I’m changing up the format for these posts starting with Confessions Book 5. In Books 1-4, I went into a lot of detail about each section of the chapters. This made the posts extra-long. So, for brevity’s sake, I’m going to start pulling a couple of main ideas from each book and discussing them. I’d still like to encourage you to comment with any thoughts you may have – on the things I bring up or anything else you caught while reading.
Confessions Book 5: A Tale of Two Teachers
Book 5 focuses on Augustine’s life as a 29-year-old teacher of rhetoric at Carthage, then Rome, and finally Milan. It doesn’t take much reading to realize that this was a pivotal – perhaps the pivotal – year in Augustine’s life. His doubts were wearing away at the Manichean-foundation of his thinking. You get the feeling, from reading Confessions Book 5, that at this point, Augustine’s association with the Manichees has more to do with his history with them than his faith in their doctrine.
But this doesn’t mean that, as Book 5 opens, he has lost all faith. There appears a ray of hope. A man named Faustus whose reputation precedes him.
The Manichean: Faustus
“All through that period of about nine years, during which I was spiritually adrift as a hearer among the Manichees, I had been awaiting the arrival of this Faustus with an expectancy that had been at full stretch too long.” When Augustine questioned the other Manichees about certain doctrines – or when he expressed doubts – their response was always the same: wait and ask Faustus.
So with each passing day, Faustus’ reputation grew in Augustine’s mind. I got the feeling that by the end of it, Augustine had pinned all of his hopes (as a Manichee) in this man. But once he arrived, did he deliver? Augustine describes him as “a man adept at serving finer wines, then; but what was that to me in my thirst? My ears were sated with such offerings already. The content did not seem better to me for being better presented.” In other words, Faustus could explain things better. But, at their root, his explanations were the same.
Only to those whose hearts are crushed do you draw close.
It would be akin to a four-year-old describing the earth as flat compared to Rob Skiva describing the earth as flat (did I really just post a link to that video?). Sure, Skiva argues the point with greater skill than a child would but that doesn’t make the content any truer.
But Faustus was a better teacher in some ways than the other Manichees. When Augustine brings up certain questions he couldn’t answer, he “knew that he did not know about these matters, and was not ashamed to admit it.” Ultimately, Faustus was all talk.
Do You Know A Faustus?
How prone we are to follow men who sound good! I’ve seen so many young people drift away from the faith because they watched one YouTube video of Neil DeGrasse Tyson or read a Richard Dawkin book. These men are eloquent. They speak well. And in the moment, their arguments about atheism seem reasonable – unavoidable even. And yet, so much of it is fluff. Just because someone declares something with conviction and force, it does not make it so. And it isn’t just people being led into unbelief. I’ve seen others who have become so enamored with a particular preacher (or even political leader) that their faith seems to be more in a person than in God.
When my mind attempted to speed back once more to the Catholic faith I was repelled, because the Catholic faith is not what I thought it was.
I remember attending a national Christian conference a number of years back. One of the speakers was hugely successful at the time. He came out onto the stage and said, “Good evening everyone.” And the crowd roared. As he went on with his talk, the crowd responded to nearly everything he said – no matter how inconsequential. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed his message. He was a good speaker. He was charismatic. But he wasn’t that good. Every word that came out of his mouth wasn’t paradigm-shifting.
We need to be careful not to exalt any human being above where they belong. I’ve seen people do it with John Piper, N.T. Wright, and everyone in between. Every preacher, every teacher, and every leader is human. They make mistakes. They have wrong ideas. We’re all fallible.
Be careful of turning anyone into a Faustus.
The Christian: Ambrose
After his time with Faustus, Augustine’s doubts in Manichaeism become even more pronounced. And so, when a position opens up to teach in Milan, Augustine goes. He notes, “My real reason for going was to get away from the Manichees, though this was not apparent either to them or to me at the time.”
I realized that the Catholic faith, in support of which I had believe nothing could be advanced against Manichaean opponents, was in fact intellectually respectable. This realization was particularly keen when once, and again, and indeed frequently, I heard some difficult passage of the Old testament explained figuratively; such passages had been death to me because I was taking them literally.
Once in Milan, he meets Ambrose, the Christian bishop who pastors there. And this sets the stage for a divine meeting: “Unknowingly I was led by you to him, so that through him I might be led, knowingly, to you.”
Ambrose, like Faustus, had a way with words. And though he appeared more learned than Faustus, Faustus was slicker.
As a teacher of rhetoric and public speaking, Augustine attended Ambrose’s worship services ‘professionally.’ He listened for his style. And as he did, something happened. “As his words, which I enjoyed, penetrated my mind, the substance, which I overlooked, seeped in with them.” The Gospel was beginning to take effect. And as Confessions Book 5 closes, Augustine makes the decision to become a student of the church – at least until he finds something better.
At last, his mother’s prayers are beginning to be answered.
Full of detestable filth as I was, you kept me safe from the waters of the sea to bring me to the water of your grace; once I was washed in that, the rivers of tears that flowed from my mothers eyes would be dried up, those tears with which day by day she bedewed the ground wherever she prayed to you for me.
A Testimony of Kindness
As I read through Confessions Book 5 I couldn’t help but wish I had a biography of Ambrose. From Augustine’s description, he seems like a fascinating man. One of the things about him that sticks out the most to me is the way Augustine describes his witness. He writes, “I began to feel affection for him, not at first as a teacher of truth, for that I had given up hope of finding in your church, but simply as a man who was kind to me.”
Isn’t that how most people come to faith? They don’t come because someone beat them to death with a Bible. They don’t come because someone had the best argument. No, most people come to Christ because they’ve met someone who is like Christ. If we’re going to be the kind of witnesses for the Kingdom that Christ is calling us to be, we need to do what he said: love one another.
But salvation is far from sinners, and a sinner I was at that time. Yet little by little, without knowing it, I was drawing near.
At the end of the day, I’d like to have Ambrose’s testimony. Not the testimony of a bishop. Not the testimony of a great orator. But simply the testimony of “a man who was kind.”
And in that kindness, others might see and desire to meet my loving and gracious God.
There’s a lot more I wish I could touch on. I scattered some of my favorite quotes throughout the post. If you had a favorite quote or thought as you read, comment below and let us know what it was.
I can’t wait to hear what all of you are thinking about Confessions Book 5!
Oh, and by the way, there’s currently a digital, modern language edition of Augustine’s Confessions available from Amazon for only $3.99!
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