Augustine: For Professors, Poets and Pastors

Article by   March 2013
I remember the first time I read Augustine. I was a final year undergraduate at Cambridge on the Classical tripos but taking the course, Christian Life and Thought to A.D. 451 from outside my faculty. Those were the days: university courses could actually use the term 'A.D.' to refer to exactly the same start date as 'C.E.' but without risk of being accused of oppressing anybody and thus standing on a line of obvious continuity with every crime against humanity of the last 500 years. A lost age of almost unimaginable Eloi-style innocence, untouched by the Morlockean mindset of political correctness.

On this course, I had to read the Confessions. The experience was profound. Here was a psychological autobiography which seemed to speak directly to my own life. Of course, the times and places were different, but the analogies so close that, when I put the book down, I felt that I understood myself somewhat better than when I had picked it up.  

The pears incident in Book Two is, of course, the moment of Augustinian fall. For all of the emphasis on sex and sin in his work, it is the incident of petty theft which serves to show the depravity of human nature and the fall from grace. Like that of Adam, the crime involves a garden, a tree and forbidden fruit; it involves peer pressure; it is so trivial that every reader can identify with it; it involves no motivation other than the desire to transgress a rule, to assert autonomy (divinity) in the face of established authority; and, given Augustine's coming to Christ under a tree in another garden, offers a literary device of power and beauty within the narrative which seduces the reader in manifold subtle ways. Who can read the tale and not be drawn into the story - and into the trap - which it sets?  It is a far more eloquent analysis of sin than that found in any dogmatic textbook.

The evangelical world loves psychological struggle but typically of a predictable, conventional, coffee house and navel-gazing type. The Rob Bells and the Donald Millers write the bestsellers, after all, laying out their latte-fuelled musings for all to see. Yet, for all of the flaunting of their "authenticity", to me they simply look like poseurs, products of the comparative comfort and prosperity of the West. My guess is that poor workers in dead end jobs know more about struggle and worry than the self-styled arrivistes and artists of post-evangelical angst.  But such people are too busy trying to put bread in their children's mouths to have the spare time to write bestsellers about how modishly authentic they are compared to everyone else. 

Augustine was cut from different cloth. For him, it was not the pursuit of truth or some nebulous 'journey' which was the important thing; it was finding and resting in truth, real truth, God's truth.   Thus, he spent much of his early life pursuing that truth, through education, through Manicheeism and through neo-Platonism; it was only when he found Christianity and came to rest in God himself that he found the  truth, beauty, and the fulfillment that comes from the same.

That is not the secular mindset. Indeed, when I played Augustine in a debate with Bertrand Russell last Christmas, I was struck by how my antagonist found Augustine's claim to have discovered truth to be so obnoxious; is it coherent, I thought, to characterize the good life as the pursuit of truth, rather than the discovery of truth? How can the best life be located in seeking truth and yet never finding it? Is it not the truth of the end point which gives the pursuit its value?  And yet the restlessness of this secular mentality would seem to be no different to aesthetic of our post-evangelical arrivistes who seem to believe it is better to be always travelling than ever to arrive.

What I loved about Augustine then and what I still love about him today is the way in which he draws out the tragedy of the human condition, the greatness of a mankind made in the image of God himself reduced to the level of a trivial, self-serving control-freak, obsessed with the passing things of this world, hypnotized by the here-and-now. By placing love, and the quest to find an adequate and appropriate object for love, at the centre of the human story, he brings out both the magnificence and the futility of fallen human beings. And he does this not simply doctrinally but even in the literary forms which he uses. The Confessions does this superbly: the first ten books tell of Augustine's own intellectual and spiritual quest and then the last three talk of God and cosmos. The dramatic gear change between these two section has led some to posit that the book is badly constructed; I demur. What Augustine does in the move from Book 10 to Book 11 is quite brilliant: he underlines that his story of fall and redemption is a microcosm of the universal story.

Augustine is a vast and subtle thinker, however, and while the Confessions is broadly accessible, his body of writings as a whole is not. That is why it is such a pleasure to be able to commend the latest book from distinguished theologian and scholar, Matthew Levering. The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works (Baker Academic) is, as the title indicates, an overview summary of the most important writings of the Bishop of Hippo: On Christian Doctrine, Answer to Faustus, a Manichean, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, On the Predestination of the Saints, Confessions, City of God, and On the Trinity.  Some of these works will be familiar to many, at least as titles; others are perhaps less well-known.  Yet all make significant contributions to Augustine's thought.

In each chapter, Levering offers a detailed summary of the arguments put forward by Augustine.  As far as possible, he avoids offering overt interpretation of the texts. What emerges so clearly from the book as a whole is the centrality of love to human life, both to individuals as they relate to each other and the world around, and as they relate to God. It is thus appropriate that the final text with which he deals is On the Trinity which draws out in a remarkable systematic synthesis the connection between human love, divine love and the doctrine of the Trinity. 

Those familiar with debates on Augustine's doctrine of the Trinity will know that it has over the years been subjected to searching criticism, perhaps most influentially in recent decades by the late Colin Gunton. Gunton saw in Augustine an incipient modalism and the intellectual origins of many of the problems later manifested in Enlightenment thought. As one suspicious of over-intellectualising the history of ideas, I have never been convinced by Gunton's case.  Intellectuals tend always to overestimate their own guild's importance in the processes of history, and theologians can be among the worst offenders. Even so, while not offering a direct rebuttal to Gunton, Levering's summary of Augustine on the Trinity is helpful; it is an excellent introduction to the text which avoids anachronistic theological judgments.

If I had a criticism of Levering's work, it would be that it inevitably missed the literary nature of much of Augustine's theology. Form is important and any summary of any work must always involve a significant formal change. Thus, Levering spends little energy on the literary beauty of the Confessions as a prayer, as the absorption and transformation of classical genres for a Christian purpose and thus as a key bellweather of the transformation of Roman imperial culture at the end of the fourth century. And how can one summarise the pear incident or Alypius's experience of seeing gladiatorial combat? The original passages are pieces of Latin prose/psychology/theology so beautiful and concise that they defy retelling without losing something of their exquisitely literary punch.

This is a book of immediate relevance to teachers and students of Augustine, as it offers a map of the key pillars of his work and thought. I might add that it should also be read by pastors.  There is no theologian who explores the psychology of love, and thus of humanity, in a more searching way than Augustine. Why do people have a compulsion to look at pornography?  Augustine offers a multilayered answer, from the power of the visual in gripping the mind and fuelling salacious appetites to the fact that fallen human love is about objectifying the other and finding its debased fulfillment ultimately in sexual pleasure. He might also add that the only cure for such is to learn to love God and thus to hate that which opposes God.

Professor Levering has done the academic and the church world a great service in making Augustine so accessible.  

Rev. Dr. Carl Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary and pastor of Cornerstone Orthodox Presbyterian Church. His latest book is The Creedal Imperative (Crossway, 2012).


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