I was just thinking I should do a post about the context of Augustine’s life. It was an interesting moment in history.
Constantine died less than two decades before Augustine was born. The first Council of Nicea had profound impact, but the Empire was still largely Pagan. Constantine himself mixed Christianity and Paganism. Constantine probably didn’t even really distinguish between the different varieties of sun worship. He probably understood Jesus in the terms of his own understanding of Pagan sun gods who also were saviors. In fact, Constantine carried on the Roman tradition of Sol Invictus. He wasn’t even baptized until on his death bed. Certainly, he was far from being an exemplary Christian Emperor. He was ruthless and it’s likely he chose Christianity in order to try to prop up the Empire that was already starting to show hints of weakening. The major contribution he made was that in legalizing Christianity he encouraged a legalistic approach to defining Christianity. Orthodoxy is rooted in this legalistic tradition.
Eusebius became the Emperors official propagandist and is now known as the first major Church historicist. However, modern academics have shown that he was very loose with the truth. It was a common practice amongst the Church Fathers to lie and deceive partly because people in general at the time were less idealistic about objective truth. Also, the common style of debate was aggressively polemical. I’ve read that the first few centuries of Christianity created more scriptural forgeries and alterations than almost any other period of Western history. The early Christians were quite industrious in manufacturing their religion.
It should be noted that by the fourth century, Christianity had changed quite a bit. The earliest Christian commentators were considered heretical by the end of the second century, and the Christian commentators of the third century were also starting to seem suspect by the fourth century heresiologists. Christianity was evolving very quickly. By the time Christianity was legalized, Christians were beginning to forget their own origins. The sects that were based on the earliest commentaries were now heretical. Heresiology was the foundation of orthodoxy. As an example, Basilides wrote the earliest commentaries of any Christian. He was alive in the first century and would’ve known the very first Christians. Guess who destroyed his work? Later Christians. If there ever was a single original Christianity, the fighting between Christians very well may have entirely annihalated it by the third century. And by the fourth and fifth centuries, the Church Fathers were creating creeds that probably had only a vague connection to the beliefs of first century Christians.
Anyways, the Nicene Creed set forth the doctrine of the Trinity… which by the way has no scriptural foundation as the Trinity was Pagan in origin. Augustine’s understanding of the Trinity came from Neo-Platonism. But not all Christians believed in a Trinity. Arianism was the major opposing opinion and is named after one of the dissenting voices at the Council of Nicea. Some of the Emperors of the fourth century were Arian Christians. Arianism had become quite popular and was probably the single biggest issue of the fourth century and would survive for several more centuries.
In the middle of the fourth century, Julian the Apostate temporarily revived Paganism as the official state religion when Augustine was a child. Besides the still strong traditions of Paganism, there were many traditions of Christianity. Possibly the largest (psuedo-) Christian tradition in the world at that time was Manichaeism. I say ‘pseudo’ because Mani included many influences, but still it was Christian. The Manichaean Christ was worshipped as a solar deity and this was a major component of Augustine’s early education in Christianity.
Astrology and astro-theology in general was a major force in the ancient world. Many early Christians referred to Jesus as Sol, and it was a practice within the early Catholic church to pray towards the rising sun. The early Christian allegorists were aware of the astrotheological symbolism within Christianity. Augustine certainly would’ve been aware of this as well. It was through the allegorical interpretations of Ambrose that Judeo-Christian scripture began to seem respectable to Augustine. Ambrose had connected Jesus to the sun, but Augustine denied this connection. So, sun worship was still a major issue within the Church even as Catholicism was coming into power.
The distinction between Christianity and Paganism wasn’t absolutely clear at that time because Christianity and the Roman Empire grew up together. The two were inseparable. Augustine admitted that Christianity began before Jesus in earlier religions. This was a Neo-Platonic view of Christianity that Augustine was less accepting of later in life. Even Eusebius the greatest Christian propagandist who ever lived admitted to the similarities between Christianity and Paganism. These similarities were so obvious that it was pointless in trying to deny them. Unlike modern Christians, many of the early Church Fathers had educations in Paganism. Anyways, in the ancient world it gave a religion respectability to show that it has its roots in older traditions. There was no more embarassment in admitting Christianity had Pagan roots than in admitting it had Jewish roots. However, in the fourth century, it was starting to become more important to explain it away. Christianity needed to justify its growing dominance, and so it became necessary to increasingly distinguish itself from Paganism. It would take until the sixth century for Catholicism to destroy all of the institutions of Classical Paganism.
Along with this, it became necessary for Catholic orthodoxy to distinguish itself from the diverse traditions of Christianity. Catholicism was only barely becoming the dominant form of Christianity in the fourth century. Basically, all of the heresies named in the second and third centuries were still around. The Marcionites and the Valentinians were the most influnential sects of early Christianity and they were still living traditions. Gnosticism was everywhere and it was rather difficult to distinguish it from orthodoxy as there was much cross-pollination. Augustine himself was a good example of cross-polination as he first seriously studied Christianity as a Manichaean Gnostic. That might be why he was critical of the Old Testament before meeting Ambrose. The New Testament was originally canonized by the Gnostic Marcion in order to create a Christian canon separate from and opposed to the Jewish scripture.
Along with the early heresies, new ones were also popping up. Two traditions that Augustine fought to make heretical were Donatism and Pelagianism. The Donatists were a schism from Augustine’s homeland of North Africa. The Donatists believed that once someone had denied Catholicism they shouldn’t be allowed back into the Church. This relates to Pelagianism as well. Pelagius was the same age as Augustine and he also preached the necessity of believers being held responsible for their actions. Augustine opposed these two groups because he held the fatalistic belief that everyone was born a sinner. As such, believers and clergy shouldn’t be expected to be morally better than anyone else. Augustine’s created the Christian foundations for the theory of just war in his criticisms of the Donatists. His oratorical and legal arguments led to the declaration of heresy against the Donatists and their harsh persecution which he only partly protested against. These heresies, however, would continue to attract adherents for centuries to come.
In 379, Theodosius I became Roman Emperor. He united the Eastern and Western Empire and was the last Emperor to rule both. Also, he made the Nicene Creed the official state religion. Augustine was still a Manichaean at this time and this must’ve influenced his later decision in 386 to convert to Catholicism. In 381, Theodosius I began to inhibit Paganism. In 388, he began the persecution and destruction of Paganism. This was the Catholicism that Augustine converted to and which he helped to support.
After Theodosius reign, the beginning of the fifth century was more of the same. The last remnants of Egyptian religion was destroyed. Also, Hypatia (the last great Pagan teacher, philosopher, and mathematician) was killed by a Christian mob. I don’t know what Augustine’s opinion was about this destruction of Pagan culture all around him, but he certainly took notice of the sacking of Rome. Rome was attacked by the Visigoths who were Arian Christians. Augustine wrote The City of God in response to the fall of Rome because Pagans were blaming Christians for this event. At the end of his life, the Arian Vandals were ravaging Roman Africa. Augustine was on his deathbed in Hippo when it was overrun by Vandals.