Christians have affirmed the identity of the Church as a missional community engaged in the practice of incarnational witness throughout history. Augustine of Hippo,1 in particular, serves us today as a foundational resource for the articulation and implementation of this approach. In many ways, the doctrine of the incarnation, not to mention the Trinity, and its implications for the world were expounded in his prolific reflections.2 Countering the tempting attacks of Hellenistic and Platonic philosophies, which tended to segregate the spiritual from the physical, or the material from the immaterial, Augustine eloquently communicated the paradox of the Incarnation. In his search of the Scriptures, Augustine discovered an encounter with Jesus Christ.3 His extensive understanding of dichotomist theories, which usually perceived the physical as an impure or false reality, gave him a footing to explain the scandal of God become flesh in the man Jesus. Through his investigations of these competing philosophical attempts to ascend to God, Augustine discovered that God had in fact descended to him.4
Augustine’s dramatic conversion, recounted in his transparent autobiography, Confessions, depicts a man who sought to preserve his own self against a personal God who was acting upon his life. Augustine’s early life had been characterized by an inward struggle to accept the New Testament’s insistence that Jesus was in fact God, let alone that Jesus wanted to transform every bit of his life. Eventually, however, through the inviting witness of a church community, Augustine relented to Christ- who broke into his soul. As a result, Augustine’s life became immersed in the witness of the Church community and in the practice of charity towards others. The remarkable life of Augustine was transformed from inwardization towards one discernible by the Incarnation, from a propensity for privatization towards an embrace of a community witness, and from an agenda of self-service towards a pattern of charity for others.
1 Augustine lived from 354-430 AD and served as bishop of the North African diocese of Hippo. For further biographical sketch, see Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1984, 173-220. McGinn also offers a helpful synopsis: “Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was the dominant theological figure in Western Christianity for more than a millennium, and still remains one of the essential voices in Christian history. This North African convert contributed to every area of Christian belief and practice, not least that of mysticism… Augustine’s teaching was presented not to any spiritual elite of clerics or monastics, but to the whole Christian community of his small diocese.” (McGinn, Bernard. The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism. New York: Modern Library/Random House, 2006, 21)
2 Augustine wrote over 500 sermons, 270 letters, and 100 books.
3 Clark offers a succinct and useful explanation of Augustine’s philosophical evolution. (Clark, 4) “Meditation on the Scriptures in the light of the Logos-made flesh formed the mind of St. Paul, and also that of St. Augustine.” (Augustine, Saint. Augustine of Hippo: Selected Writings, Trans. By Mary T. Clark: The Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1984, 6.
4 “Although Augustine was admonished by the Platonic books to forsake the many for the One, to withdraw into himself and contemplate the Light above his mind, all such effort proved futile and left him disintegrated.” (Ibid., 27)