Posted by: gmscan | February 28, 2013

Augustine’s Confessions

One of the greatest things about the Christian tradition is the wealth of rich commentary spanning two millennia. I recently reviewed Ross Douthat’s “Bad Religion,” published just last year, then I excerpted parts of Luther’s “Table Talk,” written around 1540. Now I have finished reading “The Confessions of St. Augustine,” written around 400.  I can sit here at my desk and absorb what the greatest minds of mankind have had to say about the greatest mystery, gift, and blessing mankind has ever received. I only wish I had started this quest 40 years ago, because I will never be able to do more than scratch the surface.

And it is all consistent, emphasizing our sin and God’s grace delivered through His Son, Jesus Christ. Granted the church has taken many wrong turns over these years, but it seems the Word keeps bringing us back to the Cross and the Resurrection.

Augustine is just amazing, although the edition I had left a lot to be desired. It is a Signet book, first published in 2001 with a forward and afterward by Martin Marty and reprinted in 2009 with an additional forward by Elizabeth Block. These commentaries almost made me put the book down. I understand Martin Marty is a renowned Lutheran theologian, but in this material he seems almost apologetic for encouraging modern readers to look at someone as old fashioned as Augustine. And Elizabeth Block is even worse – pompous and self-absorbed spending more time on her own quest to have a baby than on Augustine.

But once I got through all this tedium and started reading Augustine himself, I was enchanted. First, the whole thing is written as a love letter to God. Obviously, God already knows everything Augustine has gone through, but Augustine wants to show God (and the reader) that he knows it too. Far from being old-fashioned, he is thoroughly modern. His concerns and experiences for 1,600 years ago are just like ours today. Humans haven’t changed a bit over all this time.

He grew up in a family with a devout and doting mother and a distant and indifferent father. As a kid, he got in trouble for playing ball games instead of studying. He preferred learning about the adventures of ancient heroes to learning math tables or foreign languages. Looking back, he is puzzled by that since he had no difficulty learning his native language (Latin). He writes, “It is clear enough from this that free curiosity is a more powerful aid to the learning of languages than a forced discipline,” an insight the marketers of Rosetta Stone would certainly agree with today.

Like boys of today, Augustine reveled in being naughty, of doing things he knew were bad. His example is of stealing pears from a grove of pear trees and destroying them.  Is this so different from boys who throw a rock through a window just to see it break, or my own grandson who for a while liked to ring doorbells of elderly neighbors and run away, just to annoy them?

Then he writes about “… that sixteenth year of my flesh when the madness of lust… held complete sway over me and to this madness I surrendered myself entirely.” Sound familiar? Like many of us he is subject to peer pressure –

“… among people of my own age I was ashamed to be more modest than they were. I heard them boasting of their acts of vice (and the worse they were, the more they boasted), and so I enjoyed the pleasure not only of the act but also of the praise one got for having committed it.

“I, to avoid censure, made myself more vicious than I was, and when in fact, I had not committed a sin that would put me on a level with the worst sinners, I used to pretend that I had committed it, so that I might not be despised for my greater degree of innocence or thought less of for a comparative chastity.”

Teenagers today are subject to the exact same things, boasting about their exploits even if they have to make some of it up.

As Augustine grew, he began to wrestle with the “great issues” of the time. Like many adolescents of our time (and adults whose Christian education stopped during adolescence) he rejected Christianity because he had a childish image of what was being taught.  He thought the idea that man was created in the image of God meant that Christians saw God as “bounded by the shape of a human body.” Eventually he discovered that Christians don’t see it that way at all. He writes many years later –

“ … with a kind of pleasant shame I blushed to think how for all these years I had been barking not against the Catholic faith but against figments of carnal imaginations. And indeed I had been rash and impious; for I had spoken in condemnation of things which I ought to have taken the trouble to find out about.”

Similarly, he saw inconsistencies in the behavior that is allowed in the Bible and thought these inconsistencies discredited the Word of God. Looking back, he wrote that he now sees there were no inconsistencies –

“… the customs of different times and places are formed as is right for those times and places, while the law (of God) is the same always and everywhere, not one thing in one place and one in another.”

“What has been laid down as a general rule, either by custom or law, in any city or nation must not be violated simply for the lawless pleasure of anyone, whether citizen or foreigner…. But when God commands that something should be done which is against the customs or institutions of any people, it must be done, even if it has never been done there before.”

One of the things that most surprised me about Augustine is his fine scientific mind and spirit of inquiry. He was attracted to the Manichees in his 20s, but even then he was repelled by their ignorance and disregard of established science, such as the ability to predict solar eclipses. He scorns the Manichees for their ignorance, but also the scientists for their pride –

“They can see an eclipse of the sun long before it happens, but cannot see their own eclipse when it is actually taking place. For they do not approach the matter in a religious spirit and ask what is the source of the intelligence which they use to inquire into all this….

“Much of what they say about what is created is true; but they do not seek religiously for the truth which is the maker of creation, and therefore do not find Him… instead they become vain in their imaginations and consider themselves to be wise; they attribute to themselves what is (God’s).”

These debates continue to this day, with (some) scientists believing they can unlock all the mysteries of creation with no help from God.

But Augustine’s scientific mindset really shines through in lengthy meditations on memory (19 pages in my edition) and time (24 pages). These are fearless and thorough examinations worthy of a Stephen Hawking. Importantly, Augustine established the idea that space and time are creations of God, and that therefore God is outside of both. God is eternal and unchangeable. These ideas, too, are completely modern.

But far and away, the most important testimony (to me) of Augustine’s writing here is that God reached out to him, not the other way around. Augustine did everything he could to avoid it. Yes, he was searching for truth and meaning as anyone with intellectual curiosity must, but the Lord kept smacking him upside the head until he finally paid attention. That, and the forgiving grace of God, which Augustine experienced personally are the big takeaways and something with which I am very familiar some 1,600 years later.



  1. Great post. How wonderful that God has reached out to us! Tony

    Dr. Tony Dale Founder and Chairman

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    From: Greg Scandlen’s American Awakening <> Reply-To: Greg Scandlen’s American Awakening <> Date: Thursday, February 28, 2013 8:53 AM To: Tony Dale <> Subject: [New post] Augustines Confessions

    gmscan posted: “One of the greatest things about the Christian tradition is the wealth of rich commentary spanning two millennia. I recently reviewed Ross Douthats Bad Religion, published just last year, then I excerpted parts of Luthers Table Talk, written around “

  2. […] notion that God looks like man, since he was told that man was created in God’s image. (See my earlier post) He mocked any religion that would be founded on such a simplistic idea. But when he finally looked […]

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