Tag Archives: Augustine

Book Review: Confessions by Augustine of Hippo

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that I have started reading a few “theological autobiographies”. My aim was to do 3 this year, starting with Stanley Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child, moving on to Jürgen Moltmann’s A Broad Place before finally ending up at one of the most famous of them all, Augustine’s Confessions.

There are quite a lot of translations around, so it’s worth pointing out to you that I read the Henry Chadwick translation. I can’t comment on whether or not it is a particularly faithful translation as I haven’t attempted to compare it to the original. What I can say, however, is that it rendered Augustine eminently readable. There were a few instances where I suspected some inference on Chadwick’s part; one that comes to mind was the phrase “hodge-podge” which was rather unexpected. That said, for a relative newcomer to Augustine, I had no major issues with it and would not hesitate to recommend it.

What, then, of Augustine himself and what he wrote? The whole book is written as a poem addressed to God. Thankfully, Chadwick hasn’t tried to give it rhyme or rhythm in English, though I am assured that this existed in the original Latin. As the title suggests, it largely consists of Augustine confessing what he sees as his past sins.

But to imagine that it is simply a list of wrongdoing would grossly mislead you. It is, however, very difficult to summarise. That is because the book is no one thing; it is many. But those multiple aspects are not sequential items; they are layers and threads that are intertwined and overlaid in a majestic tapestry. The autobiography aspects include his very frank and rather modern view of sexuality, some close friendships and what they meant to him, especially moving when the friendship as terminated by mortality.

There is some theological disputation here, particularly against the Manichees, a group that Augustine first joined and later rejected. Mixed in with this then are Augustine meditations on the nature of good and evil, God, mankind, the universe and the like. It is not, however, a systematic work of philosophy. Though writing centuries after the likes of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the stylisation is totally different. I read it mostly whilst commuting, with some excerpts whilst sat in a local park (yes, there has been a gap between finishing reading it and getting round to publishing the review – I didn’t sit in the park in November). As such, I was sort of swept away by it and can offer little by way of detailed critique. It is a book to return to and dissect at some point in the future, possibly with the aid of further writings of someone who is more familiar than I with the full depth and breadth of Augustine’s thoughts.

Being swept away however does not imply drowning. The text was not so obfuscating but provided some fascinating insights into Augustine’s mind. For me, one of the more intriguing aspects was his musings on space and time. Though, with the hindsight of the discoveries of modern physics, some of it looks a little wide of the mark, it would be anachronistic to dismiss his ideas as irrational. Instead, it is quite a remarkable feat considering when it was written, and one could easily think him a thousand years ahead of his time.

The end of the book trails off somewhat with a look at the early chapters of Genesis. Again, here the modern reader may be tempted to look at him out of his time, though it is really not clear, given the modern polarisation between good science and creationism/ID, what box he might seem to fit in. I have for some time failed in my efforts to get my hands on his The Literal Meaning of Genesis, but this seems to cover similar ground. It is a thoughtful consideration of what Genesis means, but though Augustine doesn’t explicitly refer to the creation story in modern terminology as a myth, he focuses on the meaning of it. Again, though it is hard to summarise and would hope you may do a better job than I did of getting your head around it.

There can be little doubt that this was the product of a great thinker of his time. The early emphasis on his struggles as a young man had strong resonances with me, making me wish I had read it in my late teens or early twenties. If you are reading this and you are in that age bracket then I would recommend this to you with some urgency. To anyone else, it is still a majestic piece of writing. Even if you are predisposed to disagree with Augustine, I would recommend it to you as an insight into the mind of one of the most influential figures from that time whose legacy has endured. If nothing else, the topics covered will almost certainly prompt you to think for yourself.

Book Review: Dogmatics in Outline by Karl Barth

Anyone who ever looks at theology these days cannot help but notice the shadows of certain figures looming large over them. Arguably, fewer of these are more prominent than Karl Barth. His Church Dogmatics is often cited as one of the greatest works of 20th century theology. It is, however, extremely long and, I might add, rather expensive. So in order to attempt to get to grips with Barth’s theology, I have had his Dogmatics in Outline on my radar for some time. In this book, which is comprised of transcripts of lectures he gave in Germany, just after the Second World War, he condenses his magnum opus into a little over 140 pages, going through the Apostles’ Creed, phrase by phrase.

Before he begins in earnest, he gives us an outline of his plan, as well as some very useful discussions on the nature of faith.  One must not think, though, that because the book is short that it is straightforward. It’s very dense, particularly the early chapters. I think I could re-read the first 30 pages over and over again, get something new out of them every time and yet still not fully grasp the breadth of the vision that Barth was expounding.

As he moves on to look at the various bits of the Apostles Creed, it does become a bit more accessible. Though that may be because I had, by that time, adjusted my reading to suit the cadences present in the text. In many ways, it is particularly hard for me to summarise what Barth’s theology is, because what became clear is how much of an influence he has been on the leaders of the churches I have been a part of. That is, I view my own beliefs as being fairly orthodox and there is very little in this book that is vastly different from the teaching I have largely grown up within baptist, pentecostal and other nonconformist churches. It was then merely a very well-articulated series of sermons in the same vein that I have listened to in each of the last 4 decades.

As I was reading through it, I found myself wondering if his theology was the pinnacle of ‘pre-critical’ thinking. Though there are plenty of theologians before him who have had similar views (I think here of the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther & Calvin) Barth was a contemporary of Bultmann, who is one of the others whose shadow across modern theology cannot be ignored. The other figure I thought of was A.W. Tozer. Though the latter was not as theologically astute as Barth, I sensed a similarity in their approach to, and view of, the bible. Interestingly, though, Barth does not go so far as to make any sort of claim to inerrancy, but he does insist on the bible being front and centre of how we understand the christian faith. Though Bultmann is barely alluded to, there is a distinct air of defiance against Bultmann’s school of thinking. For my part, though I would lean towards Barth’s point of view, I would pay more attention to biblical criticism than is evidenced here.

Barth warns at the outset that this is meant to be a careful look at what the church should be and be for from the perspective of those who are part of the church. It’s not a book I would recommend to a non-christian, that’s not the target audience. But for anyone wanting to read a book of pretty solid theology, then this is an excellent place to start.