Augustine may well be the most gifted, and most influential, theologian the Western church has ever produced—and perhaps the most misunderstood. Garry Wills's compact 152-page portrait is an impressive corrective.
Wills is an adjunct professor (Northwestern University) and a writer of books about more recent figures like Richard Nixon and Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer). In Saint Augustine, Wills looks all the way back to 354, the year of Augustine's birth in Thagaste, North Africa. He follows Augustine's life and career until his death in 417, in the city of Hippo, not far from where he was born.
Even those of us who nurture a love for tradition have, Wills argues, a skewed understanding of Augustine and his work. Augustine was a bishop during a time when there were nearly 700 bishops in Africa alone, and so his significance rests somewhere else: in his writings. Wills says they are "staggering in quantity"—93 books and 300 letters and 400 sermons (out of an estimated 8,000 he preached) remain extant. What Augustine said of the historian Varro was even more true of Augustine himself: "Though he read so much we are amazed he found time to write, he wrote so much that few, we believe, can have read it all."
From the first page of the introduction, Wills works hard to reorient our thinking. For example, he says, "People feel … that they understand intuitively Augustine's testimony to his own sexual sins. They are convinced that Augustine was a libertine before his conversion and was so obsessed with sex after his conversion that they place many unnamed sins to his account"—that he had incestuous feelings for his mother and possibly even homosexual longings for a friend.
The truth is, as Wills takes pains to point out over a number of pages, Augustine's early sexual activity "was not shocking by any standards but those of a saint." Early in his life, he lived with and was entirely faithful to only one woman, named Una, a relationship that was sanctioned by Roman law, and with her he conceived one child, named Godsend.
When Augustine moved to Milan, and to a higher social plateau, his mother arranged an engagement to a Christian heiress, and Una and Godsend moved out. Biographers wonder at Augustine's treatment of them, as Wills does: "There is no way to excuse Augustine. … But can we say he 'dismissed' her? She presumably had some say in the matter." Still, it isn't the sex but his attempt to get Una to forsake her Catholicism, Wills argues, for which Augustine "would later reproach himself bitterly."
Another misconception has to do with the nature of Augustine's best-known book, usually called Confessions. But "Augustine was not confessing like an Al Capone, or like a pious trafficker of later confessionals." Instead, Wills prefers to translate the Latin Confessiones as The Testimony, which is not only more accurate but also a better description of what Augustine sets out to do. Rather than a recital of Augustine's profligate youth, as some have assumed, The Testimony is a declaration of Augustine's faith. As Augustine himself defines the word in his commentary on John's gospel, "This is to testify, to speak out what the heart holds true."
Wills describes Augustine as "a tireless seeker, never satisfied. Like Aeneas, the hero of his favorite poem, he sailed to ward ever-receding shores." Augustine thoroughly shopped the ancient marketplace of ideas before he ultimately embraced the Christian faith (though Wills's account of Augustine's conversion is not exactly thrilling). Augustine's first-rate mind was not only attracted by the Christian faith but remained fully engaged by it: "Impatient with all preceding formulations, even his own, he was drawn to and baffled by mystery: 'Since it is God we are speaking of, you do not understand it. If you could understand it, it would not be God.'" Augustine's intellectual wrest ling is an important story, and Wills does a good job of reminding us that faith has been, and can be, challenging to some of the best minds in human history.
After Augustine finally came to the conclusion that Christianity could answer most of his questions, he threw himself for the next 44 years into the task of teaching, preaching, and writing about his faith.
One of Augustine's most enduring contributions to theology was his defense of the Trinity. De Trinitate is arguably one of Augustine's greatest, though perhaps not most popular, works. With it the doctrine of the Trinity came to a mature and final expression in the Western church. And yet Wills has relatively little to say about it or the thinking that produced it. On the other hand, Wills has a great deal to say about Augustine's controversies involving the Donatists and Pelagius ("a quagmire in which he would thrash about for the remaining fifteen years of his life"). He also outlines Augustine's thinking in City of God, a book Wills says is not "a system" or a "fixed doctrine of church-state relations" but a "dialectical process in Augustine's thought on grace."
For those who are curious about Christians who have thought deeply about the faith, and who have shaped much of what today we would call Christian orthodoxy, Wills's Saint Augustine is a terrific and accessible place to begin.
Douglas Brouwer is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Wheaton, Illinois, and author of Remembering the Faith: What Christians Believe (Eerdmans).
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- Learn more