Book Review Wednesday: “Augustine” by Garry Wills

7 February 2007

I really want to give Garry Wills an epithet or suffix to his name: “the Rehabilitator.”   For many people, including yours truly, the Pauline epistles can be difficult, partly for their periodic sentences but also because of the ideas they espouse.  While there are holes in Wills’s rehabilitation of Paul, his reading of Paul’s life and work makes Paul seem palatable, even down right interesting.

As some will remember, I read Dare We Hope that “All Men Be Saved” by Hans Urs von Balthasar, and in that book, von Balthasar locates the origin of much “infernalist” thinking with Augustine.  This has this august Latin Father in a rather bad light for me, adding to my impression of Augustine as a theologian mired in his own sexual hang-ups and sin.

Enter Garry Wills, the Rehabilitator.  Wills writes, in a volume for the Penguin Lives series, abou the life of Augustine.  This is a fairly straightfoward, chronologically organized life of Augustine.  And then again, because it is Garry Wills, it is not.  For one thing, in usual Willsian fashion,  he takes one of Augustine’s great works, and the one with which more people are certainly familiar with —the Confessions— and proceeds to inform us that the Testimony  would be a better title.  The Testimony gets closer to the Latin sense of the word confessio which was not necessarily as guilt-laden in late antiquity as it is today.

In Wills’s hands, the life of Augustine is told in a dextrous, academic prose.  The text is by no means inaccessible, but Wills’s biography is marked by many of the same stylistic characteristics of his other works: muscular sentences, fastidious translation and criticism of translations, and a focus on the social ramifications of the subject.  In this latter case, Wills emphasizes that Augustine was quite conciliatory to Donatists, the main heretical group in the Africa of his time, and allowed Donatist priests and bishops to become Catholic priests and bishops, while most other Catholics looked on Donatists with disdain and condemnation.  Pretty compassionate for a sex-obssessed infernalist.

Wills convincingly makes the argument that the Augustine we thought we knew is not the Augustine of his own life and works.  Augustine, like so many great thinkers that are more often talked about than actually read (as Marilynne Robinson points out, many of the greatest thinkers of Western civilization fall into this camp: Aquinas, Calvin, Darwin, Marx, and others), is known by quotes or texts taken out of context.

By the end of the biography, Augustine stands as an old bishop, strict with himself but accepting of the flaw of others, calling the world to conversion through an acceptance of the constantly intervening grace of God.  Sounds downright Protestant, doesn’t it?

If you want a fairly quick read that will rehabilitate and reinterpret one of the great theologians of the Christian tradition, read Garry Wills’ Augustine.  As usual, Wills does not disappoint.

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2 Responses to “Book Review Wednesday: “Augustine” by Garry Wills”

  1. Tripp Says:

    This was assigned reading in seminary. Who knew? I am reading the book about Paul now. The trouble some of my congregation has been having with the Paul book is they take it as permission to toss out the cannon for simply Thessalonians. Yay? Oy. So, I am going to read it to see how they managed to construe Wills that way.


  2. The problem with Wills and Paul is that he effectively ignores any letter that is “authentically Pauline.” I think the temptation is to simply say, “Oh, well, that’s not really Paul,” to a lot of the Pauline canon.

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