Augustine of Hippo: The Relevance of His Life and Thought Today -- By: Nick Needham

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 12:2 (Summer 2008)
Article: Augustine of Hippo: The Relevance of His Life and Thought Today
Author: Nick Needham


Augustine of Hippo: The Relevance of His Life and Thought Today

Nick Needham*

*Nick Needham is Pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Inverness, Scotland. He also serves as Lecturer of Church History at Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland. Before this, he taught Systematic Theology at the Scottish Baptist College in Glasgow. Dr. Needham wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the nineteenth-century Scottish theologian Thomas Erskine of Linlathen.

Introduction

Traditionally, four of the Latin fathers of the church have been given the illustrious title “Doctor” (teacher)—Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great. All four deserve our affectionate acquaintance; but the greatest of them must surely be Augustine, both for the sheer depth and richness of his thought, and for his unparalleled influence on subsequent generations.
A. N. Whitehead once quipped that the history of Western philosophy was simply a series of footnotes to Plato. By a pardonable exaggeration, one might say that the history of Western theology is simply a series of footnotes to Augustine. The fifth century African father towers mightily over the succeeding centuries like some spiritual version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his huge legs, and peep about.

We are sometimes fond of saying that we stand on the shoulders of the great Christians who went before us. In the case of Augustine, I suspect most of us may feel less a dwarf on his shoulders than an ant on his ankle. In the words of the “Old Catholic” scholar Johann Nepomuk Huber,

Augustine is a unique phenomenon in Christian history. No one of the other fathers has left so luminous traces of his existence. Though we find among them many rich and powerful minds, yet we find in none the forces of personal character, mind, heart, and will, so largely developed and so harmoniously working. No one surpasses him in wealth of perceptions and dialectical sharpness of thoughts, in depth and fervor of religious sensibility, in greatness of aims and energy of action. He therefore also marks the culmination of the patristic age, and has been elevated by the acknowledgment of succeeding times as the first and the universal church father.1

Huber does not overstate. For we are dealing in Augustine with one of the truly seminal minds of human history, and it is no self-depreciation on our part to entertain a due sense of modesty and humility. Few scientists will ever be Einstein; few theologians will ever be Augustine. In the post-apostolic church, he...

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