My History of Christianity professor at RTS taught at Cambridge University for four years. Here's a paper I submitted to him recently with the resulting grade of an A, as well as the comment 'well-written':
The best music is rarely original. It is usually given to us from history by the best performers of the day. When one wishes to relax content with a good work of fiction, they are likewise going to find their treasures in the annals of centuries gone by. No genre, however, is perhaps most exceeded by this principle than the Christian Religion. The best theologian and pastors of the present do their best work by building bridges from the oracles of God to Israel in the Old and New Testaments, especially through the eminent clarifications of the Patristics, Medievals, and Reformers. Chief among them all is Augustine.
Augustine’s work On Christian Teaching is a Classic which guides the Christian into a proper understanding of God, His Church, and the Christian life. Much that has been said well since his time has simply been a reformulation or expansion of his ideas into contemporary language, such as John Piper’s works in the 20th century. What follows is an exposition of On Christian Teaching’s Book 1 under these three main topics: God, the Church, and Christian Living.
According to Augustine God cannot be known. The finite simply cannot grasp the infinite. He exists in a realm above us all. This is meant in the perfect sense. He does not deny that God condescends to communicate and allow us to lisp His praises, but the exact nature of God is such that we never truly reach it completely. That realm of comprehension is for God alone.
This incomprehensible God is also unchanging. He exists in a state completely unlike everything else in existence: permanence. While every rank of spiritual beings can change, and every man is aware of how his own life is one of continual transition, God dwells in absolute security and certain wisdom.
God’s joy is also constant. This can be inferred from Augustine’s point that this transcendent, immutable being does not enjoy anything but Himself. He creates the Universe, uses all things for His glory, and ultimately rests in Himself. All in all, God is Godward in His life, and being fixated on that which is above all things and permanent, is completely and perpetually happy.
This can and should lead the reader of his work to see that God is courageous. Bold. He is wise, strong, and satiated. It is man who is needy. It is man who is miserable, insecure, and in need of something greater than himself to find stability in an uncertain world.
This God, however, does not live like the pagan gods of Greece. He is no Epicurean enjoying His life with no concern for man. Rather, in great condescension, He gives to man the greatest gift of all -- Himself. Augustine explains this by explaining the nature of God’s communication to man, the Church.
God could have formed an angelic institution whereby man regularly attends the proclamation of God’s Word in the heavens. This, however, would degrade man’s position as it now stands. God would not be dwelling among man, but at a distance. He would not be making His house the very people of God, the Church. Nor would brother pour his life into his fellow brother, but the angels would be the instrumental focus of every individual man.
God has ordained an institutional Church whereby her leaders, trained in the rudiments of language, are able to discover upon reading, and explain in speech, the books God has written by men to communicate His thoughts to His people. These Scriptures are a set of books which scholars can readily master through proper training and share with the community, and any educated laymen who peruses them can verify teaching like the Bereans mentioned in the book of Acts.
As early as the fourth century human pride manifested itself among God’s people by the wish to have no such authority over them. Men did not want to have a group of teachers learned in the books of God; rather, they wanted to have immediate access to God apart from teachers and books. They wanted to live in complete autonomy, whereby the motions of their sinful hearts dictated their thoughts and actions without any objective accountability.
Augustine presents the teachers of God’s Church as normal human beings. While every truth man has is from God, and every error his own invention, it is still the same process of reading whereby His truths are found. And so there is the possibility for correction among fellow teachers. The books are open to the public for any and every teacher to read, they are likewise ‘normal’ books.
This principle can be seen in Augustine’s chapter on the benevolence of certain errors. Any interpretation done from a good heart, for the edification of the Church, should not be initially condemned. It should be recognized as a good work. Subsequently, the teacher should be addressed, not as having erred from malice, but human fallibility. In this way truth and holiness is to be maintained in the Church’s ministry.
Finally, these teachers and Scriptures will one day be done away with. For the Scriptures themselves are only of temporary use. Once the Church is perfected in love, she will no longer need faith or hope. When she sees Christ upon His return, there will no longer be a need to protect and nurture faith and hope because they will have been replaced by sight. The role of teacher, and the Scriptures themselves, ultimately are eclipsed by the glorified Church and above all, by her Bridegroom.
The last topic is Christian Living. How does the Christian live in harmony with this God and His Church, whose leaders study and explain the Scriptures? First of all, he or she looks to the Christ who is proclaimed in the Word and signified in the Sacraments. There is no other way.
The Son of God’s humility rescues man from his pride -- the very thing that kept him far from enjoying what is truly excellent. His forgiveness of all man’s sins removes the barrier from the fullness of his happiness. He removes the threat of eternal damnation, and secures for man everlasting blessedness by which he will glorify and enjoy God forever and ever.
The Christian life is a lot like the Divine life. First of all, there is no hindrance by lack of self-love. Augustine asserts that no man hates his own flesh because this is Paul’s teaching in the book of Ephesians. Man, as much as God, possesses a principle of self-love which requires no nurturance -- only for man, it requires guidance to that which will truly benefit the self.
Secondly, as mentioned above, the enjoyment of God does not result in desertion of others. While the Christian enjoys God alone, as God enjoys Himself and nothing less, he uses others, and gives himself that others might use him to the end that God is enjoyed.
Augustine’s view of who should be loved in this way is the extreme opposite of the Pharisee’s view, “Who is my neighbor?” While they would only love those who are holy, and of the same flesh and blood, Augustine directs the Christian to love not merely all men, but the angels as well. For in some capacity all men and angels assist us in this life.
The practical answer to this extremely abstract system is Purity and Providence.
How does one find the Trinity? He does not need to go on a pilgrimage to Israel, or any special shrine. He merely needs to purify his heart through faith in the Church’s Christ. Then he will find, wherever he is, at any time, the indwelling of God within His heart.
How does one know how to enjoy God and be of service, more exact, to whom does one lend aid if all are to be loved? Those within one’s everyday encounters. One does not burn themselves out to take on the divine life in its entirety, but rather images it in limited form within one’s God-ordained provenance.
Augustine’s views may at first seem extremely lofty and hard to grasp. However, upon further inspection, many Christians may find that many of their views of God, the Church, and the Christian Life approximate this ancient book. Reading it merely clarifies the teaching handed down to them through the centuries into this present age. And knowing it, they feel capable of spreading it, both by example and word of mouth. May Augustine continue to assist us all in zeal for God’s glory, that God, the angels, and mankind may experience the fullness of joy.