Augustine’s Preached Theology: Living as the Body of Christ. By J. Patout Burns, Jr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022. xviii + 374 pp. $45.00. Hardcover (originally published in the Spring 2023 edition of the Criswell Theological Review).
Augustine’s Preached Theology is the latest work from J. Patout Burns, emeritus professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. An eminent patristics scholar with a particular focus on the North African church fathers, Burns’ other works include Cyprian the Bishop (2001) and Christianity in Roman North Africa (2014). In Burns’ own words, “This volume has been designed as a resource for identifying and studying Augustine’s theology as it was developed in his preaching” (p. 4). Though Burns occasionally refers to Augustine’s other theological works, this survey of Augustine’s theology is built uniquely from the corpus of his surviving sermons.
Following a brief introduction about how to access Augustine’s sermons in critical editions as well as English, Burns focuses the first chapter on Augustine’s approach to interpreting Scripture. Though some space is given to Augustine’s allegorical readings, Burns especially emphasizes how Augustine read Scripture Christologically. In chapter 2, Burns discusses how Augustine preached about wealth and poverty. In his sermons, Augustine offers principles from Scripture for the wealthy, the poor, and those in between. He challenges all of them to be generous and to give alms. In chapter 3, Burns surveys Augustine’s preached thought on sin and forgiveness. He probes Augustine’s theological work against the Donatists who believed that forgiveness of sin was based on the holiness of their bishop.
In chapters 4-7, Burns explores a bit of Augustine’s sacramental theology. In chapter 4, he surveys Augustine’s theology of baptism, which was also clarified in the face of the Donatist controversy. In chapter 5, Burns presents Augustine’s eucharistic theology, including some of his preached thought from John’s Gospel, particularly the bread of life passages. In chapter 6, he discusses Augustine’s teaching on marriage. Though Augustine chose celibacy and a monastic vocation, he taught that marriage was good, but that sexual intercourse was only for the purpose of procreation. In chapter 7, Burns probes Augustine’s thought on holy orders and the work of ordained ministers, which including shepherding and overseeing the people, preaching, and administering the sacraments.
In chapter 8, Burns looks at Augustine’s understanding of Christ’s saving work. He discusses Augustine’s theology of the atonement and the extent of Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. In chapter 9, Burns maps Augustine’s theological anthropology, especially in response to the Pelagian controversy. Burns clarifies Augustine’s thought on original sin and mankind’s inherited guilt from Adam and Eve. In the final chapter, Burns surveys more Christology, particularly the unity of Christ’s divine and human nature and Christ’s union with the church.
Burn’s work has many strengths. First, it is evident that he has spent many years working through Augustine’s surviving corpus of sermons. Burns’ study offers scholars and students a starting place to explore more deeply any one of Augustine’s theological ideas that emerge from his preaching.
Second, Burns rightly situates Augustine the theologian within the life and vocation of Augustine the preacher. Indeed, Augustine’s day job for the last forty years of his life was pastoring the church at Hippo and influencing the broader church in North Africa and the Roman world. Burns shows that Augustine’s preached theology was occasional. In one sense, his theology emerged simply from the biblical texts given to him because he preached from the lectionary and followed the church year. That said, Augustine also preached contextually and, at times, used his cathedra to address theological matters facing the church—most notably Donatist and Pelagian ideas. Again, Augustine was a shepherd who cared for and protected his flock as bishop and preacher.
Third, Burns does a great job of teasing out Augustine’s doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Particularly, in responding to the Donatists who believed that the sacraments were effective because of the priest’s holiness, Augustine argues that they are effective because of the work of the Holy Spirit within the believer. Augustine’s Holy Spirit theology becomes clarified between reading and preaching Scripture in a context where there are challenges to orthodox teachings on the work of salvation.
I only have one quibble with the book. While Burns does an excellent job in chapter 2 surveying Augustine’s preached thought on wealth and poverty, apart from a few paragraphs (p. 32), Burns fails to convey that Augustine was a monk who had taken a vow of poverty and simplicity. Though Augustine’s people had jobs and money, and he did not require that they embrace monastic simplicity, Burns still seems to underemphasize this contextual reality that the bishop of Hippo was also a monk who had embraced poverty.
I am grateful to have read Burns’ latest work. I think it will serve students and scholars of Augustine, early North African and Latin Christianity, as well as those interested in homiletics and theological preaching.