicals in which balance and emphasis is interpreted according to the influence of major theologians, rather than the influence of Holy Scripture alone?
Robin A. Brace, 2006.
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