Augustine spent the last years of his career reviewing his life’s work, offering reflections on—and the occasional correction of—his earlier writings. From this vantage point, the elderly Augustine informs us that his reason for writing Confessions was “to move the heart—his own and others’ —toward God in love” (Levering, 2013, p. 89). Indeed, one gets the sense of that metanarrative throughout the book. While Confessions can certainly be considered an autobiographical work, it is not so in the modern sense of the word. Its focus is not so much on himself—there are only a smattering of personal events chronicled, and few facts are provided—as it is on God leading him and working in his life. Confessions is a Scripture-laden “history of Augustine’s heart, a story told from the inside: how things felt to him, what they mean to him as he writes” (Augustine & Harmless, 2010, p. 1).
The opening paragraph of the book not only contains what is perhaps Augustine’s best-known quote—“you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Augustine & Chadwick, 1991, p. 1)—it establishes his frame of mind as he sits down to share his story. He is entirely focused on God as evidenced in the first sentence, which is comprised of not one but two Scripture references: “You are great, Lord, and highly to be praised (Ps 47:2): Great is your power, and your wisdom is immeasurable (Ps 146:5)” (Augustine & Chadwick, 1991, p. 1). Indeed, the book reads more like a personal prayer of confession than an autobiographical work. Moreover, in reading it, one gets the sense that Augustine “thinks in Scripture,” especially the Psalms. He makes no effort to mitigate or hide his personal failings and takes every opportunity to proclaim the love and greatness of God.
Augustine himself gives us an overview of this work in his Reconsiderations (Retractiones): “The thirteen books of my Confessions praise the just and good God for my evil and good acts and lift up the understanding and affection of people to Him…The first ten books were written about myself; the last three about Holy Scripture” (Brown, 2013, p. 435). In Book 1, Augustine considers his infancy and boyhood. He observes that his coming into existence and his subsequent changing—endemic to all finite beings—is ultimately grounded in God’s eternal being. Moreover, he notes that his estrangement from God, which existed from his infancy, resulted from both his own sinful disposition and that of the adults who raised and influenced him. He loved created things more than the God who created them; his loves were disordered.
Augustine expounds on his love for created things rather than the Creator and his subsequent rebellion against participation in God (both ontologically and morally) in books two through six. As a Manichee, his love for created spatiotemporal things led to his worship of a spatiotemporal God. Augustine struggled with the notion of a wholly immaterial entity:
You, however, who are very exalted and yet near, who are very much hidden and yet most intimately present, who do not have bodily limbs, some greater and some smaller, you who are entirely in every place and yet belong to no place, certainly you are not this corporeal shape, even though you have made the human person to your image and see how he is fixed in place from his head down to his feet. (Augustine & Chadwick, 1991, 3.4).
In books seven through ten, Augustine details how he became disillusioned with the Manichean mindset and was drawn toward the love of God. It began with his wrestling with the problem of evil: “I had no clear and explicit grasp of the cause of evil. Whatever it might be, I saw it had to be investigated, if I were to avoid being forced by this problem to believe the immutable God to be immutable” (Augustine & Chadwick, 1991, 7.4). This investigation led him to grapple with man’s free will, and ultimately, “by the Platonic books I was admonished to return into myself” (Augustine & Chadwick, 1991, 7.16). Thus the Neo-Platonists freed Augustine from his entrapped, spatial thinking regarding both God and evil. Augustine was catching a glimpse of God and yet still caught in the thick of his concupiscence. He wrote openly of his struggles in a candor unheard of in his era: “I was afraid that you would quickly hear my prayer, that you would quickly cure me of the disease of lust, something I preferred to have satisfied rather than abolished” (Augustine & Chadwick, 1991, 7.17). He even chronicles his failures with remarkable vulnerability: “I was snatched up to you by your glory, but was soon snatched away from you by the natural weight of my will, and I fell back on these lower things with a groan.” (Augustine & Chadwick, 1991, 7.23)
But, of course, in a garden in Milan, at the age of thirty-two, Augustine ultimately found his way to God. His now-famous conversion to Christ was undoubtedly the defining event not only of Confessions but his entire life. “Everything that happened before then [Augustine] came to see as divine preparation for his conversion, and the rest of his life was governed by it” (Bray, 2015, p. 47). Thus, in Confession’s first ten books, we see Augustine progress from (a.) an attempt to participate in God amid moral estrangement from Him, to (b.) revering finite things while, at the same time, feeling a yearning for something greater, to (c.) the rightly ordered love of God through Jesus.
In books eleven through thirteen, Augustine turns to a biblical examination of Creation and New Creation. The shift in topic feels a bit jarring as he now contemplates the beauty of God’s works in order to understand Him better and pursue union with the Trinity. Nevertheless, in these last three books, we find Augustine demonstrating how his life had changed from concupiscence and worldly career ambitions to the crown of eternal life and a rightly-ordered love of God. He also demonstrates that, unlike the philosophies of Manicheism and Neo-Platonism he once embraced, the Christian worldview is able to uphold the goodness of God, the Creator, and, as a result, the goodness of created things. Moreover, Christianity offered Augustine two things he sought in his philosophical and spiritual quest: a divine origin of the universe and life and a transcendent eschatology. In the end, Augustine found that in Christianity, both are grounded in our participation with goodness, love, and life, which are, themselves, eternally existing in the Godhead.
Augustine begins as a proud false interpreter and ends, by God’s grace, as a humbled true interpreter, whose understanding of his own life is only possible from within the story of the Triune God’s love for us in creation, Christ, and the church.Levering, 2013, p. 90
Confessions is much more than an autobiography. It is a personal, God-centered testimony; a Scripture-infused meditation on myriad topics including life, origins, time, and destiny; a theological discourse on free will, original sin, salvation, creation, and eschatology. It is Augustine re-interpreting his life through a biblical lens “to trace out the way God’s under-the-surface promptings subtly shaped the twisting and twisted coursings of his life” (Augustine & Harmless, 2010, p. 1). Indeed,
Augustine‘s story is the story that was given to him by the grace of God, an identity in which he found himself, and he tells his story for others with the same hope: that they might find themselves in the story God has to tell about them as his children, his friends, his beloved—as those for whom he is willing to lay down his life.Smith, 2015, p. 162
Augustine, A., & Chadwick, H. (1991). Saint Augustine confessions. Oxford University Press.
Augustine, A., & Harmless, W. (2010). Augustine in his own words. Catholic University of America Press.
Bray, G. L. (2015). Augustine on the Christian life: Transformed by the power of God. Crossway.
Brown, P. (2013). Augustine of Hippo: A biography. University of California Press.
Levering, M. (2013). The theology of Augustine: An introductory guide to his most important works. Baker Academic.
Smith, J. K. A. (2019). On the road with Saint Augustine: A real-world spirituality for restless hearts. Brazos Press, A Division of Baker Publishing Group.