Augustine: A New Biography - James J. O'Donnell I can’t recommend Augustine: A New Biography to anyone who doesn’t have a good background in early Christian theology, late Roman history and at least a passing familiarity with Augustine’s more popular works – particularly The Confessions and The City of God. If, however, you can meet those criteria then O’Donnell’s book should be required reading. The author deconstructs the image of Augustine that has come down to us without denigrating the real, glimpsed through the prisms of his books, letters and sermons. This man can be vain, petty, and overly contentious, and he certainly had little sense of humor, but he was also a conscientious shepherd for his flock. Admittedly, he wasn’t a very good administrator and tended to ignore the more mundane functions of his see until corruption and scandal blew up in his face but that wasn’t because he didn’t care about the congregants.

And there can be no denying that he was and remains one of the “giants” of intellectual history. No one would have predicted it at Augustine’s death in AD 430, but his theology came to define Western Christianity and all of his successors either built upon his work or had to form their theologies in response to it. Augustine was in the fortunate position of being the only Latin writer and brain of any ability of his era. He also had the advantage of not being very familiar with Greek learning (in The Confessions, the bishop recounts how little Greek he retained from his days as a student) and no exposure at all to the OT scriptures in their original Hebrew. Thus, his brilliance was largely unencumbered and innovative (though he would have been loath to admit it).

For better or for worse (depending upon your philosophical leanings), Augustine’s brilliant mind was a terribly pessimistic one that often skirted the edges of Manichaean heresy (as opponents were all too eager to point out), and which often found itself backed into paradoxical corners by the logic of its positions. A case in point is the origin of the soul. Augustine considered four possibilities (p. 299):

1. God creates souls as each human being is born (or conceived).

2. God has created each soul in eternity and dispatches it to a body as it is created.

3. God has created each soul in eternity but they choose to fall into mortal bodies (the initial act of rebellion).

4. God has created a single soul of which “slices”inhabit each mortal body.

None of these scenarios are without problems, and it’s a measure of Augustine’s intellectual dexterity that he managed to never adequately answer the dilemma and that support for the last two positions can be gleaned from selective readings of his work.

O’Donnell describes two principles that emerge from Augustine’s ruminations (pp. 301-302):

1. God is all powerful, man is weak. The temptation of sin can theoretically be resisted but, in practice, almost never is. Salvation is a divine dispensation, and not human in origin.

2. The apparent salvation of the blessed “is not decisive.” No human can be sure that they are truly saved.

As the author pithily puts it, “ wrestles with Paul’s pessimism and is decisively beaten by it” (p. 301).

What, in the end, did Augustine do? O’Donnell suggests several things. First, Augustine was instrumental in making books the source of “wisdom.” This unique Western/Islamic conceit has only recently been challenged by changing technologies that have made books less central to intellectual development. (This is a thesis that is not fully developed in this book but it is intriguing.)

Second, the bishop’s idea of God – a mixture of biblical and Platonic traditions – is with us still in all of the great monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity & Islam): “He may have died a hundred or more years ago, but he is with us still, the undead deity for whom the zealots of many cultures compete” (p. 329).

Third, God keeps his distance from mundane politics. A view of God’s intervention in the world that will eventually give us the doctrine of church-state seperation, and no end of conflict between the secular and ecclesiastic powers of Western Europe.

Fourth, religion is a “serious” endeavor, concerned with matters spiritual and sublime. Not the often sordid concerns of the here and now. Augustine would have been shocked at the tendency (at least in American churches) toward song and dance as part of a service – “Religion is solemn and serious business, arising out of the deep inner experience of some, a deep inner experience….” (p. 329).

Fifth, set up the framework for Western Christianity’s struggle between its belief in freedom and the limits of that freedom (the illusion of self-control & predestination).

Sixth, and last, “sex.” Not the act, of course, but the somewhat neurotic relationship Western civilization (including Islam) has with it. This is another thread of Augustinian thought that O’Donnell doesn’t spend much time with and points up what readers might find a serious flaw (or, at least, drawback) to the book and that is it doesn’t spend much time with Augustine’s works as such but rather attempts to situate the man and his words in the context of 5th century Roman Africa.

At this, O’Donnell succeeds brilliantly, arguing, for example, that Augustine’s life can be seen as an attempt to enter the rarified heights of the imperial elite and failing. He even goes so far as to argue that much of the bishop’s animus toward Pelagius stemmed from the latter’s success in a similar endeavor. O’Donnell also shows how Donatism was by far the majority “flavor” of Christianity in Africa. It failed not on the merits of doctrine but because the Donatist church backed the wrong player in the internecine civil wars afflicting the empire, and the Western court came down like a ton of bricks on the (now) heretical clergy. (The author even goes so far as to suggest that the Roman church’s victory was pyrrhic in that the resentment and ill will it engendered made the later Muslim conquests all the easier.)

Not a “definitive” biography and not for the general reader, Augustine: A New Biography is still a good read for the properly prepared, even if you can’t always whole-heartedly agree with its arguments.