Page 15, 25th September 2009

25th September 2009
Page 15
Page 15, 25th September 2009 — The bishop who knew the glory and misery of man

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Locations: Milan


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The bishop who knew the glory and misery of man

Jonathan Wright explains why he sometimes wants to punch St Augustine on the nose

Augustine of Hippo


By common consent, Henry Chadwick was one of the finest Church historians of the 20th century. During his eminent career he guided countless readers and students through Christianity’s puzzling early period, and Augustine was often in his thoughts. Chadwick saw Augustine for what he was: an extraordinarily sophisticated philosopher, knee-deep in the musings of Plato and the competing theologies that battled for attention during the fourth and fifth centuries. Augustine was the man who became a bishop, though he would probably have preferred to have avoided high ecclesiastical office. He was the man whose faith was never easy, whose own Christian odyssey was decidedly turbulent, and who has always merited the attentions of the finest historical minds. In Henry Chadwick he found a worthy interpreter.

Chadwick did much to enrich Augustinian studies: his translation of the Confessions, as just one example, remains unsurpassed. This book serves as a fitting posthumous tribute to Chadwick, whose death in 2008 was mourned by anyone who appreciated his enviable ability to pull of the hardest trick in the historiographical book – being both passionate and even-handed.

Historians of Augustine are very fortunate. Unlike so many of the earliest Christian luminaries, he left behind a wealth of clues about his life. Historians of Augustine are also very unlucky. They are obliged to interpret such clues and sort out the truth from the self-serving literary artifice and invention. This is a tricky business but it is possible to reach at least one satisfactory conclusion: Augustine endured a curious intellectual and ethical journey and it provided him with a distinctive (one might even say skewed) vision of human nature and the Christian faith.

Augustine, the child of a pagan father and a Christian mother, was not a typical Christian acolyte. At first he found the standard, clumsy Latin translations of the Bible (full of “vulgar idiom and gross literalism”, as Chadwick puts it) risible.

Unimpressed, Augustine turned to the seemingly more sophisticated nostrums of Manichaeism. He came to rue this allegiance, of course, but his chaotic road to Christian belief is a signal reminder that very little was settled or straightforward in the Early Church.

As for Augustine’s personal life, it was a shambles. When he took up a rhetoric-teaching post in Milan in 384 his past deeds quickly became a liability. As Chadwick explains: “[N]o one at Milan was likely to arrange for Augustine to be offered a high post under the crown if his bed and board were shared by a Carthaginian concubine with a teenage son.” Egged on by his mother, the ambitious Augustine decided to wipe the slate clean and he sent his son’s mother away. The decision would always haunt him. As Chadwick puts it, Augustine knew a great deal about both “the glory and the misery of man”.

Never did a personal biographical narrative play a more important role in shaping a theologian’s world view. Augustine came to Christianity late, after an excruciating process of intellectual self-examination. He had erred in the past and was all too aware of his own frailties. This was awful for Augustine, but rather wonderful for everyone else. He dedicated the rest of his life to erecting an ethical and theological apparatus that represented an exercise in soul-searching: a curious admixture of self-justification and self-denunciation.

Above all, he worked incredibly hard: convinced that he was finally on the right track, Augustine put pen to paper at every opportunity. It is wildly anachronistic and simplistic to suggest this, but Augustine was all about catharsis: about making something durable out of the wreckage of his earlier life.

Augustine thought, talked and preached about everything: human nature, the lineaments of grace, the nature of the Church. Supposedly heretical challenges (Donatism, Pelagius) sprang up and Augustine attempted to strike them down. Old quarrels (about the Trinity, about the identity of Christ) simmered away, and Augustine added to the chaos.

Through it all, his confused, punctured self was constantly on display. Augustine scolded with abandon but, even in his grumpiest moments, he edged towards what Chadwick terms “manifest affection” for his fellow human beings. As Augustine realised, everyone was flawed. I’ll be brutally honest. I’m not a fan of many of Augustine’s conclusions but, as much as I’d sometimes like to punch the Bishop of Hippo on the nose, I’d reserve my most splenetic criticism for those who have abused his legacy.

Augustine helped to invent the notion of coercion in matters of faith but, when you look at the facts, he was much keener on civilised debate (albeit backed up by the threat of force) than extreme punishment. In this arena, as Chadwick opines, Augustine’s ideas have been “disastrously exploited” by those who came after him.

As for predestination, sex, or ecclesial authority: don’t get me started. Augustine was often selfsatisfied and intolerant but, then, who wasn’t in the fifth century? At least Augustine thought hard and deeply, and the sins of the children oughtn’t to obscure the achievements of the father.

Thank goodness we had Chadwick, level-headed and drenched in the sources, to unravel the threads of Augustine’s musings. Any sensible person hates and adores Augustine in equal measure.

Only a fool would fail to regret the passing of one of the finest interpreters of Augustine’s crazy world. The obit comes a little late, but it is heartfelt. Read Chadwick, then read him again. You will learn.

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