Outside of the bible, one book in particular has shaped my Christian faith more than any other. At age 19, I bought a copy of Augustine’s Confessions after John Piper recommended it in a conference sermon. During the following spring, I read it with my pastor and a few others in my church, and I was captivated. Every year since then I have re-read Confessions at least once, and through it (as well as his other works) Augustine has become a mentor and shepherd for my walk with Christ. He has taught me how to pray more deeply, feel more keenly both the weight of my sin and the joy of God’s grace, love the church more fully, and walk with more endurance on the long road home. Advice often given to young pastors and theologians is that we aim to “fall in love” with a dead theologian--make ourselves at home in their works, allow their thinking to sharpen and challenge our own reading of scripture, and allow them as a voice of the “communion of saints” to help us hold fast to the faith. Since I first read him 7 years ago, Augustine has become my dead theological soul mate. Numerous times since I first encountered him, I have tried to convince Christian brothers and sisters to read his Confessions. Some have, but the book is not easy--Augustine lived a long time ago, and he lived in a world often jarringly different from our own. So this post is the first in a series I’ll be writing over the next few months, introducing new readers to Augustine’s Confessions and providing a guide to help navigate the work. My aim in this initial post is to convince you that reading Confessions is worth the investment of time and energy, and to introduce you to my dear brother, Augustine of Hippo.
Augustine lived in a time of great anxiety and social change, in some ways not unlike our own. When he was born in AD 354, Roman power still stretched from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Things looked, on the surface at least, much the way they had for the last 300 years. By the time Augustine died in AD 430, Rome had been sacked by barbarian tribes and the barbarians themselves had marched across Gaul (modern France), south across Spain, and into North Africa, where they pounded on the gates of Augustine’s port city of Hippo even as he breathed his last. He was the last great master of the classical world, and the first great master of the medieval world: the man who stood at the turning of the ages.
Aside from Confessions, he wrote two other major works--The City of God and On the Trinity, along with a host of shorter books and hundreds of sermons and letters. He wrote so extensively that the 7th century bishop Isidore of Seville remarked that anyone who claims to have read all of his works is not to be trusted. Through his books, Augustine shaped the church of the early and high medieval periods, and it was a recovery of Augustinian doctrine that sparked the Reformation. No other pastor was studied or quoted more than Augustine by Luther and Calvin and the other reformers. His short handbook of biblical interpretation and preaching, On Christian Doctrine, was one of the first books to be produced on a printing-press aside from the Bible. His wrestlings with scripture on the nature of human sin and our deep need for redemption in Christ have profoundly shaped the theology of the whole church.
Augustine is, almost inarguably, the most important Christian to ever live outside of the Bible itself. And yet I was 19 years old before I knew almost anything about him. I had heard his name as a kid in one of my favorite songs by the band Switchfoot. I had read about how he once felt very guilty for stealing some pears, in a general education class at my university. But no one had suggested to me the enduring importance of the brother who helped clarify the doctrine of original sin, almost single-handedly invented the genre of autobiography, laid the groundwork of Christian Just War Theory, completely deconstructed the classical pagan worldview from the inside, and more--all while preaching and teaching many times per week in a port town, serving as the chief administrator of his diocese, travelling to participate in bishops’ councils, and defending the church from every conceivable brand of heretic and schismatic.
So purely from a historical perspective, it is important for Christians to know who Augustine was, and to understand something of his enduring influence on the church today. But why should average Christians--not just aspiring theologians or seminarians or pastors--read some of his works?
First, we need to read Augustine because no one else outside of the scriptures themselves can teach us how to pray as well as Augustine does. The natural course of my prayers is often distracted and half-hearted, as I present my current worries, preoccupations, and sins to God and ask for his mercy and help. From beginning to end, Confessions is a single long prayer, addressed to God and seeking his help as Augustine probes into the nature of his past life, his conversion to Christ, and his ongoing struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. On every page, we see the evidence that Augustine has drunk deeply from the fountain of the Psalms, and we have the privilege of listening in as an older brother lays his soul bare before our Father. If you want to learn how to pray deeply, fervently, and biblically--read Confessions.
Second, we need to read the book because it shows us a testimony of God’s grace to a brother over the course of his whole life. If you have been a Christian for a long time, and the initial excitement of conversion has worn off, and you are beginning to be discouraged by the daily slog of discipleship or frustrated by the slow and often painful progress of sanctification, then Confessions is for you. Augustine wrote it during a period of illness and reflection ten years after his conversion, when he seems to have experienced something of a mid-life crisis. He wrote it to probe the depths of his heart, to understand by God’s grace where he had been, what the riches of God’s mercy to him had provided, and how he could endure faithfully to the end. If you want to learn how to hold fast to Christ and want your heart to be set ablaze again with affection for your savior, then read Confessions.
Finally, we need to read Confessions because it shows us that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The world of Augustine is often a bizarre and alien place. He lived in a crumbling empire ruled by a military autocracy, in a world far more enchanted than our sanitized modernity. And yet the deep anxieties of Augustine’s inner life are the same as ours. Where does evil come from? If I know what is good, why does my soul desire what is not? What are the experiences that shaped me and made me who I am today? Is there truly lasting joy to be found in God? If so, how can I get it? If any of these questions resonate with you, then I encourage you: read Confessions to meet Augustine and his God; pray with him as he prays and seeks, and rest with him as he rests in the God he finds.
If you’re still not convinced you should read it, go listen to the John Piper sermon linked at the beginning of this post, and then come back here.
Ok, now that Dr. Piper has you convinced more effectively than I could, and you want to join in reading through Confessions, I would recommend you get the Oxford World Classics edition. The translation by Henry Chadwick is the best one out there, and the paperback is quite affordable. I’ll be writing ten posts here to go with the first ten books of the Confessions, explaining key terms and sections, presenting summaries of the events covered, and helping to make connections between Augustine’s world and ours. You can read each book (which is more or less like a chapter in a modern book) before you come to my post, or wait until I publish each post and then use it as a guide. Either way, my goal is that we be enabled to sink our teeth more effectively into the ancient prayers of our brother Augustine, so that all of us can be built up in the love of God and neighbor and come, step by step, closer to our eternal home.