Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Chadwick's life of Augustine - Canon Robin Ward

The Principal, Canon Robin Ward, reviews Augustine of Hippo: A Life by the late Henry Chadwick, in the Church Times.

This book is a welcome dis­covery: it is a draft version of the introduc­tion to Augustine published by Henry Chadwick in the Oxford Past Masters series in 1986, and still available from that press as Augustine: A very short introduction. Found among his papers after his death, this recension is more expansive.

As Professor Peter Brown of Princeton tells us in his masterly preface, it brings to the fore the narrative artistry of Henry Chad­­­wick, which the terser version published originally necessarily somewhat obscures.

It was Peter Brown who estab­lished both his own academic reputation and the transformation of patristics into late-antique studies with his own magisterial biography of Augustine in 1967. In an era of declining empire, religious un­certainty, political strife, and psy­chological introspection, what better to hold up as mirror to the age than the sinuous, rigorous, all too self-aware intellect of the Bishop of Hippo?

Henry Chadwick’s own engage­ment with Augustine was to culminate in his limpid translation of The Confessions, but this earlier work demon­strates very clearly his confident command of the vast primary and secondary literature, and — more pertinently, perhaps, in capturing the particular quality of this Life — his empathy with Augustine as a churchman.

The book is particularly effective in giving a feel for Augustine as a bishop: Catholic in a Donatist strong­hold; erudite in a rustic setting; ascetic amid the binge-drinking martyr cults of Numidia. Chadwick is astute in noticing Augustine’s pastoral aptitude for effective mixed-ability instruction: he calls the little On Catechizing Simple People “absorbing and delightful”, and we are pleased to be reminded why this is so.

The big themes of Augustine’s work all find their place here: the narrative of the soul’s conversion to God; the possibility of authentic Christian culture; the harm of schism in the Church; the City of God and the captivity of the pilgrim people of God in Babylon below; the corruption of nature; and the election of grace. In particular, the treatment of Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity and its momentous consequences for the Church in East and West is more extensive here than in the 1986 text.

As for the Confessions, Augustine’s “supreme masterpiece”, Chadwick places them here rather more emphatically within the context of a rhetoric of beauty: Augustine’s unsurpassed mastery of style is in itself no snare to faith seeking truth, but is an endorsement of our search for God, who is himself “supreme loveliness”.

Who will want to have this book? The specialist and would-be special­ist will still turn to the longer bio­graphical treatments by Brown and Lancel, and those seeking enlighten­ment on more specific themes will resort to classic studies such as that of R. A. Markus, and the best of new scholarship such as that of Hugh Houghton on Augustine’s use of the Bible.

But for a brief Life that amplifies the intellectual themes familiar to us from Chadwick’s 1986 work, and so has the opportunity to set them in the richer, more evocative setting of a society at once failing and being renewed, this is unsurpassed.

This posthumous publication reminds us once more what a learned, humane, and sympathetic scholar Henry Chadwick was.