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Schoolboy to student to Bishop to dead - Who was Augustine?
Having reviewed a number of books on Augustine, he now feels like a personal friend and many of his arguments and characteristics feel so familiar that I take them for granted. Yet for the sake of those who have never come across this great man it is worth rehearsing the details of his life and just what made him such a champion of Christian orthodoxy.
Augustine was born in 354 in Thagaste, North Africa. He became Professor of Rhetoric in Milan before being converted under the great preacher Ambrose. He then returned back to North Africa, became a monk before being Shanghai'd into being Bishop of Hippo (during this time he would never go to a town with an elderly bishop in case they forced him into the job). He then served as Bishop until he had to flee to the hills as an elderly man when the Vandals invaded.
But this does not do justice to the man. His writing was immense (and often immensely long) as he sought to defend the church against the graceless Donatists (who would not readmit Christians who had lapsed during Roman persecution) and against Pelagius and his followers (who denied that grace/forgiveness was necessary). But it is two works for which he is remembered today; Confessions, his excruciatingly honest account of his pre-Christian sinful state; and City of God, an Christian account of history seeking to explain the sack of Rome for the frightened Christian community. In all he was a thinker and theologian without compare.
The Rule of the Chadwicks - who is the author?
Henry Chadwick died in 2008, aged 88 having enjoyed an exceptional career in church patristics. He authored the Penguin classic text Early Church History, and his brother Owen wrote the companion volume, Reformation Church History.
Henry was Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, was ordained in the Church of England and was an early church scholar par excellence. He translated many original manuscripts, including Augustine's Confessions.
This book was originally written in 1981 for a Past Masters Series for OUP but was then shortened in 1986 for the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series. This is the full text of the 1981 original reprinted and includes a Foreword by Professor Peter Brown (who wrote an excellent biography of Augustine which I have reviewed elsewhere). Brown's tenderness for Chadwick and his work is obvious in this perceptive foreword and is well worth buying the book for.
Tracing the thought - Analysing the book
The book is short at only 160 pages in large type and I read it in about 3 evenings. He covers Augustine's life in 9 chapters but these are as much divided by theme as they are by chronology. Even in the first chapter on his early life and question, entitled 'A Personal Quest', is as much about tracing his thinking and influences as it is the details of his life. In this he has to explain the strange philosophy of Manichaeism which Augustine followed in early adulthood. This is essentially a form of Gnosticism, where matter is evil and spirit is good. Many accused him of never throwing of the shackles of this pagan philosophy. Chadwick describes it clearly, clearer than I just have, and breathes life into this part of Augustine's life.
Chapter 2 is 'Cassiciacum and the Death of Monica'. This is a shorter chapter which assesses the impact of Augustine's mother's life on him and his faith.
In 'Back to Thagaste' (chapter 3), Chadwick looks at Augustine's ideas of the monastic life in North Africa His expectations and devotion to purity were quite astounding.
In chapter 4, 'Discovering the Church', Chadwick discusses Augustine's ethics. Intriguingly for the time he was against slavery, arguing that a man cost less than a racehorse. But it is for the phrase 'Love and do as you will' that Augustine became well known. This comment takes some thought because of course he meant if we love, truly, then what we want will change.
In chapter 5, Chadwick wonderfully tells the tale of Augustine being made Bishop. This almost made me laugh out loud and is wonderful little snippet of his life. In chapter 6, he explains the Christian situation in North Africa which Augustine had been made Bishop of. It was a wonderfully historic area in Christendom, brimming with great heroes like Tertullian and Cyprian, great martyrs but also some great oddities too.
Chadwick then begins to consider some of Augustine's thought and writings as a Bishop; his Confessions (chapter 7), the Trinity (chapter 9) and the City of God (chapter 10). In chapter 8 he discusses one of the more peculiar aspects of Augustine; he being happy to coerce more schismatic Christians into the church when they were want to leave. Then in the final chapter he considers probably the greatest of Augustine's theological battles; that is with the Pelagians who held that sin was not that serious and God was not fully in charge of the world. He brings his own take on this well rehearsed debate, entitling it 'A Storm of Criticism: Hell and Sex.'
A Life with Tang - Considerations
The good parts of this book are excellent and it is beautifully written, it has 'the tang of life' according to Peter Brown. But it is worth considering its shortcomings. Firstly, the way it is written, short on details and long on thought, make it not the ideal introduction to Augustine. If one were not familiar with the details then you may not discover them too clearly in here. His emphasis is elsewhere and presumes much from the readers.
He also has a somewhat unorthodox approach to some of Augustine's thought which may baffle the uninitiated.
That said, he is a wonderful and learned writer and this book is a real treasure.