Augustine & Contemporary Catholic Theology

December 1992By Herbert Ryan

Herbert J. Ryan, S.J., is Professor of Historical Theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los An­geles.

Confessions.  By Saint Augus­tine. Translated with an Intro­duction and Notes by Henry Chadwick. Oxford University Press. 311 pages. $24.95.



Henry Chadwick, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, is the foremost patristic scholar in the English-speaking world. Chadwick has contributed to every facet of the study of the writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church. He established the critical text of Origen’s Contra Celsum. He is the author of a much re­spected history of the early Church. His writings on the interrelation between early Christian thought and the classical tradition set the stan­dard of excellence in this field of interdisciplinary study. Ten years ago when Chadwick re­tired as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and returned to his native Cambridge, he began to focus his unique talents on the writings of Boethius and Augustine. His translation of Augustine’s Confessions is but his most recent work in a decade of almost unequaled scholarly produc­tion.

Chadwick’s Introduction to his translations of the Confes­sions is lucid, scholarly, and brief. He places the Confessions in their historical context and is at pains to explain Augus­tine’s way of thinking. Chad­wick stresses the constant use Augustine made of the Psalms throughout the Confessions, and he identifies the Latin text of the Bible which Augustine quotes and even more frequently paraphrases. With the ease and mastery of a skilled teacher, Chadwick illustrates how Augustine creatively ap­propriates the thought of Ploti­nus. With typical modesty, however, Chadwick never al­ludes to his own 1986 biogra­phy of Augustine. For anyone who wishes to relish this new and perhaps arresting render­ing of Augustine’s Confessions, it would be helpful first to read Chadwick’s Augustine for an overview of Augustine’s life and to experience the crisp elegance of Chadwick’s English prose.

How arresting is the translation? Here is Chadwick’s version of the richly sonorous and suggestive passage in Book X which commences with the oft-quoted Sero Te amavi: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the ex­ternal world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and drew in my breath and now I pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” For those long familiar with J.M. Lelen’s now classical transla­tion of the Confessions, or Frank Sheed’s, or the more recent translation by R.S. Pine-Coffin, Chadwick’s translation seems startling. Though this new translation is less poetic than any of the three others so widely circulated in the U.S., Chadwick’s version is a trans­lation of Skutella’s 1934 Teub­ner text which was revised by H. Juergens and W. Schaub for Teubner in 1981. It is a transla­tion far closer to the text Augustine produced. Chadwick has translated the new textus receptus of the Confessions. It is an excellent and accurate En­glish version of the best Latin text of the Confessions modern paleographical scholarship can provide.

But as helpful as is the In­troduction and as accurate as is the translation of the newly established critical text, the most significant contribution Chadwick has made is the abundant notes printed at the bottom of each page of the translation. With clarity and precision Chadwick pours out his unmatched erudition of patrology and the history of the early Church to elucidate Augustine’s text at every turn. Even if a person has a general knowledge of Augustine’s writ­ings, Chadwick’s notes connect Augustine with the intellectual and literary currents of late an­tiquity in ways hitherto unsus­pected. The notes are master­ful. They help the average reader comprehend what Au­gustine is doing, and they de­light even the specialist with their incisive and new insights. The entire work is a scholarly achievement of the highest or­der which even the non-special­ist can relish.

But is Chadwick’s new presentation of Augustine’s Confessions just the refurbishing of a well-beloved classic of Christian literature? That in itself would of course be signif­icant. But this successful effort of so gifted and productive a scholar felicitously portends far more, especially for Roman Catholic theology. The theolog­ical awakening that undergird­ed Vatican II reflected the prior study of the writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church, a movement today called the Resourcement. The leaders of this intellectual movement created no organiza­tion to implement a previously decided agenda. Hesitant to venture into the waters of biblical scholarship troubled in the first decade of the century by the Modernist storm, Mersch, Jungmann, Quasten, Danielou, De Lubac, Grillmei­er, Hugo Rahner, Jedin, and Leclercq devoted their skills to the full recovery for Roman Catholic theology of the patri­mony of the Church Fathers and the experience of Church history. The scholars of the Resourcement went back beyond the neo-scholastic theology so dominant in their day and uncovered and popularized the ancient sources of the Roman Catholic tradition. One of their number was an Italian semi­nary professor whose superiors made it difficult for him to publish his research. But An­gelo Roncalli would do more for the Resourcement than any of his more productive col­leagues. He entered the papal diplomatic corps and eventually became Pope John XXIII. The program he espoused for Vatican II is a summary of the research the Resourcement had achieved through over 40 years of steady scholarly effort.

How strange it must have seemed at first to the scholars of the Resourcement to have dis­covered at the origins of the Latin theological tradition, so central to Western European civilization, three writers radi­cally different from one anoth­er in background and tem­perament. The first was a fiery Tunisian lawyer, the second an acerbic Yugoslav linguist, and the third and most influential of all was a brooding Berber rhetorician. But despite their differences, Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine gave to the Western Church their passion­ate concern for the vital impor­tance of religious experience in Christian faith and theological reflection. Western theology’s characteristic concerns — eccle­siology, revelation, the act of faith, grace, and salvation — still are posed in the theologi­cal framework forged by these three seemingly so divergent Christian thinkers. It is no coincidence that these are the major themes of John XXIII’s Vatican II, which embodied the Pope’s plan for aggiornamento. That aggiornamento still remains the agenda of contemporary Roman Catholic theology.

Few works deal more directly with the subject of re­ligious experience than Augus­tine’s Confessions. The journey of the young Augustine to faith in God is the substance of the story. But the heart of the story is Augustine’s own pro­found experience of the tran­scendent. It is not a simple narrative of conversion. It is an exploration of continuing reli­gious experience as he strug­gles to articulate what he un­derstands of his experience in language that is both poetically expressive and philosophically exact. In Augustine’s Confes­sions the reader can observe a theologian in the act of doing theology. It is this type of theological reflection that John XXIII hoped would renew the Church. May Chadwick’s mas­terful translation of the Confes­sions help that renewal to flower.



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