I had the pleasure this semester of reading theology with St. Augustine and with my students. I teach a seminar course on early church history. In it, we spend a couple of weeks reading through Augustine’s Confessions. It’s a remarkable book—one about which I commented on Twitter that I think it is perhaps the best thing to read on the Christian faith outside of Scripture itself. The Confessions is so theologically rich I discover something new every time I work through it.
For many laypeople, the idea of reading theology that is not Scripture probably seems foreign. Isn’t “theology” something that trained academics and pastors read? Actually, I think the Confessions is a wonderful example of how the best theology can find an audience amongst the church at large. I don’t mean that anyone can pick up a text like Confessions and read it as easily as the latest James Patterson novel. But it certainly is readable, and particularly so for a lay audience that is committed to reading together as a group and preferably under the guidance of someone (like a pastor) who has read it before.
The gifts one can receive from diving into Augustine are many and profound. The Confessions is an autobiographical work, of course, but Augustine writes it in such a way that its universal character is evident. Take, for instance, a passage I like to read with my students from Book IV. Augustine narrates the death of an unnamed friend of his in his hometown of Thagaste. This friend was so dear to him that he describes the two of them as “one soul in two bodies.” When the other young man dies, Augustine says that he was devastated. “My heart was utterly darkened by this sorrow,” he says, “And everywhere I looked I saw death.”
Augustine goes on to describe his grieving, which continues for a long time unabated. At the time of his friend’s death, he had recently been baptized. Augustine—who was not a believer at this time—did not understand the significance of his friend’s baptism; in misunderstanding his friend’s faith, he also misunderstood his friend’s death as well. As his description of grief goes on, it becomes clear that a large part of Augustine’s pain comes through the fundamental error of loving his friend as if he would last forever. His friend’s life was transient—as all our lives are—and Augustine had loved him as if he were really permanent. This misdirected love is only compounded by Augustine’s grief, which in the absence of faith in Jesus Christ has nowhere really to go. “I fretted, sighed, wept, tormented myself, and took neither rest nor counsel,” Augustine tells us, “for I was dragging around my torn and bloody soul. It was impatient of my dragging it around, and yet I could not find a place to lay it down.” His description is one of complete misery.
The Augustine of later years looks back on this episode and offers a prayer that captures how we ought rightly to love other people: “Blessed is he who loves thee,” Augustine says, “and who loves his friend in thee, and his enemy also, for thy sake; for he alone loses none dear to him, if all are dear in Him who cannot be lost.” Here Augustine begins to show how the only love which cannot end in a morass of endless grief is a love that is grounded in God. A love that ends in a mortal creature is sure to meet disaster, for the creature is bound to die. But those who die in God, and who are loved in God, are not loved in vain. Moreover, the grief that comes from the loss of such a one is not a grief that will ultimately consume us, for it is a grief that will be met by the healing grace of Jesus Christ.
As he moves the episode towards a conclusion, Augustine’s description of the power of life in Jesus Christ over the pernicious enemy of death reaches the level of the sublime. He counsels the lost sinner, “Seek what you seek; but remember that it is not where you seek it. You seek for a blessed life in the land of death. It is not there. For how can there be a blessed life where life itself is not?”
Into this death-dealing conundrum, Augustine’s response is pure gospel: “But our very Life came down to earth and bore our death, and slew it with the very abundance of his own life.” This is none other than Christ the Lord, who for our sake “ran through the world, crying out by words, deeds, death, life, descent, ascension—crying aloud to us to return to him.” Our Lamb has conquered.
And if we should be tempted to fret that we do not live during the earthly life of Jesus, Augustine says to us, “He departed from our sight that we might return to our hearts and find him there. For he left us, and behold, he is here.” For Jesus Christ is the Son of God; not a lowly prophet anointed by God, but rather God Himself. “He could not be with us long, yet he did not leave us. He went back to the place that he had never left, for ‘the world was made by him.'”
There is great comfort for Augustine that the same God who has created the world is the God into whom his friend was baptized, and the same God to whom he can now call out with the full assurance of faith. And there should be comfort in that for us, too. “In this world he was,” Augustine says, “and into this world he came, to save sinners.” Hallelujah! we might cry, with the bishop of Hippo. And we might join him, too, when he says, “To him my soul confesses, and he heals it, because it had sinned against him.”
This is theology at its finest. It is a deep and profound reflection on the gospel, made present to us through the wisdom and faith of this greatest father of the early church.
Read him and discover the reading to be a true means of grace.