Tag Archives: character of God

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: The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer

It’s been a couple of years now since I read The Pursuit of God, having mixed thoughts on what is probably his most famous work. When you read Tozer, you ought to be aware of what you are getting; mostly sound, orthodox teaching, told with great fervour. Tozer was a man with a passion for God, though he wasn’t a theologian. I don’t always agree with him or how he chooses to phrase certain things, but he is nonetheless a thought-provoking writer and is more often closer to the mark than far from it.

The aim of this book is to list, and give some flesh to, some of the attributes of God. Tozer’s motivation for writing this book was a complaint that christians have forgotten the great writers of the past (he points at Augustine and Anselm in particular) and that we no longer think particularly highly of God. Crucial to Tozer’s idea is that we worship God as It truly is, lest we come up with ideas about God which are either misguided or incomplete which would lead to a kind of idolatry; this is an idea I wholeheartedly agree with and is the motivation behind why I constantly try to understand God, christianity and scripture.

What I found most interesting was his idea that our descriptions of God are all describing One. i.e. God does not really have “aspects” to Its character, but we have to distinguish such aspects for our own linguistic interpretation and understanding. Though interesting, I thought it went a bit too far to describe God as “simple”. If people are made in God’s image, and people can be very complicated beings, I don’t think it helps anyone to suppose that God’s character could ever be described as “simple”.

Tozer manages to straddle two very contrary realms of being at once very conservative and also of being a big fan of the mystics. Neither of these are areas I am comfortable in; I’m much more of a liberal rationalist. In fact, Tozer’s anti-rationalist and anti-scientific stance really did quite annoy me as I think it does some otherwise good writing a great disservice. The other book that came to mind as I was reading this was J.I. Packer’s Knowing God which is equally conservative but not as mystic.

There are some other aspects which are a little uncomfortable. Tozer often phrases things in terms of ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ with a tone strongly implying the supremacy of the former over the latter. As for the Holy Spirit, that is completely absent. The overall impression is a kind Arian binitarianism. Yet at the same time, there is a contrary high Christology, with the humanity of Jesus often overlooked.

So without endorsing everything that Tozer says, or how he says it, this is still a thought-provoking book with enough in it to make it worth recommending.