Augustine & Contemporary Catholic Theology
By Saint Augustine. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Henry Chadwick
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Review Author: Herbert Ryan
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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