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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 119–121 

Book Review

On Augustine

Rowan Williams. London, UK: Bloomsbury, 2016. 218 pages.

Reviewed by Gregory D. Wiebe

In On Augustine, we encounter Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, not only as a thinker in his own right but as an interpreter of one of the most profound and influential minds in the history of Christian theology. On Augustine gathers into one place Williams’s various, sometimes hard-to-access writings on St. Augustine of Hippo from throughout his career. For those already familiar with Williams’s work on Augustine, this alone makes the book valuable. As he points out, these essays do not amount to anything like a comprehensive engagement with Augustine’s works (xi). If there is a single theme unifying the collection it is not a systematic exposition of Augustine’s life or work but an adoption of that most Augustinian of tasks: understanding what is believed. Williams does what he reveals Augustine to be doing: demonstrating “that Christianity is something that can be thought with” (206).

This manifests itself in two ways. The first is by engaging with Augustinian texts or concepts to get to the heart of life in Christ and his church. For example, Williams looks to the sermons on the Psalms, where Augustine develops some of the central Christological and ecclesiological doctrines of the early church: the two natures of Christ; the unity of Christ and church as head and body into one totus Christus, one whole Christ; the implication that the church is therefore the only true society, alone capable of revealing to you your true self, and so forth. {120}

Beyond “abstract” doctrine, however, Williams successfully relates the compelling beauty of Augustine’s (traditional) treatment of the Psalms as the voice of Christ himself. “Who speaks in the Psalms? Christ as Head; and as Head, he makes his own words that would otherwise shock or puzzle, words of guilt or suffering. . . . In an utterance like ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ we can identify the speaker not simply as a guilty and suffering human subject, but as the one who freely undertakes to make all human guilt and suffering his own” (146). The psalmist’s cry out of the darkness of suffering where God seems absent turns out to be the human voice of God Himself, even when that darkness is self-imposed in sin. Throughout the Psalms we find Christ, in Augustine’s words, as “God appealing to God for mercy” (28; En. Ps. 66.5).

The second way Williams thinks with Augustinian Christianity is by appealing to Augustine for clarity on issues of broader interest. Of course, Augustine is usually already involved as the reputed source of all manner of social and theological ills: oppressive hierarchical notions of creation (ch. 4); problematic conceptions of evil (ch. 5); subversions of human society and political cohesion (chs. 6 and 11); and the corruption of Latin Trinitarian theology that contributed to enmity between West and East (ch. 10). Time and again, Augustine is called to account, and on his behalf Williams dutifully and skillfully answers. In doing so, Williams emerges as one of Augustine’s great defenders against such prominent recent challengers as Charles Taylor, Hannah Arendt, Martha Nussbaum, Werner Jeanrond, John Hick, and John Zizioulas.

Of these critics, perhaps no one has captured Williams’s attention like Arendt. His characterization of her interpretation of Augustine as “eccentric to the point of perversity” (192) is razor-sharp, but it needed saying. Eastern Orthodox critics of Augustine’s understanding of the Trinity are also vigorously addressed in Williams’s on-point reading of The Trinity. Williams sees, in a way many in Eastern traditions would do well to appreciate, Augustine’s ability to articulate not only a dynamic image of the Trinity, but also one that “succeeds, for the first time in the history of Christian doctrine, in giving some account of how and why the Spirit is intrinsic to the trinitarian life” (184).

There is much of Williams himself in his interpretations of Augustine. At one point he remarks that he has been “paraphrasing Augustine fairly freely” (160), a fair descriptor of his exegetical method more generally. And yet, the better I understand Augustine, the more I find Williams’s characterizations and turns of phrase to be perspicacious. Williams’s Augustine, in other words, has a fair bit of Williams in him. But Williams is a perceptive reader, and he helps clarify what is at stake for Augustine in ways he himself did not always make explicit. {121}

A few notes on the text: On Augustine unfortunately contains several typographical errors, particularly in the first half of the volume. Second, it provides no record of where these essays were first published, though I am not sure any appear here for the first time. Third, a sometimes awkward and idiosyncratic method of citation is used where a Latin abbreviation of Augustine’s work (e.g. trin.) appears in the body of the text, and even when it is the first word of a sentence the first letter remains lowercase (e.g., 148, 152). Finally, although Williams tends to write in a pastoral and accessible manner, a surprising amount of untranslated Latin remains for the non-academic who should rightly wish to pick up and read.

Those caveats aside, I would not hesitate to recommend this volume for anyone interested in thinking Christianity alongside the Bishop of Hippo. Williams expresses the hope that his reflections on Augustine may “prompt some beyond the community of Christian belief and belonging to read him afresh” (x). To these we should add those who count themselves Christians but have nevertheless long assumed nothing of value is to be found in the saint’s oeuvre. These essays may also then serve as an opportunity for many to discover the integrity, insight, and richness of historical Christian theology.

Gregory D. Wiebe has a PhD in Western Religious Thought from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He is currently Executive Coordinator for the Office of the Vice President Academic at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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