Rhetoric and Scripture in Augustine’s Homiletic Strategy

Tracing the Narrative of Christian Maturation

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Michael Glowasky
  • Leiden: 
    , December
     165 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is difficult to claim that there are areas of scholarship on St. Augustine that remain understudied. But if there is one area that has shown great promise in recent years, it is the rich source material found in the hundreds of sermons Augustine preached over nearly four decades. But what does one hope to find in these sermons? Do they merely fill in the gaps of what one already “knows” to be true about Augustine based on the picture presented in treatises such as Confessions, City of God, and On the Trinity? Or do the sermons present a different view?

In Rhetoric and Scripture in Augustine’s Homiletic Strategy, Michael Glowasky argues that the sermons do not merely supplement or nuance the Augustine of the treatises but in fact offer a unique contribution. In Glowasky’s words, “Augustine employs a distinct homiletical strategy in his sermons designed to lead those in his audience beyond a simplistic materialism toward the contemplation of God in eternity through an ever-deepening contemplation on the eternal God revealed through Scripture” (6). This distinct homiletical strategy refers, in particular, to Augustine’s appropriation of the ancient rhetorical category of narratio to articulate God’s communication with humanity through history and scripture, and the recapitulation of this communicative dynamic in preaching. In ancient rhetoric, narratio comprised the elements of a speech in which the orator narrated the statement of facts of a case in such a way that proved the speaker’s argument. For Augustine, scripture contained a divinely orchestrated narratio of temporal-material events to reveal the eternal-immaterial God to human creatures and to draw them into divine contemplation. The preacher’s task, thereafter, was to mirror the narratio of scripture in distinct ways based on the spiritual maturity of the audience.

The book’s argument unfolds elegantly, with an initial chapter on narratio in classical rhetoric and its transposition into Augustine’s scriptural preaching. This is followed by three chapters on Augustine’s sermons to audiences of different levels—catechumens (unbaptized), neophytes (newly baptized), and the faithful—and the way in which Augustine brought to bear different applications of narratio in rhetoric to each one: forensic, deliberative, and dialectical, respectively.

Glowasky recognizes that narratio was not a monolithic term in antiquity and, especially by Augustine’s period, could be used in several ways. Most notably, narratio was useful for allowing a speaker to arrange the telling of events in a way that would best resonate with a particular audience. In the Christian preacher’s case, however, the narratio was not something created but discovered. God has already arranged the key moments of history, which scripture recapitulates in written form. The preacher’s task was to craft an argument that mirrored the scriptural narratio faithfully but also in a form commensurate with the audience’s understanding.

The first kind of audience for whom Augustine mirrored scripture’s narratio included unbaptized catechumens. In preaching to those at the earliest stage of the Christian life, Glowasky argues, Augustine laid out scripture’s narratio by drawing on a judicial-forensic style of rhetoric, which used narratio primarily in a historical manner to outline the facts of a case, which was then followed with a confirmatio—the part of a speech in which the orator presents a logical appeal for the veracity of the argument—that affirmed the narrative’s presentation. There is evidence of the forensic use of narratio especially in Augustine’s important treatise on catechesis published around the year 400, Instructing Beginners in the Faith (New City Press, 2005). In this work, Augustine presents the events of history to demonstrate the Catholic Church as the legitimate locus of salvation, with the catechumens imagined as judges in a case who are called on to decide the veracity of the preacher’s argument. The confirmatio comes, however, not in this preliminary stage of catechesis but in the later prebaptismal stage, when catechumens receive the creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

The second audience to which Augustine directed focused sermons included the newly baptized neophytes. To this audience, Glowasky finds Augustine using a deliberative form of rhetorical narratio to strengthen the Christian identity of the newly baptized. No longer needing to be persuaded to join, the neophytes now need ethical instruction to live faithfully. For this task, the future orientation of narratio in deliberative rhetoric served Augustine best, with its use of comparison and clear delineations of the prescriptions and proscriptions of the Christian life. No longer judges, Augustine’s hearers are now drawn into active participation in the narrative of scripture.

Finally, Glowasky considers Augustine’s sermons to the faithful, those who are more mature in the faith and so requiring a different engagement with scripture’s narratio. For this audience, Augustine utilized not one rhetorical genre but the “dialectical quality of narratio that cuts across all genres” (125). In these sermons, Glowasky argues, Augustine drew out the dialectical dimensions inherent in narratio to train his listeners through the use of figurative biblical interpretation and analogical modes of rhetoric (similitudes, contraries, and differences) to advance from the sequential, historical order of life in the world to the contemplation of eternal realities in the life hereafter.

The greatest strengths and weaknesses of the book come from the close attention Glowasky gives to the varieties of narratio in antiquity and their use by Augustine. His articulation of the role of narrative especially helps make sense of the issues underlying Augustine’s Instructing Beginners in the Faith de catechizandis rudibus, where Augustine’s task is specifically addressing the question of teaching the narratio of scripture. At the same time, the arguments at times are overreaching in the need to find Christian preachers adhering to standard forms of rhetoric. Some may be unconvinced by the view—however interesting it may be—that Augustine envisioned the credal and Lord’s Prayer sermons as the confirmatio to the earlier narratio of Instructing Beginners in the Faith. Based on his own arguments about the variety of uses of narratio, one is better off allowing Augustine and other preachers to be more eclectic in their use of rhetorical genres. Nonetheless, even where Glowasky is most adventurous, his scholarship is careful, and his highlighting of the central place of narratio in Augustine’s preaching and scriptural imagination more broadly is a needed contribution to the study of Augustine.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alex Fogleman is research project manager for the Global Flourishing Study at the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
December 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Glowasky is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Ottawa in Ontario, Canada.


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