What makes a true friend?

Augustine and the nature of friendship for Christians

November 8, 2021

In the 2008 comedy, Step Brothers, Brennan (played by Will Ferrell) and Dale (played by John C. Reilly) are newly established step siblings after their single parents marry one another. The movie shows the antics that ensue when two grown men who have never left home are forced into sharing their lives together. The goofy, and admittedly irreverent, tricks they play on one another come to a point when they discover that they have much more in common than they realized. Brennan asks, “Did we just become best friends?” “Yep,” is Dale’s quick and assured reply. Their friendship then develops through common interests such as velociraptors and Steven Seagal movies. 

Friendship in this way is mostly about common interests. So long as there is agreement on favorite movies, fast-food restaurants, and 80’s rock bands, friendship is possible. Common interests are certainly avenues for establishing relationships, but can true friendship be sustained on Taco Bell runs and the latest superhero movie franchise? Is it as simple as declaring someone as your best friend? 

What are the ingredients for true and meaningful friendship? We can learn much about deep friendship from Augustine of Hippo (354–430 AD).

Friendship as a school in Christian love

Paul Waddell, scholar of friendship and Christian ethics, describes Christian friendship according to Augustine in his book Friendship and the Moral Life. He explains it as a “school in Christian love.” Augustine described a similar “Step Brother” friendship in book 4 of his Confessions. They shared common interests and pursuits, and while they didn’t settle-in for a Steven Seagal direct-to-home action flick, Augustine assumed this friendship was genuine. He soon came to realize that this friendship could not be a friendship in its truest form because it was not centered on Christ. 

Reflecting on this friendship after the fact, Augustine stated, “But in childhood he was not such a friend as he became later on, and even later on ours was not a true friendship, for friendship cannot be true unless you [God] solder it together among those who cleave to one another by the charity poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us.” Thus for Augustine, true friendship occurred when one loved the good in another, with the good reflecting God in that person. 

While he wrote about specific relationships in his Confessions, we see specifically how he viewed friendship in his numerous letters. Augustine was certainly not the first to discuss friendship. The topic of friendship had occupied the minds of philosophers centuries prior to Augustine. Unique to Augustine, however, was his view that friends and friendship were a gift from God. 

Whereas Aristotle would assert that we choose friends based on the virtue we see in them, Augustine viewed friends as those who are placed in one’s lives for the purpose of seeking God together. Friendships that have their genesis with God must find their source in God. It originates with the Spirit and propels friends toward friendship in God’s eschatological kingdom where all will be friends as they share in true friendship with God.

Friendship as a work of the Spirit

The key for Augustine was love granted by the Holy Spirit through grace. God-initiated love is the binding agent for true friendship. Also important for Augustine was that friendship be rooted in the triune nature of God. Whereas the Roman orator Cicero (106–43 BC) defined friendship as “agreement in all things human and divine,” Augustine refined the divine character of friendship to depend upon the inner relations of the triune God. Human friendship can only begin from the perspective of trinitarian love. The center of Christian friendship is the Spirit, that trinitarian bond of love. This love both connects friends together and serves as the means of mutual transformation. 

Grace is also essential for Christian friendship according to Augustine. Agreement on best pizza toppings does not make for a true friendship. One needs transforming grace focused toward God’s kingdom. Friendship, for Augustine, is the context where this kingdom love is learned and practiced. Therefore, Christian friendship is vital if one is to grow in kingdom-focused eternal love. 

A debt owed to all people

In his letters, Augustine often described friendship as a “debt” that each one owed to the other. His friend Evodius even wrote Augustine to collect on this “debt” (ep. 158.1). In his letters to the deacon and eventual bishop of Rome Celestine, Augustine described a certain “debt of love” that was owed based on a mutual affection for the other person (ep. 192.1). According to Augustine, love is owed to one another based simply on the fact that one is a fellow human. Love for one’s enemy sought to transform them “whom we truly love to become a friend” (ep. 192.1). Friendship is owed to all people based on a shared human nature, even though its truest and final fulfillment is found between those who claim the name of Christ. 

Despite what some ancient philosophers said, friendship was not for an elite few, according to Augustine. Love is due for all. This ideal of friendship is expressed in his letter to a wealthy widow named Proba. He asserted, “The health and friendship of a human being are sought for their own sake. . . . Likewise, friendship should not be bounded by narrow limits, for it embraces all to whom we owe affection and love” (ep. 130.6, 13). Thus, friendship is a practical way to demonstrate the love that Christians are called to exhibit to everyone. 

According to Donald Burt, since we cannot make friends with every person on earth, Augustine’s encouragement should cause us to “strive to make every human we meet a friend.” This was Augustine’s posture in his engagement with Christians and non-Christians alike. Augustine extended the hand of friendship in order to bring others to the truth. To those who are not yet true spiritual friends, we love and befriend with the hope that they will one day be counted among true friends in the eternal city of God.

The transformative potential of friendship

Augustine believed that the command to love God and love others never ceases but is extended throughout eternity. Our love for others, the foundation of friendship, is grounded in the love of God. In writing to Proba, Augustine framed the universal love owed to all as the beginning of Christian friendship. This was a transforming type of love, which sought to turn enemies into true friends transformed by God’s grace. Augustine concluded, “In him we, of course, love ourselves if we love God, and by the other commandment we truly in that way love our neighbors as ourselves if we bring them, to the extent we can, to a similar love of God” (ep. 130.7, 14).

So while friendship may require more than agreement on favorite dinosaurs and action movies, it can be as simple as asking someone, “Did we just become best friends?” If we consider the example of Augustine, we can show the kind of Christian love we are called to give by extending the hand of friendship to all as we are able. While the truest friendship is only possible between those who have the gift of the Spirit, and while not all of us will be close friends, by seeing everyone as a potential friend we can begin good and fruitful conversations that may lead to one enjoying true friendship in the light of God’s grace and love. 

Coleman Ford

Coleman Ford graduated with a Master of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary in 2012 then went on to get his Ph.D. in church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife and serves as assistant professor of Christian formation and … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24