Review: The Mestizo Augustine

In The Mestizo Augustine Justo González compares the mestizaje of Latino theology to the life of the church father Augustine of Hippo. Mestizaje is a term in Spanish that pejoratively describes a person of mixed ancestry. For example, this applies directly to a Latino that is Mexican-American.

Justo González argues that the mestizaje that is often seen as a disadvantage is actually a major advantage, especially within the Church. The author examines the mestizaje of Augustine’s African-Roman background, and demonstrates how it helped him formulate major doctrines of Christian theology that remain at the core of the faith.

Finally, González argues for a study of church history and church fathers in particular because they can help the 21st century church rediscover key pieces of our faith blurred by time. Justo González explains the purpose of this book “is actually a call to read anew the entire history of the church and its theology from the perspective of mestizaje and of the manner in which it points to the future.”(p.18)

BOOK SUMMARY:

This book is broken down into two clear sections. Section one consists of chapters 1-3, which cover the introduction and a brief history of the life of Augustine. Section two is chapters 4-8, which cover Augustine’s confronting multiple heresies, and the role his mestizaje played in shaping his worldview and theology.

The introduction is dedicated to the unique theological perspective Augustine had as a mestizaje. The chapter also goes into detail on explaining the relationship between mestizaje and theology, as well as how the mix of the two played out in Augustine’s life.

Chapter 1 talks about the early life of Augustine. Augustine was born in Tagaste, an African town that was conquered and occupied by Rome. His mother was most likely Berber, which were the indigenous African people of Tagaste, while his father was Roman. Most people don’t know that Latin Christianity is not the result of Roman or Western European influence, but was founded in Africa. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss Augustine’s conversion to Christianity after years of involvement with Manichaeism and Neoplatonism. A major influence on the conversion of Augustine was the church father Ambrose whose words showed Augustine that he, “was able to join the Roman culture of his father to his mother’s faith.”(p.45)

Chapters 4 through 7 focus on Augustines refutation of Manichaeism, Donatism, Pelagianism, and Paganism. In chapter 4 Augustine refuted Manichaeism through showing how many of its followers were unable to keep such a strict code of ethics, their emphasis on reason was contradicted by the need for humans to possess two souls.

Chapter 5 deals with Augustine’s disputes with the Donatists who were a sect of Christianity found exclusively in Africa. The rise of Donatism was, in part, a form of protest against the taxation Rome was forcing on the poor, oppressed, and lower echelons of society. Furthermore, the dominant theological perspective of Christianity in Africa was moralistic in nature. Augustine focused his attack on Donatism around three main themes; the nature of the church, the validity of sacraments, and what we now know as the “just war theory” or Christian justification of violence.

Chapter 6 on Pelagianism focuses the argument on the nature of sin as well as its consequences and scope. Augustine, in his argument against Pelagianism, focused on the impact of original sin, God’s sovereign grace in transforming the will to desire to choose Christ over sin, and how God’s sovereign election is not grounded in foreknowledge, but God’s sovereign will to choose those who are elect.

Chapter 7 on Paganism deals with belief that Rome had fallen to the Visigoths as a punishment from Greek and Roman gods. The argument went, Rome became great because of its gods, now that Rome was abandoning the gods for Christianity, the gods were abandoning Rome. This conflict led Augustine to write The City of God. What Augustine meant by “city” was, “an entire social, economic, and political order. In other words, what Augustine called a “city” was closer to what we would today call a state or system of government.” (pg. 161) Augustine argued that pagans were driven by a city that is in love with self, while Christianity is a city driven by a love for God.

Chapter 8 discusses Augustine as a lens for Western Christianity. González describes how Augustine served as a bridge between the ancient Greeks and the Latin West, how theology that prevailed in North Africa became dominant in the Latin speaking West, how Augustine was in many ways the forerunner to the Reformation, and how Protestant doctrines of grace have been largely shaped by Augustine. Augustine showed that mestizaje was not an obstacle to progress, but the vehicle that brought us into our present culture.

ANALYSIS:

In the Mestizo Augustine, Justo González uses church history to articulate the role one minority has played in shaping and defending what we understand as Protestant Christianity. The strength of the work is seen in the authors ability to explain the concept of mestizaje, show how it’s a concept pertinent to 21st century Western culture, and how mestizaje leaders, in antiquity and today, serve as bridges between cultures.

The book is detailed in its analysis of how Augustine’s two cultures shaped and contributed to his leadership as well as in his refutation of heresy. Chapters 4 through 7 show how Augustine tapped into different parts of his African and Roman cultures. González is also candid in showing insensitivities and an inner turmoil Augustine had toward his African culture.

“It is not only in matters of social injustice that Augustine does not seem to be aware of the depth of feeling among the Berber population, but also in matters of having to do with suppression of their culture. Donatism had become an attempt by the Berber or Libyan population, now subjected to the Romans, to affirm the value of their culture and their traditions. Augustine himself, even though he was a mestizo, had suppressed within himself most of his Libyan roots.” (p.124)

At other points, like when refuting Pelagianism, the author clearly shows how Augustine leans away from his Roman and Latin side and emphasizes his African understanding on how God can be both sovereign and just. Finally, the author does an excellent job in getting vast amounts of history, doctrine, and cultural contexts packed into an approximately 150 page book.

The book’s weakness is that it can get bogged down in historical and theological details. Specifically, chapters 4-7 can focus so heavily on history and theology details it leads the reader to forget the mestizaje focus of the book.

In conclusion, The Mestizo Augustine is for anyone wanting to understand the contributions to Christianity by non-Western European theologians. It is a great resource for Christians interested in church history. It shows how our past informs our present, and can shape our future. This book should be read by mestizaje believers who find themselves struggling to belong in dominant culture churches. Furthermore, it serves as a helpful resource for clergy who have only been exposed and trained by Western European theologians.