What Is Augustine Confessing?

In Confessions, Augustine uses two meanings of the word "confession": a statement about belief, and an acknowledgment of sin. In the form of autobiography he explores the shortcomings of his past and makes assertions about God's nature, acts, and his own relationship with God. This paper will briefly identify some of the themes in both confessions.

About God

In the Confessions, Augustine speaks extensively about God's immutability, perfection, and other philosophic attributes. He does not have much to say about Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Apparently Greep philosophy's emphasis on the absolute strongly influenced his theology. Augustine concentrates on God's abstract nature:

I should not exist unless I existed in you. (22)

You are truth itself. (24)

Wherever we taste the truth, God is there. (82)

You alone are always present, even to those who set themselves apart from you. (92)

Augustine speaks of God's constant concern for him and care of him prior to his conversion. He generalizes this to include God's care and concern for other people as well:

My God, you had mercy on me even before I had confessed to you. (62)

Neither my mother nor my nurses filled their breasts of their own accord, for it is you who used them. (25)

You follow close behind the fugitive and recall us to yourself in ways we cannot understand. (75)

You were guiding me as a helmsman steers a ship, but the course you steered was beyond my understanding. (84)

Augustine primarily hears God's voice not only through the scriptures but through the voices of other people:

This answer which he gave me, or rather which I heard from his lips, must surely have come from you, my God. (74)

God spoke through Monica in reproof. (5) God lead him to Ambrose. (107) God provided someone to lead him away from astrology. (140) God lead him to the Platonists. (144) God inspired him to seek Simplicianus who told him of Victorinus. (157)

Reflecting on his effect stopping Alypius' lust for the games, Augustine realizes that he, himself, had been used before his conversion as God's voice:

You use us all, whether we know it or not, for a purpose which is known to you, a purpose which is just. (121)

About Humanity and the World

There are two themes in Augustine's confession about human nature and the nature of the world: the inability of human reason to come to God, and the nature of evil as an attitude, not a thing.

Augustine's life was one of inability to come to God despite intense and desperate use of reason. He confesses of human ability:

We are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone. (117)

The soul is weak and helpless unless it clings to the firm rock of faith. (85)

There are two wills in us, because neither by itself is the whole will, and each possesses what the other lacks. (172)

Wherever the soul of man may turn, unless it turns to you, it clasps sorrow to itself (80)

Nonetheless, throughout the Confessions he attempts to make philosophical sense out of God's nature and the nature of evil. He concludes that evil, and by extension sin, is a matter of the end which is willed, not the actual thing or action.

Whatever is, is good; and evil…is not a substance.…Yet in the separate parts of your creation there are some things which we think of as evil because they are at variance with other things. Yet there are other things again with which they are in accord, and then they are good. In themselves, too, they are good. (148-9)

And when I asked myself what wickedness was, I saw that it was not a substance but perversion of the will when it turns aside from you, O God, who are the supreme substance, and veers towards things of the lowest order. (150)

About His Sins

Augustine was raised in Christendom and was nearly baptized in his youth. Nonetheless he spent nearly two decades embracing philosophical understandings of God, particularly those of the Manichees (61, 67) and the neo-Platonists. His philosophical understanding of God prevented him from relating to God.(89) Because the scriptures did not meet the standards of rhetoric or current Roman mores he considered them unworthy. (115) He loved classical culture and its empty tales of the gods and heroes (35-6) He confesses his rejection of the Christian faith as a sin:

But I did not love you. I broke my troth with you and embraced another while applause echoed about me. (34)

How I squandered the brains you gave me on foolish delusions. (37)

Further, he confesses that he led others astray into the Manichee faith (71).

Augustine's theology which identifies evil as anything which is not directed towards God leads him to identify sin in a somewhat unusual fashion. This theology means that his desire to be one of the crowd (as in the pear tree incident) and to have honor from people, is sinful:

I gave in more and more to vice simply in order not to be despised. (46)

I was vain enough to have ambitions of cutting a fine figure in the world. (55)

I was pleased with my superior status and swollen with conceit. (58)

I was eager for fame and wealth and marriage. (119)

The ideas about sin which he had previously held he now sees as sinful themselves since they were not defined in relation to God:

What greater pride could there be than to assert, as I did, in my strange madness, that by nature I was as you are? (86)

I still thought that it is not we who sin, but some other nature that sins within us." "My sin was all the more incurable because I did not think myself a sinner. (103)

I was trying to find the nature of evil, but I was quite blind to the evil in my own method of research. (138)

For the same reason he views sexual desire as sinful as it leads one to concentrate on (and delight in) something other than God. (43) One cannot help thinking that the Manichees' rejection of sex for the Elect influenced this view, especially as it would seem to be contradicted by the life of his own mother. Interestingly, he does not blame his parents for not getting him married when he became sexually active even though this inaction was due to their concern for his material success. (46)

This understanding of sexuality created the greatest barrier to his conversion to Christianity:

"The weight I carried was the habit of the flesh." (151)

I was quite sure that it was better for me to give myself up to your love than to surrender to my own lust. But while I wanted to follow the first course and was convinced that it was right, I was still a slave to the pleasures of the second. (165)

I was afraid that you would answer my prayer at once and cure me too soon of the disease of lust, which I wanted satisfied, not quelled. (169)

In Summary

In summary, then, Augustine confesses that God is the omnipresent completely good source of all existence. God has called after him his whole life, primarily through the agency of other people. He confesses that reason alone is unable to bring one to God. Sin is anything not directed toward God and hence his rejection of Christianity, his desire for popularity and honor, his philosophizing, and his sexual desires are all confessed as sins.

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