Saint Augustine on the Resurrection of Christ

Teaching, Rhetoric, and Reception

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Gerald O'Collins, SJ
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , June
     2017.
     160 pages.
     $24.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198799542.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Gerald O’Collins has a twofold goal in Saint Augustine on the Resurrection of Christ. First, identifying a lack of scholarship on the role of Christ’s resurrection in Augustine’s writings, O’Collins seeks to present a brief overview of how the resurrection is discussed in select works of Augustine, and how Augustine defends it apologetically as a rhetorician. Second, having provided a brief sketch of Augustine’s theology and apologetics on the issue, O’Collins engages in a “creative reception” of Augustine’s writing on the resurrection, in which he critically assesses the saint’s work and brings him into conversation with contemporary figures, both friendly and adversarial. 

The first chapter provides a concise yet informative summary of the major themes Augustine treats when discussing the resurrection of Christ. O’Collins identifies seven themes frequently discussed by Augustine and explains how they are used in his writing, paying careful attention to Augustine’s scriptural exegesis in service of making these points. This attention to scripture is one of the most notable aspects of the book. Augustine’s theology is always deeply informed by his exegesis, and O’Collins carefully details Augustine’s reading of the biblical texts being exegeted. For example, O’Collins frames the discussion on how Augustine treats the Christ’s agency in the resurrection in terms of Augustine’s preference for the phrasing of later New Testament writers over Pauline formulations (5). O’Collins also frequently discusses modern biblical criticism, especially in areas where contemporary scholarship and Augustine disagree. 

The second chapter focuses on Augustine’s apologetic defense of the resurrection against pagan arguments for its impossibility. As O’Collins highlights, Augustine makes the standard appeal that the God who created from nothing can surely also raise the dead (37). Like modern authors, Augustine also argues that the truth of the resurrection is the only plausible explanation for the rise and success of Christianity (41). In this section O’Collins begins his project of critically and creatively engaging with Augustine. For example, he “translates” Augustine’s appeal to the mysterious creation of a child in the womb to the more general fascination with science and awe at the universe that many feel today (39). He also supplements the arguments Augustine makes in favor of the reality and centrality of the resurrection with the work of more recent figures such as Christopher Evans, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and N. T. Wright (48-49). O’Collins also critiques Augustine’s focus on touching the risen Christ, rather than seeing him, an emphasis throughout the book whose purpose regrettably only becomes clear in the final chapter. 

In the book’s final two chapters, O’Collins introduces the concept of creative reception and begins an assessment of and engagement with Augustine’s thought. While the first two chapters provide excellent summaries of Augustine’s positions and deftly weave in criticism and the insights of contemporary figures, the final two chapters are less coherent. One problem is that because what Augustine says about the resurrection is not particularly original or different from that of other patristic figures, the chapters feel less like bringing Augustine into conversation with modern figures and more like the Christian tradition being brought into conversation with modern figures. The choice of interlocuters is also sometimes strange. O’Collins spends several pages, for example, describing a work of historical fiction by Philip Pullman and how Augustine might respond to it (65-71). Bringing one of the greatest minds in the Western tradition to combat a polemical young adult fiction writer is surely a case of “punching down.” There are, however, still valuable insights in these chapters. In the final chapter, O’Collins finally makes clear why he has taken issue with Augustine’s emphasis on touching rather than seeing Christ. As O’Collins has pointed out previously, the New Testament clearly favors language of seeing (44). Furthermore, even stories traditionally interpreted as instances where the risen Christ was touched, such as the Johannine accounts of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Christ and Thomas’s confession of faith, upon closer reading, may not actually describe the risen Christ being touched (10-11). The significance of seeing Christ, O’Collins points out, comes from the accusation of both ancient and modern doubters that Jesus should have appeared to more than just his own disciples after the resurrection. The emphasis of the New Testament on seeing Christ, and especially on initial difficulties in recognizing Christ, highlights that “those who saw him needed to be offered and to receive some graced powers of perception” (99). For O’Collins, then, accounts of seeing the risen Christ contain theological and apologetic importance that Augustine never addresses. 

This work is a strong contribution to scholarship on Augustine. It fills a gap in scholarly literature concerning Augustine’s teaching on the resurrection and provides anyone looking to further investigate this issue an excellent starting point. While the latter half of the book’s focus on creative reception is less helpful, it nevertheless still provides interesting insights and starting points for constructive work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel A. Mullins is a graduate student in Theological Studies at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gerald O'Collins, SJ taught at the Gregorian University from 1973 to 2006 and was also Dean of the Theology Faculty 1985-91. He has authored or co-authored sixty-seven books including Revelation: Toward a Christian Theology of God's Self-Revelation (2016) and Catholicism: The Story of Catholic Christianity, Second Edition (2014). As well as receiving numerous honorary doctorates and other awards, in 2006 he was created a Companion of the General Division of the Order of Australia (AC), the highest civil honour granted through the Australian government.

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