González, Justo L. The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian Between Two Cultures (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2016)..

In The Mestizo Augustine Justo Gonzalez argues that Augustine was part of two cultures. Dr. Justo Gonzalez is an ordained minister, and was the youngest person to be given a Ph. D. by Yale in historical theology in 1961. He explains that a mestizo is someone who is of mixed descent. It is typically used to describe someone with Latin American ties, though it can have broader applications. In Augustine’s case, he was caught between the world of North Africa and Rome. Augustine’s theology came from both worlds. When we speak of Africa, Gonzalez notes that Africa did not mean the entire continent. Rather, in Augustine’s time “Africa” referred to just to the Coast and the Roman province of Africa, with Carthage as its center. Augustine was born in Tagaste, near the border and would have likely spoke Berber. Because of his education, he would have also spoken Latin. His parents paid for him to be educated in Tagaste with the little funds that they had. Augustine then continued his studies in Madaura. Leaving Tagaste, Augustine felt liberated from his parents supervision and pursued a life of rebellion. He joined a gang called “the destructors” and lived a life of licentiousness with them. In Augustine’s confessions he tells the story about how they would steal pears from a pear tree not to eat but simply for the thrill of being thieves. He continued to attend to church, but only to meet women. His womanizing was eventually successful and he did meet a woman who he took to be his concubine, with whom he eventually had a son named Adeodatus. Though his friends and mother did not approve of this relationship, it was socially acceptable to have concubines in this day. This arrangement was similar to marriage, but done more for purposes of ensuring an inheritance. Augustine’s mother, Monica, did not approve of this relationship and strongly encouraged Augustine to leave her. Her reasons were not only moral, but also pragmatic. If the relationship turned into a marriage, this woman of a lower social status might hinder Augustine career. `

Short on finances, Augustine returned home to Targaste only to not be received by his mother. While studying rhetoric for eight years he picked up Manichaeism, an early Christian heresy. He taught rhetoric for a while in Carthage but found it to be an unfulfilling prospect. This was because rhetoric was often taught without reference to whether something is true or not. It was the task of persuading through elegant speech, and was done regardless of truth. Augustine was struck when he encountered Cicero, who in addition to being a rhetorician was a philosopher. Cicero emphasized the importance of truth and honesty when speaking. Though Cicero was not a believer, this train of thought would eventually bring him back to Christianity, though his initial reaction to find other answers apart from Christ. Living in a time with limited access to Bible translations (the Vulgate wouldn’t be written until later in his life) the Bible seemed clunky compared to the writings of great rhetoricians like Cicero.

This is what led him to Manichaeism. Augustine initially saw a solution to the problem of evil in Manichaeism. According to them the principle of light and the principle of darkness are both eternal. Though these things should have been kept separate, they have been mixed together. The mixing of light and dark is what brings evil into the world. Manichean anthropology teaches that the human soul is light and the human body is darkness. This means that the body is an hindrance to the salvation of the soul, which is the only part of an individual that can be saved in Manichaean thought. Though Augustine stayed in this sect for a long period of time, he did not progress far into the group. Though Manichaeism seemed to answers questions regarding the problem of evil, Augustine had many unanswered questions. After asking his leaders and even the great Manichean teacher Faustus his questions and receiving no satisfactory answers, Augustine lost trust in this religion.

Augustines did not immediately cut ties with the Manicheans, and depended on them for income for some time. After a year in Rome, a friend of Augustine found an opening for him to teach rhetoric. He turned from Manichaeism to Neoplatonism, which teaches that there is a One, from which all reality proceeds from. The Neoplatonists held that there is no such thing as evil, but that evil is a distancing from the one. Neoplatonism, though still deficient in many ways, helped Augustine to understand certain truths about Christianity.

Though Augustine was still persuaded that the Bible lacked philosophical value, one day Augustine decided that he would listen to Ambrose. Ambrose was the bishop of Milan and had a reputation of being a great orator. Augustine’s goal was to observe his speaking ability, not the content of his message. But as Augustine listened to the message, the “truth crept in”[1] and he realized that he could not separate his eloquence from the substance of what he was speaking. From that point on, Augustine began to return to the faith of his mother.

Augustine continued to receive pressure from his mother to abandon his concubine, and he did, though his motives are debated. He sent her back to Carthage and kept Adeodatus with himself. After that relationship was ended, Monica arranged for Augustine to wed a young girl. But, because she was still too young, Augustine waited for her to age by getting yet another concubine. Monica was not very vocally opposed to this, though she did not explicitly endorse it either. Her hope was that Augustine would climb the social ladder by marrying up. Augustine’s worry was that if he publicly announced his newly forming Christian convictions, he would lose status in the public square. In the garden though, he learned of a man named Victorinus who had the courage to proclaim his faith even when his faith would be ridiculed by his colleagues. His heart was convicted when he heard a child saying “tolle lege, tolle lege” which means take and read. He grabbed a book of Paul’s epistles and read from Romans 13 “Not in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires.”[2]

It was then that Augustine began to write. He wrote some of his early books such as Against the AcademiciansOn Order, and his Soliloquies. He was a prolific writer. Augustine was then baptized in Milan by Ambrose with his son. After this, Augustine decided to return to Africa. Unfortunately, the seaports were blocked and the ship was delayed to take them from the seaport town of Ostia, where they were temporarily living and their homeland. Monica died there, but not without getting to celebrate Augustine’s new faith with him.

At this point in his life, Augustine begins writing heavily. He is also now a member of the church. Augustine began to develop his theory of knowledge and taught that true knowledge needs both external illumination and virtue. He lived a monastic life, but the order of monks that he was a part of was focused on influencing the culture for good, not on isolation. He eventually received a letter from Hippo, who needed a presbyter. Augustine initially refused to be ordained, but eventually became bishop of Hippo.

As pastor he had the responsibility of “giving and returning the creed.” In particular, the Council of Nicea. It was also his responsibility to preside over presbyters. Each community only had one church, but sometimes more than one meeting place was necessary. In these cases, a presbyter presided over these meeting places in the place of the bishop. Augustine employed everyone to use their possessions for the enjoyment of God.

After his conversion, he labored to refute the teaching of the Manichaean faith that he once held to. Manichaeanism held that the religious leader Mani was the Paraclete that Jesus foretold. It was a very sophisticated system that appealed to intellectual people. Augustine writes the works The Catholic Way of Life and the Manichean Way of Life and On Genesis, Against the Manicheans were he attempts to refute the Manichaeans, as well as engaging in them in debate. For Augustine, theodicy was not just a academic issue, but a personal one that touched on the struggle with sin that he battled with in himself. He came to the conclusion that evil is not a truly a thing.

He also worked to fight against the donatists. The donatists taught that if a traitor denies the gospel, perhaps under persecution, and then attempts to administer the sacraments, then those sacraments are polluted and no longer effective for administering grace to recipients. This position was rejected at the council of Nicea. Augustine wrote against it by arguing that the holiness of the church comes from Christ, not from how obedient or not obedient the people in the church are.

The controversy that has doubtless left the biggest legacy is the Pelagian controversy. Pelagius was a ascetic monk, and well liked in the community. In 405 Pelagius heard someone quoting Augustine’s Confessions “Give what you command, and then command whatever you will” Pelagius argued that individuals must be counted worthy in order to be given the gift of the Holy Spirit. He believed that infants did not redemption on the basis that they had not sinned yet.

Gonzalez concludes by stating that Augustine was a bridge connecting the medieval and the ancient church. He left many traditions and ideas in his wake as this bridge. He reminds the reader that Augustine was a mestizo, that being a mestizo is not a sign of shame, and encourages his readers to be bridges between cultures just as Augustine was.

Critical Interaction

The Mestizo Augustine is an excellent book and summary of the life of Augustine’s life. It is carefully researched by one of the best scholars in the field. One possible criticism that a reader might encounter when reading this is how quickly he departs from his thesis. At the outset, he seems to be defending the notion that Augustine’s theology was shaped by a hybridization of African and Roman thought. While Gonzalez certainly shows how Augustine’s thought was shaped by various ideas, he does not show how any of these ideas are distinctly either African or Roman. In something of a backhanded compliment, Mark Clavier writes “That González is a good historian and recognizes his limits is demonstrated by the fact that much of the book does not even try to keep to his thesis.” Clavier explains that the information on how African theology impacted Augustine’s thought is very limited and it would be very difficult to write a book on this topic.

Not everyone agrees with Clavier that Gonzalez’s concepts of nationality are anachronistic. Many have found Gonzalez’s portrayal of Augustine as a mestizo as a source of encouragement for people. Nguyen writes “readers will obviously see how Augustine draws from his mestizo heritage to respond to theological controversies of his time.” While it is difficult to say how much of Augustine was influenced by his mestizo heritage, and it is a little bit anachronistic, Gonzalez is right in acknowledging that we need to study Augustine as a man of two cultures.

Jose F. M Torres says that Gonzalez did not go far enough, and says that Gonzalez should have leaned more into the mestizo motif. Torres agrees that there are times when he “deviates from the mestizo rubric” but he also adds that “there are parts where the mestizaje lens would have served González well, but he does not employ it.” One such instance that he suggests is Manichaeism as the product of a mestizo Persia.

There is not much material covering the theology of the various religions that Augustine interacted with. When dealing with the various beliefs, he could have spent more time explaining the theology behind them. He devotes plenty of time to the history surrounding them, but only explains the theological concepts briefly. One very important part of history is the history of ideas.

Even though The Mestizo Augustine does not accomplish precisely what it sets out to do on the cover, it is still a good book. It is a very articulate birds eye view synopsis of the life of Augustine. Though it departs from its thesis, in some ways that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He doesn’t seem to be trying to make things fit into a particular narrative. There is a danger of anachronism when we talk about Augustine as a mestizo, but the core claim that Augustine inhabited two distinct cultures is valid. It is a delightful book to read and very informative. I would recommend this book to students who are looking to study more about Augustine, and for anyone who is interested in early church history.


Clavier, Mark. “The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian Between Two Cultures, by Justo L. González”, Journal of Reformed Theology 12, 3 (2018): 321-322, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/15697312-01203005Atunsheastnuheantshusa

Morales Torres, J.F. (2018), Justo L. González: The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian Between Two Cultures. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016; pp. 175.. Journal of Religious History, 42: 136-137. https://doi-org.ezproxy.sbts.edu/10.1111/1467-9809.12495

Nguyen, T. N. (2017). Book Review: The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian between Two Cultures. By Justo L. González. Theological Studies, 78(3), 741–743. https://doi-org.ezproxy.sbts.edu/10.1177/0040563917721095aatsneuhastehusate