On the Reading of Saint Augustine

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Augustine is often listed among the four great teachers of the Early Church. R. C. Sproul counted Augustine in his top five theologians list. He is quoted often, read sometimes, referenced frequently, and highly esteemed in Christian circles. Augustine is a common denominator theologian for both Catholics and Protestants. Admittedly, they like him for different reasons. Augustine is a big favorite among Reformed folk because of his advocacy and expositions regarding predestination and election. Calvin and Luther were both fan boys. The Augustinian Order in Medieval Catholicism contained quite a few adherents to the man and to his theology.

My prior experience dealing with Augustine has been mainly through studies in Church History. Any study of church history will deal with Augustine and his writings. As is common among many college educated people of our time, I was never required or encouraged or coerced into reading Augustine in undergraduate school or graduate school. Despite his pivotal role in being a part of history and defining a school of history, I don’t think any professor of mine mentioned him, except for Henry Wood. Mr. Wood began his classes with a couple of lectures on views of history, which reached its pinnacle in his discussion of Augustine’s City of God.

None of my education courses referenced Augustine even though he wrote a valuable treatise on education. I learned nothing of him in literature classes even though he largely created the genre of autobiography. I did not read him in any graduate course, nor did I have occasion to teach much about him in my public school experience.

Then came Classical Christian Education. Several years into the program, I had a class of 5 girls. We were studying Medieval history and literature. I assigned The City of God. We struggled and persevered all the way through it. I later used On Christian Teaching (also titled On Christian Doctrine) with my teachers one year and at least once in a rhetoric class.

I used portions of Augustine’s Confessions, This coming year, I will be using and teaching Confessions to a junior high Omnibus class. Along with that, I will add that I probably own 2 dozen or more biographies and studies regarding Augustine, and I have quite a few editions of his works, including those from the Church Fathers series.

That being said, I still aspire to merely enrolling as a student of the man, rather than thinking that I am accomplished. Given the miles on life’s odometer and given my interest in 127 other people and areas of study, I don’t expect to reach the highest peaks of understanding. But I do delight in the thought of learning more.

New City Press (www.newcitypress.com) has undertaken nothing less than effecting a whole renaissance of Augustine’s writings and influence. Multiple volumes, available in hardback, paperback, and probably e-book editions, are available now in new translations. The set is a bit costly. If I were a beginning scholar or pastor, I would be angling for both the books and the shelf space to house them. As it is, I am happy to own just a couple of volumes–one in paperback and one in hardback.

Augustine Set 44 volumes

One of my recent readings was Homilies on the First Epistle of John. Having a long-time love affair with 1 John and needing to read Augustine, this was a good matchup. At 173 pages, the book is very readable and accessible for those who might be unable to tackle City of God right now.

I want to give several comments and observations on how to read and use this study.

  1. This is not a commentary on 1 John. If I were preaching through John’s letter, I would read this book first for a general sense, and then I would use it for supplemental help along the way. Augustine does exegete passages, but he is not doing so systematically.
  2. Augustine is dealing with issues connected to his hearers. One of the main concerns was the Donatists. The New City Press editions have some footnotes to explain certain references that are unfamiliar to most of us.
  3. Augustine is all over the Bible! Even though he is preaching through 1 John, he is quoting and applying a number of Bible verses. You don’t read an Augustine sermon without getting a boatload of Scripture passages.
  4. Augustine seems to ramble. Many of us who have preached sermons know this fault. If you are looking for a clear outline, don’t look here. There is a certain free flowing, stream-of-consciousness-like technique to Augustine. It would be interesting to know what his “notes, or outline, or manuscript” looked like. One suspects that he had very little material that he carried “into the pulpit.” It is very much Augustine Unplugged in concert here.
  5. Augustine drives his points home, repeats his themes, and loads his sermons with applications. He may be known in our time as a theologian, philosopher, and deep thinker, but he was not giving academic lectures. He was seeking to move the hearts of his listeners.

Sad to report, this series of messages ends abruptly and incompletely just as he get to the fifth chapter.

Having now read this book, I look forward to soon tackling Augustine’s Homilies on the Gospel of John.

One of many fine quotes from the book we have read and reviewed:

“If a person loves his brother, the Spirit of God is abiding in him. Let him look, let him probe himself before God’s eyes. Let him see if there is in him a love of peace and unity, a love of the Church spread throughout the earth. Let him be attentive to loving not only the brother who is before him and upon whom he is intent, for there are many brothers of ours of whom we do not see, and we are joined to them in the unity of the Spirit. “

Saint Augustine, Homilies on the First Epistle of John

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