Blurbing the Classics: On Augustine’s “Confessions”
I believe in blurbs. The vast majority of books these days contain a number of endorsements, commendations, (or more colloquially) blurbs. They range from a sentence to a full paragraph, written by an expert or authority of some kind, explaining what the book is, why it’s important, and why you should consider reading it.
But virtually all of the blurbs you see today—on blogs, in publisher’s catalogs, on the back of books—are about new books just coming out.
I was recently thinking that there my be some value to the church if I were to be a sort of midwife in helping to collect some commendations on selected theological classics that you should seriously consider.
We’ll see if this proves to be helpful or not, but I decided to start with a no-brainer: Augustine’s Confessions.
“If you took a list of the greatest books of western civilization and whittled it down to the top five, Augustine’s Confessions would still have a secure spot on that list. It might even make the cut and stay on the top three list; it’s that much of a classic. In this carefully-crafted book, Augustine does theology by listening to his life, and then listening even more carefully and passionately to the words of God. We hear him ask all the right questions and most of the wrong ones. We hear him finding the truth and saying it in his own words. Or rather, we overhear him, because from beginning to end the Confessions is one sustained prayer to the God who alone can give the soul what it needs.”
“The Confessions is a masterpiece not only of Christian literature but of literature in general. It possesses that most important characteristic of a great literary work of art: every time one reads it, one sees something new and one comes away with a deeper understanding of oneself. From the psychology of sin to the nature of youthful peer pressure, to the connection of violence and the visual, it penetrates the human mind and its arcane inner workings like no other work before it. And it is also a remarkable testimony to a journey away from and back to God, both on the individual and cosmic levels.”
—Carl R. Trueman
“Don’t imagine that the Confessions are a tawdry tell-all! Actually, Augustine is not really the subject of this book; God is. Augustine was (only) forty-three when he began writing. He was now looking back over eleven years since he had become a Christian. Weak, erring, and foolish as he had once been, he had found—or should we say, been found by?—the grace of God. It is to this grace that Augustine traces all the good in his life. And in so doing, he holds up a mirror in which we also can see ourselves, different though our circumstances are, and see the greatness, the grandness, of God’s redemptive purposes. It is a profound book and though its language can be a little complex at times it is one of those books that repays, many times over, the effort we put into reading it.”
—David F. Wells
“Augustine’s Confessions need no commendation. No western person deserves to be called ‘educated’ unless he or she has digested these personal reflections of one of the most significant and influential thinkers of the past two millennia. The fact that both John Owen and B.B. Warfield (arguably our two greatest theologians in the English speaking reformed tradition) wrote extended essays on him should serve as an echo of the words Augustine himself first heard—”Tolle lege”—Pick it up, and read it!
—Sinclair B. Ferguson
“Few Christian classics are still on the required reading lists of every serious Western literature course. Augustine’s Confessions tops most lists. Among the accolades is that it pioneered the psychological biography, contributing significantly to the self-reflective soul that became commonplace in modern writing. One of the marks of a classic is that anyone can read it, young and old, casual reader and specialist, finding a new passageway in each new reading. Here the great theologian so formative in our understanding of the Trinity, original sin, and grace becomes a fellow pilgrim, tracing God’s path of judgment and grace in his own life through prayer and meditation. Reading the Confessions, we are exposed not only to Augustine’s soul but discover the headwaters of Latin spirituality that flow through the Middle Ages and carve the massive tributaries of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Puritan and High Church pieties, alike. So there are many motives for reading Augustine’s Confessions, but the one that the Bishop of Hippo would have singled out is expressed in his own best-known prayer in the book: ‘You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.’”
—Michael S. Horton
“I first read Augustine’s Confessions not long after my conversion in February of 1974, and found them so edifying to my soul that I have gone back to them time and again for spiritual insight and Christian nurture. But the work is assuredly a strange work, for the book is one long sustained conversation with God. No human audience is directly addressed. It is for God’s eyes only. This is why the book cannot be considered an autobiography, but must be seen as an act of praise and worship—one of the key meanings of the Latin verb confessio. And, as Augustine scholar James O’Donnell rightly notes, one comes away from such a reading of the Confessions convinced that whatever else we have learned about the man, “we have seen Augustine at prayer” and in worship. And his fiery hunger for God is the very thing we need in our gray and tepid day.”
—Michael A. G. Haykin
“The Confessions of Augustine is a book that has been a friend for many years. Parts of it I have given a good bit of attention to. But I have come to expect that every time I read it there’ll be something new. Something I had not noticed before, or some new slant on what I thought I knew. Augustine has the facility to change gear in an instant, from matters which are intensely personal—his fears, his friends, his conversion—to discussions of general significance—time , memory, the creation. His style is wonderfully transparent. His feelings and thoughts, his agonies of conscience and of the intellect, tumble out on to the page. Perhaps it is this which gives the Confessions such a modern feel.
“In his Confessions, Augustine invented the genre of theological autobiography. For the first time, a believer laid his soul before the church, his feelings as well as his ideas, his sins as well as his growth in grace. Not every spiritual autobiography is worth our time. But Augustine was an extraordinary thinker and, for all his sins, an exemplary man. His life with God has blessed the church for centuries and blesses us yet today.”
At the risk of oversimplification, here is a snapshot of some basics about the book:
Who? Augustine of Hippo. Here is a helpful timeline of his life.
What? A God-centered theological memoir and theological exploration in the form of an extended prayer.
When? Written between AD 397 and 398. He was born in 354 and was converted to Christianity in 386. So he was about 43 years old when this was written and had been a believer for around 11 years.
Where? Locations include Northern Africa (he was born in Thagaste and ended up in Hippo—both in modern-day Algeria). He studied and taught in Italy (Rome and Milan).
Why? As Craig Troxel says in thoughtful discussion of the purpose and genre, “Augustine used his life history as a means to give glory to God for his providential work of mercy and grace.”
How? There are thirteen “books.” Augustine recounts his early years, his relationship with his parents, his conversion, and theological reflections on topics like sin, Genesis, time, and the Trinity.