Augustine and Tradition: Influences, Contexts, Legacy: Essays in Honor of J. Patout Burns

Written by David G. Hunter and Jonathan P. Yates, eds Reviewed By David Haines

This collaborative work, exploring primarily the relationship of Augustine to the Christian and Pagan tradition that he would have known and studied, comes highly recommended by specialists in Augustine studies and even received the first-place book award in Theology from the Catholic Media Association. It lives up to the hype. This book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to study Augustine in any depth. The editors, Hunter and Yates, selected 15 excellent essays placed into 4 main sections: (1) Augustine and the North African Tradition, (2) Augustine and the Philosophical and Literary Tradition, (3) Augustine and the Greek Patristic Tradition, and (4) Augustine and His Latin Contemporaries/Successors. The book also contains an extensive and helpful bibliography, and indexes of authors, subjects, and both scriptural and ancient sources used. All these features make this book a helpful tool for the student of Augustine. In what follows, I provide an overview of each section, along with some evaluation. The book opens with a short biography of J. Patout Burns, for whom this book was written, who is a specialist in Augustinian and North African theology.

In the first section, looking at Augustine’s interaction with North African Christianity, we find chapters that discuss Augustine’s reading of Genesis, his interaction with the tradition of liturgical readings in North Africa, his approach to Tertullian, his use of North African martyrology, and his interaction with Optatus of Milevis. The second section, devoted to Augustine’s use of the philosophers and poets of the Greco-Roman world, includes essays considering his interaction with the Platonists in general, Porphyry in particular, Classical ethics, and classical Latin literature. There are two studies in the third section, which address Augustine’s interaction Origen and his use of the Cappadocians. In the fourth and final section, we find essays on Augustine’s engagement with his contemporaries Marius Victorinus, Ambrose, and Ambrosiaster, and a study of the use of Augustine in the 9th century debate on Predestination.

When studying authors of the past, or from entirely different cultures, we often have trouble fully understanding them because we are unaware of key influences in their lives, whether they be church practices of the time, cultural or social norms, or lesser-known scholars who have influenced them in various ways. This book does an excellent job of awakening the reader to this reality in relationship to Augustine. We are reminded about just how much our approaches to doctrinal issues can be shaped by circumstances and people in our lives. This is not to suggest that Augustine’s doctrine is situationally or culturally relative, but that the way in which he emphasizes certain truths, in certain circumstances, often has to do with the situations he finds himself in, whether it be refuting a heretic or preaching a homily. This book reminds us that we are in a living tradition in which important truths must be defended and articulated in the face of new challenges.

In light of current discussions within Protestant circles concerning Christian Platonism, John Peter Kenney’s article on the subject will be of particular interest. He shows how deep and important the influence of Neo-Platonist thought was on Augustine’s spiritual trajectory, while also arguing that Augustine rejected many of the fundamental claims of the Neo-Platonists—notably, that it is possible to ascend to the contemplation of the divine without Christ. Therefore, Kenney argues that it is best not to call Augustine a Christian Platonist. Kenney is certainly right that Augustine rejected many of the key teachings of Platonism. However, due to his use of the central metaphysical, epistemological, and moral teachings of Platonism in his articulation and defense of Christian doctrine, it still seems appropriate to refer to him as a Platonist. Also, of interest on this issue are the articles by James Wetzel and Dennis Trout. Wetzel argues that Augustine so challenged classical ethics that he can be thought of as bringing it to an end. Trout discusses Augustine’s general interaction and appreciation of classical literature. These articles, together, help to temper our understanding of Augustine’s interaction with classical thought in general, teaching us to be critical readers of pagan writings, recovering the gold and rejecting the pyrite.

In conclusion, this book presents us with a veritable feast for anyone interested in the exercise of Christian theology, in the development of important doctrines, or, in the study of Augustine and Patristic theology. This book provides us with the most up-to-date research on Augustine’s engagement with the Christian and pagan tradition of his time, teaches us how to read Augustine better, and in so doing, teaches us to read tradition better. We get a better understanding of how the early church fathers engaged each other and the pagan literary and philosophical culture which surrounded them. This book teaches us to be careful about overly dogmatic statements about, for example, Augustine’s “Platonism” or his use of “classical literature.” As we see Augustine’s engagement with his predecessors and contemporaries, we learn how to better engage our own predecessors (including Augustine) and contemporaries. This book is not just an exercise in historical theology (which is important per se), it is an exercise in theology: engaging in the theological enterprise today in conversation with the great theologians of the past.

David Haines

David Haines
Bethlehem College and Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Other Articles in this Issue

Studies on Genesis 3:15 often debate whether the seed of the woman refers to an individual or a collective group...

This article presents comparative textual analyses toward a basic grammar for understanding the interface between Reformed and Confucian sociologies of knowledge...

Various interpretations have been offered on how David sinned in taking the census of 2 Samuel 24, but too few have seriously grappled with the implications of Exodus 30:11–16 or the structure of 2 Samuel 21–24...

This essay considers the concept of the eternality of human memory and what the Christian may expect to remember after death...

Christian compatibilists believe that human freedom and moral responsibility are compatible with theological determinism, i...