Book Review: The Confessions

Introduction

Apart from the Bible, few books have impacted the church as greatly as The Confessions by Augustine. This book has served the church for over 1600 years as a theological, philosophical, and devotional masterpiece. More than an autobiography, The Confessions shines light into God’s providence during the first thirty-three years of Augustine’s life, as he seeks to find rest and enjoyment in the Truth.

Augustine’s life could be summed up as a lifelong quest for truth, which at one point landed him the prestigious position in Milan as professor of rhetoric. It was during his brief stay in Milan that Augustine’s life was turned upside down as the Scriptures were opened to him through the preaching of Ambrose. Augustine was eventually converted by the grace of God and spent the last thirty-five years of his life as the bishop of Hippo Regius. As bishop, Augustine penned many books, one of which is The Confessions, written near the beginning of his bishopric.

Overview of the Book’s Contents

The Confessions consists of thirteen books (which are comparable to chapters). Books one through nine demonstrate God’s providence in Augustine’s life, leading up to his conversion, and books ten through thirteen ground Augustine’s lifelong quest for truth in the one, true God. While the first nine books are more autobiographical in nature, the last four books are meditations upon the character and work of God in creation. As a whole, all thirteen books of The Confessions point to God as the source of life, truth, and rest.

Evaluation

Although Augustine continued to reject the kindness and mercy of God during much of his life, God’s sovereignty and grace are constant themes throughout the book. Christians on both sides of the sovereignty debate [1] can learn much from Augustine as he acknowledges that God was drawing him to Himself despite the fact that Augustine was reluctant to flee from the besetting sins that kept him from God.

The Confessions provides us with an intimate look into the will of a man who was being drawn by God. Augustine writes, “When I was making up my mind to serve the Lord my God at last, as I had long since purposed, I was the one who wanted to follow that course, and I was the one who wanted not to” (152). It is clear that Augustine does not blame something outside himself, since in the next sentence he writes, “I was the only one involved” (152). He provides a theology of human responsibility that is not at odds with the sovereignty of God but is perfectly in step with God, who gives what He commands and commands what He wills (204).

Further, in The Confessions, Augustine documents his experimentation with various philosophical systems. During his intellectual journey, one of the philosophical systems that enamored him was Manichaeism, which viewed God “in terms of bodily size” (89). At this point in Augustine’s life, he did not understand the transcendence of God and reduced God, in his mind, to a physical image. Looking back upon this, Augustine acknowledges this misapprehension as the chief and almost sole cause of his error regarding the existence of evil. His low view of God led him to hold to a sort of dualism regarding good and evil, which included the belief that evil began as something from without rather than something from within. Not only does this position deny God of His power over all things, but it also excuses man of his responsibility before God and of his rebellion against Him.

Eventually Augustine developed accurate thoughts about God, and his guilt only increased. While Augustine’s mind was right, his heart was far from God. This serves as a good reminder for the church, as Augustine teaches that proper knowledge of God is necessary but that apart from a heart change, man will continue to chase after carnal appetites rather than after God, “because the perishable body weighs down the soul, and its earthly habitation oppresses a mind teeming with thoughts” (131).

Though Augustine makes substantial contributions to the understanding of the doctrines of providence, grace, evil, and human responsibility, his allegorical interpretation of Scripture warrants caution. In book thirteen, Augustine walks through the first chapter of Genesis and presents his ideas regarding creation. His first interpretation is legitimate, as he portrays day one of creation as a metaphor of light shining upon the dark hearts of sinners. This explanation corresponds to 2 Corinthians 4:6, which reads, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Several other interpretations by Augustine, however, deserve much caution, such as the vault of Scripture hanging overhead and the sea creatures that represent signs and sacraments.

Apart from Augustine’s allegorical interpretation of the days of creation, The Confessions should be absorbed with joy as the reader considers the great truth that God draws sinners to Himself. The Confessions provides the church with a testimony that God shines light into even the darkest of hearts, taking those who were dead in trespasses and sins and bringing them to life, providing rest to the restless, wandering soul. Praise God for His grace that He worked not only in the heart of Augustine but continues to work in the hearts of men today!

 

[1] God’s sovereignty and human ability

Augustine, The Confessions. Translated by Maria Boulding. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1997. 307 pp. $10.95. 978-1565481541.

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