He wrote of Augustine as "truly a busy bee for God, building up for us combs full of holy nectar.” There is reason to propose that Augustine was the greatest writer of the Catholic Church. In the space of some forty-four years, from his conversion in Milan in the year 386 to his death in Hippo Regius in 430, Augustine wrote - mostly at dictation - a vast sprawling library of books, sermons, and letters.
His written output was vast. It comprised some 100 books, 240 letters, and more than 500 sermons. This quantity of the literary output coming from one person is astonishing. A contemporary Augustinian scholar estimates this as being "approximately that of a 300-page printed book every year for almost forty years." His works fill fourteen volumes as they are reprinted in Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus, Series Latina (Vols. 32-45).
Augustine would not have regarded himself as primarily an author. He was a teacher of the Bible, and writing was one way to communicate its message, and to combat the error in the thought and writings of others. With this goal in mind, Augustine regarded himself as much less an innovator than as a summator. He was less a reformer of the Church than a defender of the faith of the Church. The goal he chose was the protection of the Christian religion from the disruption of error and the lies of those with no Christian faith, and, above everything else, to renew the faithful hearing of the Good News of the abundant grace of God.
Augustine was not a person of careful distinctions, but a skilful and powerful orator more disposed to set up dramatic contrasts than to explore the middle ground between them. His style did lead to extreme language and fixed positions (as similarly did that of the Augustinian scholar, Martin Luther). Augustine and Thomas Aquinas were probably the two greatest intellectuals in the Western church. With the possible exception of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine has been described as "the greatest single mind the Catholic Church has ever produced." (source: A Concise History of the Catholic Church by Thomas Bokenkotter).
For the depth and variety of his writings Augustine has no equal in the Western church. He was not as subtle in his theological speculation as many of the fathers in the East, yet in its intellectual quality and clarity his work stands equal to that of the two greatest Fathers of the East, Origen and Cyril. Augustine did not primarily see himself as an author, but wrote because this was one more way that he could follow his goal of drawing others to Christ. Augustine sought out both the hearts and minds of his readers. He did this in accordance with the great goal to which his whole life was given: the search for and the celebration of the grace of God, and the path by which human beings are guided in their everyday journey toward their desired eternal destiny. This goal is clear in a letter written by Augustine in the year 428, only two years before his death. He wrote to Firmus, a cultivated nobleman from Carthage.
Firmus had read with great interest the City of God, but still hesitated to be baptised. Augustine wrote to Firmus that he would have fully profited from his knowledge of Christian literature only when he was ready to accept the sacrament of baptism. All the reading by Firmus would be futile unless it caused a disruption in his life that would eventually lead him to a conversion to the Catholic faith. This was the effect that Hortensius by Cicero had worked on the young Augustine. What is true as the purpose of a great literary work such as the City of God also held true for any sermon that Augustine preached.
Classical and Augustinian scholar, Professor James O'Donnell of Georgetown University in the United States of America, wrote, "In our own time, Augustine is no longer the venerable ancestor looming over every ecclesiastical controversy, as he has done for so long. And this is almost certainly to his advantage. We are freer than any generation since his own to confront him as he was, to let him speak for himself, and to live out the implications of what he had to say. Little has changed. The future of the teaching of Augustine remains exactly what it was when he was alive and writing; his works exalt and exhaust, just as they always have."
There is an example given by Augustine of his practice of having more than one work under composition simultaneously. In writing to his fellow bishop and long-time friend, Evodius, Augustine describes in Letter 169 the many works that he has under way in the year 415. He has finished the first five books of The City of God and is struggling with the difficult questions posed by The Trinity. He has finished commentaries on Psalms 67, 71 and 77.
Moreover, he has written to Jerome the long Letter 166, also known as The Origin of the Human Soul, in which he consults him about the doctrine that individual souls are newly created for everyone that is born and its compatibility with the faith. He has also written a second letter to Jerome asking for his interpretation of James 2:10: Whoever keeps the whole law, but sins on one point, has become guilty of all counts, in which he explains his own understanding of the text. Augustine has also, he tells us, written a large book against the Pelagians, probably The Punishment and Forgiveness of Sins and The Baptism of Little Ones.
Throughout most of the second half of his lengthy life, insomnia and poor health continually affected Augustine. As well, occasions of discouragement were never far from his immediate experience. Yet he was always driven onwards by the impulse of the Gospel. But promoting the Gospel was a two-edged sword: it both delighted him and worried him. In Sermon 339, 3, 4, he admitted to his congregation, "The Gospel scares me. Little force would be needed to make me to lead a life of leisure instead… There could be nothing more enjoyable that rummaging around in the divine treasure chest with no one to plague me… (but) preaching, arguing, correcting, building God's house, having to manage for everyone - who would not shrink from such a heavy burden?" (Sermon 339, 3, 4) For the Augnet page that lists Augustine's many writings, click here.AN1316