In a Year of Reformation Reflection, Augustine Still Speaks and Guides

In this year marking the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation we are right to celebrate and speak much of Martin Luther. However, one realizes quickly that any Reformation study of Luther really is a commentary on the early church father, Augustine. For Luther and John Calvin would quote Augustine more than any other early church theologian.

Therefore, to appreciate fully the Reformation, we should consider Augustine’s impact. As B. B. Warfield wryly noted, the Reformation “was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.”[1]

Along these lines, I came across recently in The Times Literary Supplement, David Bentley Hart of Notre Dame asserting, with unashamed superlatives, that Augustine was,

unquestionably the single most influential figure in Western Christian thought after the apostolic age, as well as one of the most brilliant and original minds of the whole late antique world. He seemed to write as easily as he breathed … and after his elevation to the episcopacy of Hippo Regius, in what is now Algeria, with all of its attendant responsibilities, during times of immense imperial and ecclesial crisis, he continued to compose at an astonishing rate. In fact, he produced not only many works, but many of his greatest, and in some of the most exquisite, glistening and compelling Latin prose ever written.

Hart is reviewing the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams’ new book On Augustine, and continues to say that,

Volume alone, however, does not explain the unparalleled influence that Augustine’s works exercised over the development of Western Christian thought; more important was their combination of intellectual power and rhetorical force …. In a sense, all Western Christianity is Augustinian Christianity …. It is because of its enormous and pervasive influence in the West, moreover, that the Augustinian legacy is certainly the most vigorously contested and denounced in Christian intellectual history. Adored, demonized, caricatured — Augustine is almost everything to some, and at least something to everyone, and always impossible to ignore.

Indeed, if the Reformers could not ignore Augustine then, how much more, in this Reformation anniversary year when modern pilgrims continue to debate their proper relationship to the culture and what it means to live “in the world” (Jn 17:11), can Augustine continue to prove helpful.

Considering this, I read with interest R. R. Reno’s latest editorial in First Things. Following the tumultuous political events of 2016, Reno spends time considering Augustine:

A reader contacted me recently. He chastised me for speaking too strongly about the current political situation and urged a re-reading of Augustine’s City of God. The gist of his criticisms suggested that he has a superficial understanding of St. Augustine that I have found to be common. It assumes that our elections, legislative battles, and legal wrangling concern only the city of man, and that Christians, insofar as they are loyal to the city of God, must distance themselves from politics. This is not correct. We are social animals, and our civic lives remain integral to who we are, no matter how far we advance in the Christian life. A person who retreats from public life because it is too inconvenient or unpleasant or fails to accord with his nice ideals acts as a citizen of the city of man, seeking his own good–peace of mind, ideological purity–at the expense of the common good. (This is not to say we ought never to forsake politics. We can come to the conclusion that our involvement corrupts our love for God and neighbor.)

During St. Augustine’s final years, North Africa was being conquered by Vandals, a Germanic tribe notorious for its destructive violence As the battle lines approached Hippo, where St. Augustine had long served as bishop, he traveled to the front lines where the Roman army was facing the barbarian invaders. He sought to convince the Roman generals that they should not abandon their positions in order to retire from the field and return to Italy to dedicate themselves to a life of prayer. For St. Augustine, the issue was not whether to be engaged in the affairs of public life, but how.

Not whether, but how, is the question for believers to answer in 2017.

For both impact on the Reformation and ongoing relevance for the present, Augustine truly towers over the intervening centuries in terms of his original thinking and longstanding influence.

Therefore, in this year of Reformation reflection and renewed interest in those events that brought a recovery of the good news of the gospel to an age of bad news and cultural corruption, we should also read and hear Augustine. May God see fit to send another Reformation-sized revival in our day and to strengthen and guide our Augustine-like influencers and courageous engagers of the culture for us to follow as well.

 

For more on the life of the key early church theologian, Augustine (354-430), see this book that gives a brief and introductory overview of his life and thought:

Seven Summits in Church History
Jason G. Duesing
Rainer Publishing, 2016
132 pages

You can purchase Seven Summits here.

 

 

[1] B. B. Warfield, “Augustine,” in Studies in Tertullian and Augustine (Baker Books, 1932, 2003), 130-131.

 

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