Augustine for the 21st Century (1): Why Should We Read Old Books?

I have never been trampled by a herd of evangelicals on their way to the Augustine section of the local bookstore. Perhaps one reason for this is chronological snobbery, our tendency to believe that the new books are better than the old ones. Another reason might be that the local bookstores don’t even have an Augustine section (True, Barnes & Noble and Borders carry books by Augustine, but Christian bookstores rarely do. The Christian stores are up to their necks in sales of Precious Moments figurines, tester tubes of anointing oil, boxes of Test-a-mints, and tee-shirts with inscriptions like “I’m Cross-Eyed.”)

Either way, the point remains. We rarely read old books. We tend to limit ourselves by era, tribe, and category-we read books written in our day, but people just like us, and that can be placed in one or two limited genres. But this sort of epistolary reductionism is to our detriment-the older books are precisely the ones that will help us to escape the limitations of our current era, learn from those who are not a part of our local tribe, and transcend the categories to which we have become accustomed.

We benefit from reading great authors from eras past more than from reading a great number of books. In Christian theology and related fields, this means that we want to pick a handful of theologians who have influenced the church and make sure that we have read at least a little bit of what they wrote. If you are a seminarian, you want to read Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth, the towering figures in church history. (Frank Peretti is not a towering figure in church history.) In fact, you may want to choose one or two of these authors and read everything they’ve written, and read some of their books multiple times.

The City of God is one of those books. Its author, Augustine, over the course of his lifetime penned more than five million words which would become the backdrop for the next millennium of Western theological and philosophical thought. At the apex of his writings stands The City of God.

The present blogpost is the first installation of a series of posts reflecting upon Augustine, his book, and its relevance for Christians living in a 21st century context. The particular occasion for writing the series is a seminar I am teaching this semester, entitled “History of Ideas III.” Each student at The College at Southeastern is required to take four seminars in the History of Ideas. In these seminars we read books written by the titans of theology, philosophy, history, and literature (Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, Machiavelli, Pascal, Descartes, Locke, Milton, Nietzsche, etc.). We read the books and then reflect, from a confessionally Christian point of view, on the ideas contained in those books. The seminar is not only a course in intellectual history but hopefully also an act of worship as we submit these books to theological and philosophical analysis in the light of God’s revelation.

In forthcoming posts, we will discuss (1) Augustine’s thesis in City of God; (2) what we can learn from Augustine’s apologetic strategy; (3) how we share certain of Augustine’s presuppositions and can put them to use in the 21st century; (4) what we can learn from Augustine’s person; and (5) a few selected passages by Augustine, as well as a handful of reading recommendations and concluding thoughts.