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 answers—this 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 loved you,
Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made
I rushed headlong – I, misshapen.
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being,
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst;
you touched 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 beauty—or, of God as Beauty—is 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 imagine—from 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 Church.
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 places—and treats them very well—it 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.
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