Augustine The Confessions
Beginning on Wednesday, September 21, 2016 and continuing for eight successive weeks, Saint Martin’s Church offered a series on the spirituality and theological insights of Saint Augustine, the great writer and teacher of the early church. The sessions met in the library at 7 p.m. John Cerrato facilitated the reading of Augustine’s classic spiritual autobiography The Confessions and provided context for the life and thought of its author.
The text we used was Augustine The Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin, Penguin Classics (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1961). This book is available online and through many religious booksellers. These eight sessions were offered concurrently on Monday evenings at 7 p.m. in Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, Akron, beginning on September 19, where Dr. Cerrato was invited to teach the series in a pilot program of Christian instruction.
Augustine was the single, most influential, theological voice of the early church, especially in Western Christianity. As an interpreter of Paul and the teachings of Jesus, he shaped Christian thought for millennia and continues to do so. His two most well-known works The Confessions and The City of God remain classics of the Christian tradition the world over. Our series will focus on the importance of developing a spirituality of self-understanding, the truth of grace, and the mystery of God.
NOTES FOR PARTICIPANTS
Session 1 Introduction to the Biblical and Classical Sources of Augustine
Notes on the English Translation: The Confessions, like many ancient writings, are composed in “books.” A “book” in this older terminology is roughly equivalent to a chapter in modern English parlance. Thirteen books comprise The Confessions. We read two a week, beginning with 1-2 (due for September 28). Helpful summaries of each book are provided by the translator in the front of the Penguin edition (p. 5 ff.).
Augustine’s thinking is permeated with holy scripture by the year 397-8, when he begins writing The Confessions. He has been a convert to classical-catholic Christianity for at least ten years. He is a priest of the catholic ecclesia of North Africa (as distinguished from the Donatist church and other sects, or elitist enclaves such as Manichaeism) and the diocesan bishop of the flourishing port city of Hippo Regius in Numidia (present day Annaba in Algeria). Augustine has been, for some time, especially interested in the life and writings of Paul the apostle, as exemplified in this Gentile missioner’s letters of the New Testament. He is also a devotee of the Fourth Gospel, since it exudes Platonic language and concepts Augustine finds appealing for intellectual and spiritual reasons.
So we begin our eight week study by looking into three New Testament texts of Pauline and Johannine pedigree: The Parable of the Prodigal (Luke 15), The Conversion of Saul (Paul) (Acts 10) and The Confession of John the Prophet and the Calling of the Disciples of Jesus (John 1). Augustine is especially adept in the allegorical, metaphorical and figurative uses of scripture. In The Confessions he will seek to apply these aspects of sacred text to his own life and experience, and to describe his faith journey in these terms.
Essential elements of the Parable of the Prodigal for The Confessions will be the concept of conversion as journey, conversion as the outcome of a new self-realization, conversion as embracing humility, and confession as an expression of contrition for a wasted life. Remember: The Prodigal means The Waster, not the wanderer. “Coming to himself” sets off bells for a thinker in the Platonic, Pauline traditions. The embarking on the interior journey is the beginning of the path to salvation for such a perspective. The prodigal’s complete stripping of the outward (loss, then famine), forces his inward glance, moving him from pride to humility, from despair to hope. Augustine, as a theologian, will represent an understanding of human selfhood in which the self is most fully a self in relation to God. Without God, adequate self-understanding is impossible and without self-exploration, God will not and cannot be known.
From the narrative of Paul’s conversion in Acts, Augustine will see the radical nature of grace, not only in conversion but also in the whole of the spiritual journey. Paul is not a seeker, in fact, he is an enemy of the cross. Yet God chooses and apprehends him for the sake of the Gospel. Paul’s freedom of choice is minimal if at all existent in the hour of his calling. Divine choosing determines calling, which in turn determines conversion. What we see in this conversion scenario is the freedom of God, not the freedom of the human being.
In a third text of conversion, the Fourth Gospel also exhibits a definition of confession. John the prophet “confesses, does not deny, but confesses” he is not the messiah. So confession carries here a sense of public acclamation: a voicing of one’s identity by denying any divine honor for one’s mission or ministry. Regarding conversion, this passage also shows the diversity of encounter with Christ in the calling of the first disciples. The followers here attracted to Jesus of Nazareth are seekers after a messiah, but as yet unsure who that might be. Unlike previous narratives in which no search is underway and crisis brings the beginnings of faith, the first disciples of Jesus have long nurtured great desire for the Christ and his kingdom.
In The Confessions, Augustine will draw on each of these features of conversion (and more) – crisis, coercion, seeking – surrender, grace, discovery – to explore his own path to the God of the bible, the God of the people of God as understood from the vantage point of the catholic fold. He is well aware of the metaphors of journey at his disposal in the sum of the biblical narrative: Abraham’s journey west to the promised land, the Israelite journey out of Egypt into the promised land, the return of Israel from exile to the homeland. He will see confession as the candid expression of sin, heartfelt praise of God, and as a claiming of loyalty to God through confessing God’s name and nature.
Two classical sources also stand behind Augustine’s understanding of journey: the Homeric Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. In the Greek Odyssey, Odysseus the warrior king struggles to return home, exemplifying a spirituality of journey as return to source, turning back to origin, seeking against all odds to regain one’s original possessions. He hazards many dangers (monsters, sirens, witches, seducers, goddesses and gods) and loses all his companions but comes again to Ithaca. In the Aeneid an opposite model of journey is portrayed. This is not homecoming, but an outward bound, pioneer to the frontier, trek. Aeneas the Trojan prince leads his companions to a new land – the last place they want to go is home. This Roman tale is about the founding of a new kingdom, making a new beginning, discovery of the terra incognita. The Virgilian adventure of discovery in The Aeneid harmonizes with the biblical story of Abraham and Sarah, leaving all to reach a new place in the world. The Greek home going of The Odyssey, on the other hand, harmonizes with the biblical narratives of Moses and his people returning to Canaan, as well as Israel in exile returning to reclaim Jerusalem.
Augustine, like most of the spiritual masters of the Christian tradition, will affirm and use both senses of journey as metaphors, figures and allegories of the Christian soul’s movement to God: both homecoming and new adventure, both inward return to the old and outward bound reaching to the new. In the end, it is probably fair to say any biblical episode of human encounter with God is a source for so wide-ranging an author as Augustine. Jacob’s wrestling with the angel, Moses at the burning bush, Joseph in the pit and in the prison, and many others, form grist for the mill in The Confessions.
Augustine’s Biblical Sources for The Confessions is a PDF of the hard copy handout for the first session. Click on the title to read and/or download.
Session 2 Augustine’s Reflections on Childhood and Youth (Books 1-2)
Overall purpose of The Confessions. In the writing of the thirteen books of the confessions, Augustine is seeking to find his past self in God and therefore to discover a new present self-understanding. He is looking to explore episodes of his childhood and youth (to age 16) which illuminate how divine grace has operated in his life: where God’s providence saved him from destruction and where God’s patience and silence allowed him to fall into harmful and dangerous behaviors and patterns of conduct. All of this he sees as a charting of mercy and grace, of prevenient spiritual influence, eventually leading him to conversion and the fullness of faith.
The Context of Augustine’s Theology, the beginnings of which we will see in The Confessions. Like the entirety of the Christian literature written before his time, and much of it written after, Augustine’s writings are influenced by the religious controversies in the church’s life. In the gospels we see Jesus contending with opponents. In Paul’s letters we view his struggle to find solutions for the tension and conflict resulting from the Gentile and Jewish question: how do Greeks and others fit into the new Christ movement which is in origin and essence Jewish? In the second and third centuries, Christian tractates, essays and commentaries are framed against the teachings of schisms, heresies, and the philosophical and cultural critics of Christianity. In the fourth century the great threat is Arianism, confronted in the Nicene Creed, but not vanquished.
Early christian theology was almost wholly sculpted in the cauldron of controversy. Rarely do the theological thinkers of the time speak from a neutral place of peace and equilibrium. The list is long of the contraries forming the foil of its genesis. Most of the nascent tradition is either anti-Pharisaeic, anti-gnostic, antic-docetic, anti-adoptianist, anti-monarchian, anti-subordinationist, anti-Arian, or anti-any-of-a-number of insufficient views of God, Christ and the church. This is the reality of the patristic world and it is not different for Augustine of Hippo.
Augustine’s four specific contentions, throughout his life and elements of which are sometimes visible in the books of The Confessions, are 1) against Manichaeism, 2) against Donatism, 3) against paganism and 4) against Pelagianism. A word about each.
Manichaeism was a gnostic sect founded by the prophet Mani of Persia in the third century. Much has been written and much can be read about gnostic speculation and its early appeal. Like other gnostic communities, the Manichaeans believed the question of good and evil lay at the heart of theology. Their bedrock supposition: matter is evil and spirit is good, flesh is inferior and spirit is superior. To most Christian thinkers of the early period this seemed a simplistic reduction of the truth and a view contrary to the creation accounts of Genesis, as well as a genuinely Christian doctrine of God the creator. The Manichaeans, like other gnostics, applied their first principle of spirit and matter to salvation by saying the material world and the life of the human body must be escaped, either by a severe asceticism or by a complete indulgence, often producing extreme versions of ethics and morality. Augustine, for at least ten years, was intrigued by the Manichaeans and became a catechumen within their ranks. Although he never advanced in their hierarchy, he later saw them as a dangerous influence in contrast to catholic-Christian truth. In The Confessions he will express disgust and revulsion at that stage of his life, leveling criticisms at their teachings and their teachers.
The other three controversies influencing Augustine’s literature lie beyond the confines of The Confessions, but are worth noting here. The Donatist Church, named for Donatus Magnus, an older North African bishop, was a rival denomination in Numidia in Augustine’s day. The Donatists had departed from the catholic fold over issues of purity in the ranks of the clergy, especially bishops. During the early age of persecution, they had insisted on not reconciling with Christian leaders who had been disloyal to the church. The catholic position was in some ways more lenient. The Donatists were separatists, whom rulers from Constantine to Honorius had tried to reunite with the catholic body, but without success. Augustine will enter into intense conversation with them, ultimately calling on more government intervention to solve the problem. Much of his writing from the 390s until about 412 is dedicated to the issue of church unity and its theological basis.
Augustine’s contentions against paganism in general come after the sack of Rome by the armies of the barbarian Alaric in 410 and the ensuing complaints of the defeated Romans that their empire had been weakened by Christianity, causing the disaster of 410. Augustine’s belabored response in writing is The City of God, his magnum opus on the “two cities,” the earthly and the heavenly. In it, he takes on the entire edifice of the pagan culture of the classical period, pointing to its inconsistencies, hypocrisy and inhumanity.
In the years subsequent to Rome’s sack, a Christian monk of Britannia, Pelagius by name, will take exception to Augustine’s teaching on radical grace, especially as it is stated in The Confessions. Pelagius holds a much brighter view of human moral nature and Augustine will seek to defend himself in a number of tractates, letters and other compositions, pressing his interpretation of Paul’s teaching against “Pelagianism.” Other writers will join the fray and the issue will live on into the life of the church for some years.
Noteworthy Discussion Points from our reading of books 1-2: the pear tree incident and peer pressure (thrill seeking, curiosity, or sin for the sake of sin), the rumination on pantheism and panentheism (how is God in us/in the world?), mother Monica withholding from her young son the sacraments of baptism and marriage, the young man’s relationship with his pagan father Patricius, the regrets of a wasted life (prodigality and the wasteland), criticism of the Roman system of education (corporal punishment and the pagan content of the literature), criticism of the theatre and other cultural arts, the year’s delay in education due to money problems (Augustine the midwestern farm boy), the violence, decadence and cruelty of Roman society, and more.
Session 3 Augustine’s Reflections on Youth and Young Adulthood (Books 3-4)
Background on the Church in the Age of Augustine. Augustine inherited a theological context shaped by events and processes of the fourth century. When he became bishop of Hippo Regius in the mid 390s, specific forces were at work in the life of Christianity with which he had to respond in his thinking, writing, preaching and pastoral care. Not only were the Donatists of North Africa confirmed rivals of the catholic-Christian tradition, but also the Persian-Christian Manichaeans, as well as a resurgent paganism and a nascent Pelagianism (as mentioned above in Session 2).
The greatest pan-Mediterranean source of controversy, however, was Arianism. Politics and religion mixed to produce the Arian/Anti-Arian conflict. Constantine the Great had become one of several emperors of Rome in 306 and thereafter sought successfully to establish himself as the sole emperor (two, three or four leaders had previously shared power). On his way to unrivaled rule he developed a favorable attitude toward Christianity. After 312 he issued a series of edicts making the religion legal, then showing support for it in various ways, including the patronage of churches.
Meanwhile, as persecution of the churches ceased through the reversals of Constantine, the internal energy of the church was directed to other problems, especially the teaching of a priest of Alexandria named Arius. Arius believed he had solved the problem and eradicated the mystery of the relationship of the eternal Father to the Son of God within the life of the holy trinity. He held the Son to have “not been” prior to his “being made” even in his preexistence before he became human in Jesus Christ.
Many Christian leaders took exception to this view, seeking to uphold the higher Christology of the Son’s coequality with the Father from eternity. In order to address the unrest mounting throughout the churches of the empire, Constantine called the first ecumenical Christian council at Nicea in 325. Hundreds of bishops attended and Arius was reproved. A creed was produced – the Nicene Creed – the middle section of which specifically addresses the Arian error by stating what would thereafter be known as the orthodox position. The Son is described as “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.”
Rather than defeat Arianism in practice, the Niceans only managed to rebut it theoretically. Regardless of the beautifully crafted and cogent creed, the Arians continued to flourish throughout the fourth century and in some areas grew stronger. By the time of Augustine’s ministry at century’s end, it remained enough of a threat to the catholic tradition to merit his full treatment of it in a major work entitled On the Holy Trinity, a composition years in the making (beginning c. 400).
Another phenomenon relevant to the theology of Augustine, which we often take for granted, was the formation of the Christian canon of holy scripture. The 27 books of the Greek bible, known as the Christian New Testament, were composed in the first and second centuries of the Christian era and came to be used in all the major churches of the Mediterranean. Later attempts to add to this original collection by various non-apostolic writers of the second century and beyond were resisted by Christian bishops and priests who refused to augment what they considered the definitive apostolic library. By the fourth century the canon which Augustine received was well established both by centuries of faithful use in the mainstream churches, as well as by the rulings of bishops the church over. Augustine knew of apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works in circulation but essentially theologized from the core of the Christian scriptural tradition: the 66 canonical books of the Hebrew and Greek bibles we still call today The Holy Bible.
Noteworthy Discussion Points from our reading of books 3-4: the unique genre of the confessions as a literary composition but the older style of oratory its author employed to evoke drama and emotion; Augustine’s fear of sex as an addiction, as well as his fear of intellectual error; the Platonic influence on Augustine, especially Cicero’s Hortensius; his seeking for truth but admission he did not find God in those years; his relationship with his mistress and son Adeodatus; his antagonism against the Manichean teachings, which once enamored him; his developing relationship with Monica the Christian, and more.
Session 4 Augustine’s Reflections on Early Adulthood (Books 5-6)
The Platonic Spirituality of Augustine’s Conversion We have powerful examples of Platonic philosophy in the writings of Plotinus, a third century teacher who flourished in Rome. Plotinus’ student Porphyry produced a large compendium of his master’s lectures entitled The Enneads to which Augustine and other Christian thinkers had access over a century later. Plotinus’ tractate on beauty is a particularly poignant text for understanding Augustine’s Confessions, especially the passages in which Plotinus speaks of the human soul which tastes the higher world of beauty and touches it as a source – the ultimate unitive goodness, the origin of all beauty – and is ravished by it. Such a soul catches a glimpse of a higher path and will sacrifice worldly ambition to attain further experience of the one divine Beauty, forsaking all the shadows of the present age, mere umbrages of the supreme reality of unsurpassable perception. Through writers like Augustine and other Christian biblical Platonists, this will become in the development of the Christian tradition the doctrine of the beatific vision.
In the confessions, this is the standard to which Augustine begins to aspire spiritually and morally as the result of his having begun to read the Platonists (Cicero’s Hortensius and others). His sense of truth develops in the direction of a high dimension of otherworldliness, which, once sighted, calls the soul to higher and higher aspirations of ideal reality. So his intellectual journey starts when he is still young and takes years to unfold, showing him glimmerings of a truth wrapped in beauty, transcendence and moral altitude, but to which he is not able to dedicate himself at first, owing to the blindness, deafness, numbness and overall deadness of his earthly life. He has been born into a family of ambition, a world of license and lust, a permissive society and a body of desire to love and be loved in the most immediate ways. He develops sexual and intellectual compulsions leading to no lasting fulfillment; compulsions he later interprets as the road to perdition.
Glimpsing the beatific vision and pursuing it in this life becomes more and more a hallmark of the Christian contemplative tradition, a tradition to which the spiritual and theological writings of Augustine will give impetus. In our hymnal, for instance, we have an old Irish text of c. 700: “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; all else be naught to me save that that art – thou my best thought by day and by night, waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.” (English Victorian translation of the ancient Irish verse, Hymnal 488). For Augustine and other Christian Platonists of his generation this also meant the monastic, ascetic lifestyle of homosocial community, abstinence from secular ambition, sex and many forms of sensuality. This is his concept of conversion and Christian calling as he develops as a proto-catholic thinker in his twenties and early thirties.
Plato’s Parable of the Cave An example of both the underlying and explicit Platonism of Augustine’s age is Plato’s famous analogy of the cave in in his very popular politeia or The Republic. In Socrates’ dialogue with Glaucon, not only is the Platonic concept of the weakness of human education in the present world elucidated but also the remoteness of true knowledge.
Plato describes human society as prisoners bound in the depths of a cavern huddled near a wall looking at an opposite wall on which they see shadows passing. The wise of this world are those able to discuss cleverly the shadows but hardly know the full extent of their origin, much less the whole context of human existence. The fact is, according to Plato/Socrates, the shadows are made by agents on the other side of the wall (the one to which the people are chained), who hold up and move about figures and figurines in the light of a fire yet farther removed behind them.
Some individual might occasionally break free and see behind the wall, thus learning the origin of the shadows. Even rarer is that person who discovers how the cave is actually underground and yet equipped with a path up to the light of the real world where the sun shines on trees, mountains, river and oceans. Imagine, says the philosopher, what it must be like for the one who makes it up and out into the sunlight, remains long enough to habituate weak eyes to the new reality, then returns to the cave in an attempt to convey what has been seen.
This is the lay of the land for the Platonic tradition with which Augustine was becoming conversant in his twenties and thirties. It gives new meaning to the phrase “a dim view of the world.” Accordingly, in this present life there are other hitherto unknown levels of knowledge, over which reigns a world of transcendent beauty, wisdom and justice, beyond the ken of the underground captives of the shadowlands. The task is to break free, see the theatrical nature of this world, then ascend to the light of the upper realm. Is this not the scope, range and context of Augustine’s conversion, as well as his sense of the ongoing labor of the Christian life?
Noteworthy Discussion Points from our reading of books 5-6: Augustine’s embrace of scientific facts; his disillusionment with Manichean speculation (Faustus); the omnipresence of God but his continuing blindness to it; his entourage of friends and their aspiration to community life, their mutual influence; Monica’s acceptance of Ambrose’s instruction (on homage to the martyrs); his high standard of conversion based on the Platonic vision of the spiritual life.
Session 5 Augustine’s Narrative of Conversion (Books 7-8)
The Spirituality and Theology of Grace Augustine is remembered preeminently as a theologian of grace. He has absorbed the central teachings of Paul in this regard, not only for his definition of conversion but also for the entire living of the Christian life. About a decade after the circulation of The Confessions, a monk of Britannia, Pelagius, will criticize Augustine’s statements of explicit dependence on divine grace for every step of the Christian journey. A debate will ensue for years, as well as ecclesiastical controversy, in which bishops will seek to censure Pelagius and his followers. The anti-Pelagian writings of Augustine will become a major contribution of his to the Christian theological tradition.
It can be said with fairness and accuracy that the centrality of grace in Augustine’s thought determines many of his other concepts of spirituality and theology. The essence of his doctrine of grace is the Pauline principle that the salvation of the individual human soul is the decision of God to justify that soul from sin, an act seen as a free gift in no way dependent on human effort but originating from God and wholly empowered by God. The human realization of this divine action produces an attitude of thankfulness for the free gift of God, ushering forward in one direction the worship of eucharistia (thankfulness and the offering of thanks in liturgy), and in another the desire for stewardship as a response to the gift, including a new energy of responsibility (the freedom and inner strength to respond in thankful and generous ways in imitation of the giver).
It can even be asserted in this approach that spiritual health in individuals and communities can be gauged by the presence and strength of this sense of thankfulness and joy, resulting from grace, flowing from the experience of its reception as a free gift; grace producing not only faith and hope of salvation but also grace generating a love of God, self and others. When we are in a place of sensing, feeling, perceiving, enjoying, delighting in and acting in accordance with the promise and presence of grace, we are in the healthiest and most life giving locale in terms of spirituality and moral clarity. Concomitant attitudes of humility, peace, security, hope, trust and compassion rule our days. We view the very life springs of our vitality as a divine gift and the fullness of life as a personal and communal vista. This then is the meaning of being centered in God in the Augustinian teaching of spirituality and in its calling to existential and corporate experience. It is a rephrasing of Paul’s epistolary theology on an expansive level, drawing out and clarifying its intra-biblical connections, its classical, philosophical corollaries, as well as its applications to life – past, present and future – in the church and the world.
Conversion as Turning Augustine’s conversion in summer 386 is largely a turning away from the world as he had previously experienced it: from the mundane as a place of ambition, sensual pursuits, sexual over-gratification and intellectual misconstruals. It was a turning to God, to be sure, but with a predominant element of forsaking, abandoning, relinquishing and resigning from a prior range of desires and complexes. He turns from himself as hitherto formed by family, society and his acquiescence to destructive ways. Interestingly, the phrase in his converting text “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” means virtually for him “be baptized in the catholic Christian church of Ambrose,” a calling he brings to fruition within a year (by April 387). This essence of the conversion experience as negation, as a saying no, is a crucial point in the development of his theology and spirituality. Again, the converting text of Paul he reads in the garden has a triad of “nots” (non in Latin, me in Greek, followed by a final injunction against concupiscence) and one positive: seek the garment of Christ’s baptism (Romans 13:13-14). It might be said that his garden experience was a turning from and his baptism at Easter 387 was a turning toward. It would be interesting to ask Ambrose the question: When did Augustine become a Christian? Was it the summer of 386 or the spring of 387? How would his old friend Simplicianus (conf 8.2) have answered the questions? Or for that matter, what would Victorinus have said?
Noteworthy Discussion Points from our reading of books 7-8: Augustine’s pain in his struggle to conversion; his grasp of the intellectual truth while simultaneously holding back on ultimate commitment; the influence of the Christian Simplicianus as a confidant and his story of Victorinus’ journey to faith; the cause of conversion as grace (beyond human explanation); his reference to sortes biblicae (sortes classicae) in the garden scene (Anthony of Egypt’s conversion experience); the setting of the garden scene under a fig tree; the voice of the child in previous Christian tradition as the voice of an angel, and more.
Session 6 Augustine’s Narrative of his Resignation, Retreat, Baptism and the Death of Monica (Books 9-10)
Augustine’s Concept of God Augustine received the traditional Christian teaching on the doctrine of God once he became a catholic Christian convert. The concept had been many years in the making, refined and defined over centuries, since the first apostolic proclamation in the early Christian movement in Palestine. His notion, like that of his orthodox contemporaries, was grounded in the religious traditions of monotheism, triunity, incarnation and spirituality. He accepted, like all Christians, the Hebrew teaching of one God, over against the polytheism of the nations. Within the one God, however, the Christians proclaimed and sought to develop an understanding of the godhead as triune, using the triadic name Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Further reflection included the great central belief in the historic doctrine of the incarnation of the Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, in Jesus Christ of Nazareth. This is the biblical purview of his descent from heaven to be born of Mary, his prophetic and healing ministry as the messiah of Israel, his rejection and crucifixion by the powers that be, followed closely by his resurrection and ascension back to heaven, his sending of the Spirit to establish the church in the world, and his role in the consummation of human history at the end of the present age. The third person of the Holy Trinity is the Holy Spirit, resident in the church and active in the world to prompt and promote the will of God in human life and history.
Crucial elements in the doctrine of God in Augustine’s lifetime were the relation of the Son to the Father in the pre-incarnate state (the Arian controversy), the divinity and distinct status of the Holy Spirit within the godhead (the Spirit controversy of Constantinople, 381) and ongoing concerns about the incarnation of the divine as a redemptive reality (the body of the Son of God as the body of God).
Vivid incarnational truths taken for granted by Christians of the fourth century included the suppositions that God had “taken a body” (assumed flesh), inhabited it fully on earth, received it back into heaven in a transformed but nevertheless corporeal condition and would never abandon that body. God was now incarnate forever, like us, and would not ever be simply spirit or invisible power again. This was the lasting work of the Son, the Christ: the new form adopted and adapted by the ruler of all creation. We can see how this is the physical and spiritual basis of redemption in Christian terms: the affirmation of material creation (not its rejection as in gnostic views) and the preserving of the bodily reality by “saving grace,” its resurrection and transformation in the life to come (but not beyond the corporeal). Augustine rightly identifies the incarnation doctrine as unique to Christianity, whereas he believed he had discovered monotheism, trinity and spirit in the previously long-lived Platonic philosophical literary tradition.
The challenge for Christianity as a theology in the ancient Mediterranean world was at least threefold in the following way. Classical people (Gentiles in the parlance of Paul and Jewish Christianity) could imagine incarnation since they had been exposed to stories of the gods becoming human (temporarily) and walking among mortals. But they could not easily adopt monotheism, the teaching of one and only one God, ensconced as they were in a culture of pervasive polytheism. The Jewish people were ardent monotheists and so had little problem with that aspect of Christian theology but were largely scandalized by the doctrine of divine incarnation. Recall the Pharisaic and Sadducean aversion to the claim of Christ’s divinity in the gospels (the attempt to stone him for the acclamation). A common ground between some groups and subcultures was the doctrine of divine Spirit, although this was rejected by materialists, consumerists and sensualists, as it is in some quarters today.
It is interesting in general terms, Augustine’s family was classical-pagan-Gentile in origin and he is greatly drawn in the life of his mind to the Christian doctrines of incarnation and trinity. Remember Monica’s change of practice in Milan under Ambrose’s instruction that she not offer libations to the dead (at the martyrs’ shrines) as was her previous custom in Africa. This was a residual feature of paganism being purged from Christian worship by the good bishop of the north. The case can be made for Monica’s limited knowledge of catholic Christianity in her earlier years, as well as for a North African catholicism peopled with nominal practitioners and overlaid with pagan syncretism. Some historians believe Patricius to have been a pagan by the practical standards of the day, until he chose to be baptized later in life. The classical Greco-Roman mindset is part and parcel of Augustine’s mental makeup: the ability to appreciate an immortal being coming to earth to redeem humankind and a great interest in the diversity of God as three personas within the divine unity. Again, Augustine is not unique (or even rare) in this regard. All the Christian theologians of this period operate in a polytheistic culture (waning in some sectors to be sure) and one familiar with tales of divine theophany and epiphany in the everyday world.
Noteworthy Discussion Points from our reading of books 9-10: the question of Augustine’s honesty in discussing his conversion; his drivenness towards excellence in all his pursuits; his insights into the nature of truth; his harsh negativity regarding earthly pleasures and delights; his relationship with Monica, especially at her death; his hatred yet pity regarding the Manichean religion, and more.
Session 7 Augustine reflects on Time, Eternity and Creation (Books 11-12)
Platonic Biblicism and the Concept of Eternity One of Augustine’s primary discoveries in the years leading up to his conversion in 386 was the Platonic-biblical division of time and eternity. Unlike previous philosophical and religious traditions which saw the universe as perennially existing without reference to a beginning point of creation, brought into existence by a transcendent creator, the Mosaic and early Christian views of the topic supposed a creator outside time and space, as well as a creation with a definite start (cf. the big bang theory). This Jewish-Christian doctrine of a supra mundane creator who made all that is ex nihilo, out of nothing, impressed the evolving mind of Augustine, who in his twenties had been a supporter of the gnostic Manichean cosmology of an ongoing light versus darkness struggle (without relief). A key insight for Augustine is the truth of God as the creator of time, which God did from out of an eternal existence. It is senseless, he now believes, to speak of a before or after in God’s eternal experience because time (measurable sequence and progress) did not exist in the eternal divine nature of the non-temporal.
Augustine also articulates the doctrine of a realm “clinging to God” which has no time, an eternal intellectual sphere correlative to the Platonic transcendent realm of “forms” and “ideas”. He believes he finds this in the Mosaic narrative of creation in Genesis 1. So in books 11-13 of the confessions, he is eager to explore the interpretation of the Genesis account for this very reason. He quizzes himself (and begs God for illumination) on the nature of time, ruminating on the threefold division of past, present and future.
In an overall sense, Augustine is seeking to establish the Christian theological commonplaces of the doctrine of God as creator, the basic cosmological categories of time and eternity, the distinctions between created being (the cosmos) and uncreated being (God), the foundational principle of creation ex nihilo, and an essentially Platonic view of a higher realm sharing aspects of God’s being because it is proximate to God but not co-eternal with God since it is created (yet stands above time). This last dimension, he calls caelum caeli, the heaven of heaven, an upper level of existence near to God.
In these ways and others, he is working with what were and what would continue to become the foundational building blocks of catholic and orthodox theology, especially the knowledge of God the creator. Later mystical theology (cf. Pseudo-Dionysius) will tee off on these concepts, speculating on a celestial hierarchy, playing on Paul’s statement about a third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1-15), or seven and more realms of ascent into the divine presence. Compared with these later visionary theologies, Augustine’s discussion in the confessions is minimalist.
Noteworthy Discussion Points from our reading of books 11-12: the tripartite nature of time as past, present and future; the big bang theory and the Christian doctrine of creation; the theology of eternity as diminishing the significance of human history; Augustine’s theology and philosophy of history in The City of God; time and space as we think of it, after Einstein and Quantum Theories, and more.
Session 8 Augustine and The Book of Common Prayer (1979)
Augustine and the Augustinian tradition of theology have exerted an immeasurable influence on the Anglican-Episcopal communion. The English Prayer Books, edited from prior Latin and Greek sources, show the language and concepts of the Pauline-Augustinian doctrines of grace, original sin and the love of God. Many of these prayers are descended from earlier Roman compositions (Latin), some from the time and pen of Augustine. In overall principles, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the first decades of English Prayer Book formation, was quite open to the writings of Martin Luther, the German reformer, who had been an Augustinian monk and whose theology bore the distinctive impress of the Pauline-Augustinian heritage.
Here are some BCP Collects (weekly and seasonal prayers) showing Augustinian themes and influence:
First Sunday of Advent (BCP 211) — composed for the 1549 English Prayer Book based on Romans 13:8-14 (lection): Augustine’s conversion text (sortes biblicae) in the Milan garden (conf 8.12).
Second Sunday after Christmas Day (BCP 214) — source in the so-called Leonine Sacramentary (libelli) revealing usage in the Roman Rite prior to 600 (Verona Ms. c. 600), prayer contents from c. 400-600, perhaps some composed or influenced by Leo I (d. 461). Compare Leo’s celebrated quote “The son of God became the son of man that the son of men might become the sons of God.” Then compare Augustine’s oft repeated Christological-incarnational dictum, “He became what we are in order that we might become what he is” (especially in The City of God, a commonplace of eastern patristic tradition from Irenaeus to Athanasius and onward).
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (BCP 216) — source in the Gelasian Sacramentary (c. 750 vaticanus), stemming from Gelasius (d. 496). “because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace that in keeping your commandments we may please you…” is correlative with “Give what you command and command what you will.” (conf 10.29).
Ash Wednesday (BCP 217, 264) — “you hate nothing you have made” (anti-Manichaean echo from Augustine, through Luther, through Cranmer). “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts…” as radical grace a la Augustine and the reformers.
Third Sunday in Lent (BCP 218) — source in Gregorian Sacramentary (c. 790). “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves” as radical grace/original sin couplet.
Fifth Sunday in Lent (BCP 219) — source in Gelasian Sacramentary (c. 750 vaticanus). “you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners.” Ordering of wills and affections is consonant with Augustine’s psychology of the reordering of human loves and desires and wills. “changes of the world” is consonant with his Platonic vision of a fallen world and a transcendent realm.
Sixth Sunday of Easter (BCP 225) — source in Gelasian Sacramentary (c. 750 vaticanus). “loving you in all things and above all things” echoes Augustine’s sense of the immanence and transcendence of God as a truth of both/and.
Trinity Sunday (BCP 228) — “worship the unity” resonates with Augustine’s “feast upon the One” (Holy Trinity).
Proper 12 (BCP 231) — source in Gregorian Sacramentary (c. 790). “pass through things temporal” to the eternal is reminiscent of Confessions books 11-13 and the great divide between time and eternity.
Proper 14 (BCP 232) — source in the so-called Leonine Sacramentary (libelli) revealing usage in the Roman Rite prior to 600 (Verona Ms. c. 600). “who cannot exist without you” reeks of the spirituality of the Confessions passim.
Proper 18 (BCP 233) — source in the so-called Leonine Sacramentary (libelli) revealing usage in the Roman Rite prior to 600 (Verona Ms. c. 600). “you always resist the proud” (Petrine) used prominently in the Confessions.
Proper 20 (BCP 234) — source in the so-called Leonine Sacramentary (libelli) revealing usage in the Roman Rite prior to 600 (Verona Ms. c. 600). “while we are placed among things that are passing away” bespeaks the Platonic-Johannine spirituality of sic transit gloria mundi.
Proper 23 (BCP 234) — source in Gregorian Sacramentary (c. 790). “that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may be continually given to good works” reiterates “prevenient grace,” as well as “operative grace” in Augustine’s terminology.
Proper 25 (BCP 235) — source in the so-called Leonine Sacramentary (libelli) revealing usage in the Roman Rite prior to 600 (Verona Ms. c. 600). “make us love what you command” is a statement of radical grace, related to “Give what you command and command what you will.” (conf 10.29).
Of a Monastic (BCP 249) — “Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world” reflects Platonic-Johannine language of mundus transit. Themes of interior ordo are eminent in the spiritual-psychological terminology of Augustine. The monastic rule of Augustine (397) is interesting, based in Acts communalism, but traditional in many features (eastern models).
Te Deum (BCP 95-96) — Medieval tradition ascribed the prayer to Ambrose and Augustine (386), composed for the baptism of Augustine. Modern research favors Nicetas (c. 400) as author.
Collect for Peace (BCP 99 MP II) — source in Gelasian Sacramentary (c. 750 vaticanus). Bears a direct quote of Augustine: “whom to know is to live, whom to serve is to reign.”
Prayer for Mission “Keep watch, dear Lord…” (BCP 124, 134) is widely recognized as Augustine’s composition.
In reading the first ten books of The Confessions, it is helpful to have a sense of Augustine’s actual biography in order to understand better his autobiographical reflections. His sequence of life is as follows.
- 13 November 354 Aurelius Augustinus born to Monica and Patricius of Thagaste, Numidia. An older brother Navigius and at least one younger sister are his siblings.
- 360-73 The education of Augustine in the Latin classics and in the arts of oratory in Thagaste, Madaura and Carthage.
- 365 Augustine arrives in Madaura as a student.
- 369 He returns home to Thagaste for a year because his father Patricius is short on funds for his tuition.
- 371 Augustine arrives in Carthage to resume his studies. He takes a mistress. The death of Patricius in Thagaste.
- 372 Adeodatus, a son, is born to Augustine and his mistress. In his 20s Augustine is drawn to the esoteric teachings of the Manichaeans, an influential eastern cultic society.
- 373 Augustine reads Cicero’s Hortensius, sparking in him a new phase in his search for truth.
- 374 Augustine returns to Thagaste to teach grammar.
- 376 He departs again for Carthage following the death of a friend in Thagaste, by which he is affected. He opens his own school and teaches rhetoric for ten years in Carthage, Rome and Milan.
- 383 Augustine departs Carthage for Rome in search of wider career opportunities. He teaches in Rome where he networks into a more promising prospect in Milan.
- 384 Augustine departs Rome for Milan to take up an appointment as professor of rhetoric. His longtime friends Alypius and Evodius are with him. He hears Ambrose preach, admiring his style and treatment of sacred texts.
- 385 Mother Monica arrives in Milan to arrange a marriage for her son. Augustine dismisses his mistress, keeping Adeodatus with him. A marriage into a wealthy Milanese family is contracted. The marriage date is set for two years in the future. Augustine finds another mistress.
- 386 summer Augustine experiences the final phase of his conversion to the catholic evangel in the garden of his home in Milan. Through it he receives a sense of securitas and pax regarding the renunciation of a secular life of ambition. He retires from teaching and spends some months in retreat, with family and friends, in Cassiciacum. He studies and writes his first Christian texts.
- Easter Eve 387, 24 April Augustine, Alypius and Adeodatus are baptized by Ambrose in Milan.
- Summer 387 Monica and Augustine and their retinue begin the return journey to Africa. Delayed in Rome, Monica dies in Ostia, the port city.
- 388 Augustine and his fellow travelers remain in Rome for about a year, then return to North Africa, where they settle in Thagaste. They form a Christian community of prayer, biblical and theological study, and writing. Augustine will compose many tractates and books criticizing the Manichaeans, the religious cultus with which he once associated.
- 390 The death of Adeodatus in Thagaste.
- 391 Augustine consents to be ordained a priest by Bishop Valerius of Hippo Regius.
- 396 He is consecrated bishop coadjutor of Hippo by Valerius.
- 397 Valerius dies and Augustine becomes diocesan bishop of Hippo. In the same year, or shortly thereafter, he begins work on his confessionum libri tredecim, thirteen books of confessions.
- 399-400 The Confessions are published, beginning 1600 years of popularity and influence.
- 400 Controversy with the Donatist church escalates. Augustine will find ways to appeal for a government alliance with the catholic churches against the Donatists. About this time, he begins work on a treatise entitled The Holy Trinity, in which he seeks to correct the theological views of Arianism and other heretical schools of thought. The treatment will take years to complete.
- 410 Alaric sacks Rome, creating a crisis of confidence throughout the empire. Augustine suffers a personal collapse about this time, due to overwork and exhaustion. Pelagius, a British monk, emerges as a spiritual advisor and public instructor drawing Augustine’s attention to his insufficient teachings on divine grace. Augustine will write specifically in criticism of Pelagius and Pelagianism. He continues to publish on many themes, some anti-herectical, others catechetical.
- 413 Augustine begins work on The City of God, his magnum opus, as a response to the capture of Rome by the barbarians. He does not bring it to completion until 426.
- 428 The Vandals invade North Africa, arriving at the gates of Hippo Regius in 430, where Augustine has already designated Eraclius as his successor (426).
- 28 August 430 Augustine, who has fallen ill, dies during the siege of Hippo and the city falls to the invaders soon thereafter.
- ante 439 Possidius, a friend and episcopal colleague who had been present at his death, writes the first biography of Augustine. The Latin works of Augustine, over 100 books, 240 letters and 500 sermons, pass into the scriptoria of Europe to be reproduced, since they are sought as valuable sources of theology, scripture commentary and spiritual illumination.
A Glossary of Names in The Confessions and in Augustine’s Life
- Adeodatus (372-390) – the son of Augustine by his first mistress, a brilliant student who helped his father with the exploration of theology, whose life was cut short, probably by illness
- Alypius (d. c. 430) – a lifelong friend of Augustine, an educated man with expertise in law and oratory, who joins him in his journey into Christianity and is baptized with him; later the bishop of Thagaste
- Ambrose (337-397) – the bishop of Milan, a former Roman official (consular prefect), deeply committed to Christian Platonic expressions of faith, a powerful preacher who also resisted imperial incursions into the life of the Milanese church (crisis of 386); he baptized Augustine and his companions (387)
- Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43) – classical Latin writer/orator of the first century BCE, a statesman and consul who withstood the Catalinarian conspiracy, opposed Julius Caesar and was executed in the purge of the triumvirate following Caesar’s assassination; inclined to Platonic philosophy of which he wrote in the lost treatise entitled Hortensius
- Donatus Magnus (d. 355) – an African bishop of earlier in the fourth century for whom the Donatist church was named; he and his colleagues held purist views of the episcopacy and separated from the catholic wing of the African church, creating the institution against which Augustine worked throughout the middle years of his episcopacy
- Evodius (d. c. 425) – bishop of Uzalis near Carthage; a longtime friend of Augustine who had been with him in Milan, then afterwards in the Thagaste community; baptized prior to Augustine; appears as an interlocutor in his dialogues and is a correspondent
Jerome (Hieronymus Stridonensis, c. 347-420) – a monastic scholar of Palestine, previously of Rome, a strong advocate of monasticism; a correspondent of Augustine’s; perhaps the only other contemporary writer of his stature apart from Ambrose; the translator of the Latin Vulgate Bible; known also for his biblical commentaries and letters
- Julian of Eclanum (386-455) – a bishop in Italy who defended the views of Pelagius, entering into written controversy with Augustine in the last two decades of his life
- Navigius – the older brother of Augustine
- Nebridius – a friend of Augustine in Carthage and beyond, once a Manichean seeker who induced his friend to abandon the pursuit of mathematical astrology, also influencing him away from Manichean society; he went to Milan to be with Augustine, had a mind of his own, often questioning traditional views; he died shortly after the Milanese conversion
- Monica (d. 387) – the mother of Augustine and spouse of Patricius of Thagaste, perhaps of Berber descent; a catholic Christian appalled by her son’s association with Manichaeism; she prayed and spoke out for his catholic recovery
- Mani (216-276) – third century eastern prophet of a Christian gnostic sect known as Manichaeism, whose followers flourished in the fourth century despite official censure
- Patricius (d. 371) – Augustine’s father, perhaps of Greek descent, a Roman civil official of Thagaste, in the Province of Numidia, landed but not wealthy
- Paul (Saul, d. c. 63) – Christian apostle of the first century, author of many New Testament epistles, who championed the Gentile mission of the church, founding communities throughout the Mediterranean world; a principal influence on Augustine who admired not only his writings but his life in relation to his texts
- Paulinus of Nola (c. 352-431) – a prominent catholic bishop of Italy, a poet and a former Roman senator, whose renunciation of his secular station inspired many within the monastic movement; he sympathized with Augustine’s anti-Pelagian efforts and overall spirituality; a correspondent
- Pelagius (d. c. 418) – a monk of Britannia who rose to prominence in the Mediterranean world during Augustine’s episcopacy by advocating a moral theology not based in radical grace; thus an intellectual opponent of Augustine during his later years
- Plato (c. 328- c. 348) – founder of the Greek philosophical school known as Platonism (the Athenian Academy, 4th century BCE) with emphases on a transcendent world of knowledge, beauty and wisdom, pursuit of the divine, the immortality of the soul, and living a life of commitment to the search for permanent truth
- Plotinus (c. 204-270) – a third century CE interpreter of Plato who expanded his ideas in religious directions; whose texts (The Enneads) directly influenced many fourth century Christians, including Augustine
- Possidius (d. c. 340) – the bishop of Calama, Numidia, a longtime friend and colleague of Augustine, who will write the first biography of the bishop of Hippo Regius after his death
- Simplicianus (d. 400) – Ambrose’s successor as bishop of Milan; a confidant of Augustine in Milan prior to his conversion and baptism; a Christian intellectual of Platonic leanings, with whom Augustine continued to communicate in subsequent years
- Valerius (d. 397) – bishop of the port city of Hippo Regius prior to Augustine, who recruited him to the priesthood (391) and to the episcopacy (396), allowing him to establish a basilica monastery
- Victorinus (d. c. 355) – an orator and intellectual of the fourth century whose life and conversion to Christianity impressed Augustine and many others; a Platonist of sterling reputation, his espousal of the church was considered a major Christian victory among the faithful
- Virgil (Publius Virgilius Maro, 70-19) – Latin poet of the first century BCE, author of the Roman epic The Aeneid, depicting the founding of Rome