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A Review of "Confessions" by St. Augustine

a review of confessions by augustine
"Confessions" is a Literary Masterpiece - an autobiography, a dialogue with God, a philosophical book of questioning, and a book of prayer.

We have been looking at the greatest work of Christian literature over the past few weeks: the Bible, the New Testament in particular. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew originally but was translated into Greek about 250 BC. But Hebrew was no longer spoken and the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament was used everywhere and was the one read by Jesus and the Apostles.

The New Testament was also written in Greek but was not completed until 70 AD or so. The audience for the New Testament was the Greek world, especially Hellenized Jews and converted Gentiles in the Eastern Roman Empire. But the larger world of the Latin-speaking peoples was unreached until God inspired JEROME to translate the scriptures into the Latin Vulgate Bible, 382-405 AD.

It was the Latin text that Augustine knew and used in writing his Confessions 397-400. He was an educated man, a teacher of Rhetoric, and well-thought-of in intellectual circles.

Christianity by then had been established in the West, but there were competing religious and cultural influences side by side that truth-seekers had to choose from. Unlike today, atheism was unknown, but there were many gods to worship, the God of the Bible among them.

Confessions is Augustine’s search for Him.

“Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

This comes in the opening paragraph of Confessions and introduces the “quest for rest” he is seeking from its beginning to end. This is the driving theme of this first masterpiece of Christian Literature.

If you look at our definition of CHRISTIAN LITERATURE, you will see that Confessions meets all points:

  • The purpose of Christian literature is to build the kingdom of God, to build up His people and to reinforce our faith.

It is Gospel-oriented and presents Christian themes, characters and situations in ways that will glorify God and connect readers with our Christian heritage and culture and demonstrate the lasting and persuasive truth of the Bible and its worldview.
  • The author will be a Christian, a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, faithful to Him and to the testimony of the people who claim Him as their Savior.

Confessions of Augustine does this spectacularly. It is the first masterpiece of Christian Literature, and indeed of Western Literature as a whole.

It was written in Latin (this is important) in 397-400 by Bishop Augustine of Hippo (in north Africa).

The language is simple and easy to read in translation, but it is not a book to read quickly. Its original title was Confessions in 13 Books, and it was meant to be read aloud, so those of you who like audio books will find here a good opportunity. But before you start reading, here are some factors to consider:

Confessions of Augustine is a GREAT CLASSIC and Foundation of Western Civilization –

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

Confessions of Augustine is a LITERARY MASTERPIECE –

Often hailed as the first autobiography, that is only a part of its content. Leland Ryland (Professor of English at Wheaton) identifies Confessions as a “mixed genre” book.

  • We see right from the opening book that it is a dialogue with God, a philosophical book of questioning, and a book of prayers.

All of these surround the central narrative of Augustine’s youth and professional career culminating in the actual confession itself in book 8. Ryland calls it “a memoir,” and that seems about right to me.

We must realize how creative and inspired this work is. It has not only a narrative but recurring themes, well-drawn characters, a dramatic plot, fascinating prophecies, important teaching, and powerful morals. Confessions of Augustine actually has provided an example for the entire literary world in every generation up to the present day.

Something Ryland, Ferguson, and others do not discuss is the shift from autobiography after Augustine’s baptism into the Catholic Church in Book 9 to his analysis of Genesis and Creation in Books 10-13. But more about this later.

Confessions of Augustine is A Strong Personal Testimony

This is the most powerful conversion story since Saul of Tarsus’ Damascus Road experience.

It is similar in that both men were in the camp of those not only denying Christ but offering an alternative religion, Saul's Judaism and Augustine's Manichaeism. So strong and compelling were their testimonies that huge numbers of Jews and Manicheans were saved and became Christians. Praise God!

Confessions of Augustine is a fascinating narrative

The plot/storyline is developed throughout the first 9 books. You can find it HERE IN PDF FORM, or watch a recent and WELL-DONE MOVIE covering it here. I especially enjoyed seeing the film’s presentation of the setting and cultural life in which all of this took place.

Below is a short summary of the central elements of the story;

Augustine’s godly mother christened him in the Catholic church as an infant, but he lived a godless life of pleasure and sin, fathered a child with a long-suffering woman he never married.
He had a successful career teaching rhetoric and debate among intellectuals and upper-class Romans. He was very anti-Christian, and for a time a Gnostic and Manichean, a believer in two equally powerful gods of good and evil.
His life was influenced by Ambrose, the articulate and courageous bishop of Milan, and he began to study Christianity.

One day in a garden he heard a child’s voice chanting over and over again, Tolle Lege, the Latin command for “take up and read,” which Augustine took to mean open the Bible and read what you see.

He opened to Romans 13:13–14:

“not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. And instantly a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.” (End of Book 8)

After this, Ambrose baptized Augustine into the Catholic Church and he then returned with his mother to Africa where he soon became bishop.

Confessions of Augustine has well-drawn characters

Monica, Augustine’s mother is the heroine of this work. She claimed him for Christ when he was an infant and prayed for him for 30 years until he was saved. Augustine himself is the main character, a powerful and articulate teacher of rhetoric. His son Adeodatus and his friend Alypius are a part of the story, joining him in conversion.

But the most powerful and memorable figure is the charismatic and courageous bishop of Milan, Ambrose, out of whose life Jesus shines.

His testimony wins Augustine to Christ, and Ambrose baptizes him into the Catholic church wrapping up the biographical portion of the book.

Confessions of Augustine last four books

Books 10 to 13 are more introspective and theological, the first dealing with prayer and the path to conversion, and the last 3 in-depth commentaries on the Book of Genesis. Some have suggested these should be regarded as separate work. His analysis is deep and philosophical.

Although Augustine believes the Bible is the inspired word of God, he does not take the first chapter of Genesis, or indeed much of the Old Testament as historically accurate. He allows for multiple interpretations of God’s Word, among them allegory.

Confessions of Augustine is Saturated with Bible verses

Augustine’s work is filled with Scripture, one might even say “driven by scripture.” The Bible pervades his consciousness so that even as he delves deep into philosophical musings, he is aware of Paul’s teaching on this and cites Colossians 2:8

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.

Most commentators and scholars suggest reading a translation that identifies each scriptural text by location. Good idea!

Confessions of Augustine has important and recurring themes

Themes: We have already mentioned his “quest for rest,” but this is set in juxtaposition to God’s quest for us! Augustine’s view of God is a high one. God is all-powerful and only His omnipotent power can overcome evil.

Confessions presents an in-depth examination of Self and Sin. What a wonderful gift to 21st-century readers, whose culture loves to minimize sin, is Augustine’s presentation of its power and destructive grip on human souls.

Confessions of Augustine is a book of great influence on the development of the Church

Augustine had a powerful influence on the Roman Catholic Church and it on him. Sometimes it is difficult to see which came first but some things stick out.

Celibacy is one. Augustine went far beyond St. Paul in valuing the unmarried life even calling passion within marriage “adultery.” Eventually, celibacy became the rule for the Catholic clergy while the Orthodox allowed marriage in some cases.

Augustine’s idea of the sovereignty of God soon became mirrored by the central control of the Pope in Rome, quite different from the collegiality of the bishops of the Eastern Church.

But Confessions and later works of his introduced a philosophical and theological culture to the Roman Catholic Church which was not seen before. It was this theological distinctiveness that eventually caused “the great schism” between Catholicism and Orthodoxy to crystalize in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s person and delivery.

But both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are sacramental, ritual-driven churches, identifying the Lord’s Supper which they call the Mass as a continuing sacrifice and a sacrament embodying the flesh and blood of Christ.

Both pray to the dead and bow down to images or icons. Both venerate the Virgin Mary, but the Catholics say she is without original sin while the Orthodox do not go so far nor do they accept the Roman Catholic idea of Purgatory.

Confessions of Augustine significantly drove the Prostestant Reformation

Augustine powerfully influenced Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Reformed Protestant Churches.

Like Augustine, Luther was converted by reading the book of Romans but took faith as his guiding point and used it to defy the Pope.

Calvin took Augustine’s doctrines of original sin and the omnipotence of God to develop 5 points of doctrine that became known as TULIP, the backbone of Calvinism and the Reformed Protestant Churches.

Other Protestants like John Wesley and Charles Finney TOOK ISSUE WITH AUGUSTINE’S TEACHINGS, Wesley with his “tyrannical God” and Charles Finney with the doctrine of a sinful nature:

This doctrine is a stumbling-block both to the church and the world, infinitely dishonorable to God, and an abomination alike to God and the human intellect, and should be banished from every pulpit, and from every formula of doctrine, and from the world. It is a relic of heathen philosophy, and was foisted in among the doctrines of Christianity by Augustine, as everyone may know who will take the trouble to examine for himself.”

Confessions of Augustine: Final Analysis

Augustine is a giant in Christian history and literature, a genius whose positions evoke strong reactions positive and negative. But there is no doubt he was a man of God and used by God in mighty ways.

In our final analysis, we see that Confessions is the first literary effort to present the necessity of salvation, of conversion of being cleansed of our sins by the blood of Jesus Christ and becoming members of His church.

We must also bow before his passion for prayer and love of the Bible, which led him to salvation and will lead others to Jesus too if we follow what the child’s voice told seeking Augustine:

—“Tolle lege”—Pick it up and read it!

Let this be our takeaway from this article. We can apply that instruction to the Confessions of Augustine if we want to, but we most certainly should obey it in our daily engagement with the Bible.

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