Andrew Knowles and Pachomios Penkett, Augustine and His World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004. 191 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-8308-2356-5. $14.00.
Of the making of books about Augustine, there is no end. And yet, why not? The great predecessor of Calvin and Old Princeton (yes, we are so bold as to claim him as one of our fathers in the faith, along with Athanasius, Irenaeus, Paul, John, Jesus, etc.) continues to fascinate, intrigue, evade (Arminian Semi-Pelagians still can't get him right!) and transcend the minds of churchmen and churchwomen at the dawn of the 21st century, just as he has done at, during and in the end of every century since his death in 430 A.D. Knowles and Penkett are not Gerald Bonner, Peter Brown or Henry Chadwick. But they have given us Augustine 'lite' or (less complimentarily) Augustine 'for dummies' with lots of picturesin fact, quite lovely pictures. This is a quick study of the North African master, clearly written, lavishly illustrated, reasonably priced and aware of more profound scholarship. It will serve as a ready entrée to great Ambrose's greater catechumen, a platform for more detailed penetration and (perhaps) a refresher course for those who have forgotten what they once learned about this remarkably restless soul whose rest at last laid him on the breast of Jesus, before the face of the Father, sighing with the Spirit of holiness.
We are introduced to the Roman Empire from the Punic Wars to 354 A.D., the year of Augustine's birth. Then we are rushed through the history of the Christian church in North Africa, climaxing in the Cyprianic era and the precipitation of the Donatist controversy. The later would haunt Augustine, even leave a black mark on his episcopal career when he agreed to the proscription of the obstreperous band at the Conference in Carthage (411). We do not commend the great bishop of Hippo Regius for abetting this persecution, regardless of real or imagined provocations.
We are taken on the familiar tour of our subject's life, beginning with devout Monica's tears (though she displays bizarre traits of her own, p. 30) for her unbaptized child; his licentious career in Carthage (370) where he takes a mistress/concubine, fathers a son (Adeodatus) and lives in a state of open fornication for 15 years (until 385/86). Then in 373 the enchantment with Cicero (the no-longer-extant Hortensius) and the pursuit of philosophy. He moves on to Manicheism (373-82/83) only to be disillusioned with Faustus of Mileve. Abruptly, he surrenders his career as a teacher of rhetoric in Carthage (383) and sails to Rome with his lover and son, but with never a fare thee well to his mother (who subsequently tracks him across the Mediterranean). Then to Ambrose and Milan (384) and to his divine lover through his Son and a heart reborn of the Spirit from above. He dabbles with Neoplatonism and its vacuity: "'What will this wretched man do?' . . . 'Who will deliver him from this body of death' except through your grace through Jesus Christ our Lord . . . None of this is in the Platonic books" (Confessions 7.21.27). On to Cassiciacum and the quest for a synthesis between faith and reason. Back to Milan for his baptism on Easter Sunday, April 25, 387. Down to Ostia where Monica dies and the enforced stay in Italy from Maximus's uprising. At last (388), he sails to Carthage. Then the predestined visit to Hippo (391) where he is called, ordained and made resident. There he wrote against the Manicheans (15 years, 391-406). Elevated Bishop of Hippo (399), he enters the feud with his anti-Donatist writings. Then the great nemesisPelagiusand his great defenderthe even more formidable Julian of Eclanum. The dogged controversies of the end of his life leave him with Confessions, Retractions and the magisterial City of God. With the Arian Vandal invasion across the Straits of Gibraltar (429/30), Hippo is eventually besieged, North Africa is overrun and Augustine succumbs before the denouement.
The tour is well done, but there are irritations along the way. The book is replete with petty redundancies, something an editor should have flagged and eliminated. Then there are typos (p. 37"preserve the empire at all ??[costs]"; p. 54"local games and spectaculars"do our authors actually mean 'spectacles'?). There are blunderspagan Porphyry is named the first "systematic theologian in history" (p. 71); which will surely come as a surprise to Origen and Lactantius. There are glaring contradictions. Augustine's doctrine is alleged to declare that "children are born with original sin but are hardly guilty of personal sin" (p. 99). Yet Augustine is quoted: "The feebleness of infant limbs is innocent, not infant minds. I have personally watched and studied a jealous baby" (Confessions 1.7.11). Even our authors write, "He could see that 'original sin', in the form of self-seeking and anger, was inherent in human nature from the earliest days of life" (p. 46). The writers do not appear to get the Augustinian connection between sinful nature and sinful behavior a la Jesus"Out of the heart of men proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries . . ." (Mk. 7:21). As with Jesus and Paul, Augustine understood this basic psychology of the sinner that joins outer act to inner moral state (sinful acts from sinful dispositions and natures).
There is an all-too-brief summary of Augustine's view of salvation and grace (pp. 166-67). As these realities dominate the great Doctor Ecclesiae, in fact form the very center of his by-Christ transformed being/heart, one wonders why these truths are not the Archimedean point around which our authors's analysis of Augustine's thought revolves. Salvation and grace are certainly the point around which Augustine's faith revolveseven as they are for all elect children of Christ Jesus' saving grace.
Our authors are far too cavalier about Augustine's sordid youthsomething Augustine would not do, as even a cursory reading of the Confessions reveals. We are told that in sowing his wild oats, young Augustine "would not be the first" (does that excuse it?), that "he was not the only teenager" (surely a rationalization to which Augustine never resorts). No, Augustine was a man of contrition, compunction, conversion. He would be horrified at these implied excuses for his teenage and adolescent hatred of God, his holiness, his sweet and wonderful grace. If we are permitted a Freudian (who appears in these pages, p. 160) reflection, perhaps our authors are providing their own biographies in exonerating the "wild" young Augustine.
But the most disturbing aspect of this volume is the undercurrent that Augustine remains a Manichean or a Neoplatonic Plotinian, not primarily a biblical theologian. As Augustine lay dying of fever in Hippo (August 430) with the Vandals at the gates, our authors write, "In the face of such a demolition, he drew deeply from the dispassionate perspective of Plotinus" (p. 157). Now the reader must allow this statement to sink in. At the end of his life, the man who writes the City of God in order to direct the Christian's eye of faith (his own eye of faith) to heaven's everlasting dwelling place is consoled by pagan philosophy. Again, with death at the door, this one who yearns for the God who yearned for him allegedly has recourse to Plotinus. This is nonsense; it is, in fact, irresponsible nonsense. And for this reason alone, not to mention the blemishes above, the book is flawed. Henry Chadwick's short life of Augustine (2001) remains superior, but alas with fewer pictures.
James T. Dennison, Jr.