Part One: The Value of Augustine’s “Confessions” for Christian Apologetics

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Bishop Augustine of Hippo by Antonello da Messina

“Truly my soul finds rest in God …”

“Grant me, O Lord, to know which is the soul’s first movement toward Thee,” Augustine writes in the opening lines of what is widely acknowledged as the Western world’s preeminent autobiography.[1]  “What goal are you making for wandering around and about by ways so hard and laborious?” Augustine asks. [2]  Penned in the form of a conversation with God that brings to mind the Psalms of David, Augustine’s Confessions are the recollections of an intelligent and passionately sensitive mind as it considers its search for God in the midst of earthly distractions.  The goal is rest.  “Rest is not where you seek it,” Augustine writes, for “You seek happiness of life in the land of death, and it is not there.”[3]

Written between 397-398 A.D., one might think that such a conversion narrative would have little of value to offer the modern world. What would a fourth-century bishop in a Roman province in the northern part of Africa have to say to our twenty-first century world filled with the fruits of modern science?

Apparently, something for Augustine’s Confessions remains as popular as ever.  Through the retelling of his conversion, one gains a vivid picture of the restlessness intrinsic to all human souls regardless context and the innumerable ways in which they struggle to quench it, whether through intellectual quests, worldly success, relationships, or meaningful experiences.

What about its value for Christian apologetics?  The apologist will be surprised to learn that a highly educated and inquisitive mind such as Augustine’s encountered many of the same intellectual roadblocks to Christianity one comes across today.  ‘Spiritual autobiographies’ such as Augustine’s can provide the apologist with a unique perspective on the most effective arguments for God, giving inside knowledge of how one comes to terms with the Gospel in light of the myriads of intellectual and volitional road blocks an individual may encounter.

Most importantly, for all believers, his Confessions reveal that though the Gospel of our salvation is simple, making wise the foolish, finding rest in God is a complex process of allowing His truth to reorient our hearts towards Him as He works non-coercively within the theater of our free-will choices.  In reading ‘spiritual autobiographies’, we are reminded that while complicated by sin, spiritual conversion is ultimately completed by God’s grace, and in this, we find a strengthening wisdom as we seek to shine the light of His Gospel into our world.  As we read of Augustine’s salvation from ways that lead to death, we can take heart that He Who begins a good work in us, will indeed see to its completion.

Though the historical and cultural contexts may differ, common themes emerge in the process of conversion as we consider Augustine’s Confessions. There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to both the intellectual and volitional stumbling blocks that hinder human progress towards God.  With respect to the intellectual obstacles, Augustine struggled to reconcile the existence of good and evil (the problem of evil and its nature), to comprehend God’s nature, and to have confidence in the reliability of the scriptures.  Volitional encumbrances included the worldly expectations of his culture that valued prestige and success above virtue, and his ongoing struggles with intellectual pride and the lusts of the flesh. For Augustine, the latter took the form of sexual lust early on, but we see the spiritually mature Augustine struggling with new worldly distractions, despite his freedom from the snare of his earlier disordered desires.

Therefore, considering these broad categories, the intellectual and the volitional, and how they relate to Augustine’s own conversion will illustrate the ways in which a ‘spiritual autobiography’ such as his can give practical wisdom and spiritual support for others’ journeys towards God.

Augustine begins this work telling us that there is an intrinsic restlessness within human nature that is a result of being created to move towards God, the ground of our existence and being Himself.  “For Thou hast made us for Thyself and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee,” he writes. The “for” in Latin is not pro which shows ownership, but ad which means to, towards, or in movement to.[4] For Augustine, this restlessness is Aristotelian in that as time-bound, mutable creatures, we are in constant flux. We are bodies that are not at rest in this life.  We strive towards being, therefore, we strive towards God, as He is being and existence itself.  It’s an ontological striving towards.  “Grant me, O Lord, to know which is the soul’s first movement toward Thee,” Augustine writes.[5] His Confessions seeks to do just that.

The next posts will dig deeper into a handful of the philosophical and psychological roadblocks that Augustine encountered on his path towards God.

The Confessions were meant to be read allowed.  I highly recommend doing this as it breathes life into his writing in a way that is moving.  I consulted the translations of both Sheed and Chadwick.  Finally, I recommend Peter Kreeft’s commentary, I Burned For Your Peace.  

Part Two: Augustine’s Philosophical and Psychological Road Blocks

 

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Saint Augustine by Phillipe de Champaigne

[1] Augustine, Confessions, 2nd ed., trans. F.J. Sheed, ed. Michael P. Foley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006), 4.12.18.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, 2nd ed., trans. F.J. Sheed, ed. Michael P. Foley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2006), 4.12.18.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Peter Kreeft, I Burned for Your Peace: Augustine’s Confessions Unpacked (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press 2016), Kindle Edition, loc. 167-168.

[5] Augustine, Confessions, 2nd ed., trans. F.J. Sheed, ed. Michael P. Foley, 1.1.2.

One thought on “Part One: The Value of Augustine’s “Confessions” for Christian Apologetics

  1. Pingback: Part Two: The Value of Augustine’s “Confessions” for Christian Apologetics | Along the Beam

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