—Published in Fides et Humilitas, no. 3 (2016): 125–128

Contemplation and Classical Christianity: A Study in Augustine is a prequel to John Peter Kenney’s earlier work The Mysticism of Saint Augustine: Rereading the Confessions (2005). The aim of this current work is to “retrieve conceptions of contemplation found in the early texts of St Augustine and then to consider them in reference to Augustine’s classic depiction in the Confessions” (p.vii). In The Mysticism of Saint Augustine, Kenney focused, as the subtitled suggests, on Augustine’s Confessions; his purpose here is to move “back chronologically to the earlier works Augustine wrote during the time of his first encounter with the transcendent . . . the purpose of this retrospective inquiry is thus to achieve a more secure grasp of what Augustine understood contemplation to be and thereby to discern more clearly the grounds for his claim that God transcends the cosmos” (p.iv).

Augustine’s understanding of contemplation and transcendence is the focus of Kenney’s work. For readers unfamiliar with these concepts Kenney explains that transcendence refers to “a level of reality that is both separate from the world of space and time and also superior to that world” (p.15). Contemplation is an “immediate knowledge of a transcendent God discovered within the soul” (p.vii). The connection between the two is of course that the transcendent is only accessible by the soul via contemplation. Mysticism is a term now commonly used to describe what the ancients meant by contemplation, but Kenny reminds readers that, for Augustine at least, contemplation is not a “passive psychological state,” but a type of knowledge (p.79).

Kenney’s key claim in Contemplation and Classical Christianity is that while Augustine was indebted to Platonism for awakening him to the transcendence of God, which allowed him to break free from the materialism of Manichaeism and also to reassess the Christianity of his youth, his development of contemplation and transcendence represented a distinct Christian understanding of those concepts. Augustine did not simply “Christianize” Platonism, nor is it satisfactory to just see Platonism anachronistically as the philosophical foundation for Augustine’s own thought (p.166). Rather, it would be better to say, according to Kenny, that Augustine developed an “alternative transcendentalist tradition” and that Platonism remained for Augustine a “distinct intellectual tradition and a live spiritual option, if not for himself, then perhaps for others” (p.166, 169).

Contemplation and Classical Christianity is composed of 5 central chapters with two additional chapters comprised of an introduction and conclusion. After a brief preface and introduction, Kenny provides an overview of transcendence and contemplation in the Platonic monotheism that was the catalyst for Augustine’s discovery of transcendence and contemplation. In chapter 2 Kenney focuses on Augustine’s developing view of the nature of God and the human soul through several of his early catechumenal texts, including, Soliloquia, Contra academicos, De ordine, and De beata vita. The central claim of chapter 2 is that while Augustine was influenced by the transcendence of Platonism, his own conception of God diverged in important ways from the Platonic tradition he found in the libri Platonicorum.

Chapters 3 continues examining Augustine’s pre-baptismal writings but with a focus on Augustine’s conception of contemplation. Augustine recognizes, according to Kenny, that Platonism’s teaching concerning the soul’s capacity to ascend to God cannot deliver what it promises: “We can conclude . . . that, from the very beginning, Augustine was aware of the limitations of philosophy as a way to secure deep and stable access to the eternal world, and hence to salvation” (p.62). Chapter 4 turns to ecclesiastical and monastic texts written after Augustine’s baptism but prior to the Confessions. Kenney examines how Augustine’s ecclesiastical context shaped his understanding of contemplation.

Augustine’s treatment of contemplation and transcendence as found primarily in the latter books of the Confessions is the subject of chapter 5. Particular attention is given to the theme of the “heaven of heavens” and Augustine’s treatment of it in his exposition of Gen 1:1. In the final chapter Kenny provides a fitting summary of the findings of his book: “Contemplation is the mirror in which we glimpse the shining of our souls in the light of eternity. So Augustine came to believe. Through its practice were resolved the uncertainties of his earlier life and a spiritual God more real than the material cosmos revealed. His soul was arrested by the certainty of contemplation and, on his account, made newly aware of the poverty of its fallen state. Contemplation thus cleared the way for the action of grace within his soul” (p.163).

Kenney’s book is a welcomed addition to Augustinian studies. The relatively slim size of the volume (169 pages, excluding the preface and index) belies the depth of information it contains. Those working in the scholarly field of Augustinian studies will certainly find much in Kenny’s volume to stimulate thought, especially with respect to Augustine’s relationship with Platonism. While it is certainly written at a high level of scholarship, because it deals with important themes found in the Confessions, it should be of value to anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the Confessions. And given that the Confessions is almost universally the first text that is used to introduce students to Augustine, and given that Contemplation and Classical Christianity is not a book of excessive length, it should find an audience beyond those who specialize in the scholarly study of Augustine.

Bibliographical Information

John Peter Kenney. Contemplation and Classical Christianity: A Study in Augustine. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xi+191. ISBN: 978-0-19-956370-8. $83.00 [Hardback].
About the Author:
Darron T. Chapman

Darron T. Chapman is a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Seminary and currently serves as Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Louisville.