Why read Augustine?

Newly released edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology is devoted to the study of the early church preachers and writers (patrology). Nick Needham, a gifted church historian, publishes a fascinating article on why we need to read Augustine today. In part he writes,

“Augustine wrestles endlessly with the most fundamental questions of existence. What can the human mind truly know? What is God? What is truth? What is beauty? What is time? What is history? What is the soul? What is memory? What is faith? What is reason? What is the relationship between faith and reason? What is justice? What is human destiny? What are the proper limits of political action? Where does evil come from? How can we reconcile evil and suffering with a belief in a good and almighty God? Augustine sets the example par excellence of a Christian thinker determined to view the whole of life in the light of his faith, rather than give a little private corner of it to Christ, leaving the rest to be squeezed into the mold of contemporary non-Christian culture.”

-Nick Needham in the journal article, “Augustine of Hippo: The Relevance of His Life and Thought Today.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (vol. 12, No. 2, Summer 2008 ) p. 39. [download the article as PDF here].

Related: Interview with J. Ligon Duncan on patrology
Related: Review of Nick Needham’s church history books.

Studying Church History

“The real history of Christianity is the history of a great spiritual tradition. The only true apostolical succession is the lives of the saints. Clement of Alexandria compared the Church to a great river, receiving affluents from all sides. The great river sometimes flows impetuously through a narrow channel; sometimes it spreads like a flood; sometimes it divides into several streams; sometimes, for a time, it seems to have been driven underground. But the Holy Spirit has never left himself without witness; and if we will put aside a great deal of what passes for Church history, and is really a rather unedifying branch of secular history, and follow the course of the religion of the Spirit and the Church of the Spirit, we shall judge very differently of the relative importance of events from those who merely follow the fortunes of institutionalism.”

-W. R. Inge, Things New and Old (1933), p. 57. As quoted on page 161 of F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English (Paternoster, Wipf & Stock), 1958.

Patristics for Busy Pastors

tsslogo.jpgPerhaps next week, I’ll be posting the full interview I was privileged to conduct Thursday night with Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III. Duncan is a patristics scholar and pastor so it was an interesting opportunity to connect the value of patristics (the church fathers) to the life and ministry of a pastor (especially a busy one).

Here is an excerpt to the question: Why should a busy pastor read patristic literature in the first place?

“When we go back to the church fathers we see them defending the important Christian doctrines that are very basic to us, those doctrines that—if we’ve been Christians for a long time—we may well take for granted, doctrines we don’t question, or have any qualms about. Sometimes as important as they are, we don’t think about them much, and we don’t weave them into our teaching, nor do we express the passion for the importance of them to our people as we ought. When we go back to the patristic period and we see the church fathers defending the reality of, for example, the incarnation of Christ and showing the importance of it, we may—who have fully embraced the incarnation of Christ and never questioned it in our Christian experience—suddenly have a new sense of the significance and the absolute essentialness of the doctrine of the incarnation in a way we hadn’t before.”

And the questions I asked Dr. Duncan …

  1. Define for us “patristics” or “patrology.”
  2. Why should a busy pastor read patristic literature in the first place?
  3. What hurdles do pastors face in reading and benefiting from patristic writings?
  4. For the beginner, recommend a few specific patristic titles covering history, biography, and primary sources.
  5. What contemporary debates align themselves with controversies addressed by the patristic authors?
  6. Our culture seems to be growing increasing secular (some would say increasingly secular with a corresponding increase in robust Christian faith in some circles). If this is growing secularism is true, what can we learn from the church fathers on how to engage a “pagan” culture?
  7. In reading the patristics a pastor will be faced with thoughts or practices of the early church fathers that were incorrect. What concerns do you have for a pastor getting his feet wet in the patristic writings?
  8. Would you agree that in patristic writings we see a stress on ethics over and above the gospel?
  9. Dr. Duncan, you are a gifted patristic scholar, have been pastoring at First Presbyterian in Jackson for over 12 years now, and preaching on a regular basis. How do your preaching and pastoral ministry reflect the impact of patristic authors?

I’ll keep you posted when the audio is ready for download.

- Tony