Book Review: The Confessions by Saint Augustine

September 20, 2006

The opening sentence of The Confessions, written around A.D. 397 by Saint Augustine, reads, “Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise” (p. 39). And so it is that right from the beginning of the book Augustine makes it clear that he is writing, not to boast about his colorful past or about his unlikely conversion, but rather to give praise and honor to God.

The Confessions is not, as most books, written solely for the sake of man. The uniqueness of this work is that it allowed me to listen in on the prayerful confessions of a man as he confessed directly to God. In fact, many times it felt as though Augustine did not care if anyone else ever read his confessions but rather he wrote it to God and to God alone. This allows for an extraordinary opportunity to peer into the soul of this great man of old and his precious relationship with God. Augustine’s writing is as the Psalms, honest, deep, and wholly existing to give glory to his God, the one true God and Lord of all. It is because of its uniqueness that I was drawn into its pages as a story unfolded of a man, as of all men, void of good, who was found and sought out by the Source of all good and brought to salvation.

Throughout the book as Augustine reflects on the grace of God in his own life, one cannot help but be entranced with a God-centered view of salvation – truly, “we were weak and unable to find the truth by pure reason” (p. 142). No room is left for man’s empty boasting, for if there was once a man who could have discovered the truth on his own, it was Augustine, considered by many to be the greatest thinker of all the early church fathers. But even he, of the world’s intellectually elite, failed to find truth on his own apart from God’s graceful intervention. What a testimony, that this man, whose thoughts were and still are far above the common man, would confess his own inability and despair in his pursuit of the truth apart from the Source of truth. And what a great warning it is, lest we, of much lesser mental caliber, should try to go our own way and exchange the wisdom of the Creator for the wisdom of man.

While it is true that Augustine does delve into some of the greatest mysteries of the universe such as the origin of evil, the existence of absolute truth, the multiplicity of the will, along with many other troubling questions, he always uses these mysteries as an opportunity to return to exalting and praising his Maker. Seeking answers to mysteries apart from Christ leads one to meet only with darkness. Augustine recalls some of these attempts he and his friends made to discover the answers to the most difficult questions: “we made no attempt to change our ways, because we had no light to see what we should grasp instead, if we were to let go of them” (p. 150). And so a constant thread is seen in this book — even the pursuits of a man able to philosophize and produce hypotheses on the deepest thoughts men have ever had are to be considered foolishness and a worthless thing apart from Christ. As Augustine himself states, “Unhappy is anyone who knows it all but does not know you [Christ], whereas one who knows you is blessed, even if ignorant of all these” (p. 117).

Aside from the more deep discussions on the mysteries that have plagued mankind’s thoughts for ages, there are some interesting Catholic traditions that are scattered throughout the book. Even more interesting is that there is virtually no explanation by Augustine of where these traditions came from, only a somewhat disturbing acceptance that they exist and are essential in the life of a believer. Various traditions are introduced such as, the various stages of the catechumenate, rebirth in baptism, and the saving sacraments. I found it interesting, that a man who so profoundly thought and dealt with so many other matters in regards to the truth, did not question the Scriptural validity of some of these traditions but rather accepted them without so much as an inquiry. But these troublesome traditions aside, it is clear that Augustine was not confused as to the church’s role in the believer’s life – for not once does he ever claim that he was saved by the church or by good works, but rightly acclaims salvation wholly to the Lord. Shortly after relating the time of his conversion, Augustine states, “He who begot me is also he who keeps me safe; you yourself are all the good I have, you are almighty and you are with me before ever I am with you” (p. 241).

Of all the lessons one could glean from such a precious work this, for me no lesson was more apparent than that of praising God in and through all things. As I read Augustine’s confession to God, I could not ignore how he constantly breaks out in praise, giving glory to God for his gracious works — for bringing sinful men to salvation, orchestrating life’s circumstances according to His good pleasure, foiling the best intentions of man, and bringing them to their knees as they come to behold His glory. Augustine was so aware of his own depravity that at every opportunity he burst out, declaring the holiness of God, giving Him the praise and honor due His name for bringing Augustine to see the truth. How often in my own life, though I too see my own weakness and my own inability, how often I fail to declare the holy name of my Lord and Savior and give Him praise for all that He has brought about. What praises I should offer to God that I, such a worm as I, am saved from sin and death, that God cared to orchestrate history so that I would come to see Him as the one true God, and that He would grant me the privilege to call Him my God, the freedom to worship and serve Him, and partake in the joy that He so freely gives. How can His praise not constantly be on my lips? My only limitation is that I do not know Him as I ought and am still far from Him, though He has opened His arms wide to embrace me. May God grant that I too would praise Him as Augustine, that I too would tell the world of my own depravity so the world might turn to God and glorify His holy name.

What a glorious privilege it is to look through the windows of people’s lives and be able to see all that God has accomplished in them, to see the many amazing wonders that He has done in the midst of His people, that we might give Him glory and grow closer in our love and affections towards Him. The Confessions is one such window we can look through and see the wondrous grace of God in the life of one of His humble servants.

*All quotations taken from: Augustine, “The Confessions”, THE WORKS OF SAINT AUGUSTINE A Translation for the 21st Century, ed. J. Rotelle (1997), Volume I.*

* This “book review” was done for my Historical Theology class with Dr. Vlach webmaster of http://www.theologicalstudies.org *

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