Augustine wrote his masterwork, Confessions, some one and a half thousand years ago (397 AD). His name in his native Latin was Aurelius Augustinus, but he is better known as Saint Augustine of Hippo. Hippo was an ancient Roman port city on the Mediterranean coast of Africa where Augustine served as bishop. Even then, he was a revered Biblical scholar. With Confessions, Augustine wrote a classic that has preserved him as one of the great founding fathers of the early church.
Augustine is a servant of God in the same mold as a much more recent theologian-philosopher: C. S. Lewis. Both men were steeped in classical literature and were skilled in rhetoric. They became Jesus followers at the same age, 32, just as their secular careers were getting off the ground. Both had families and romantic loves that brought them great joy and also great pain. Most importantly, both men had a piercing understanding of God and a talent for enthralling communication.
Confessions (Translation by F. J. Sheed, Second Edition) is a book of beauty. Editor Michael Foley writes in the “Preface” of Confessions that Augustine believed that truth should be framed in beauty. “For that reason Augustine himself took great pains to make the Confessions achingly beautiful” (pg. xi). This beauty is demonstrated by the symmetry of the following passage concerning the “heavens and earth” of Genesis:
It was You, Lord, who made them: for You are beautiful, and they are beautiful: You are good, and they are good: You are, and they are. But they neither are beautiful, nor are good, nor simply are, as You [are] their Creator: compared with You they are not beautiful and are not good and are not. These truths, thanks to You, we know; and our knowledge compared with Your knowledge is ignorance (pg. 236-237).
An attraction of Confessions is that Augustine’s deep love for God resonates today. After sixteen centuries, the fundamental passion that marks true followers of Jesus has not changed. As a believer, this is deeply affirming.
Peter Brown states in the “Introduction” that “Confessions is a very strange book” (pg. xxi). Brown explains that Augustine’s intention was to demonstrate that the common aspirations driving the people of his day—education and careers, sexual and marital relationships, and a search for meaning in life in religion and philosophy—were supplanting devotion to God. It is intriguing that the themes of Roman society sound like themes in western civilization today.
To borrow Brown’s expression, the construction of this book is also strange, or at least unusual; I have never read anything quite like it. Confessions is written as a running prayer. It is a monologue addressed directly to God, therefore, the pronouns “you” and “your” are capitalized throughout. Sometimes, the phrasing of the monologue takes extra effort to follow. Frequently, the monologue requires extra time to sit back and think through the message. (I had the same experience reading John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.) The text has the feel of a stream of consciousness broken up with divine adorations. It can be challenging to make progress.
But in saying that the work is deep and difficult, it must be stressed that the effort is worthwhile. For example, Foley points out that Confessions excels in exploring paradoxes.
. . . the God who is both highest and nearest (VI.3.4), the God who is utterly hidden and utterly present (I.4.4), the God who is within us even when we are not with ourselves (X.27.38). (pg.xii).
Confessions is not pure theology, though there is theology included. And despite the title, it is not all confession, though there is admission of guilt and repentance. This book is a humble man pouring out both his heart and his brilliant mind to the God he loves. From this perspective, Confessions echoes King David’s Psalms.
Confessions is divided into thirteen “books” (like chapters), the first nine of which are Augustine’s autobiography. The last four read as if we are listening to Augustine discuss with God various passages of the Bible.
Book Eleven is entitled “In the Beginning God Created – Genesis 1:1.” Substantially all of Book Eleven’s 26 pages are devoted to an interpretation of just the first verse of the Bible. A few of Augustine’s points in Book Eleven are discussed below.
Concerning Genesis 1:1, Augustine asks God,
But how did You make heaven and earth? What instrument did You use for a work so mighty? You are not like an artist; for he forms one body from another as his mind chooses . . . [He] impresses that form upon a material already existent and having the capacity to be thus formed, such as clay or wood or gold or such like (pg. 237).
We speak of anyone involved in making something that they are engaged in the act of creating. However, a man or woman creating are simply transforming one material to another. We can only create with what we have been given. But God created without any starting material.
Nor had You any material in Your hand when You were making heaven and earth: for where should You have got what You had not yet made? (Pg. 237)
In creation, all of the matter, energy, and space around us, and even time, all came about, materialized if you will, where there was absolute nothingness. We cannot imagine the nothingness before creation. Even a vacuum is a faulty analogy because it contains empty space and without creation there is not even empty space.
In the act of creating, Genesis says God simply spoke and the creation came into being. Augustine asks of God,
You spoke and heaven and earth were created . . . But how did You speak? Was it perhaps as when that voice sounded from the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son?” [Matthew 17:5]. That voice sounded and ceased to sound, had a beginning and an end. . . . From this it is clear beyond question that the voice was sounded by something created by You, a movement in time but serving Your eternal will (pg. 237).
Augustine understood the passage in Matthew to refer to a physical sound that people heard.
These words were uttered in time and the bodily ear conveyed them to the understanding mind . . . (pg. 238).
Beyond the physical nature of the words, the key point of Augustine is that these words passed away. They are recorded as an event in the scriptures, which stand forever, but the spoken words were subject to time.
The apostle John introduces a singular and very different Word in the first chapter of his gospel. The momentary nature of the words spoken in Matthew stand out in contrast to “that Word— God with You, God as You are God [John 1:1]—which is uttered eternally . . .” (pg. 238, emphasis added).
For this [the eternal Word] is not an utterance in which what has been said passes away that the next thing may be said and so finally the whole utterance be complete: but all in one act, yet abiding eternally . . . (pg. 238).
The Word is spoken without beginning and without end. Yahweh told Moses, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). God occupies present tense eternally.
. . . in eternity nothing passes but all is present, whereas time cannot be present all at once (pg. 241).
Augustine was frustrated with contemporary theologians who asked questions such as “What was God doing before He made heaven and earth?” To Augustine, their minds did not . . .
glimpse the splendour of eternity which stands forever: and [they] compare it with time whose moments never stand . . . (pg. 240).
Augustine saw a clear distinction between time and eternity. Time is transitory: the future is continuously turning into the past. The present is only an instant and no two moments of time can co-exist.
Augustine discerns that since God is eternal, He is above time and, therefore, “You are the Maker of all time, and before all time you are . . .” (pg. 242). Said from a different angle, an omnipotent God is not subject to anything we know in creation, including time.
Science provides an interesting collaboration that time is part of creation. Science has proven that time is warped by gravitational fields. For example, Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that are positioned high above Earth’s surface are not as close to Earth’s gravitational field as ground based equipment. Because of the unequal effect of gravity on time, the clocks on these satellites run faster than the clocks on Earth’s surface. A correction has to be inserted into the satellite programs to ensure that the GPS data sent back to Earth’s surface matches the equipment on the ground. *
This effect demonstrates that time is part of the warp and weft of creation. Science calls time a fourth dimension alongside height, width, and depth. Augustine was quite right to deduce that time was not part of eternity, which is immutable.
Augustine’s discussion of time resolves a conundrum: how could Jesus be “the only begotten Son” of the Father and yet always to have existed with Him in eternity. Augustine provides an explanation based on the scripture passage that states a thousand years are as a single day to God.
Your years are as a single day [Psalms 90:4]; and Your day comes not daily but is today, a today which does not yield place to any tomorrow or follow upon any yesterday. In You today is eternity: thus it is that You begot one co-eternal with Yourself to whom you said: Today have I begotten Thee [Psalms 2:7]. (Pg. 242).
The “today” of God has no beginning and no end. The Son is begotten in a timeless today. Just as the Word is uttered eternally.
Why study the deep thoughts of Augustine? Because it provides an antidote to our small god Christianity. Augustine’s musings help us marvel at the Word who created everything we see, feel, touch, breathe, and measure. As intensely difficult as these writings are to understand, so this intensity should magnify our awe of the God. With an expanded view of the Ageless One, we are better informed to worship, petition, and walk with the Lord our God. To His praise and glory.
Photo by RFTG
*Joanne Kennell, “How Gravity Changes Time: The Effect Known as Gravitational TimeDilation,” The Science Explorer, November 16, 2015. http://thescienceexplorer.com/universe/how-gravity-changes-time-effect-known-gravitational-time-dilation
Like the content you see on Reading For The Glory? Please subscribe by providing your email at the bottom of this page. We invite you to consider supporting the ongoing ministry of RFTG. To donate click here.
To learn more about the good news of Jesus Christ, please click here