This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Augustine: The Major Works”, running in the Spring 2021 Term (April – June), and convened by Dr. Matthew Hoskin.
If you wish to register for the module, you can do so here.
What’s The Big Deal About Augustine?
A friend of mine was once asked “who is the greatest theologian in history?” His answer was Saint Augustine – because Augustine is the father of both Protestants and Roman Catholics.
Agree or disagree, Augustine’s influence on all of western Christianity, from his time into today, is unmistakable. For Protestants, Augustine left a profound imprint upon Martin Luther, John Calvin, Richard Hooker, and the Book of Common Prayer. For Roman Catholics, his influence can be seen in Robert Bellarmine and Teresa of Avila, to name just two on the opposite side of the Reformation. Even John Wesley, who famously rejected Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, cites Augustine more than any other church father.
For some today, though, Augustine is persona non grata. One academic I know referred to him in research notebooks as “the [email protected]@rd.” We must acknowledge that, given he was a fallen human, Augustine’s theology is not perfect, and some of his supporters have gone in divergent directions over the years. In particular, Augustine is scorned because of his anti-Pelagian works, in which he develops the doctrines of original sin and predestination.
If we are to come to grips with his critics, we’ll have to come to grips with the man. Augustine’s sheer influence testifies that he is intrinsically worth studying. He writes with force, clarity, and style. He deals with old questions in ways that were, at the time, innovative. Sometimes he simply restates ancient orthodoxy in his own engaging way. On his own terms, Augustine is a major writer from Roman North Africa in Late Antiquity. Although his secular career before ordination took him to the imperial cities of Rome and Milan, it was the force and power of his theology that raised this bishop of a small provincial city to the status of the most influential thinker of his age.
What Did Augustine Teach?
A theologian of such force, with so many supporters and a growing array of opponents, is well worth studying. Moreover, a theologian with so many surviving writings is worth studying deeply. More survives from St Augustine than from any other ancient Latin writer.
In writing so much he touched on many subjects, and so to study St Augustine is to study more than predestination and free will. To study Augustine is to study the doctrine of the Trinity, the right understanding of how history operates, principles for biblical interpretation, the depravity of one’s own soul, the concept of eternity, the question of how memory and time and other similar topics work, the foundations of semiotics, how Christ can have two natures and be one person, just war theory, ethics, the origins of angels and demons, the place of prayer in the Christian life, various aspects of rhetoric and philosophy, the foundations of Christian mysticism, what evil is (if evil even “is”), and more.
Why Should I Study Augustine?
In the Spring 2021 Term, my Davenant Hall course “Augustine: The Major Works” will touch on all the above. We’ll read most of the Confessions, all of On Christian Teaching, representative portions of On the Trinity and City of God, then close with two shorter works, Nature and Grace and The Predestination of the Saints. Those portions of these works not assigned for reading will be covered in summary and explanation in the lectures.
The Confessions is the work for which Augustine is most famous today. Here we will get a glimpse of the shape of his early life and the inner workings of the man. This work has no predecessors in ancient literature and gives us many insights into life in the Later Roman Empire. Next, we will look at his teaching on the foundations of learning and Scriptural exegesis in On Christian Teaching (De Doctrina Christiana), a book where he arguably invents semiotics.
The large-scale application of Augustine’s foundations for knowledge will then be seen in On the Trinity, one of his longest works. This deals with more than just the Trinity but which also makes some original contributions to Trinitarian theology. It sets the playing field for western Trinitarian thought from then onwards, whether one considers Anselm, Aquinas, or Jonathan Edwards.
The final, truly “major” work we’ll consider is City of God, written in the wake of the sack of Rome in 410. Some had blamed the sack of the city on the conversion of the Roman world to Christianity. To say that Augustine presented an argument against this position using history and philosophy is true but misses the vast scope of this grand work. It covers, amongst other things, the creation of the universe, the fall and redemption of human beings, and the grand story of sacred Scripture, not to mention myriad smaller concerns, such as angels and demons, specific ethical questions, and ancient Roman religion.
Finally, because it contributes so much to our vision of Augustine today, and to what may be termed “Augustinianism” through the ages, we will finish the course with an examination of Augustine’s teaching on predestination and freewill, considering one early work, Nature and Grace and one late work, The Predestination of the Saints.
I hope you will take the opportunity to study the major works of Latin Christianity’s major theologian with me.
Dr. Matthew Hoskin received his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity from the University of Edinburgh in 2015. His expertise is in the field of ancient Christianity (Patristics) with a focus on Leo the Great, Christology, and canon law in the fifth century, and he has a background in Classics and research that extends across the Middle Ages. He lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with his wife and children where he is Coordinator of Liturgy and Education at The Urban Abbey (www.urbanabbey.ca) and blogs semi-regularly at http://thepocketscroll.wordpress.com.