It is often said that Augustine
is the most “modern” of all the Church Fathers.
Whatever one means by “modern,” it is certainly true that Augustine
still speaks to us today, even though he is separated from us by 16
centuries. When, for example, Augustine
speaks about our restless hearts or when he relates how he prayed to receive
chastity and continence, “but not yet,” we know that this is a man of deep
feeling who has “been there,” and we know we can trust him. Augustine the
sinner, the searcher, the convert who doesn’t settle for easy answersthis is a
man who speaks to our experience.
Lover of beauty
Perhaps Augustine resonates so
much with us today because he was a profound lover: he loved women, he loved
his friends, he loved wisdom, and, finally, he channeled this love toward
God. The mature Augustine prays,
Late have I
ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were
outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the
shapely things you have made
headlong I, misshapen.
with me, but I was not with you.
They held me
back far from you,
which would have no being,
not in you.
shouted, broke through my deafness;
flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
you, and now I hunger and thirst;
me, and I burned for your peace.
The beauty that Augustine was
groping after in the dark, in his sin, he finally finds in God, the Source of
beauty, and Beauty Itself. Augustine as
lover of beautyor, of God as Beautyis compelling to us today. This Beauty, Augustine says, loves us, it
chases after us, breaks through our defenses, ravishes us, and transforms
us. This Beauty has the power to break
through our deafness and shine through our blindness, to draw us out of
ourselves and risk the high adventure of a love affair with God.
In his The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important
Works, the prolific Matthew Levering, professor of religious studies at the
University of Dayton, has given readers a beautiful book about love in
Augustine. Levering skillfully leads us
through seven dense works of Augustine and shows how each one is fundamentally
about the God who is Love drawing us into his inner life in order that we might
learn to love him and our neighbor as God has loved us. “We are made to love the Triune God and to
participate in his life,” Levering tells us.
“This is the message of these seven works of Augustine” (190). This message is also embodied in the overall
structure of Levering’s book and therein lies its genius.
From divine revelation to divine communion
Levering begins with Augustine’s
works on Scripture and ends with his treatise on the Trinity. The Scriptures, according to Augustine, point
us to the Trinity, and the way we achieve union with the Triune God is through
the Church, the community of love and truth established by God for this very
purpose. Accordingly, Levering organizes
the seven key works as an expression of this deep Augustinian insight. He starts with two of Augustine’s works on
Scripture, On Christian Doctrine and Answer to Faustus, a Manichean; then he
treats two works on the Church, Homilies
on the First Epistle of John and On
the Predestination of the Saints (this latter work, while not strictly on
the Church, deals with the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is, for Augustine, the
“soul” of the Church). Finally, Levering
discusses the Confessions, the City of God, and On the Trinity, three works which “form a triptych that shows how
human life (individual and communal) is an ascent to full participation in the
life of the Triune God, who descends in Christ and the Holy Spirit to make
possible our sharing in the divine life” (xii).
This is not a chronological arrangement of Augustine’s works, but one that
is organized around the pattern of Augustine’s own thought and, as Augustine
would say, the pattern of reality itself.
Levering begins with On Christian Doctrine, Augustine’s
treatise on how to read Scripture. This
work, odd and difficult to many people new to Augustine, deals with “signs” and
“things”the Bible is composed of words, signs, which point to things,
realities. In order to understand the
truths in the Bible and to pass on those truths to others, one must know how to
read those signs aright. Augustine gives
various principles for interpreting the biblical signs but argues that, in the
end, all the signs in the Bible ultimately point to one reality: love. One reads Scripture, Levering summarizes, not
to become learned in words, but “to encounter the reality of God and to be
changed into a lover of God and neighbor” (10).
In the next chapter, Levering
treats Augustine’s Answer to Faustus, a
Manichean. This chapter is a
particularly valuable contribution, since this important work is understudied
(n.b., graduate students: this is ripe for dissertations). Unlike the Manichees, who rejected the Old
Testament as a work of and witness to a lesser, evil god, Augustine forcefully
argues that taken together the two Testaments are “a unified witness to God’s
love” (19). Augustine famously says,
“The New Testament is concealed in the Old, while the Old is revealed in the
New,” and his Answer to Faustus
profoundly shows how the New Testament cannot be understood without its Old
Testament roots, while the Old Testament finds its full meaning in the
Christological reading of the New.
Chapter Three covers the Homilies on the First Epistle of John, a
work Levering chose as representative of Augustine’s anti-Donatist
writing. The Homilies address the Donatists’ schism which, Augustine
demonstrates, is a violation of charity.
Love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable, he argues; in fact,
the latter is a sign of the former. One
cannot love Christ without also loving his Church, a Church which is composed
of wheat and weeds, righteous and unrighteous.
It is true that the unrighteous are “ugly” and hard to love, but we are
commanded to love the ugly, just as God did.
He loved sinners when they were still ugly, not “in order to leave them
loathsome but in order to change them and, from being ugly, to make them
beautiful” (65). The whole point of
John’s letters, Augustine tells us, is to build up the Church in love.
In Chapter Four, Levering treats On the Predestination of the Saints,
Augustine’s response to the monks of Gaul who were criticizing his
anti-Pelagian writings. The Pelagians
argued that it was possible (though not necessarily likely) that human beings
could achieve salvation without the help of God. The monks of Gaul did not go this far but
argued that humans could have a single unaided or un-graced act of faith
independent of God which contributed to their salvation. They, like many of our grandmothers, were
“semi-Pelagian”: God helps those who help themselves. But, Augustine argues, we cannot save
ourselves. We are absolutely dependent
on God’s grace for salvation. Levering
sums up Augustine’s thought nicely: “If we are to be transformed and to gain an
intimate participation in the divine life, it is only God who can give it to
us. God gives it not because of our
goodness but because of his. We become
good because his grace makes us so” (84-85).
In Chapter Five, Levering
discusses the Confessions, wherein
Augustine relates, among many other things, his life story from his birth up
until his present day. Following
Augustine’s lead, Levering intelligently gives an account of the structure and
therefore, the meaning of the work: “The first ten books of the Confessions thus move from ontological
participation in God but moral separation from God as an infant and boy, to
cleaving to finite things but longing for something more as a young adult, to
the love of God through Christ as a mature adult. Books 11-13, then, insert this journey of love
within Christian theology of creation and new creation” (90). Augustine’s most famous work is not just an
autobiography, but “a journey of love,” composed as a prolonged prayer of
praise in thanksgiving, drawing the reader into this journey with him and
moving him along the path toward loving God more deeply.
What Augustine does in the Confessions in regard to his own life,
he does in the City of God in regard
to all of human history. Ostensibly
written as a response to pagan criticisms that Christians caused the sack of
Rome by their abandonment of the traditional gods, Augustine’s “great and
arduous work,” Levering shows, goes far beyond this local polemic. The City
of God is more than a thousand pages long in the standard English
translation and covers pretty much every topic one could imaginefrom the fall of the angels at the dawn of creation to how
musical flatulence is an aid to understanding the bodily resurrection. Following Augustine’s own suggested
divisions, Levering gives a persuasive account of the unity of this massive
work: “Beginning with the pagan worldview in which strictly immanent gods and
ends set the terms for what we can expect from historical existence, Augustine
painstakingly transforms it into a biblical understanding of history according
to which our lives can only be rightly appreciated in terms of ecclesial
participation in the eternal God through Christ and the Holy Spirit”
(114). Levering astutely shows Augustine’s
genius in reconciling “linear” history with “participatory” history, that is,
the history that moves forward in time is ordered toward and elevated by a
transcendent God who draws temporal reality into his own eternity through the
In the final chapter, Levering
examines Augustine’s On the Trinity
and, similar to the previous two chapters, he shows how this work has a
participatory dimension. Levering argues
that Augustine envisioned On the Trinity
as a new Hortensius. In other words, it was meant to replace the
pagan Cicero’s exhortation to philosophy (which played an essential part in
Augustine’s conversion) with a Christian one, “completely revised on
christological and Trinitarian grounds” (185).
The work is structured as an ascent to God: it is not only a treatise
which seeks to understand the Trinity better but an invitation to ascend toward
the One who made us. It is a model of
what the Christian life is all about.
“For Christians,” Levering says, “the ascent to participation begins
now: through the grace of the Holy Spirit, in faith and love, we are being
conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, perfect wisdom and love” (153).
“A spiritual exercise”
Levering deftly guides us through
these seven major works of Augustine.
While staying close to the mind of Augustine and the structure of the
works, he does not simply summarize but properly highlights the fundamental
components of Augustine’s thought, in particular, how God created us out of his
superabundant love so that we might share in his divine life and “become partakers
of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
This deep truth about our salvation is called “deification” or
“theosis.” It is an idea that most
people associate only with Eastern Christianity, though it is a central feature
of Augustine’s thought and of the whole Latin tradition. Levering is among the
few but growing number of scholars who recognize how important “deification” is
to Augustine’s thought. We are made for
God, to participate in his own divinity, to be healed and elevated in order to
truly share in the gift of God Himself.
Levering’s fine work shows how this central drama of salvation is at the
center of these seven important works and how each one has a “participatory
dimension” which is intended to draw the reader into this drama.
There are a number of features of
this book that make it unique as well as useful both to scholars and to
students just starting out. First, the
selection of texts is both traditional and non-traditional. While Levering covers Augustine’s “greatest
hits” and touches on the major heresies Augustine confronted, the inclusion of
lesser studied works like the Answer to
Faustus, a Manichean, the Homilies on
the First Epistle of John, and even On
the Predestination of the Saints, makes this unlike any other study. The discussion of these texts will initiate
new students and edify advanced scholars.
Second, the footnotes will be enormously valuable to any beginning
student of Augustine (I wish I had this book when I wrote my
dissertation!). Levering does not engage
the current debates, though it is clear that he is aware of them. He uses the footnotes to gather the most
essential secondary sources (mostly in English) on each topic in each of the
works he discusses.
Levering says that he wrote The Theology of Augustine as a
“spiritual exercise” (ix). He does not
explain what exactly he means by this, but the book is marked by a kind of
scholarly asceticism which is rare. As I
read his book, I kept thinking that Levering must have been saying to himself,
“I must decrease and Augustine must increase.”
In a remarkable way, Levering has apprenticed himself to the mind of
Augustine and there is very little “scholarly interference” between Augustine’s
thought and the reader.
The fact that Levering stays so
close to the mind of Augustine is both a strength of the book as well as
something of a weakness. Levering
helpfully follows the contours of Augustine’s works, but sometimes I was left
wishing that he had given a more synthetic account to situate the reader. One feels this particularly with the On the Predestination of the Saints
chapter, where the discipline of Levering makes reading that chapter only
somewhat easier than reading the original.
Another weakness with this approach is that certain important topics do
not receive the central treatment they deserve.
In particular, one feels the absence of an extended discussion of
creation and the liturgy. While Levering
treats both of these in various placesand treats them very wellit is
unfortunate that the structure of the work does not allow for these two
fundamental themes (perhaps the two most fundamental themes in Augustine) to be
considered more fully.
Still, these criticisms are not
meant to detract from what is really an excellent book. Eminently useful and characteristically
lucid, this is a sure guide to Augustine’s thought. The
Theology of Augustine will be valuable not only for learning the mind of
Augustine, but, as Levering himself prays in both the introduction and
conclusion, for drawing all of us closer to the Triune God who invites us to
share His life of Love.
The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to
His Most Important Works
Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 204 pp.