Book Review: Augustine as Mentor by Edward Smither

Augustine as Mentor by Edward Smither

Summary of Thesis

There are entire libraries on Augustine, who is arguably one of the most influential if not the most influential church father, of church history, and so for Edward Smither to have researched Augustine as he has and combine his findings into this book on mentoring, it is a great gift to the Christian community. Smither’s book details the life of Augustine, specifically how others mentored him with profound influence, details Augustine’s mentoring of other church leaders, and lastly details the lasting impact that this mentoring had on the church and society. Hebrews 13:7 tells the believer to “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” For us to come into the life of Augustine and to see how he dealt with the leaders that surrounded him at Tagaste and Hippo should challenge us, in light of Hebrews 13:7, to learn and to somewhat follow the example of this great church father. The aim of the author is to take the writings of Augustine and the biographies about Augustine and piece together his method of mentoring leaders, specifically leaders, within his realm of influence.

Personal Evaluation

With a personal taste for church history, this book was a joy for me to read, and it was also very helpful to see the mentoring style of Augustine. One of the great strengths of the book is the extensive use of citations that Smither uses. The content of the book is truly a survey of Augustine’s work and writings, and relatively free of any of Smither’s personal opinions. This substantiates the content greatly to the reader.

But by way of actual help to me, it was a great help for me to see all of the teachers that preceded Augustine and to see their mentoring styles. It is clear to see the relationship between Augustine and his predecessors such as Ambrose and Valerius, and more importantly, it is significant to see that their methods of mentoring were innovative and effective. As Smither intimates in the book, I have not heard much of Valerius, the bishop that preceded Augustine in Hippo, or of his impact on Augustine, so it was interesting to see just how much of an influence that he had on his protege. Some of the values of Valerius that impressed me were the humility with which he treated Augustine, the freedom that he gave Augustine, and the respect that he showed to his young apprentice. His humility in not being threatened by the up-and-coming presbyter, and even the promotion of Augustine as co-bishop, was not only unprecedented in their day, but is rare also in our day. What a wonderful thing it would be for us, as Christian leaders, to be able to sincerely “esteem others better than ourselves” in the church today, to take it upon ourselves to develop men that will go on to be great, well-known leaders in the church, rather than striving for us to be the well-known leaders. There might be more Augustine’s in the church if modern leaders could break out of the self-preservation and self-elevation mode of society, see the potential of young proteges, and elevate them to care and promotion.

A second facet of Valerius’ ministry to Augustine was the freedom that he showed the young apprentice in allowing him to start the monastery at Hippo along side the church, to lead the young men that came into the monastery, and even to build buildings for the monastery. Often, mentors think that they have to be leading in every aspect of the protege’s training in order to teach leadership, but Valerius reminds me that sometimes the best leadership teaching is in practical leading where it is possible. And the final impressive and remarkable facet of this wonderful predecessor is his innovation for the cause of the people that he shepherded. He was the first, or at least one of the first bishops to ordain a co-bishop, Augustine, with the clear intention of keeping Augustine in Hippo to be a blessing to others. Again, showing his humility, Valerius’ innovation succeeded in keeping his young successor in the city until his death and Augustine established the church at Hippo in a tremendous way. Valerius unknowingly, it seems, even broke Nicean rulings, but his innovation and heart for the people of Hippo are very commendable and imitation-worthy.

This is just one example of a life in the book full of lessons, and this is not even the main subject of the book, Augustine. The work is full of lessons for the minister in the mentoring lives of Cyprian, Basil, Pachomius, Ambrose, Valerius, Gregory, and Augustine. The wonderful thing about these lessons is that they not only have been proven to work, even documented by history to work, but that they are so vital in the history of the church. These are church fathers, and they are profitable and worthy of study.

One of the only problems that I had with the book was its repetition of facts toward the end of the book. Many of the facts that Smither had already used earlier in the book, he brings out toward the end of the book again in a different light, but his tediousness in detail is almost derailing to the reader. Smither does not leave a stone unturned when he makes a point using the writings of Augustine. He documents the use of every letter, every message, every traveling journey, and this can become a little too detailed, at least for me. Two or three illustrations of each point would have been sufficient however, his scholarship is verified beyond doubt with this tedious detail.

Implications for Ministry

As noted earlier, the lessons from the lives of these church fathers are invaluable for mentoring the younger generation of leaders in our day. Not only do their actions come to us, in the present church, as a challenge because of commands like Hebrews 13:7 to imitate those that have gone before us, they are also documented ways that God has built His church. Lessons like humility, innovation, community, church care, and others are so applicable to the ministry today.

Seeing Augustine’s emphasis on community in his ministry has once again challenged me to surround myself with individuals, some who can mentor me, as spiritual guides or peer mentors, and others that I can have a mentoring role toward. Although I cannot say that I am ready to join a monastery or start one, I definitely like the idea of community and this philosophy of mentoring can bring many successes to the leadership of the church.

Augustine’s passion for resourcing his clergy in the monastery and alumni of the monastery has also given me a similar heart to resource some of the other pastors in the North Georgia area, specifically the assistant pastors of our church. We have two assistant pastors and a board of leadership in our church that I would like to help in any way possible, but like Augustine, I pray that the Lord lays it on the hearts of those in my realm of influence to ask me for resources that would be helpful to them.

Finally, Augustine’s emphasis on study in his own ministry reminds me of the emphasis of the church leaders throughout the history of the church: biblical interpretation and preaching. This was the emphasis of the Apostles (Acts 6), this was the emphasis of the Apostle Paul to his proteges, Timothy and Titus, and this was an emphasis of the early church fathers. Should it not be a priority to my ministry as well? I am very thankful for this reminder from a church father, supplementing the Scriptures that challenge the pastors to study the Scriptures.

Recommendations
This book appealed to me because of my bent toward church history, and I was not disappointed. The history seemed to be accurate, and history practically applied to my present day life is what causes me to love history, so I was pleased. I would recommend this book to pastors that have a liking for church history; for those that do not have a liking for church history, this would probably be a relatively boring book, although I would suggests wading through the facts to find the lessons of the book. This book is primarily helpful for pastors, but the lessons are practical for any Christian, Augustine did not begin his mentoring as a bishop; he began mentoring in Tagaste as a simple community leader. Therefore, the lessons are practical to all Christians desiring to progress in mentoring others.

Conclusion

I thank Edward Smither for his work in the life of Augustine. Though many have researched and written on Augustine, I was unfamiliar with anyone doing this type of research before; this is a great service to the Christian clergy. The book has given me an interest in some of the other church fathers’ mentoring ideas, specifically those of Basil in his work titled Morals, and those of Ambrose in his On the Duties of Ministers. I look forward to further study in these two church fathers, and am grateful for what I have already gleaned from Augustine.


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