Reading & Studying Augustine: Why confessions may not always be the best place to start

Yesterday, I wrote about Augustine’s Confessions, today I want to write about the rest of his works. This post is especially written for anybody who has picked up the Confessions, and found it too confusing to continue. This is also for people who are interested in the Church Fathers, or particularly Augustine, but are somewhat at a loss from where to start (or go) after the Confessions. If you look at the bottom you can see which works are easier to read, and which are more challenging.

Augustine was incredibly popular in his day. Today, he is exiled from popular devotion, and left for those fancy inte-mallectuals over there. You don’t find Augustine statuettes or prayer cards in the Cathedral giftshop or your grandma’s purse. Despite his renown in his day, he is relatively untapped.

Despite reverence for Augustine among young Catholics, they dare not his literary corpus that includes a Spiritual Autobiography, the Confessions & the Retractions, Theological Books:  Trinity & City of God; Polemical Works: Against Heresies, Donatists, Pelagians, Arians, Manichees etc; 270 Letters; Pastoral Works; Many Exegetical Works on the New Testament, Commentaries on John’s Writings, and the Psalms, and 400+ Sermons.

They imagine a Monolithic Intellectual Bishop that smashed heretics to smithereens.  They look up his works, and don’t know where to start. They are allured to this succinct poetic quote. They feel drawn, they read the Confessions, their head spins, they never finish.

Augustine’s Confessions are not esoteric writing for spiritual elite, intellectually superior, or well-lettered persons, but the Confessions are not for everyone. Augustine wrote his Confessions for detractors, because he had nothing to hide. On the flipside, his Confessions were written at a time when printed works were not widely available. Therefore, it is unlikely that Augustine imagined that the Confessions would or should become his most widely distributed work.

What is behind this discrepancy of Augustine

There is an unusual discrepancy between the modern unapproachable Augustine and the popular Augustine of his time. Augustine was seized by the people to become their bishop. Before becoming bishop, Augustine would take the long way travelling between towns. He was attempting to avoid towns that he knew would make him bishop. Keep in mind, this was all before Augustine was a priest. Augustine’s intended to develop a new form of monasticism based on friendship and charity, not by becoming a clergyman, and not by asceticism and remoteness to the cities. Augustine was popular to an illiterate Church, how can he be so unknown to today’s literate Church?

It is clear that Augustine was renown for his preaching and speaking, not for his writing? Augustine has 400+ Sermons intact today. A Sermon, an Exposition on the Psalm, a Homily on a passage from the Gospel of John is packed with practical and spiritual advice that I am sure his flock cherished. Christians of Augustine’s time were not generally interested in the self-disclosure of the Confessions, as the meaning of the Scriptures for their own lives. They did not go to Augustine to hear him talk about himself, they came to Augustine to hear him talk about Christ, God’s revelation to humankind. In Augustine’s day, the starting point and ending point on Augustine’s literary works were only his works dealing with Scripture.

Browse any bookstore shelf, and you can find the Confessions & The City of God. If you are studying theology, or in part of a bookclub, or have a decent short commentary, I don’t recommend the City of God or the Trinity. I also don’t recommend them, because there are so many other better places to start. Augustine’s Sermons & Scriptural Works have not been widely available in English.

Augustine’s Works in English

An internet search of Augustine will lead you to New Advent’s archives of his writings. It is free. However, you will not find any commentaries on Augustine’s works. You get what you pay for, and you may not understand what you are reading. I do recommend taking a look over it. I especially recommend that if you have read the Confessions, and didn’t like it, to read a Sermon here, so you can see the difference. Not only is reading long term on the computer a problem for most people, but the translations of Augustine here tends to be more than a century old.

Catholic University of America Press, for almost a century, has endeavored to translate the Church Fathers into English. Most of Augustine’s works, in this series, were translated between 70 and 40 years ago. These are serious translations principally aimed at Patrology students and scholars. All Hardcover (only) starting at $35+. Missing in this series are most of Augustine’s Sermons and his commentary on the Psalms, but you may still find some of his exegetical works including the Homilies on John’s Gospel and Epistles. It should be clear that these are a reputable source for Augustine’s works, and I highly recommend them. However, I think that there is another more accessible (and complete) Augustine series available.

The Augustine Heritage Institute has set out to complete translations into English of the entire literary corpus of Augustine into an accessible and contemporary style. The Augustine Heritage Institute consists of Augustinians, and other international English speaking scholars on Augustine. The majority of his works are currently only available in hardcover, but many works that are worth looking at are also available in paperback, and a few in Kindle.

It is in this series that you find the Confessions endorsed by Augustinians: Maria Boulding’s English translation. The most recent publishing consists of Augustine’s Exegesis on the New Testament, to which I highly recommend. The City of God has been published in the past two years in Paperback and Kindle. A series of Writings dealing On Christian Belief is available in Paperback, and contains many shorter treatises on the faith that people will find accessible, particularly the Enchiridion (Handbook) on Faith Hope & Love.

You can find all five volumes of the Commentary on the Psalms in Paperback, as well as the currently available First Volume on Augustine’s Homilies on the Gospel of John. Augustine’s Homily on the Epistle of John is available in a slim volume, as well as on Kindle. Although the complete set of Sermons are only available in Hardcover, a single volume Essential Sermons is available in Paperback and Kindle.

So far, New City Press has yet to publish an anthology of Augustine’s entire corpus. There is a Vintage Classics anthology “Late Have I Loved Thee,” on Augustine’s writings on Love. There you will find some of his Sermons, Letters, Commentaries on the Psalms and Scriptures, which could be some of the best places to start. I do, however, find that the translations more convoluted then New City Press.

So, I have classified them below, from Beginner to Intermediate, to Advanced. I have placed The Confessions on intermediate, because I don’t think it is the best departure for Augustine studies for everyone. I have exclusively relied on New City Press editions of Augustine. I have placed Amazon links for print, and kindle where available.

Beginner

Works for beginners require a basic understanding of Sacred Scripture. Even reading the short introductions in most Catholic Bibles will suffice.

These selections are generally shorter. A Sermon might be a few pages. A Commentary on a Psalm may also be a few pages (or several). These would not require a long term commitment. Some of these consist of shorter treatises of Augustine.

Deeper study into Church History, Ancient Philosophy, Theology & Scripture will illumine more, but much can be received without a study of these.

Essential Sermons
|    Paperback    |    Kindle    |

Expositions on the Psalms
|    I Paperback    |    II Paperback     |    III Paperback    |    IV Paperback    |    V Paperback    |    VI Paperback  |

Homilies on the First Epistle of John
|    Paperback    |    Kindle    |

Enchiridion on Faith, Hope & Love (The Augustine Catechism)  Also available in On Christian Belief
|    Paperback    |    Kindle    |

On Christian Belief
|    Paperback    |

Intermediate

I would recommend that these works be studied after reading the short Introductions & Commentaries, or other writings / studies on these works. I also think that some initial study of Theology, Church History, and/or Ancient Philosophy should be a prerequisite.

Confessions
|    Paperback    |    Kindle    |    Study Edition    |

New Testament I & II
|    Paperback    |

Homilies on the Gospel of John I
|    Paperback    |

Marriage & Virginity
|    Paperback    |

On Genesis
|    Paperback    |

Advanced

I would not recommend reading these without becoming more familiar with Theology or Ancient Philosophy.  Neither would I recommend reading these without having first explored the commentaries from these books, or other articles about these works. 

Teaching Christianity
|    Paperback    |    Kindle    |

The City of God
|    Vol I Paperback    |    Vol I Kindle    |    Vol II Paperback    |    Vol II Kindle    |

Selected Works on Grace & Pellagianism
|    Paperback    |

The Trinity  
|    Paperback    |    Kindle    |

BONUS: If Beginner is too intimidating!

These are links to a few devotional type books. None of them actually cover an entire literary piece of Augustine, perhaps they are daily reflections. They would also help familiarize people with Augustine.

Day by Day with Saint Augustine by Fr Donald Burt, OSA

15 Days of Prayer with Saint Augustine by Fr Jaime Garcia, OSA

Augustine of Hippo by Fr Thomas Martin, OSA

Augustine Day by Day

Daily Meditations with Saint Augustine

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