St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was a North African bishop and theologian, whose many writings have shaped Western culture and Christian thought for more than 1,600 years.
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Why study Augustine?
In his best-known work, The Confessions, we find Augustine's spiritual autobiography at roughly 45 years of age. But in The Confessions, Augustine penned more than just the story of his life. In it, he engaged in a theological exploration of the providence and grace that brought him to God, and he did so in direct conversation with God.
You see, The Confessions is theology as prayer and theology in personal experience. For Augustine, as for many who came after him, theology is not simply a subject out there to be studied, but a real engagement with the God who is present and attentive to us. It is a reaching for God in concert with God, to whom Augustine says, "You have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you" (Confessions 1.1.1).
For someone who was so vehemently opposed to what he saw as heresies in his time (Manicheism, Donatism, Arianism), Augustine's writings are suffused with grace, perhaps because he so clearly recognized the grace he had received. This opposition to heresy was ultimately founded in love because Augustine believed that "Good honest morals belong to loving God and one’s neighbor, the truth of the faith to knowing God and one’s neighbor" (Teaching Christianity 3.10.14). And to love God and neighbor was to help one's neighbor know the truth. But Augustine's life and experience had taught him "that truth, wherever [we] may find it, belongs to [the] Lord" (Teaching Christianity 2.18.28). If something is true, then its source is in God, regardless of where we find it.
This fundamental belief shows itself in Augustine's view of Scripture and his beliefs about its interpretation. Augustine, along with Origen and many others, saw four levels of meaning in the Scriptures:
- The historical or literal
- The moral or tropological
- The heavenly or anagogical
- The Christological or allegorical
Because he saw different layers of meaning in Scripture, he celebrated a multiplicity of meaning in the text that would meet each individual believer where they were. He saw the Scriptures as immeasurably rich and capable of communicating "something lowly as one enters but lofty as one advances further, something veiled in mystery" (Confessions 3.5.9). In book 12 of The Confessions, Augustine wrote about debates among believers over what the human authors of Scripture meant:
Accordingly when anyone claims, “He meant what I say,” and another retorts, “No, rather what I find there,” I think that I will be answering in a more religious spirit if I say, “Why not both, if both are true? And if there is a third possibility, and a fourth, and if someone else sees an entirely different meaning in these words, why should we not think that he [the human author] was aware of all of them, since it was through him that the one God carefully tempered his sacred writings to meet the minds of many people, who would see different things in them, and all true?” (12.31.42)
This approach to Scripture is deeply humble and refuses to "arrogate truth to ourselves as private property, lest we find ourselves deprived of it" (Confessions 12.25.34). It is rooted in Augustine's hermeneutic of love, which led him to write:
So if it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them. (Teaching Christianity 1.36.40)
Perhaps in studying Augustine, the same charity and grace that suffused his writings will permeate our lives, so that the world will know that we are Christians by the way we love (John 13:35).
What resources should I use?
As with the study of any historical figure and their writings, you should always start with primary resources before moving onto secondary literature.
In 1990, New City Press, in conjunction with the Augustinian Heritage Institute, began the project known as The Works of Saint Augustine, A Translation for the 21st Century. The plan is to translate and publish all 132 works of Saint Augustine, his entire corpus, into modern English. This represents the first time in which the works of Saint Augustine will all be translated into English. The Works of Saint Augustine, A Translation for the 21st Century will be translated into 49 published books. To date, 44 books containing 93 of his works have been published by NCP.
Each of the primary resources recommended below will be from this series.
- After reading up to this point, it should come as no surprise that if you’re just getting started with Augustine’s works, I recommend you begin with The Confessions.
- Along with The Confessions, The City of God is undoubtedly St. Augustine’s most influential work. In it, Augustine's major concern is the difference between the City of God and the City of Man – one built on the love of God, the other on the love of self.
- In this article, I pointed to a few passages from Teaching Christianity, more commonly known by its Latin title De Doctrina Christiana. Here, Augustine seeks to help his readers understand scripture and share that understanding with others.
- On Genesis contains three works on the book of Genesis – On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, Unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis, and the third and longest, The Literal Meaning of Genesis.
- The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (44 vols.): In addition to grabbing individual volumes, you can also pick up the entire set in one bundle.
The Verbum store features many different translations of some of Augustine's works. Feel free to browse the store to look for a particular translation of a particular work.
- Augustine and Tradition: Influences, Contexts, Legacy (edited by David G. Hunter and Jonathan P. Yates, 2021) - An indispensable resource for those looking to understand Augustine’s place in religious and cultural heritage.
- Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald, 1999) - The definitive reference work on Augustine that scholars, from all fields of theological study, describe as "superb" and "indispensable" for students, scholars, libraries, and anyone interested in studying Augustine.
- Engaging Augustine on Romans (edited by Daniel Patte and Eugene TeSelle, 2002) - This collection examines in detail Augustine's methods of biblical interpretation.
- Mobile Ed: CH307 Augustine of Hippo: Context and Influence (Scott Harrower, 2020) - Trace Augustine’s intellectual, philosophical, and spiritual journey as you see how Augustine sought truth and wisdom in Greek philosophy, Manichaeism, and other philosophies, before eventually finding it in Christianity.
- The Many and the One: Creation as Participation in Augustine and Aquinas (Yonghua Ge, 2021) - In this book, Ge proposes that a distinctively Christian theology of participation anchored in creatio ex nihilo, developed by Augustine and brought to the fore by Aquinas, provides a more promising solution which not only secures the unity of things in God but also the goodness of creaturely plurality.
- The Theology of Augustine: An Introductory Guide to His Most Important Works (Matthew Levering, 2013) - This volume introduces Augustine’s theology through seven of his most important works.
- Wisdom From Africa: Theological Reflections on the Confessions of St. Augustine (Ronald D. Burris, 2016) - This book offers an in-depth analysis and theological reflection on the thirteen books of Augustine's Confessions.
What Verbum tools should I use?
Once you've added primary and secondary sources to your library, what do you do with them? Now that you have them, what Verbum tools can you use to mine their depths and learn from Augustine's life and writings?
Here are just a few ideas:
The Factbook is one of the most powerful features of Verbum, and it gathers everything your Library contains on Augustine in one place. With just a few clicks, you can learn more about Donatism and Manichaeism – the heresies Augustine confronted – or about The City of God.
Click here to learn more about using the Factbook.
Whether you have the massive The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century or just a few volumes, add them all to a collection from your Library. Open the Tools menu and begin entering Collections in the search bar. Open the Collections tool and enter a filter like author:Augustine or series:21st century. The first will create a collection populated with all of your resources by Augustine regardless of the translation while the second limits your collection to the NCP series.
When you group resources into a collection, Verbum can access that collection from a variety of places, including in Guides and Searches. Click here to learn more.
You can quickly and easily limit a Basic search to a particular Collection by clicking the search location (Everything in the image below), scrolling down to the Collections section, and selecting your newly created Collection of Augustine resources. Now you can search for a specific topic, phrase, biblical reference, and so much more in your collection.
Click here to learn more about searching in Verbum.
Notes & Highlights
As you read, be sure to take advantage of the Notes Tool and Highlighting Tool. Start by creating a Notebook to gather all of your discoveries in one place. I have one Notebook for all of my notes and highlights on Augustine's works, and I use tags to categorize them by topic and resource. But the Notes Tool is flexible and you can use it in whatever way suits your preferred workflow.
Step your organization up a notch by using tags in your notes. Click here to learn more.
Finally, create a reading plan to help you work your way through your chosen books. You can start a reading plan from several places in Verbum (the Library, the Docs menu, within the book itself). And you can invite others to join you in your reading! Why not start a reading plan on The Confessions and invite others in your community to join you?
You can start your reading plan from your mobile device or your desktop installation. And because your Verbum Library and settings sync across devices, your reading plan is accessible on all of your devices regardless of the one you used to create it. Click here to learn more about reading plans.