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The Theology of Augustine

Marco Barone


The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works
by Matthew Levering
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013
224 pages. Paperback. $24.99

The aim of this book is to present the theology of Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) through the exposition of “seven pivotal works” (xii). This is a ambitious task for two reasons. First, Augustine is one of the greatest theologians of the entire history of the church, and arguably the greatest theologian of the ancient and medieval church. To summarize the teaching of such a great mind is never easy and such a summary will necessarily leave something out. Secondly, as Levering himself says, “Augustine wrote over one hundred treatises, countless sermons, and more than five million words in all” (xi). One may get lost in his works or get discouraged, or one may not know where to start his reading. In spite of these significant difficulties, I think Levering succeeds in the task of his book.

Levering thinks that there is a conceptual line that connects the Augustinian works chosen as representative of the theology of Augustine: “‘You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you’ [Confessions 1.1.1]. We are made to love the Triune God and to participate in his life. This is the message of these seven works of Augustine” (190).

Levering’s book begins with On Christian Doctrine (chapter 1), Augustine’s “account of biblical interpretation and preaching” (1). This is “a manual of instruction for Christian biblical interpretation, education, and preaching” (xiii). Through this book, Augustine establishes the rules for reading, interpreting, and preaching the Scripture. This is the foundation of theology. Scripture, however, is divided into two testaments. How to deal with them? Augustine’s Answer to Faustus, a Manichean is helpful (chapter 2). Levering selects certain books of this work (4, 6, 9, 10, 12-19, 22, and 30-32) where Augustine offers “an extraordinary Christian theology of the Old Testament” (19).

Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John (chapter 3) explain what should be the goal of our knowledge of Scripture: the love of God and His church. The Homilies surely have good things to say also to the Christian of today. Against the background of the Donatist controversy, the Homilies teach us to consider the good and peace of the congregation and the spiritual welfare of our fellow believers as more important than our own ambitions and personal concerns. However, this love is possible only because God loved us first. Levering then turns to On the Predestination of the Saints (chapter 4). It is the electing grace of God in Jesus Christ that, through the Holy Spirit, works our faith, conversion and preservation. Augustine experienced this absolute dependence upon God’s grace. Next Levering examines Augustine’s Confessions (chapter 5), a book which every Christian should read. It is the outstanding account that Augustine gives of his own life, a life described against the background of the marvelous sovereign grace of God.

While Confessions recounts the grace and providence of God in the life of Augustine, City of God (chapter 6) is the account of the grace and providence of God in human history. Through his Christian understanding of history, the African theologian offers a beautiful account of history as providentially guided by our sovereign God for the good of the “city of God” (the church) as opposed to the “city of Satan.” This history culminates in the eschatological completion of the eternal Sabbath. In that final day, we will be in glory, serving God and contemplating Him through the face of Jesus Christ. On the Trinity (chapter 7) is a beautiful defence of the unity and three Persons of the Godhead, with a particular focus on the unity of the three Persons. To fellowship forever with the living God is the final end of the Christian and this is why the last Augustinian work discussed by Levering is On the Trinity.

I have a few remarks by way of evaluation. In connection with the Homilies, Levering says that “Augustine sought a dialogue with the Donatists, but he also polemically critiqued them. He is thus a somewhat unlikely progenitor of the contemporary ecumenical theology” (189). Levering wants to emphasize this because, sadly, he is a member of the compromising group Evangelical and Roman Catholics Together (even more unfortunately, he is on the Roman Catholic side). However, Levering needs to be more careful. In fact, Augustine has nothing to do with the contemporary ecumenical movement. Augustine would have never sacrificed God’s truth on the altar of outward unity as the modern ecumenical movement does. Moreover, Levering rightly says that “On the Predestination of the Saints demonstrates that it [i.e., predestination] is a biblical doctrine” (189). If this is true, one wonders why Levering is still a member of the Roman Catholic Church, a church which is at enmity against this doctrine. Furthermore, Levering asks why, “if everything depends on God’s infinite love, God does not transform and save all” (87), adding that “although this mystery cannot be plumbed, we must not suggest that God’s superabundant love is lacking or deficient with respect to any rational creature” (87). This last assertion does not reflect the Augustine’s biblical theology of particular grace which is clearly set forth in his works against the Pelagians and the Semi-Pelagians, including his On the Predestination of the Saints. Levering spoiled the end of a good chapter, although the summary itself is well written.

The Theology of Augustine is an interesting and helpful book both for believers and office-bearers. First, the exposition is clear, a feature that makes the book suitable for all kinds of readers who are interested in Augustine. Second, Levering treats the texts with precision and fairness. We can read Augustine speaking through Levering’s chapters. In fact, his intrusions are very rare and easily recognized by the discerning reader. Third, his selection of the Augustinian works is judicious. Through the knowledge of these seven works, we can really know and appreciate Augustine at his best (and, sometimes, at his worst). Levering provides a good introduction which is both an accessible starting point for the beginner and a refresher for those who already familiar with Augustine. As an introduction, it aims to direct the reader to Augustine’s works themselves. For Christian theology, especially Reformed theology, Augustine is very important. The Reformed believer would profit having a general grasp of his theology. The Theology of Augustine can help in this worthy endeavour.