This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Augustine the Preacher”, running in the Fall Term 2023 (September to December), and convened by Dr. Matthew Hoskin.
If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.
Augustine of Hippo is the most influential theologian of the western church—he looms large in the great thinkers who follow him, from Pope Leo the Great to Boethius to Anselm of Canterbury to Thomas Aquinas as well as to Reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Vermigli and their Roman Catholic counterparts such as Bellarmine. Even that famous Arminian John Wesley quoted St Augustine more than any other Church Father. Unsurprisingly, love him or hate him (I, for one, love him), his theology has enduring interest, whether we’re thinking City of God, On the Trinity, or his wildly popular Confessions.
He is also the most influential preacher of the western church.
First, his guide to preaching and exegesis, On Christian Teaching (De Doctrina Christiana) was the most popular of its type throughout the Middle Ages. Not only was it the most popular preaching handbook, it was also the most popular work of St Augustine, period–no doubt for that very reason. His sermons themselves were read and reused throughout the Middle Ages as well, coming up in preaching anthologies called “homiliaries” from at least the seventh or eighth century. Yet despite his popularity as a preacher both in his lifetime and after, he is today mostly remembered as a theologian, whether in Confessions or against Pelagians, Manichaeans, and Donatists, not as a preacher.
A major part of the Reformation tradition celebrated by us here at the Davenant Institute is the cry, “Ad Fontes!” – “To the sources!” To go deeper into our tradition as a whole, and into Augustine in particular, requires getting to know his preaching: read On Christian Teaching for yourself; read the sermons that he preached and the deployment of his skills and techniques.
Initially, you may arrive at Augustine the Preacher simply reading his sermons because you know they’re good for you or useful for understanding the tradition or helpful for knowing Augustine better. But you soon discover that the sermons are worth reading in and of themselves—that is, you see why they are such a mainstay of the western tradition for so many centuries.
Augustine was a powerhouse theologian such as we may never have seen since, yet his sermons are not exercises in detached theological reflection. Augustine certainly excelled as an orator–he was the emperor’s professional orator in Milan. Yet his sermons are not serieses of florid, bombastic rhetorical tricks that choose substance over style. Nor are they merely extended Bible commentaries designed for oral delivery. Rather, they are the attempt to apply theology and exegesis to the real, living humans in the room. They are meant to open up the Scriptures and elucidate theology and exhort morally, all with the aim of building up the congregation of Hippo.
For St. Augustine, it is the task of preaching to encourage, exhort, and strengthen the listeners in their walk with Christ, in their growth into Christlikeness, in their path of discipleship. Yes, his sermons can be rhetorically sophisticated and punchy, and yes, Augustine’s deep theology undergirds them. But unlike going before the emperor in Milan to utter a panegyric of fancy, florid falsehoods as a professional orator, everything in the sermons is done with this particular edifying goal. It’s not enough to explain the Scriptures. How the exegesis leads the listener to love and follow Jesus more, to grow spiritually is the most important thing.
This makes reading Augustine’s sermons invigorating and powerful to this day. Just as he sought to exhort and encourage the people of Hippo, so his sermons continue to exhort and encourage us today.
In my upcoming Davenant Hall course, “Augustine the Preacher”, we will begin with On Christian Teaching. This book is much more than some sort of “handbook” or study in technique. Rather, it is a foundational reckoning with human knowledge and human language, and how we can know and communicate things, including sacred Scripture, as well as a guide to solid exegesis and how to bring out the most from the Bible. Here we will meet the theory, if you will.
After this, we will look at a range of Augustine’s sermons, selected from his Expositions of the Psalms, Homilies on John, select sermons on Matthew, a selection of other sermons, and sermons for Christmastide. Through these sermons, we’ll meet St Augustine’s famous theology, but pointed directly at the average churchgoer—that is, at you and me.
Matthew J. Hoskin teaches ancient and medieval Christian history for Davenant Hall, and theology for Ryle Seminary in Ottawa, Ontario. His research focuses on manuscripts, monks, popes, canon law, and councils, which all feature in his book The Manuscripts of Leo the Great’s Letters (Brepols, 2022), and he blogs about the historic faith at Classically Christian. He lives on Superior’s northern shore in Thunder Bay, Ontario, with his wife and sons.