Archive for the ‘Original Sin’ Tag

Human Depravity   1 comment

Human depravity is not an article of faith for me.  No, it is a matter of proven fact.  I do not need faith with regard to any matter I can prove or disprove, objectively.

I come from a particular theological context.  I am a Christian–a Western Christian, not an Eastern Orthodox Christian.  (Original sin is not a doctrine in Eastern Orthodoxy.)  I am, to be precise, a left-of-center Episcopalian.  I am an Anglican in the inclusive, collegial sense of that word, not the recent, Donatistic, homophobic sense of “Anglican.”  I am a fan of the Enlightenment, without being uncritical of its excesses.  I am Neo-Orthodox.   I stand at the conjunction of Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism.  I am too Roman Catholic to consider myself a Protestant and too Protestant to “cross the Tiber.”  I hold that sacred music in Western Christianity achieved its pinnacle in Roman Catholicism during the Counter-Reformation.  I take the Roman Catholic doctrine of the “seamless cloth” to its logical, most inclusive conclusion; hence I support equal protection under the law for anyone with a pulse.  I do not know how best to enact that principle, and suspect that the effectiveness of certain government actions with regard to abortion is extremely limited.  I am, without apology, an intellectual who accepts science.  I consider Evangelicalism and all varieties of fundamentalism too narrow, and universalism too broad.  I describe myself as a liberal, despite the Right Wing’s demonization of that word.  Politically, I stand generally to the left, but sometimes lean to the right.  The Left Wing is, in most respects, consistent with my Judeo-Christian values.  Elements of both the Left and the Right alarm and appall me.  In 2021, in the United States of America, the Right Wing terrifies me, especially with its increasing embrace of authoritarianism and unfounded conspiracy theories.

The on-going COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the dark side of human nature.  I belong to that throng which looks on in horror and disbelief as widespread denial of objective reality continues to manifest in people.  Enlightenment ideas about human rationality and nobility meet their match in this context.  More than a quarter of the Republican Party accepts aspects of the QAnon movement, according to a recent poll. I do not know how anyone could have continued to deny the reality of the pandemic well into the pandemic last year, or to do so today.  Yet many people have, and do.  Many people and certain governments have shunned–and continue to shun–basic human consideration in public health policy, somehow politicized.

Why do innocent and good people suffer?  Usually, they do so because of their malicious and/or oblivious neighbors and governments.

Evidence for human depravity abounds.  I do not need to have faith to accept the reality of human depravity.  No, I need merely to pay attention.  What else am I supposed to think when members of the United States Congress refer to insurrectionists from January 6, 2021, as tourists and block a bipartisan commission?  What else am I supposed to think when certain state governments, embracing lies, restrict voting rights and, in Orwellian terms, speak of enhancing the security of elections?

May God save us from ourselves and each other.




Feast of William Stringfellow (April 28)   1 comment

Above:  William Stringfellow

Fair Use



Episcopal Attorney, Theologian, and Social Activist


I think they need to hear it.

–William Stringfellow, explaining why he read long passages of the Bible to the F.B.I. agents recording his telephone calls


This is the man America should be listening to.

Karl Barth, on Stringfellow, early 1960s


It is profane, as well as grandiose, to manipulate the Bible in order to apologize for America.

–William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (1973)


For thousands of us, he became the honored keeper and guardian of the Word of God.

Daniel Berrigan, 1985


William Stringfellow comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via five sources.  He is on the short list of people The Episcopal Church will probably list officially as a saint once the “fifty-year-rule” (to which the denomination has made notable exceptions) ceases to be a barrier.  Stringfellow’s name appears in this context in the back of Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010) and its successor, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  A Calendar of Commemorations (2016).  Cloud of Witnesses, 2d. ed (2005), edited by Jim Wallis and Joyce Hollyday, contains Wallis’s remembrance of his friend of 14 years.  A Year with American Saints (2006), by G. Scott Cady and Christopher L. Webber, features Stringfellow.  So does All Saints:  Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (1997), by Robert Ellsberg.

Stringfellow was a prophet.  He was, by definition, also a controversial figure.  Our saint was the kind of man certain contemporary reactionaries would dismiss cynically as a “social justice warrior.” Stringfellow would, in a counterfactual scenario in which he would have heard that term, probably have considered it a compliment and read the Book of Amos to his critics.  He did, after all, read long Biblical passages to the F.B.I. spooks who recorded this telephone calls.  That was better than what some other spied-upon U.S. citizens did in identical circumstances–frequently insult J. Edgar Hoover profanely.

Stringfellow stood up for what he believed.  He condemned economic injustice, racism, institutionalized segregation, homophobia, misogyny, sexual promiscuity, and other offenses.  Our saint also advocated for the ordination of women within The Episcopal Church long before 1976, when the General Convention approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate.  His opposition to the Vietnam War and to nuclear weapons also made him many enemies on the Right.

Frank William Stringfellow was a man who allowed the Bible to shape him.  He was a radical and a strong social critic who walked the walk.  Our saint, born in Johnston, Rhode Island, on April 26, 1928, was a life-long Episcopalian.  At age fifteen, he matriculated at Bates College, Lewiston, Massachusetts.  When Stringfellow left Bates College, he studied at the London School of Economics.  Our saint served in the Second Armored Division, U.S. Army, during World War II.  Next, he earned his J.D. degree at Harvard Law School.

Stringfellow moved into a slum in Harlem after he graduated from Harvard Law School.  He joined the East Harlem Protestant Parish, taught Biblical studies, and practiced law.  He remained in Harlem until 1967.  Our saint moved for health-related reasons; a metabolism-related disorder that led to diabetes affected him.  Stringfellow and platonic partner, poet Anthony Towne (died in 1980), a Methodist, moved to Block Island, New Shoreham, Rhode Island.

All evidence points to Stringfellow being a celibate, semi-closeted homosexual.  This matter, relevant to his life and activism, does not offend me.  (Stringfellow no more chose to be homosexual than I chose to be heterosexual.)

Theologically, Stringfellow was neo-orthodox.  He read works by Karl Barth (with whom he had a conversation in Harlem in the early 1960s) and Jacques Ellul.  The neo-orthodox theology of original sin pervading neo-orthodoxy was evident in his writings, including many of his books.  The presence of original sin in American culture and social institutions was one of Stringfellow’s most controversial topics.  He objected to reading the Bible through (dominant) American cultural eyes.  Rather, our saint interpreted (dominant) American culture through Biblical lenses.  He concluded that the Bible condemned his culture and his society’s institutions.  That proved to be controversial when

My country, right or wrong

was a popular slogan for many people.

Stringfellow’s views and activism placed him on J. Edgar Hoover’s radar, hence the wire-tapping.  When our saint’s friend, Father Daniel Berrigan (1921-2016) was a fugitive for having destroyed military draft records, Stringfellow and Toyne sheltered him for four months.  F.B.I. agents raided the house on Block Island and arrested all three.  The court eventually dropped the charges (of sheltering a fugitive) against Stringfellow and Towne, though.

Stringfellow, in constant pain during his final years, died at home on March 2, 1985.  He was 56 years old.

Stringfellow defined being holy as

being truly human.

By that standard, of being the best person one can be, our saint was holy.

Stringfellow’s prophetic witness remains relevant, unfortunately.  I write “unfortunately” because the United States of America, my country, has continued collectively and officially down a path contrary to the high moral standards Stringfellow championed.  I wonder what the FOX News Channel (according to which Mister Rogers was evil) would have said about Stringfellow, had it existed when he was alive.









Almighty God, whose prophets taught us righteousness in the care of your poor:

By the guidance of your Holy Spirit, grant that we may

do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in your sight,

through Jesus Christ, our Judge and Redeemer,

who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Isaiah 55:11-56:1

Psalm 2:1-2, 10-12

Acts 14:14-17, 21-23

Mark 4:21-29

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), 736


Feast of Georgia Harkness (April 21)   1 comment

Above:  My Copy of Toward Understanding the Bible (1952)

Photographer = Kenneth Randolph Taylor



U.S. Methodist Minister, Theologian, Ethicist, and Hymn Writer

Georgia Harkness comes to this, A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  An Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, via Toward Understanding the Bible (1952) and The Interpreter’s Bible (12 volumes, 1951f), in my library.

Georgia Elma Harkness was a pioneer for women in her Methodist tradition and in the mainstream of Christianity in the United States of America.  She, born in Harkness, New York, on April 21, 1891, was the fourth of four children of Joseph Warren Harkness and Lillie Merrill Harkness.  Our saint, from a progressive and upper middle class family, members of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1784-1939), perceived her vocation when an adolescent.  The institutional church had other ideas, however.

Sexism remained a barrier for Harkness, who had received a call to ordained ministry.  She, a graduate of Cornell University (B.A. in Philosophy, 1912), could not matriculate at any of the theological seminaries in the United States because of her chromosomes.  Had Georgia Elma Harkness been George Elmo Harkness, such institutional barriers would not have existed.  After teaching high school for six years, Harkness matriculated at Boston University.  Her gender kept her out of the School of Theology, so she went to the School of Religion instead.  She graduate with her doctorate in 1923.  Her dissertation was, “The Relations Between Philosophy of Religion and Ethics in the Thought of Thomas Hill Green.”

Harkness became an academic.  She taught religion and philosophy courses at Elmira College, Elmira, New York, a women’s college, from 1923 to 1938.  She continued her studies during summers.  Our saint was a summer student at Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, and Union Theological Seminary, New York City.  She was Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Mount Holyoke College from 1937 to 1940.  The Methodist Episcopal Church ordained Harkness a deacon in 1926 and an elder in 1939.  However, given that no female could yet join a conference, our saint could not yet function as an ordained minister.  Delegates to the Methodist reuniting conference (1939) voted on a resolution to approve the ordination of women.  The resolution failed by a few votes.  The Methodist Church (1939-1968) finally authorized the ordination of women at the General Conference of 1956.  In the meantime, however, Harkness did make history by becoming the first woman to hold the position of professor at a theological seminary in the United States.  She joined the faculty of Garrett Biblical Institute (a predecessor of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary), near Chicago, Illinois, in 1940.  Our saint taught Applied Theology there for a decade then transferred to the Pacific School of Religion, a Congregationalist seminary in Berkeley, California.  Harkness retired in 1960.

Harkness’s liberal tendencies were prominent.  She, a pacifist, wrote materials for the Methodist Board of World Peace.  Economic justice, a major concern of Hebrew prophets, was another priority for our saint.  Harkness, an ecumenist, was active in the World Council of Churches.  She wrote the hymn, “Hope of the World” (1953) for the WCC Assembly of 1954.  Harkness also supported civil rights for African Americans and confronted Karl Barth (1886-1968) to his face (at the first WCC Assembly, in 1948) over his opposition to feminism.

Harkness wrote other hymns, too.  “Hope of the World” has become her most popular hymn.  Other titles were:

  1. “The Earth Thou Givest, Lord, is Thine;”
  2. “Tell it!  Tell it Out with Gladness;”
  3. “Speak Through the Living Silence;”
  4. “Speak Thou, O Lord, Thy Light;” and
  5. “God of the Fertile Fields.”

Harkness also served as one of the Consulting Editors of The Interpreter’s Bible in the 1950s.

Harkness had a practical bent and wrote most often for general audiences.  She preferred to write books many people would read and find useful.  Her publications included the following:

  1. The Church and the Immigrant (1921),
  2. Holy Flame (1935),
  3. The Resources of Religion (1936),
  4. The Recovery of Ideals (1937),
  5. How to Find Prayer More Meaningful (1946),
  6. Prayer and the Common Life (1948),
  7. Conflicts in Religious Thought (1949),
  8. The Gospel and Our World (1949),
  9. Through Christ Our Lord:  A Devotional Manual Based on the Recorded Works of Jesus (1950),
  10. Toward Understanding the Bible (1952),
  11. Christian Ethics:  Emerging Social Trends and the Future of American Christianity (1952),
  12. Eschatology in the Great Poets (1952),
  13. The Sources of Western Culture:  From Primitive Society to the Beginnings of Christian Ethics (1954),
  14. Religious Living (1958),
  15. The Bible Speaks to Daily Needs (1959),
  16. Does God Care? (1960),
  17. The Providence of God (1960),
  18. John Calvin:  The Man and His Ethics (1963),
  19. The Glory of God:  Poems and Prayers for Devotional Use (1963),
  20. The Methodist Church in Social Thought and Action (1964),
  21. The Dark Night of the Soul (1965),
  22. Disciplines of the Christian Life (1967),
  23. A Devotional Treasure from the Early Church (1968),
  24. Grace Abounding (1969),
  25. The Ministry of Reconciliation (1971),
  26. Women in Church and Society:  A Historical and Theological Inquiry (1972), and
  27. Understanding the Kingdom of God (1974).

For the sake of clarity, I make clear what Harkness meant by “liberal” and “liberalism” before I continue.  She described herself as a “chastened liberal,” standing between the overly optimistic Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbush (1861-1918) and the Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962).  Harkness, writing in Toward Understanding the Bible (1952), noted the common ground between liberalism and Neo-orthodoxy (acceptance of science, rejection of fundamentalism, et cetera) then argued that the difference was one of emphasis.  She wrote that Neo-orthodoxy emphasized human weakness and sinfulness but that liberal Christianity emphasized that

man is made in the spiritual image of God, and, as God’s supreme creation, is a living soul with a great, God-given responsibility to honor and obey him.


Consistent with Harkness’s stance vis-à-vis Neo-orthodoxy, she stood with the Eastern Orthodox by rejecting original sin.  She told The Christian Century, regarding original sin,

The faster it goes, the better.

Yet Harkness, like Reinhold Niebuhr, recognized the power of sin in people and in social institutions.

By theological position, by the way, is Neo-orthodoxy.   I also describe myself as a theological, social, and political liberal.  I use “liberal” more broadly than Harkness did.

Harkness, 83 years old, died in Claremont, California, on August 21, 1974.

Engaging with writings of Georgia Harkness will provide one with much food for ethical and theological thoughts.









Almighty God, we praise you for your servant Georgia Harkness,

through whom you have called the church to its tasks and renewed its life.

Raise up in our own day teachers and prophets inspired by your Spirit,

whose voices will give strength to your church

and proclaim the reality of your reign,

through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 46

1 Corinthians 3:11-23

Mark 10:35-45

–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), 60


Feast of Albert Barnes (December 1)   6 comments

Above:  Albert Barnes

Image in the Public Domain



U.S. Presbyterian Minister, Abolitionist, and Alleged Heretic

Public sentiment controls the land; public sentiment will ultimately control the world.  All that error, tyranny, and oppression demand is a strong public sentiment in their favor; all that is necessary to counteract their influence is that public sentiment be right.

Albert Barnes, The Church and Slavery (1857), 7

When that book rolled off the presses, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that African Americans were not citizens and therefore lacked all constitutional rights.  In 1857 vocal defenders of slavery who quoted the Bible made the authority of scripture one of the pillars of their arguments.  That year, the United States was moving toward the Civil War.

Barnes was humble yet not timid.  He, a man of this time and his Evangelical subculture in some ways, for better and worse, was also ahead of his time in other ways.  He expressed his opinions boldly and acted on them in the same manner.  Targets included dancing, saloons, slavery, and High Church Episcopalians.  Our saint counterbalanced that with a tolerant attitude regarding a range of theological opinions, however.

Barnes comes to this, my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days via G. Scott Cady and Christopher L. Webber, A Year with American Saints (2006).

Our saint, born in Rome, New York, on December 1, 1798, was a skeptic who converted.  He became a Christian under the influence of the Second Great Awakening, while he was a student at Hamilton College, Clinton, New York.  Our saint’s original plans had been to become an attorney.  He matriculated at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1820 instead.  Barnes graduated in 1824 and became a minister the following year.

Barnes, ordained by the Presbytery of Elizabethtown in 1825, served in only two congregations.  While in Morristown, New Jersey (1825-1830), he helped to close all the taverns in town.  In 1829 our saint became both prominent and controversial in his denomination, the old Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (1789-1838), with a sermon, “The Way to Salvation.”  In this sermon Barnes made a number of controversial statements, not the least of which was his rejection of Original Sin.  This position aligned him with Judaism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but separated him from most of Western Christianity.

Barnes served in the First Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from 1830 to 1870.  With greater prominence came more theological scrutiny.  Our saint, accused of heresy, won acquittal at the General Assemblies of 1831 and 1836, both times with votes from delegates belonging to the New School wing of the denomination.  Both acquittals caused much consternation in the Old School.  During the 1830s Barnes wrote and published an internationally best-selling series of Biblical commentaries marked by both erudition and accessibility.  Ministers and Sunday School teachers were the main audiences.   In Notes on the Epistle to the Romans (1835) Barnes wrote in opposition to Original Sin (without using that term) in the note on 5:9.   The presbytery suspended our saint from his pulpit and declared the volume dangerous.  The General Assembly of 1836 not only dismissed those charges but also restored him to his pulpit.  These two acquittals hastened the Old School-New School schism of 1838.

Barnes minced no words regarding slavery, although he changed his mind.  In An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery (1846), our saint acknowledge a range of views regarding slavery in the Bible yet concluded that the principles of Christ vis-à-vis slavery led to abolition of slavery.  Therefore, according to Barnes, all pro-slavery Biblical principles were not applicable to chattel slavery in the 1800s.  In The Church and Slavery (1857), Barnes took a harder line; those pro-slavery Biblical principles never applied in any circumstances; slavery was wrong at all times and in all places.  The 1858 schism in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (New School), resulting in the formation of the (Southern) United Synod of the Presbyterian Church, resulted from an effort by Barnes et al. to discipline slaveholders in 1856.  The consensus of the delegates to the General Assembly of 1856 was merely to express official displeasure with slavery.  Even that mild measure was too much for some.

Historical Note:  The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (Old School) divided in 1861, with the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America forming at First Presbyterian Church, Augusta, Georgia, in December 1861.  The United Synod of the Presbyterian Church merged into the Confederate Church in 1864.  The Confederate Church renamed itself the Presbyterian Church in the United States in December 1865.  The remaining, national (“Northern”) bodies reunited as the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1870.  Ultimately, the Southern and national (“Northern”) bodies wound up together again, in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1983. 

One does need far more than a flow chart to keep track of Presbyterian schisms and mergers in the United States of America.

Barnes, who served as the Moderator of the New School General Assembly in 1851 and as the President of the Pennsylvania Bible Society from 1858 to 1870, did not reject science out of hand.  Early during the controversy over Evolution our saint made a distinction between the Bible and the interpretation thereof.  He insisted that science may contradict an interpretation of scripture without running afoul of the Bible.

Our saint, open to dialogue and cooperation with others (especially Congregationalists and other Calvinists) of whom Old School Presbyterians disapproved, died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on December 24, 1870.  He was 71 years old.

One may, of course, disagree with Barnes on more than one issue; I, an Episcopalian fond of “smells and bells,” do.  That is fine, as our saint would agree.  One ought to recognize the moral courage Barnes showed as he fought the good fight against slavery while one differs with him on other matters.








Holy and righteous God, you created us in your image.

Grant to us grace to contend fearlessly against evil and to make no peace with oppression.

Help us, like your servant Albert Barnes, to work for justice among people and nations,

to the glory of your name, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Hosea 2:18-23

Psalm 94:1-15

Romans 12:9-21

Luke 6:20-36

–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), 60


Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Monica of Hippo, and St. Augustine of Hippo (August 28)   31 comments

Basilica of St. Ambrose, Milan

Above:  Basilica of St. Ambrose, Milan, Italy, Between 1860 and 1890

Image in the Public Domain



Roman Catholic Bishop of Milan

His feast transferred from December 7



Mother of Saint Augustine of Hippo

Her feast transferred from May 4 and August 27



Roman Catholic Bishop of Hippo Regius


The Donatists in North Africa upheld the ancient image of the church as a gathered elite, a foreign body in the midst of a secular society and an apostate church.  Defenders of the orthodoxy agreed at the Council of Nicaea (325) sometimes denounced emperors such as Constantius II as heretics, and repudiated the authority of secular rulers over the church.  Others, like Ambrose, bishop of the imperial city of Milan (d. 397), were determined to subject the exercise of imperial power to the spiritual authority of bishops.  But until Augustine’s City of God (413-427) most Christians unquestioningly accepted the Roman political and social order as the earthly form of the Christian society.

–Robert A. Markus in The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (1990), edited by John McManners, page 71




The three saints on which I focus in this post have separate commemorations on ecclesiastical calendars.  Nevertheless, I have chosen to combine those commemorations here at this, my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days.  Their three stories flow into one easily, after all.  Furthermore, recounting their lives this way functions to argue a point, which is that rugged individualism plays no part in a healthy Christian spiritual journey.  Each of us needs, at different times, encouragement or prodding on the part of others to pursue the proper path and to remain on it.





Above:  Saints Augustine and Monica, by Ary Scheffer

Image in the Public Domain

In the beginning of this composite story there were Patricius and Monica (sometimes called Monnica), of Tagaste, Numidia, Roman Empire.  (Tagaste has become Souk Ahras, Algeria.)  Patricius was a pagan and a municipal official.  His wife, St. Monica, was a Christian.  The couple had three children.  Navigius and his sister Perpetua grew up as Christians and entered the religious life.  St. Augustine, however, had a winding road of a spiritual pilgrimage.

St. Monica sought to bring her husband and her errant son to Christ.  She succeeded, but only after much prayer and effort.  Patricius converted shortly before he died in 370.  St. Augustine underwent baptism 17 years later.  The fact that he made the transition from apostate to Christian had much to do with his faithful and persistent mother, who had taught him religion and theology when he was a child.  St. Augustine, born at Tagaste on November 13, 354, began his studies in other topics in that city.  The schoolmaster beat him severely, though, and the young saint, having learned to dislike Greek, never mastered it.

St. Augustine became an apostate.  At age 11 or 12 (365 or 366) St. Augustine went to study at Madauros, about 25 kilometers from Tagaste.  Madauros was a center or pagan thought.  There he soaked up the pagan milieu and learned Latin literature.  In 370 St. Augustine moved to Carthage.  There he took a mistress, whose name he did not reveal in his writings.  They had a son, Adeodatus (372-388).  At Carthage St. Augustine also converted to Manicheism, a dualistic religion.  He taught grammar at Tagaste starting in 373.  Then, for seven years, he taught rhetoric at Carthage, where he lost his Manichean faith and became an agnostic.  In 383, over St. Monica’s strong objections, he moved to Rome.  Then, in the following year, St. Augustine accepted a position teaching rhetoric at Milan.  Along the way he regained his Manichean faith.

St. Monica had followed her errant son around for years, so she could influence him positively and locally.  She had managed to find a young woman who would, in time be of age to marry St. Augustine and be a suitable wife.  He dismissed his longtime mistress, who returned to northern Africa and joined a religious community.   As St. Augustine struggled with his sexuality he famously prayed,

Give me chastity, but not yet!

Then he took a second mistress.  At Milan St. Monica found the right man to help end her son’s time of spiritual rebellion.  She persuaded St. Augustine to listen to and meet St. Ambrose, the bishop there.




St. Ambrose

Above:  St. Ambrosius, by Francisco de Zurbaran

Image in the Public Domain

St. Ambrose of Milan (born in 337) traveled an interesting spiritual path to his destiny.  The native of Treves (now Trier, Germany) was a son of a Roman prefect and a pious and educated mother.  He grew up a Christian.  His widowed mother raised him in Rome, where he received a liberal arts education.  St. Ambrose became a lawyer.  In 371, at age 34, he received an appointment as governor of the province of Liguria and Aemilia, a job he performed well.  In 374 the governor presided over the election of the next Bishop of Milan.  He became not only a candidate but the favored one, much to his shock and displeasure.  St. Ambrose, who was neither baptized nor trained in theology, did not think himself qualified for the post.  Nevertheless, even going into hiding did not change destiny.  In one week in December 374 St. Ambrose became a baptized Christian, a priest, and the Bishop of Milan within a week, his consecration taking place on December 7.

St. Ambrose took his responsibilities seriously.  He donated his lands to the Church, gave his possessions to the poor, fasted daily, took communion daily, and spent much time studying, writing, and meditating.  Among his theological influences was Origen (185-254), who favored the allegorical reading of Scripture.  St. Ambrose also argued forcefully against the Arian heresy, which stated that God the Son was a created being.

[Aside:  Unfortunately, Arianism continues to thrive, especially among the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons.]

The Arian-Orthodox Christian controversy divided the Church and became a factor in imperial politics.  Some emperors were Orthodox.  Members of the faction out of imperial favor frequently suffered, for the concept of the separation of church and state was centuries of away from becoming commonplace and widely accepted.  The Emperor Gratian (reigned 375-383) was Orthodox.  Magnus Maximus (reigned 383-388), the usurper who murdered him, was an Arian.  While Magnus Maximusreigned in the western portion of the Roman Empire, Valentinian II, Gratian’s half-brother, theoretically ruled in the East.  Actually, however, Valentinian II’s mother, Justina, served as his regent from 383 to 388.  She and her son were Arians.  In 383 Justina asked St. Ambrose to intercede with Magnus Maximus.  The bishop traveled to Treves, where he remained to meet with the murderous usurper and with local priests responsible for the execution of Priscillian heretics, but he did succeed in distracting the usurper, to the benefit of forces of Valentinian II, who seized the alpine pass.  The grateful emperor honored St. Ambrose’s request that he not restore the pagan altar of Victory in the Senate.  Justina, also grateful, promised not to use her position to advance the cause of Arianism.

She either lied or changed her mind.  In 385 Justina demanded that St. Ambrose hand over a church building in Milan for use by Arians.  He refused.  She sent troops to enforce her demand, but had to back down after a crowd (including St. Monica) filled the cathedral, with the soldiers surrounded.  The following year the imperial government issued a decree favoring Arian worship and condemning to death those who objected.  St. Ambrose refused to keep silent, of course.  Justina sent soldiers again, but had to back down again.




St. Ambrose, who encouraged women to become nuns (rather than to marry), also advocated for missionary work, wrote hymns (such as Veni Redemptor Gentium, or “Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth“), and confronted imperial authorities, found time to mentor St. Augustine.  From St. Ambrose St. Augustine learned, among other things, aspects of Neo-Platonism, as well as Origen’s allegorical exegesis of Scripture, both of which aided him in his spiritual journey.  Next St. Augustine read the Pauline Epistles and studied the Desert Fathers.  He resigned as teacher of rhetoric and focused on preparation for baptism.  On Holy Saturday 387, at the Easter Vigil, St. Augustine and his son accepted baptism and joined the Roman Catholic Church.  St. Monica was present.

Later that year St. Monica died at the port of Ostia, Italy.  She and her family were planning to return to northern Africa.  She was about 56 years old when she died.

St. Monica is the patron saint of Christian wives and mothers and of victims of abuse.  She has two feast days, May 4 being the traditional date and August 27 being the date on the revised Roman Catholic calendar.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, The Anglican Church in Canada (in The Book of Common Prayer of 1962), and The Episcopal Church, among others, celebrate her life on May 4.  The Anglican Church in Canada (in the Book of Alternative Services of 1985); The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia; The Church of England; and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, among others, do so on August 27.




The traditions of the Scriptures are his [Christ’s] body; the Church is his body.

–St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Ambrose, who defended claims that St. Mary of Nazareth is the Mother of God, continued to defy imperial authority, even to assert his power over it.  Emperor Theodosius I “the Great” (reigned 379-395), the sole emperor from 392 to 395, made Christianity (already legal) the official religion.  He also suppressed Arianism and paganism.  In 388 St. Ambrose confronted Theodosius I over an order to spend state funds to build a structure for non-Christian worship, forcing the Emperor to back down.  Two years later, in Thessalonica, a popular charioteer attempted to rape a male servant of Butheric, the Roman master of soldiers in the region.  Butheric ordered the charioteer arrested, an action to which a mob objected.  Butheric and some other officers died during ensuing riots.  The angry Theodosius I ordered soldiers to surround the amphitheater in Thessalonica and to slaughter the spectators at a chariot race.  Whether any person killed was innocent was not an issue for the Emperor.  He reversed the order, but not before about 7000 people died.  St. Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius I, lifting the discipline after the Emperor had done several months of penance and issued a proclamation stating that no execution would occur less than 30 days after the issuing of the death sentence.

St. Ambrose died at Milan on April 4, 397.  He was about 60 years old.




Perhaps St. Augustine of Hippo was the greatest legacy of St. Ambrose of Milan.  Certainly aspects of the teacher’s philosophy echoed in that of the attentive pupil.

St. Augustine eventually made his way back to Tagaste, where he remained for a few years.  After spending a year in Rome he arrived in his hometown.  There he sold his inheritance, gave the money to the poor, and retained a house, which he converted into a monastery in 388.  St. Augustine might have spent the rest of his life thusly, but, in 391, St. Valerius, the Bishop of Hippo Regius, ordained him to the priesthood at Hippo Regius.  Four years later our saint became the bishop coadjutor, with the right of succession.  In 396 he succeeded as the Bishop of Hippo Regius, a minor port in northern Africa.

There St. Augustine remained.  More than 400 sermons and 200 letters, have survived.  By 427, according to his count, he had written 237 books and 93 other literary works, not counting sermons and letters.  Many of these volumes of St. Augustine’s oeuvre have survived, fortunately.

Theological controversies defined St. Augustine’s output.  He lived, thought, argued, and wrote during a time of theological formation.  He helped to define the tradition upon which we Christians of 2016 stand and became one of the greatest and most influential theologians of Western Christianity.  Nevertheless, even the Roman Catholic Church, which has no difficulty recognizing him as a saint, has not accepted all of his theology as worthy of inclusion in the catechism.  St. Augustine came from a particular time and a certain place, the circumstances of which defined his context.  In that context, in the judgment of Holy Mother Church, he went too far on occasion.  That did not detract from his influence, however.


Against Heresies



Opposing Manicheism, Donatism, and Pelagianism occupied much of St. Augustine’s time.  He had, of course, been a Manichean, leaving that religion twice.  The founder of the religion was Mani (215/216-276/277), of Babylonian origin.  He taught dualism.  Manicheism meshed easily with Gnosticism, with which many early Christian leaders had to content.  Manicheism spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire from 280 to 330, attracting adherents from gnostic sects and people of haute culture and the intelligentsia.  The religion, with its dualistic and gnostic elements, rejected the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity as Jesus of Nazareth.  It also made a strong case for human free will, offered an optimistic ethos of human freedom and agency.


Donatism (300s-700s) defined the Church as the assembled spiritual elite–the self-identified pure of heart and orthopraxy who separated themselves from the cosmos and the corrupt, old ecclesiastical structure.  (The spirit of Donatism has never ceased to exist, unfortunately.)  During the Diocletian persecution (303-305) many Christians in northern Africa had committed apostasy.  Afterward many of them expressed remorse and requested readmission to the Church.  The Roman Catholic Church, being willing to forgive, agreed, so long as the remorse was genuine.  The election of the successor of Mensurius, the Bishop of Carthage, who died in 311, functioned as the flash point of the Donatist schism.  Mensurius had been conciliatory toward remorseful apostates.  Two men contended to succeed him.  Caecilian was conciliatory; Majorinus, who died in 315, was a Donatist.  Donatus Magnus, from whose name the word “Donatist” came, succeeded as Bishop of Carthage in 315.

Donatism divided the Church in northern Africa for centuries.  Donatism defined the Church as the society of holy people and stated the holiness of the Church depended upon the exclusion of those who had committed mortal sin.  In contrast Roman Catholicism argued that the holiness of the Church depended upon the Holy Spirit and the communication of divine grace via priests.

St. Augustine was a staunch Roman Catholic.  The four marks of the Church, he wrote, were oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity.  Furthermore, our saint insisted, there is and can be only one Church.  St. Augustine, echoing St. Paul the Apostle and St. Ambrose of Milan, defined the Church as the Body of Christ.  The Church, the Bishop of Hippo Regius wrote, is the unity of faith and love, and schism and heresy are antithetical to unity, the principle of which is the Holy Spirit.  Our saint argued that the Church will contain impure elements until the end times, when God will remove them.  Meanwhile, the members of the Church were spiritual pilgrims in constant need of reform.

Furthermore, St. Augustine wrote, Christ exists in three modes–the eternal Word, the God-man, and the Church.  The emphasis on organic unity mattered to the bishop, who supported Papal primacy.  Donatists and other schismatics hampered the goal of unity.


St. Augustine also objected to Pelagianism, named after Pelagius (c. 360-c. 420), a Roman British theologian.  Pelagianism, which the Roman Catholic Church declared heretical quickly, argued for the inherent moral neutrality of people at birth, thereby repudiating the doctrine of original sin.  Pelagianism therefore contended for the complete freedom of human will to choose good or evil–to save or to condemn oneself.  This heresy eliminated grace from salvation.  St. Augustine refuted Pelagianism without teaching salvation by faith alone.

Augustine’s doctrine of grace led to deep issues that are still a matter of dispute in Western Christian tradition.  He insisted with Paul that we are justified by faith, but does not each the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone.  For Augustine, our journey to God, our salvation really is like a journey along a road.  When we’ve converted to the faith, that’s like getting on the right road.  What moves us along the road is love for God.  But Christian faith is just the beginning of the journey, and is not sufficient to bring us home.

Augustine insists on the necessity of grace if we are to do any good work, but does not teach the Protestant doctrine that we are saved by grace alone, because when our wills co-operate with grace our works of love have merit.  By grace we come to love God, though we never do so perfectly in this life.  Because believers pray for grace and forgiveness, their sins are not imputed to them.  Gifts of grace, called “co-operative grace,” work together with our good will to produce meritorious works of love.  Although all our good works are outgrowths of grace, our salvation requires merit as well as grace.  This is possible because the initial gift of grace, called “operative grace,” works a change in our hearts, turning our wills toward the end.

Augustine taught that grace and free will were compatible, but not everyone agrees that his doctrine of grace really is compatible with an adequate concept of free will.  He insists that this is not coercion, for it does not mean overcoming the unwilling but inwardly causing the unwilling to become willing.  Hence on Augustine’s view, God can cause us to will freely in a different way than we had before.  This view of free will is deemed inadequate in its own control.

–Phillip Cary, The History of Christian Theology Course Guidebook (Chantilly, VA:  The Great Courses, 2008), pages 40-41

For St. Augustine grace was essential and original sin was real.  He linked original sin with sexuality, agreeing with St. Paul the Apostle (in 1 Corinthians 7) that virginity is superior to marriage and that being married is better than committing sin.  St. Augustine agreed that sexual desire resulted from the fall of the human race at Eden and that the act of procreation was therefore impure.  Thus infants entered into the world already tainted by original sin and therefore deserving of damnation, hence infant baptism for the baptism of sins.  Not surprisingly, St. Augustine favored the mandatory celibacy of the clergy.

St. Augustine, in refuting Pelagianism, argued for Double Predestination, the idea that God predestines everyone–some to Heaven and others to Hell.  The official position of the Roman Catholic Church since the Council of Orange (529), guided by St. Caesarius of Arles (468/470-543), has been Semi-Pelagianism.

Simply put, this is the semi-Pelagian position:  We are all unworthy, undeserving sinners.  We not only leave undone many things we ought to have done; even the good we do is corrupted by sinful motives, desires, and goals.  We are totally dependent on the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ for our salvation.  But although it is true that we are not free and able to save ourselves by our good works, we are free and able to do one thing.  We can acknowledge our need for God’s grace and turn to God to ask for the deep, abiding faith, hope, and love we cannot achieve for ourselves.  We can confess Christ as Lord and Savior and show our willingness to receive the salvation made available to us in him.  We can allow the transforming power of God’s Holy Spirit to come into our hearts.  We can go to church in order to express our desire for the help and salvation we know comes only from God.  We cannot save ourselves, but we can do that much if we really want to.  And if we choose God and turn to God in this way, God will choose us, love, help, and save us.  If some do not receive this saving grace, it is not because God has rejected them; it is because they have rejected God.  Salvation is by God’s grace alone, available to all who sincerely ask for it and want it.

–Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition (Louisville, KY:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), pages 127-128


Other Matters Theological


St. Augustine became an influential theologian.  God occupied the center of Augustinian thought.  The saint argued that one can discern the existence of God, the preferred name for whom is Truth, via reason.  He also wrote that the image of God is evident in the soul, which is immortal and imperishable, not an aspect of the body.  Furthermore, St. Augustine contended, the human powers of memory, understanding, and will reflect the Holy Trinity.  He also affirmed transubstantiation while making a distinction between the sign or sacrament and the thing of which the sacrament was a sign, or between what one sees and what one understands, or what between the bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ.  He argued that the bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ are identical after the prayer of consecration, for they become substantially the same.

St. Augustine argued that, although not all wars are just, some of them are.  He established four standards for a just war:

  • lawful authority,
  • a just cause,
  • a right intention, and
  • war as the last resort.

With regard to sin and evil, St. Augustine understood evil to be not only the result of free will but the lack of good and sin to be disordered love, the turning away from things eternal.


The End of Saint Augustine and the Western Roman Empire


St. Augustine spent his final years mourning the crumbling of the Western Roman Empire.  (The Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453.)  Among the traditional justifications for persecuting Christians had been the idea that Gentiles needed to honor pagan deities as a patriotic duty.  If too many Gentiles neglected this duty, the reasoning went, the gods would abandon the Roman Empire.  In 410, at the end of the reign (395-423) of the Emperor Honorius, Rome fell to the Visigoth chief Alaric (c. 370-410).  The Western Roman Empire limped along (at least de jure, until September 476, when Flavius Odoacer (Odovacer), an army officer of German origin, deposed Romulus Augustus, the last emperor in the west.  Actually, though, that event was a formality.  The Western Roman Empire did not fall; it faded away.  St. Augustine wrote The City of God to, among other things, argue against the blaming of Christians for the sorry state of the Western Roman Empire.  He died at Hippo Regius on August 28, 430, during the siege of that city by the Vandals.  Our saint was 75 years old.




One need not agree completely with someone entirely to acknowledge his or her sanctity and greatness.  Indeed, collegiality is a virtue in relation to both the living and the dead.  If I were to make total agreement with someone a requirement for inclusion on the Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, the Ecumenical Calendar would not exist.

These saints were spiritual giants upon whose figurative shoulders my fellow Christians and I stand.  Their biographies remind us that we have an obligation to influence one another positively, for the glory of God and the benefit of each other.  The issues with which we must contend might differ from theirs, but the call of Christ to follow him remains constant.  Fidelity to Christ will look different from one person to another, depending on who, where, and when one is.  May we who follow Christ honor that diversity of discipleship.







Loving God, we praise you and give thanks to you for the examples of your servants

St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Monica of Hippo, and St. Augustine of Hippo,

who, in the late Western Roman period, contended for the faith courageously.

May we who follow you support each other in our spiritual pilgrimages,

be one with you and each other, and leave a legacy that honors you and

brings glory to you; in the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

–Kenneth Randolph Taylor, May 10, 2016 Common Era

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 2:7-11, 16-18

Psalm 87

Galatians 7:11-17

John 16:20-24

–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), pages 107, 359, and 545