Book review: Augustine for Armchair Theologians

by Stephen Cooper, illustrations by Ron Hill

★★★★★

I doubt anybody needs an introduction to Saint Augustine, the 4th century Bishop of Hippo. Augustine preached for perhaps 30 years and authored over 100 titles. But if you want a quick overview of his life and spiritual growth, without getting bogged down in theological discussion, this is a friendly little book. This is my first Armchair Theologians book, and I’m impressed.

Cooper follows the lead of Augustine’s most famous work, Confessions, most of which is autobiographical, to tell the story of his life. Augustine’s other most famous work, his massive City of God, gets a brief nod in the final chapter. I found that Cooper provided a proper balance to the influences and motivations of Augustine’s life: his closeness with his mother, his relationships and later determined abstinence, his foray into Manicheism, and his resultant theology of grace. A proper perspective helps overcome the shallow perception that Augustine was wracked with guilt over what he considered a terribly sinful life. Augustine did indeed condemn his youthful actions, but they hardly ranked very high on the sin scale, and he comes across in this book as much more reasonable, merely cognizant of his shortcomings.

This is not to say his denunciation of Manicheism and acceptance of Christianity was an easy one. He quickly grasped the untruths of astrology and other competing life views, and saw Christianity as the one true way, but was unwilling. One day, before feeling any strong conviction toward Christianity and feeling unfulfilled, he picked up a Bible and it opened to this passage:

Not in revelry and drunkenness, not in chambering and shamelessness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh” –Romans 13:13–14

He needed to read no further. His past ways were put behind him, and he found the strength to overcome his sinful nature—most of which amounted to a youthful lust for women. Augustine’s reputation as one who condemned the evils of sex (that whole “original sin” thing, you know) is somewhat deserved, but to be fair he was a product of his Christian times. The connection between Christianity and a preference for the virginal or celibate life was not something he or his generation manufactured. Christian asceticism traces its origins to the practices of Jesus and Paul, who were themselves both celibates. By Augustine’s time, this strain of religiosity was in full bloom, and he strove to overcome his “slavery to lust.”

The majority of Cooper’s book, then, is of the formative years of Augustine’s journey, with little attention given to his time as Bishop of Hippo. Fun and engrossing, this is an easy book to recommend.

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