Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review: Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers First Series Volume 2, Augustin "City of God" and "Christian Doctrine"

So I have to begin with a confession of cheating. Not the sort of cheating that makes me go apoplectic on my students, more the sort of "cheating" where I resolve to memorize five Bible verses a day and sometimes only do two, one, or none. Basically, my goal has been to read one volume of the Church Fathers in the Schaff/Robertson set in order over every school break (i.e. two per year). Overall, this should take me about 18 years if I stay on track.



This particular summer, however, saw the birth of my first born. And rather than try to keep up with the amount of reading of a 19th century translation necessary to finish a volume in a timely manner while trying to change diapers, I decided to skip ahead to the volume containing Augustine's City of God and On Christian Doctrine. This is because I'm currently in a group reading through City of God in a year (linked below) already, as well as having read it before--and On Christian Doctrine is fairly short. Which means that instead of two months worth of reading, I have a few paragraphs a day all year and a few days of ~10 pages/day over the summer (recently finished, hence the review).

The downside of this shift is that I've broken the order--I should have been on Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5, Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novation, Appendix. (I'm particularly intrigued by the Church Father named "Appendix," who I assume either wrote short essays only loosely related to the subject, or was a physician specializing in useless body parts...) Instead, I've had to jump ahead to the volume that is most easily finished in the time available and hope that I'll be able to get back on schedule this fall. Fortunately, God is forgiving...

Anyway, on with the (short) review!

City of God:

No review here of City of God, partially because reviewing a masterpiece like this is far beyond my abilities, and partially because I'm currently blogging through it (but not "reviewing" it in any strict sense of the term) with Collin Garbarino. And you should too.
The best I can do here is quote from the introduction to this volume:
Some who have read the opening chapters of the City of God, may have considered it would be a waste of time to proceed; but no one, we are persuaded, ever regretted reading it all.  The book has its faults; but it effectually introduces us to the most influential of theologians, and the greatest popular teacher; to a genius that cannot nod for many lines together; to a reasoner whose dialectic is more formidable, more keen and sifting, than that of Socrates or Aquinas; to a saint whose ardent and genuine devotional feeling bursts up through the severest argumentation; to a man whose kindliness and wit, universal sympathies and breadth of intelligence, lend piquancy and vitality to the most abstract dissertation.
So take up and read, ya lazy bum!

On Christian Doctrine:

This "little" (for Augustine, at any rate) book covers two main subjects: how to read Scripture, and how to explain it to others.

In terms of how to read Scripture, we need to have the right tools at our disposal. Specifically, this means that we need to know 1) what Scripture is about ("things"), and 2) how Scripture teaches us ("signs"). What we find when we read Scripture correctly is that it is about the Triune God and how man is only at peace when in a proper relationship with Him. "We have wandered far from God; and if we wish to return to our Father's home, this world must be used, not enjoyed." In Scripture we find the truth about us, that we are sinners; the truth about God, that He is holy and has opened up the way of salvation for us; and the truth about salvation, that we will only ever be truly satisfied when we find our peace with God.
The "signs" Scripture uses are varied so that the maximum number of people may have access to the things, though all of them require some level of dedication if we want to understand them. Great care must be taken both to grow wisdom (Augustine provides a seven-step path, including 1) fear; 2) piety; 3) knowledge; 4) resolution; 5) counsel; 6) purity; 7) wisdom), and avoid false interpretations. In general, Augustine seems to say that we should go with whatever method best helps us to rightly understand Scripture, even if we have to steal our method from non-Christians.

In terms of how to explain it to others, we are to use rhetoric, but not rely on it. That is, we are to make Scripture clear, attractive, and practical, without falling into the trap of mere sophistry. We should always ultimately rely on the substance of the Bible rather than our own rhetorical ability, but we should also develop our rhetorical ability so any defects in our speaking don't get in the way of the substance we're trying to convey.

Overall, this is an excellent little piece and well worth the short time it takes to read.

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