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  • St. Augustine’s Dilemma: Grace and Eternal Law in the Major Works of Augustine of Hippo
  • Michael Heintz
Dennis Creswell. St. Augustine’s Dilemma: Grace and Eternal Law in the Major Works of Augustine of Hippo. Studies in Church History 5. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. Pp. xv + 159. $39.95 hb.

This work was originally a doctoral dissertation under the direction of Carl Volz. C. deals with both purpose and method in his introduction. According to C., in past studies of Augustine’s teaching on grace, inadequate attention has been paid to his later works (particularly De gratia et libero arbitrio, De praedestinatione sanctorum, De dono perseverentiae, and the incomplete Contra secundam Iuliani responsionem). In fact, only Peter Brown, Benjamin Warfield (who introduced and revised the translation of the Anti-Pelagian works found in the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Series), and John Calvin have given appropriate attention to these texts and thus are virtually alone in correctly understanding Augustine’s “mature” teaching. Gerald Bonner and others outside of the Reformed tradition (J. Burnaby and, presumably, R. Markus) have given short shrift to these later works in their own research, and thus have fallen victim to what would seem too benign a reading of the Doctor of Grace. According to C., it is because of Augustine’s discovery of Paul (as early as 396/7) that he is able to begin to reconcile the biblical (Pauline) teaching on grace with the Neoplatonic metaphysics of God. The resolution of Augustine’s “double commitment” to the immutability of God and the Eternal Law and to the utter gratuity of His grace was achieved through the doctrine of double predestination (139–40). C. acknowledges that his thesis will possibly meet with opposition, but his purpose (in the face of confessional and academic resistance) is “to represent Augustine correctly” (6). [End Page 324]

In terms of method, C. has divided Augustine’s literary activity into five distinct phases (386–391; 391–396/7; 397–412; 412–427; and 427–430). He analyzes texts from each period, with a view to understanding his developing teaching on grace. C. chooses not to include among works under consideration most of Augustine’s homiletic remains (e.g., Enarrationes in psalmos) and all but one of his Epp.

There is no doubt that C. has undertaken a daunting task. Augustine’s teaching on grace and related issues of will and predestination is complex and requires enormous sensitivity to the subtleties of language and context. While C. offers a large number of texts (his work almost appears at times as running commentary) in order to make his case, a more fundamental question of method might be raised. Augustine was not a systematic theologian: he was at various moments in his ministry a homilist, catechist, apologist, polemicist, and spiritual director; he would (and did) say things to Julian of Eclanum that he might not say to Paulinus of Nola. While texts are the indispensable raw material of analysis, context is equally essential.

Moreover, there is a tendency to treat the believer as an isolated and autonomous spiritual unit, abstracted from community: there is little mention of the communal mediation of grace through the Church and its sacramental life. Augustine’s ecclesiology seems hardly to come into play. For example, one is given the impression that the ultimate lesson Augustine derived from the Donatist controversy (relative to his thinking on grace) is “that even being a priest is no guarantee that one will have the power to overcome the temptation to sin” (5).

The text and bibliography are marred by numerous spelling errors, especially of Latin words; Enarrationes is misspelled throughout the text, and (more misleadingly) Retractationes is consistently spelled Retractiones (in the bibliography it is given the English title “Retractions”); Tractatus (3) and voluntates (72) are among others words misspelled. While the bibliography contains several articles by J. Patout Burns, it fails to mention his important 1980 study of Augustine’s teaching on operative grace. It carries a hefty price for a slim volume, and has no index.

Michael Heintz
Fort Wayne, Indiana

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pp. 324-325
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