Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, March, 2013. 224 pp. Paperback, $24.99
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Matthew Levering is professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton. He also knows a thing or two about St. Augustine. Actually he knows quite a bit, and this introductory guide, The Theology of Augustine shows it.
Anyone interested in studying theology more seriously ought to be familiar with Augustine. To facilitate that, Levering has written a fine book. While a bishop writing over 1500 years ago might not seem super relevant, that is not the case. In answering why he is still relevant today, Levering says:
[H]e is among the greatest theologians of the living God, the Triune whose nature is first revealed in his covenants with his people of Israel and who is most fully revealed by Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The “new atheists” of today would not be new to Augustine. Not only does he have responses to their questions about God, but also he perceives the way in which our lives are shaped by our loves – and the way in which Christian faith opens us to the greatest possible commitments of love (188).
Even for those of us who are on-board with learning more from Augustine, it is not always reading. There are few reasons for this as Levering explains:
Augustine wrote over one hundred treatises, countless letters and sermons, and more than five million words in all [!]. Although few scholars can become acquainted with all of his writings, there are certain pivotal works that one simply must know if one is interested in development of Christian theology, biblical exegesis, and Western civilization. This is especially the case because Augustine has always been, and remains today, a controversial thinker whose insights into the realities of God and salvation can be easily misunderstood (xi).
To help readers navigate, Levering chooses seven pivotal works of Augustine and then exposits their main contours. Rather than other approaches that “treat his ideas on this and that topic, drawing upon a wide variety of treatises, letters, and sermons,” Levering instead introduces Augustine’s major ideas through a survey of his most important works (xii).
Those works, and the ideas they illustrate accordingly to Levering are:
- On Christian Doctrine (his approach to biblical interpretation and teaching theology)
- Answer to Faustus, A Manichean (his view on the relationship of the Testaments)
- Homilies on the First Epistle of John (his view of the unity of the church)
- On The Predestination of The Saints (his view on God’s eternity/simplicity and grace/election)
- Confessions (his view of his own conversion)
- City of God (his view on the meaning of history)
- On The Trinity (his view on the divine)
By picking these works, he includes works from each of Augustine’s major disputations (Manichees, Donatists, Pelagians), as well as a triology of works (the last three above) on the soul’s ascent deeper and deeper into full participation in the life of God (xiii). As he notes, his survey work inevitably leaves much out (7 expositions are under 200 pages), but he tries to point readers to the relevant secondary sources (xviii). This is mostly through the footnotes, which to be honest, are a bit sparse. However, at the end, there is a list of secondary sources for further reading.
As I was reading, it was sometimes difficult to tell whether Levering was summarizing Augustine or offering his own commentary. Perhaps that is part of the difficulty in writing an introductory survey like this. It would have been helpful to have more direct quotes from Augustine, but as it stands, the text was fairly readable and easy to follow. Still, it would have helped to have a clearer distinction between commentary and summary.
On the whole, I think this would be a great starting point for a motivated reader to dig deeper into Augustine. I suppose you could just as easily pick up and read The Confessions, but this gives a broader overview and sets the context better for Augustine’s life and work. More advanced readers will profit from Levering’s analysis of The City of God and On The Trinity. Additionally, many readers will profit from understanding Augustine’s work on predestination and his insights into teaching theology. While nothing can replace actually reading the primary sources for yourself, this book will give you a head-start on your Augustinian journey.