This post is a follow-up to some comments I made last week regarding the usage of Augustine in some sermons I recently sat under. Last week, I wrote this here:
“But, during a few talks, I fear there were some historical issues that were glossed over, conflated, and eventually, misapplied. The most significant of which was Augustine’s involvement in the Donatist controversy, his subsequent effect on the development of early medieval Catholicism, and ultimately him being blamed for the horrors of 15th-century Roman Catholicism.”
And, concluding that post, I wrote this:
“As a result, I fear many people sitting under those talks may now have a skewed understanding and view of Augustine. In the next few weeks, I plan to write on why everyone ought to read Augustine, and especially his Confessions. That way, at the very least, you can hear a positive account of Augustine’s influence, and be encouraged to read possibly the most important treatise in Christian history.”
If you already appreciate Augustine, feel free to close this tab and be on your merry way perusing cat videos and memes on Facebook, though I’d like you to stick around. If you vehemently dislike Augustine, still give it a read. We can always learn something new. And, if you have not had much contact with Augustine, let me give you an introduction.
Augustine’s Confessions is one of the most significant theological works in Christian history. It is written, structurally, as an autobiography, and in form, as a prayer to God of confession and closure. Some have argued that it is documenting his own personal story of salvation for his Christian mother, Monica, whom he was very fond of and, unlike his father, played a substantial role in his life. Moreover, Confessions is a delightful literary work as well. It is widely read and even published in the Penguin Classics series. Not only does it have incredible theological appeal, as we will see later in this essay, but it is able to fan the imaginations of those who disagree with him as they are drawn into his story and can sympathize with his quest for truth, love, satisfaction, beauty, and ultimately, rest.
Firstly, we will consider Confessions as a theological work, and zero in on its impact on virtually all of Western religion. Augustine was an extremely learned, brilliant orator, philosopher, and theologian. He won many prizes in oratory, and taught it at prominent places of education at the time. Moreover, Augustine was able to understand Aristotle’s 10 categories of substance at a very young age, with no help! He further comments that this was not the case for most of his contemporaries. Augustine recognized his incredible giftedness, and later, recognized that there was no good in them because those gifts were not offered to God. Cicero’s Hortensius was a pivotal read in Augustine’s life and while reading it, his “heart began to throb with the bewildering passion of eternal truth” (Book III).
He was a man of his times, born in AD 354, died in AD 430, and often in the middle of theological controversies (come now, which ancient writer was not?). The two main controversies were the Donatist controversy, and the Pelagian controversy. Without going into much detail of what both were about, it is safe to say that Augustine’s understanding of both controversies was at the forefront of the Reformation nearly 1200 years later. B.B. Warfield would later comment that the Reformation was a glorious victory of Augustine’s theology of grace over his theology of the church. Indeed, being pulled into the various controversies did cause him to be a bit imbalanced on some doctrines, but we ought not look back at Augustine with contempt, but rather, that he was a fallible human in search of properly articulating God’s truth.
As a result, Augustine wrote on nearly everything pertaining to the Christian faith, and the sheer volume of his works is vast. He is considered to be the greatest theologian, and because he wrote on nearly everything, every theologian writing after him has to grapple with his understandings to some extent. Much of his theology of the church laid the groundwork of appropriations found in medieval Catholicism. The Reformers pointed back to Augustine positively, with Calvin remarking something along the lines of “Augustine is wholly ours.” Karl Barth would come along and have to wrestle with Augustine regarding his doctrine of election. Barth eventually parted ways with Augustine, and would come to understand election in a novel way. These are but a few examples, but they are sufficient to show the impact he has had, and that whichever philosophical or doctrinally Christian topic is discussed, Augustine surely has something substantial to add.
What is perhaps most important about Confessions is Augustine’s development of a Christian anthropology with regards to sin and its psychological effects. For Augustine, man is entirely restless in his pursuit of love and rest and meaning—until he finds it in God. Augustine was “in love with love”, as it were, and saw love as the ultimate fulfillment. While man is seeking that fulfillment elsewhere, much like Augustine himself did (in philosophy, sex, theft, etc.), he will never find it—since it can only be found in God. He has a radical view of the sinfulness of man, and it is particularly developed in the internal struggle that every Christian faces.
It is at this point where he distances himself from the ascetic, Antony, whom he was reading during the time of his conversion and who had a tremendous impact on him. Antony’s spiritual struggles were external bouts with demons. He would come back from those wrestling matches beaten, bruised, and bloodied. But for Augustine, the enemy and demons were internal, and one had to fight against them not physically, but spiritually. One had to love God, and have that love shape his hatred for sin—only then could they have any victory over it.
Augustine’s anthropology is important and has far-reaching implications and influence. John Owen and Blaise Pascal would latch onto this understanding of the psychology of sin and develop it further. Both Owen and Pascal are remarkable reads regarding the nature of indwelling sin, the desire for entertainment as a distraction from our realities, and the deceitful nature of the human heart. Reading any of the 3, one leaves better in tune with the workings of his own mind, will, and affections.
Moreover, after reading Augustine’s Confessions, one cannot help but be in better tune with his own place in the world, his standing before God (regardless of whether the reader agrees with him), and a better understanding of himself. Augustine is a master storyteller and writer. As one reads the Confessions, it is remarkable how many literary devices he uses to make his point. His use of imagery with the tree and the garden in his supposed “fall” and later conversion, is used to bring the reader in tune with the Biblical categories of creation, fall, and redemption. It is in the garden where Adam fell, and it was by taking the fruit from the pear tree where Augustine sees his most vile act of sin—the desire to be like God himself. Augustine allows the reader inside his mind, and lets him see the psychology of the sinful acts he commits—thereby allowing the reader to sympathize, relate, and finally, be convinced of the truth.
In conclusion, Augustine is an immense theologian, with a towering intellect that casts a long shadow over the Western church. Upon reading of the Confessions, the reader cannot help but be moved and influenced by Augustine’s storytelling and analysis of his own self. He calls us to consider the transcendence of God with his understanding of the Trinity; he calls us to consider our nature with his understanding of the psychology of sin; he calls us to reconsider our place in the world with his understanding of predestination, and finally, he calls to consider God as the ultimate being in the universe, and the only resting place our desperate hearts can find.