Michael J. S. Bruno, Political Augustinianism: Modern Interpretations of Augustine’s Political Thought (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014), 347 pages.
In recent years, Christians have increasingly turned to Augustine’s social and political thought as a source to re-envision our now familiar debates on the modern public square. With such a growing literature on “Augustinian political theology,” “dual citizenship” cultural paradigms, and “two cities” models of church and society, a person wanting to become familiar with these ideas can easily become lost in the noise. Seeking to remedy this problem, Michael Bruno’s Political Augustinianism tries to orient readers to ways that Augustine’s thought has been interpreted in the last century and to suggest a path forward in Augustinian retrieval for current Christian thinking.
Originally his dissertation completed in Rome under the leading Augustine scholar Robert Dodaro (who has written the Forward), Bruno’s work attempts to be both historical and analytic. The first aim is to narrate a comprehensive history of Augustine interpretation since World War I. On his choice of which authors to survey, Bruno is interested primarily in scholars’ attempts to apply Augustinian thought to contemporary situations and not in historical excavations into a narrow detail of Augustine’s life or work. His narrative will cover primarily those who try to rehabilitate Augustine’s theology for a modern age.
The second aim of the work is to explore key themes in modern Augustine interpretation and to “examine the hermeneutical and contextual questions that undergird such interpretations” (pp. 9–10). Bruno maintains that his work will not only lay out history descriptively but also evaluate those Augustinian proposals. This is saved primarily for the concluding chapter.
The book begins with the French-speaking scholarship on Augustine in the early decades of the 20th century. This allows him to introduce the book’s overriding concept of “political Augustinianism,” an important phrase from Henri-Xavier Arquillière’s 1934 work L’augustinisme politique. “Political Augustinianism,” as Bruno expounds it, denotes the view that Augustine had distinct political ideas that can be mined apart from his theological doctrines or ecclesiastical ministry. In addition, “political Augustinianism” sees Augustine’s ideas as having sowed the theoretical seeds for a Medieval Christendom model of Christian empire. Though previous scholars approved of such notions of a Christianized society, Arquillière and others began to criticize the perceived connection between Augustine and later Medieval “ecclesiocracy.” The most important French development then was to reject “political Augustinianism” as a correct reading of Augustine himself. In the 1950s, Henri Irénée Marrou argued that Augustine was much more modern than previously realized; Marrou proposed the concept of an overlap between the two eschatological cities—heavenly and diabolic—in the present earthly city as a “tertium quid,” a third thing neither specifically holy nor profane. Political action takes place in this middle ground.
Beginning in chapter two, Bruno turns to Anglo-American sources for the rest of the book. He regards Reinhold Niebuhr as the key figure who reintroduced Augustine to the contemporary scene in his “realist” reading. In chapter three (“Disputing the Saeculum”), the next stage of Augustinian scholarship was the argument over the precise identification of Augustine’s two cities. Here Bruno replays the debates between Robert A. Markus “secular” reading of Augustine and John Milbank’s “ecclesial” reading. Within the same chapter, Bruno also considers a number of others authors who wrote on this topic, including Rowan Williams, Joseph Ratzinger, Gaetano Lettieri, James Schall, Peter Iver Kaufman, and William Connolly.
Chapter four brings the discussion up to the present time with authors still writing on Augustinian topics. The only clear overriding theme of this chapter is the continued turn to “virtue” as a way to think about Augustine’s political thought. Bruno considers such diverse figures as James Wetzel, Miikka Ruokanen, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Graham Ward, Oliver O’Donovan, Charles Mathewes, Michael Hanby, Eric Gregory, and Robert Dodaro. It is clear that Bruno sees the work of Dodaro as the shining culmination of recent Augustinian thought, especially for his use of lesser-known sources of Augustine—such as newly discovered letters—that go beyond the standard City of God.
The final chapter is Bruno’s attempt to lay out some of the important hermeneutical issues in reading Augustine and applying his ideas in a contemporary context. Of particular importance is the continuing question of “political Augustinianism” and whether Augustine can be said to have a “political” vision for society. “The answer, therefore, to the initial question at the beginning of this section of whether Augustine has a particular political vision must be answered negatively, as the political realm itself is of little concern when compared to the Christian’s citizenry in the eternal city” (p. 242). For Bruno, separating out a “political” concept in Augustine distorts his overall thought.
Bruno then proposes three categories to label modern interpretations of Augustine: “Nominal Augustinian,” “Augustinian,” or “Authentic Augustinian.” Reinhold Niebuhr is named the consummate “Nominal Augustinian,” one who uses Augustine’s categories only when they fit one’s own prior vision. “Augustinian” is exemplified in Herbert Deane, who was faithful to Augustine in one particular area of Augustine’s thought (politics), though not interested in the whole. Lastly, an “Authentic Augustinian” is one who takes seriously the theological nature of Augustine’s thought (without separating out a “political” vision, for example), one who incorporates the whole of Augustine’s corpus (especially letters and sermons), and one who clearly separates the eschatological ends of the two cities. Not surprisingly, Robert Dodaro is put forward in this last category.
The final chapter also includes Bruno’s defense of Augustine on three charges that modern writers often accuse Augustine: guilt, sexuality, and the subversion of the temporal order by the church. On every charge, Bruno attempts to show that all modern criticisms of Augustine attack a straw man. Augustine continues to yield insights even in this modern age. Bruno singles out the role of the Christian politician and the role of the Christian citizen as the main areas we can apply Augustine’s thought today. In sum, Christians should be engaged in politics in such a way that their ultimate hope is not in this world but in the one to come.
An evaluation of Bruno’s work must begin with the simple acknowledgement of what it is and is not. Political Augustinianism reads like a biographical dictionary of modern Augustine research or perhaps a massive review of literature. Although Bruno claims to do analytic work in connecting themes, very little is said in highlighting the differences between authors, and no new categories are introduced to help sort out “schools” or “traditions” of modern Augustine interpretation, at least beyond the fairly trite categorization of who is “truly” Augustinian or not. The chapters are introduced without a clear explanation of why certain scholars are included or why they are arranged as such (Miikka Ruokanen, for example, is included in the chapter on the 21st century even though his works on Augustine were written in the 90s and he has since moved on from the topic). Chapter introductions and conclusions lack helpful summaries or analysis, averaging about 1–2 paragraphs and serving only to bookend the section headings of different Augustine scholars. Bruno has section headings for 25 Augustine scholars in a span of just over 200 pages (and that’s not including figures such as Henri de Lubac who lurk throughout without ever having an introduction or section heading). Eric Gregory, for example, is given 4 pages.
Despite the claim to evaluate contending Augustine interpretations, the book does little beyond citing Robert Dodero’s works by which to judge rival readings. Bruno lists the English translation of City of God as the only Augustine work in his list of Abbreviations, but I counted only four times that it is cited by Bruno (in two of those, he quotes the editor of the text and not Augustine himself). If a reader is already convinced of Dodaro’s interpretation of Augustine before reading this book, then there will be much to agree with. If one is not, then nothing in the book is offered to persuade the reader of Bruno’s own interpretation of Augustine, which is basically a re-presentation of Dodaro’s work.
The weaknesses of Bruno’s approach may be obvious, but its strength is as a resource for bibliography and numerous summaries of modern Augustine interpretations. The opening chapter on French interpretations should be especially helpful for those who are unfamiliar with that context. The book’s best use would be on the reference shelf of an Augustine scholar or someone already familiar with the general contours of Augustine’s thought who wants to know where to find secondary sources.