Augustine was the greatest of the Latin-speaking fathers of the early church, and Henry Chadwick was arguably the greatest church historian our country produced in the 20th century. After his recent death, a manuscript book on the life of Augustine was found among Chadwick’s unpublished papers. It has now been published and the result is before us.
The book is part biography, part exposition of Augustine’s beliefs. Those who know Augustine will probably not find much new here. But what they will find, as Peter Brown says in his introduction, is ‘a book about Augustine that has the tang of life’.
Chadwick succeeds admirably in making Augustine live, in all the unique colours and sounds of the late 4th and early 5th century church and Roman empire; and the proverb is vindicated –– ‘the past is another country’.
Most readers will find themselves in a strange new world, recognising little of modern church life in Augustine’s time, and even less of modern culture. Chadwick’s genius lies in taking us into this world, and helping us feel, if not quite at home there, at least capable of understanding it and even discovering its enchantments.
Many readers will be interested in the nature and development of Augustine’s theological beliefs, and here Chadwick is a safe and stimulating guide. He almost always acts as a fair expositor of Augustine. Little of Chadwick’s own theology intrudes (he was of broad evangelical sympathies wedded to a strong ecumenism).
He is expert at setting Augustine’s beliefs in the context of his own day, especially the philosophies that shaped the man’s mind. There are few finer introductions than Chadwick’s to the Neo-Platonism that so deeply influenced Augustine and other fathers of the early church. (Augustine said he learned the Trinity from Neo-Platonism; what the church taught him was that the second person of that Trinity had become flesh).
Chadwick’s purpose in giving us the whole Augustine means that relatively little space is given to Augustine’s doctrine of grace. However, the positive side of Chadwick’s holistic approach is that we get to see Augustine on the nature of doctrine, the status of language in articulating truth, the Trinity, the church, Christianity and culture, and many other wonderfully thought-provoking matters.
The sheer depth and breadth of Augustine’s mind will make us feel like pygmies. Verdict: an intellectually demanding read, but all the better for it. Brace yourself, and meet Augustine!