After much, much reading, another volume of the Ante-, Post-, and just plain Nicene Church Fathers is in the bag. In case you missed my advice in previous posts, I don’t recommend reading through the old 19th century set. Instead, I suggest finding modern translations whenever you can, and then using these older volumes to fill in the works that are as-yet untranslated. (The works of Augustine are especially worth picking up in newer translations, since there are some excellent ones available.)
Still, there’s something to be said for reading what’s freely available. And those of us who are beggars can’t be choosers.
With all that said, this volume is actually pretty solid, and not nearly as much of a slog as some of the others in the series. In part of course this is because Augustine was such a brilliant theologian, and in part because working with Scripture was one of his strengths. As Gerald Bray points out, despite having a not-so-great edition of Scripture (Jerome’s Vulgate was not yet available) Augustine still manages to work his way into mostly solid theology.
As a result, we get some very thoughtful meditations on Scripture in a selection of his sermons on the Gospels, his overview of the Sermon on the Mount, and an apologetic explanation of the harmony of the Gospels. All of these are excellent, though of course some bits are better than others.
As just a few examples:
For there are three things which go to complete sin: the suggestion of, the taking pleasure in, and the consenting to. Suggestion takes place either by means of memory, or by means of hte bodily senses, when we see, or hear, or smell, or taste, or touch anything. And if it give us pleasure to enjoy this, this pleasure, if illicit, must be restrained… but we do not consent to this liking, and we repress it by the right of reason which has supremacy. But if consent shall take place, the sin will be complete, known to God in our heart, although it may not become known to men by deed. (Sermon on the Mount, I.12–34)
And it is not in His mind to make those necessarily blessed to whom He may have given an earthly kingdom, or to make those necessarily unhappy whom He has deprived of that position. But He makes men blessed or wretched for other reasons and by other means, and either by permission or by actual gift distributes temporal and earthly kingdoms to whomsoever He pleases, and for whatsoever period He chooses, according to the foreordained order of the ages. (Harmony of the Gospels, I.12–19)
If thou art not able to understand, believe, that thou mayest understand. Faith goes before; understanding follows after. (Sermons on the New Testament Lessons, LXVIII.1)Don’t get me wrong, there’s some here I don’t agree with–baptismal regeneration, for one. But even then, speaking of baptism as 1) necessary and 2) something to be taken very seriously and with elevated meaning are both things modern Evangelicals could stand to reflect on. And although I think Augustine has some noble goals in his Harmony of the Gospels (to rebuke the crowd who would admire Jesus as a good man/great teacher, but disbelieve the stuff he teaches and dislike Christians), at least some of this can be skimmed without much loss.
Even with the few places I think Augustine misfires, there’s still a lot here worth reading. If nothing else, you’ll get to read Augustine’s defense of two genealogies in the Gospels–one for Joseph’s biological family, one for his adoptive family. Which I had not heard before reading this book.
So do go read this, it is worth your time. Though again, if you can find more recent translations you’ll be well served.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO