I have the habit of starting a new year by focusing on a theologian. I actually spend the whole year with that theologian, getting to know him and reading him and reading about him. For this year, 2021, I’m going with Augustine. As I do, I’ll be working on a biography. And I want to work on the book with you. So we will spend the next eight weeks or so walking through Augustine’s life. Each week I’ll be walking through a chapter of this book that I’m working on.
To begin, let’s go big picture. When you want to write a book, a publisher asks you for a proposal, and a key part of that proposal is answering the why question. Why this book? What is so compelling about your idea or what you want to do, that it should be published? So let’s start there. Why Augustine? Why look at his life? I can think of five reasons.
First, he was a wanderer. Augustine was from Numidia. The root of that word is nomad. These were nomads. Augustine’s life is compelling because he personifies the life of all of us. We are all wanderers, nomads, traveling east of Eden, trying to find our way home. As you explore Augustine’s life, you find he’s a literal wanderer: Carthage, Rome, Milan. He’s metaphorically a wanderer too. He’s wandering from the fold of God. He’s a lost sheep. Augustine was a wanderer.
Second, he was a teacher. The oldest portrait of Augustine is a fresco dating to the 500s. Frescoes are made by applying water colors to wet plaster, and as the plaster dries, it absorbs that color and preserves it for centuries. In this portrait Augustine wears the robe of the scholar, sits on a prominent chair, and holds an open book. He’s looking right at the viewer, as if he’s about to say something, as if he’s about to start class. With Augustine, it was always a master class. He was a teacher.
Third, he was a writer. He knew what to do with words, with sentences. He was a communicator. This was his profession, before his conversion. He was a teacher of rhetoric, and he was compelling. He draws you in. When I read Augustine, sometimes I find myself sitting on the edge of my chair, just waiting for what comes next. You might remember the opening line from his Confessions, that God has made us for Himself. Augustine essentially says, “You, God, You majestic great one. You made us for Yourself. And our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.”
Fourth, what does he teach? And what does he write about? The answer is grace. Augustine’s life was embroiled in theological controversy and conflict, and a key conflict and controversy centered around grace. In fact, we call the position that emerged from all that debate Augustinianism. The Augustinian position stresses God’s grace, God’s doing, God’s work, God’s power in our life.
Fifth, and last, Augustine’s life illustrates an important lesson: nothing in our lives gets wasted. At one point in the Confessions, Augustine writes, “You use . . . all, whether we know it or not, for a purpose which is known to you.” It’s the all that I want to focus on. All the ups and downs, all the two-steps-backward-and-merely-one-step-forward moments of our lives, our so-called mistakes. None of it is wasted. All of it is part of God’s tapestry. All of it is part of God’s purpose for our life.
That’s my proposal. Five reasons why Augustine will occupy Five Minutes in Church History as we move through the winter of 2021. That’s my plan. I hope you’ll come along.