Confessions by Augustine is a classic book most Christians have heard of, but far too few have read. Here we have the life story of one of the most influential theologians in Christian history—an autobiography that was composed as a prayer of thanksgiving. A tale of human dissolution overcome by divine deliverance, that culminates with contemplation of the beauty of God’s being.
Sarah Ruden’s New Translation
You can find multiple translations of Confessions in English. I read an older translation in 2004, a modern translation in 2008, and I’ve just finished the newest translation from Sarah Ruden, a renowned translator of ancient books who chose to devote her skills to this world-changing text.
Emphasizing the literary nature of Augustine’s work removes Ruden from the “literal” to “dynamic” spectrum of translation philosophy often applied to Bibles. Ruden’s work cannot be classified as “giving us Augustine’s Latin word for word”; nor can it be described as “making Augustine easy-to-understand in contemporary English.” Ruden’s aim lies elsewhere. She wants us to feel the literary power of Augustine’s rhetorical skills.
“My main justification for this new translation, after several learned and serviceable ones have become established, is the previously hidden degree to which Augustine makes his life and ideas vivid in the style of his Latin. In Augustine, the manner of presentation is especially compelling, because of his stress on beauty and joy on the one hand, and intellectual helplessness on the other.” (xxiii)
Confessions traces Augustine’s journey from pride to humility, and so we watch him renounce his boasting of rhetorical skill in a way that is rhetorically powerful! Ruden gets the paradox at the heart of Augustine’s story:
“[Augustine’s] purpose is always to show human worthlessness extravagantly blessed with gifts from God . . . and appalling human sinfulness showered with God’s grace, which if accepted leads to blissful eternal life. It’s necessary, in this schema, for the author to denigrate his own expressive genius even as he parades it, and he makes this reversal many times with considerable wit and charm.” (xx)
I started reading this translation of Confessions impressed with Ruden. After a few pages, I was impressed with Augustine. By the end of the book, I wasn’t even thinking about Ruden anymore, which is what you hope will be the result of reading a fine translation. For the rest of this review, I will offer a generous sprinkling of quotes from this new translation of Confessions, with the hopes that you will “pick up and read” this classic.
Augustine the Lover
Confessions is the story of one man’s love affair with God. Before he is anything else, Augustine is a lover. He throws himself headlong into his passions, his education, his reputation, his promiscuity, and then, finally and forever, he surveys the depths of the God who has captivated him with joy.
Augustine’s conversion story includes an intellectual exploration of the gospel’s contrast with false worldviews, but the heart of Confessions is the heart, not merely the mind. Or better said, the mind is in service to the heart’s search for happiness, the discovery of the proper Object of its desire. Augustine describes sin as exchanging satisfaction in the Creator with satisfaction in His creation:
“My sin was that I sought not in God himself, but in things he had created—in myself and the rest of his creation—delights, heights, and perceptions of what was true and right, and in this way I collapsed into sufferings, embarrassments, and erring ways.” (33)
Chief among Augustine’s idolatrous actions is his flagrant sexual immorality, a sign of how sin taints our understanding and affects our ability to recognize what is good:
“Mine were the putrid fumes rising from scummy bodily lust and the diseased eruption of puberty, befouling and befuddling my heart with their smoke, so that there was no telling the unclouded sky of affection from the thick murk of carnality.” (35)
It’s not only lust, but also pride that grips the heart of the young Augustine, turning him into a man desperate to receive glory for his accomplishments. Looking back on this time, Augustine sees the beauty he missed in such a selfish pursuit:
“The self-restraint of a mind that testifies to its own weakness is more beautiful than the things I was hot to know.” (117)
Confessions may be a love story, but salvation is a tempestuous affair that often resembles a battle. Humans are at war with God—in slavery to sin—and only through grace does the Master win:
“Mine was a form of sin harder to heal in that I didn’t consider myself to be the sinner; and it was a damnable wickedness that I preferred for you, the all-powerful God, to be defeated within me, for my own destruction, than for me to be defeated by you for my salvation.” (125)
As the Master pursues the sinful rebel, He brings young Augustine face to face with his wretchedness, offering a glimpse of the true state of his heart:
“You, Master, twisted me back to yourself, catching me from behind, where I’d taken up a position in my unwillingness to pay attention to what I was. You stood me firmly in front of my own face, so that I could see how ugly I was, how deformed and dirty, blotched with rashes and sores. I saw, and I shuddered with disgust, but I had nowhere to make off to.” (223)
These events are not acts of judgment but illustrations of God’s fierce and unrelenting mercy. God’s mercy is not a fatherly excusing of our sin, or the decision to overlook our rebellion. Instead, mercy ensures that our sins will not bring us satisfaction, so that we will keep searching for the only One in whom all happiness is found.
“You were always there, savaging me in your pity, scattering the most acrid upsets on everything illicit that I enjoyed, and you did this to make me look for enjoyment without any upset and be unable to find it in anything but you, Master, in anything but you, who fashion pain as a lesson and lambaste us to heal us and kill us so that we don’t die away from you.” (37)
Glimpses of God’s beauty precede Augustine’s crashing back onto the shores of his sin:
“I didn’t stand still to enjoy my God. I was ravished into your presence by your beauty, yet soon torn away from you by the weight of myself, and I smashed down with a groan into those lower things I’ve been writing of.” (194)
Lover Set Free
Once Augustine is converted and baptized, he is transformed into a man who is totally and utterly taken with God, to the point his language at times resembles the lovers we see in the Song of Songs:
“Come, Master, and act, rouse us and call us back, set us alight and ravish us; blaze for us, grow sweet to us. Let us love you passionately, let us run to you.” (213)
Augustine is pursuing delight, not merely truth. He wants to know the truth in order to delight in it.
“The just person delights in God’s self, and God himself is the delight of those with righteous hearts.” (43)
Lover of Joy
Confessions is primarily about Augustine and his Master, but other people play important parts in this story: his teachers, his friends, Ambrose the preacher. But no one is more central than Monica, his mother. “I haven’t expressed how much more stress she suffered giving birth to me in the Spirit than she had in the flesh,” he writes, describing her patience and persistence in prayer for his soul.
In reflecting upon the death of his friend Nebridius, Augustine describes our eternal hope by putting joy in God at the center:
“Now he doesn’t put his ear to my lips; instead, he puts his lips of the spirit to your spring, and he drinks all he can hold, wisdom in proportion to his thirst for it, in an ecstasy without end. And I don’t think he gets so drunk that he forgets about me—since you, Master, who he’s guzzling, remember us.” (244)
Pursuing joy is what drives the Christian life, according to Augustine, and this joy is found only in the truth and peace that stills our restless wanderings:
“The happy life is, after all, joy in the truth. This is joy through you, God, who are the truth, my illumination, the salvation of my face, my God. Everybody wants this happy life; this life, which alone is happy, everyone wants; everyone wants joy in the truth.” (309)
If conversion is about the transformation of desire, so also is the Christian life. Augustine desires to see his desires change, to not merely see what he wants in God’s Word, but to want to see what God really says:
“Your best functionary is the one who by preference doesn’t pay regard as much to hearing what he wants from you, as to wanting what he hears from you.” (312)
This book abounds in phrases and words and pictures that come from Scripture. The citations and allusions fill the bottom of most of its pages. At times, entire paragraphs are the weaving together of Scriptural thoughts and analogies into new forms of expression. Augustine immersed himself in Scripture until it poured out of him in his prose.
“I’m more delighted with the truth itself than with praise. If I had the choice whether to be raving mad and in error about everything while getting praise from the whole world, or to be firm and unshakable in the truth though everyone castigated me, I’m clear on which I’d choose.” (335)
Pick Up and Read
If you haven’t read Augustine’s Confessions, do yourself a favor and pick up this new translation. Spend a few weeks working slowly through the text. You’ll come to understand why Augustine is still such a prominent figure in the history of Christian theology. Yes, you will find yourself puzzled by some of this thought processes, by the occasional dips into Platonic thinking, or the idiosyncratic Bible interpretations. But you’ll also encounter one of the greatest minds in Christian history and be challenged by his passionate desire to know and love the One who loves.
I leave you with this—my favorite section of this book:
“I took too long to fall in love with you, beauty so ancient and so new. I took too long to fall in love with you! But there you were, inside, and I was outside—and there I searched for you, and into those shapely things you made, my misshapen self went sliding. You were with me, but I wasn’t with you. Those things, which wouldn’t exist unless they existed in you, held me back, far from you. You called and shouted and shattered my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you put my blindness to flight. You smelled sweet, and I drew breath, and now I pant for you. I tasted you, and now I’m starving and parched; you touched me, and I burst into flame with a desire for your peace.” (312-13)