Augustine’s Confessions, Part 2—Sin

Foley, Michael P. [editor] 2006. Augustine Confessions (Orig Pub 397 AD). 2nd Edition. Translated by F. J. Sheed (1942). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (Goto Part 1; Goto Part 3; Goto Part 4)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Augustine writes the Confessions in thirteen books where the first nine book talk about his life, book ten talks about his motivations for writing, and the final three chapters reflect on the book of Genesis. In part two of this review, I focus on Augustine’s view of sin.

Memoir and Augustine’s Focus on God

 Memoir is an autobiography with a theme. Augustine’s theme is his call to faith and he begins his memoir with a profession of faith:

“GREAT ART THOU, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and of Thy wisdom there is no number. And man desires to praise Thee. He is but a tiny part of all that Though has created. He bears about him his mortality, the evidence of his sinfulness, and the evidence that Thou does resist the proud, yet this tiny part of all that Thou has created desires to praise Thee.” (3)

Augustine is writing in Latin, which is obvious from the translation because of the use of Thou, Thy, and Thee in the English translation, borrowing from the archaic English forms found in Elizabethan English. Sheed comments on the decision to use these forms in translation arguing that they add beauty, express intimacy, and reflect the liturgical character of the Confessions (xi-xii).

Augustine’s theology appears in this introductory paragraph which starts with divine praise, intimacy, power, and immensity, relates death to sin, and references Jesus’ emphasis on humility (e.g. Matt 5:3). The first sentence is also an allusion to the psalms which in a modern translation reads: “For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods” (Ps 96:4 ESV)

Unlike a modern memoir, Augustine does not turn to his own life story until after laying out a significant treatise on his understanding of God. In his seventh section (about six pages later), he finally starts his own story:

“Thus, Lord, I do not remember living this age of my infancy; I must take the word of others about it and can only conjecture how I spent it—even if with a fair amount of certainty—from watching others now in the same stage.” (9)

In this context, we witness a very pious Augustine and get a sense of the liturgical character of this memoir.

Early Sin and Intercessory Prayer

Augustine is frequently associated with the doctrine of original sin, which is obvious when he writes:

“Thus the innocence of children is in the helplessness of their bodies rather than any quality in their minds, I have myself seen a small baby jealous; it was too young to speak, but it was livid with anger as it watched another infant at the breast.” (9)

We used to joke that original sin was two infants given one toy! Still, Augustine does not exempt himself from the influences of sin as he writes about his own infancy.

Augustine pictures later himself as an initially lazy student who received frequent beatings (10), but we are quickly introduced to a pious Monica, his mother, who seeing her son engaging in self-destructive and sinful behavior resorted to unceasing prayer:

“The mother of my flesh was in heavy anxiety, since with a heart chaste in Your faith she was ever in deep travail for my eternal salvation, and would have proceeded without delay to have me consecrated and wash clean by the Sacrament of salvation…” (12)

Still, it is paradoxical to observe one of the great philosophers of the church saying: “I disliked learning and hated to be forced to it.”(13)

Pictures of Sin as Immorality and Stolen Peers

At age sixteen, Augustine found himself beset with sin. A besetting sin is one that you are aware of and pray for relief from, but find yourself addicted to. For Augustine, lust for women posed a besetting sin, as he famously wrote: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” (152)

Augustine writes that his pagan father, Patricius, and his Christian mother, Monica, reacted differently to his interest in women. Patricius looked forward to having grandchildren (irrespective of their manner of conception), while Monica wanted him to remain chaste until such time as he could establish his career (27-28).

In the midst of his discussion of lust, Augustine tells the story of how some of his friends lured him into steeling some peers, writing:

“The peers were beautiful but it was not peers that my empty soul desired. For I had any number of better peers of my own and plucked those only that I might steal.” (31)

The stolen peers became a symbol for his relationship with women and later taking of a mistress, who is never named but gives him a son (56). Fifteen years later he dismisses his mistress so that he might be formally married and finds himself so distressed in her absence while he waits for marriage that he takes another mistress. If this seems odd to modern ears, the editor notes:

“Marriage in the Roman Empire was viewed more as an institution of social promotion, political alliance, and financial stability than an act of love.” (327)

While this may be true, Augustine viewed his immorality as a besetting sin and clearly motivated his later guidance for monks to remain celibate. In some sense, his weakness came to our benefit as the church worked to cleanse itself of pagan attitudes about immorality, which still dog the church today.

 

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