Augustine on Pagan Virtue
January 27, 2015

My children attend a classical Christian school, situated in the independent “free church” evangelical tradition. Over the past few years they have been growing in their acquaintance with the world of Homer, Plato, Virgil, and Livy. They enjoy it, and I envy it. The school is a great school. My oldest came home the other day with an assignment to read the youth edition of Herodotus’ Histories. As he read he was to look for two things: 1) the cultural practices of the peoples mentioned in the book, and 2) their sinful practices.

I found the assignment curious. Not the first part of the assignment, but the second. Herodotus’ Histories is a rich book—full of all sorts of fascinating tales about the ancients Greeks and Persians. Why focus on their sinfulness? Why not recount their moral virtues?

It is, I suspect, because we don’t think they had any moral virtues. We might not put it quite that starkly, but those of us in the evangelical tradition often have a hard time knowing what to do with the goodness that we find in the pagan world. Much easier—theologically speaking—to point out the sinfulness of those who are, after all, totally depraved.

I’m inclined to think this sort of thinking comes from a misread of the Augustinian doctrine of sin. But Augustine himself is more charitable than we might imagine when it comes to assessing the moral rectitude of the pagan world. I read through his Confessions and City of God a few years back and was surprised to find just how generous Augustine could be. He knows how to talk about sin, to be sure. But he also knows how to extol the virtues—even moral virtues—of unregenerate pagans.

One sees this especially when Augustine talks about his pagan friends. Before his conversion, Augustine kept company with a number of philosophically minded friends. Together they talked about Plato and Plotinus and the Stoics, and sought the good life that comes through the intellect. Immediately after his famous moment in the garden of Milan, Augustine told his closest (and still pagan) friend Alypius of his decision to receive baptism. Augustine recounts that Alypius “without any agony of hesitation joined me in making a good resolution and affirmation of intention, entirely congruent with his moral principles in which he had long been greatly superior to me” (Confessions, 8.12). I can’t recall the last time I’ve heard an evangelical gospel proclamation that spoke of conversion as “congruent” with a sinner’s “superior moral principles.”

Not all of Augustine’s friends converted so quickly. But Augustine was no less slow to note their moral virtue. Augustine’s friend Verecundus watched from the sidelines as Augustine and the rest plunged beneath the waters of baptism. But though Vercundus initially refrained from conversion, he remained loyal to the fellowship. Vercundus was a man of sufficient means such that he provided food and lodging to Augustine and his friends while they stayed in Rome. Eventually Verecundus grew sick and converted at last on his deathbed. Augustine thanked God for the mercy shown to Verecundus in the final days of his life. “We would have been tortured by unbearable pain if, in thinking of our friend’s outstanding humanity to us, we could not have numbered him among your flock” (Confessions, 9.3). For Augustine, the thought of losing a person of such “outstanding humanity” was too much to bear.

For Augustine, whatever damaging effect sin has had on human nature, it hasn’t done away with the innate goodness that is human nature. “Now every fault injures the nature, and is consequently contrary to the nature. The creature, therefore, which cleaves to God, differs from those who do not, not by nature, but by fault; and yet by this very fault the nature itself is proved to be very noble and admirable. For that nature is certainly praised, the fault of which is justly blamed. For we justly blame the fault because it mars the praiseworthy nature” (City of God, 12.1).

For Augustine, “there is no vice so clean contrary to nature that it obliterates even the faintest traces of nature” (City of God, 19.12). Insofar as human nature has been created by God, it is good and praiseworthy. Insofar as it is marked by sin it is contrary to the goodness that is itself. As such, there is no person who does not retain some measure of God’s original goodness. (Pagan mothers really do love their children.) What’s more, the fault of sin, insofar as it is tragic, only serves to underscore the “very noble and admirable” nature which God has made. For Augustine, sin is at root the result of misplaced love. The problem is not that pagan mothers don’t really love their children, but that they don’t love their children in God. “He loves you too little who loves anything along with you that he doesn’t love for your sake” (Confessions, 10.29). Love/desire for God is the ordering love/desire that perfects and orders all other loves/desires. But the loves themselves, even when disordered, are legitimate loves. We need not demonize them.

Augustine, of course, has more to say about the ravages of sin than most any other church father (before or after). And he has no rosy-eyed picture of pagan Rome. He had drunk its vices down to the dregs, and knew just how damaging its misplaced loves could be. He describes Carthage as a “hissing cauldron of lusts” (Confessions 3.1), and goes on to talk about the deceit of the shows and the vanity and cruelness of his rhetor’s school.

All throughout his anti-Pelagian writings, Augustine speaks in vivid language about the corruption of sin. Eugene Portalie catalogs some of the more memorable images: “[Augustine] calls the line of Adam a mass of slime; a mass of sin, of sins, of iniquity; a mass of wrath, of death, of damnation, of offense; a mass totally vitiated, damnable, damned.”[1] But despite his intimate awareness of the vices of pagan Rome, Augustine does not hesitate to note the goodness of the pagan world that still remains—however imperfect and damaged it might be. Cicero had led him to a love of philosophy, which in turn led him to a pursuit of the truth, which in turn led him to God. Goodness was still there, even if failing. Turn to Christ and be healed, Augustine tells pagan Rome, lest the goodness you have be lost forever.

And here’s the pay off. Adopting Augustine’s posture places us on a gracious footing when interacting with the non-Christian world around us. We need not be afraid to acknowledge the moral goodness that we find in the non-Christian world. It is not there of its own accord, but as a gift from God. This seems Paul’s basic approach at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34) and with King Agrippa (Acts 26:25). Rather than beginning straightaway with their sin, Paul finds a common touch point in their religious interests—which he deems praiseworthy. He will get to their need to repent, but one doesn’t get the sense that Paul is merely flattering Agrippa when he calls him “excellent.”

The seeds of hell have been planted in every human heart. But they have not yet, so long as there is breath, reached full flower. Thus my evangelism need not always be an effort to convince non-Christians they are the moral equivalent of Hitler (unless, of course, I’m evangelizing Hitler!); rather it is to show them how sin has disordered their loves, and that apart from Christ, all that they legitimately love and value—in themselves and the world—will be lost to them forever.

My non-Christian neighbor who plays with my kids, who watches my house when I’m out of town, who brings us pumpkins from his family farm on Halloween, and who jokes with me over the back fence, is not a perfect human being; apart from God, his loves are disordered. But as I grow to know him, I find that I love in him the goodness of the God that he has yet to acknowledge, and like Augustine with Verecundus, it breaks my heart to think that such goodness might be irretrievably lost.

Gerald Hiestand is the Senior Associate Pastor of Calvary Memorial Church, and the Director of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He blogs at

[1] Eugene Portalie, St. Augustine: A Short Biography, 212.

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