If one were to put together a list of influential theologians in the history of the church, Augustine would certainly be near the top. In terms of sheer literary output, not to mention kick-starting a genre (autobiography), Augustine towers over other theologians. Yet, he was primarily a pastor (bishop) for his day job. As such, he had much to say when it came to living the Christian life. Thanks to Crossway’s Theologians on The Christian Life series, you can read many of those insights in one place.
When compared to the other authors in the series, Augustine may seem out of place. The book itself is a bit out of place in terms of style. Gerald Bray chose to divide up the nearly 200 pages into only 5 chapters. Those five chapters give readers a window into Augustine’s life and background, his Christian faith, his influence as a teacher, his role as a pastor, and his impact on today. These chapters are bookended by a rundown on the Latin titles of Augustine’s works (and their English translations) and suggestions for further reading.
So far, you could have gathered much of this yourself by an attentive reading of the table of contents (which is the first step of good book reviewing mind you). You may still be wondering why Augustine made the list for this particular series. He is the oldest author by far, and the only pre-Reformation selection. Toward the end of Bray’s book I think he gives a good reason:
Augustine had the good fortune, if we can call it that, to have lived in the last generation of antiquity. After his death, it was still possible for some people in the Latin West to get a good classical education, as the careers of Boethius, Cassiodorus, and Gregory the Great remind us, but the were exceptions. The old Roman world no longer has urban centers where a large educated public eagerly debated philosophy and theology. Classical allusions fell on increasingly deaf ears as fewer and fewer people were brought up on the literary treasures of pre-Christian times. For many, Augustine – and especially The City of God – became the lens through which they read about what had gone before. He was the source, the encyclopedia of knowledge, through which the whole of antiquity, pagan and Christian, was distilled (192).
In the opening chapter, after his biographical sketch of Augustine, and before his short description of basic beliefs, Bray breaks down all the categories of writing Augustine left us:
- Pastoral and Monastic
- Letters and Sermons
As he notes, “No ancient Christian writer has left us a larger corpus of writings than Augustine” (29). He left over 100 books, 307 known letters, and 583 sermons. If you math, you could figure out that Augustine averaged 3 books a year during his writing career.
With all this in mind, Augustine becomes the obvious candidate for inclusion in this series. He “was the greatest of the Latin (Western) church fathers” (191) and is the window in what came before him for much of the Western world. As far as influential Christian writers of his stature, perhaps Aquinas deserves inclusion in a series like this, but I can’t see him making the cut for various reasons.
Turning back to the book itself, the second chapter begins the exposition proper when it comes to Augustine’s understanding of the Christian life. Here, Bray guides readers through Augustine’s conversion, devotional life, family life and personal values, his choice of lifestyle (celibate), and his general life of faith. In chapter 3, the focus shifts to Augustine as a teacher of the Bible, as well as philosophy (briefly in regards to things and signs) and theology. Chapter 4 turns to his pastoral work, particularly the trials of parish life and his preaching.
In the final chapter, Bray kind of summarizes all that came before, but in the context of how it relates to our world today. He notes two emphases of Augustine’s that are relevant, especially in our modern world:
- His emphasis on the relationship of the individual to God (198)
- His adherence to the church (200)
We can tend to opt for one of the other, yet Augustine held both strongly. In addition Bray notes several teaching emphases that continue to have impact:
- The human race is united in sin and rebellion against God and cannot save itself (201)
- The Word of God is to be found in the Bible and nowhere else (203)
- God is a Trinity of love (206)
- God created the world for a purpose (208)
- The Christian’s life is a journey that we walk by faith (210)
- The Christian mission is important wherever it is exercised (212)
Taking all of these together provides a good snapshot of Augustine’s teaching as it related to the Christian life. I would say after reading this that there is much for modern evangelicals to learn from Augustine, even if we might disagree with some of his theological leanings. But, that’s probably true of pretty much every author featured in this series. Bray does an excellent job of presenting Augustine sympathetically, but without overshadowing that Augustine comes from a very different time and place and saw the world much differently than we do.
As a minor criticism, I would have liked to have the chapters laid out in a more digestible form. The chapters are long compared to other volumes in this series and the headings are not numerous. I found that it was hard to read in spurts. Bray can obviously divide up the material however he likes, and I do like his conceptual layout. Perhaps if I had not read nearly all the other volumes already, I wouldn’t have had a chapter length expectation in play. As I’ll say though for pretty much all the volumes in this series, it is one you should take, read, and hopefully grow in your walk with Christ as a result.
Gerald Bray, Augustine on The Christian Life: Transformed by The Power of God. Wheaton: Crossway, October, 2015. 232 pp. Paperback, $18.99.
Read an excerpt
Visit the publisher’s page
Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!