We will never finish with his confessions because they will not finish with us” (12), Robin Lane Fox writes in his new five-hundred-page biography of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Lane Fox, a historian of the ancient world, endeavors to tell the story of Augustine’s life from his birth in Thagaste in 354 to the completion of his Confessions in 397, using Confessions as a key to understanding his intellectual and spiritual development. Indeed, Confessions becomes as much a lead protagonist as Augustine. Lane Fox states that his goal is to “place Augustine, with the Confessions in hand, as the central panel of a triple set of sketches, like a triptych on a medieval Christian altar” (8). The side panels of the triptych are peopled by Libanius (d. 394), a pagan rhetorician of Antioch, and Synesius of Cyrene (b. 373), bishop of Ptolemais in Libya. In almost all forty-three chapters, Augustine is compared and contrasted with his imagined Eastern interlocutors, Libanius and Synesius. At its best, the triptych concept gives occasion for insightful comparisons among the three men, but it can also prove frustrating to leaf through pages of Libanius or Synesius to get to Augustine.
As the subtitle indicates, Augustine is about conversions and confessions, and Lane Fox dedicates roughly half of the book to each theme. The first three parts (chapters 1–20) treat Augustine’s conversions from birth to ca. 386, the year of his conversion in a Milan garden. Lane Fox explains what conversion meant to ancient thinkers, before taking the reader through Augustine’s three conversions: (1) from rhetoric to philosophy, (2) from worldly ambition, and (3) renunciation of sex. The next three parts (chapters 21–42) take up the theme of confessions, seeing Augustine from his post-conversion retreat through his baptism, the death of Monica, his return to Africa, his ordination first to the priesthood and then as bishop, and finally the composition of Confessions. In winter and spring 397, Lane Fox argues, Augustine dictated Confessions in three to six weeks during a protracted illness (532ff.). This is a minority view, but one worth considering, based on Lane Fox’s evidence and careful reading.
Augustine is not the biography its title suggests it to be, but rather a biography of Augustine’s Confessions and its author. Strengths include the attention given to Neoplatonism, Plotinus, and Porphyry, as well as two chapters on Manichaeism (chapters 9–10). Lane Fox acknowledges that Peter Brown’s is still the classic biography in English (573), and I think that remains the place for new disciples of Augustine to start reading. I found part 6 (chapters 35–42) to be the most compelling and worth reading on its own, as it synthesizes much of the previous chapters’ insights, culminating in Lane Fox’s persuasive redating of Confessions and clear and concise exposition of the text. Readers interested to learn more about Augustine will likely find the sections on the other panels of the triptych—Libanius and Synesius—either fascinating or tiresome, or, as this reader did, both. Modern Reformation readers will like to know that Augustine does not display great theological nuance. Lane Fox readily assumes his readers to be enlightened modern people, offended by Augustine’s doctrines of original sin and predestination.
Overall, this is a rather long book that is somewhat confused about its own identity. Augustine has three protagonists and is not a complete biography: after 397, the book’s namesake lived another thirty-three years. Moreover, it treats Confessions as Augustine’s literary zenith up to the year 397; but as Lane Fox notes, it was not until one year before his death that we have any evidence that anyone requested a copy of the text (561–62). Augustine was not a one-book man, or a one-book-among-others man, and it seems either hermeneutically dubious or futile to read his previous works as coalescing in Confessions and subsequent works as echoing them. This said, Lane Fox helps readers encounter an Augustine developing intellectually and spiritually from his licentious youth to his sobering career as bishop, an Augustine less like the timeless evangelical Christian or the idealized saint-to-sinner convert.
Although Fox leaves off in 397—before the Pelagian controversy, the sack of Rome, and City of God—his book consolidates the most recent Augustine scholarship and makes it available to readers outside the guild of professional historians. Bibliographical summaries at the head of each chapter’s endnotes serve as succinct and helpful introductions to secondary literature. There is minimal recapitulation from chapter to chapter, and I noticed very few typographical errors. Christians always do well to read about and reason with Augustine who lived at the end of the Roman Empire, an age perhaps even more transitional than our own. Lane Fox’s biography provides another occasion to consider a theologian foundational to the history of Christianity and our Reformed heritage.
J. G. Amato is a member of the United Reformed Churches in North America and a graduate student of history at Stanford University.