Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review: JECS 17:1 Augustine Accused

BeDuhn, Jason David. "Augustine Accused: Megalius, Manichaeism, and the Inception of the Confessions" in Journal of Early Christian Studies 17.1 Spring 2009, pp. 85-124.

This article, though it follows typical patterns of "bold" and "ground-breaking" scholarship, brings up some interesting ideas.  Often when we look at Christian authors we think of them as mature believers who are always at the pinnacle of their theological acuity.  We know perfectly well that Augustine was a Manichaean, that he was an unbeliever until he was an adult, and that he subsequently converted to Christianity, became a priest and then a bishop, and spent many years living in and writing from Hippo, a town in northern Africa.  I recently heard someone make a comment about the young, idealistic Augustine setting out to discover his new prospects in Rome.  It made me chuckle, since Augustine was in fact 39 years old when he went to Rome and apparently departed to Rome in order to hide from death threats issued against Manicheans.  

The content of the article is a summary of Augustine's movement from Carthage to Rome and back again, analyzing some of his possible motives, which ranged from self-preservation to career advancement, and finally to the opportunity as a new Christian to return to his native land, where he was elevated to the role of bishop, with his ordination approved by Megalius, an older bishop in Africa.

The question raised about Augustine's motives pertains to part of his ordination hearing, in which there are conflicting reports.  The report which Augustine wrote indicated that when asked about his Manichaean past he responded fairly promptly that he had a solid Christian testimony to which Megalius would attest, and that the hearing moved along in short order.  The official transcript talks about Augustine hesitating, making some statements which were fairly defensive, indicating that in fact he was a Christian regardless of what others said, and that he was going to maintain that stance.  He had been baptized and in fact was a Christian believer.  There was apparently some dispute and possible cause to question Augustine further, though it is not clear what the dispute was.

How do we view these instances of conflicting information found in the lfie of a notorious believer?  We need to realize that they, just like we, have a past.  Augustine did not believe Christ at a young age.  He was elevated to the priesthood and the bishopric rather quickly after his conversion, with maybe almost enough time to allow a modern-day believer to join a confessional church, be catechized, study the Scripture, and make it through a seminary.  Did his theology develop overnight?  Was he consistent in his understanding of Scripture throughout the rest of his adult life?  Not at all.  He had a past.  He had regrets.  He made false statements.  He had to backpedal on things.  Don't we all?  

Augustine is a patristic author well worth reading.  He shows a genuine pastoral concern for believers.  He writes clearly.  Great Latin writing which I find much more understandable than a lot of the Christian authors.  And reading this article reminded me that Augustine was a work in progress just like the rest of us.

I had previously said I would post comments about a few articles, but as I looked back that was really the only one I wanted to comment on.  Really, time to think about a different journal or other reading.

Dave Spotts
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