Augustine’s Manichaeism

On pages 34-36, Dr. Wilson begins the discussion of the influence of Manichaeism on the discussion of free will. My last post also dealt with some specifics from this passage. Here is a section from pages 35 and 36:


Wilson’s Augustine – The Deep-Rooted Manichaean

One of the major components of Wilson’s dissertation is that it was Augustine’s staunch beliefs in Manichaeism and its doctrines of determinism which caused Augustine to sneak these doctrines into his teachings. In this section of the book above, Dr. Wilson builds a case surrounding the determinism in Manichaeism. Since Augustine was in that cult for 10 years, he would have been steeped in those doctrines and would never be able to rid himself of some of them. The teachings of Mani related to determinism that so indoctrinated Augustine would have been difficult, at best, for Augustine to rid himself of. In fact, according to Wilson, they completely tainted all of Augustine’s later beliefs on soteriology and even anthropology. It is a “Christianized Manichaeism” as Wilson labels it.

Overlooking the fact that time and time again Augustine would discuss how he renounced so many of the un-Biblical doctrines of Manichaeism, we are presented with an argument that he should be seen as someone who’s past membership in that heretical group influenced not only his own personal beliefs and teachings but he was also able, by his great influence as a Bishop and scholar, to dupe his entire generation and all later generations in the church regarding the imputed guilt of original sin and moral inability of man as it related to being able to choose to follow God from his own libertarian free will.

Certainly there was nobody who would have taken Augustine to task back then if they thought that his teachings were novel, right? And we all, especially those of us in the Reformed/Calvinistic camp, have been reeled in by Augustine hook, line, and sinker. The church (partly due to Augustine’s influence, certainly) condemned the Pelagian doctrines as heresy and contrary to the faith delivered to the saints. And this Pelagian doctrine of the human will is what Wilson is quite close to arguing for as the “traditional” teachings on free will. That should cause one to pause.

Certainly, it is because of his deep roots in Manichaeism that we are even discussing this. But we must remember that Augustine may not have been as deep into that heretical cult as one might be led to believe.

History’s Augustine – Manichaean Auditor

In one of the biographies that I have of Augustine, by Jacques Chabannes, he stated the following on pages 44-45:

But in Carthage, at eighteen years of age, Evil and pain were incomprehensible to him. The Manichaeans suggested an explanation – he accepted it. Moreover, the Manichaeans did not require him to sacrifice his pleasures (in particular the pleasures of the flesh) in which he set such store. He would never be an Elect, but only a hearer, a “sympathizer” as we say today, a lecturer and an eloquent propagandist of the Manichaean teachings. This is the reason that later he took so much trouble to demolish a theology he had once accepted. To assuage his own conscience he felt he must pull down, stone by stone, the edifice of Manichaeism. Many times and with great anxiety he returned to this question. This Christian philosopher and doctrinarian was essentially a tormented man and would so remain until the day of his death. He always wrote first to convince himself.

There were in Africa seventy-two Manichaean bishops and twelve Masters who constituted a sort of directive body presided over by a supreme chief representing Mani. At the same time there were the Hearers who followed rules much less austere. If they fasted on Sunday, they could eat meat on other days; they could possess goods and property. They were permitted to marry and to have a sexual life, but must try to avoid having children in order not to prolong the Purgatory of earthly existence. Because of the good will they showed, these Hearers could qualify, in a later life, to be re-born in the perfection of the Elect.

Chabannes gives us a very brief overview of the differences between on of the Elect in Manichaeism and a “hearer”. The translation of his work also calls it a “sympathizer” and we will see that it has also been called an “auditor” (which is another term for “hearer”).

In the year 392, Augustine wrote Acts or Disputation Against Fortunatus, a Manichee. Augustine wrote no less than 15 works in opposition to Manichaean doctrines just between 386 and 400. (I have personally read 9 of those works and you can find them grouped here under the Manichaean writings section with some quotations.) That’s averaging more than one work per year. To say, like Chabannes, that Augustine “felt he must pull down, stone by stone, the edifice of Manichaeism” is an understatement. Here is what Augustine wrote to Fortunatus the Manichean back in 392.

You call me to something else, when I had proposed to discuss faith, but concerning your morals only those who are your Elect can fully know. But you know that I was not your Elect, but an Auditor…. But what you who are Elect do among yourselves, I have no means of knowing. For I have often heard from you that you receive the Eucharist. But since the time of receiving it was concealed from me, how could I know what you receive? So keep the question about morals, if you please, for discussion among your Elect, if it can be discussed. You gave me a faith that I today disapprove.
Augustine, Acts or Disputation Against Fortunatus, I.3

As you can see, he stated that there were several things that only the “Elect can fully know”. This included their morals. But don’t miss the fact that Augustine had never even been allowed to receive the Manichaean equivalent of the eucharist as an Auditor! He even asked how he could know what they receive in it. To me, this would seem like quite a big deal. Augustine, as an 18 year old, spent the following 9 years as a Manichaean and did not even know from personal experience what was received in their Eucharist.


You gave me a faith that I today disapprove.” This is a great summary of Augustine’s thoughts on Manichaeism as he stated above in the section that I quoted. It is historical revisionism to assert that Augustine would have assimilated into Christianity some novel doctrine of election, original sin, and free will from the Manichaeism that he spent decades tearing down. Furthermore, let us use Dr. Wilson’s own statement from my previous post to define what Mani, and later Augustine, would understand as “faith” – it was from a “Redeemer” known as Zoroaster (who Wilson equated with Christ)! commanding one to awake from their slumber and that Redeemer gave the grace for someone to even be able to awaken.

This is the “faith” that Wilson would say is foundational to the post-412 Augustine as well as to later generations who followed after him in these doctrines.

This foundational part of “faith” that Augustine supposedly snuck into Christianity was approved by Augustine, per Wilson. Yet it does not take into account that Augustine was quite explicit that the “faith” he had as a Manichaean was disapproved of by him. Certainly this “faith” would include such non-catholic beliefs in astrology (more on that in an upcoming post) and the false god along with Zoroaster the Redeemer in Manichaeism.

The doctrines of predestination, election, foreknowledge, original sin, free will, etc… were not some carry-over from Manichaeism but were part of the Christian faith as Augustine understood it. To say that something as foundational to Augustine’s theology of these things listed above were brought in wholesale as a novel system without any push-back from the theologians of his time is not something that actually holds water.


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