Friday, July 16, 2021

Introduction: Augustine, Harmony of the Evangelists


Introduction to this Project

I am undertaking a consecutive reading along with notes and commentary of Augustine of Hippo’s work Harmony of the Evangelists [De Consensu Evangelistarum], also known under the title The Harmony of the Gospels.

For the reading, I am going to be making use of this English translation edition:

From Marcus Dodds, Ed., The Works of Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. A New Translation. Vol. VIII. The Sermon on the Mount, and the Harmony of the Evangelists. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1873.

Translated by S. F. D. Salmond.

For the work in Latin online, look here.

A Very Brief Sketch of the Life of Augustine of Hippo

Augustine (354-430) was the influential bishop of Hippo in North Africa. He was born to a Christian mother, Monica, and a pagan father. He was intellectually gifted, embraced Neoplatonic philosophy, and became a teacher of rhetoric in Milan, Italy. In Italy he dabbled in an Eastern religion known as Manichaeism, which he rejected, and eventually came under the sway of the preaching of Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. In 386 he was converted while walking in a garden, having heard a voice say Tolle lege (“Take up and read.”), having picked up a Bible to read Romans 13:13.

After his baptism he returned to North Africa thinking he might establish a monastic community with a circle of his Christian friends, but he was soon pressed into ministerial service by his local bishop and eventually become bishop himself of Hippo. Augustine was a prolific writer, teacher, and theologian. He was also a polemicist and apologist engaged in the great controversies of his day, including the Donatist Controversy dealing with the restoration of those who had accepted compromise during earlier seasons of persecution and the Pelagian Controversy, dealing with the unorthodox teaching of Pelagius, who denied the power and extent of sin among fallen men.

Among Augustine’s two best known works are his Confessions, which many consider to be the earliest example of an autobiography, and The City of God, his defense of Christianity in the face of those pagans who blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome (AD 410). When he died, his own city of Hippo was besieged.

Augustine’s writings had an immense influence in the generations after his death, particularly in the Western world. In the Middle Ages he was acknowledged to be one of the four preeminent “Doctors” of the Western church (the others being Gregory the Great, Ambrose, and Jerome).  His teachings on original sin, predestination, and the sovereignty of God in salvation were among the hallmarks of what would come to be called “Augustinian” theology, a perspective that was heartily retrieved, in particular, at the time of the Protestant Reformation.

A Brief Introduction to the Harmony

This introduction is based on S. F. D. Salmond’s “Introductory Notice” provided in the 1873 edition (135-138).

The composition of the work is assigned to about the year AD 400. According to Salmond, “Among Augustine’s numerous theological productions, this one takes rank with the most toilsome and exhaustive” (135-136). It is an apologetic and polemical work. The editor notes, “Its great object is to vindicate the Gospel against the critical assaults of the heathen” (136). Persecution having failed, pagans tried to discredit the faith “by slandering its doctrine, impeaching its history, and attacking with special persistency the veracity of the gospel writers” (136). He continues, “Many alleged that the original Gospels had received considerable additions of a spurious character. And it was a favorite manner of argumentation, adopted by both pagan and Manichean adversaries, to urge that the evangelical historians contradicted each other” (136).

The plan of the work is presented in four divisions:

In Book 1, “he refutes those who asserted that Christ was only the wisest among men, and who aimed at detracting from the authority of the Gospels, by insisting on the absence of any written compositions proceeding from the hand of Christ Himself, and by affirming that the disciples went beyond what had been His own teaching both on the subject of His divinity, and on the duty of abandoning the worship of the gods” (136).

In Book 2, “he enters upon a careful examination of Matthew’s Gospel, on to the record of the supper, comparing it with Mark, Luke, and John, and exhibiting the perfect harmony subsisting between them” (136-137).

In Book 3, Augustine “demonstrates the same consistency between the four evangelists, from the account of the supper to the end” (137).

In Book 4, “he subjects to a similar investigation those passages in Mark, Luke, and John, which have no proper parallels in Matthew” (137).

Salmond notes that in taking up this task Augustine was both “gifted with much, but he also lacked much.” He had a high view of Scripture, but “he was deficient in exact scholarship” (137). Though well versed in Latin literature, “he knew little Greek, and no Hebrew” (137). The editor notes that there is “less digression” than is customary in his writing, and he less frequently indulges in “extravagant allegorizing” (137). He has “an inordinate dependence” on the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and almost seems to claim “special inspiration” for it (137-138).

With respect to Augustine’s harmonization of the Gospel narratives, Salmond observe: “In general, he surmounts the difficulty of what may seem at first sight discordant versions of one incident, by supposing different instances of the same circumstances, or repeated utterance of the same words” (138). Furthermore, “He holds emphatically by the position that wherever it is possible to believe two similar incidents to have taken place, no contradiction can legitimately be alleged, although no evangelist may relate them both together” (238).

Finally, Salmond suggests Augustine’s work should not be subjected to overly harsh judgement given he entered “an untrodden field” (138). His work cannot be denied “the merit of grandeur in original conception, and exemplary faithfulness in actual execution” (138).

It is this Harmony that we will attempt to read and offer notes and commentary in upcoming episodes in this series.


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