Grace and the City [of God]

The ABC’s Encounter program recently aired a worthwhile discussion about the contemporary relevance of Augustine’s City of God. The program, titled ‘Grace and the City’ can be read here, listened to via a stream here, or downloaded here.

The guests on the program include Charles Mathewes (Associate Professor in Religious Studies, University of Virginia), John von Heyking (Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Lethbridge, Alberta), Lawrence Cross (Associate Professor, Faculty of Theology and Philosophy, Australian Catholic University), John Milbank (Professor in Religion, Politics and Ethics, The University of Nottingham) and Thomas Smith (Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Villanova University).

There are also extended interviews with John Milbank and Charles Mathewes available as downloads.

While I’m thinking Augustine, can anyone recommend a decent biography on Augustine? I have read a few older biographies, and I own, but have not yet read, Augustine: A New Biography by James O’Donnell. And I’m wondering about I’ve just purchased Peter Brown’s book Augustine of Hippo: A Biography which Diarmaid MacCulloch cites favourably. Other recommendations? Warnings?


  1. Brown’s biography is outstanding (one of my favorites), so I’d definitely recommend that. O’Donnell’s is also very interesting, particularly since he has a rather different perspective than Brown on several issues. He also engages with some of the newer developments in Augustine studies. I’d suggest reading both.


  2. Yes and yes on Brown. It’s a lovely book, and the newer edition has some very thoughtful reconsiderations in light of the new letters recently uncovered. O’Donnell is worth reading, but his read is at many turns uncharitable and his tone toxic. Maybe a good tonic for those of us who think Augustine hung the moon, but still an astoundingly sour and uneven-handed take.


  3. The new edition of Brown’s biography (which contains a very good epilogue in which he revises his earlier view of the older Augustine) is by far the best. A superb example of biography. You can have my copy of O’Donnell’s biography, if you want. It’s awful (in contrast to O’Donnell’s magisterial commentary on the Confessions). Lewis Ayres wrote a good review of it somewhere. And then there’s Carol Harrison on the early Augustine. Eugene TeSelle’s Augustine the Theologian (1970) is worth reading, as is F. Van Der Meer’s enormous Augustine the Bishop (1961), although the latter is a bit dated.


  4. Yeah, I was just frustrated by it. The idea, which O’Donnell advanced in some of the pieces that came out in preparation for the book, is an interesting one. He’s right that the Confessions isn’t a straightforward biography (but that’s been noted before), and he’s probably right to say that biographers made been guilty of treating it as such. To admit this does not provide a licence for speculation about A’s motives. Take the following as an example: “Augustine needs to tell us his conversion story. He needs it so badly that we do him, I believe, a great favor if we allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that his conversion story is off the rails, that it consists of assertion after assertion that are not much true as necessary, that are not so much what Augustine knows to be the case as they are what he has to SAY is the case in order not to face what might be otherwise” (77) These are just claims pulled out the air. “Augustine NEEDS to tell US his conversion story”??? Really? Where does this kind of claim originate from?


  5. Brown’s is wonderful! One of the best biographies I have ever read. O’Donnell’s is interesting but ultimately I found it lacked exactly what Brown’s has proven to have–a kind of staying power. O’Donnell’s is speculative and faddish.

    Gerald Bonner’s book St. Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies is also very good.


  6. Gary Wills’ St Augustine (Penguin, 1999) is a book Peter Brown gushed about in the NY Times. I borrowed it from the library, enjoyed it and learned a lot. But I didn’t really have much to it compare it with, having only read Frederic Farrar’s entry on Augustine in his multi-volume Lives of the Fathers (written in the 19th Century)! I appreciated how Wills depicted the pastoral gifts of Augustine. This really moved me.


  7. I have read the city of God a number of times and coming from more Charismatic leanings; I often wonder why his writings on the experiential ongoing workings in the life of the church has mostly been ignored in many cessationist circles.


  8. Serge Lancel, St. Augustine (SCM [translation], 2002 [originally published in the French in 1999]) – weighing in at nearly 500 BIG pages (not counting notes, etc.) Chadwick called it “masterly”. Brown and Bonner remain superb.


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