Peter Brown, Author, Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West
Thinking in Public
December 17, 2012
Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Peter Brown is one of the world’s most respected historians. He currently serves as the Philip and Buelah Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. A native of Ireland, Professor Brown taught at Oxford University until 1975 and was a fellow of All Souls College. He joined the Princeton faculty in 1986 after teaching at the University of London and the University of California at Berkeley. He has been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, a GuggenheimFellowship, and the Mellon Foundation’s Distinguished Achievement Award. Professor Brown is credited with having created an entire field of academic study referred to as late antiquity, covering the years from 250 to 800 AD. His latest work is Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD.
Professor Peter Brown, welcome to Thinking in Public.
Mohler: Professor Brown, when I think of your work I think, first of all, of the fact that you have basically invented an entire new field of history. How did you come up with this designation of “late antiquity?”
Brown: I tell you why, you know, I’m obviously not the only person; I simply use this as a title of a book at a time when it had been used, but it hadn’t been, you know, turned into a major concept. I was concerned largely because when we look back at the history of the Christian church, particularly, it’s very easy to see Christianity of the Reformation period, Christianity of the Middle Ages, and, obviously, everyone is interested in Christianity in its earliest times—in the times of Jesus, in the times of the gospels. But then, you note, there was a lot of Christianity in between and this was a Christianity which although it was very new in the Roman world somehow grew out of the Roman world. That is, one would put it this way, the sort of air people breathed, even if they were Christians, even if they were very aware that they were living in a time of change, even if many of the more leading ones were heavily committed to bringing about change. Nonetheless, just as we modern people breathe the modern air they breathed an air that was still that of the ancient world.
Mohler: Yes; you have argued rather convincingly that most of us, not only in terms of the popular imagination, but also in terms of scholarship tend to misread the Roman Empire and its fall, and your work is a massive reconstruction of that history. And I’d love for you to tell the story of how you found your way into that as a historian.
Brown: Well I think I found into it from sort of two ways. First of all, I wasn’t trained as an ancient historian. My main training wasn’t in what we would call “the classics;” I was much more interested in modern history and in medieval history. So I never regarded the Roman Empire as the absolute apex of history, as indeed some people used to; I was much more interested in as it were what they in the future. That is, what began in the Roman Empire, but kept on happening and became part of the medieval world and then was passed on through the Reformation, through the Renaissance to the modern world.
Mohler: Well in that work you’ve spent so much time looking at particular figures, such as Aurelius Augustine. And, once again, you have had such a fruitful and long career as a scholar that you’ve had the opportunity to even go back and revisit Augustine. Can you tell us of, first of all, Augustine’s role and how you have reconsidered both August and his role in history?
Brown: Oh, wow. I mean, since he’s such a large figure that one is always reconsidering him, I think the way one does it, and you know what one’s talking about is the old fashioned thing that one actually grows older, one hopes that one grows wiser. Certainly much more work on Augustine has been done, very important Augustinian documents, 29 totally new letters which I did not know when I first wrote, 27 totally new sermons which we only knew about only ten years ago, so there was always the reason to change one’s mind. And I think also as one grows older there are certain aspects of a person which one was rather blind to.
Mohler: Well I was amazed in reading your second edition of Augustine and also how you elaborate many of these same themes in your most recent book, and how you demonstrate something about Augustine that is also true of many other figures in history and, in particular, in church history. Many years ago when I was doing my own doctoral work, my major professor in the area historical theology, Dr. Timothy George, required me to do something that I thought was very unusual. He required me to write a paper on Calvin’s doctrinal declarations concerning the providence of God as compared with his pastoral ministry.
Brown: Oh that’s a wonderful subject.
Mohler: Yes; it was. And it was a very clever assignment because what I discovered is that in, for instance, his theological declarations, Calvin would say such things as, “You should never say that God permits anything. A Sovereign doesn’t permit; He ordains and He commands,” and, yet, in his pastoral ministry, Calvin would do the very same thing he said you should not do. He would say, “God permitted this awful thing to happen,” and it’s because it’s pastorally necessary and it’s also true. And you demonstrated that Augustine does more or less the same thing. For instance, on issues of sexuality he says incredibly hard things, but then pastorally he makes a more generous application.
Brown: Oh I think that is absolutely right, and I think that I myself have changed. And, you know, just not only myself, but the whole field in scholarship has changed throughout the period, and not only in relation to Augustine, we’re much more interested in what the preachers actually said. That is, we go back to Augustine’s sermons again and again and again. The new discovered sermons were absolutely wonderful because they were very popular. He preached one sermon two and a half hours long at the height of a major celebration of the pagan calends in Carthage. You could almost hear the noise off the streets and, yet, he’s both got the earthly touch and has no hesitation about dealing with, you know, what we would have thought were very elevated topics at exactly the same time.
Mohler: I think when people think of Augustine and, for instance, the issue of sexuality, what they recall is his statements on sexuality. For instance, this is found in The City of God in which he makes very clear that even within the context of marriage where he limited, of course, human sexuality, it was to be a matter entirely directed towards procreation and that it was sin for it to have any other purpose or enjoyment. And, yet, as you demonstrated, in his sermons he allowed for the fact that married couples ought to be engaged in a life that included sexuality and, furthermore, that even though it was sin for sex ever to have anything other than a procreative purpose, it was not a major sin.
Brown: I think you’re very right there, Doctor; you’re absolutely right. And I think it’s something we tend to really misunderstand. I mean, I think one of his most remarkable statements because he himself was somebody who had opted for celibacy after a hard struggle. He had very much opted for a rather high view virginity and celibacy and, yet, he said the Apostle Paul, although he had been swept up into the third heaven, also at other times stooped to view the marriage bed and was concerned with basically average marriage couples.
Mohler: One of the things that you also point out is something that I think modern people often, even scholars, will just not think about, lacking a certain historical self-consciousness. It’s because we would judge Augustine over against the sexual openness of our society and, where you point out, he actually is modifying those who claimed that what Christianity would require is a complete renunciation of sexuality. Augustine should be seen against that background in which he actually holds a far more holistic and healthy position.
Brown: Oh, I would certainly, certainly agree with that, and I think one of his real triumphs is that he really could embrace the two options. He himself was part of a very sort of vocal movement. I think the sheer zeal of some Christians for celibacy, for virginity, was extremely strong at this time, and he belonged to that side in part of it, but he knew that as a conscientious pastor, and also somebody who believed that God’s providence extended to everyone, he went out of his way to redress a balance, which he must of felt in his own self.
Mohler: Well you demonstrate this with amazing historical detail, but also with what I think many people would find to be an amazing self-consciousness as an historian and especially in the appendices. Kind of like Augustine’s own Retracciones, his Retractions, when in the second addition, after a span of decades of studying Augustine and his era, you come back to say, “I think we have to consider the fact that we have been misreading Augustine,” and I found that a very intellectually courageous act.
Brown: Well this was obviously something, wasn’t it? Don’t forget that Augustine is one’s best exemplar. He himself was constantly aware that his mind was changing. He wrote his retractations simply so as to actually plot the way in which his mind actually had changed, so in some ways if I was to prepare to change my own mind, I’d be, as it were, not living up to the standard which Augustine had set me.
Mohler: In both the most recent work, which we’re going to discuss, Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, and in your work on Augustine, you deal with something I think many of us wouldn’t even be able to picture. And that is the actual preaching context and method of Augustine. You point out that, first of all, in ways that do not mark many living bishops or even medieval bishops, bishops in the early church, especially in Augustine’s era of late antiquity were preachers, first and foremost.
Brown: First and foremost; absolutely first and foremost.
Mohler: And you point out that Augustine the preacher did not preach from a pulpit; he did not preach to a calm, seated congregation; he preached to a mass of people standing, coming in and out of the marketplace, bringing their children and who knows what else with him, bringing in spectators. Tell us about what that would have looked and sounded like.
Brown: Oh, I would have loved—I mean, if you gave me a time machine, that’s one of the first places I would go to. It would be much more like—I mean, I think you have to realize that the Romans were used to people speaking in public in front of big crowds in a reality open place. Every Roman law court was an open law court. The Christian churches of this time, you know that design called a basilica design, was very much like what a Roman law court was. That is, the judge would have been at one end and, you know, the accused, the lawyers, they would be grouped round him, and then a huge crowd, like sort of Great Central Station almost, a large, moving crowd under a sort of high roof. So you’ve got to get a sense that a sermon was truly not a performance from a pulpit, but a real dialogue with the crowd.
Mohler: I can tell you really enjoyed at one point demonstrating an occasion in which Augustine found himself actually on the defensive over against his congregation.
Brown: I loved that. I loved that and that came from one of those newly published sermons. We had had no inclining of that previously.
Mohler: You also deal with Augustine the pastor, and I think that most contemporary pastors would immediately identify with the kinds of things that Augustine had to deal with without recognizing when you look at someone like Augustine, he had the pastoral responsibilities dealing with the same human problems. And in two different places in your writings, you, for instance, deal with the fact that he had incredible interest in people. I love the section where you talk about his interest in the homework of a teenage boy, “The Little Greek” he called him.
Brown: Oh, yeah, that’s extraordinary.
Mohler: Tell us the story.
Brown: Well the story’s actually a background for a rather interesting story. Again, it’s a story we couldn’t have told twenty years ago. It came from one of the newly discovered letters. It’s written in almost the last year of Augustine’s life. It’s written to a very well-to-do Carthaginian, who has read a lot of Christianity but hasn’t got baptized. His wife has got baptized; he hasn’t got baptized. So he’s one of these strangely open people and what happened only three years ago is they discovered in an inscription in the Hippodrome of Carthage his aim on one of the reserved seats for the town counselors. So here is Augustine, coming regularly to preach from Hippo to Carthage, which is about a ten-day journey at that time, must have met Furnas, must have given Furnas copies of the City of God, and, I think, truly and sincerely was interested in Furnas, Furnas’ family, Furnas’ son, and we suddenly get a glimpse of an influential person who is one of those half-way people. His wife had become a full Christian. His son may well have been baptized. Furnas had read a lot. He read Augustine’s City of God up to Book Ten, which is quite a large read, but he still had to be persuaded.
Mohler: And you see Augustine, the pastor, the evangelist, you might even say the apologist, seeking to convince this man, and, as a sign of pastoral interest, showing interest in his teenage son, and in his school work because Augustine was the reigning intellectual. And by showing that attention to the man’s son, he would be showing the man attention as well. It’s an incredible vignette.
Brown: And I think that the really lasting message in that interchange is what he says about the son, which is, “Yes, he can go ahead. He can learn to Latin rhetoric, Latin grammar [you know, the old fashioned curriculum], as long as he uses it well.”
Mohler: The conversation thus far is pointing to one of my favorite features of Professor Peter Brown’s new book: how it reveals far more than the economic realities behind the triumph of the Christian church in the Christian West. What he’s talking about here within the context of the Roman Empire is also giving us an understanding of someone like Bishop Augustine, in terms of his pastoral responsibility. We see a window into the early church and, in particular, into this most influential of the church fathers in a way that no previous work has actually helped us to understand. But we shouldn’t be surprised at this. After all, Peter Brown is also the most magisterial biographer of Augustine himself. That’s what makes this new book, in so many ways, a continuation of the story he began telling long ago.
One of the things that you demonstrate in this latest book, and it is a massive exhibition of scholarship, the title again is, Through the Eye of a Need: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD. Professor Brown, it seems to me that this is something of the capstone of your work in defining this era known as late antiquity.
Brown: Well you know a big book isn’t always what you first planned; it rather grows upon you. But I had felt for a long time, at least ten years, that this period and these people, some of them like Augustine who I’ve now known for almost 50 years, they sort of needed somebody to actually give them a voice on an important topic. And I think the topic of wealth I chose on purpose because issues of wealth affect everyone: the poor because they feel they don’t have it; the rich because they do.
Mohler: I think the average person looking at this title would think the book less important than it is, and the reason for that is I think most of us take economics and wealth as something of merely secular importance. I think that’s something that is the fault, the intellectual fault, of many Christians, and, yet, you really demonstrate that the story of wealth and how the church grew to understand how it would handle wealth is indispensable to demonstrating how the church ended up as the church we know it in the medieval world.
Brown: Oh I would certainly say that. Looking back on this, I found myself asking, “Why hadn’t people seen this so much?” And I think it was partly Christians themselves to blame at that time. Again, as with celibacy and virginity, the people we hear about are usually the more radical. They’re the ones with the really extreme solutions and some of the most passionate Christians and the most articulate Christians were often very wealthy people who had truly, in ways that stunned everyone, thrown away their wealth. That is, they really believed to have followed the command of Christ, “If you wish to be perfect, sell all that you have; come.” So this is a Christianity whose main stars are very much in that camp, but the more I studied it, the more I felt that the actual heroes and heroines were the much more average people, who very much the way Jews at the same time considered their wealth, what wealth they had and it often wasn’t much, a sort of gift from God and that they had to as well pay back, and to renounce one’s wealth actually wasn’t a way of paying back. It was much more important to see your wealth as a way of providentially given to you so that you could do good, so a notion for what we say, you know, nowadays in a rather general way, Christian stewardship, actually summed up a whole attitude to wealth, to the world of money, which, I think, we would gain in a recapturing.
Mohler: Yes. You know the way you lay this out is with such exquisite detail that in a conversation like this 99% of it is going to be left on the table and just a very small percentage can be possibly be discussed, but I have to tell you that if I were to summarize your thesis, at least in the central part of the book, I think it would come down to this. And, as I was thinking about this conversation, it seems to be that the church had to make a decision in renunciation—the renunciation of sexuality and the renunciation of wealth—and, as you point out, in many ways the histories written of the church in the medieval era and beyond really make the heroes and heroines those who renunciated. But you point out that Augustine in a very sophisticated way, along with others, really modifies that because, in Augustine’s view, to put it simplisticly, you can renunciate once, but you can be a steward for the entirety of your life.
Brown: I think so. Precisely.
Mohler: So when you look at Augustine on wealth, Augustine seems to have a very sophisticated economic understanding, he also, as you demonstrate, is a rather agile mind. He is moving along with the culture around him and, of course, it’s a seismically-shifting culture. But the church had to come to an understanding that wealth could be and would have to be used for the glory of God and for the good of people as—if I read your argument correctly—the church began to take on something of the shape of the empire itself. Whereas the empire had been made up of cities with dispersed political power, the bishops took on that role and the churches continued.
Brown: Yes, very much so, and I think maybe, and here I think it’s important to realize that maybe our relative indifference to wealth isn’t just a sort of inheritance of a view that any consistent Christian must renounce wealth; therefore, Christians who don’t renounce wealth are sort of second class. I think in an odd way that has continued. I think it is also the economy of the Roman Empire it was a very agrarian economy, a very slow economy. Wealth didn’t consist in large banking concerns, which people actually buried their gold, which is why we can see so much in modern museums. Now this means to say that the care of the poor or, just as important, people like yourself who were in danger of becoming poor, was also summed up, not in sort of grand gestures—alms-giving of huge handouts—but, you know, small gestures—offering low-interest loans, forgivable loans, finding somebody a job. So there is a whole conundrum of Christian charity that is below the sort of radar screen if you’re looking only in terms of banking, cash, checks.
Mohler: Yes. And, of course, you had a church made up of Christians, many of them newly converted from paganism and, as you point out, some of them not so converted from paganism as well, in terms of their worldview, and they’re trying to deal with the teachings of Jesus: how difficult it is for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s the title of your book: Through the Eye of the Needle. And so I read your book having recently read some very perceptive economic history as well, and even though you didn’t go in this very direction, you imply it. And, that is, Augustine must have come, along with others, to the conclusion also that to renunciate certain wealth is actually to destroy it because the wealth just evaporates and isn’t any good to anyone.
Brown: I think that’s what many contemporaries fail to—as you probably noticed in one incident which was initially on his backdoor, that is, the great Roman senatorial lady, Melania, he and a few other African bishops intervened saying, “Hold it, Buddy; don’t throw it away.”
Mohler: Because it would just be destroyed and could do no good. And Augustine also had a confidence that there were many texts in Scripture that demonstrated how money could be used for great good.
Brown: Precisely; there I think his reading of Paul was terribly important. You get a real distinction between the extremist who emphasize Jesus’ true challenge to the wealthy but very much in the gospels, very much in Matthew and Luke; then there’re the letters of Paul, which show a fervent fundraiser at work, show somebody who’s determined to be a fully self-supporting member of the community, and, at the same time, has almost a mystique of mutual help.
Mohler: Professor Brown, you also point out that wealth itself—and you said this just a moment ago—was something that was developed very slowly in an agrarian context, and I want to pull one sentence out of your book because I think this is one of those sentences that resets our imagination of an era. You write, “In the overwhelming majority of cases, wealth was land turned by labor into food, which in the case of the rich was turned into sufficient money to be turned into privilege and power.” I thought that formula was so transformative of understanding that wealth wasn’t the kind of financial speculation that is on the front pages of our newspapers. It was, instead, land turned by labor into food.
Brown: Oh, yes, of course, when land becomes food all the gods are involved. I think one must never underestimate what the sheer religious aura of every house, whether it’s Christian, Jewish, or pagan.
Mohler: One of the other very transformative arguments of your book is that as these issues are played out in the culture and in what we might call the political life of the bishops trying to figure these things out administratively, there was a theological dimension here as well and so we shouldn’t be surprised that even as Augustine and Pelagius found themselves involved in one of the most formative theological battles of the church it had to do with wealth as well.
Brown: Oh yes. Because wealth’s like a sort of barium trace, it goes everywhere, and one of the things which wealth does ask always is, “How free are humans to actually change themselves and to change society?” And there I think Pelagius, because of his extreme view of the freedom of the will, really did think, or at least encouraged others to think, that wealth is just a bad habit and you can get rid of it much as you can as it were kick smoking. Augustine didn’t share that view at all.
Mohler: That’s a very interesting metaphor. Well you rightly point out that Pelagius saw what we would call Orthodox Christianity as lax, as soft, as he suggested, to say that we need grace is just a cop-out because it just demonstrates a lax commitment. And so for Pelagius, the renunciation of sex and the renunciation of money was one way in which the supposedly absolutely free will could demonstrate its worthiness before a righteous Judge.
Mohler: I wanted to ask, so if Pelagius had won the argument—going back to the great debate between Augustine and Pelagius—had Pelagius won the argument, the history of the church, in terms of its institutional shape, would have been radically different.
Brown: It could very well have been and I’m constantly wondering—one of my little science-fiction side of one—one wonders what it actually would have like. I think it might have ended up with a much more monastic church
Mohler: Yes; which by definition renunciates.
Brown: Which by definition renunciates, and if you’re free to do it, do it. It’s interesting that we might have a glimpse of that future—it’s only a glimpse; I don’t want to put too much on it—in Britain Whales Island at this time where we knew Pelagian ideas continued to circulate and which at exactly this time produced a particularly atheistic form of Christianity where the leaders and the sort of abbots of the great monasteries had much more prestige than the sort of average bishops.
Mohler: When you look at the entire span of your historical investigation and your scholarship, you really have redefined, in many ways, our understanding of the way the Roman Empire fell and the meaning of its fall. Could you just describe a bit of that because this is where you have actually kind of upset the entire marketplace of ideas, in terms of the world of history?
Brown: Well I think there are two ways of seeing it. First of all, one must never idealize the Roman Empire. It did great things, but it was still a very fragile state. It was tied by issues of logistics, of agrarian yield, so we’re looking at an empire which is almost doomed the moment it ???? happens. I think one of the wisest things that Edward Gibbon said—this is one of the things that people usually remember—he said, “The fall of Rome was inevitable; what is remarkable is that the empire lasted so long.” I think that’s a much more fair way to see it. What I think, indeed, happened was that with the rise of Christianity there was the rise of what one might call a horizontal way of organizing society, interconnection city to city, vertical connections rich and poor in each city, which it didn’t bring the empire down, but when the empire did fall for relatively straightforward reasons—you know, it couldn’t defeat the barbarians, it couldn’t bring taxes in—people found that the end of the empire wasn’t as much a disaster. So I think that the rise of Christianity didn’t bring down the empire; if anything it sort of pushed the fall.
Mohler: Well one of the points you make very powerfully in many of your works is that the fall of Rome, as an empire, was disastrous for Romans but not necessarily for those in the rest of the empire. Rome suffered greatly but the empire in many ways flourished and gave birth to what we would call the medieval world and Western Christendom.
Brown: I would think that would be what happens because with Western Christendom you get a world of much smaller political units, which at the same time manages to be thoughtlessly creative. I mean, the great gothic cathedrals of Northern France are as grand as any Hippodrome, any coliseum. They’re built with engineering skills that are quite extraordinary by Romans standards; things Romans never thought of. And yet they’re put up in territories which often are no more than a few de pack de amor in France. How has society managed to grow, managed to become a sort of set of such vivid micro-societies, having emerged out of a vast back row of society is one of the great problems.
Mohler: Let me ask you a question about this most recent work and there are so many questions I’d love to ask you about the book, just in terms of its specific content, but reading it I was prompted to want to ask you: what was your greatest surprise in the writing of this book?
Brown: I think the greatest surprise—and it only came upon me gradually and it came roughly three years before I finally completed it because until the surprise it didn’t quite make sense. First of all, the conversion of Constantine, though it made a great difference to the public profile of Christianity, you know the emperors really did favor it, did give it funding—the conversion of Constantine did not mark the real beginning of Christianity becoming a majority religion. And the real entry of the truly wealthy into the Christian church happened a whole two generations after the emersion and it was an almost a sort of grassroots movement. So that was a surprise. I think the other surprise was that up until about the year 500, the Christian churches in themselves, that is the actual money available to bishops, was much less than we had previously thought; that the average Christian bishop was still a relatively low-profile person and that the real strength of the church lay not in its upper echelons, although these were very dramatic people, people like Ambrose, people like Augustine, but in the sort of average Christians who I came to know more and more through almost accidental evidence—through inscriptions, through little piles of coins found in churches—so that I found that I was writing a history that had its starts, but the stars were not necessarily the real heroes.
Mohler: You have been writing in this field, you have pioneered this entire field of history known as late antiquity; you’ve redefined so many of the terms and reset our understanding. This most recent book is massive. It’s about 500 pages of text and 200 pages of notes. I just have to ask you, knowing that a work like this spawns yet another, what is your area of historical interest in and research after this book?
Brown: I think I’d like—don’t forget this was very much about Western Europe—I’d like to return to the Middle East, that is to the Greek, the Syriac, the Coptic world. In terms of sheer numbers, there were far more Christians in the Middle East at this time than there ever were in the West. And I would like to do two things, I think: deal with the finances of the church in the slightly earlier period, that is, from the time of St. Paul onward, and look at the way in which the rise Egyptian monasticism, particularly Egyptian monasticism, created an image of the monk as a working person. That is one of the really rather remarkable aspects of Egyptian monasticism is that the monk was expected, as indeed Paul expected, to work with his hands.
Mohler: Professor Brown, I assure that when this next book comes out, I want to be first in line to read it. We are all in your debt. As I said at the beginning, I began much of my work in historical theology reading your work on Augustine and then following your arguments, and it is a tremendous honor to speak with you today.
Brown: Well I greatly enjoyed it, Doctor.
Mohler: God bless you, sir.
One of the most pleasing aspects of the experience of reading a book is discovering that it includes far more than we expect. That’s true of any worthy volume, and it is certainly true of this new work by Professor Peter Brown. It promises to tell us the story of how the Christian church negotiated some of the most difficult issues related to Christian faith and economics during the time the Roman Empire itself was entering that period of late antiquity and going through its own rather remarkable transformation. And what you also discover is what many people, historians and economists included, would often neglect, and that is the fact that there is an intersection between theology and economics. And that tells at least part of the story of how Christianity triumphed in the Roman Empire. For instance, the issue of how the church would be related to wealth was never merely a pragmatic issue; it was deeply theological. And we owe Peter Brown the analysis of understanding how the distinction between Augustine and the Pelagians in matters of the gospel itself led to two different understandings of the role the Christian faith when it came to personal wealth and what it meant to renounce materialism. As Augustine made very clear, you could renounce all wealth one time and then much of it simply disappeared, or that wealth could be put to the service of the church in what can only be described as a faithful stewardship. The triumph of the Christian church, Peter Brown helps us to understand its institutional rise and survival through the demise of the Roman Empire, was at least partly made possible by the fact that the church could own material goods, that it could indeed collect and become the steward of wealth. And even as we can see that the church sometimes failed in what that responsibility would entail, without taking on that responsibility the church institutionally could not have survived through these difficult centuries. But the church did survive and, of course, we can be thankful that Augustine’s theology survived as well. Behind the telling of a great story, and especially at the hands of a great historian, is a mass not only of patterns and theories, but also of incredible documentation.
One of the things I most appreciate about Peter Brown is how much he obviously loves the details, and reading his book is to be immersed in historical details that seem to come alive. You feel like you’re there in Carthage as Augustine is preaching in a city not his own and as he is having to contend with a crowd, a hostile crowd at times, that doesn’t like his message. We can, all of the sudden, understand through his pastoral responsibility, even to a father of a young son, how, indeed, Augustine was negotiating these issues, trying to find a way to be deeply faithful and a good steward of all that Christ had entrusted to him at the very time that the Roman Empire was itself falling apart.
Peter Brown is one of the world’s most respected historians. He’s been generous with his time to involve himself in this conversation about his new book. My hope is that many evangelical Christians will read this book and then want to know more. Well turn to Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine and begin to learn more about this crucial era in the history of the Christian church where we understand that the debate, for example, between Augustine and the Pelagians isn’t over. These great theological debates are never over and that’s why we have to revisit them from time to time to make certain we know what is actually at stake. What’s at stake in terms of reading a book like this is getting everything out of it we possibly can, and that means a book like this one deserves to be read, not only once, but read again.
Thanks again to Professor Peter Brown for joining me and thinking with me today. Before I close I want to direct your attention to my new book, The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters. My concern is to develop effective leaders who have more than mere administrative skill, who develop more than just vision. Leaders need to be able to change the hearts and minds of those they lead. In other words, they need to develop the conviction to lead.
Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.