Matthew LEVERING, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works. Grand Rapids. MI.: Baker Academic, 2013. 204pp. Paperback. Reviewed by Richard RYMARZ, St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta.
This is a valuable contribution to the new, burgeoning literature on Augustinian studies. As the title suggests the book looks at well selected key volumes in Augustine’s corpus. These are: 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. Each work is presented in a clear and penetrating style giving a contextualization of the work along with an overview. Especially useful are the cumulative summaries of each of the discussed works. Levering them presents a series of seminal aspects of the writings and what these tells us about Augustine’s theological vision. This is an innovative approach to introducing students to Augustine’s thought. It begins with a discussion of a range of his works and from this disparate base moves toward a more unified understanding. Indicative comments on only three of the chapters follow.
Levering begins with an overview of, On Christian Doctrine. This captures, perhaps, the most enduring aspect of Augustine’s work, that of being both an interpreter and preacher of scripture. For Augustine, the correct reading of scripture must lead the believer to a deeper appreciation of God and the signs that are used to train us in love. For him the words of scripture at their most fundamental level direct the believer to love God and neighbors. As such, the Augustinian approach to scripture provides a strong counterpoint to an exclusively historico–critical reading, an approach that many modern scholars have commented has little traction in post-secular culture.
The chapter on Answer to Faustus, a Manichean, introduces the reader to what was one of the main theological themes in Augustine’s writing. Composed in 397-98 it is a refutation of Faustus’ work titled The Chapters. This presented the main Manichean argument that evil is deeply embedded in nature and because of this we either have to exclude God from creation or attribute to God some concupiscence in evil. For Faustus and other Manicheans this is especially evident in how God is revealed in their reading of the Old Testament. Augustine systematically deals with the claims of Faustus by stressing, amongst other things, the continuity between Old and New Testaments. As creator, God is not evil or compromised by acquiesce with evil as an eternal principle. Rather by using sacramental and scriptural signs God leads the believer into a union of love.
The City of God remains one of Augustine’s best known works. Composed between 413 and 426 it can be categorized in a variety of ways. The general themes of the work attack the pagan Gods of Rome and elsewhere and then set out a case for the origin, progress and end of the City of God. In this way Augustine contrasts the power of the Gods of Rome with the true majesty of the Church rooted in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Rome’s stature is based on massive and aggregating power and influence. From this base it seeks to establish a pantheon of Gods derived, in a peculiar way, from the might of those who now seek to worship them. The City of God, established by the followers of Jesus by contrast is based on the powerless and martyrdom of the apostles. The City is established not by human agency but by the providence of God. From this base Augustine then sets out his well known description of the City of God and how it proceeds.
This book is an excellent introduction to the thought of Augustine seen through the prism of his key works. It is highly recommended for those wishing to learn more about this preeminent Christian thinker.