Augustine for (not quite) dummies

I recently wrote a short review of Augustine’s Confessions for a Church history course I was taking. As pretty much anyone knows who has read this work, the first nine “books” (or sections) are pretty easy going, being autobiographical. However, the last four books are more speculative and philosophical, and sometimes quite difficult to follow. This has led some scholars to think Augustine originally ended the Confessions after Book IX and that X-XIII were a later addition; for this reason, sometimes students assigned the work in class are assigned only the first nine books as well.

In writing my paper, I found myself getting completely lost in Augustine’s philosophical meanderings. Salvation came in the form of a delightful little book titled Augustine for Armchair Theologians by Stephen A. Cooper (Westminster John Knox, 2002, 222 pages).

Cooper is a professor of religious studies at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, and an expert on Augustine. This book is an engaging and very accessible commentary on the Confessions. (Apparently this is one book of a series, and unusual in that it covers one specific work rather than give an overview of its subject’s life and theology.) Cooper begins with an introduction that gives some background about Augustine the man, and some of the motives for writing this book.

The very title Augustine gave his greatest work – the Confessions – has itself become an exemplar and created a literary genre. The Confessions of X is a well-comprehended commodity: Something about X will be revealed in these pages. And what could be more tantalizing than a revelation of someone else’s personal life? (5)

Augustine had recently been appointed the bishop of the church in Hippo. His reputation as a superstar was rising. Thus the Confessions serve as a check and balance against the sort of unbridled adulation people accord to superstars. “I’m not the saint you think I am,” Augustine says. “In fact, I wasn’t always a very nice person, and it’s only by God’s grace that I am who I am now.” Though a story of personal salvation, the Confessions are more importantly a story of the grace of God working in Augustine’s life.

The first nine chapters of Augustine for Armchair Theologians correspond to the first nine books of the Confessions. Cooper does a wonderful job of showing how all the various episodes of Augustine’s early life providentially came together in his conversion from youthful rebel to Manichaean to Christian catechumen to baptized Christian. The tenth chapter is a summary of Books X-XIII. It would have been nice to see Augustine’s philosophical arguments explained in greater detail, but this chapter nonetheless is very helpful in explaining their purpose and place in the greater work:

The Confessions exemplifies Augustine’s thirst for the Infinite, his search for that which we see now only darkly in a mirror, but later face to face. He confesses the evils of his past, his unworthiness, so that his life would serve as a model for the work of grace. He hopes to encourage all who think that God comes only to the worthy to think again. The speculations into metaphysical questions of time and creation are also models for the Christian, models of the riches of knowledge out there for those that ask their questions in faith. The inquiry is carried on precisely as an open prayer to God, because otherwise such speculation would be pure audacity for a still-sinful soul with a recovering mind. (189).

The final chapter of the book gives a thumbnail sketch of the career of Augustine the Bishop. It covers, briefly, the three major controversies that defined his theology: the Donatist controversy, which formed his ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church); the pagans who blamed Christians for the fall of Rome, to which he responded with his great book The City of God, which is not only an apologetic against the pagan slander but also outlines a broadly Christian philosophy of history; and the Pelagian controversy, which developed his thinking on salvation, particularly election and predestination. This last, of course, was the very thing upon which the Reformation turned, when men such as Luther and Calvin appealed to the Bible and the writings of Augustine to defend salvation by faith alone. Cooper closes the book with a conclusion and a short list of additional reading.

The real strength of this little book is the simplicity of Cooper’s writing. It is completely accessible, though by no means unscholarly. I especially appreciated his ability to place Augustine’s life in the proper social and historical context. Why, for example, did Augustine’s mother make haste to have him baptized as a youth when be fell seriously ill, but put it off once he had recovered? Many people in the early centuries of the Church believed, however erroneously, that baptism remitted all sins committed up to that point, but if any serious sins were committed afterward, there could be no remission. Hence baptism was customarily postponed until late in life, when the believer was either practically on his deathbed (as Monica may have assumed about Augustine) or thought to be sufficiently committed to Christ that he would not commit such a sin. This practice is, so far as I know, non-existent in today’s Church (where one is typically baptized either in infancy or soon after conversion), but it was common practice in the fourth century.

Augustine for Armchair Theologians is no substitute for reading the real thing, any more than reading the Coles Notes for Hamlet can replace reading Shakespeare’s own work. Nonetheless, anyone who has the patience to read through the Confessions first, then follow it up with this excellent companion volume, will find himself enriched by it. I have been personally inspired to re-read the Confessions in a more contemporary translation, and, God willing, I intend to blog my way through it chapter by chapter later in the year.

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