John Cavadini has an excellent article on Augustine's theological method in preaching, called “Simplifying Augustine,” in Educating People of Faith, edited by John Van Engen. His argument is that, when comparing the popular sermons to more specialized treatises like De Trinitate, Augustine does not “dumb down” the more arcane theologizing for his unlearned audience but pursues the same kind of task in a manner fitting to their capabilities.
In other words, he doesn’t do a certain kind of theology as “esoteric” (for the elite) and some as “exoteric” (aimed outwards, for the populace). Rather, he does the same kind of theology, dealing with the same kinds of topics, and in the same tone in both cases. For instance, in both De Trin. and the sermons, he deals with the theophanies, the soul made in the image of God, the visio Dei, etc. And in addition, in both places, he takes a similar tone. The main difference is that the sermons lack the philological technicalities and elitist jargon that would have been known only to those who possessed (i.e., could afford) a liberal education.
Cavadini’s main point is to draw out that in both cases Augustine pursues the task of theology under the mantle of “faith seeking understanding.” He positions himself along with his hearers in the task of faithful inquiry in order to seek deeper understanding. The principle of “faith seeking understanding,” says Cavadini, “is as much a homiletic principle in Augustine as it is a theological principle” (71).
Cavadini puts the comparison between the two kinds of writings this way:
“What emerges from a comparison of the homilies with De Trinitate is not that Augustine is popularizing, or ‘exotericizing,’ the results of inquiry, but that he recontextualizes inquiry itself for the people. In his homilies such inquiry is no longer the exclusive province of the liberally educated elites” (71).
Cavadini draws out several ways in which Augustine performs this theological mode of “faith seeking understanding.” Here’s one of his clearest articulations of faith seeking understanding:
The sacred and hidden mysteries of the kingdom of God require people first to believe, in order to turn them into people who understand. Faith, you see, is a step toward understanding; understanding is the well-deserved recompense of faith. The prophet says this plainly enough to all those who impatiently put the cart before the horse by looking for understanding and ignoring the need for faith. He says, Unless you believe, you shall not understand (Is 7:9, LXX). Faith too, of course, has a kind of light of its own in the scriptures: in the readings from the prophets, from the gospel, from the apostle. I mean, all these texts that are chanted to us at the appropriate time are lights in a dark place, to keep us going until the day. The apostle Peter says, We have more sure the prophetic word, to which you do well to pay attention, as to a light in a dark place, until the day dawns, and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Pt 1:19).
Not the teacher but fellow inquirer
Cavadini mentions several passages in Augustine's sermons that show how the bishop of Hippo “styles his sermons as acts of inquiry, as instances of seeking understanding of Scripture” (72). Here are a number of them:
Sermon 16A.1: A school in which God is the teacher
It is the task of Christians daily to make progress toward God, and always to rejoice in God or in his gifts. For the time of our pilgrimage, our wandering in exile, is extremely short, and in our home country time does not exist. There is a considerable difference, after all, between eternity and time. Here devotion is required of you, there you take your rest. For that reason, like good traders, let us note every day how we have got on, what profit we have made. You see, we have to be not only attentive at listening, but vigilantly active as well. This is a school in which God is the only teacher and it demands good students, ones who are keen in attendance, not ones who play truant. The apostle says, Unflagging in keenness, fervent in spirit, rejoicing in hope (Rom 12:11-12). So in this school, brothers, we learn something every day. We learn something from commandments, something from examples, something from sacraments. These things are remedies for our wounds, material for our studies.
Sermon 23.1-2: Fellow disciples under the one Master
1. Let us take it that what we have been singing to the Lord has been proposed to us as a subject to talk about. Let my sermon to you be on this point. And may the one to whom we have said You have held my right hand, and led me along according to your will, and taken me up with glory (Ps 73:23), may he take our minds up to a clearer understanding, and assist us with his mercy and grace: me as I talk, you as you judge. For although to all appearances I am standing in a higher place than you, this is merely for the convenience of carrying my voice better, and in fact it is you who are in the higher place to pass judgment, and I who am being judged. We bishops are called teachers, but in many matters we seek a teacher ourselves, and we certainly don’t want to be regarded as masters. That is dangerous, and forbidden by the Lord himself, who says Do not wish to be called masters; you have one master, the Christ (Mt 23:10). So the office of master is dangerous, the state of disciple safe. That’s why the psalm says, To my hearing you will give joy and exultation (Ps 51:8). Hearing the word is safer than uttering it. That’s why that man feels quite safe as he stands and hears him, and rejoices with joy at the bridegroom’s voice (Jn 3:29).
2. The apostle had taken on the part of teacher because his stewardship obliged him to, and just see what he says about it: With fear and much trembling was I among you (1 Cor 2:3). So it is much safer that both we who speak and you who listen should realize that we are fellow disciples under one master. Yes, it's unquestionably safer, and it helps enormously if you listen to us not as your masters but as your fellow pupils. Just see how anxiety is drummed into us by this text: Brothers, let not most of you become masters, for all of us slip up in many ways. Who wouldn't shudder at the apostle saying "all of us"? And he goes on, Whoever does not slip up in speech, this is a perfect man (Jas 3:1-2). And who would ever dare to call himself perfect?
Well at any rate, the one who stands and hears does not slip up in speech. As for the one who is speaking, even if he does not slip up, which is difficult enough, imagine what he suffers from his dread of slipping up! So what you have to do is not only listen to us speaking, but also feel for us dreading; in this way for whatever we say that is true (since everything true is from Truth) you will praise not us but him, and wherever being human we slip up, you will pray to the same him for us.
Sermon 134.1: Fellow disciples under the one true Teacher
Your graces know that all of us have one Teacher, and that under him we are fellow disciples, fellow pupils. And the fact that we bishops speak to you from a higher place does not make us your teachers; but it's the one who dwells in all of us that is the Teacher of us all. He was talking to all of us just now in the gospel, and saying to us what I am also saying to you; he says it, though, about us, about both me and you: If you remain in my word—not mine, of course, not Augustine’s, now speaking, but his, who was speaking just now from the gospel: If you remain in my word, he says, you are truly my disciples. It’s little enough for a pupil to join the class, but to stay, that’s what counts. So he doesn’t say, “If you hear my word,” or “If you join the class of my word,” or “If you praise my word.” But notice what he has in fact said: If you remain in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will deliver you (Jn 8:31-32).
What are we saying, brothers and sisters? Is remaining in God’s word a hard thing to do, or isn’t it? If it is, observe how great the reward is; if it isn’t, you are getting the reward for nothing. So let us remain in the one who remains in us. As for us, if we don’t remain in him, we fall. As for him, though, if he doesn't remain in us it doesn’t mean he has lost his home. He, after all, is quite capable of remaining in himself seeing that he never forsakes himself. But far be it from man to remain in himself, seeing that he has lost himself. So then, we remain in him out of need; he remains in us out of compassion.
Sermon 108.6: “Don’t listen to me, but together with me.”
I mean, do you want to listen with me to the advice of one who knows where good days are to be found, and where life is? Don’t listen to me, but together with me. There’s someone, you see, who says to us, Come, children, listen to me (Ps 34:11). And let’s all come running, and stand there, and prick up our ears, and understand in our hearts the Father who has said, Come, children, listen to me; 1 will teach you, he says, the fear of the Lord. And he goes on to tell us what precisely he wants to teach us, and what precisely the fear of the Lord is useful for: Who is the one whose will is for life, and who longs to see good days? We all answer, “Our will is.” Let's listen to what comes next: Curb your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit (Ps 34:13).
Sermon 399.1: What is learned in the school of Christ, the “house of discipline”
The word of God has spoken to us, and it was uttered for our encouragement, with scripture saying, Accept discipline in the house of discipline (Sir 51:28.23). “Discipline” comes from disco, I learn; the house of discipline is the Church of Christ. So what is learned here, and why is it learned? Who are the ones who learn, and who do they learn from? What is learned is how to live a good life; how to live a good life is learned to enable you to live forever. The ones who learn this are Christians, the one who teaches it is Christ. So be good enough to listen to me saying a few things, as the Lord may grant me, first about what living a good life consists in; next about what the reward of a good life is; thirdly about who are true Christians; fourthly, about who is the true master.
We are all of us in the house of discipline, but there are many people who don’t want to accept discipline, and what’s even more perverse, they don’t want to accept discipline even in the house of discipline. While the reason they ought to accept discipline in the house of discipline is so that they might keep it in their own homes; they, on the contrary, want not only to indulge to give way to indiscipline in their homes, but also to bring it with them even into the house of discipline.
Sermon 399.15: Christ the Teacher in heaven; his school is his own body on earth
After all, who is the master that is doing the teaching? Not any sort of man, but the apostle. Clearly the apostle, and yet not the apostle. Or do you wish, he says, to get proof of the one who is speaking in me, Christ? (2 Cor 13:3). It is Christ who is doing the teaching; he has his chair in heaven, as I said a short while ago. His school is on earth, and his school is his own body. The head is teaching his members, the tongue talking to his feet. It is Christ who is doing the teaching; we hear; let us fear, let us act.