Tabletalk Subscription
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining.You've accessed all your free articles.
Unlock the Archives for Free

Request your free, three-month trial to Tabletalk magazine. You’ll receive the print issue monthly and gain immediate digital access to decades of archives. This trial is risk-free. No credit card required.

Try Tabletalk Now

Already receive Tabletalk magazine every month?

Verify your email address to gain unlimited access.

{{ error }}Need help?

Augustine of Hippo was the most prolific and influential theologian of the early church. As to volume, the selection of his works included in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series comes to eight chunky double-columned volumes. “On the shelves” of Augustine’s own library, Peter Brown notes, “there lay ninety-three of his own works, made up of two hundred and thirty-two little books, sheafs of his letters, and, perhaps, covers crammed with anthologies of his sermons.” His extant works add up to more than five million words.

As to influence, no attempt to define a Western canon of literature could credibly exclude The Confessions and The City of God. Other works, such as On Christian Teaching, On the Trinity, and On Free Choice, remain standard sources on their topics. Alongside The Confessions and The City of God, his Enchiridion and Retractions are archetypes of their genre. Each one of these works proved influential enough to secure a prominent place for Augustine in the history of the church. Taken together and set alongside his many other treatises, commentaries, letters, and sermons, they make a strong case for regarding Augustine as the most influential theologian in the history of the church after the close of the canon.


In his corpus, we have the mind of one of history’s most relentless, penetrating, and fertile thinkers laid out before us. His primary interest, as a pastor and theologian, was to expound catholic (that is, universal) orthodoxy for the benefit of the church, for witness to the world, and for defense of the faith against the many and various opponents of his age. He just happened to propound a philosophy of history, language, rhetoric, and mind; adapt old and develop new literary genres; and frame the subsequent development of Western theology along the way.

Augustine clearly intended that his corpus would survive him and that future generations would regard the whole body of his writings as just that—a single corpus. Most of his writings were produced in the moment to meet the various and ever-changing demands of pastoral ministry in late Roman North Africa. He was not content, however, to leave his works to posterity as a disorganized mess of scattered and occasional pieces. So he devoted significant time and energy during the last years of his life to forming the whole into the corpus that he wanted to leave behind.


To this end, Augustine began to work back through all ninety-three works he had on his shelves, commenting on each one and incidentally (though self-consciously) crafting a new literary genre as he did: retractions. Augustine’s Retractions is the product of a mature pastor profoundly humbled by the realization that he has written much on many occasions and subjects in his life and, crucially, that his already influential writings would survive him. He wants us, his future readers, to know when and why he wrote each work and what he regards as its most significant contribution. He also clarifies potentially confusing points and corrects himself where necessary.

In Retractions, in other words, Augustine takes up the task of being the first editor and critic of his complete works, arranged in chronological order. Though he planned to review and comment on all his books, letters, and sermons, the demands of ministry and chaos of life allowed him to cover only his major works. But even this abbreviated, unfinished work is indispensable to readers and students of Augustine—not only as a guide to his corpus but as an auto­biographical window into the mind of the aged bishop reflecting on a life of ministry.

the confessions

In this way, Augustine’s Retractions makes an interesting companion to his work that is most familiar to modern readers, The Confessions. Widely acknowledged as a literary masterpiece, The Confessions sees Augustine, the former rhetoric teacher, weaving strands of theology and philosophy into an account of God’s sovereign grace. The work is written in the form of a prayer of praise to God and lays out the interior dynamics of Augustine’s long-restless but now contented soul in God.

Written sometime in the first two years of his pastorate—and just after On Christian Teaching—this work was the first of its kind in terms of its unrelenting spiritual analysis of the various states of his soul through his life to that point. Augustine is less interested in relaying the twists and turns of his wayward life, conversion, and growth in grace as he is in meditating on the spiritual significance of it all. He ponders the nature of sin and his youthful love for sin for its own sake; he testifies to his utter dependence on God’s all-consuming grace, leading him to salvation from eternity down to the present moment of his life; he muses on the relation of human freedom and divine grace; and above all else, he confesses his deep satisfaction in the sufficiency of God as the beginning and end of all things.

For Augustine, to love God and our neighbor is to seek to enjoy God for His own sake and to love our neighbor for God’s sake.

In a sense, The Confessions is a spiritual autobiography written by a relatively young man who has found his place—his life’s purpose and soul’s delight—in a world that was made by God and for God (books 1–10 are more autobiographical; books 11–13 are a commentary of sorts on Genesis 1). The cult of Manichaeism and philosophy of neo-Platonism imagined such a place, but only faith in Christ could deliver him out of his former life and into this blessed state of resting wholly in God and being useful in His service. The Confessions is a testament to his confidence in God’s saving grace offered by a man who has just devoted the rest of his life to the work of the ministry; Retractions is a testament that God’s grace has sustained him through his many years of service.

on christian teaching

If The Confessions and Retractions are like bookends on Augustine’s ministry, then On Christian Teaching is like the syllabus of his pastorate. Books 1–3.25.35 were written just before The Confessions, at the outset of his pastoral ministry; the rest of book 3 and all of 4 were added as he worked on his Retractions. It is possible that the incomplete version circulated during his lifetime. Whatever the case, the completed version has proved to be one of his most influential contributions.

The burden of this relatively brief work is to describe how preachers are to interpret and apply Scripture as ministers of the Word, which is the central occupation of a pastor. To understand Scripture rightly, however, one must understand language. Augustine opens his discussion, therefore, by developing a rudimentary philosophy (or theology) of language around a distinction between signs and things. He further distinguishes things between those to be used and those to be enjoyed. He then argues that there is only one ultimate object of enjoyment: the Trinity. All other things are to be ordered and used to this end.

Since language trades in signs, we must understand how linguistic signs function to understand Scripture rightly. Language does not always operate in a literal way; so Augustine develops rules for discerning figures of speech. Sometimes words may refer to literal things, but those things are to be taken figuratively; so he develops rules for what we would call typology. Sometimes words have different meanings in different places or different words are used to refer to the same thing; so he describes the word-concept fallacy (which says that a word always signifies a particular concept or that a concept is absent if a particular word isn’t used). Sometimes the meaning of a text is obscure, he concedes; so he proceeds to describe the analogy of Scripture (interpreting obscure passages in light of clear ones) and the analogy of faith (using what Scripture clearly teaches in one place to guide our reading in other places).

Whatever method we employ, when we arrive at a right understanding of Scripture—which for Augustine is the meaning intended by the author—it will never fail to teach us to love God with an all-consuming love and to love our neighbor as ourselves. For Augustine, to love God and our neighbor is to seek to enjoy God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—for His own sake and to love our neighbor (and ourselves) for God’s sake. If our understanding of Scripture is not ordered to this end, then it is a sure sign that we have gone astray in our interpretation.

When it comes to communicating the meaning of Scripture effectively to the congregation, Augustine directs his students to study the Greco-Roman classics on rhetoric. As he does elsewhere in his corpus, Augustine offers a robust case for using whatever is true and useful in non-Christian sources. The human mind apart from Christ is fallen and corrupt, but it remains capable of profound insights and remarkable achievements. Rhetoric is one of many fields in which Christians can hardly improve on the learning already available in the world.

the city of god

That said, Christians must be discerning in their use of non-Christian sources. The world’s wisdom is at best a mere shadow of divine wisdom. More problematic yet, it is put to idolatrous, selfish, and thus abusive uses rather than the enjoyment of God and the good of humanity. Therefore, the wisdom of the world is always mixed with error and often hostile to the faith. This is the way of things in the fallen city of man, Augustine explains in his largest and arguably most influential work, The City of God.

Christians, therefore, have a conflicted relationship with the city of man. We live in this present world, are subject to the temporal authorities, and have a right to use and the freedom to benefit from human culture and civilization. We even have a moral responsibility to seek and promote the welfare of our communities. Christians ought to be model citizens, workers, neighbors, and so on. The city of man is both a divine provision for our welfare and corrupted by sin, animated by selfish desires, and contemptuous of God.

The City of God is a masterpiece of apologetics written in response to crisis. In 410, Alaric led an army of Visigoths against Rome, starved the city into submission, and let his army sack the city for three days. It was the first time that Rome had been overthrown in nearly eight centuries, and it was a clear demonstration that the Roman Empire in the West was in its twilight.

The world was shocked by the fall of Rome. Christians could not grasp how the Roman Empire, which had established Christianity as its state religion in 380, could be collapsing just thirty years later. Pagans argued that this is what Rome deserved for abandoning the gods who had made it great and instead worshiping a crucified foreigner. Augustine’s response rebuked the pagans and challenged the Christians to lift their eyes to the city of God that comes down from above.

The first ten books of The City of God offer a sustained critique of pagan Roman religion in its varied expressions, from that espoused by the poets, to that of the civil authorities, to that of the philosophers. The latter twelve books develop Augustine’s account of the respective origin, development, and end of the city of man and the city of God. Paganism, he argues in the first part, was morally and spiritually bankrupt and positively evil. The two cities, he explains in the second part, are animated by contrary principles: one by a self-seeking gratification of the flesh, the other by a pure desire to know and enjoy God and serve the good of others. The Roman Empire belongs to the former, the church to the latter. Perfect justice, spiritual peace, and eternal happiness can be found only in the city of God.

Augustine essentially develops an apologetic of hope in The City of God. The city of man is temporal and fading, but the city of God is eternal and prevailing. It has not yet dawned in its full glory—that will come about only when Christ returns—but it is already here and evident in the virtuous lives of the holy who truly know and enjoy God. As the Roman world crumbled, Augustine urges his readers to look to the heavens and contemplate the glorious things spoken of the city of God (Ps. 87:3).

on the trinity

Augustine was obsessed with knowing and enjoying God. It is no surprise, therefore, that one of his greatest contributions to the history of theology is a deep dive into the most profound mystery of the faith he devoted his life to expounding and defending: the Holy Trinity. Augustine opens On the Trinity with an exposition and defense of the unity of God, full equality of the three divine persons, and Their personal distinctions in the face of enduring and sometimes subtle semi-Arian and subordinationist tendencies (books 1–7).

In this exposition, he develops a striking account of the internal relations of mutual love that exist between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He argues that the Spirit’s procession from the Father and the Son is the eternal outflow of Their mutual love for one another (book 6). This, in turn, becomes a key to understanding the Trinity through the analogy of the divine image within us, which he develops in terms of the one mind’s three inseparable operations of memory, understanding, and will (books 8–15).

Augustine’s analogy receives mixed reviews. Like all analogies for the Trinity, this one falls short. That, however, is the very nature of an analogy, which is an imperfect likeness drawn between two things. Augustine never suggests that his analogy offers us anything more than a shadowy similarity between the human being created in God’s image and the incomprehensible Trinity who dwells in unapproachable light.


As Augustine was dying in 430, Hippo was under siege by the Vandals, who were ravaging Roman North Africa. As Brown observes, “Augustine lived to see violence destroy his life’s work in Africa.” Hippo itself had to be evacuated and was burned. Somehow, Augustine’s library survived. Very soon, in fact, “there was nothing left of Augustine” in Hippo “but his library.”

Possidius, a fellow bishop in Roman North Africa, had fled to Hippo during the Vandal invasion and was present when Augustine died. He wrote out a list of Augustine’s works that has come down to us and suggested in his biography of Augustine that no one could read them all. Yet Augustine, aided by secretaries and stenographers, had composed each work in the course of his pastoral ministry.

How can we assess his corpus? The question is simple. Are his writings useful in bringing those who take them up and read them into a fuller enjoyment of God? The answer seems obvious. That, we can be sure, is exactly why Augustine wrote all that he did and is what he wanted most for his readers as he put his corpus in order as the one thing he believed would survive him.
Detail from title page of S. AUGUSTINI de Civitate Dei libri xxii, Add. 15246, fol. 28v, Bridgeman Images

Augustine of Hippo: A Life

Where Augustine Went Wrong

Keep Reading Augustine of Hippo

From the February 2024 Issue
Feb 2024 Issue