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Augustine: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) Paperback – 22 Feb 2001
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magisterial and highly readable. (Bookseller)
About the Author
Henry Chadwick, formerly Regius Professor Emeritus of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. Among his other books are Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition, Priscillian of Avila, and Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy (all published by OUP). He has also published an annotated translation of Augustine's Confessions (Oxford World's Classics), and, with his brother Owen, is General Editor of the Oxford History of the Christian Church.
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Top customer reviews
The first chapter sketches Augustine's life in about thirty pages. It is readable, informative but may need to be taken slowly if you are completely unfamiliar with the philosophy and background of the time.
The rest of the book is made up of excellent short chapters focusing on one subject e.g. Creation and Trinity.
This really is one of the best books I have read in the VSI range and has inspired me to read some of Augustine's works.
Chadwick's style really makes the book, he writes with such wit and makes Augustine sound like a real-life person - something we rarely think of historical figures as being! I recommend Chadwick's book on "The Early Church".
Henry Chadwick's book is perfect as a survey of Augustine: the man, his beliefs and the impact they had. I read the book quickly and easily and found I had marked and underlined many place for future use - surely a good sign. The book is organised thematically, exploring Augustine's teaching on different areas of belief and theology. It makes reference to the many texts that Augustine wrote and that made such an impact on the development of the early Christian world.
Chadwick transformed my view of Augustine. I whole-heartedly recommend this book if you too are curious to learn more.
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Chadwick insists that Augustine must be read in the context of the ancient world, factoring in how he was shaped by the literature and philosophy of Greece and Rome (5). Therefore, in every chapter of the book Chadwick details the philosophical and religious influences that undergirded the way that Augustine’s thought. He especially highlights the transformation and maturation of his views prior to and after his conversion. He lays out the relevant events of Augustine’s life in a way that supplements much of the material in Confessions, rather than repeats it. Chadwick specifically focuses on the foundation that Platonism played in Augustine’s embrace the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. He points out that Augustine’s background in Manichee dualism invoked his study of the relationship of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility, particularly in reconciling the problem of evil with the character of God as revealed in the Scriptures (40). He shows how Augustine connected his profound philosophy with his desire for community - “understanding requires love to attain its end” (53). In other words, we come to true understanding by loving God and neighbor.
Chadwick is intentional to show that Augustine was not a controversialist always debating abstract philosophical and theological trivialities. Augustine had a deep love for Christ’s church and actively sought its unity and health. He describes the historical events that led to a split between the Donatists and the rest of the church. In spite of Donatist violence and exclusivism, Augustine remained an irenic, though convictional, voice in the African church. He later explains Augustine’s conflict with Pelagius, however, he is intentional to state that Pelagius and Augustine agreed on far more than they disagreed. Chadwick points out how the beauty and unity of the universal church served as a significant means which the Lord used to bring about Augustine’s conversion.
A figure as historically massive as Augustine certainly warrants an analysis of his societal impact and interpersonal relationships during his time. Shortly after his conversion and prior to his ordination, Augustine lived in a monastic-like commune with many of his friends and followers. As for Augustine’s vocation, Chadwick tells how Augustine was forcibly ordained as a presbyter while visiting Hippo, a role for which he felt particularly unfit. He remained in a relatively ascetic lifestyle, encouraging his congregation to do the same as they carried out their lay vocations. It was his experience as a pastor which enabled him to consider the nature of sin in relation to the Christian with greater understanding - this led him into a thorough examination of Christian ethics and the human will. Chadwick explains that Augustine was distrusted by some because of his cleverness and past as a Manichee. Therefore, during his first three years as bishop of Hippo, he wrote his Confessions. Chadwick expounds on Augustine’s fascination with infants, the role of friendships, memory, and time. Augustine shows how his thought on all of these topics demonstrate that he is thoroughly Christian and not a Manichee in any technical way. Chadwick goes on to explain how Augustine viewed the distinction between male and female - Augustine’s language being far from both the modern egalitarian and complementarian positions. This leads Chadwick into a long description of how Augustine’s thought developed regarding sexuality, including his treatise On the Good of Marriage.
Chadwick explains Augustine’s engagement with politics through City of God. He gives an historical survey of the political conflict between the Roman government and Christians. He writes that the book was written as a defense of the Christian faith and as an appeal that the Christian worldview alone provides the path to true human flourishing. However, the reality of sin forced Augustine to see that true peace can only come in the age to come. Yet with that conviction, Augustine had a high view of earthly government as means of God’s providential care for the suppressing of man’s sin caused by the Fall.
Chadwick then describes the impact that mathematics, and especially music, had on Augustine’s spirituality and philosophical thought. Augustine saw that geometrical and metrical symmetry gives an objective value to beauty. This led him to an analytical exploration of the role and capacity of human language in describing transcendental absolutes. Chadwick details Augustine’s wrestling with the allegorical and literal interpretations of Genesis 1-3. Chadwick concludes with a brief note on Augustine’s legacy throughout church history.
In striving with the tension between thoroughness and brevity, Chadwick delves too deep and too quickly into the details of several of the philosophical systems that affected Augustine’s life and thought. It can hardly be overstated how important the thought and work of Cicero, Mani, Plotinus, and Porphyry were for Augustine, but in Chapter 1 Chadwick launches straight into the deep end, leaving the unprepared reader to drown. The first chapter of the book would be appropriate for the reader with a background in philosophy and Greco-Roman literature, but for a brief introduction to Augustine’s life and thought, Chadwick loses the untrained reader in philosophical jargon.
It is frustrating that Chadwick seems to say that Augustine incorporates the secular and pagan influences into the Christian faith. For instance, he writes, “After his conversion, Augustine sought to correct Plotinus’ mistakes” (20). Chadwick elsewhere summarizes Augustine as believing that “from Plato to Christ was hardly more than a short and simple step” (26). Later Chadwick writes, “Platonist though Augustine was…” (p. 99). Chadwick closes chapter 1 by reiterating Augustine’s philosophical mash up of the pagan and biblical by writing, “It was momentous that he brought together Plotinus’ negative, impersonal language about the One or Absolute and the biblical concept of God as love, power, justice, and forgiveness” (31). In chapter two, he writes that “Platonism was not something Augustine could leave unamended” (33). So Augustine is depicted as baptizing secular philosophical systems (particularly Neoplatonism), modifying them enough to pass for Christian orthodoxy. While I can acknowledge the common grace of similarity in some aspects of worldviews, how does this square with the biblical teaching of how the gospel is foolishness to the secular philosophical systems of the world?
I was displeased with how despiritualized Chadwick presented Augustine’s conversion. He conveyed his conversion almost exclusively in intellectual terms, stating the fact that he was weakened by poor health, implying that his judgment was consequently weakened (26). At one place, Chadwick asserts that Augustine was really seeking a sort of book club for Christianized Platonists (29). Anyone who can read Confessions and miss the deep spiritual motivations and desperation surrounding his conversion seems to have presuppositions that disallow those factors from driving the narrative.
Regarding more intramural debates, it is fascinating, though not objectionable, that in Chapter 7 Chadwick writes that Augustine denied that the Petrine confession referred to Peter, saying “We Christians believe not in Peter, but in him whom Peter believed” (87). I would be interested to read a Roman Catholic’s understanding regarding what Augustine believed concerning apostolic succession. Also, in Chapter 10, I would have liked to have seen some references cited in Chadwick’s description of Augustine as a paedobaptist (118).
I have to keep reminding myself that Augustine is not a twenty-first century evangelical – there are some important differences between his thought and the thought of much of the modern Western church, both for good and ill. Yet I am persuaded that Augustine has much to teach us concerning the interface of the church with the government and irenic engagement in theological dialogue. The current state of the church of Christ owes much to the legacy of Augustine and an introduction like Chadwick’s is a wonderful tribute to his life and thought.
Of great historical importance is Augustine's acceptance of Neoplatonism, and for more than ten years, of Manichaeism. Both schools taught a contempt for the body. According to Plotinus and other Neoplatonists, it is "by abstinence from meat and sexual activity [that] the soul could be gradually emancipated from its bodily fetters." After his conversion and his rejection of Manichaeism, Augustine "regarded sexual union with revulsion as a 'bitter sweetness' " (p. 28). This disdain for the body was even accentuated in the last years of his life and in his fight against Pelagianism. Through the centuries and to this day, Christianity has constantly vacillated between various forms of Neoplatonism, Manichaeism, and Pelagianism.
Other topics of timeless significance are Augustine's discussion of the relationship between faith and reason (in philosophy as well as in science, in reference to creation and evolution); the various levels of Biblical exegesis (the literal versus the allegorical interpretation); the importance of free will and role of the unconscious (the 'longing,' that lies too deep for words); the relativity of religious absolutes (the Israelite patriarchs were polygamous); the role of prayer as an effort to conform the faithful's will to God's and not the reverse; and last but not least, his grandiose vision of the "two cities" that both must contribute to justice and peace in this world, neither through the subordination of one to the other, nor through progressive secularization. These are just some of the themes upon which Chadwick touches. As a short, relatively inexpensive introduction to Augustine's timeless insights, this book can find its way into most religionists' libraries.
This is not a biography of Augustine's life as much as a biography of Augustine's thought. It traces the development of his thought in neoplatonism and his reliance upon Plotinus in particular, his time as a follower, but later opponent against Manicheeism and his prolonged arguments against Donatism. The book is not comprehensive, but gives brief introductions to Augustine's thoughts on Creation, Trinity, Politics, Sacerdotalism, and a few other topics and shows how they developed through his life and ministry.
I highly recommend this short volume and would suggest that it would be a perfect read for a short introduction to Augustine at an undergraduate level.
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