[K:JNWTS 20/2 (Sep 2005) 62-66]

Book Review

Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 307 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-521-65985-X. $22.99.

The "Cambridge Companion to" series is providing useful overviews of the thought of major Christian thinkers in the history of the church (as well as many other philosophers and literary persons). This volume on Augustine features a series of essays on the North African father in an attempt to articulate his thought to a 21st century audience. James J. O'Donnell leads the way with a biographical sketch (8-25) on our subject which concludes that Augustine "invents . . . a textual self" (20), especially in the Confessions. O'Donnell then attempts to break down that "narrative" with a Freudian analysis of the Bishop of Hippo Regius. If O'Donnell finds Augustine "self-serving" (16), why may we not say the same of O'Donnell himself, i.e., Augustine is merely an excuse for O'Donnell to serve his own rather arrogant agenda. In other words, if Augustine was his own self-serving invention, then there are a myriad of ways of reading his "narrative" and O'Donnell's should be taken no more seriously than any other. O'Donnell, the contriver, fashions a contrived, manipulative Augustine (10)! Not very impressive, scholarly or accurate, in this reviewer's opinion. O'Donnell comes off knowing more about Augustine than Augustine knows about himself. This is academic smartaleckiness, not scholarship.1 Skip it!

We find a very different tone in John Rist's piece on "Faith and Reason" in Augustine (26-39). "Augustine normally holds that in this life we can know a certain amount about God by reason alone, but not enough for happiness and salvation" (26). Students of the Westminster Standards will recognize a kindred spirit in this view of Augustine and chapter one of the Confession of Faith.

The article on evil and original sin (40-48) repeats the standard litany of Augustine's struggles on these points. It was the emptiness of Manichaeism that precipitated this issue: evil is mere privation (i.e., the absence of good); original sin arises from the Devil's own iniquity or superbia ("pride") which Augustine explains as the "love of one's own excellence" and "a desire for perverse elevation," both of which reduce God Almighty to second place—second to Self! Tragically, an abundance of this is abroad in contemporary evangelical and Reformed circles—especially leadership circles.

James Wetzel's article on predestination (49-58) notes the massa perditionis ("damnable mass" of fallen humanity) and Augustine's "relentlessly God-driven account of human redemption" (49). One wonders what other recourse mankind could have, given the damnable nature of us all. Surely, if we are to be saved, as Augustine (following Paul) points out, God must drive the decree, the choice, the regeneration, the glorification. Useful here is Wetzel's analysis of Augustine's distinction between love and desire—something foreign to the sexually saturated culture in which we live. Sexual desire and sexual love are not synonymous—as every pornographer knows.

Augustine's view on the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture borders on dictation—the Holy Spirit writes the words of the Bible through the human author (cf. Confessions 12.14.17). But we miss comments in this essay on Augustine's salient and trenchant hermeneutical interaction with Tyconius.

Macdonald's chapter on the divine nature is nebulous and not very useful. On the other hand, Mary Clark's on the Trinity is very good (91-102). In developing and confirming Western (and some Eastern) Trinitarian thought, Augustine affirms the divine unity in trinity with circumincessio and perichoresis of the divine persons. Clark notes the non-Platonic nature of Augustine's doctrine, which should give pause to suggestions that Augustine was a Christian Platonist. The service Augustine performs is not any new, creative articulation of the Trinity; rather he provides a firm standardization of the vocabulary in the discussion: ousia (Greek) = essentia (Latin); homoousios (Greek) = consubstantialis (Latin); hypostasis (Greek) = persona (Latin). And Augustine provides an intriguing reflection on triune personality as it relates to human personality in imago Dei.

Roland Teske provides a choice quotation on "Augustine's Theory of Soul" (116-23): "If we should define a human being such that a human being is a rational substance consisting of soul and body, there is no doubt that a human body has a soul which is not the body and has a body which is not the soul" (De Trinitate 15.7.11). This should give pause to the "no distinct soul" fraternity in current Christian circles. With respect to the vexed question of the creationist or traducianist view of the origin of the soul, Teske notes Augustine's agnosticism.

Eleonore Stump provides the essay which stumps the present reviewer ("Augustine on Free Will," 124-47). She laments the failure to understand Augustine on the freedom of the will, then proceeds to prove her assertion by coercing Augustine on the will into her own version of the topic. By the end of this lengthy essay (second longest in the book), Augustine's doctrine of the bondage of the will is unrecognizable. This means that the freeing of the will by divinely sovereign grace is equally problematic for Stump. Skip this one too!

Gerald O'Daly (159-70) suggests Augustine anticipates Descartes on the impossibility of non-existence in a sentient=cognitive being. Gareth Matthews repeats this observation (269-70). That is to say, cogitatio means ergo sum for Augustine as for Descartes. O'Daly continues by observing Augustine's corollary endorsement of the law of contradiction together with "the evidence or testimony that commands assent" (164). These three prongs establish a form of foundationalism or classic synthesis of reason and faith.

Matthews's article notes the influence of Augustine's linguistic theory which dominated theology into the 17th century. Words, according to Augustine, function as signs and significations (cf. especially 191ff.). Even the Reformers talked like this.

Bonnie Kent on "Augustine's Ethics" (the longest essay in the volume) tells us Augustine believed that ethics is "the enjoyment of God" (205). Here is yet another anticipation of the Westminster Standards—cf. Shorter Catechism, Question and Answer one. The moralists of Augustine's day were the Stoics for whom virtue was its own reward. In contemporary amoral society, ethics is whatever fits the pleasure of the performer. God, let alone virtue per se, is passé. The almighty Me-principle is god!

The book concludes with two chapters on "Augustine and Medieval Philosophy" (253-66) and "Post-medieval Augustinianism" (267-79). These are useful if superficial treatments of Augustine's impact down to Wittgenstein. There is an extensive bibliography (280-96) and a brief index (297-307).

With a few exceptions, these chapters must not be read in isolation from reading Augustine himself in order to correct the bias of the authors, as well as giving the great 4th-5th century Christian a more balanced reading (especially contra Stump and Macdonald). While more expensive, the Augustine encyclopedia (Augustine Through the Ages, ed. by A.D. Fitzgerald) is more helpful, more thorough and more reliable.

James T. Dennison, Jr.


1 O'Donnell's new book on Augustine, just released by HarperCollins (Augustine: A New Biography), is more of the same. One major reviewer has called it "grossly disappointing on every single level that I can think of"—not much of a compliment to an alleged 'scholar'. In fact, O'Donnell's new ouvre is a case of deconstructionist kitsch, making Augustine out to be a neurotic whose exchanges with god (no capital "G" for O'Donnell) are idiosyncratic. Ho! Hum! More idiocy in the name of 'learning'!! Skip the book too!!!