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A Book Sale, and Augustine on the Physicality of Books

The opening folio of a fifteenth-century manuscript of The City of God

Starting today and running through November 26, Christian Book Distributors is having a “Black Friday” sale on The Early Church Fathers—the compilation of English translations upon which we’ve based our reading schedule. If you are committed to the long, seven-year haul (or if you want to sink an investment to keep yourself motivated!), the entire thirty-eight volume set will be sold for $220, with free shipping within the U.S.A. At less than $6 a volume, this is probably by far the lowest price one could expect to pay for an extensive set of patristic literature.

Should you get the bound paper set? We’ve already noted a couple of drawbacks to this edited collection, in addition to the sheer bulk of nearly forty volumes looking for shelf space. The entire set has been made available free online (including all editors’ introductions and annotations), so if you’re reading this post, you already have all that you need to read the fathers.

Yet we know some of our readers may feel that the physicality of a book forms an important part of their reading experience. You are in good company if you feel this way—no less an eminent reader than Augustine of Hippo frequently pondered over his interaction with bound parchment texts—sometimes to an obsessive degree. When requesting that his recently completed City of God be copied, he wrote to the Carthaginian Firmus:

There are twenty-two books, which are too many to put together in one volume. If you want to make two volumes, they should be divided so that one volume has ten books and the other twelve. Those ten, of course, refute the vanities of non-believers, but the rest present and defend our religion, although, where it was more opportune, I defended our religion in the first ten and refuted their vanities in the last twelve. If you want more than two volumes, you must make five. The first of them should contain the first five books, in which I argued against those who maintain that the worship clearly not of gods but of demons contributes to the happiness of this life, while the second volume should contain the five that follow against those who think that many gods, whether such gods or any whatsoever, should be worshiped through sacred rites and sacrifices on account of the life that will be after death. Now the three other volumes that follow should have four books each. For we divided that part so that four books would explain the origin of that city, the next four its progress or, as we prefer to say, its development, and the final four the ends due to those cities.1

For Augustine, it was supremely important that the physical division of his writings not interfere with the conceptual divisions.2 One disadvantage to our seven-page reading regimen is that it risks obscuring the larger whole of a work, and keeping the physically bounded copy in one’s hands may lend a firmer sense of orientation, especially within longer works like The City of God. For this reason I for one am planning to read the fathers using paper books, either The Early Church Fathers set or other translations that we recommend along the way. Whether that’s the best choice for your situation is, of course, entirely up to you.

An Introduction to the Confessions on the Feast of Augustine

St Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, 1645–50.

Today the liturgical churches of western Christianity commemorate the life of Augustine, bishop of Hippo and doctor of the church.1 At our home we are having a feast tonight because our hearts have been made glad in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which we have come to understand better because of Augustine.

The first book I read from the early church was Augustine’s Confessions—a common choice, since the Confessions are almost certainly the best known book from Christian antiquity. One could even make the argument that no book (in the western world, at least) has been more significant in shaping the way that modern people think about the self.2 The book takes the shape of an extended prayer, in which Augustine confesses his sins and acknowledges God’s goodness. And yet Augustine also intended this work as a confession ‘not unto Thee, my God; but before Thee unto my own kind, even to that small part of the human race who may chance to light upon these my writings.’ (2.3.5)

The entire work is rich both in explaining Augustine’s life viewed from faith and in confessing the God in whom he believed. Indeed, the theological richness of the work might be summed up in a phrase from another of Augustine’s works: Deus est qui deum dat’, ‘God is he who gives God’ (On the Trinity, 14.26.46). In the Confessions Augustine detects and acknowledges how God revealed himself even throughout Augustine’s waywardness and false belief, because ‘Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.’ (1.1.1)

And so I point you to four well-known and particularly insightful passages in the Confessions.

First, Augustine gives a clear-eyed explanation of the sinfulness of sin. In one passage, he describes stealing pears, though he had better pears of his own and only fed them to swine. (The parallels to the story of the fall in Genesis are not accidental.) Oliver Wendell Holmes dismissed the passage, writing, ‘Rum thing to see a man making a mountain of robbing a pear tree in his teens.’ But Augustine explains that to sin is to replace the love of God with the love of sin for its sinfulness. (Read 2.4 and 2.6.)

St Monica (331--387)

St Monica (331–387)

Second, the Confessions are noteworthy for their rich descriptions of Augustine’s human relationships, none of which is described with more detail and feeling than his relationship to his mother, Monica. In book 3, Monica has a dream that her son, who has become a Manichean heretic, will come to the true faith, symbolized in the dream by a wooden ruler which represents the ‘rule of faith’, or the creedal faith of the catholic church. She also pleads with a bishop to intervene with her son, whose word she takes as a prophetic utterance: ‘It is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.’ (Read 3.11 and 3.12.)

Third, both Monica’s dream and the bishop’s word come to pass when Augustine converts. In what is perhaps the most famous passage in the Confessions, Augustine describes how he heard a child’s voice in the garden saying, ‘Take up and read, take up and read’, and read from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. (Read 8.12.)

Fourth, in the Confessions Augustine expresses a kind of piety in which the believer returns to his heart, on which is written the law of God, and there finds God. In looking into one’s heart, one imitates the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Return to your heart, O ye transgressors, and cleave fast unto Him that made you. … Descend that ye may ascend, and ascend to God.’ It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of this passage for ‘heart religion’, which is the hallmark of most of Western Christianity from before the time of the Reformation, including Christians writers from such diverse traditions as Philipp Jakob Spener and Nicholas von Zinzendorf (Pietism), Jonathan Edwards (evangelicalism), and Ignatius of Loyola (Catholicism). (By the way, notice the heart that Augustine is holding in the portrait at the top of this post. The heart, which is aflame with love, transforms the mind and points to veritas.) (Read 4.12.)

If you plan to join us in reading the fathers of the church and want to read something before we officially begin, or if you do not intend to take on the full course of reading but would to read one book, I commend to you Augustine’s Confessions.

Patristic Theology Is for Everyone

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395)

Our modern era tends to see theology—especially the kinds of theology that the fathers loved, such as the doctrines of the Trinity and incarnation of Christ—as recondite, elitist, and (most damning of all) irrelevant. But this is a modern idea. Instead, thinking about theology can and should belong to all believers.

Here is a well-known passage from Gregory of Nyssa about popular discussions of theology. “Gregory of Nyssa describes the unending theological arguments in Constantinople at the time of the second General Council [A.D. 381]:”

The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask “Is my bath ready?” the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing (On the Deity of the Son [P.G. xlvi, 557b]). 1

If you read the fathers with us, you too can make the theological tradition of the church your own. And since we will be reading Gregory of Nyssa, you might even learn better answers than the Constantinopolitans!

N.T. Wright on Getting It Wrong

No one will miss that when it comes to patristics I am an amateur, both in the sense that I am not academically trained in this field, and in the etymological sense that I write as a lover (amator). Doubtless, much of what I write about the fathers will therefore be amateurish, so let me adopt this paragraph from N. T. Wright as my own:

I frequently tell my students that quite a high proportion of what I say is probably wrong, or at least flawed or skewed in some way which I do not at the moment realize. The only problem is that I do not know which bits are wrong; if I did I might do something about it. The analogy with other areas of life is salutary: I make many mistakes in moral and practical matters, so why should I imagine my thinking to be mysteriously exempt? But, whereas if I hurt someone, or take a wrong turn in the road, I am usually confronted quite soon with my error, if I expound erratic views within the world of academic theology I am less likely to be convinced by contradiction. … We all have ways of coping with adverse comment without changing our minds; but, since I am aware of the virtual certainty of error in some of what I write, I hope I shall pay proper attention to the comments of those—and no doubt there will be many—who wish to draw my attention to the places where they find my statement of the evidence inadequate, my arguments weak, or my conclusions unwarranted. Serious debate and confrontation is the stuff of academic life, and I look forward, not of course without some trepidation, to more of it as a result of this project.1

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