Confessions Book 4

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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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Confessions Book 1

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

Introductory Note: All English quotations are from the Chadwick translation. I am removing the parenthetical Bible references, though, because they are not original to the text. My quotes will not use the page numbering, but the section/paragraph numbering (vi.7) so that people using other editions can follow along.

Augustine knows how to penetrate to the heart of an issue; rather, he knows how to unravel an issue to reveal the human heart. I was repeatedly struck by the profundity of his analysis, and I find it all the more remarkable because he is accusing himself. It is usually in conjuring defenses that we become the most rational and eloquent. Book 1 raises a number of issues that I won’t expound in this post, but I hope someone in the discussion probes them:

  • the appropriateness of immoral behavior in educational literature (xv.24-xviii.28)
  • the proper attitude of a Christian spouse toward his or her non-Christian partner (xi.17)
  • the moral significance of infant actions (vi.8; vii.11-12)
  • the omnipresence (iii.3) and eternality (vi.10) of God

There are two concepts upon which I wish to focus. The first is Augustine’s habit of retrospectively seeing God acting for his good in the events of his youth, even and perhaps especially through other people’s sin. He calls God the “orderer and creator of all things in nature, but of sinners only the orderer” (x.16). In some contexts this may seem like a subtle argument crafted to absolve God from the presence of evil, but here it functions to highlight God’s active involvement in shaping even sinful actions for the good of his children.

As a mature theologian, Augustine disagrees with his mother’s decision to delay his baptism, but he nevertheless acknowledges the success of his mother’s plan (xi.18). His teacher was a hypocrite when he beat Augustine (x.15), and the method of instruction was “rigorous coercion” (xiv.23), but Augustine as an adult realizes that such discipline gave him the verbal skills that he uses for God (xv.24). We might inquire how God can use sin without being responsible for it, but Augustine merely declares, “You made [man] and did not make sin in him” (vii.11).

This retrospective examination produces an ambiguity in Confessions. Augustine knows that he was converted as an adult, yet he cannot help seeing that he belonged to God since his began to exist. It was God who gave him milk as an infant (vi.7), who bestowed on him the gift of language (viii.13), who oversaw his growth (xx.31), and who guarded him through an alarming illness (xi.17). In fact, because of Monica’s teaching, he can even describe himself as “already a believer” (xi.17). Yet, at the same time Augustine laments his boyhood waywardness. Perhaps all of us, whether or not we were raised in Christian households, ought to consider more deeply the ordering of God in our lives before we came to faith.

The second concept is Augustine’s distinction between higher and lower loves. He makes the interesting comment, “I was disobedient not because I had chosen higher things, but from love of sport” (x.16). Love is, for Augustine, a necessary component of virtue, leading him to conclude, “No one is doing right if he is acting against his will, even when what he is doing is good” (xii.19). In Augustine’s theology, the heart of piety is to order our love properly, so that God is loved most of all, and all lower things are loved for the sake of higher loves, terminating in God. In his De Doctrina Christiana, he gives an analogy for sin. Wanderers are traveling through a strange country seeking their homeland. Yet, they become so caught up in the enjoyment of travel and the charm of exploring that they wander endlessly, forgetting their original purpose and the rest that awaits at home. Such is everyone suffering from disordered love.

So, this doctrine is why Augustine remonstrates his child self for choosing entertaining stories over the basic blocks of grammar (xiii.20-22). It is the basis for his vilification of deeds done to secure man’s praise or avoid his shame, either by himself (xvii.27) or his mentors (xviii.28). It exposes the absurdity of mourning for Dido rather than his lost condition (xiii.21) or of fearing a verbal barbarism more than barbaric actions (xviii.28). Augustine is always principally concerned with love, both what we love and in what relation to other things we love it. In so doing, he contradicts a mere notional Christianity, in which assent to orthodox truths passes for a vital relationship with God.

Published in: on September 26, 2010 at 9:24 pm  Comments (5)  
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