BOOK REVIEW: Christ the Way: Augustine’s Theology of Wisdom

Editor’s note: This post first appeared in Ad Fontes, a publication of the Davenant Institute.

Quinn, Benjamin T. Christ the Way: Augustine’s Theology of Wisdom. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Academic, 2022.

At the end of the first paragraph of his Confessions, Augustine famously wrote, “for Thou hast made us for Thee and our heart is [restless] till it finds its rest in Thee.”[1]  But many do not recall that at the beginning of the paragraph he speaks almost immediately of wisdom when he writes, “Thy power is great and of Thy wisdom there is no number,” likely quoting from Psalm 146:5.  Why is this significant?  Because wisdom (sapientia) is one of the most dominant themes in all of Augustine’s work.

Augustine tells us in Confessions that after some time of mischief in his teen years he discovered Cicero’s now lost work, Hortensius.  This work inspired him toward wisdom.  “Suddenly, every vain hope became worthless to me and I yearned with unbelievable ardor of heart for the immortality of wisdom.”[2]  He continues, “And at that time, Thou knowest, O Light of my heart, since this passage from the Apostle was not yet known to me, what brought me relish in this exhortation [of Cicero] was that I was excited and aroused and inflamed to love, seek after, attain, and strongly embrace, not this or that philosophic school, but wisdom itself, whatever it is.”[3]

Strong words from the newly ordained Bishop, writing in his early 40’s about his experience as a late teenager.  As Lewis Ayres writes in the forward of Christ the Way, “Among those great writers of the early church, Augustine of Hippo offers one of the most well-developed and important reflections on the theme of Wisdom.  Indeed, the many dimensions of Wisdom are drawn out in his writings in a way perhaps unparalleled elsewhere.”  While it would be more than a decade after reading Hortensius before his conversion to Christ in the garden at Milan, Augustine’s pursuit of wisdom never waned.  Rather, upon his conversion his sapiential passions inflamed even more for Christ, the power and wisdom of God, producing the most influential theologian known to the west, and arguably to the world.

In Christ the Way, I take up this very story of sapientia in the thought of St. Augustine.  The most basic questions the book seeks to answer are, What is wisdom?, and What is wisdom’s role in Augustine’s thought?  This is accomplished by considering the development of wisdom throughout Augustine’s life, followed by an in-depth look at Augustine’s On the Trinity.  The book ends with a critical evaluation of Augustine’s view of wisdom, considering contemporary wisdom scholars, especially from the Dutch Reformed tradition.

Chapter 2, thus, explores Augustine’s sapientia from birth to Bishop. Born into a half-Christian home in North Africa and given a strong classical education, Augustine doubtless encountered the notion of wisdom from a variety of sources, not least from his mother Monica. Exactly how Augustine understood sapientia during this time is largely speculative, though some insight can be gleaned from his Confessions and from what is known about his early influencers like Cicero and Ambrose. Chapter 2 then moves to Augustine’s conversion and the Cassiciacum dialogues where wisdom’s priority, wisdom as Christ, wisdom and the mind, and wisdom as the modus animi constitute Augustine’s major sapiential thought. The final section of this chapter considers wisdom from 387–395 especially in the following works: On Free Will, Eighty-Three Varied Questions, On the Catholic and Manichean Ways of Life, On True Religion, On the Advantage of Believing, and On the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount. On Free Will is especially important for this period because, (1) it is the most sapientia saturated of Augustine’s writings during this time, and (2) its time of writing spans almost the entire time period under consideration. Brief attention is also given to Augustine’s early letters and sermons believed to have been written during this time. Chapter 2 concludes after identifying numerous sapiential ingredients, as well as 1 Corinthians 1:24 and Colossians 2:3 as two of four core sapiential texts in Augustine’s understanding of wisdom.

Chapter 3 explores sapientia from 396–430, taking up a two-fold task: first, this chapter seeks to identify the time between To Simplicianus (Simpl.) and Conf. (c. 396–401) as the period when sapientia coalesces in Augustine’s thought beginning with the first references to 1 Corinthians 12:8 and Job 28:28; and second, it seeks to demonstrate basic continuity between the sapientia of 393–395 and that of 396–430. With the overwhelming number of works, sermons, and letters written between 396–430, and with On the Trinity (Trin.) as the primary interest of chapter 4, chapter 3 begins by considering the emergence of 1 Corinthians 12:8 in Simpl. and Job 28:28 in Conf. Next, it isolates a variety of the most pertinent sapiential texts including letters and sermons from this period. Finally, the chapter concludes with a synthesis of sapientia in A Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, On Christian Teaching, Tractates on the Gospel of John, and City of God.

Chapter 4 returns to Augustine’s seminal On the Trinity where his most sustained and systematic treatments of sapientia are found. This chapter begins by attending briefly to Neoplatonism in Augustine, and then offers a summary and assessment of Fulbert Cayré’s important article “Le notion de Sagesse chez Saint Augustin” (“The Notion of Wisdom in Saint Augustine”). With this groundwork in place, the chapter employs a two-pronged approach of examining sapientia in Trin. at both the macro and micro levels. A modified version of Cayré’s categories provides the grid for the macro assessment, followed by an up-close exegetical exploration of books 6–7, 12–14, and 15 for the micro view. The chapter then discusses ontology, structure, and direction in Trin., culminating with a formal definition of Augustine’s sapientia.

The final chapter invites contemporary Wisdom scholars into the conversation to offer an assessment of Augustine’s sapientia, especially where it intersects with the doctrine of creation. This group of scholars include especially those who have attended closely to the relationship between creation and wisdom. Scholars in the Dutch Reformed tradition have given considerable attention to this area in recent years, though other scholars including Gerhard von Rad and Roland Murphy are also important voices. The chapter begins by identifying the core components of the creation/wisdom intersection in Augustine, then offers the same from contemporary Wisdom scholars. The next section assesses and synthesizes the two intersections considering strengths and weaknesses of each, fundamental overlap between the two, and where each might learn from the other. The chapter concludes with suggestions for further research. With these introductory comments, and with the development of wisdom prior to Augustine in view, we can now sketch what wisdom is and does in Augustine.

Ultimately, Christ the Way is a retrieval and renewal effort.  I find it no coincidence that Augustine speaks more of wisdom than any other theologian in history (at least so far as I know) and that his influence is immeasurable across time and space, and across the many disciplines even of the modern university.  Augustine understood Wisdom most importantly as the person of Christ, the One in Whom all things hold together.  As such, Wisdom is, as Raymond Van Leeuwen argues, a “totality concept”, a point of coherence for all of reality and thus a timeless concern for all people.  Engaging Augustine on the matter thus guarantees a rich and fruitful experience of learning better what wisdom is and does for all of life.

And while our appreciation for Augustine runs deep, we must not uncritically adopt his sapientiology without considering it against the whole of Scripture.  As seen in the final chapters, Augustine’s mature view of wisdom retains a dualism, limited though it may be, that is met with tension when evaluated by the wisdom of Proverbs, for example.  While Augustine would heartily affirm Proverbial maxims such as, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” his metaphysical commitments nevertheless motivate him to situate wisdom-proper in the upper register of his ontological scheme, distant from the material creation.  As such, Augustine’s lofty notion of wisdom struggles to align with Proverbs’ rather earthy view.  Precisely why Augustine situates wisdom in this way is hard to say.  I suggest in the book that perhaps the reason Augustine leans toward Pauline passages and descriptions of wisdom (especially where both wisdom and knowledge are mentioned) to build his doctrine, rather than passages from Proverbs (though admittedly Job and Wisdom of Solomon feature strongly in his sapientiology), is because Col. 2:3, for example, fits more naturally in a hierarchical metaphysic in which wisdom is located at the top and knowledge at the bottom.  The earthiness of Proverbs is simply less metaphysically convenient.

Nevertheless, despite points of tension, Christ the Way argues that Augustine remains a most fertile source for retrieving and renewing Wisdom for today.  May this be but the beginning of a conversation, especially in dialogue with contemporary wisdom scholars who sympathize with Augustine regarding both doctrine and method, a conversation about retrieving, renewing, and reimagining wisdom from Augustine—the Wisdom that is Christ—for the Church and the world.[4]

Benjamin Quinn is academic director of the BibleMesh Institute.

                [1] Confessions, 1.1.1, Vernon J. Bourke, ed. (Washington, DC; CUA Press, 1953).

                [2] Ibid., 3.4.7.

                [3] Ibid., 3.4.8.

                [4] This summary is adapted from the Introduction of Christ the Way: Augustine’s Theology of Wisdom, with permission from the publisher.