Review of The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works by Matthew Levering
This is the third installment of Reading Patristics–a review series dedicated to books about the early church fathers. These reviews will not be exhaustive summaries, but instead are meant to pique the interest of readers to pursue reading in this area of study and a guide to good books in the field. Previous installments: Classical Christian Doctrine and Retrieving Nicaea.
As the subtitle of The Theology of Augustine suggests, Matthew Levering’s new work constructs Augustine’s theology based on a handful of his key writings. In so doing, he renders some massive tomes readable by laypeople with an interest in this behemoth of patristic theology. Levering considers the “most important works” to be:
- On Christian Doctrine
- Answer to Faustus, a Manichean
- Homilies on the First Epistle of John
- On the Predestination of the Saints
- City of God
- On the Trinity
Levering carefully chooses these seven to provide a comprehensive display of Augustine’s thought life and myriad facets to his theology. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine lays out his framework for Scriptural interpretation, between signs and the thing itself. God reveals Himself through signs, and it is human mediation and interpretation (through teachers) coupled with the Holy Spirit that helps us understand God’s revelation. Levering writes, “To learn from Christ in the Church means to learn how to move from sign to thing, so as to cleave in love to the unseen God who is revealed through signs. Those whose task it is to interpret Scripture for others must employ its signs for the purpose of leading others to love God and neighbor” (17).
In Answer to Faustus, a Manichean, Augustine defends Christian orthodoxy against the theology of the Manicheans. This defense is primarily of the Hebrew Scriptures as Christian. Augustine explains how the New Testament does not negate the Old, and why Christians can still use and learn from the Old Testament. He makes the classic distinction between certain Old Testament laws that are fulfilled in Christ and those that are still applicable today.
Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John is a meditation on the nature of love. Augustine follows the epistle’s lead in distinguishing between true Christians and those in name only through their love. Christians love because “in Christ, God the Father pours his love into us through the Holy Spirit” (68). While Augustine’s Homilies are directed against the Donatists, Levering argues for the applicability of his meditations beyond the Donatist struggle.
On the Predestination of the Saints is a treatise written against a semi-Pelagian position that is quite common today. This position toward predestination can be summed up as follows: when God “predestines” someone, His election is based on future faith of the human person. That is, God looks down the corridor of time and sees who will put their faith in Him, and based on this omniscience, extends grace. Augustine criticizes this as still finding the seat of faith in the Christian’s initiative, as opposed to wholly of God’s gifting–God alone gives faith.
When we come to the famous Confessions, Levering’s treatment involves a heavy handed approach which users may find useful since he draws together this autobiography into a digestible theology, which can be lost in the (already theologically-charged) narrative. Levering systematizes the assumptions and worldview behind Confessions as a life oriented, in radical holisticity, to God–worship of Him and communion with Him. Augustine paints the rebellion of humanity in stark colors and portrays this rebellion as giving birth to false worship. The Holy Spirit must suppress this rebellion in the human heart, in order to free it from bondage to sin and free it to worship and communion in the Trinitarian love.
The equally well-known City of God is often cited, but seldom read. Levering’s summary is useful for someone who does not intend to read the entire work as he goes enough in-depth to help readers trace Augustine’s arguments, without getting lost in the details. As Christians, participating in history requires humility to depend on God, rather than the materialism and paganism of Rome. What’s refreshing about Levering’s account is that his focus is not solely on Augustine’s political theology. He also brings to the fore the mundane applicability of City of God to daily Christian life, rather than merely abstract conceptualizations. In his pastoral “account of the vision of God, our adoption as children of God who share through the Holy Spirit in the Son’s inheritance from the Father, Augustine’s City of God identifies history as shaped by our Sabbath rest, our worship. In eternal life, we will share in God’s own ‘rest,’ because we have been created by God so that we might rejoice in him” (150).
Similarly, On the Trinity is not dry theological speculation about the nature of God’s triunity. Rather, Augustine is fundamentally interested in how our knowledge of this triunity affects Christian worship and how Christians can participate in the intra-Trinitarian life. We must pursue the “theocentric life of wisdom,” which can only be accomplished to meditating on theology proper, the nature of God (186).
After reading The Theology of Augustine, the person of Augustine is more intriguing. This is a man who exhibited both a profoundly modern understanding of Christianity, while at the same time being rooted in the patristic era. By modern, I mean that the concerns he had were the same that continue to drive discussions in the modern church–the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, Trinitarian theology as practical, church-state relations, Calvinism vs Arminianism (anachronistic terms of course), the role of tradition in a post-Reformation church, and the definition of love.
At the same time, Levering’s portrayal of Augustine’s theology is surprisingly pastoral. Readers may begin reading The Theology of Augustine assuming that this pivotal figure was dry and dogmatic, concerned with the niceties of theology without ever taking a stroll outside his private study. But instead, readers will encounter a deeply theological Augustine who is just as concerned about the practical implication of the knowledge of God.
As a book comprised largely of summarization, The Theology of Augustine may not be useful for those who intend to undertake more serious study and read the primary sources. But for those who want to dive into Augustine as an individual theologian, without time to spare in reading his works themselves, Levering is a trustworthy guide.
[Disclosure: I received this a free review copy of this book from Baker Academic, but was not required to write a positive review.]