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Origen

origen

Icon of Origen

From the Latin West we now return to the Greek-speaking East and begin reading from one of the most influential fathers of Alexandrian school, Origen, who lived from around 185 to 255. Origen was a skilled textual scholar and prolific writer of theology and biblical commentary. Though some of his theological speculations garnered criticism in later ages, Origen’s ideas—and his style of interpreting scripture allegorically—strongly influenced many of the other fathers of the third and fourth centuries.

Biography

Origen was born to Christian parents, and his father was likely killed in the same wave of persecution that led to Clement’s martyrdom. Origen was well-education and well-traveled, and after Clement’s death he established a catechetical school in Alexandria similar to the one Clement had run. Origen’s fame as a teacher attracted the attention of the wealthy courtier Ambrose of Alexandria, who under Origen’s guidance gave up his Valentinian faith and joined the orthodox fold. Ambrose became life-long friends with Origen and financed the copying and distribution of Origen’s works. We thus have Ambrose to thank for many of our readings. After falling out with the bishop of Alexandria, who objected to an irregularity in Origen’s ordination, Origen relocated to Caesarea of Palestine in 232 and re-established his school there. Though Origen persevered unscathed through the major persecutions of Severus (192–203) and Maximus Thrax (235–38), he was caught and tortured during the Decian persecution (249–53) and died a couple years later from his wounds.

Perhaps owing to his notoriety and the theological and ecclesiastical controversies he provoked, a number of colorful stories circulated about Origen during his life. Eusebius, for instance, reports the story that Origen would willingly have gone out to suffer persecution along with his father in 202, but could not leave the house because his mother hid all of his clothes. Eusebius also reports that as part of his rigidly ascetic personal discipline, Origen castrated himself. Scholars are divided on whether the great proponent of allegorical interpretation would have actually taken a passage like Matthew 19:12 so literally, or whether the rumor came from Origen’s detractors in Alexandria.

Works

"Origenes," in Numeros Homilia XXVII, Schäftlarn Monastery (ca. 1160)

“Origenes,” in Numeros Homilia XXVII, Schäftlarn Monastery (ca. 1160)

We will return to some of Origen’s exegetical writings at the end of Year 2. For now we will be reading the dogmatic work On First Principles (De Principiis) and the apologetic work Against Celsus. The De Principiis, written at Alexandria, is an early instance of Christian systematic theology—that is, it aims to lay out the foundation of the Christian faith, not to attack any particular heresy or defend any particular disputed point of orthodoxy. It proceeds in its four books to treat on the doctrine of God, the material world, man and free will, and scripture and methods of interpretation.

Against Celsus, written towards the end of Origen’s life, is—like similar apologetics from Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian—a careful, point-by-point refutation of the writings of Celsus, a scornful Platonic philosopher. Whereas the other apologists often combated apostates and heretics, to argue against an unbeliever Origen liberally included references to Greek literature and Platonic thought, which provided a rational grounding to Christian faith.

Theology

Origen’s theology is grounded in a high regard for both scripture and ecclesiastical tradition. Though Origen has been justly criticized for resorting to allegorical interpretation too often in his exegesis, he nevertheless was a skilled grammarian and textual critic, whose regard for the inspiration and authority of scripture made him one of the most brilliant early scholars of scripture. His famous Hexapla replicated Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible side by side for comparison, and Origen’s views on the New Testament canon largely accorded with the list of twenty-seven books that would be established in the fourth century. The De Principiis opens with the affirmation that “as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. Origen followed this rule closely in his writings, frequently citing scripture or apostolic tradition.

A fragment of Origen's Hexapla

A fragment of Origen’s Hexapla

Three strands of Origen’s thought were gradually enlarged upon by Origen’s closest students and condemned as the Origenist System at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 554, though Origen himself was not anathematized by the Church. First was the principle of allegorical interpretation. While the rules of interpretation—essentially that scripture must be interpreted in a manner worthy of God—may have been unobjectionable, in the application made by Origen and his later followers, a number of Old Testament passages that offended Greek culture in late antiquity were interpreted beyond recognition.

As Origen was one of the earliest Greek thinkers to tackle the subject of the Trinity in his theological writings, his language was occasionally less precise than what fourth-century orthodoxy would demand. In later years both Athanasius and the Cappodocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus) would defend Origen’s orthodoxy, but Origen’s terminology was nevertheless employed by some who insisted on an essential difference between the Father and the Son.

The most controversial view—and one clearly entertained by Origen in the De Principiis-–concerns the origin and destiny of rational souls. Origen postulated that though God created everything, he created from eternity. In other words, there was no fixed moment of time at which God began creating. This eternal creation included all rational souls, some of which became angels and some demons, while the rest of the pre-existent souls waited to be born into fleshly bodies. On the other side of eternity, Origen, like Clement before him, affirmed a belief in apokatastasis, a final restoration of all in Christ, including the unregenerate. How strongly Origen held these views is unclear: many of his exegetical writings contradict his musings from the De Principiis, and Origen later flatly denied that he believed the devil would be ultimately restored.

Alternate Editions and Further Reading

Readers hoping to understand Origen without the encumbrances of nineteenth-century translation may wish to consult G. W. Butterworth’s translation of On First Principles and Henry Chadwick’s Contra Celsum. The Paulist Press has produced an anthology translated by Rowan Greer that includes the fourth volume of De Principiis.

Those interested in the details of Origen’s theology may be interested in Han Urs van Balthasar’s systematically anthologized edition of Origen’s writings, Spirit and Fire, translated from Bathasar’s German by Robert J. Daly.

For further reading on Origen’s life and thought, see Joseph Trigg’s study or Ronald Heine’s Scholarship in the Service of the ChurchA particularly nuanced study of Origen’s allegorical method of interpreting scripture is History and Spirit by Henri de Lubac, S.J.

Clement of Alexandria

Icon of Clement

Icon of Clement

The life and career of Titus Flavius Clement mark the ascendancy of Alexandrian theology. Whereas Clement’s contemporary, the sarcastic Latin lawyer Tertullian (whom we read next) famously asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” the Alexandrians answered that pagan philosophy had a vital role to play in bringing the world to Christian faith. For better or worse, Clement had an almost reckless confidence that pagan philosophy was the underpinning of Christian truth, so that Christ fulfilled not only the law of Moses but also the myriad attempts of pagan thought to discern the immutable nature of all things true, good, and beautiful.

Biography

Clement was born to wealthy pagans in Athens sometime in the middle of the second century. Given the breadth of learning displayed in his writings, he was undoubtedly well traveled. We learn from an autobiographical brief in Stromateis 1.2 that his education under a variety of teachers took him from Greece to southern Italy to Egypt, where his career as a student of Christian philosophy seems to have begun upon meeting Pantaenus (c. 180), the master of the catechetical school in Alexandria at that time. (Clement’s intellectual pilgrimage is reminiscent of that of Justin  Martyr). The learned circles of Alexandria at the time melded Hellenistic and Judaic religious sensibility, which is evident in Clement’s thought. Clement became the master of the Alexandrian school around 190. According to tradition, Clement suffered martyrdom during the persecution under Septimius Severus sometime after 203.

Clement was the teacher of Origen (whom we will read later), the third-century Egyptian prodigy who popularized the Alexandrian approach to theology, in particular its exegesis. Clement failed to attain to universal acclaim in later Christendom despite his martyrdom. His pupil Origen  suffered posthumous condemnation at the second council of Constantinople in 553, and the eclecticism of Clement’s theological works led Photius of Constantinople to criticize them sharply in the ninth century. Clement all but disappeared from western calendars by the seventeenth century, having achieved little recognition except among the non-Chalcedonian churches of the east, such as the Coptic church.

Clement thus stands as a threshold figure, representing a passage from the era of the apostolic charism of theological intuition and the vigor of the apologists to an age of intellectual acuity and precise theological definition. In Clement, we finally begin to see Christianity “plunder the Egyptians,” taking pagan philosophy captive and turning it to its own purposes, which culminated in the first three general councils and the formulae of Nicea ratified at Constantinople.

Works

Clement is best known for three principle works: the Protrepticus (“Exhortation to the Greeks”), the Pedagogus (“The Instructor”), and the Stromateis (“Miscellanies”). In addition, “Who is the Rich Man who Shall be Saved?” is a surviving work of Clement’s, written to exhort some of his wealthier Christian students not to despair over their salvation, and to maintain a disposition toward riches in keeping with that taught in the gospel. There are numerous “lost” works by Clement, the one worth mentioning being the Hypotyposes, or “Outlines,” which, according to Photius, was an “impious” work of esoteric speculation about the heavenly hierarchies.

The Exhortation to the Greeks is a polemic against pagan thought. Clement here strives to demonstrate the utter undesirability of pagan religion and theology, and to encourage his Greek audience to abandon the ignorant worship of malignant and misanthropic deities  in favor of the worship of the true God of Christianity. The Instructor is a reflection of somewhat less consequence, which focuses on the practical elements of Christian discipleship. Here we see Clement not as a polemicist but as a tutor, schooling his audience in the basics of  the moral life and Christian piety.

The Miscellanies is a work of tremendous scope and varied interests; it seems to be more a sketchbook of thoughts than a theological treatise with a unified intention. Nevertheless, it is from this work that we encounter Clement’s overall theological perspective.  The work is an attempt to develop a Christian gnosticism. The Miscellanies, therefore, brings Clement more fully into view as a metaphysician and speculative theologian.

Theology

The most noteworthy element of Clement’s theology is his belief that philosophy is as divine a preparation for the gospel as the law and the prophets of the Old Testament (cf. Strom. 1.5, 20). Whereas many of Christendom’s most prolific writers, such as Tertullian and Hippolytus, had been trying to pin heresy on the influence of Greek philosophy among Christians, Clement sees in philosophy the prospect of a “preliminary cleansing” which prepares students to receive the faith. So we see that Clement’s eclecticism did have a conservative purpose: not to sow pagan tares in the midst of Christian wheat, as it were, but rather to till the soil of paganism such till it was capable of finding its fulfillment in Christ. Hence, Clement proposes a version of “gnosticism” that is quite Christian: theology is the culmination of a course of study which ascends the heights of mystical truth by way of the pedagogy of pagan thought.We must note that for Clement, the successful student will outgrow the pedagogue: therefore, Clement’s eclecticism is best understood not as an affirmation of the efficacy of paganism to convey the truth, but rather as an affirmation of the gospel to make better sense of paganism than paganism can make of itself.

Clement of Alexandria, engraving from Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz by Andre Thevet (1584)

Clement of Alexandria, engraving from Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz by Andre Thevet (1584)

In speculating about apokatastasis, or “restoration,” Clement is the first known Christian writer to refer to the fire of hell as a purifying fire, a “wise fire that penetrates the soul” (Strom. 7.6). So it is that the wrath of God is understood by Clement as remedial, even therapeutic: “God does not take vengeance, which is the requital of evil for evil, but he chastises for the benefit of the chastised” (Strom. 7.16). The chastisement of divine wrath is intended as an aid in the divine therapy of man’s deification, the end toward which knowledge (gnosis) is most expedient. For knowledge of God presupposes conformity to God’s very self, and conformity to God is the sum of salvation. According to Clement, it seems that all rational beings, by virtue of their rationality, when they encounter the divine substance in the form of a consuming fire, will invariably somehow be brought to genuine gnosis, to conformity to divine truth, in the end. While the universalist implications of this teaching would be condemned in 553, we will see the idea of apokatastasis recur in the writings of several other eastern church fathers, particularly Gregory of Nyssa.

Finally, Clement may be credited as an early proponent of the fourfold interpretation of Scripture (cf. Strom. 1.27). It is not necessary to develop this point very much, as Origen is the Alexandrian exegete most notable for his allegorical interpretations. Let it suffice to say that Clement’s use of Scripture is influenced by his bent towards metaphysics, yet, as is most common with early Christian allegory, his conservative method results in very little overt mishandling of the biblical texts.

Alternate Editions and Further Reading

There has been a re-publication of the ANF translation in an affordable volume edited by Paul A. Boer. The Loeb Classical Library has published a critical edition, both in Greek and in English, of the “Exhortation to the Greeks,” “The Rich Man’s Salvation,” and a fragment titled “To the Newly Baptized” (trans. G. W. Butterworth). Complete editions of Clement’s three major works might easily be found distributed by smaller publishers individually, but substantial excerpts and helpful commentary can also be found in the Library of Christian Classics volume Alexandrian Christianity (ed. Henry Chadwick) and in Henry Bettenson’s The Early Christian Fathers.

Eric Osborn has published a study of Clement’s synthesis of the apostolic faith and classical philosophy in Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, 2008), and the series of Oxford Early Christian Studies has published an interesting Orthodox take on Clement’s apophatic mystical theology, Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism. Also, for an enjoyable apologia for the Alexandrian allegorical method as well for the eclecticism of Alexandrian fathers such as Clement and Origin, see John Henry Newman’s The Arians of the Fourth Century, a dated yet pertinent work regarding Alexandrian dominance at the creative edge of Christian theology.

 

Justin the Martyr

Icon of Justin Martyr

Our next author, Justin, lived from about A.D. 100 to 165 and was thus a contemporary to most of the Apostolic Fathers from whom we just read. Justin, however, had no direct contact with apostles, and so he is often classed with Irenaeus and Athenagoras (whom we will read next) as one of the early apologists—a defender (ἀπολογία) of Christian belief to the outside world.

Biography

Most of what we know of Justin’s life comes from his own writings, so we will encounter biographic details as we read. Though Justin was born in northern Palestine, he was a Gentile who was well educated in Greek language, literature, and philosophy. After finding dissatisfaction with Stoic, Aristotelian, Pythagorean, and Platonic philosophers, Justin converted to Christianity, strongly influenced by the bold and gracious witness of Christian martyrs.

Justin ever thought of himself as a philosopher, and after his conversion he continued to wear the distinctive robes of a philosopher and set up his own school of philosophy in Rome, where he defended his faith both in writing and in oral debate. After one such debate during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Justin’s opponent Crescens, a Cynic, denounced him to the Roman authorities, who beheaded him along with several of his companions. From the transcript of the trial, Justin retained the honorific appellation “the Martyr.”

Works

Justin wrote his First Apology while in Rome during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138–161), to whom the work is addressed. The apology defends Christians against the charges of atheism (based on the Christian refusal to worship the gods of Rome) and of ritualistic brutality (based on rumors surrounding the Eucharist). Justin’s detailed explanation of Christian belief and ritual offer a fascinating glimpse of early church worship.

Justin Martyr, engraving from André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584

Justin addressed a Second Apology to the Roman Senate, from which only fragments survive.

Justin’s other major work is his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, composed in the 130s. Although the early church historian Eusebius believed the debate to be a real event with a historic rabbi from Ephesus, more recent scholars are inclined to think the dialogue is merely a literary device Justin used in order to lay out his argument that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled Messianic prophecy (although a recent work by Timothy Horner revives the argument for the historicity of Trypho).

For the other works included in our collection, Discourse to the Greeks, Address to the Greeks, On the Sole Government of God, and On the Resurrection, Justin’s authorship is highly doubtful. Only On the Resurrection has any real chance of being originally written by Justin, and only fragments of that work remain. Like the spurious epistles of Ignatius, however, these works are nevertheless examples of early Christian writings, as each was composed around the turn of the third century.

Theology

Justin’s Apologies and Dialogue neatly map out the two cultural poles through which early Christianity navigated: the philosophy of the Greeks and the religion of the Jews, and aspects of both are captured in the concept of the Logos, the foundation of Justin’s theology.

Justin Martyr stained glass from the Church of St. Mary the Great, Cambridge (Credit: Lawrence OP / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND)

Logos (λόγος) is often translated word in English versions of the New Testament, most prominently in John 1:1–14 (a cherished text during this season of Advent). The Greek term carries a much broader meaning, however, akin to the English term rationality. In Stoic strands of Greek philosophy, the Logos was understood as a rational force that ordered the universe and was present in every human being. During the time of Christ, the Alexandrian Jew Philo likewise employed the term, explaining the Logos as the “reason of God” through which the universe was created.

Justin is clearly familiar with Stoic philosophy of the Logos and with the Apostle John’s additional teaching that the Logos was personally identifiable with God himself yet also fully tabernacled in a particular human being. Justin recurs often to the doctrine of the Logos to puzzle about how Christ the Logos could be both God and yet distinct in some way from the Father. He also uses the concept to argue against the Greek philosophers that Christianity, rather than representing just the religion of the poor and ignorant, is actually the highest and greatest of all philosophies.

As the Dialogue makes clear, Christians in the second century continued to wrestle with their relationship to Judaism. In arguing for the incarnation of the Logos to Trypho, Justin quotes liberally from the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek), and he argues that Moses and the prophets foretold one who would set aside the law of the Jews and replace it with a law that was superior, universal, and eternal—the law of Christ.

Justin also quotes from what he calls the “memoirs of the Apostles,” identified at one point in the Apology as the “gospels.” Justin clearly relies on John’s teaching about the Logos, and he draws at length either on the other three gospels or on a single volume that harmonizes them (similar to Tatian’s Diatessaron, which we will read). In his Dialogue, Justin assumes their authority, treating them the same as the passages he cited from the Old Testament Scriptures.

Alternate Editions

If you happen to reside near a well-endowed academic library, you may have access to the Oxford Early Christian Texts volume of Justin’s Apologies, which represents the best of recent scholarship on the Greek manuscripts and presents the Apologies in a Greek-English diglot.

For those simply seeking a more modern English translation, Thomas Falls provides a useful volume covering all of Justin’s writings, including the apocryphal works. Falls’s work on the Dialogue has recently been updated in a new volume by Thomas Halton.

Other recent translations of the Apologies are Leslie William Barnard’s for the Ancient Christian Writers series, and E.R. Hardy’s for Early Christian Fathers, a volume that includes most of the Apostolic Fathers literature and a selection from Irenaeus (our next reading) in addition to the First Apology.

The Apostolic Fathers

Saint Polycarp, seventeenth-century engraving by Michael Burghers

We begin our reading with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the traditional name for the authors of the oldest extant Christian literature outside the New Testament. This diverse group of writers—several of them anonymous—lived and wrote during or shortly after the time of the apostles themselves, and their writings reflect a concern for church authority after the passing of Christ’s first disciples.

Biography

The Apostolic Fathers whose names we know were all leaders in the early church, and some corresponded with one another. Clement led the church in Rome during the late first century. Origen (whom we’ll read later this year) speculated that he may have been the Clement named by Paul in Philippians 4:3, but no details of his biography are known. Polycarp was the bishop of the church in Smyrna for several decades around the start of the second century. He was a central figure who helped Christians navigate the perils of state-sponsored persecution, and he died a martyr at the age of eighty-six years old. Ignatius, a close associate of Polycarp, led the church in Antioch. In his letters Ignatius expresses an almost macabre yearning for martyrdom, perhaps attempting to steel himself for inevitable persecution or overstating his example to his flock. Ignatius was indeed martyred in the early second century during the Emperor Trajan’s reign. Finally, Papias presided as bishop of Hierapolis. A contemporary of Polycarp and reputed (by Irenaeus) to be a disciple of the Apostle John, Papias authored a popular work that exists only in small fragments today.

Places of origin and destinations of the Apostolic Fathers’ writings (Rome excluded)

Virtually nothing is known about the author or recipient of the Epistle to Diognetus or the so-called Epistle of Barnabas. The former is the earliest recorded instance of Christian apology (defense of the faith), while the latter takes up the issue of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism, engaging in the sort of allegorical interpretation of scripture that became popular in Alexandria in the following centuries. Eight other letters attributed to Ignatius were not actually written by him, but because they were written in or before the sixth century, they are included in our reading as a useful example of later Christian arguments against heresy.

Works

Clement’s sole surviving work is his Epistle to the Corinthians, which he wrote probably during the 90s to deal with many of the same problems that the Apostle Paul had addressed in the church.Likewise, only one letter of Polycarp’s survives, the Epistle to the Philippians, written apparently after the Philippians requested that Polycarp instruct them on the topic of righteousness. The letter mentions the recent death of Ignatius, thus dating it in the early 100s.

Icon of Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius wrote his seven authentic Epistles while traveling under armed guard to Rome to face martyrdom (again, in the early 100s). In the ANF edition, we recommend giving closer attention to what are called the “shorter” versions of the epistles. Modern scholars know these as the “middle recension” and regard them the authentic epistles. The “long” version is a later interpolation, perhaps by the same person who wrote the spurious epistles, while the Syriac versions reflect a later, shorter redaction (now called the “short recension”).

The fragments from Papias come from his work Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord, written around 130. The Epistle of Barnabas likely comes from the first half of the second century, the Epistle to Diognetus from the second half.

Several works that properly belong to the literature of the Apostolic Fathers are not on our schedule for these first few weeks but will appear later (largely because they were discovered and translated as the ANF was being compiled in the nineteenth century). Those works include II Clement, the Didache, fragments from Quadratus, and the Shepherd of Hermas, all of which will be further introduced when we come to them in our reading.

Theology

Although the need to define themselves against the traditions of Judaism and the scrutiny of an increasingly aggressive state occupies some of their attention, a central theme running through the writings of the Apostolic Fathers is the search for church unity and authority, especially when direct appeal can no longer be made to one of Christ’s original apostles. For Clement and Ignatius, the office of the bishop is critical to resolving this problem. By apostolic appointment (in Clement’s view), or by his position as the representative of God in the church (in Ignatius’s view), the bishop is cloaked with authority to heal divisions within the assembly and to constitute the unity of the church.

A Vision of the Trinity, painted around 1735 by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Because Archbishop Clemens August commissioned the painting, Tiepolo depicted his namesake Clement of Rome as the one beholding the Trinity.

In this vein, internal strife and division within the churches attract much more attention than external threats of persecution or false philosophy. “Harmony” [ομονοια] is a key recurring term in Clement’s epistle, and Clement actually invokes the harmonious governance of Rome as a positive example for the church. Ignatius impresses on his readers that unity is the distinguishing mark of the true faith, while Polycarp instructs the Philippians that righteous belief is inseparable from righteous behavior, and the church must therefore be “joined together in the truth” as well as in “blameless conduct.”

One of the more fascinating elements in this search for authority is the light the Apostolic Fathers throw on the developing New Testament canon. In regulating Christian harmony, these writers clearly recognize and draw on the authority of the Hebrew Bible, particularly Genesis, Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets. While none of the Apostolic Fathers explicitly discusses the possibility of new scripture, each exhibits familiarity with texts that would eventually form the New Testament canon. Clement appears to consciously follow Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as a model. Polycarp and Ignatius both appear familiar with the epistles of Paul and, in the latter case, the gospel of Matthew. The boundaries of what may constitute sacred writings are not yet at all clear, however. Papias comments on the writing of Matthew, John, and the Revelation, all the while alluding to a larger oral tradition of Christ’s acts and teachings, only a part of which was written down (cf. John 21:25). Polycarp draws equally upon Clement’s Epistle as he does the writings of Paul, and he may well have been the one who first compiled the letters of Ignatius, perhaps with the intent to preserve sacred writ. As we read the Apostolic Fathers it should, however, become clear why later Christians ultimately retreated from including their writings in the New Testament canon.

Alternate Readings

For readers looking for a more modern translation of the Apostolic Fathers, we’ve already mentioned the work of Michael W. Holmes. Holmes has produced a parallel Greek-English edition as well as a less expensive English-only text.

Another recent translation is Maxwell Staniforth’s for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Writings series.

Among the other patristics series we’ve recommended, see Bart Ehrman’s two volumes for the Loeb Classical Library, Francis Glimm’s volume for the Fathers of the Church, or volume 1 and volume 6 of the Ancient Christian Writers. These works also contain lengthier critical introductions to the Apostolic Fathers, with bibliographies.

An Introduction to the Confessions on the Feast of Augustine

St Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, 1645–50.

Today the liturgical churches of western Christianity commemorate the life of Augustine, bishop of Hippo and doctor of the church.1 At our home we are having a feast tonight because our hearts have been made glad in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which we have come to understand better because of Augustine.

The first book I read from the early church was Augustine’s Confessions—a common choice, since the Confessions are almost certainly the best known book from Christian antiquity. One could even make the argument that no book (in the western world, at least) has been more significant in shaping the way that modern people think about the self.2 The book takes the shape of an extended prayer, in which Augustine confesses his sins and acknowledges God’s goodness. And yet Augustine also intended this work as a confession ‘not unto Thee, my God; but before Thee unto my own kind, even to that small part of the human race who may chance to light upon these my writings.’ (2.3.5)

The entire work is rich both in explaining Augustine’s life viewed from faith and in confessing the God in whom he believed. Indeed, the theological richness of the work might be summed up in a phrase from another of Augustine’s works: Deus est qui deum dat’, ‘God is he who gives God’ (On the Trinity, 14.26.46). In the Confessions Augustine detects and acknowledges how God revealed himself even throughout Augustine’s waywardness and false belief, because ‘Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.’ (1.1.1)

And so I point you to four well-known and particularly insightful passages in the Confessions.

First, Augustine gives a clear-eyed explanation of the sinfulness of sin. In one passage, he describes stealing pears, though he had better pears of his own and only fed them to swine. (The parallels to the story of the fall in Genesis are not accidental.) Oliver Wendell Holmes dismissed the passage, writing, ‘Rum thing to see a man making a mountain of robbing a pear tree in his teens.’ But Augustine explains that to sin is to replace the love of God with the love of sin for its sinfulness. (Read 2.4 and 2.6.)

St Monica (331--387)

St Monica (331–387)

Second, the Confessions are noteworthy for their rich descriptions of Augustine’s human relationships, none of which is described with more detail and feeling than his relationship to his mother, Monica. In book 3, Monica has a dream that her son, who has become a Manichean heretic, will come to the true faith, symbolized in the dream by a wooden ruler which represents the ‘rule of faith’, or the creedal faith of the catholic church. She also pleads with a bishop to intervene with her son, whose word she takes as a prophetic utterance: ‘It is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.’ (Read 3.11 and 3.12.)

Third, both Monica’s dream and the bishop’s word come to pass when Augustine converts. In what is perhaps the most famous passage in the Confessions, Augustine describes how he heard a child’s voice in the garden saying, ‘Take up and read, take up and read’, and read from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. (Read 8.12.)

Fourth, in the Confessions Augustine expresses a kind of piety in which the believer returns to his heart, on which is written the law of God, and there finds God. In looking into one’s heart, one imitates the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Return to your heart, O ye transgressors, and cleave fast unto Him that made you. … Descend that ye may ascend, and ascend to God.’ It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of this passage for ‘heart religion’, which is the hallmark of most of Western Christianity from before the time of the Reformation, including Christians writers from such diverse traditions as Philipp Jakob Spener and Nicholas von Zinzendorf (Pietism), Jonathan Edwards (evangelicalism), and Ignatius of Loyola (Catholicism). (By the way, notice the heart that Augustine is holding in the portrait at the top of this post. The heart, which is aflame with love, transforms the mind and points to veritas.) (Read 4.12.)

If you plan to join us in reading the fathers of the church and want to read something before we officially begin, or if you do not intend to take on the full course of reading but would to read one book, I commend to you Augustine’s Confessions.

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