If none of his written works had survived, he would still have been a figure to be reckoned with, but his stature would have been more nearly that of some of his contemporaries. However, more than five million words of his writings survive, virtually all displaying the strength and sharpness of his mind and some limitations of range and learning and some possessing the rare power to attract and hold the attention of readers in both his day and ours.
His distinctive theological style shaped Latin Christianity in a way surpassed only by Scripture itself. His work continues to hold contemporary relevance, in part because of his membership in a religious group that was dominant in the West in his time and remains so today. Intellectually, Augustine represents the most influential adaptation of the ancient Platonic tradition with Christian ideas that ever occurred in the Latin Christian world.
Shelf Life: Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine)
Augustine received the Platonic past in a far more limited and diluted way than did many of his Greek-speaking contemporaries, but his writings were so widely read and imitated throughout Latin Christendom that his particular synthesis of Christian, Roman, and Platonic traditions defined the terms for much later tradition and debate. Both modern Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity owe much to Augustine, though in some ways each community has at times been embarrassed to own up to that allegiance in the face of irreconcilable elements in his thought.
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For example, Augustine has been cited as both a champion of human freedom and an articulate defender of divine predestination , and his views on sexuality were humane in intent but have often been received as oppressive in effect. Augustine was born in Tagaste, a modest Roman community in a river valley 40 miles 64 km from the Mediterranean coast in Africa, near the point where the veneer of Roman civilization thinned out in the highlands of Numidia. They managed, sometimes on borrowed money, to acquire a first-class education for Augustine, and, although he had at least one brother and one sister, he seems to have been the only child sent off to be educated.
He studied first in Tagaste, then in the nearby university town of Madauros, and finally at Carthage , the great city of Roman Africa. After a brief stint teaching in Tagaste, he returned to Carthage to teach rhetoric , the premier science for the Roman gentleman, and he was evidently very good at it. While still at Carthage, he wrote a short philosophical book aimed at displaying his own merits and advancing his career; unfortunately, it is lost.
At the age of 28, restless and ambitious, Augustine left Africa in to make his career in Rome. He taught there briefly before landing a plum appointment as imperial professor of rhetoric at Milan. The customary residence of the emperor at the time, Milan was the de facto capital of the Western Roman Empire and the place where careers were best made. Augustine tells us that he, and the many family members with him, expected no less than a provincial governorship as the eventual—and lucrative—reward for his merits.
After only two years there, he resigned his teaching post and, after some soul-searching and apparent idleness, made his way back to his native town of Tagaste. There he passed the time as a cultured squire, looking after his family property , raising the son, Adeodatus, left him by his long-term lover her name is unknown taken from the lower classes, and continuing his literary pastimes.
The death of that son while still an adolescent left Augustine with no obligation to hand on the family property, and so he disposed of it and found himself, at age 36, literally pressed into service against his will as a junior clergyman in the coastal city of Hippo, north of Tagaste. The transformation was not entirely surprising. Augustine had always been a dabbler in one form or another of the Christian religion , and the collapse of his career at Milan was associated with an intensification of religiosity. All his writings from that time onward were driven by his allegiance to a particular form of Christianity both orthodox and intellectual.
His unique gift was the ability to write at a high theoretical level for the most-discerning readers and still be able to deliver sermons with fire and fierceness in an idiom that a less-cultured audience could admire. Hippo was a trading city, without the wealth and culture of Carthage or Rome, and Augustine was never entirely at home there. He would travel to Carthage for several months of the year to pursue ecclesiastical business in an environment more welcoming to his talents than that of his adopted home city.
The style of the rhetorician carried over in his ecclesiastical persona throughout his career. He was never without controversies to fight, usually with others of his own religion. In his years of rustication and early in his time at Hippo, he wrote book after book attacking Manichaeism , a Christian sect he had joined in his late teens and left 10 years later when it became impolitic to remain with them.
For the next 20 years, from the s to the s, he was preoccupied with the struggle to make his own brand of Christianity prevail over all others in Africa.
The native African Christian tradition had fallen afoul of the Christian emperors who succeeded Constantine reigned — and was reviled as schismatic; it was branded with the name of Donatism after Donatus , one of its early leaders. Augustine and his chief colleague in the official church, Bishop Aurelius of Carthage, fought a canny and relentless campaign against it with their books, with their recruitment of support among church leaders, and with careful appeal to Roman officialdom.
In the reigning emperor sent an official representative to Carthage to settle the quarrel. A public debate held in three sessions during June 1—8 and attended by hundreds of bishops on each side ended with a ruling in favour of the official church. Even then, approaching his 60th year, Augustine found—or manufactured—a last great challenge for himself. Taking offense at the implications of the teachings of a traveling society preacher named Pelagius , Augustine gradually worked himself up to a polemical fever over ideas that Pelagius may or may not have espoused.
It was in this latter city that he fell under the sway of the eloquent bishop and rhetorician Ambrose. After a long and tortured battle of the soul—described in his classic work Confessions —Augustine was converted under Ambrose's ministry and was baptized in After two years of intensive discipling and catechizing, he returned to Africa and established a scholastic community in Hippo.
There he founded a Classicum Academae , a kind of prototype for the modern university devoted to study, writing, and the work of cultural transformation. The school was famed for its emphasis on logic, rhetoric, art, music, politics, theology, and philosophy. But it was equally recognized for the brilliance of its founder. In the steadfastness, holiness, and giftedness of Augustine was recognized and he was ordained, as a presbyter or elder—though very much against his own objections. In he was asked to serve as a co-pastor to the aging local bishop.
And in he was himself elevated to the bishopric of the city. During his career he wrote more than a thousand works, including books. Most of these quite brilliant writings have endured the test of time—I have eight thick anthology compilations that sit on a shelf right next my desk. His autobiography, Confessions, actually created the genre and remains a devotional and inspirational classic.
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His commentaries, on Genesis and Psalms particularly, are of inestimable value. His apologetic works Contra Manichae or Contra Pelagae continue to set the standard for orthodoxy. His didactae like Sanctus Dei or De Trinitate formed the first, and arguably among the best, systematic theologies the Church has ever produced.
And his pastoral works such as the Enchiridion— served generations as a practical handbook for daily Christian living. He is probably best known for his analysis of culture and history, The City of God, a combative book that both summarizes his other works and crowns them with the full achievement of maturity. His work is so well organized that it can be read with ease by even the most novice of theological readers.
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It was shortly after he was pressed into service as a presbyter in that he asked an extended period of study and meditation—in order to immerse himself in the Scriptures. Apparently, this book began as a series of exercises that grew out of that intensive time of study. By about , he had already begun extensive expositions of Genesis, Romans, and Galatians. And he would soon begin work on his magisterial study of the Psalms. So, it seemed like a good opportunity to expand his notes on Bible interpretation and teaching into a fuller, more permanent discourse.
In short order, he composed the first three parts of De Doctrina Christiana. But then, sometime around he stopped writing. Whether it was because of the pressing concerns of the pastorate, the urgency of several other writing projects, or some other matter, Augustine never completed that early work—and it remained in manuscript form in his study.
There it would stay until the last decade of his life when Augustine would take up the old, dusty manuscript, editing slightly what he had written so many years before, and then adding a final section. As a theoretician Augustine was supremely qualified for this task.
Drawing on his vast classical learning as well as his rich spiritual insights, he systematically worked through the difficulties an ordinary reader might have in properly understanding the Bible. It is a kind of hermeneutical handbook. Augustine wrote De Doctrina Christiana as a series of progressive exercises in four books. Like all great authors, he took great pains to make his arguments as clear and concise as possible—though the full text runs to nearly two hundred pages.
Shelf Life: Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine)
He was not writing for intellectuals and academics but for a popular audience. So, besides its core argument, each book has a succinct introduction and a concluding summary. Augustine often defines his terms and offers familiar illustrations along the way.
Signs, he asserts, are used to symbolize things. But they are themselves things. So, he argues that any given symbol can have multiple meanings. It is therefore important to have an understanding of intent, context, and common usage. Departing from the Platonic tradition, he offers readers very practical guidelines for knowing and understanding the literary tropes and patterns used throughout the Bible. In Book Two , Augustine discusses the various types of common signs by both defining and describing them.
Dealing with literal and figurative signs, he argues that much of the difficulty in interpreting the Bible is due to the sinfulness of men and cultures and not to mystery or obscurity in the text itself.
Life and learning
Indeed, he says, the whole purpose of the Bible is to give revelation. So, what we have to do is to get past our own obstacles to understanding. To provoke the heart to walk this pathway of wisdom, Augustine encourages both Scripture memory and language study. In Book Three , Augustine deals with interpretive difficulties. He outlines a basic approach to discerning both literal and literary meanings in any given text of Scripture. Allegory and metaphor can be rich, but dangerous, he warns.
Thus, Augustine emphasizes character, obedience, and accountability—which he says are as important for the student of Scripture as insights into formal grammar, logic, and rhetoric. He offers a series of essential rules for interpreting difficult passages—beginning first and foremost with the exhortation to read the Bible Christo-centrically, in the context of the Gospel, and in light of all the rest of Scripture.
In Book Four , Augustine applies his most mature thinking to the application of Christian truth to oratory and eloquence. This section of the book is enormously practical—not only for the teacher and preacher but also for the ordinary believer attempting to apply the Gospel to the everyday details of life.
Here Augustine argues for the application of the Bible to the whole of life and learning—essentially providing a whole new paradigm for nation-building and culture-reforming.