Augustine of Hippo (AD 354-430) supplied the church with numerous works of significant theological consequence. His monumental theological achievements, though demonstrative of his philosophical and theological acumen, reveal a man who was primarily a pastor and preacher of Scripture from a throughly Christocentric foundation. For early church theologians such as Augustine, leadership in the church was divinely instituted and essential for the “church’s vitality, faithfulness, and effectiveness in carrying out God’s mission.”[1] Christopher Beeley summarizes the role of the bishop:

In the early church a “bishop” was first and foremost a pastor, not an administrative official. When we speak here of bishops, we are therefore talking about the primary leaders of local churches, and we are reminded that all types of church leadership are rooted in pastoral ministry.[2]

Early church leaders understood the great responsibility that pastors held within the Christian community. “Simply put, church leaders are capable of doing either enormous good of great harm.”[3] The same is true today. Pastors are to be servants of the church and the people of God, a calling which bears much weight and a calling few should eagerly accept without serious consideration. Augustine understood this concept well, and at the close of his seminal work on biblical interpretation and preaching, he chose to remind readers of the great task of right living as well as right speaking.

On Christian Teaching

In his De doctrina christiana (On Christian Teaching), Augustine explores the nature of biblical interpretation in relation to proper understanding and teaching of God's word. Augustine asserts the primacy of Scripture in the life of pastors. Scripture is the life blood of pastoral ministry, and those who handle it carelessly are doomed to harm the liveliness of the church. The most important preparation for preachers, according to Augustine, is to read and know Scripture. He asserts:

Now a person is all the more or the less able to speak wisely, the more or the less progress he has made in the holy scriptures. I don't mean just in reading them frequently and committing them to memory, but in understanding them well and diligently exploring their senses. There are people, after all, who read them and neglect them—read them in order to have them at their finger tips, neglect trying to understand them. Unquestionably far and away to be preferred to these are people who do not have their words at their finger tips, neglect trying to understand them. Unquestionably far and away to be preferred to these are people who do not have their words at their finger tips, but can see into the heart of them with the eyes of their own hearts. But better than either is the man who can both quote them at will and understand them as they deserve.[4]

Through the study of Scripture, God illumines the preacher to preach, and meditation on Scripture allows the preacher to be led by the interior teacher who is Christ. On Psalm 67:13 Augustine states, “The Lord will give his word to [preachers] and enable them to preach the gospel, but only if they ‘sleep in the midst of their allotted inheritance.’”[5] Though much can be discerned regarding hermeneutics and rhetorical theory in De doctrina, Augustine also provides compelling reflections in regards to pastoral leadership.

Throughout the fourth and final book of De doctrina, Augustine elaborates on the various types of speech and their proper use for the preaching act. There is a proper place for each type of speech, and the speaker must discern where and at what time to use various types of speech. Augustine’s discussion of rhetorical style demonstrates that speaking must be tailored to the audience. Therefore pastoral leadership includes knowing the thoughts and needs of the people. Without knowledge of the people, there can be no knowledge of what the people need to hear. Augustine states, "That is why in this calm, plain mode of speaking too, this teacher and speaker of ours ought so to conduct himself that he is heard with pleasure and with compliance, as well as with understanding."[6] Whether speaking in a majestic or grand style as described by Augustine, or in a plain and subdued style, all manner of preaching should be aimed towards understanding and action.[7]

  • Christopher A. Beeley, Leading God’s People: Wisdom from the Early Church for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), 6. ↩

  • Beeley, Leading God’s People, 7. ↩

  • Beeley, Leading God’s People, 7. ↩

  • Augustine, On Christian Teaching 4.5.7 (Hill, 204). Excerpts from On Christian Teaching are from Saint Augustine, Teaching Christianity, trans. Edmund Hill, O.P, ed. John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, 1.11 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1996) ↩

  • Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 65.15, 17. ↩

  • Augustine, On Christian Teaching 4.26.56 (Hill, 236). ↩

  • In the fourth book of De doctrina, Augustine explains various types of speech in preaching. He describes a "calm," "moderate," and "grand" style of communication, taking examples from Scripture and other preachers. ↩