Sunday, 3 October 2010

Summary of Book I

Prayer. Nature of God. Infancy. Childhood and early education.

Each book in Confessions begins with a prayer. The opening prayer of Book I is fuller than most of the other prayers. It leads into a brief discussion of the nature of God. From the opening paragraph the reader is confronted with Old and New Testament verses, in particular references to the Psalms. Prayer is a call for God to come to (even to enter into) the one praying. The act of prayer requires some sort of pre-existing faith and belief.

However to call on God is to request something beyond comprehension. The one who calls only exists because of the presence of the One called. The One called is the One who fills all things already. In asking who God is Augustine introduces a minor theme of the whole work. He calls on God the Lord, citing Psalm 17:32. He describes the One he is calling by listing attributes of the Lord God. But then Augustine hints at the impossibility of communicating anything about God. God is unique. God cannot be fully described or known. The whole creation cannot contain God fully, even though God is fully present everywhere in all space and time. How, then, can words contain God?

Yet Augustine writes words and sentences. And he quotes words and sentences from Scripture. And he prays to be given words. Words can be signs of what the indescribable God is. Early in the account of infancy, Augustine writes of speechless infants making wordless signs in communication. As the infant grows the mind learns to recognise and understand humanly determined word signs. The infant learns to use them to enter “more deeply into the stormy society of human life.” Human society is stormy because of the battle between sinful wills trying to gain supremacy. In his early education, and even in his infancy, Augustine thinks he was a sinner trying to persuade people to bow to his will: “so tiny a child, so great a sinner.”

Though the content of his education included vanities (his exercises “mere smoke and wind”) Augustine asks the Lord to turn his learning to good use. God the Lord gave him good gifts. Augustine then used those good gifts for sinful ends. Although the Lord reigns in silence, He will not always be silent. In fact, the passions and delights of men in their judicial word games are signs of the penalty of God’s law. And so Augustine prays to be kept through the proper use of his gifts.

Much of the writing appears mere rhetoric. We are not provided with theories of God, language, infancy, education or sin. But every paragraph contains subtle qualified statements of wisdom. Comments on this post can take up some of those statements. Group members should feel free to contribute their own posts. For the moment let’s stick with themes and content from Book I. I've posted this summary a little earlier than originally planned. Expect my summary of Book II before the end of October 2010.


  1. An astute reader emailed me with a query about the reference to Psalm 17.32. The Psalm book that Augustine used divided up the Psalms in a different way from standard English Bibles. When reading Confessions, from Psalm 10 to Psalm 148 you need to add one to find the corresponding Psalm in an English Bible. So the verse is Psalm 18.32 in a standard English Bible. Without realising I simply used what I read in Chadwick, i.e. the reference to Psalm 17 of Augustine's Latin version. Sorry for the confusion, I'll be more careful in my writing from now on.

  2. There's a lot in that. Just a brief comment.

    Augustine's admission that we cannot really talk about God is very significant. We do not have capacity to talk about him in his entirity. However our liturgies are geared towards gaining as full an understanding as possible. Hence the encredible richness of meaning in the symbols and actions of the mass.

    One further example which I find useful in describing the unknowableness of God is music. It's isn't easy to describe what music is expecially as it occurs in nature in bird song etc. We can probably agree that music communicates something but our ability to say what it is, is limited. Words are a different form of communcation which are quite alien to musical communication. Describing music in words does little to enlighten it and never really can recreate the pheonomenon [sic] however it is the only way we have of communicating what we think about it. - Thats a little convuluted. I hope some sense can be made of it.

  3. Thanks Cartavida. Paragraph 17 is interesting in this connection, is it not? Augustine remarks that he had already received teaching, he had been signed with the cross, and had been seasoned with salt.

    Yet his request for baptism was not granted, and (I think this is right) he would not have yet seen, far less participated in, a celebration of the eucharist this early in his life. Only baptised converts were invited to the eucharist, and the eucharist was celebrated in private at the time. Also, I've read that throughout Augustine's writings there are almost no descriptions of the liturgy of the eucharist... as it were, the eucharist was kept hidden from the world.

    So, certain signs of God's grace are withheld from Augustine, yet in the paragraph he still writes of being a believer. At the start of paragraph 18, Augustine asks the purpose of this... the larger point being that God was even at this stage of life overseeing Augustine as only a heavenly Father can. Although denied access to the big two sacraments of grace, Augustine was under his Father's providential sovereign care. The One who fills all things was upholding and preserving Augustine even before his conversion to the Christian faith in joining the Christian church through holy baptism.

  4. What has struck me in reading Bk. 1 is how, right off the bat, Augustine gives a succinct summary of his experience of the Christian gospel: "It is my faith that calls to you, Lord, the faith which you gave me and made to live in me through the merits of your Son, who became man, and through the ministry of your preacher." (Note: I'm using the trans. of the wonderfully named R.S. Pine-Coffin).
    I love how Augustine hangs in perfect balance the work of God (see words like "gave" and "made") with the personal nature of faith (i.e. "my faith"). He has a real and personal faith that is rooted in the work of God and, as Augustine says, is founded on the "merits of your Son," namely his life, death and resurrection.
    What's especially encouraging for me, as a would-be minister of this gospel, is to read of Augustine's reference to "the ministry of your preacher." Presumably he is speaking of Ambrose of Milan, under whose ministry Augustine was converted. That a theological giant such as Augustine, who so shapes us as Christians in ways we can't begin to imagine, was brought to faith (humanly speaking) through the ministry of Ambrose.
    God works in amazing ways and brought to faith one of our beloved saints by the gospel proclamation of another saint. It gives me tremendous hope and encouragement as I seek to discharge a similar ministry.

  5. Cartavida, it'll be really interesting to get into Augustine's writing on music in Bk. 13 -- if we get there! I hope we do!
    Here's a taste of what we're in for (I hope not):

  6. There were so many things I found interesting in this first book! This is the first time I've read St Augustine so I wasn't really sure what to expect!

    I Chapter 1 Augustine mentions the problem of invoking God without knowing Him. We all have an innate desire for God yet so many people ignore this desire or try to fill it with material goods or "feel-good" philosophies. I know a man who is a Dominican Brother and now syudying to become a priest. He was originally an atheist and because one of his friends talked so much about God, he got interested and asked God every day for some months to reveal Himself if He was real. Eventually this man came to know God. If only other people would do the same thing and give God a real chance!

    I often think as Christians we can become complacent in our search for God because we already know He exists. Really we should be searching for Him every day, to come into a deeper relationship with Him. (I admit Im one of those people who has become complacent!)

  7. Something else that struck me was when Augustine mentions in Chapter 2 that God, Who is everywhere, is even in hell...that never occured to me before! Hell is eternal sparation from God, and yet He's there. Serious paradox!

  8. Reading chapter one of confessions sparked off so many thought strands in my head its hard to express my over all impression, apart from I loved it!

    I loved the way Augustine wrestled with baptism, his mother was a bit of an adult baptist before her time where as Augustine seems to stand firmly to infant baptism, even comparing the act of baptism to administering a cure (chp 11)!

    I particularly loved the discussion on the relation of God to time and space. Does anyone think some of the questions he asks, particularly at the end of chapter three are not so much questions as progressive answers? Nevertheless Augustine's conclusion seems to be that God does not exist within the confines of time and space, rather time and space exist within God. If only scientists would take this seriously when making sweeping comments about God today!

    My head was turned upside down by Augustine's dialogue about infancy and adulthood. His conclusion that an infant is not innocent and one may grow out of infancy, but the infant does not disappear sheds a interesting light on the nature of man. I laughed out loud at the quote "However, grown up games are known as business" (end of chp 9)...anyone seen the new series of the apprentice?

    So all in all pretty thought provoking stuff, looking forward to Book 2.

  9. David, can you talk us through this chapter's presentation of baptism? It's not quite where anyone is at these days, is it?

  10. CG, thanks for your question about baptism. Rather than post a comment here, I think I will work on a new post looking at Augustine's view of baptism, with special reference to Confessions. That will mean re-reading Confessions as a whole, doing a little background reading, etc. So wont promise to post this any time soon. Great idea though, you can hold me to this proposal. Thanks again.


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