THE THEOLOGY OF AUGUSTINE: A BOOK REVIEW
The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works. By Matthew Levering. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2013. 204 pp. $28.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-4848-7.
Augustine is, without a doubt, one of the most important (if not the single most important) theologian in the history of Christian theology. Thomas Aquinas, who is the father (in a sense) of Thomism, and whose works have been influential for all branches of Christendom, would have gladly called himself an Augustinian. John Calvin, the renowned reformer, was also an Augustinian theologian and pastor. In light of the enormous influence of Augustine it is primordial that Christians, of any and all branches of Christendom, be familiar with his works. It is because of this fact that Matthew Levering’s book is so important. In this review we will consider the purpose, intended audience and general outline of this book. We will finish by a rapid discussion of the general worth of this book.
Levering notes that the purpose of this book is to present, to the reader, what most scholars consider to be the 7 most important works of Augustine (p. xii): On Christian Doctrine, Answer to Faustus, a Manichean, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, On the Predestination of the Saints, Confessions, City of God, and On the Trinity. The intended audience for this book are those “students and educated readers who desire an introduction to Augustine. (p. xiii)” In other words, this book is meant as a non-technical introduction to the works of Augustine.
In accordance with the author’s purpose, this book is divided into an introduction, 7 main chapters (one chapter for each of the 7 important works of Augustine), a conclusion, a list of books for further research, and two indexes (subject and scripture). In the Introduction we are introduced to a short biography of Augustine including a survey of his education and intellectual influences, and some of the theological debates that he engaged in. In the first chapter Levering gives a survey of Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine. He explains that the purpose of On Christian Doctrine is to train the reader on how to interpret the Bible. We are then given a bird’s eye view of the Introduction, all 4 books, and the conclusion of this important work. As he leads the reader through Augustine’s work he discusses Augustine’s understanding of: (1) the Holy Spirit’s work in interpretation, (2) signs, (3) use and enjoyment of a thing, (4) God-talk, (5) friendship, (6) the steps of interpretation, (7) the relationship between philosophy and theology, (8) figurative signs, and (9) the necessity of training for Christian teachers and preachers.
In chapter 2 Levering considers Augustine’s work Answer to Faustus, a Manichean. He explains the purpose and outline of this work, and, noting that the importance of this work is its contribution to Old Testament Exegesis, surveys those sections which are primarily concerned with the interpretation of the Old Testament. In each section he first considers the claims of Faustus, and then outlines Augustine’s response to Faustus. In chapter 3 the author looks at Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John. Levering explains that the Homilies can be divided into two main sections (homilies 1-5 and homilies 6-10). He then takes the reader through each of the homilies, and brings out how Augustine applies the theme of love, which flows throughout this epistle, to the schism of the Donatists. This book emphasises the importance of loving unity in the church.
In chapter 4 we are introduced to Augustine’s important work On the Predestination of the Saints, written in response to critiques of his anti-pelagian writings. Levering notes that “In On the Predestination of the Saints…Augustine argues that God’s grace causes the free charitable actions by which we attain to eternal life. (p. 71)” In this chapter we are introduced to Augustine’s understanding of election and grace, and of faith and free-will. Levering explains Augustine’s answer to important questions such as: If God decides who will come to him, then why not save all men? And is faith a work? In chapter 5 we are introduced to Augustine’s Confessions. He gives an overview of the Confessions by breaking it down into four main sections (book 1, books 2-6, books 7-10, and books 11-13), and then considers each of these sections in turn. Levering explains that “The Confessions argues that each and every moment of one’s life, and one’s life as a whole, has its true meaning in relation to the eternal living God. (p. 110)”
In chapter 6 we are given a birds-eye view of Augustine’s City of God. Levering explains that the book can be divided either into two parts or into five (and this is Augustine’s own explanation of the division of the book). Levering uses the five-part division to lead the reader through Augustine’s revolutionary interpretation of human history. Finally, in chapter 7 Levering provides the reader with an overview of Augustine’s On the Trinity. Levering explains that, according to Augustine, the 15 books of this treatise are supposed to form a coherent whole, however, to many readers, there does not seem to be any directing line that flows through the 15 books (p. 151-152). In order to show the interior coherence of this work Levering divides the book into 4 main sections, and seeks to show that the purpose of this book (“to understand and to model what Christian life is all about (p. 153)”) is the directing line of this work. In part 1 (books 1-4) we are introduced to Augustine’s biblical examination and establishment of the Trinity. In part 2 (books 5-7) Levering shows how Augustine understands the names of God. In part 3 (books 8-11) we are given an overview of how Augustine approaches the doctrine that man is made in the image of the Trinity. Finally, in part 4 (books 12-15) Levering explains Augustine’s consideration of whether and how the human can participate in the divine trinity. Levering concludes his book by noting that “We are made to love the Triune God and to participate in his life. This is the message of these seven works of Augustine. (p. 190)”
In this readers humble opinion, this book is a must have for any serious student of Christian theology. For the advanced reader who is already familiar with Augustine’s works this book will be an easy, yet interesting, reminder of the contents of many of Augustine’s most important works. The advanced Augustinian scholar might wonder why certain works were not included, or contest certain interpretations of Augustine, but will, on the whole, enjoy the read. This book finds its primary importance, however, for the theologian, student, or layman, who has not given much time to studying Augustine. For such a person this book is a necessary addition to their library. The book reads like a collection of book reviews of Augustine’s major works. Though this may seem odd to some, it will help the reader, who is unfamiliar with Augustine’s works, to understand the theology of this great thinker, to locate Augustine’s main teachings, and to interact with Augustine’s theology.