Augustine's Leaders

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Peter Iver Kaufman
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , April
     194 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this book, Peter Ivan Kaufman poses the question, “[What] did Augustine expect of the [world’s] leaders?” (ix). Augustine’s Leaders serves as the second volume of three in which Kaufman sets out to explore Augustine’s “political pessimism and radical political theology” (ix). Contrary to Michael Bruno’s thesis in his Political Augustinianism (Fortress Press, 2014), as well as Robert Dodaro’s Christ and the Just Society in the Thought of Augustine (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Kaufman presents Augustine as much less idealistic regarding temporal political change. The sort of optimism that Augustine encountered within both political discussion and theological debate did not square with his theological anthropology nor his interpretation of history. According to Kaufman, Augustine envisioned his leaders (whether emperors or pastors) to “trust God’s sovereignty and grace” as well as exude the sort of humility and wisdom that recognized the fleeting nature of this world, yet to hold out optimism for “the celestial fate of the faithful” (6). With this guiding notion, Kaufman conveys both the unfolding of those expectations in Augustine’s interaction with various leaders, and the eventual frustrations it produced.

In chapter 1, Kaufman addresses Augustine's assessment of imperial leaders. Augustine was acutely aware of the atrocities committed by pre-Christian emperors in their lust for power, but he was equally skeptical of Constantine’s supposed “heaven on earth” transformation of the now “Christian” Roman Empire. Augustine’s political theology was anything but imperialist. This did not preclude him from bolstering the Christian acts of certain emperors, but they were still at best Christian rulers within an earthly Babylon. Kaufman helpfully balances Augustine’s pessimism with his commendation of imperial acts which benefited the church and advanced the orthodox gospel. But having known of Ambrose’s imperial encounters, Augustine was formed in such a way as to recognize the spiritual authority that ministers of the gospel could hold even over the highest of governmental figures. Scandals would continually plague politics as they were “[unavoidable in] the terrestrial city” and thus the “final, celestial victory” must be continually extolled (35).

Chapters 2 and 3 address ecclesiastical leaders in Augustine’s thought. Kaufman gives readers a helpful assessment of episcopal involvement in temporal affairs, highlighting Augustine’s call for humility for bishops. Whether involved in helping facilitate a civil matter, or preaching for doctrinal fidelity, humility was the key virtue to guide ecclesiastical involvement. It was Catholic Christianity’s detractors who were guilty of overreach, according to Augustine. Kaufman explores the complicated life of a bishop in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, and demonstrates the murky political waters often waded through by the church’s most visible leaders, with varying degrees of success. In turning to the pastoral office, Kaufman highlights the relationship between parishioner and pastor, and the pastoral duty of soul care. The political nature of this call becomes clear: pastors were to be heralds of the celestial kingdom while addressing the sins and dysfunctions of the earthly kingdom. Offense was inevitable (72). They were also to address theological error as it arose within the church. The primary errors addressed by Augustine, Donatism, Manicheaism, and Pelagianism, required all hands on deck to combat. Pastors were also to be serious about discipline, in order to help parishioners halt the advance of wickedness in their own lives. Such rebukes were “intrusive…[but] necessary” (112).

Chapter 4 provides an assessment of Augustine’s view of civic leadership. From Augustine’s perspective, Christian magistrates were often concerned more with celebrity rather than the celestial kingdom. His hope for governmental reform was limited, seeking rather to persuade through pastoral means. Here Kaufman takes on Dodaro’s optimistic evaluation of Augustine and politics in Christ and the Just Society. Transformation of society has its limits, as appeals to power, lust, greed, and more still plague a fallen world, including (and perhaps more so) its civic officials. The sometimes tense relationship between pastor and government official caused Augustine both to garner their assistance (specifically within the Donatist controversy) while calling out their inconsistencies. The privileges enjoyed by magistrates did not deter Augustine from pastoral admonitions; rather, it further informed Augustine of the fleeting nature of the earthly city, encouraging him to preach the virtues and expectation of the heavenly commonwealth.

Kaufman provides a helpful and readable text which engages current research and prevailing notions about Augustinian political philosophy. Augustine’s Leaders, as well as his previous work in this area, demonstrates Kaufman’s ability to engage critically, yet charitably, with alternate views. One area where Kaufman could have increased his engagement with Augustine’s wider literature base is chapter 3. Augustine has much to say about the virtues of pastoral leadership in his De doctrina christiana, particularly books 4 and 5, which could have given helpful information as to how Augustine envisioned pastoral interaction both inside and outside the walls of the church. This is a small note, however, compared to the wealth of interaction Kaufman includes within the sermons, letters, and various treatises (with an obvious emphasis on De civitate dei) of Augustine. This text will be helpful for students of Augustine’s political philosophy and theology, as well as those exploring social interactions between civic and ecclesiastical officials in late antiquity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Coleman M. Ford is Adjunct Professor of Church History at Boyce College and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the co-founder of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter Iver Kaufman is Charles Matthews and Virginia Brinkley Modlin Professor at the University of Richmond and professor emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His essays on Augustine have appeared in The Cambridge Companion to "The City of God", Journal of Late Antiquity, and Church History as well as in several of his books, Redeeming Politics (1990); Church, Book, and Bishop (1996), and Incorrectly Political (2007).



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