We rightly remember Augustine as a renowned theologian and intellectual genius. He bequeathed to us a corpus that has shaped the foundations of the Western church. Works like The City of God and On the Trinity underscore his brilliance, and of course, his best-known work, Confessions, has resonated with readers in their personal experience for centuries.
It is also important to recall that this same Augustine was not an ivory-tower theologian or isolated writer disconnected from the day-to-day life of the people in Hippo. He was indeed a churchman, a priest who devoted years of his life to serving those under his care. And Augustine’s Instructing Beginners in the Faith (or De catechizandis rudibus) gives us a picture of this Augustine, a man who cared deeply about people coming to faith and doing the work of instruction that God might use to help bring them to that point. I want to highlight three aspects of the book here: the person of Augustine, his instruction in the art of teaching, and his emphasis on salvation history.
First, as just noted, Instructing Beginners in the Faith reveals his care for people. In this book, Augustine is responding to the deacon Deogratias, who was asking for help in teaching those interested in the Christian faith. Raymond Canning, in his introduction to this work, observes that it is uniquely aimed at “pre-catechumens”; it is “well-nigh the sole work from Christian antiquity . . . that focuses precisely on how to present the Christian faith to newcomers (rudes), that is, to those who were approaching the Church to make their first formal inquiries about becoming Christians” (xii, xiii). And Augustine takes time to personally instruct this deacon.
Furthermore, this work shows Augustine’s desire to see people come to faith. He advised Deogratias and his readers to love others:
Follow the example of good people, be prepared to endure the wicked, have love for all, for you do not know what people who are wicked today are going to be tomorrow. Do not love their sinful behavior, but love the people themselves in the hope that they may embrace an upright way of life. (118)
He also called Christians to show patience with unbelievers:
We shall learn with what great forbearance we ought to endure the wicked—we who have no knowledge of the kind of people they may later turn out to be—since God, from whom nothing in the future is hidden, spares them and lets them live. (78; cf. 111)
Far from being a disconnected theologian engaging in minute doctrinal debates, Augustine was directly involved in—and cared deeply about—the work of pointing people to Christ in the hope that they would repent and believe.
This book also displays Augustine the psychologist. Augustine is one of the great theologians of the church who has an uncanny insight into the human psyche. (Jonathan Edwards, I would argue, is another.) For example, Augustine is not fooled by people; he is fully aware that just entering the walls of the church does not make a wicked person holy (118). He is also able to dissect the human soul and help his hearers put into words their own feelings that they do not know how to articulate themselves, which is seen perhaps best in his discussion of the roller-coaster emotions that teachers experience.
That leads to our second point: in part one of the book, Augustine gives incisive instruction on the art of teaching. He offers a fascinating discussion on the mind and the tongue: while the teacher experiences flashes of insight in the mind, he is often disappointed with his attempt to articulate those insights to others. Augustine himself says this:
I am nearly always dissatisfied with the address that I give. For the address I am so eager to offer is the superior one which I enjoy again and again in my inner being before I begin to formulate it in spoken words. And when I find that my actual address fails to express what I have before my mind, I am depressed by the fact that my tongue has been unable to keep up with my intellect. For all the insight that I have I want to pass on to my hearer, and I become aware that, speaking as I am, this is not going to happen, mainly for the reason that that insight floods the mind as with a sudden flash of light, whereas speech is slow-moving and drawn-out and of a very different nature. And while speech is still spinning out the words, that intellectual insight has already vanished into its secluded domain. (5–6)
These thoughts are instructive as to the nature of both human reflection and human speech—and into the weaknesses of both. Much can be learned from recognizing the value of reflection and the challenge of effectively communicating the fruit of such reflection.
Augustine goes on, though, to encourage his readers, specifically Deogratias here but also by extension others:
The very fact that people who are to receive their initial grounding in faith are repeatedly brought to you should make you realize that others do not find your words as dissatisfying as you do. And you should not think of yourself as a failure just because you do not find the words you want to express what you discern intellectually. Perhaps your capacity for such discernment too is not as strong as you wish it to be. For in this life who sees other than obscurely and through a mirror? . . . But good people make progress from day to day toward the vision that will be theirs on that day when the heavens no longer revolve and night falls no more. (7–8)
This selection shows Augustine’s care for teachers as people. It shows him as an encourager who wants the teachers under his instruction to succeed even as he knows that none of them will ever be able to speak with perfect purity.
In terms of teaching method, Augustine recommends that teachers give “a general summary sketch of all the content” by selecting certain, not all, events. With these particular, pivotal events, he says that teachers ought to “linger a little, unfasten the wrappings as it were, unroll the parchment, and offer its contents to the minds of our hearers to consider and admire” (14).
As important as methods are, for Augustine the “greatest concern” for teachers is “how to make it possible for those who offer instruction in faith to do so with joy” (8). He explores the barriers to a cheerful disposition and suggests practical ways to overcome them. We cannot go into them all. But one important point for Augustine is that we must teach not for our own glory but out of love:
We will be less fearful of the unpredictable reactions of our hearers which make us feel uncertain about the effectiveness of our address . . . if it is not our own glory that we seek there. For a work is truly good only when the will of the one who performs it is struck with the shaft of love and when, returning as it were to its proper place, the will comes to rest again in love. (44–45)
A third point to raise is that in offering examples of teaching beginners in faith in part two of the book, Augustine emphasizes salvation history. The best way to grasp the Christian faith, in Augustine’s view, is to see how God’s redemption unfolded through successive ages of salvation history (Augustine’s model includes six ages of this world). To pull this together, Augustine repeatedly highlights symbols of Christ and salvation throughout the Bible (e.g., 79, 80, 83, 84, 89, 93, 110, 115). He also emphasizes the “spiritual meaning” of Scriptures in ways that would certainly make some post-Enlightenment Bible readers squirm but that would have made sense to readers in his day. Augustine also argues repeatedly that Christ’s work was foretold, a crucial point to teach newcomers to the faith (115–16). One aspect of Augustine’s approach that was unique at this stage in church history was that he saw salvation history continuing down to the present time, not stopping with the giving of the New Testament.
It is worth mentioning briefly that Jonathan Edwards also emphasized the history of redemption in his reading of the Bible and his understanding of Christian doctrine. He also saw salvation history as stretching down to his own day and treated it as such in his lengthy “History of the Work of Redemption” sermon series. (I tried to emphasize and bring out this important aspect of Edwards’s biblical interpretation in my Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms: A Redemptive-Historical Vision of Scripture.) While they certainly differed on key points (e.g., Edwards would have rejected Augustine’s affirmation of the perpetual virginity of Mary, 92–93), the continuity between them on their approach to salvation history is significant.
Instructing Beginners in the Faith offers treasures for all manner of readers. It gives us historical insight into the person and passions of Augustine. It provides teachers food for thought on the nature and challenges of teaching while suggesting ways to overcome barriers to effective communication. And it invites people to embrace and share the Christian faith in its redemptive-historical form.