Friday, August 23, 2013

Review of Matthew Levering's "The Theology of Augustine"

Augustine is undoubtedly the most prolific and influential writer in the history of the Western church. He is one theologian who Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Calvinists alike cite as a primary influence on their varied theological traditions. Because of this fact, treatments of Augustine since the Reformation have often taken on a polemical tone, trying to place him into whatever theological framework one holds to. In this way, Augustine's ecumenical appeal has been both his greatest asset and the greatest hindrance to an honest investigation of his writings.

Levering's work does not engage in theological polemics. Though himself a Roman Catholic, he does not try to fit Augustine into any particular theological mold but engages Augustine as an independent theologian in his own right. Treatments of Augustine have often suffered from two primary deficiencies: either they try to explain too much in a single volume becoming rather garbled and inaccessible, or they paint him as a one sided theologian, centering on a single aspect of his thought. For the Calvinist writer, he has been viewed as the ultimate predestinarian; for the Roman Catholic the defender of the Roman Church against the schismatic Donatists; and for the Lutheran tradition, an early voice for justification by faith. Levering avoids these extremes by centering his work on seven distinct works of Augustine. Rather than trying to encapsulate everything taught by Augustine (which is impossible for a work this size) or centering on works that deal with the same topic, this approach allows Levering to be both balanced and comprehensive in his interpretation.

The seven works which Levering focuses on are: On Christian Doctrine, Answer to Faustus a Manichean, Homilies on First John, On the Predestination of the Saints, the Confessions, the City of God, and On the Trinity. With On Christian Doctrine, Levering demonstrates Augustine exegetical method which involves the confession of the historical reality behind the Biblical narrative, as well as the typological and allegorical nature of the Biblical texts. This allows Augustine to remain historically grounded while affirming the unchanging truths of the Christian faith. Augustine's response to Faustus is an extremely helpful work to include in this volume because it succinctly shows both how Augustine responded to his Manichean past, and how he, as a catholic Christian, approached Old Testament revelation. Augustine's commentary on 1 John may seem like something of a random selection in this work, as it isn't a primary work discussed  in contemporary theological dialogue, but Levering has an important reason for including it in this work. If there is any unifying theme in Augustine's theology it certainly isn't predestination or justification by faith, but love. Levering uses this work to demonstrate the complexity and predominance of love as the essence of the Christian life. This includes love toward God and creation in a rightly ordered fashion, and Augustine is even willing to employ the principle of love as a hermeneutic. The final smaller work Levering deals with in this book is On the Predestination of the Saints. If I were to write this book, I would have likely chosen another work like On the Spirit and the Letter, which focuses on the priority of divine grace against the Pelagians rather than predestination per say, but that may be due to my own theological biases. Levering treats this work honestly, demonstrating that Augustine is concerned with the providence of God over human salvation while denying that God is active in predestining evil actions.

The final three chapters in the book are the most beneficial, as they overview Augustine's three theological masterpieces: The Confessions, The City of God, and On the Trinity. The final two works are quite a challenge to get through due to their length and the seeming tangential nature of many of his arguments. Levering offers a helpful overview of the arguments and content of these books. This allows new readers of Augustine to read through these works with the overall context and purpose of Augustine's writing in mind.

This book is simply the best introduction to Augustine that is available. Levering's work is extremely accessible without sacrificing theological depth. The lay reader may get somewhat lost in the final chapter on the Trinity, but that is due to the speculative nature of Augustine's work rather than Levering's writing which is extremely lucid on such a profoundly complex topic. If you are interested in reading Augustine, or you are teaching a seminary/college course on his thought, this book is highly recommended. Don't however, let this be a replacement for reading the works of Augustine themselves, which have so many treasures that no treatment of his thought could capture them all.

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