A Brief Review of
Augustine of Hippo: A Life.
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Twenty-eight years after its completion, Oxford University Press has finally brought Henry Chadwick’s introductory biography of Augustine to print. Chadwick was one of the most renowned twentieth century scholars of Early Church history and the author of what is probably the finest contemporary translation of Augustine’s Confessions (Oxford UP, 1991). Augustine of Hippo: A Life is a perfect companion to the Confessions, illuminating Augustine’s life in its historical and philosophical context. One of the best qualities of Chadwick’s interpretation of Augustine’s life is its emphasis on understanding Augustine in the context of the Church. In his narration of the dimensions of Augustine’s conversion, Chadwick observes:
Augustine wants to be a monk, but it must be in a community of brothers. For him solitude is a necessary periodic withdrawal, but not a normal road to truth, which is not something religious men find on their own. Because ‘God’s truth does not belong to any one man’, truth is found by a dialectic of question and answer (30).
It is this need to be in community, and thereby in conversation, that gives shape to Chadwick’s telling of Augustine’s life. Augustine is portrayed in conversation with those inside the Church, those in marginal sects (Manichees, Donatists), as well as with contemporary philosophies (especially neoplatonism) and those outside the Church. Given Augustine’s pre-conversion labors as a teacher of rhetoric and the centrality of the virtue of dialogue, it is not surprising that Chadwick frequently returns to issues related to Augustine’s use of language, among which is one of the book’s finest passages, a brief exploration of Augustine’s principles for scriptural hermeneutics (82-86).
Highly readable and thoroughly enjoyable, Chadwick’s Augustine of Hippo: A Life is marked by its clarity, economy of words and Chadwick’s narrative tone. It deserves to become the primary introductory biography of Augustine, and is well-worth reading in our churches, colleges and seminaries!