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Back to Life with Augustine

So, I'm finally back on this blog, and hopefully will be posting a steady stream of the fruits of Leithart's class, The Task and Context of Christian Scholarship. Here's a paper I wrote on Augustine's Confessions as a paradigm for theology.

Augustine’s Confessions as a Work of Theology

Is Augustine’s Confessions a Work of Theology? Though often seen as a personal memoir, private meditation, or spiritual autobiography of sorts, Augustine’s Confessions should also be seen for what it most essentially is—a work of theology. Not only† does it qualify as a work of theology, but, in many ways, shows us how theology ought to be done, and should serve as a model for our theological study and writing. I will explore three ways in which the Confessions functions as a theological work and should inform our approach: it is anthropological, doxological, and, to invent another term to fit the pattern, donological.

Anthropological:

Augustine’s Confessions do indeed serve as a personal confession, a confession of his sins and errors, his foibles and missteps on the road to God. However, Augustine intends it as far more than that—it is a confession on behalf of mankind, a meditation on fallen man’s plight. Throughout the Confessions, Augustine is composing a theology of man, or what would fall under the heading “Anthropology” in a work of Systematic Theology. The entire autobiography functions as a sort of cross-examination of man, as Augustine holds himself up to the light of God’s Word as specimen defiled by sin, to learn from his own life how all men ought to relate to God and in what ways they fail.
We see this pattern from the very beginning, where Augustine discusses his infancy. He confesses the total depravity of man, declaring “For there is none that is free from sin in your sight, not even a baby whose life upon earth has lasted but one day.” (1.7.11) He analyzes the behaviour of infants, and shows how their habits, which may be amusing at that age, are really manifestations of greed and sin that would be repulsive later in life. “Children are innocent only because they do not yet have any physical strength; their minds are not innocent,” he concludes.†
The famous episode of the pears affords Augustine another opportunity for reflection on the human condition.† Since, despite the Fall, we all still preserve some semblance of the image of God, Augustine believes that all our actions, however evil, must still be motivated by the aim toward some positive end.† There must be some intrinsic good, no matter how distorted, that we are seeking to attain by our sinful action.† But Augustine struggles to fit the pear-stealing episode into this pattern?† What beautiful motivation was there for his theft?† Ultimately Augustine concludes that just as there should be a social dimension to righteousness, just as a community aids in performing the deeds of faith, so sin is social, and a bad community can aid in the performance of evil acts.† Individually taken, neither Augustine nor his friends would have had a motive for stealing the pears, but, as a social unit, they were enticed to do it merely for the sake of camaraderie.† This social dimension to sin, Augustine suggests, underlies much of human evil.
Augustine's reflections on human nature continue throughout the Confessions, leading him to discuss why it is that we love (3.1.1), why it is that we take pleasure in suffering (3.2.3), why it is that we grieve (4.5.10), and, at some length, what it is that we find beautiful (in Book IV).† "What, then, is "beautiful"?† And what is beauty?† What is there in the things we love that charms and attracts us?" (4.13.20)† After recounting some of his meditations on this subject, he admits, "What I did not yet see was that this great question turned upon your craftsmanship, O Almighty, who alone work wonders." (4.15.24)† In all his discussions of human nature, he is led to confess the supremacy and perfection of God.† This lead us to our second point.

Doxological:
So many theologians today write theology as they might write a physics textbook--a detached, summary presentation of the facts.† Of course, even the author of a physics textbook should occasionally stop and marvel at the glory of his subject-matter; how much more so for theologians, who are discussing the beauty of the infinite God?!† Augustine clearly realizes this, and his reflection on God, man, and the pattern of God's interactions with man (using his own life as an illustration) is punctuated, indeed, completely interwoven with ecstatic expressions of praise to God for his goodness and glory.† It is not so much a work of theology handed down to readers as it is a conversation between Augustine and his God.† A few quotations will suffice to illustrate this point:
"Great are you, O Lord, and worthy of high praise.† Great is your strength, and of your wisdom there is no counting. . . . You stir us up to take delight in your praise; for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless till it finds its rest in you." (1.1.1)† So Augustine opens the book, and so he continues throughout.
After confessing his vanity regarding education: "You, O Lord, see all these things, and are silent, for you are long-suffering and full of mercy and truth . . . Your face, O Lord, have I sought; your face will I seek again." (1.18.28)
After discussing his studies in philosophy, "How ardently, my God, I burned to fly from earthly things back to you, though I did not know how you were dealing with me!† For with you is wisdom." (3.4.8)
After his friend's death, "Blessed is he who loves you, who loves his friend in you and his enemy for your sake. . . . None can lose you, unless he so chooses, and if he so chooses, where will he go or flee, but from your tranquility to your anger?† Where will he not find your Law to punish him?† For your law is truth, and the Truth is you." (4.9.14)
He begins and ends many of the books with extended declarations of praise to God, such as his opening to Book V: "Accept the sacrifice of my confessions from the hand of my tongue, the tongue you have fashioned and stirred up to confess your name.† heal all my bones, and let them say, 'Lord, who is like unto you?' " (5.1.1)† Augustine is so fervent and frequent in his praise because he always sees occasion to give thanks to God for His gifts, since Augustine understands that all reality is

Donological:
Yes, I invented this term to refer to the "giftedness" of reality, to the idea that there is no divide between the realms of nature and grace, but that God's gracious action is present in all the spheres and events of creation.† From one perspective, this is just a radical way of stating the sovereignty of God, making clear that there is nothing that happens that is not in some way the result of his gracious providence.† Many Reformed theologians, while confessing this, still treat large areas of human life and endeavour as outside the scope of theology.† Not so for Augustine--in the Confessions we find that Augustine constantly refers the experiences of his life, however separated they may seem to be from spiritual realities, as God's gracious governance.† He perceives God's lordship over every area that he had studied and God's use of it, whether rhetoric, philosophy, or literature, to guide him to the Church.†
Augustine recognizes that, even as an infant in the womb, long before he was able to clearly communicate with God, he was dependent on God: "For even at that age, I existed; I was alive; and, as my infancy drew to its close, I tried to find signs in which to convey my feelings to others.† From where could such a living creature come, if not from you, O Lord?† For who could be the craftsman of his own creation?" (1.6.10)
One of the fullest expressions of the giftedness of Creation and its relation to the Creator comes in Book IV:
If you take pleasure in corporeal objects, use them to praise God, and turn your love back towards their Artificer, so that you do not, in the things that give you pleasure, incur his displeasure.† If you take pleasure in souls, love them in God, for they too suffer change, and stand fast only when fixed in him; otherwise, they pass on and perish.† Love them in him, therefore, and take such as you can to him without delay.† Tell them: 'This is he whom we should love; it is he that has made all these things, and he is not far off.† For he did not make them and depart; they are from him and in him.† And where is he?† Where you taste truth.† He is within the depths of the heart, but the heart has strayed from him.† Return, sinners, to your heart, and cleave to him who made you.† Stand with him, and you will stand fast.† Rest in him and you will be rested.† Why do you go off on to the rough paths?† Where will you go?† The good that you love is from him, but it is good and pleasing only so far as it is considered in relation to him.† But if you abandon him, the love you direct towards anything that is from him will be unrighteous, and the object of your love will righteously be bitter to the taste. (4.12.18)

So then, Augustine shows us a method of doing theology that starts man’s sinful condition, his need for God, and his experience of God, that constantly stops to praise God for the glory he has revealed, and that recognizes throughout his Lordship over every arena and experience of life.

1 comments:

donological
\dän-ō-ˈlä-ji-kəl\
adjective

1 a: of, relating to, involving, or being in accordance with Donny Linnemeyer
2: capable of reasoning or of using reason in an fashion that Donny finds compelling

September 17, 2007 at 2:52 AM  

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