by James J. O'Donnell

From his writings it is clear how this bishop beloved by God lived his life, as far as the light of truth was granted him, in the faith, hope, and charity of the catholic church, and those who read what he has written about the things of God can profit thereby. But I think that those who could hear and see him speaking before them in the church could profit more from him, especially those who knew how he lived among men."[1] So wrote Augustine's friend and biographer, Possidius, not long after the old bishop died (28 August 430). He felt what every reader of Augustine has known, the inadequacy of trying to hear the message of this man through the written word alone. Every powerful writer is doomed in this way to outlive his own grave, and to suffer the transformations and deformations that later generations impose on one who is no longer able to protest aloud.

For fifteen and a half centuries, Augustine's words have gone on being read and misread, gone on fueling controversy and lending comfort. Whatever those words meant in his lifetime, and whatever their role in the controversies of the day, they have meant more and exercised more influence since their author's death than before. The history of Augustine's posthumous readership is a part of any attempt to grasp the character of his thought.

Augustine's own last contributions played an important role in shaping and directing posterity's judgment of him. Augustine had lived long enough to see optimistic phrases of his youth thrown up in his face by the Pelagians and their allies. He felt deeply the gaps that separated past from present and present from future. We have seen how the "historical" part of the Confessions, the painstaking archaeological investigation of his own past, was meant to put that past to rest and in so doing to clear the stage for what would follow. For Augustine, all human life is preface to a future the human imagination can scarcely grasp; so at every point, the whole past becomes preface anew and the future, whole and entire, remains.

Because Augustine continued to grasp the freshness of the future and refused to accept the finality of the past, he maintained with surprising vitality in old age not only the convictions that had fired him in the fervor of conversion, but even the tenacious power to explore their implications further. This attitude produced what deserves to be recognized as the first wrok in the history of Augustinian scholarship; it is a book called the Retractationes (in English, best perhaps as Reconsiderations).

In 427, Augustine reopened the excavation into his own past, in a way almost as remarkable as that which produced the Confessions: he set out to catalogue his own works, part of a project that was to include a complete register of his letters and sermons as well as his formal literary products. Only the first stage of the catalogue was completed in the form of the Reconsiderations we have, but it is to that work, along with an index compiled by Possidius shortly afterwards, that we owe not only our knowledge of the identity and scope of Augustine's works, but even to some extent the very survival of those works. No other ancient author came equipped with so detailed a list of his works for medieval scholars to use in searching out copies with which to supply their libraries. The works had therefore a better chance of survival.

But Augustine was not content merely to catalogue the past. He also reviewed it. For every work listed, he says something of the circumstances of composition and publication and adds something of the corrections and amendments that, in his old age, he found necessary. A fair number of these alterations treat points that had come into controversy since the rise of the Pelagian movement, but the corrections are scarcely limited to such clarifications.

The Reconsiderations offer a final open chapter in an intellectual autobiography: "The reader who reads my works in the order in which they were written may learn something of how I progressed as I wrote them."[2] The ideas and themes of Augustine's past literary works were not for him dead accomplishments of his past, but living testimonies to faith. As such they were subject to change and improvement as much as he was. The Reconsiderations retroactively turn every one of Augustine's works into a kind of preface of its own. What is important is not that the works were written at some dead time in the past, but that they continued to be read. What matters is not his achievement in writing the works, but the reader's enlightenment on encountering them. To that end, improvement, revision, clarification, and correction all had a role to play. Confession and reconsideration go hand in hand.

The old Augustine observing the young Augustine at a distance, qualifying and rephrasing but for the most part affirming: he is not a bad model for his later students to follow. Not all of his readers have been so indulgent to his faults, though to be sure not all have been so cautiously attentive to the nuances of what he said.[3]

Augustine's death did not transform his readers overnight from partisans to scholars. The debates that had begun over grace and freedom in his lifetime lingered, to divide and embarrass his followers. He was defended, vociferously--perhaps too vociverously, against the criticisms of the Gaulish monks, by Prosper of Aquitaine (d. c. 463), but he was also the thinly veiled target of an influential pamphlet, the Commonitorium of Vincent of Lérins (d. c. 450), who proclaimed that Christian doctrine consisted in what had been taught "always, everywhere, by everybody"--and hence by implication did not include novel ideas about predestination propagated by African bishops. Behind both these relatively minor figures stood the charismatic and magisterial authority of Augustine's contemporary, John Cassian, a veteran of eastern monastic discipline who had settled in Gaul and wrote two tremendously influential collections of essays on the monastic life, his Institutes and Conferences; his authority and his restraint were equally influential in keeping the controversy within remarkable bounds of toleration. Schism was avoided. Eventually the cause of Augustine's doctrine was taken up by the greatest Latin preacher of the early church after Augustine, Caesarius of Arles (d. 542), who shepherded the bishops of Gaul through an important council in Orange (in 529) at which the essence of the Augustinian doctrine was affirmed even while certain doctrines (particularly that of double predestination) were foresworn without prejudice to the argument whether or not they could be found in the pages of Augustine.[4]

Augustine's reputation for learning and authority was not materially damaged by the controversy. His generation had given the Latin church four remarkable writers--Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Cassian--and there was never any question but that the greatest of these was Augustine. For the Middle Ages, Augustinianism did not consist solely or even primarily of his doctrines of predestination (this is exactly the reverse of what must be said of the modern period); when controversy arose in these matters, his name would be invoked (and there was a particularly lively outbreak in the ninth century[5]), but his influence was sought most eagerly elsewhere. From the fifth century to the twelfth in the Latin west, the preeminent cultural institution of Christianity was the monastery. In the monasteries of this period Augustine's influence knew its most unchallenged domination. In the sixth century, the Neapolitan monk Eugippius (d. c. 535) put together a huge anthology of excerpts from the writings of Augustine, for those who could not find time for reading all of him.[6] Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) is in many ways the most Augustinian of theologians, and at the same time the most original of his early disciples: his thirty-five books of commentary on the book of Job (his Moralia) are Augustinian in method and style, with few disagreements on points of doctrine but some rather different emphases at the same time.[7] Isidore of Seville (d. 636) made him an authority in Visigothic Spain,[8] and the immensely learned Bede (d. 735), perhaps Augustine's greatest pupil, distinguished the Anglo-Saxon church with a long series of commentaries on scripture.[9]

The reforms of Charlemagne (d. 814) in matters of education and church government expanded the influence of all the great church fathers by improving the facilities for copying and disseminating manuscripts, and by raising the level of teaching in the monastic schools, but did little more for Augustine particularly than continue what had been now a centuries-long tradition. It remained for the schoolmen of the first universities--particularly that of Paris--in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to find new ways of exploiting the rich vein of Augustine's teaching. In their works we see the beginning of the process of continuous transformation, and even deformation, that has been Augustine's fate since. The monks had not after all been very far from Augustine in the underlying spirit and method with which they approached scripture and its teachings. The new universities, half-drunk with the heady influence of Aristotelian logic, replaced the scriptural commentary with the formal disputation as the chief vehicle of theological argument: though they quoted Augustine with lavish praise[10], their real function was to supplant him. Though he was still the object of great veneration, he was no longer the latest and highest authority.

Veneration is often the subtlest form of betrayal. That Augustine's own teachings were not exactly the same as those of the scholastics who praised him, imitated him, and betrayed him can be seen in the later history of medieval theology. Martin Luther came out of an Augustinian cloister to brandish Augustinian doctrines of predestination in the face of late scholastic churchmen--but it was a sometime Augustinian monk, Erasmus, who took up the challenge to debate Luther in the 1520's on precisely the issues of grace and freedom that had been seemingly put to rest at Orange a millennium before. (Erasmus also oversaw in the same decade the publication of the first complete printed edition of Augustine's works.)[11]

From the Reformation dates the beginning of the tendency to give the name Augustinianism narrowly to a limited body of pessimistic doctrines about grace and freedom. Not surprisingly, the reputation of Augustine in later centuries often rose and fell according to the reputation of just those particular doctrines. The Roman church retained an ancestral reverence for his name and teachings, but found itself increasingly compelled to disown in controversy specific propositions for which support could be found--most embarrassingly--in the writings of Augustine himself. The respectful tone and zeal for harmony that had been characterized the debates of the sixth century was entirely absent in the sixteenth, to the lasting disadvantage of Augustine's reputation. The Counter-Reformation marks the decisive ascendancy of the prestige of Aquinas over that of Augustine in the Roman church, a transformation scarcely imaginable as late as perhaps 1500.

The last great battle over Augustine's heritage among churchmen was fought in seventeenth-century France. Cornelius Jansen, bishop of Ypres (d. 1638), wrote a monumental treatise, the Augustinus, published two years after his death, the fruit--he said--of his having read the entire body of Augustine's works ten times, and the works on grace and freedom thirty times. His teachings found fertile ground in an aristocratic enclave of asceticism outside Paris, the convent of Port-Royal. The austere and rigorous writers of this school, particularly Antoine Arnauld (d. 1694) and Blaise Pascal (d. 1662)--especially in his Provincial Letters, waged relentless polemical warfare against the latitudinarian teachings of the Jesuits, in pitched battle for the hearts of the French ruling classes. Papal condemnation in 1653 and partial capitulation by the Jansenists in 1668 marked the end of this brief flowering of Augustinian passion.[12] It should not be overlooked, however, that the great edition of Augustine's works by the Benedictines of St. Maur (beginning in 1672) is owed at least in part to the enthusiasm the Jansenists fostered.

The heat of controversy did not offer much hope of a calm resolution to the question whether a synthesis of predestinarian teaching such as Jansen's could satisfactorily represent Augustine's many-sided character to a modern readership. The fading of ecclesiastical controversy and the rise of critical scholarship in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries began to create an environment in which such questions could be debated seriously and real progress made. For Augustine's reputation, this was at best a mixed blessing: if the scholastics had replaced obedience with a sometimes faithless veneration, the age of criticism has often accompanied its veneration with suspicion, and old allegiances faded slowly. Catholic scholars were slowt o forgive Augustine for the aid and comfort he offered Luther, but Protestants were no less slow to forgive him for the medieval church and its practices.

In our own time, Augustine is no longer the venerable ancestor looming over every ecclesiastical controversy that he was for so long, and this is almost certainly to his advantage. We are freer than any generation since his own to confront him as he was, to let him speak for himself, and to live out the implications of what he had to say. Little has changed. The future of Augustine's teaching remains exactly what it was when he was alive and writing; his works exalt and exhaust, just as they always have.