There are few theologians in church history as important as St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), and there have been few historians in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as capable of illuminating the life and theology of Augustine as Henry Chadwick. This review focuses on two recent books, the first by Chadwick and the second by Augustine himself.
Henry Chadwick (1920–2008) left behind a significant collection of writings on Augustine. He taught at Oxford and Cambridge and is perhaps most famous for his translation of Confessions (Oxford World Classics), which is, as Peter Brown says in the foreword, of “rare beauty and precision,” leading us “gently but firmly away from the popular image of an Augustine wrapped in sin and sex and brings us instead the joy and crackle of an intellectual of the fourth century AD” (p. vii). Chadwick was “a riveting intellectual narrator,” and Augustine of Hippo: A Life is the last work he wrote, discovered among his papers posthumously. Originally written in 1981 for the Past Masters series of Oxford University Press, the book was soon replaced in 1986 by Chadwick’s Augustine: A Very Short Introduction, a work very different in character and length. What we now have in Augustine of Hippo: A Life is a longer biography which, as Brown says, “enables us to savour to the full (as those shorter texts do not) the artistry of Chadwick” (p. viii). Such artistry is apparent when Chadwick paints a picture of Augustine as a pastor, a role other works neglect. Becoming a bishop, argues Chadwick, actually changed Augustine in a radical way.
The experience of doing the work of a bishop made far deeper and more obvious changes in Augustine’s character than even his conversion at Milan ten years before. He rapidly shed the tone of a dilettante eclectic picking out what he liked in Christianity and in Platonism. Shouldering the initially highly unwelcome responsibilities turned him into a great man such as he would never have become had he remained a professor of rhetoric. All the masterpieces on which later centuries looked back were without exception written during his busy life as bishop, not while he was a leisured young ‘don’. Until his ordination as presbyter in 391, his ideal had been that of a Platonic elite within the Church, preserving contemplative detachment far from getting and spending, the seat and toil of the peasants on the vast African estates, or matrimonial squabbles and petty ambitions. (p. 76)
Here we see Augustine prefigure John Calvin in the sixteenth century, who also reluctantly took the pastorate at the plea of others. Nevertheless, in God’s providence, Augustine (and Calvin) were taken down from the high tower of intellectual detachment to serve the church. History again and again shows us that it is in the mundane of common ecclesiastical duties that God often crafts the pastor-theologian, even preparing him for theological debate, as was the case with Augustine.
Chadwick again brings out the pastoral role of Augustine when he notes that in his sermons he spoke the vernacular of the people.
In his own preaching Augustine does not speak the demotic Latin of the streets, but is careful to avoid long sermons with complex sentences. Nothing is said indirectly or ironically, or to entertain. His eyes are not on his script or notes if any, but on his hearer’s faces, and he is ready to stop or to shift the direction of his discourse immediately if he is losing their attention. (p. 88)
Like the God he served, Augustine sought to accommodate himself, always with the sanctification of God’s people in mind.
Despite its strengths, there are serious and surprising weaknesses to Chadwick’s work, particularly in his chapter “Freedom and Grace,” where his attention is drawn to the Pelagian controversy. Several of these weaknesses must be examined. First, Chadwick writes of Pelagius, “No other writer of Christian antiquity speaks so incisively of ‘faith alone’” (p. 146). Here Chadwick is simply in error, overlooking not only numerous theologians in “Christian antiquity” who far surpass Pelagius on the doctrine of sola fide but also overlooking the entire Pelagian fabric which distorts sola fide altogether. Chadwick would have been better assisted if he had paid closer attention to Benjamin B. Warfield when he wrote,
The struggle with Pelagianism was thus in reality a struggle for the very foundations of Christianity; and even more dangerously than in the previous theological and Christological controversies, here the practical substance of Christianity was in jeopardy. The real question at issue was whether there was any need for Christianity at all; whether by his own power man might not attain eternal felicity; whether the function of Christianity was to save, or only to render an eternity of happiness more easily attainable by man. (Studies in Tertullian and Augustine [The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield 4; New York: Oxford University Press, 1932], 291)
There is no getting around the fact that for Pelagius, man, by his own power, is able to merit eternal life as he inherits no corrupt nature from Adam. Nothing could be more in conflict with sola fide than this.
Second, to his credit, Chadwick does go on to highlight the emphasis Pelagius placed on free will as “unassisted in its decision to accept help,” but even here Chadwick says it is a free will that is initiated by grace (p. 147). Chadwick fails to recognize that what Pelagius means by “grace” is, as Augustine would argue, not grace at all! Grace, for Pelagius, is a mere external illuminatio or revelation (enlightenment) of (a) the law of God (i.e., an acquired knowledge of the law), (b) creation, and© the example of Christ. As Gerald Bonner observes, such “a definition of Grace is clearly not what the New Testament understands by the word, as Augustine was not slow to point out” (St. Augustine of Hippo [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963], 362).
Third, perhaps just as astonishing is Chadwick’s statement that Augustine did not support the doctrine of total depravity (p. 154). Historians and theologians alike will find such a claim astounding given the numerous places where Augustine clearly does argue that corruption from Adam has infiltrated into every aspect of man’s being. When Adam sinned, he brought all of his progeny from a status integritatis (state of integrity) to a status corruptionis (state of sin). Besides inheriting originalis reatus (original guilt), Adam’s progeny inherited a corrupt and depraved nature, leading Augustine to say with Paul in Rom 3:11, “There is none who seeks after God” (cf. Nature and Grace, 21; The Punishment and Forgiveness of Sins, 1.10; Marriage and Desire, 2.47). Augustine, reading Paul, argues that the corruption inherited from Adam is pervasive in nature, meaning that every aspect of man (will, mind, affections, etc.) is infected by sin so that no part of man escapes sin’s pollution. Chadwick seems to ignore a multitude of passages where Augustine affirms total depravity just as strongly as Calvin did in the sixteenth century. Such a weakness shows Chadwick’s tendency to neglect Augustine’s strong Pauline thrust in his writings on sin, grace, and free will.
Though there are cautionary problems that must be avoided and corrected, overall, Chadwick’s work is a helpful introduction to Augustine. However, the work is still a short one given the massive figure it seeks to portray. Consequently, while Chadwick’s piece is fitting for the novice, Peter Brown’s classic biography remains superior for those wanting to go deeper into the life and thought of Augustine (Augustine of Hippo: A Biography [rev. ed.; Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000]).
A second work that demands our attention is the release by New City Press of Augustine’s Responses to Miscellaneous Questions. Responses contains within it three works: (1) Miscellany of Eighty-Three Questions (De diversis quastionibus octoginta tribus), (2) Miscellany of Questions in Response to Simplician (Ad Simplicianum de diversis quaestionibus), and (3) Eight Questions of Dulcitius (De octo Dulcitii quaestionibus). These three works are relatively unknown outside of academic circles. As important as each of these pieces are, it is Augustine’s answer to the questions of Simplician that may be the most important since, as Raymond Canning explains, in this document there “seems to have been a major change in Augustine’s thinking about the role of divine grace in human activity, which is arguably the arena in which he made his greatest theological contribution and helped to shape the western mind until the present day” (p. 11). In Simplician’s first question, Augustine advocates a position he later rejects when he answers Simplician’s second question. In the first question, he argues for what would become known as a Semi-Pelagian view of grace (as seen in John Cassian), where “willing itself is in our power” (pp. I:1, 11). By our own free will and initiative we can fulfill righteousness, and God will respond to it with grace. However, in his answer to the second question, Augustine actually argues for the exact opposite, denying that salvation is dependent upon human free will at all. Building off of Rom 9:10–29, Augustine argues that God’s electing choice is unconditional and that it is not man’s will that initiates grace but rather it is divine grace that must redeem man’s will. Augustine then turns to Matt 20:16 to argue for an effectual call that is only for the elect. Not all are visited by grace but only those who have been chosen. And yet there is no injustice with God in efficaciously calling some while leaving others since those not chosen are given what they do indeed deserve while those who are chosen are given what they do not deserve, namely, grace (pp. I:2,17). In other words, with those not chosen God exercises his justice while with those chosen God exercises his grace.
Furthermore, in Revision II:1, Augustine explains how at a later date he came to see how much his answer to the second question contradicted his answer to the first. He explains his change of view when he says,
In answering this question [on Rom 9:10] I in fact strove on behalf of the free choice of the human will, but God’s grace conquered, and otherwise I would have been unable to arrive at understanding what the Apostle said with the most evident truthfulness, For who sets you apart? What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received, why do you boast as though you had not received? (1 Cor 4:7). The martyr Cyprian also, wishing to demonstrate this, summed it all up with this very title when he said, “no one must boast of anything since nothing is ours.”
Canning asks the question, “For why, after having said what he did in the second, did he not immediately return to the first and revise it from the perspective of his new insight?” (p. 163). Perhaps we will never know the answer to such a question but nonetheless Augustine did correct himself, even if it was at a later date, thereby earning the title “Doctor of Grace.” What Augustine exemplifies in Revision II is a willingness to stand corrected by the Word of God, even revising his previous publications, should he be in error, a biblical trait often not practiced well today.
To conclude, both popular and academic interest in Augustine is bound to continue into the twenty-first century, as evident in the newly discovered sermons by François Dolbeau in Mainz and letters by Johannes Divjak in Marseilles. It is not an overstatement to say that perhaps no person in church history has been written on more than Augustine. Therefore, we will do well to pay heed to Nicholas R. Needham when he reminds us that down through the centuries, “a huge and mighty host of Western Europe’s most godly people and most influential Church leaders have sat at Augustine’s feet, and found rich food for their minds and hearts in the African’s masterly expositions of God’s way of salvation in Jesus Christ” (The Triumph of Grace [London: Grace Publications Trust, 2000], 11).