Dr. Phillip Cary on Luther, Augustine, and Teaching Great Courses

“There is a rare gift some people have,” Dr. Cary notes. “It is the gift [that] when you talk, people want to listen.” And it is precisely this gift of engaging speech that makes Dr. Cary himself an ideal teacher for the Great Courses, which is an online lecture program for lifelong learners. As any student of Dr. Cary’s knows, his ability to engage, entertain, and explain difficult philosophy makes him a world-class teacher. This is evident in all of his lectures for Great Courses, and especially in his most recently published excerpt. Here, Dr. Cary explains Martin Luther’s unique relationship to words. For Luther,  words are indicative of a spiritual conflict between the truth of God’s Word and the lies of the devil. Dr. Cary sees this as important to understanding Luther’s prose and polemics during the Reformation.

Dr. Cary’s involvement with the Great Courses goes many years back to when he was studying philosophy as a graduate student at Yale University. As a student, Dr. Cary was interested in the question of how we know and relate to other people. It was this question that ultimately led him to the Reformer Martin Luther. Martin Luther’s rich understanding of how we know and love God was directly relevant to Dr. Cary’s broader philosophical concern about how people relate to each other. However, this intellectual quandary was put on pause, as there was another Christian thinker who caught Dr. Cary’s attention: St. Augustine of Hippo. In order to write on Luther, Dr. Cary knew he had to mention Augustine since Luther, who was an Augustinian monk, was deeply influenced by Augustine. When writing about Augustine for the first chapter of his dissertation, Dr. Cary noticed the profound influence that Platonism and Neo-Platonism had on Augustine’s writings. However, much of the scholarship on Augustine was done by theologians who were not trained in philosophy. This encouraged Dr. Cary to produce academic work on Augustine to demonstrate the philosophical precepts that inform Augustine’s thinking. Dr. Cary found his niche—and this niche that would occupy most of his career to the present.

His knowledge of Augustine afforded him the opportunity to help develop Villanova University’s freshman seminar class on Augustine’s writings. His teaching and development of curriculum on Augustine at Villanova earned him acclaim that caught the attention of the Great Courses program (known as the “Teaching Company” at the time).  In 1995, Dr. Cary accepted an invitation to record twelve half-hour lectures on Augustine and set out for Washington D.C..

Today, Dr. Cary serves as the Chair of the philosophy department at Eastern University and has recorded numerous lectures through the Great Courses. Dr. Cary’s recent respite from recording has granted him the time to return to his original project: Martin Luther. In his forthcoming book, The Meaning of Protestant Theology: Luther and the Augustinian Heritage in Our Time, Dr. Cary addresses topics that have influenced his thought for at least twenty-five years, including Platonism, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. The book combines many of Dr. Cary’s  interests and intellectual breakthroughs throughout his career into an accessible book that will appeal to philosopher and layperson alike. 

Zachary Nelson (’18) is a Templeton scholar studying history and philosophy. His interests include  Church history, ancient philosophy, natural law, and Lutheran theology. He hopes to pursue a career in teaching and/or pastoral ministry.

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