A young African man with a taste for sex and a highly developed sense of both religion and mission travels across the Mediterranean. He decides to sail. Christian cross Once in Italy, he communes with the rich and powerful and then, some years later, makes the return journey via the same means of transport, and thereby completes the sum total of his life’s travels.

We know a lot about the man, not only from his own writings which are both extensive and preserved, but also from the accounts of many of those contemporaries who met him, engaged in intellectual and theological debates with him, or merely reported.

The Roman Empire had only recently espoused Christianity. It was an era when the young faith was divided by schism. A strength of this biography of Augustine is that it brings home the passion that characterised these differences. A weakness, however, is tat the different variants of fourth century Christianity are not clearly delineated. This would, perhaps, be too much to ask in a short account of a life, but there are times when understanding of the text is compromised because of this omission. What does come alive, however, is how recent were the memories of persecution under Diocletian. It was a difference in attitude to some of those who succumbed to denial of their faith under that persecution that created one major schism.

Donatists refused to re-admit those who had renounced their faith under threat and were the main expression of Christianity in North Africa. Our young African man chose to ally himself with the Roman church, thus placing himself in a local minority.

Pelagius who was around at the time denied the concept of original sin. Quite often it seems that he didn’t, then he did, and then he didn’t again. It was a heresy, needless to say. But, and I feel it might be an attractive concept even today, the idea that the Church was not full of sinners had its adherents.

Arians stressed the humanity, not the divinity of Jesus Christ. This allowed them to avoid at least some of the problematic concept of three deities in one, a holy trinity. The concept has been a confusion and for many outside of Christianity it appears to be a wholly unnecessary complication. Arian thought, however, Gary Mills points out, is only reported by those who opposed them, so an accurate representation of their philosophy is difficult to establish.

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