Every volume in the Theologians on the Christian Life series produced by Crossway continues to help readers make progress in their understanding of church history and the key figures that brought us to where we are. The thing I love about this series is that each author has his own approach to helping the reader understand the life of these theologians. Some take a more biographical journey, while others focus more on his works and his theology. Some rely on the context of their ministry to drive the tone and shape of the book. Each offering is unique and insightful. So, of course, we can expect something intriguing when we discover that noted church historian Gerald Bray has written a volume on the life of the most prominent theologian in all of church history, Augustine.
In the preface, Bray makes his intentions clear, “I hope that readers who are approaching [Augustine] for the first time will be encouraged to go further and learn more about this fascinating man, while those who are already familiar with him may be challenged to see him in a new light” (14).
Bray spreads out 5 chapters over 200 pages, which is a bit unusual for a book like this, even in this series. So, these chapter headings are major treatments of the key streams of Augustine’s life. Chapter 1 analyzes the context, considering his status and his life historically, including family, career, and socio-economic details. Chapters 2-4 explores Augustine the Believer, the Teacher, and the Pastor, each with their own distinct storyline. The final chapter explores Augustine’s influence on today’s church, and how his life still carries a significant role for us. I honestly grew a little weary at times in the midst of these long chapters, as I usually read chapter(s) at a time. But this is more of a formality than anything.
I will say that I felt like this book was more a “textbook” than anything. What I mean by this is, I feel like anyone who is attempting to study Augustine critically, or anyone attempting to write about or teach about Augustine will benefit greatly from this new piece of research material they have in the Bray’s volume. Bray has done a wonderful job of assimilating facts about Augustine’s life, excerpts from Augustine’s writings, and offering his own perspectives on certain positions and thoughts Augustine had. It doesn’t read like most biographies, and the chapters do not follow a chronological order, but I think that is to this book’s benefit. The layering of how each of these areas (believer, teacher, pastor) impacted his life is a great way to organize the book. Not to mention, Chapter 1 is one of the most detailed and well-written summations of a theologian’s life, that this chapter alone accomplishes this biographical survey just fine.
Bray writes with such clarity that this book (like his others) are so easy to read, though they contain often very heady and technical subject matter. Anyone who has read Augustine and varying opinions about Augustine knows that one trying to unpack Augustine’s theology for someone to rightly understand is a challenging task. For example, in “Augustine the Teacher” Bray summarizes some of Augustine’s key theological points in mere pages, such as his theology of love (106-107), sin (130), and predestination (133-134). This book is very deep, and very concise given the amount that could be said of a man like Augustine.
Overall, this book is absolutely a worthy addition to your bookshelves. Anyone who seeks to understand what books like The City of God and Confessions have to offer us today would be benefitted by Bray’s contribution. I love his perspective on Augustine’s legacy. “Augustine will continue to be read from a variety of different angles, and his works will not be consigned to oblivion.They are much too important for that” (197). He couldn’t be more right, and thankfully, Augustine on the Christian Life proves that.