Saint Augustine on the Resurrection of Christ. Teaching, Rhetoric and Reception

st augustineSaint Augustine on the Resurrection of Christ. Teaching, Rhetoric and Reception
Author: Gerald O'Collins SJ
ISBN: 978-0-19-879954-2
Price: £16.99
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Year: 2017
Publisher: Oxford University Press

On 3 July each year the Church celebrates the feast day of St Thomas the Apostle, 'doubting Thomas'. At Vespers in the Divine Office on that day these words appear for the antiphon for the gospel canticle Magnificat: Misi digitos meos in fixuras clavorum et manus meas in latus eius, et dixi: Dominus meus et Deus meus, alleluia.. This text, not in John's gospel, imagines Thomas recounting the act of touching Jesus' wounds and putting his hands in the Lord's side. While Jesus in the gospel invites Thomas to do this, we are not told that he did - he acclaims 'My Lord and my God' straightaway.


Gerald O'Collins in this important new book points out that St Augustine, in two of his sermons, was one of many commentators who overlooked this, assuming that Thomas (and the disciples in the corresponding passage in Luke where the risen Christ shows them his wounds) actually touched the wounds and the side. This care and attention to detail by O'Collins, as always, are marks of his consummate scholarship shown again in his latest book. His task is simple: since Augustine never wrote a work specifically devoted to the Resurrection of Christ, he aims to assess Augustine's view of it across a wide range of his writings (and he explores a very big quarry: Answer to Faustus the Manichean, The City of God, Expositions on the Psalms, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Letters, Sermons, and Concerning the Trinity), and to assess this view alongside the insights of modern scholarship. O'Collins builds on his earlier works about the Resurrection (four specific books and numerous articles and parts in other books).

Augustinian scholarship worldwide is very fertile, and O'Collins acknowledges his debt to recent works by Rowan Williams (On Augustine, reviewed in this journal, July/August 2016) and in particular the three volume Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine (ed. Karla Pollmann, OUP 2013). The first chapter simply assesses how central the Resurrection was to Augustine's own faith. We are reminded how deeply scriptural, and indeed Pauline, this faith was, stressing Christ's active role in his rising from the dead. The point I alluded to above about 'doubting Thomas' is made in the context of Augustine's discussions, often in sermons, of the particular characteristics of Jesus' risen body on earth before the Ascension. Augustine's theology of the Resurrection leads into the place of the risen Christ in the life of the Church, particularly in the sacraments.

Chapter 2 examines how Augustine, as a trained rhetorician, argues the case for the Resurrection, refuting the arguments pagan writers had used over the years against the plausibility of the event. This also includes the very important argument, still strong today and revived in a particular form by Wolfhart Pannenberg, that the Resurrection is the only adequate cause for the actions and successes of the witnesses of the Resurrection and the earliest Christians (in this way his overlooking the fact that Thomas is not actually said to have touched the wounds suits his argument, since he sees this as having had more effect on the disciples than if they had merely seen him). Augustine supplements this position by appealing to miracles and the phenomenon of martyrdom. O'Collins observes that Augustine 'appreciated how the human hunger for full and lasting happiness opens us up, through the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, to become potential hearers of the Easter message.'

Part of the purpose of the book is to engage Augustine in dialogue with contemporary writers, and the next chapter, 'Augustine's Resurrection Faith Updated', begins this, drawing extensively on the handbook edited by Pollmann referred to above (Williams does a similar thing in his book). With regard to theologians O'Collins looks in particular at Swinburne, Rahner, KŸng and N. T. Wright - both philosophically and in terms of scriptural exegesis. While contemporary figures operate in a different intellectual world (the examples O'Collins cites are the developments of analytical philosophy and historical-critical Biblical scholarship) dialogue and engagement are fruitful. Among modern figures whom O'Collins also brings into the picture is Philip Pullman in his 2010 book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Edinburgh: Cannongate 2010) which he criticised at the time (Philip Pullman's Jesus [London: DLT 2010]). He also looks at how Augustine's rhetoric in relation to the Resurrection stands up to modern scholarship. Here O'Collins stresses a consistent feature of his subject's preaching and writing - his sense of awe at the wonders of God's creation. As he puts it, Augustine 'recognised that those who lack all sense of wonder at God's original creation will need to change if they are to accept the message of Easter faith.' (p. 98). Another point O'Collins makes forcefully is that it is a great mistake to neglect the importance of Christ's Ascension, which many contemporary theologians do. 'The risen and ascended Christ lives forever as the primary minister of the Church's sacraments, the High Priest who intercedes for us, and the Head of the glorious Totus Tuus. In recent times, a lack of attention to the ascension has gone hand in hand with a neglect of Christ's role as eternal mediator and priest. It is in this area that Augustine's fully deployed theology of the resurrection maintains its lasting challenge and significance.' (p. 117)

This short and readable book is another testimony to O'Collins' daunting scholarship and deep Christian faith, and is well worth reading.

Ashley Beck, St Mary's University, Twickenham