What it is about
Written around 397 AD, when he was 43 years old, Confessions is one of Augustine of Hippo’s greatest and most renown works. In essence, the book is a prayer to God, where Augustine reflects upon the entire span of his life. As he recounts his experiences from birth to the present time, he grieves over his sinfulness while praising God for his immense mercy in rescuing him out of darkness. The last three books of this volume also contain a very close exposition and analysis of the first chapter of Genesis.
What I liked
The translation by R.S. Pine-Coffin (from Latin into English) is incredibly accessible and rich with passion and meaning. It is easy to forget that this book was written almost 1600 years ago, as the translation has removed archaic words while staying as true to the original as possible.
Augustine is terrifyingly honest about his sinful nature. He holds nothing back, exposing all his past and present sins, laying them bare before the readers’ eyes.
“The evil in me was foul, but I loved it. I loved my own perdition and my own faults, not for the things for which I committed wrong, but for the wrong itself. My soul was vicious and broke away from your safe keeping to seek its own destruction, looking for no profit in disgrace but only for disgrace itself.” (pp 48)
His honesty is not merely a means of punishing himself as a penance, rather, it is a means of highlighting the amazing
depths of God’s grace.
“I will love you, Lord, and thank you, and praise your name, because you have forgiven me such great sins and such wicked deeds. I acknowledge that it was by your grace and mercy that you melted away my sins like ice.” (pp 51)
Augustine has an incredible understanding of the human condition. He understands better than most, the meaning of (Genesis 6:5): “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Augustine is often credited as the first theologian to clearly expound the doctrine of original sin. Reading his Confession it is not hard to see why. Augustine is under no illusion as to the utter depravity of the fallen man apart from God.
“…if babies are innocent, it is not for lack of will to do harm, but for lack of strength.” (pp 28)
Augustine’s self-awareness and honesty in Confessions is unmatched in any autobiographical work I have ever read. He is under no illusions as to who he is; a dirty, rotten sinner, freely justified by the grace of God in Jesus Christ
What I didn’t like
Augustine was not only an excellent theologian, but was first and foremost an ancient academic man. He was well read and an incredibly deep thinker, which at times, makes him quite hard to understand. I was particularly out of my depth during his discussion on time (in Book XI) and matter (Book XII). At times, Augustine is unnecessarily long-winded, owing to his desire to be thorough and to treat the topic of discussion with the respect it is due.
His exegesis of Genesis 1 in the latter parts of Confession are quite abstract and at times hard to follow. Augustine reads Genesis 1 allegorically, which is not inherently wrong, but results in the odd interpretation of the “sky” being a symbol for the Bible.
What I found encouraging
Confessions is an incredibly encouraging book because Augustine really understands the human condition. As I read the book, I felt as if Augustine really knew me, really knew my situation and the struggles I have.
There were times when what he was describing about himself was also true of me.
What I found challenging
Augustine’s honesty also challenges the reader to be honest about their own nature. It is so easy to point the finger at others, but to reflect upon one’s self with brutal candour is much more difficult. It is only by the grace of God that Augustine can admit his faults, and it is only by the grace of God that we can admit ours.
Augustine believed that pride was the root of all sin and in this book he constantly comes back to the idea of incurvatus in se. This is the idea that we are curved inward on ourselves, so that we only ever look at ourself and not outwards to other humans and to God. It was this idea that most challenged me, and has forced me to realise just how proud and curved in on myself I am.
Why you should read it
We are the worst qualified critics of ourselves. We are the first to praise ourselves and the last to notice our flaws. Augustine uses his personal experiences and more importantly Scripture to utterly crush this idea that we are inherently good people. “As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, no, not one…’” (Romans 3:10). But the good news is that God has sent his Son, Jesus to die as a payment for our sins; and to give us the gift of faith that turns our inward-looking selves outwards to God and to our neighbour. Augustine rams this point home again and again.
If you don’t believe in your utter sinfulness or your free justification by God, this book is a must read for you.
– While accessible, this book is a moderately difficult read. It may be useful to use the website “Sparknotes” to access summaries of each chapter.
– As the original work was in Latin, there are many translations of Confessions, I would only recommend R.S. Pine-Conffin’s translation, as it is faithful to the original but still uses accessible language.
Ryan is a 3rd year Physiotherapy student in Curtin University