Book Review: Augustine as Mentor, Edward Smither

Review
09.04.2020

Edward L. Smither, Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders. B&H Academic, 2009. 272 pages.

Born in AD 354 in North Africa, Augustine was “without a doubt the most influential African bishop of his day” (207). Through his writings, Augustine “left a legacy that impacted the church in the period following his death and even to the present” (213). Augustine’s life is well chronicled in numerous biographies such as Peter Brown’s magisterial work on Augustine or Henry Chadwick’s brief yet lucid sketch of Augustine.

AUGUSTINE: MENTOR OF PASTORS

Edward L. Smither’s more narrowly focused exploration of Augustine as mentor is illuminating addition to considering what August has to offer pastors today. Describing the theme of his book, Smither writes, “The present inquiry will consider how Augustine influenced those leaders in their training and preparation for ministry” (2). Smither notes that he intended only “to focus on Augustine’s spiritual formation of men who were spiritual mentors occupying a clerical office” (3; cf. 13). Consequently, the book “will not address how Augustine discipled the general congregation in Hippo” (3). Correspondingly, the book’s audience is “modern-day pastors and spiritual leaders who want to mentor and equip others” (2). Smither’s thesis argued that “Augustine effectively mentored spiritual leaders and set them apart for needed ministries in the church and that many aspects of his mentoring will serve as instructive for the modern mentor” (2).

In chapter one, Smither explores mentoring and discipleship from the New Testament (4–23).

In chapter two, he surveys the mentoring of “four key characters” in the third- and fourth- century church: Cyprian of Carthage (24–41), Pachomius of Egypt (41–52), Basil of Caesarea (52–71), and Ambrose of Milan (71–91).

Chapter three summarizes the way a few close friends of Augustine influenced and mentored him.

Chapter four, the core of the book, unpacks “the most significant, repeated approaches to mentoring observed in Augustine’s relationship to the clergy” (125).

In chapter five, Smither discusses Augustine’s relationship with his mentees and how Augustine balanced an attitude of authority with an attitude of a peer-shepherd (234–238). In addition, Augustine thought sound teaching played a central role in mentoring (238–244). Finally, Augustine involved his mentees in ministry (245–248), released his mentees to ministry (249–251), and resourced his mentees in ministry (252–253).

APPLICATION TO PASTORAL MINISTRY

One element of Augustine as Mentor that likely stands out to most contemporary readers is the way church fathers like Augustine and Basil focused particularly on training up men for ministry within the context of the church. For example, Smither notes that “Basil responded to the church leadership crisis in Asia Minor by mentoring men for ministry” (55). Yet Basil did not stand alone in this vision of training men for ministry. Smither remarked that “Augustine also valued the recruitment of qualified men for the needs of the ministry” (115).

In fact, while Augustine’s predecessor “Valerius had a vision for resourcing the local church at Hippo, Augustine was committed to resourcing the universal church in North Africa” with qualified pastors (124; cf. 155). As his biographer Possidius wrote, Augustine’s most significant legacy was “numerous clergy” sent throughout North Africa (254; cf. 156).

Pastors today would do well to learn from pastors in ages past such as Augustine—not to mention the example of Jesus—who devoted particular attention to raising up qualified men to lead and bless wide groups of Christians in obeying everything Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:20).

LESSONS FROM HOW AUGUSTINE MENTORED MEN FOR MINISTRY

Monasteries / Structured Communal Living

Upon becoming a Christian, Augustine embraced some form of communal living for most of the remainder of his life. In particular, he undertook different forms of monastic life at Cassiciacum, at Thagaste, and at Hippo (135). He believed that the Scriptures were best learned through preaching learned in a community (228). Similarly, he considered the monastery an excellent training ground for the clergy (255). Even after people left the monastery, he would sometimes travel to visit these alumni and continue to mentor them (208).

While the monastery or a formally structured communal life is not prescribed in Scripture, today’s pastors would do well to understand the importance of closely knit and biblically-focused relationships among Christians. A church covenant, intentionally living near other church members, a Sunday evening church service, and other ecclesiological structures in line with Scripture, can help facilitate a web of relationships that drive discipleship. Further, pastors and pastors-in-training living close to each other can accelerate mentoring for ministry.

Letters

Augustine wrote numerous letters to friends, associates, and others who inquired of him. In fact, he was the most consulted man in the early Western church (157). About half of Augustine’s letters written during his ministry were written to clergy (158; cf. 183). Smither concludes that “Augustine’s primary source of resourcing spiritual leaders was through his letters” (252).

In using letters as a means to instruct and mentor men in ministry, Augustine followed in a long tradition. Some of Cyprian’s letters were “specifically intended to discipline the clergy” for wayward ways (31). In other articles, Cyprian offered encouragement and answers to theological questions (32). Similarly, Basil “used letters to mentor clergy” (59), and Basil even initiated a discipling relationship in letters (60). Ambrose wrote about half of his letters to other clergy, often giving advice on matters of running a church (79).

While writing letters may seem like a thing of ages past, pastors today can and should follow the example of Augustine in writing to younger men in the ministry to help equip them. Whether through email, texts, or phone calls, pastors today can advise younger men in ministry about pastoral situations, doctrine, and life.

Church Councils

The first four hundred years of the church saw numerous church councils. While councils sometimes become highly unruly affairs, pastors before and after Augustine saw councils as opportunities to fellowship, clarify doctrine, and mentor younger men for ministry. By the 5th century, Augustine actively participated in church councils, believing they were authoritative (195). He also understood that church councils mentored through theological resourcing, resolving doctrinal disputes, and opportunities to share wisdom (204–205).

While today’s Protestants do not place the same authority in church councils that Augustine did, Protestant pastors can nonetheless use associations, credal statements, and denominational assemblies to mentor and guard orthodoxy. For example, a group of like-minded pastors near me gather as a Baptist ministers’ association to encourage one another, advise each other on pastoral issues, discuss doctrinal topics, and mentor younger ministers. Denominations with annual synods accomplish similar ends.

Hands-on Ministry Experience

Smither also highlights how Augustine gave opportunities to junior ministers (245) and involved his disciples in African councils (246). Further, Augustine involved presbyters in the work of preaching (257). In this way, Augustine sought to provide opportunities for aspiring ministers to learn by doing. Augustine inevitably saw the hands-on training for ministry modeled by Ambrose. Smither wrote that Ambrose’s “church at Milan operated as a laboratory for training the clergy, and Ambrose was the key model and trainer” (89).

Today’s pastors would do well to think beyond themselves and their church, looking to find qualified men to train for ministry through hands-on experience.

A FEW OTHER APPLICATIONS FOR PASTORS FROM AUGUSTINE’S LIFE

The Centrality of Preaching

Basil understood preaching to be central to the work of the pastor and the health of the church (58). Ambrose wrote, “A bishop’s special office is to teach” (72) and he emphasized doctrine in his preaching (105). Valerius, the predecessor of Augustine who selected Augustine for ministry, wrote about the importance of finding a pastor “capable of building the Lord’s church by preaching the word of God and salutary doctrine” (112). Smither remarks, “Like Ambrose, Augustine regarded his primary responsibility to be preaching and expositing the Scriptures” (128). Any Protestants who think that the Reformation ushered in the centrality of preaching simply have not studied church history.

High Moral Standards for Preachers

Judging by the scandals which embroiled a few evangelical celebrity pastors in the last decade alone—plagiarism, adultery, divorce, remarriage, private bullying of critics, gambling, public profanity, and licentious talk—there appears to be a woefully inadequate emphasis on moral standards amongst clergy on the part of at least some evangelical celebrity pastors.

In contrast, Augustine and some of his contemporaries placed enormous emphasis not on a pastor’s giftedness but rather on his character. For example, Cyprian held high moral standards for the clergy (35). Likewise, Basil urged uprightness in living amongst ministers (58). Similarly, Ambrose had high moral standards for ordained ministers (89). “Augustine maintained high standards for holiness, sound doctrine, and competence in the clergy he ordained” (250). Men needed to be “prudent and gentle” as well as 25 years of age (250). Further, candidates for ministry needed a credible reference to commend the candidate (250).

LEARNING FROM AUGUSTINE

Augustine’s theological legacy is so expansive, it’s sometimes easy to overlook his legacy of ministerial faithfulness and commitment to raising up future pastors. Smither’s work is not only a fascinating historical exploration of one of the most titanic figures in church history, it’s a compelling and inspiring portrait of a man committed to carrying out Paul’s admonition to Timothy: “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Pastors committed to training men for the ministry will be both encouraged and sharpened by Augustine’s example.

By:
Eric Beach

Eric Beach lives in Washington, D. C.