Confessions Book 4

[For links to the rest of this series, click here.]

In this installment, I’m going to comment much more selectively. My hope is that if I entirely pass over certain passages and themes, I’ll leave more space for you to develop them yourself in the comments. So, I restrain myself to two passages near the end of Book 4.

So far, Augustine has not spoken much at length about Christ, although surely the author of De Trinitate is always thinking in a Trinitarian context whenever he mentions God. In xii.18-19, however, Christ comes to the foreground. In xii.18, familiar themes of higher and lesser love, rest, eternity, and good intersect in a call for the soul to return to its Maker. In this evangelistic sidebar, Augustine implores readers to choose between life and death. But if the reader hearkens to this call, how should he respond?

It is to Christ that Augustine points. The central metaphor for Christ is “life itself” (xii.19). In the evangelical West, twenty centuries after the death of Christ, we are accustomed to think of Christ’s life and death in terms of payment for sin. Augustine would not disagree with such a notion, but we see here another perspective on Christ’s significance. Creatures separated from their Creator are perishing. We are like gas lights low on fuel, flickering at the edge of non-existence. Christ, who is life, united himself to human life, combated death, and emerged victorious by the infinity of his life. Those who heed his words to “return to our heart” are united with his infinite life.

Christ’s incarnation is paradoxical: “He has gone from our sight that we should return to our heart and find him there. He went away and behold, here he is. He did not wish to remain long with us, yet he did not abandon us. He has gone to that place which he never left, for the world was made by him; and he was in this world, and came into this world to save sinners” (xvii.19). Popular Christianity views heaven primarily as a place. While not denying the spatial reality of heaven, the Bible and the church fathers more often portray heaven as a sphere of relationship. The Word became flesh, but did not cease to fill the universe. He became a creature, but never abdicated his position as Creator. Christ did not trade in his deity for humanity, but assumed humanity into his divine nature. Augustine’s portrayal of Christ echoes his meditation on God’s infinity found in Confessions 1.ii.2-1.iv.4.

Christ is calling men to come to God; yet, Augustine several times in Book 4 states that God resisted his advances: “I tried to approach you, but you pushed me away so that I should taste of death; for you resist the proud” (xv.26). This statement occurs within the closing section of Book 4, xv.24-xvi.30, which details Augustine’s wrong conceptions about God. He did not grasp God as absolute Creator (xv.24), nor as ontologically separate from creatures (xv.26), nor as compositionally simple (xvi.29), nor as an incorporeal spirit (xvi.31). God did not let Augustine approach him, because the “God” Augustine spoke and thought of was a mere idol, a figment of imagination. For one to believe in God, one must not only know that he is, but what he is.

I fear that evangelicalism has lost sight of this truth. Our evangelism is often evangelism in name only, for it speaks little about God. It topples few idols and instills few truths. Many segments of evangelicalism, I believe, have dispensed with belief in God, replacing it with belief in the forgiveness of sins. The means has displaced the end. But a person who does not know who God is cannot be reconciled to him, no matter how much he may believe in the forgiveness of sins, even if he supposes it to come by some person named Jesus. The “Romans Road,” as it has been styled, if not presented within an orthodox conception of God in his Trinity, is a road to nowhere except fantasy and delusion, “and many there be which go in thereat” (Matthew 7:13).

Published in: on October 18, 2010 at 8:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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