Book Notes: The Life and Thought of Augustine

Gregory E. Reynolds

The fathers of the ancient church are thankfully being read among us—well, at least to some degree. And if we learn anything from the Reformers, it is their deep respect—albeit never slavish—for the theologians who have gone before them. Among those most revered stands the giant Augustine, whose shadow is still cast over all of Western Christianity, mostly for good, but sometimes for ill. The range of his thought, his interaction with the thinking of the world in which he lived, together with his superior rhetorical skills are almost unprecedented.

As with Calvin and most theologians up until the Enlightenment, his doctrine was hammered out on the anvil of pastoral experience. This also tempered one of Augustine's greatest weaknesses, a tendency toward asceticism that diminished embodied life—a remnant of his earlier Manichean and Neoplatonic thinking.

Unlike some in the emerging church movement, we must not read the ancients as an evasion of the Reformation or Post-Reformation theology, but rather a way of understanding our Reformation roots.

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Augustine of Hippo: A Life, by Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, xx + 177 pages, $19.95; 2010, $16.95, paper.

Posthumously published, this little gem is the best short life of Augustine. It is pithy and poignant. The narrative moves the reader along the trajectory of Augustine's life in a lively account. Chadwick seems never to waste a word, and so at the end of this brief work one feels as if the book had covered 500 pages of important material. The comprehensiveness of Chadwick's grasp of the vast Augustine corpus makes him a master of his subject. Precise, abbreviated (Latin) references fill the text at every main point. It is no wonder another Augustine master, Peter Brown, writes the foreword.

Chadwick's summaries of Augustine's thought reveal some remarkable insights, especially as they bear on contemporary issues. For example, Augustine's respect for the natural sciences combined with his intense study of Scripture lead him to deplore "theologians, orthodox in intention, who try to treat the book of Genesis as a source-book for science without realizing the very different purpose of the sacred book" (86). More well-known is the Donatist controversy (98-115) in which Augustine opposed the separatist rigorism of this "alternate church," (vastly outnumbering Augustine's Catholic congregation in Hippo for the early decades of his ministry, as in most of Numidia) established as a reaction to the compromise of some bishops during the Diocletian persecution (303-5 AD). One will find in the Donatists a healthy opposition to church establishment, which Augustine unfortunately inherited from Constantine, along with a dangerous militancy and perfectionism that dogs the church to this day. Augustine, when at his best in this controversy, is a model of the practical, pastoral application of theology—the doctrine of the church and the nature of Christian virtue.

Chadwick whets the appetite of the reader to read Augustine for himself—besides the obvious Confessions and The City of God, less familiar works like On Christian Doctrine (or Teaching as Chadwick translates De Doctrina Christiana), The Teacher (De Magistro), and On the Trinity (De Trinitate). Chadwick also brings to light very obscure works of interest such as On Catechizing Simple People (De Catechizandis Rudibus, 88). While many of Augustine's commentaries are not exegetically satisfying for the Reformed preacher, his Expositions on the Psalms (Enarrationes in Psalmos) are loaded with penetrating discernment.

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Augustine: A Very Short Introduction, by Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001, x + 134 pages, $11.95, paper.

A brilliant, succinct, and accurate introduction to the thought of Augustine. Like Chadwick's biography, this very short introduction to the theology of Augustine is unequalled in the quality of its conciseness.

The content bears some similarity to Chadwick's biography in that the last three chapters deal with the Trinity, The City of God, and grace, in that order. However, this Very Short Introduction is more explicitly topical, beginning with a chapter titled "The Formation of Augustine's Mind: Cicero, Mani, Plato, Christ." Like his biography, this book makes the reader want to read more of Augustine and those who influenced him. As with Calvin, we observe a giant intellect enlisted by our Lord, against his natural tendency to be a scholar, to serve him in his church.

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Saint Augustine: Confessions, translated with an introduction and notes by Henry Chadwick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, xxix + 311 pages, $29.95; 2009, $7.95, paper.

An especially lucid translation by one of the greatest twentieth-century Augustine scholars. I bring this to your attention simply because of the stature of the translator as an Augustine scholar of the first rank. Brown observes (in the biography below, 487) that Chadwick's "fresh rendering ... has caught the precise flavor of Augustine as a philosophical writer steeped in an austerely Platonic world-view that is notoriously hard to catch in modern words."

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Augustine of Hippo: A Biography: A New Edition with an Epilogue, by Peter Brown. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2000, xiii + 548 pages, $24.95, paper.

This has remained the benchmark for Augustine biographies since its first publication in 1967. However, this new edition has an extensive reconsideration of key elements in the biography based on new discoveries of Augustine manuscripts, principally sermons and letters (known as the Dolbeau letters and the Divjak sermons), and the maturity of Brown's own thinking over more than three decades since the publication of the first edition. Add to this much new evidence, yielding a more nuanced view of the world of Augustine. For example, the picture of Ambrose's Milan now reveals a more hostile relationship between Platonism and Christianity among Milanese intellectuals than Brown had previously described in 1967 (485-6). So also, more has been discovered about Augustine's key theological opponents, the Donatists and Pelagians. Thus, some early ideas have been confirmed and others altered by these additions to the Augustine corpus.

As with Chadwick, Brown is an intellectual biographer, dealing fully with the thinking of Augustine as it changed throughout his long life.

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Augustine through the Ages, edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald., O. S. A. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, xlix + 902 pages, $75.00.

The size of this volume is proportionate to the influence of its subject on the history of Western religious thought and institutions. The editor, Fitzgerald, presently edits Augustinian Studies, a semi-annual journal on Augustine and his influence (sponsored by Villanova University). He is also a tenured faculty member of the Istituto Patristico Agostinianum, Rome, Italy. Fitzgerald along with four associate editors and an impressive array of over 140 scholars has compiled an encyclopedia of over 400 entries. Several scholars will be familiar in our circles, like Richard Muller of Calvin Theological Seminary and Ronald Nash of Reformed Theological Seminary in Florida.

The range of entries is impressive. There are major articles on scholars who have been strongly influenced by Augustine, from Boethius to von Harnack; as well as those who influenced Augustine such as Porphyry and Ambrose. There is even a fine five-page article on Calvin. All of Augustine's major works are covered under their Latin titles.

Jaroslav Pelikan provides an excellent foreword. The complete bibliography (15 pages) of Augustine's works, along with a fine general index, makes this an incomparable and indispensible tool for all who would know Augustine and his influence.

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While it is folly to seek to make Augustine one of us—a theological anachronism, since he never fully extricated himself from his Manichean and Neoplatonic past—it is equal folly to ignore his profound influence on our Reformation theology (important in Calvin alone, not to mention Post-Reformation theologians), and thus, our great debt to God for him. And should we be tempted to envy the scope of his life and thought, we should remember the humility which lead him to write Retractions (Retractiones) near the end of his life—tolle lege!

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