His name was Aurelius Augustinus but most people today know him simply as Augustine.
Christian History magazine called him “the most influential figure in the history of Christianity” apart from Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul. In 1986, Time magazine declared that even 1600 years after his death, he continued to exert a “major intellectual, spiritual and cultural force.”
Though he wrote over 200 books, one of his most famous and endearing is his Confessions.
The Confessions was the first modern autobiography/memoir. It records Augustine’s first memories, his early life, his conversion to Christianity, a reflection on Genesis 1-3, and thoughts on the big questions of life.
The Confessions has stood the test of time so well because of its relatability. Though written in the fourth century, Augustine’s experiences are common to all of us. Who hasn’t been tempted to do something wrong just for the sake of it? Which of us hasn’t experienced the earth-shattering experience of losing a loved one? Who hasn’t struggled with belief? With fear? With relationships?
The Confessions is a book about being human. And as much as we’ve ‘progressed’ since Augustine’s day, when you get right down to it, we aren’t really all that different.
This is what makes this book so powerful, even today.
But before we get started, I wanted to note three things you ought to keep in mind as you read the Confessions.
1. The Confessions is a Prayer
“Great art thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised.” Thus begins the Confessions. And with this first line, Augustine clarifies his initial audience: God.
Though Augustine always intended to publish the Confessions, he addressed it to God. And this isn’t just the case in the ‘introduction.’ Throughout the book, Augustine turns again and again to God. He poses questions to God and offers thanksgiving. He reflects on scripture, asks God for wisdom, and even makes confessions.
This book is, first of all, a prayer to Augustine’s Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer.
2. Augustine was a Man of His Time
Augustine was born in North Africa. He spent most of his life in Carthage, Rome, Milan, and Hippo. This was the center of the Western World in the first several centuries after Christ.
Likewise, Augustine lived during a time when the Roman empire was faltering, Christianity was blooming, and the entire world seemed to be shifting under everyone’s feet.
I noted earlier that Augustine wrote about experiences that are common to all humanity. That’s true. But he was also a product of his time and place. For example, he had a ‘concubine’ for thirteen years. He was heavily involved in Roman politics. He eventually became celibate.
As one translator has said, “You cannot get the best out of the Confessions if you know nothing of Augustine save what he tells you there” (Sheed, p.xxvii).
Fortunately for the modern reader, we have a lot of resources available to us. Before reading his Confessions, I’d recommend reading a short biography or primer on the author. If you have a good copy of the book, it may include an introduction that covers some of this ground. If you’re reading a free version online or a cheap paperback, you may have to find one online.
Reading a little introduction on the man and his times will go a long way to helping you understand what he writes in the Confessions.
3. The Confessions should be Chewed
Francis Bacon once wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” The Confessions is one of those few books that should be chewed and digested.
One of the reasons that this book has remained a classic for over a millennia is because it is filled with thought-provoking passages. If you’re reading it along with me, you’ll only have a month to get through it. But don’t rush. Take your time. Write down any passages that speak to you. Note questions you have about Augustine’s thoughts. Reflect on your own experiences.
Don’t just see this as an opportunity to learn about Augustine. Meet him, argue with him, and grow alongside him.
A Few Interesting Facts about Augustine
Back in 1987, Christian History magazine devoted an entire issue to the Bishop of Hippo. In it, they included some quick facts about Augustine. Here are a few of my favorite:
“Did You Know?…
That he encouraged conversation at meals—but with a strictly enforced rule that the character of an absent person should never be negatively discussed? He had a warning to this effect carved on a plaque attached to his table….
That at one point early in his career, Augustine was a speechwriter for the Roman emperor?…
That while Augustine was still alive, people in France began a movement to canonize his writings and put them on a par with Scripture? And this effort continued for nearly 100 years!…
That when the great European universities were formed in the 12th century, the curriculum they used was essentially the same as Augustine had outlined eight centuries earlier in On Christian Doctrine?”
Let’s Get Started…
Well, we have 30 days to work through Augustine’s Confessions. I’ll be posting (hopefully) twice a week with my thoughts on the book.
I’d like to encourage you to comment with your own thoughts, questions, and quotes.
In the meantime, after you’ve read a little more on Augustine, comment below and let everyone know any interesting facts that you’ve learned about him as you prepare to read the Confessions.
P.S. – After looking at the book, I’m going to shoot for reading Books (or Chapters) 1-4 this week, then 3 chapters per week until the end of the month.
And don’t forget to sign-up for our newsletter. Not only will you get my book, ‘A Disciple’s Manifesto’, for free, you’ll also be able to easily keep up-to-date with the book club – and other updates.