Augustine by Eugene TeSelle

Augustine by Eugene TeSelle

Every theologian and every historian of ideas must at some point wrestle with Augustine.  It would be beneficial for many others to do so as well, since Augustine remains one of the giant Christian influences of the last 2000 years.  As this book concludes, “Western doctrine is a series of footnotes, commentaries, and questions to Augustine” (page 73).  Since he has been so influential, his legacy has been keenly fought over by people from various opposing traditions of thought and practice.  Indeed, a scholar called Michael Baius (1513-1589) became infamous, and earned more than one Papal condemnation, for interpreting Augustine’s theology as if he were actually Pelagian (Pelagius being one of Augustine’s arch-enemies).

This short introduction to Augustine may not be quite as bold and subversive as Baius, but it does provide a peculiarly skewed presentation of the fourth/fifth century bishop of Hippo in North Africa.  The series is intended to help seminary students grasp the basic facts about and influence of major theologians.  It certainly does give something of an overview of some of the salient points of Augustine’s life and teaching, historically aware and theologically informed. Yet this is crudely mixed in with a rather more contemporary agenda, of a distinctively liberal flavour.  Indeed, at times, Augustine himself simply disappears from sight altogether as TeSelle reflects on modern U.S. politics or society in ultra-politically correct fashion.

The book is structured around ten brief chapters on major areas of Augustine’s life and thought, from his Platonism, his views on time and creation, predestination and free will, and Trinity and incarnation, to his understanding of church and sacraments. Each chapter is followed by “questions for reflection” which are often helpful as a way of digesting what has been read, though some of these require a greater knowledge of Augustine’s writings than is actually communicated in the chapters themselves and could lead to shallow responses.

There are quite a number of unfair “guilt by association” comments throughout the book and some bewildering lines of reasoning which may annoy readers from traditions other than the author’s.  Evangelicals come in for repeated attacks, and may be left feeling especially uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric here.  Or, alternatively, they may simply laugh as the leaps of liberal logic allow TeSelle effortlessly to link the Calvinist doctrine of predestination with the modern prosperity gospel, and Pelagius with evangelicalism and “compassionate conservatism”.  There are tinges of chronological snobbery here and there too, such as when he dismisses Augustine’s view of love by saying, “By our time we have learned that justice may be more difficult than love, for love without justice can lead to battered children and spouses and many kinds of manipulation of people ‘for their own good’” (page 50).  The impression left is that Augustine, and people who might dare to agree with him, would be entirely happy with battered children and spouses.  Later, he lambasts evangelicals (again) for their triumphalism, especially when they point out that American liberals who ordain gay and lesbian people are in a minority of world Christianity which will be overtaken by the growth of more orthodox churches in Africa, Asia, and the Far East.

Some of this may give pause for thought, but much of it is simply tendentious, superficial, and narrowly partisan.  In a typically postmodern conclusion, TeSelle even manages to argue that Augustine’s greatest legacy is not anything he wrote or anything he did but the fact that asked questions and sought the truth.

There is some useful end matter in the book (scripture index, bibliography and such like), but there are several minor errors in the text itself and at one point a work by the nineteenth century Cardinal Newman is attributed to Augustine (Introduction, footnote 2, page 83).  This is not the best way in to Augustine, though as a twenty-first century liberal meditation on the great theologian’s
legacy it could be said to be provocative and ironically amusing.

This review was published in Themelios 35.2 (July 2010). It is also online at http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/publications/35-2/book-reviews/augustine.

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