Confessions Book 8

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

I have been dreading this moment. Book 8 of Confessions is my favorite piece of literature outside the Bible. Each time I read it I am moved to tears. There are a few works of beauty – a flawless aria in a concert hall, the view from the top of the Grand Canyon – which ought to be received in silence rather than word, in awe rather than analysis. Book 8 is one of those rare works over which the critic cannot stand in judgment, for the work judges him. Yet, an account must be given, so with some hesitation, I proceed to sketch a few figures of this panoramic scene.

The first half of the book introduces two characters, Victorinus and Antony. Through the testimonies of these men’s Christian lives, Augustine’s heart is inflamed with the desire to convert. Yet, Augustine does not include them merely because of the influence their stories had on them; he hopes that in retelling them, his readers will be moved in the same fashion. Whether an influential aristocrat or an illiterate commoner, no one is beyond the breadth and power of God’s mercy. The stories are also opening acts, preparing the reader for Augustine’s story on center stage.

The fact that Augustine can decades later relate the events of that evening with such force and lucidity testifies to the power of excruciating pain to brand itself on the memory. The inner turmoil transfers to the reader, who cannot help but identify with Augustine’s primary complaint, the unwilling will. It is a “monstrous fact” that “the mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed,” but “the mind commands itself and meets resistance” (ix.21). How is it that the will is impotent to perform what it desires? The will is divided, but not in a dualistic or substantial way:

As I deliberated about serving my Lord God which I had long been disposed to do, the self which willed to serve was identical with the self which was unwilling. It was I. I was neither wholly willing nor wholly unwilling. So I was in conflict with myself and was dissociated from myself. The dissociation came about against my will. Yet this was not a manifestation of an alien mind but the punishment suffered in my own mind. And so it was not I that brought this about but sin which dwelt in me, sin resulting from the punishment of a more freely chosen sin, because I was a son of Adam. (x.22)

The key to understanding Augustine is the connection between “habit” and Adam’s sin. Cornelius Plantinga offers a contemporary account of Augustine’s thinking on habit: “By sinning we not only grieve God and our neighbor; we also wreck our own integrity. We are like people whose abuse of alcohol ruins not only their liver but also their judgment and will, the things that might have kept them from further abuse of alcohol. The same pattern holds for everybody. We now sin because we are sinners, because we have a habit, and because the habit has damaged our judgment and will.” The illustration from addiction is exactly in line with Augustine’s point. The will is unable to do the good that it longs to do, but it is still culpable, because its present incapacity is the result of previous debilitating choices. For Augustine, we all participated in Adam’s sin, which established the habit of evil that now constrains all of us.

Augustine’s tearful conversion is prompted by a mysterious voice while he was under a fig tree, the second significant tree in Confessions. Perhaps there is here an allusion to the two trees in Christianity? In any case, the assurance of pardoning grace is found in the pages of Scripture itself, and the lack of desire for a wife or worldly success provides existential confirmation that a work of grace has indeed be accomplished. The elated Augustine declares his new status to his mother, remembering the dream she had so long ago: “I stood firm upon that rule of faith on which many years before you had revealed me to her” (xii.30).

It is no wonder that the Protestant Reformers appealed to Augustine against Rome. They knew, of course, that Augustine did not share their denial of baptismal regeneration; yet, his own words in Confessions may call the practice into question. Augustine’s conversion in the garden is so transformative, the divine grace so apparent, that it is difficult to see what of regeneration is left for baptism to accomplish. The Protestants seized upon this narrative to undermine Augustine’s baptismal theology. Grace comes directly from the Holy Spirit through the Word, needing no sacramental intermediary. Thus, Augustine’s legacy is ambiguous, serving as a source of inspiration for two very different traditions.

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Published in: on November 22, 2010 at 10:50 am  Leave a Comment  

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