The Church on Trial

Augustine: A New Biography . O’Donnell, J.J. (2005). NY: Harper-Collins Publisher, 10 E. 53 rd St., 10022 pp. 336 BP $26.95.

This rendition of Augustine’s life and legacy is by no means hagiographical. As a matter of fact it is, at times, down-right hostile. The first part of the book is based mainly on an exegesis of The Confessions. O’Donnell questions its genre as autobiography. He says it is really the story of God revealing Himself to troubled and inquisitive Augustine. It doesn’t seem that O’Donnell appreciates his own insight. For the religious person the spiritual journey is undertaken to know God in order to better know one’s self? Hence, Confessions is an autobiography par excellence.

Humans are always limited by biology, history, and culture, and O’Donnell does a good job naming the forces that shaped Aurelius Augustine (354-430). However, O’Donnell’s interpretation of Augustine, his prodigious output – nearly five million words in the course of his lifetime – and his impact on history, is somewhat questionable. O’Donnell reveals a post-modern sentiment which lauds multiculturalism in religious expression. For example, he displays a penchant for local varieties of Christian worship and argues that Donatism, the native Christian religion of North Africa, could have better survived the Vandals and even Islam, than Augustine’s Catholicism. Now that’s a reach! Hence, the great Church forged by Roman authority and Augustinian theology is viewed by him with a jaundiced eye.

O’Donnell is thorough in his discussion of the major religious controversies in which Augustine was embroiled: Manichaeism, Donatism and Pelagianism. Nevertheless, O’Donnell leaves the reader with the impression that these were nothing more then straw men or phantoms created or imagined by Augustine for self-aggrandizement or simply ploys to promote his vision of a worldwide Church. O’Donnell’s evaluation of Augustine turns on his opinion that Augustine “was not a very happy or well adjusted man.” The astute reader will see immediate comparisons with Edward Gibbon’s unflattering opinion of early saints and martyrs described in his classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Overall, O’Donnell asserts that Augustine’s personality, theology, and politics has had a deleterious effect on Christianity.

It is obvious that O’Donnell sees Christian belief itself as somewhat dubious. His often inaccurate explanation of the Church’s origins and the development of Her scripture and doctrine is used as a measuring rod for judging Augustine. In this light, he in fact is questioning the divine institution of the Catholic Church as we know it. He prefers Donatism because it held to a universal truth present within a limited community of the pure. He rejects Augustinian belief of the Church’s mission to saints and sinners which teaches the universal truth to all nations. O’Donnell ignores Matthew 28:18-20, which commands Christians to “Go out to all the world.” Perhaps even more disconcerting is O’Donnell’s evaluation of Pelagius, an English monk, who emphasized good works for salvation. He portrays him as a “can do” optimist who opposed Augustine’s pessimistic worldview, which was based on obvious human weaknesses for the world, the flesh, and the devil’s temptations. Here, O’Donnell fails to adequately treat Augustine’s treatise “On Grace and Free Will” which offers balance to Augustine’s theology of how God works with our fallen nature. O’Donnell’s Pelagius bears a startling resemblance to popular happy talk religion or the self-help Christianity propounded in the mega-churches.

O’Donnell’s contention that Augustine invented Roman Catholicism gives way to the more viable view that his beliefs were those commonly held by the ancient Church. For, although there were personality clashes, none of Augustine’s contemporary theologians, other than the heretics he attacked, had any major conflict with his teaching. This serves as a litmus test for his orthodoxy. It is important to note, however, that O’Donnell tries to diminish even this argument by alleging that, for example, Jerome, and Paulinus of Nola were equally unbalanced and/or ethically challenged. According to him only their adversaries had it all together.

There is no doubt that Augustine used his status and talents to advance his Church. And it is also quite possible that in the process he relished the fame that his rhetorical skills and writings brought. That is only human, after all. That he used the power of the empire for imposing orthodox Christianity on North Africa can be deemed as working smart. Like St. Paul, for whom he had a great affinity, Augustine was an evangelizer at heart. If he were alive today, the Internet and a personal blog would probably be his vehicle for outreach. But none of this makes him less a saint. The fact is that 1,600 years have passed since his death, and both he and his teachings have withstood the test of time as one of Christianity’s great thinkers, theologians and saints. Even the present Pope, Benedict XVI, considers himself an Augustinian in theological thought.

Augustine’s reputation has survived Christianity’s schisms, with both Protestants and Catholics claiming him as their own. This is certainly a sign of the richness of his thought and his impact on the world. O’Donnell is dead wrong when he says people don’t even know who he is anymore. Augustine’s teaching may not always be associated with his name, but all Christians are affected to a greater or lesser degree by it. Who hasn’t heard of original sin? Who has not heard of or argued for or against infant baptism? Who has not heard of his Confessions or his City of God? And, who has not been affected by the Catholic Church which he did not invent but enabled to grow and sanctify millions?

O’Donnell’s book is rich in primary sources. His analysis, however, is prejudicial, his understanding of sainthood poor at best, and his evaluation of the greatest theologian in the history of Christianity is under appreciative and, at times, downright wrong. O’Donnell says that contemporary understanding of the “soul” is going to be critical if Augustine’s theological contribution is to survive. In saying this, he intimates that life after death is a passé concept. If this is true, then so is orthodox Christianity. In this rendition of Augustine, the Church itself is on trial. Augustine’s Church not only survived but gained hegemony over an overwhelming hostile environment, perhaps it is this success of Augustine – one bishop from backwater diocese – which inspires Pope Benedict’s conviction that a leaner and more intense Christianity is the key to rebuilding the Church in the West.

Rev. Michael P. Orsi
Ave Maria School of Law
Ann Arbor, Mich.

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