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Augustine of Hippo: Confessions, Letters, and City of God

Saint Augustine of Hippo, by Jacob Jordaens, ca. 1650.

Augustine of Hippo lived from 354 to 430, largely in North Africa where he served as a bishop for nearly thirty-five years. Augustine was a prolific author of theological treatises, sermons, and correspondence with significant figures across the Roman and Christian world. We will begin our reading with two of Augustine’s most famous works, the Confessions and the City of God.

Introductions to Augustine’s life and influence are abundant online. The standard academic biography is Peter Brown’s. A short and highly accessible introduction to Augustine, with an interesting argument on his cultural setting, is Justo Gonzalez’s The Mestizo Augustine.


Augustine’s most famous work is The ConfessionsThe Confessions are an autobiographical account of Augustine’s life, beginning with his earliest memories and taking the reader up to his baptism and a mystical experience of God with his mother. In its final books, The Confessions also include theological reflections on Creation and the Book of Genesis. The work is the first autobiography in western history, and it has been enormously influential in shaping the western sense of self. (On this point, see Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self.) But it is not an autobiography in exactly the form one might expect. It takes its title, The Confessions, from its structure, since the book is a long prayer of confession to God, in both the sense that it acknowledges Augustine’s sins but also in the sense that it confesses faith that God was directing his path. The work contains some of Augustine’s most well-known phrases, such as “our hearts are restless till they find rest in you” (book1), “return to your heart” (book 4), and “Descend that you may ascend, and ascend to God” (book 4). Where much of the work that we have read feels as ancient as it is, many readers find Augustine to be fresh and modern.

That easy familiarity with the text that many readers discover does much to explain the continued appeal of this book, but it also can lead readers astray. One assumption that readers make about the book is that it is a conversion narrative of the sort that they have encountered in the Book of Acts describing Paul’s conversion and then (leaping over a couple millennia) in their own religious experiences. Certainly many readers point to Augustine’s encounter in the garden where he reads the epistles as Paul as a kind of conversion experience. (As an aside, note that that scene happens in a garden, as does the first couple chapters of Genesis.)  The Confessions, however, describe many conversions that Augustine experiences. While reading, it may be worthwhile to note the moments where Augustine turns in his confessions, and what is at stake in each of those turnings. These include Augustine’s conversions to philosophy (book 3), to Manichaeism (book 3), to Catholic Christianity, to neoplatonism (book 7), to asceticism (book 8), to a mystical experience of God (book 9).

There are no shortage of translations of the Confessions. We heartily recommend Maria Boulding’s translation for the New City Press edition of Augustine’s works. Another good modern translation is Garry Wills’s translation for Penguin Classics. Readers looking for a scholarly text in Latin should try James J. O’Donnell’s edition published by Oxford, which also includes two volumes of commentary. Or you may prefer the two volumes (vol. 1, vol. 2) of the Confessions in Latin and English in the Loeb Classical Library.


After reading Augustine’s autobiography, we’ll gain another perspective on his life through reading his letters—around 270 total. The Confessions largely end with the death of Augustine’s mother Monica, before Augustine assumed the roles for which he became well known as a preacher, pastor, and polemicist. The letters shed light on how Augustine interacted with friends, resolved disputes between congregants, and admonished those he saw going astray.

In 1969, Johannes Divjak rediscovered an additional thirty letters dictated by Augustine. Those letters are not included on our current reading schedule, as there are no public domain versions available. But readers interested in these further glimpses at Augustine’s ministry may wish to consult the editions listed below.

The Loeb Classical Library has an edition of selected letters from Augustine. The full series, including the Divjak letters, are available in hardcover from New City Press’s twenty-first century translation of the works of Augustine: Letters 1-99, Letters 100-155, Letters 156-210, Letters 211-270 and Divjak.

City of God

Next to the Confessions, the City of God is Augustine’s most well-known work. Augustine wrote his masterpiece of political theology in response to the sack of Rome in 410. The work represents an extended meditation on the causes of the rise and fall of Rome, the ways in which political and spiritual societies interact, and the mysterious progress of the heavenly kingdom in the midst of political crisis.

Even today, entire branches of theology, political ethics, and constitutional theory—sometimes gathered under the term “political theology”—vigorously debate the application of Augustine’s City of God to modern politics. For a useful and clear overview of the various positions on Augustine’s thought, see Michael Bruno’s Political Augustinianism. A landmark work in this area is R. A. Markus’s 1989 book Saeculum, which argued that City of God helped to create a secular, de-sacralized arena of politics. Since Markus’s work, scholars have disputed whether Augustine’s thought is really compatible with secularization, and if so, whether that’s a virtue of his thought. Some approaches view Augustine as offering helpful advice to citizens no matter their religious orientation, for instance Eric Gregory’s Politics and the Order of Love. Others find Augustine presenting a distinctively Christian way to engage in political life, for instance Charles Mathewes’s A Theology of Public Life. For a complex treatment of both these views, see Oliver O’Donovan’s loosely related trilogy, Resurrection and Moral Order, The Desire of the Nations, and The Ways of Judgment.

There are several modern translations of the City of God. The daily readings link to the public domain text by Marcus Dods. New Century Press’s twenty-first century translation of Augustine has a two-volume paperback edition of City of God. R. W. Dyson produced a lucid, readable translation for the Cambridge History of Political Thought. And Penguin Press offers a very affordable modern translation by Henry Bettenson.

Coming in Four Weeks . . .

Detail of Saint Augustine (1650) by Philippe de Champaigne. The flaming heart, symbolizing Augustine’s passionate writings, spiritual affections, and thematic emphasis on love, is a common symbol of Augustine in western art.

Our reading plan has guided us through the works of both towering and obscure figures in the history of Christianity, from ethereal Greek theologians, to desert monks, to Romanist lawyers. Four weeks from today, we begin the end of our reading plan with one of the most prolific, profound, yet deeply human theologians of western Christianity, Augustine of Hippo.

Biographies of Augustine and introductions to his work are abundant both on- and offline, and we will begin, appropriately, with the Confessions, Augustine’s highly influential autobiography. As always, our daily reading plan will link to free and public domain translations from Series I of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. But there are many more recent, excellent, and in many cases affordable, translations of Augustine’s work. From time to time Read the Fathers will gather these translations in an introductory post, pointing readers to editions that may be more readable or simply different from the 19th-century translations.

Now is an excellent time to invite friends, study groups, and Sunday schools to read along. Whether you’ve been a faithful reader, an occasional passerby, or a newcomer to the fathers, we welcome restless hearts of all kinds to join, subscribe to daily e-mails, or follow us on social media.

Year Five Calendar Available

To our e-mail subscribers: When we were preparing the daily posts for the coming year, we accidentally posted about a dozen of them. You probably received an e-mail for each of them. Please accept our apologies for our mistake.

Year five of Read the Fathers is upon us, as Advent begins for the western church this coming Sunday, November 27. We have posted the calendar of readings for the coming year. We hope that you have had a good year reading along with us. And if you are just joining us, welcome.

This coming year we will read the letters and sermons of Leo the Great (400–461); the Rule of Gregory the Great (540–604) as well as his letters; and the hymns of Ephrem the Syrian (306–373). But the primary author on our reading list is Augustine (354–430). We will read his letters, ConfessionsThe City of GodOn Christian Doctrine, and On the Trinity, along with a host of smaller works. It promises to be a great year, and we hope these readings will encourage you in your faith.

Year Four of Read the Fathers Begins Today

Today is the First Sunday in Advent, so we begin the fourth year of Read the Fathers. We have had a blessed year of reading. Thank you to all who have joined us. In the coming year we will continue reading from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series. We are currently in the midst of reading Jerome’s letters, and we look forward to reading more from the Cappadocians, Ambrose, and John Cassian with you next year. Advent is a great time to start new practices in disciplined reading and meditation, so please invite any friends, classes, or church groups that you think would like to join.

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Eusebius of Caesarea

Eusebius of Caesarea

Eusebius of Caesarea

Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260 – c. 341) was the most significant of the early historians of the church. His Ecclesiastical History was a chronicle of Christianity from Jesus to Constantine’s success in taking over the Roman Empire. Eusebius himself played a role in the most significant event of Christianity in the fourth century. As the bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius was one of the leaders of the semi-Arian party. He wrote about the events of his own day in his Life of Constantine. As historian and participant, Eusebius was vital to the transition of the Christian church from proscribed sect to dominant religion.

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Year 3 in Prospect: The Year of Church History

We are about to enter the season of Advent and with it the third year of reading the fathers.

Our first two years covered a wide range of ante-Nicene Christianity. We’ve read Origen, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Cyprian, Ignatius of Antioch, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, the other Apostolic Fathers, other apologists, and a host of early Christian documents from the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas to some of the gnostic pseudo-gospels.

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The Angel Beat Him

In recent months we’ve been reading a lot of non-canonical works and apocalyptic texts. The use that NT Wright makes of pre-Christian non-canonical works has made me appreciate the value of reading these Christian apocalyptic works, though I freely admit that some of them are a bit of a slog. But this one line from a few days ago brought a laugh:

At what time was this revelation made?  In the consulship of Theodosius Augustus the Younger and Cynegius, a certain nobleman then living in Tharsus, in the house which was that of Saint Paul, an angel appearing in the night revealed to him, saying that he should open the foundations of the house and should publish what he found, but he thought that these things were dreams.

But the angel coming for the third time beat him and forced him to open the foundation.  And digging he found a marble box, inscribed on the sides; there was the revelation of Saint Paul, and his shoes in which he walked teaching the word of God.

Year 3 Calendar Posted

The Read the Fathers home office has been rather quiet recently, not least because we have been busy writing and/or defending a couple of PhDs among us, plus other more significant life changes. But we have put together year 3 of the calendar which will begin this coming Advent (Nov. 30, 2014). Please note that we’ve elected to begin this third year with the second series, rather than the first series, of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. (That’s the blue instead of the green volumes.) The first series is exclusively Ss. Augustine and Chrysostom, while the second series contains a great many more fathers. Though we certainly don’t have anything against reading the Doctor of Grace and the Golden-Mouthed Preacher, we think you’ll appreciate getting to know a wider variety of patristic writings in year 3. It promises to be a rich year. The list includes Eusebius’s Church History, as well as other ecclesiastical histories by Socrates Scholasticus, Salaminius Sozomenus, and Theodoret. We also have some of the greatest writers of the church, among them Jerome, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nyssa. (This year will feature some of the Eastern fathers, who are regrettably scarce in the NPNF volumes.)

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This week we will finish reading Origen and begin reading Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170–236). With Hippolytus we begin the fifth volume of the Ante Nicene Fathers, and as it happens, Hippolytus will take us to the end of the first year of reading down to the day.


A statue discovered in Rome in 1551 and identified as Hippolytus

A statue discovered in Rome in 1551 and identified as Hippolytus

Hippolytus flourished at the beginning of the third century. Some date his birth to around 170, though this detail like so many others in his life is uncertain. Hippolytus wrote in Greek, not Latin, and he may have been lived for a time in Alexandria or Asia Minor. It is possible that he was a disciple of Irenaeus, with whom he shares a theological affinity. Hippolytus was most likely a presbyter—that is, a priest, but also a leader tasked with the governance of the church under the authority of the bishop—in Rome under Popes Victor I (r. 189–199), Zephyrinus (r. 199–217), and Callixtus I (r. 217–222/23). Some ancient but not contemporary sources refer to Hippolytus as a bishop, variously of Rome, Porta, Bostra, or of an unidentified place.

But it is likely that Hippolytus was not actually a bishop, but an anti-pope. Beginning during the reign of Zephyrinus, Hippolytus become involved in controversies over Christology and church discipline, taking the side against the bishop of Rome and most of the church. He was a particularly bitter opponent of the deacon Callixtus, whom he later described as “a man cunning in wickedness, and subtle where deceit was concerned, (and) who was impelled by restless ambition to mount the episcopal throne” (Refutation of All Heresies, 9.6–7). Hippolytus accused Callistus of bribing, flattering, and manipulating Zephyrinus during his life, then succeeding him as bishop of Rome after his death. It is possible, though uncertain, that Hippolytus allowed himself to be elected as a bishop of the opponents of Callixtus and so set himself up as an anti-pope.

The grounds of the dispute between Callixtus and Hippolytus were many. Callixtus was willing to restore lapsed Christians, even those guilty of grave sins, to clerical office; Hippolytus favored a rigorous church discipline with little room for restoration (in this respect, not unlike the Donatists later). Callixtus was accused of allowing re-married Christians to be priests or deacons; Hippolytus thought this scandalous. Hippolytus writes that during Callixtus’s episcopate, “second baptism was for the first time presumptuously attempted by them,” a charge perhaps related to disputes over who could be readmitted to the church. Callixtus apparently permitted marriages between slaves and free Christians; Hippolytus regarded these unions between social unequals, which did not have the sanction of civil law, as mere concubinage. Of course, since we have only Hippolytus’s side of these accusations, they must be viewed critically and with uncertainty.

By 235, Hippolytus had been exiled to Sardinia by the emperor of Rome, where he died. The legendary account that comes down to us from Prudentius that he died by being drawn between horses is certainly untrue, and is probably based on the mythical Greek figure Hippolytus, about whom Euripedes wrote a play. At some point he must have been reconciled to the bishop of Rome and the Catholic Church, because his body was returned to Rome and buried by the Christians. He was honored as a saint by the Western church, but because his writings were in Greek rather than Latin, he was primarily remembered by the Eastern church.


The controversy between Hippolytus and Callixtus was highly theological. As the writings of all early Christians attest, heresies and schisms were everywhere in the third century, and one problem that was troubling the church at Rome was the problem of accurately stating the doctrine of the Trinity. Hippolytus accused Zephyrinus of being soft on, and Callixtus of holding outright, the heresy of modalism, which emphasizes the unity of the Godhead to the exclusion of distinguishing between the Father and the Son. For this reason, the heresy is sometimes called patripassianism, since it makes the impassible Father suffer on the cross with Christ. Callixtus in turn accused Hippolytus of being a bi-theist, that is, of making so firm a distinction between the persons of the Trinity as to render the unity of God meaningless.

Hippolytus held to a theology of the Logos, like that of Irenaeus, Justin, and other authors that we have read, though he tended to disdain pagan philosophy. Hippolytus distinguished between the Word as the rational principle in the mind of God, and the Word as the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Hippolytus thought of the Father and Word as distinct to the point that he thought of the Word as subordinate to the Father. By the standards of clarity possible a century and a half later after the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381), his method of distinguishing between the Word and the Father must be regarded as inadequately precise and at various points misguided. But his writings on this topic are chiefly useful for demonstrating how the church over several centuries came to clearly teach the doctrine of the Trinity.

The legendary martyrdom of Hippolytus

The legendary martyrdom of Hippolytus


We will primarily be reading Hippolytus’s book Refutation of All Heresies, with some fragments from his biblical commentaries and other apologetic works. Hippolytus wrote many works, some of which survive only in fragments or in translations into languages other than Greek, and for many of these texts the attribution is contested.

The Refutation of All Heresies is a work in ten books, of which book 1 and books 4–10 survive. The work is a systematic refutation of different heretics, beginning with the Greek and Egyptian philosophers, then continuing through to the Gnostics in the bulk of the book. This book is important to historians of philosophy because Hippolytus preserves fragments of works that would not otherwise be known. The book is important for our purposes as an apologetic text, as one answer to the recurring question of the relationship between the church and philosophy, and also for its positive statement of Christian doctrine in book 10. The central argument of the work is that heretics owe more to pagan philosophy than they do to the revelation that is in Jesus Christ. In taking this position Hippolytus is much closer to Tertullian in his opposition to philosophers than Justin, who was a himself a philosopher, or Clement of Alexandria, who thought the Christian was the true gnostic.

An especially intriguing work—though the authorship is disputed—is The Apostolic Tradition, written around 215 and not re-discovered until the nineteenth-century. This work describes the liturgy as it functioned in Rome, including prayers offered during the sacraments. The work also describes the three-fold offices of the church: bishop, presbyter, and deacon. Because of Hippolytus’s association with this work, other canons of church law have also been attributed to him, often wrongly. We will not be reading The Apostolic Tradition at this juncture, because the document was discovered too late for our nineteenth-century editors, but interested can easily find a copy of the text online.

Further Reading

Hippolytus has been neglected by scholars compared to the other fathers that we have read. Alistair Stewart-Sykes has edited a text with commentary of the Apostolic Tradition for the excellent Popular Patristics Series from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. The text of a different edition of the Apostolic Tradition is also available online. For the difficult problem of the authorship of Hippolytus, see J. A. Cerrato, Hippolytus Between East and West (Oxford, 2002).

Acknowledging Books Received


From time to time publishers are kind enough to send books to the Read the Fathers home office in hopes that we will review them. While we cannot review them as promptly as I’d like, nevertheless I want to acknowledge receipt of the books and let you know about the titles in case you’re interested. These are the four we’ve received most recently:

A few very general comments. First, I have the great respect for both InterVarsity Press and Paulist Press (and for that matter, for InterVarsity and the Paulists). Papandrea’s book looks like a very helpful introduction to authors and texts, as well as to the general history of the early Patristic era. Goggin and Strobel’s book is a collection of essays about how to read as an evangelical. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is a fine series that crafts a commentary on the biblical text from quotations from the Fathers. Many modern biblical commentaries are just more and more of the same: the ACCS is really a commentary of a different source altogether. It is particularly valuable in the Psalms, since many commentaries are more interested in matters of poetic form and Hebrew grammar than in Christological readings of the Psalms.

I hope I’ll have time to give a fuller review of these books over the summer.

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