Augustine for the 21st Century (5): What Can We Learn from Augustine as a Pastor-Theologian?

Pastor Augustine was not a perfect man, but he embodied certain virtues, disciplines, and convictions that we would do well to emulate. Sixteen hundred years after he lived and wrote he continues to teach.

Summary of Augustine’s Life. Augustine was born in Hippo (modern-day Algeria) in AD 354 to a Christian mother and a pagan father. At age 18 he discovered Cicero’s writings and started his quest as a philosopher. At first, he was drawn to Manichaeanism, a dualistic philosophy which taught that the universe is a battleground between equal and opposing forces of good and evil. Next, he became a skeptic and later a Plotinian neo-Platonist. At age 32, he converted to the Christian faith. From this time onward, he was a tireless proponent of the gospel, laboring as a pastor, theologian, apologist, and philosopher. For the purposes of this blogpost, I will focus on what we can learn from three aspects of Augustine’s life-Augustine as public theologian, pastoral theologian, and pretty smart J theologian.”

Augustine as public theologian. Recently, I read Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual, which provides a good jumping off point for our discussion of Augustine as a public intellectual. In the book, Said argues that intellectuals are essentially outliers and disturbers of the status quo who call into question existing paradigms even at the risk of ostracism and exile. “The intellectual,” writes Said, “is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted….” The public intellectual, however, is never to use divine revelation. “In the secular world….the intellectual has only secular means to work with; revelation and inspiration, while perfectly feasible as modes for understanding in private life, are disasters and even barbaric when put to use by theoretically minded men and women.

Said’s argument raises a perennial question for public theologians (a better term, perhaps, than “Christian intellectuals”). Should we speak with the thick discourse of Christian particularity, relying on Scripture to make our arguments, at the risk of being dismissed or misunderstood? Or do we speak the thin discourse of translation, using language that is less specifically Christian, at the risk of losing some of the distinctiveness of the particular point we are trying to make? It is here that Augustine tutors us in being public theologians. On my interpretation of his writings, he adapted his strategy depending on where, to whom, and on what he was discoursing. On the one hand, he was not averse to thin discourse as he made powerful, refined, and nuanced philosophical arguments. It is for this reason that Anthony Kenny calls him the “last flowering of classical philosophy.” On the other hand, in City of God and other writings he employed powerfully thick discourse as he spoke directly from the Scriptures. For the public theologian, the thickness of our discourse is a matter of discernment.

Augustine as pastoral theologian. Augustine was consecrated Bishop of Hippo at age 41. He had been appointed professor of rhetoric in Milan at age 30 but upon becoming a pastor he never looked back. He wrote a total of 93 books, as well as numerous letters and sermons totaling more than 5 million words. One of the great distinctives of his books, letters and sermons is their pastoral nature. In his later years, his works were almost exclusively biblical exegesis, theological argumentation, and apologetics. Even his most academic treatises were written for the church, in the sense that they were written for God’s glory and for the health of his people. Like Calvin, Pascal, Lewis, and others after him, he had the unique ability to write top-tier theology in a style that evokes passion and mediates his love for Christ and the church.

Augustine as pretty smart theologian. I am amazed every time I sit back and think that the author of The City of God and The Confessions was a pastor. He was arguably the most erudite scholar in the Roman empire and he was a parson! Now, please allow me to make myself clear: Intellectual prowess and scholarly erudition are not qualifications for being a pastor and theologian. Theology is at heart a spiritual task. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Ps. 111:10). Theology is done primarily for the glory of God and the good of his church. That is why the qualifications for teachers (1 Tim 3:1-7, Tit 1:5-9) are primarily spiritual, not intellectual. Paul does mention the ability to teach (which implies analytical and communicative ability) but most of the qualifications he gives are ethical in nature. In order to be a good theologian, one must be godly. In order to see clearly, one must walk closely. That is why there are many simple believers who know God better than many learned theologians. Theology and godly living enforce one another.

With that said, however, the Creator chose to make us in his image and likeness, with part of that likeness being our rational and creative capacities. Every one of us who bear God’s image have the unique and special responsibility to exercise our capacities to the maximum for God’s glory. Because Augustine had exercised his God-given capacities to their utmost, he was a more adaptable tool in the hands of the Lord. He was able to proclaim and defend the gospel inside the four walls of his church and outside in the public square. He was able to influence both the man on the street and the scholarly elite. He was in a position to speak not only about the gospel in relation to his parishioner’s devotional lives, but also about the gospel’s implications for the arts and sciences. The lesson to be learned: May we exercise our capacities to the utmost for the glory of God and the good of the church and the world.

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