Born on November 13, 354 CE, St. Augustine was consecrated as the assistant bishop of Hippo at age 42. A year later in 397 CE he took over as the bishop when the previous bishop died. That same year St. Augustine began writing Confessions detailing the first thirty-three years of his life from birth to shortly after his conversion to Christianity at age 32. The book is, in short, a “personal document and statement of faith” written to the people of Hippo so that they would know a little more about their new bishop.
The first three books of St. Augustine’s Confessions describe Augustine’s early childhood schooling and eventual profession as a teacher of rhetoric. Book four finds him searching for answers about truth and the purpose of life. Though his mother taught him about Christianity, he dismisses the religion in favor of astrology and the beliefs of the Manichees.
The fifth book of Confessions finds Augustine questioning the beliefs of the Manichees as they do not line up with his understanding of science and logic. During this time he takes a teaching position in Milan where he meets St. Ambrose, the local bishop. Through listening to St. Ambrose, Augustine begins to hear that the Old Testament passages could be “figuratively explained” rather than literally interpreted. This opened up a new realm of understanding for Augustine that eventually lead him to accepting Christianity.
The next three books (books six through eight) covers approximately two years in St. Augustine’s life and walks the reader through his spiritual journey into Christianity. In these books, he describes the various philosophical issues he had with Christianity and how he overcame them. Towards the end of the eighth book, Augustine describe the now famous scene in which he hears the words, “Take it and read, take it and read,” that compels him to pick up the Scriptures and read Romans 13:13-14. This was the turning point in Augustine’s life when he, at the age of 32, gives his life to Jesus and converts to Christianity.
The ninth book of St. Augustine’s Confessions describes his preparation for baptism as well as the changes happening within his life. Influenced by the life of St. Anthony of Egypt, Augustine and several of his friends decide to embrace a monastic life. Accordingly Augustine calls off the wedding his mother had arranged for him and, instead, dives deeper into the Christian faith.
The remaining four books within Confessions are less autobiographical and more theological in nature. The tenth book deals with memories and the ability of one to master temptations through the grace of God. Books eleven through thirteen are an exposition on the first chapter of Genesis. Interestingly enough, these later chapters show the way in which St. Augustine was able to embrace the Old Testament Scriptures. Rather than viewing Genesis chapter one as a literal record of creation, he interpreted the chapter allegorically. In this way, Augustine was able to blend the science and logic he studied as a young man with his new faith in Jesus.
Though St. Augustine’s Confessions was written over sixteen hundred years ago, the story contained within its pages could have happened today in any modern city. Augustine’s love of science, logic and material entertainment are part and parcel for a lot of people alive today. His rejection of Christianity due to a literal reading of the Old Testament is also a common stumbling block today. If anything, the testimony of St. Augustine should tell us that people are people and there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9). It should also calm the Bible wars of the modern era as God clearly worked mightily through means that a lot of us would reject (i.e. a non-literal reading of the Scriptures).