Augustine’s Sources

It was perhaps a year ago when a friend of mine remarked that he had, strangely, never considered Augustine as a thinker working within an established tradition. For whatever reasons, but most certainly due to Augustine’s immense status in our tradition- indeed he is perhaps the only patristic source that the average Reformed Christian is aware of, we fail to keep in mind that Augustine’s thought, especially regarding the Trinity, was not formed in a vacuum. On the contrary, he had numerous traditional sources to draw from.

Ambrose is the obvious example. He was Augustine’s pastor and perhaps the most instrumental figure in Augustine’s conversion. With Ambrose, comes Origen, as Ambrose was greatly influenced by Origen. It is also fairly certain that, as a North African Christian, Augustine would have known of Tertullian and his body of work.

Beyond these well-known names, a few more can be listed. Lewis Ayres, in a 2000 article for the Journal of Early Christian Studies, lists several other figures: “In which group I include such figures as Hilary, Ambrose, Gregory of Elvira, Phoebadius of Agen, Eusebius of Vercelli, and Rufinus” (‘”Remember that you are Catholic” (serm. 52, 2): Augustine on the Unity of the Triune God’, JECS, 8 (2000), 47.).

Augustine quotes Hilary directly in his De Trinitate, and a good introduction to Hilary’s role in the development of Latin theology can actually be found in D. H. Williams Ambrose of Milan. The book is about Ambrose, but it spends a sufficient amount of time describing Hilary’s role. Williams also examines Gregory of Elvira and Eusebius of Vercelli.

Most readers are likely unfamiliar with those last two names, which simply proves that we are unfamiliar with the development of the Latin tradition. As is our wont, we jump from super-star to super-star in Church history, and thus fail to grasp the complexity and the inter-relatedness of the various thinkers and traditions.

Augustine is thoroughly contextualized thinker, and his immediate context is most certainly the Pro-Nicene Church.  He is certainly Western, but he is combating the same challengers as the East and answering them in much the same way.  Hilary, in particular, represents a figure who was in both East and West, as does Jerome, who I have not yet mentioned, but was a Latin-speaker operating out of Jerusalem.

Sometimes you have to just see the forest rather than each tree, but the danger is that by not looking at the trees in sufficient detail, you are actually seeing the wrong forest altogether. Thus with the study of the history of Christianity, given all of the competing meta-narratives, we need to spend more time on the specifics.