Three decades ago, the esteemed Lutheran author Gerhard Forde wrote that "theology is for proclamation." In his magisterial new book, Augustine’s Preached Theology: Living as the Body of Christ, J. Patout Burns demonstrates from the venerable Church Father’s homiletic oeuvre the inverse and equally essential point: Proclamation is for theology.
For whatever else Augustine of Hippo was, he was undoubtedly a preacher. In his north African bishopric, he would preach to his congregation two to three times a week, not to mention the myriad of special services for which he would be called upon for duty. This regimen continued for some three decades. The opus of Augustine’s sermons, therefore, numbers in the thousands. Furthermore, just those that are extant comprise more than 1.5 million words. Wading through their contents in search of a particular theological nugget is like panning for gold in the Yukon.
Thus, if he had accomplished nothing else in Preached Theology, Patout Burns would have done a tremendous service to the Church and students of Augustine by synthesizing the contents of those many sermons and providing copious footnotes for further research. As it is, in this study of the relationship between Augustine’s pulpit ministry and the development of his theology, Burns has provided an enriching investigation which proves much greater than the sum of its homiletic parts.
Plumbing the depths
Preached Theology proceeds topically, and each chapter stands on its own, independent of the others. After an introductory segment and a programmatic one on the interpretation of Scripture, there follows pieces on riches and poverty, sin and forgiveness, baptism, eucharist, marriage, the ministry, the saving work of Christ, the human situation, and Christ and the Church. Exhaustive indices by author, subject, and scriptural reference make Preached Theology an accessible handbook that will lend itself well to both the seminary classroom and the preacher’s study.
While Augustine never shies away from ethical exhortation in his preaching, undoubtedly the burden of the Bishop’s preaching ministry was in its robust theologizing. Preached Theology establishes the degree to which Augustine engaged deep theological questions in his sermons.
While Augustine never shies away from ethical exhortation in his preaching, undoubtedly the burden of the Bishop’s preaching ministry was in its robust theologizing.
To give just a taste of the topoi he intrepidly took up in worship over the course of his career, and which Burns gamely surveys in his book: Divine and human interaction in forgiveness (page 76); the eucharist and the immortal bodies of the saints (page 128); continence within marriage (page 145); the Savior’s human participation in divine operations (page 268); original sin and inherited guilt (page 225); and on and on it goes. To read Preached Theology it to receive an inspiring, if not also humbling look at the depths which may be plumbed from the pulpit.
A challenge to contemporary preachers
Here is where Burns’ study presents a challenge to contemporary preachers. The trend among preachers in recent generations has been to eschew in the sermon serious theological reflection (which was putatively the provenance of the academy) in favor of more immediately accessible and supposedly relevant helps for living. The sermon thus gets co-opted into the individual’s self-actualization scheme and becomes a tool of (in Christian Smith’s felicitous phrase) “moralistic therapeutic deism.”
Such preaching would have been utterly unintelligible to Augustine. For him, preaching had as its orientation “that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Corinthians 2:12), and as its aim the ongoing formation of a peculiar people outfitted for life in the city of God. It was necessary to muster all one’s theological resources to this task. Preaching ought, therefore, to be regarded not as the second-class stepsister to academic theology, but as its pioneering elder brother. Or in the immortal words of Moby Dick, “The world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”
But the preceding analysis does highlight one weakness in Augustine’s Preached Theology: Its reticence to make such connections to present concerns, not the least of which are homiletic ones. To be sure, Augustine preached and ministered in a very different time and place, and we would chafe at any simplistic applications to contemporary life and ministry. Inasmuch as the book was produced under the auspices of a grant given for the purpose of showing the “modern relevance” of Augustine’s sermons (page 2), though, this was something of a disappointment. This reader wished for a concluding chapter that made explicit applications from Augustine’s preaching, which would have seemed to fit with the Church Father’s own penchant for keeping faith practical.
This critique notwithstanding, Augustine’s Preached Theology is an exceedingly helpful distillation of the Bishop of Hippo’s pulpit ministry and a sterling testimony to the potency of proclamation for theology. Meticulously detailed and exhaustively researched, J. Patout Burns’ study of Augustine’s sermons will be the standard bearer in the field for generations.
 Burns, J. Patout. Augustine’s Preached Theology: Living as the Body of Christ. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, MI, 2022.
For readers who share this interest, they may be pointed to Gilbert Meilaender’s excellent book, The Way that Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life, or James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine.