Augustine In His Own Words, by Augustine Of Hippo, edited by William Harmless
As someone who has read and thought a fair amount about Augustine, most of what I have seen has confirmed a mixed to positive view of the man . What this book does particularly well is allow Augustine to speak in his own voice (at least through able translation) to a reader who is willing and able to commit a fair amount of time to reading 400 pages of varied and complicated material. As far as how popular of a book this would be, I am not qualified to say, but for those who want to get an understanding of the complexities of Christian thinking and the Hellenistic influence of Augustine and his contemporaries at a key point in history, this book does a good job at allowing the man to speak for himself, which is of critical importance in giving a fair assessment to his influence on the Catholic Church (as well as Protestant churches) in the following centuries. Over and over again the editor returns to the idea of the mosaic, by which seemingly random and disparate pieces show a coherent and attractive picture, and this book is definitely such a mosaic of selections from Augustine that appear rather motley and random in isolation but together make for compelling and intriguing reading.
This book is divided into ten chapters of about 40 pages or so apiece, followed by an epilogue that puts Augustine’s life into a context and encourages further reading–although the editor’s suggestions appear difficult to find for those not well connected to a Catholic University. It should be pointed out that this book is clearly interested in the Catholic perspective and as such it is rather harsh on the Donatists and rather gentle on the Pelagians and on the French clerics who found asceticism and earning merit therein highly appealing. The book begins, as many books on Augustine do, by looking at the Confessions and its structure and contents. After this the editor spends four chapters looking at Augustine in the roles of philosopher, bishop, preacher, and biblical exegete. A fair-minded reader will likely see a fair amount of eisegesis, though, in the Augustine’s Hellenistic approach that was all the more ironic for not being accompanied by a great degree of learning in Greek, to say nothing of Hebrew. The editor then closes the book by looking at Augustine’s controversies against the Manichees, Donatists, Pagans (through the City of God), and the Pelagians, as well as an entire chapter on his views on the Trinity.
Even where–and this is especially true with Augustine’s views on the nature of God and on questions of predestination–one has a great deal to disagree with, this book reminds us that Augustine was such an important figure and such a prolific writer that the language he used and the worldview he presented to succeeding generations had a great deal of influence on both Catholic and Protestant thought. Any philosophically-inclined Christian, especially one with an interest in Christian mysticism, will of necessity be drawn into a wrestling with Augustine’s view of the world and of its maker. One can note, for example, that Augustine’s desire for a synthesis between Neoplatonic thought and Christianity was important for the Catholic culture of the Middle Ages and that his view of the Trinity was later picked up and dusted off by, of all people, C.S. Lewis. And that is to say nothing of his importance for Luther or of the way that his rules for monastic life would be carried on by later Augustinians. Any fair critique of Augustine’s thinking and his ideas must be balanced by a recognition that his way of thinking has been massively influential even for those who would likely count themselves his opponents, although this thought is made easier to take by recognizing that Augustine too was certainly quite capable of being influenced by those whom he opposed for one reason or another. If Augustine seems a particularly Nathanish person in many aspects of his life and thinking and writing, perhaps it is because this reader at least is a philosophical person who loves debates and a wide range of reading, all of which might make me more than a little bit Augustinian as well.
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