|COURSE: The Confessions of Saint Augustine. A Classic of Religious Literature
Fu Jen University, Taiwan
Few books in world literature have been as much read as the Confessions of Saint Augustine. The book is a true “classic” in the sense that it has no final, agreed-upon meaning, but is a rich text in which readers can always find new meanings. The classic status of the Confessions is threefold:
1. It is one of the central texts in the history of Christian literature;
2. It is an important book in the Western literary canon, even for those who are not of the Christian tradition. This is both because it is the greatest literary work of the late Roman Empire, and also because it has been so widely read in the West over the past fifteen centuries.
3. It is a monument of world literature, especially because of its exploration of the role of inner consciousness in the construction of human life.
This course is designed to introduce students to the reading of this classic book. It will be structured around a series of key questions that Augustine confronts as he tells his life story and its wider significance. Some, but not all of these questions, are listed below.
There are a number of English translations of the Confessions.
For this course we will use Saint Augustine. Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin (Penguin Books, 1961).
Other full translations include:
The Confessions of St. Augustine, translated by John K. Ryan (Image Books, 1960).
The Confessions of St. Augustine, translated by Rex Warner (New American Library, 1963)
The Works of Saint Augustine. A Translation for the 21st Century. PartI/1. Confessions, translated by Maria Boulding (New City Press, 1997)
St. Augustine: Confessions, translated by Henry Chadwick (Oxford, 1998)
In addition, the Loeb Classical Library published by Harvard has a two-volume St. Augustine’s Confessions, with a Latin text and facing translation by William Watts, first published in 1631.
B. Useful. The literature on the Confessions is very large, so I mention only a few works:
James J. O’Donnell, Augustine Confessions, 3 vols. (Clarendon Press, 1992). A indispensable work. Vol. I contains an edition, while Vols. II-III are an extensive commentary.
A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions, edd. Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy (John Knox Press, 2003). A book-by-book commentary by a number of noted Augustine scholars.
Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo. A Biography (University of California, 1967). Possibly the best modern book on Augustine. Parts I-II treat Augustine up to the time of the Conf.
III. Requirements for Course.
1. Attendance at all lectures.
2. Brief weekly paper (1 page) on the topic assigned by the lecturer.
3. Final paper (3-4 pages). Choice of one of three topics assigned by the lecturer.
4. Class Discussion. Augustine’s Confessions is a book filled with questions, both the questions he asks God and the questions that the book addresses to us. Hence, it is important to make room for discussion, for questioning and answering, within the class itself. I realize that all students may not have equal command of English, or feel ready to bring up their own questions in class. As a way around this I am enclosing lists of questions for each session and will look for ways to encourage each student to be able to express some view on at least one of these questions in each class (this could take a brief written form).
1st Lecture. Monday, April 6: Introduction to Augustine.
(13:40-15:30) --Augustine’s Life and Works
--Structure and Purpose of the Confessions
2nd Lecture. Thursday, April 9: Confessions, Book 1: Who is God?
(10:10-12:00) --Is it possible to speak to God?
--Is it possible to speak about God?
--How do infants and children relate to God?
--What is the role of infancy and childhood in the
development of the self?
3rd Lecture. Monday, April 13: Confessions, Books 2-5: What is sin?
(13:40-15:30) --What is sin? And why do we sin?
--What kind of love was Augustine seeking?
--What are the forms of sin?
--What did reading Cicero’s Hortensius do for Augustine
and what did it not do?
4th Lecture: Thursday, April 16: Confessions, Books 6-7: What is truth?
(10:10-12:00) --What were Augustine’s main problems in overcoming
--How did the Platonists help him?
--What is the role of Christ in this book?
--What did Augustine discover in Paul?
5th Lecture: Monday, April 20: Confessions, Books 8-9: What is love?
(13:40-15:30) --What is the function of the conversations that
Augustine recounts in Book 8?
--What is the proper understanding of why the will is
--How are grace and love related?
--What happened at Ostia?
6th Lecture, Thursday, April 23: Confessions, Book 10: What is memory?
(10:10-12:00) --How does Augustine describe his condition while
writing the Confessions?
--What is memory?
--What is the relation of God and memory?
--What is happiness?
7th Lecture: Monday, April 27: Confessions, Book 11: What is creation? What is time?
(13:40-15:30) --What does it mean to say God creates?
--When does God create?
--Can we know what time is?
--What is the role of time in the Confessions?
8th Lecture: Thursday, April 30: Confessions, Books 12-13: What does the Bible tell us
(10:10-12:00) --Why does Augustine turn to biblical exegesis?
--How does he interpret Genesis?
--Why does Augustine’s reading emphasize the church?
--Has his spiritual reading any value today?
Remarks on Reading Augustine.
1. A meaningful reading of Augustine’s Confessions should be more than just learning what the text says, that is, its content. Rather, Augustine invites the reader to take part with him in a journey or process of discovery of the true self (though not a modern self-discovery, or finding out who we are by our own efforts). To quote a passage from Charles Mathewes (A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions, 22): “Augustine’s general aim in the Confessions is to help us be prepared to relearn ourselves, and yet, and by doing so, truly to know our lives for the first time.”
Augustine himself provides us a clue to this. Near the end of his life he wrote a series of notes on his various books that he called the Retractions. In it he both corrected some things said in these books and provided notes on the context and meaning of his writings. In Retractions 2.32 he introduced the Confessions as follows:
The thirteen books of my Confessions praise the just and good God for my evil
and good acts, and lift up the understanding and affection of men to Him. At least,
as far as I am concerned, they had this effect on me while I was writing them and
they continue to have it now when I am reading them. What others think about
them is a matter for them to decide. Yet I know that they have given and continue
to give pleasure to many of my brethren.
2. One problem we have in reading the Confessions is that our world is not Augustine’s world, and our beliefs are not necessarily his. (Even contemporary Christians may not share all of Augustine’s beliefs and claims.) We don’t have to agree with Augustine, however, in order to learn from him. Again, I quote a pertinent remark from a contemporary student of the Confessions, James Wetzel (A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions, 57): “I don’t mean that we ought to bring some crude defensiveness about truth to reading Augustine and then join with him in rejecting what he rejects. I mean that we ought to care enough about truth to notice how Augustine goes about seeking his truth…. The falsity that counts most for him—because it does the most damage—is falsity of the heart.”
A good reading of the Confessions is a reading that strives to avoid falsity of the heart, even the falsity of agreeing with Augustine when we are not really convinced.
3. One of the important themes found throughout the Confessions is how Augustine learned to read the Bible properly, especially by not taking everything said there in a literal way. From that perspective, the Confessions is an exercise in the spiritual reading of his own life, that is, bringing out its inner meaning. There is evidence that Augustine wrote the book with the purpose of expressing both surface and inner significations that each reader should strive to profit from in reading the book. For example, in Conf. 12.31 he says:
For my part I declare resolutely and with all my heart that if I were called upon to
write a book which was to be vested with the highest authority, I should prefer to
write it in such a way that a reader could find re-echoed in my words whatever
truths he was able to apprehend. I would rather write it in this way than impose a
single true meaning so explicitly that it would exclude all others, provided these
did not offend me with their falsehood.
4. Augustine scholars, such as Robert McMahon (A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessionsm 218-23), have noted the importance of distinguishing between Augustine the narrator (i.e., the voice of Augustine speaking to God always in the present) and Augustine the author (i.e., the hidden voice of the bishop who is writing all this down from his memories). The narrator is often presented as not knowing where his life is heading, while the author has thought out the meaning over the years and presumably knows what he wants to do with the book. But Augustine would insist that the real author is God, speaking to both narrator and author in his heart and through the scriptures. Hence, while Augustine the author knows more than what Augustine the narrator does, only God really knows the outcome. What Augustine is asking the reader to do is to enter into this situation by re-enacting the ever-deepening story of their own lives by meditating on how he found meaning in his life under God’s guidance. From this perspective, it is interesting to note that Augustine begins and ends the Conf. with citations of the same biblical text from Mt. 7:7 (quarentes enim inveniunt eum: “Those who seek him will find him”), implicitly cited in 1.1 and explicitly cited as the last words in 13.38.
LECTURE 1. AN INTRODUCTION TO AUGUSTINE AND THE CONFESSIONS
Part I. Who was Augustine and why is he important?
(A) Historical Context of Augustine’s Life.
--the triumph of Christianity
--the Christian Empire (respublica Romana Christiana)
--the problem of the Barbarian Invasions (Battle of Adrianople, 378; Sack of
--theological turmoil: the Arian controversy; the Donatists; the Pelagians
--the world is beginning to change: the transition from Ancient to Medieval;
emergence of “Late Antique Society”
(B) Key Events in Augustine’s Life.
I. Before Baptism.
--born 354 in Thagaste in N. Africa
--parents and social status
--school days (the Roman educational system)
--wider horizons: going off to Carthage (371)
--Augustine’s ambitions and sexual life
--reading of Cicero’s Hortensius (373)
--Augustine’s life in Carthage
--migration to Italy and wider horizons (383)
--Augustine’s “religions” before Christianity: Manichaeanism
--Augustine in Rome and Milan (professor of rhetoric, 384-86)
--the gradual conversion and influence of Monica and Ambrose
--retreat at Cassiciacum (Sept., 386-March, 387): early writings
--baptism (Easter 387)
--Rome: experience at Ostia and death of Monica (Fall, 387)
II. Back in Africa.
--returns to Africa and Thagaste (388)
--founds monastery at Hippo and is ordained priest (391)
--begins first of his major works, Enarrationes in Psalmos (c. 392-422)
--writing on Paul (394-96) and against the Manichaeans and Donatists
--consecrated bishop of Hippo (395)
III. Augustine the Bishop
--Confessiones written (c. 397-401)
--De doctrina christiana (c. 397-400; only finished in 421)
--debates with Donatists and anti-Donatist councils (397-407 and on)
--begins his second major work, De Trinitate (c. 399-422)
--begins third major work, De genesi ad litteram (c. 401-15)
--begins writing fourth major work, Tractatus in Johannem (c. 406-21?)
--writings of Pelagius come to his attention (411)
--early writings against Pelagius: De spiritu et littera (412)
--begins writing fifth of his major works, De civitate dei, in reaction to Fall of
Rome in 410 (413-27)
--attends council of Milevis which condemns Pelagius (416)
--further writings against Pelagius and his followers (412-20)
--controversy with Pelagian bishop, Julian of Eclanum (421-30)
--“Semi-Pelagian” controversy (426-28)
--death and burial of Augustine during Vandal siege of Hippo (430)
(C) Augustine’s Opponents.
Augustine’s life and writings were shaped by his struggles to defend orthodox, catholic Christianity against its opponents, both inside and outside the Christian community.
1. Arians. Arius and his followers held that the Word, the second person of the Trinity, is not consubstantial and co-eternal with the Father and therefore not “God” in the full sense. This view had been condemned at the Council of Nicaea (325) and the First Council of Constantinople (381), but there were still Arians and Arian sympathizers in Augustine’s time.
--Semi-Arians. The position of those who said that the Word was “like” the
Father, but who refused to speak of “consubstantiality.”
2. Donatists. The Donatists were a North African schismatic group who taught that the
sacraments performed by unworthy priests were not valid and that therefore only
Donatus and his followers were the true catholic church.. Augustine struggled
against them during his whole career as priest and bishop.
3. Manichaeans. The dualistic religion founded by the prophet Mani in the third century
C.E. Manichaeans taught that there were two gods, the evil god who created the
material universe, and the good god who sent Jesus to redeem fallen souls.
Augustine was a Manichaean for a number of years and the Confessions tell the
story of his break with them. Early in his ecclesiastical career he wrote many
treatises against the Manichaeans.
4. Origen and Origenism. Origen (d. 254) was the greatest of early Christian biblical
interpreters and Augustine learned much from him. Some of Origen’s views, such
as those on the fall of the soul, etc., became controversial in the period 400-10 and
Augustine later became more critical of Origen and his thinking.
4. Pagans. Although the Emperors had been Christian since before Augustine’s birth,
there were still many pagans and pagan practices in Augustine’s world. Augustine
decisively rejected pagan ritual and wrote against it. He read and used pagan
philosophy, especially Platonic and Neoplatonic authors, but became more and
more negative toward them, especially in the De civitate dei.
5. Pelagians and their sympathizers. Pelagius (c. 360-c.420) was a Celtic monk who
became an important spiritual director in Rome around 400. He and his followers
held that Adam’s sin had not permanently harmed human nature, but only
provided a bad example. Therefore, it remained possible for humans to avoid sin
on the basis of their own will power.
--Semi-Pelagians. Towards the end of his life some of Augustine’s readers,
mostly monks, criticized his insistence that any movement toward the good on
our part can only be the effect of grace. They held (as had the early
Augustine) that fallen humans had enough freedom to ask for God’s help. (At
a later time they were called Semi-Pelagians)
(D) Augustine’s Writings.
Augustine was one of the most prolific writers in the history of Christianity.
--117 surviving treatises of varying length, beginning with the Contra Academicos (Fall, 386-Spring, 387). The longest, the Enarrationes in Psalmos, consists of 206 sermons on the 150 psalms and takes up 2377 printed pages in the English translation.
--298 letters survive, many of which are really treatises in letter form.
--396 sermons are ascribed to Augustine, though some of these are of doubtlful authenticity.
Part II. What Kind of a Book is the Confessions?
(A) Questions for Discussion.
1. What is the genre of the Confessions?
--autobiographical or not?
--style of the Confessions
--the originality of the Confessions
2. What is the structure of the Confessions?
--Are there two parts of the Confessions (Books 1-9 and Books 10-13), or actually
three (Books 1-9, 10, 11-13)?
--Why does Augustine abandon the story of his life at the end of Book 9?
--How do Books 10-13 relate to the earlier books?
3. Who is the audience of the Confessions?
4. What is the purpose of the Confessions? In other words, what does Augustine hope his
readers will get from reading it?
5. What is the role of the Bible in the Confessions?
LECTURE 2. BOOK 1 OF THE CONFESSIONS: WHO IS GOD?
(1) Structure of the Book. (A note on numbering chapters and sections in the Confessions. The division of books goes back to Augustine, but the numbering of chapters only to the sixteenth century and the numbering of paragraphs to the seventeenth. Most editions and many translations number books, chapters, and paragraphs, so that references look like this: 1.1.1-5.5.6. For the sake of simplicity, I will only number book and chapter, e.g., 1.1-5. The basic structure of this book is evident:
1.1-5: Introductory address on the mystery of God
1.6-7: The story of Augustine’s infancy
1.8-19: Augustine’s boyhood
1.20: Confession and Thanksgiving
(2) Some Passages for Close Reading. Since we cannot examine the Confessions line-by-line, for each lecture I will concentrate on some passages that all students should read with special care. This does not mean to neglect the rest of the reading, since these passages will make better sense when seen in the context of the book in which they appear.
(a) 1.1-5: Introductory address on the mystery of God.
1.1—the problem of knowing and praising God.
--Which comes first: petition or praise? knowing or praying?
--the necessity of faith
1.2-3—Where is God?
1.4—Who is God?
---a brief treatise on the divine names (De nominibus dei)
--How can we name God at all? How can we even address God?
1.5—Praying to God as Savior
(b) 1.6-7: Augustine as Infant
1.6—The status of infants; the characteristics of infancy
1.7—The sins of infants
(c) 1.18-19: The Sins of Childhood
1.18—What is the nature of sin? How does the Bible help us understand sin?
1.19—Augustine’s sinful state in childhood
(d) 1.20: The Final Act of Confession in Book 1.
(3) Some Questions for Discussion concerning These Passages.
(a) The Latin words confessio/confiteor are used 111 times in the work and provide it with its title.
--How do you understand the meaning of this word?
--What is Augustine “confessing”?
-- To whom is Augustine confessing?
--What is the role of memory in confessing 1, especially because Augustine is
talking about many things he was too young to remember?
b) The first five chapters (1.1-5) constitute one of the most important passages in
Augustine’s writings on his views of God.
--Why does Augustine begin this way? Would it not have been better just to get
started with the story of his life, or tell the reader what he hopes to do in the
--What are the obstacles Augustine finds to speaking about God? What are the
obstacles of speaking to God?
--What are the main characteristics, attributes, or predicates that Augustine uses in
speaking about God? Are some of these more important than others? Is there
a primary attribute (e.g., Goodness, Being, Truth, Beauty)?
c) Augustine’s picture of infancy (infantia) in 1.6.-7 has often been seen as a largely
--How does Augustine describe infants? Is this picture true to your own
experience of infants?
--What are the sins of infants? Can infants really commit sin?
--Why does Augustine devote so much time to analying the nature of infancy?
--What are the roles of parents and nurses?
--How is confessio used in this section?
d) Augustine spends more time in his portrayal of his childhood (pueritia in 1.8-19).
--What distinguishes infancy from childhood?
--What is the origin of language for Augustine?
--What are the distinctive sins of childhood?
--What is Augustine’s attitude towards his education and his teachers?
--What is his attitude towards his parents?
--Again, why does Augustine give a largely negative picture?
e) The conclusion of Book 1 provides one of the more detailed passages on the meaning
of confessio and the purpose of the book.
--Does this thansgiving prayer add anything to the earlier uses of the term found
in Book 1? What does the prayer contribute to the larger rhetorical structure of
I recently wrote a paper dealing with Book 1.1-5 and its influence, especially the phrase semper agens/semper quietus (always active/always at rest). I am including a copy of the first part of this paper to help you in your reading of the text.
SEMPER AGENS, SEMPER QUIETUS:
Notes on the History of an Augustinian Theme
Ancient literature reveals no precedent for the opening chapters of Augustine’s Confessiones. Instead of a dedicatory epistle, or an introduction explaining the purpose of the book, Augustine abruptly presents us with an impassioned plea to God, almost embarrassing in its revelation of his desires, his failings, and his puzzlement over how to know God and how best to praise him. (Such addresses to God in the second person are found in 381 of the 453 paragraphs that make up the Confessiones.) A careful reading of even the first chapter, however, reveals that we are dealing with something that is as much a conversation as an address, because the words that Augustine directs to God, even when he is wondering how to talk to him, are God’s own words to humans found in scripture. The opening phrase, Magnus es, domine, et laudabilis valde, is a quotation from a line of praise found in three psalms (Pss. 47:2, 95:4, and 144:3), and the fifteen or sixteen lines of the first chapter alone contain six further biblical quotations or reminiscences. Our initial reticence about listening in on this private conversation is part of Augustine’s strategy for providing us a pedagogical model by highlighting the “testimony of sin” (testimonium peccati) that is the necessary prerequisite for the “testimony of praise” (testimonium laudis) -- the task of every believer. This is the problem the bishop poses at the outset. Augustine, furthermore, presents his quandary as ours—from the perspective not of one who knows the answer, but of one who knows the way to the answer that shall only be fully given when we attain perfect rest in heaven. The goal of heavenly repose is adumbrated both at the beginning of the prayer in the most famous phrase from these chapters: “You have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (quia fecesti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te), as well as toward the end in chapter five which opens with the plea, “Who will allow me to find rest in you?” (Quis mihi dabit adquiscere in te?) and closes with the difficult text, “Do not hide your face from me: that I may die, lest I die, so that I may behold it” (noli abscondere a me faciem tuam: moriar, ne moriar, ut eam videam).
In 1945, in the wake of World War II, Romano Guardini published a short commentary on Confessiones 1.1-5 under the title Anfang (i.e., Beginning) in which he says, “The Confessiones begin with five chapters which scarcely have a parallel in literature.” These five chapters (1.1.1-1.5.6) do more than merely set the stage for the story of Augustine’s life, beginning with his infancy (1.6.7); they are an image of how the reader is meant to appropriate in his or her life what Augustine learned from talking with God about the purpose of his own existence. In order to conduct this conversation, we, like Augustine, have to discover the truth about the God we address, or at least as much as is necessary to enable us to direct our faltering speech to the real God and not some counterfeit (aliud enim pro alio potest invocare nesciens). The problem of finding the proper way to address God is a key issue throughout the Confessiones. Hence, the teaching about the divine nature set out in the first five chapters, though presented as a meditation on God’s word given through the mouth of the preacher and the prayer of the believer, rather than as a theological exposition, is crucial to a correct reading of the book. In this opening meditation-conversation Augustine encapsulates what he has learned about God thus far on his journey through life, a voyage both intellectual and affective.
Intellectually, Augustine had had to overcome his Manichaean view of God as a mass of physical light extended throughout the universe, a corporeal reality in conflict with the physical body of darkness and evil. Through the help of the libri platonici, as he explains in Book 7, he came to realize the superiority of incorporeal reality, or light, over all corporeal nature, and even to attain a partial vision of the Supreme Light and Truth, that is, the immutable reality of God. In the visionary account (or accounts) in Book 7, Augustine quotes Exodus 3:14 (ego sum qui sum) in the first report (7.10.16), and in the second tells us that he came “to ‘that which is’ in a flash of trembling glance” (pervenit ad id quod est in ictu trepidantis aspectus: 7.17.23). Augustine certainly held that Being (esse and even ipsum esse) was among the names that can be properly used of God, but we should beware of thinking that Augustine gave Being the kind of priority among the divine names that Thomas Aquinas did, just as we should not neglect the powerful, if unsystematic, apophatic aspect of his theology.
The intellectual conversion recounted in book 7 of the Confessiones, however, was not sufficient to save the sinner who had wandered far from God, as the bishop explains in 7.20.26. Augustine was now firmly rooted in truth, telling God, “I was certain that you are and you are infinite,…, you who are always the same as what you are, and not something other or in another fashion by way of any part or movement, and also that all things come from you solely by the most firm evidence that they exist….” But Augustine could not enjoy, or have fruition, of this knowledge, nor could he address God in a correct way, because of his own sinfulness, his pride, and especially his ignorance of the need to turn to the Incarnate Word for help. Only Christ’s grace poured out in his heart could effect the conversion that would enable him “to discern and distinguish the difference between presumption and confession” (discernerem atque distinguerem quid interest inter praesumptionem et confessionem). In David Tracy’s trenchent formulation: “…only by naming Jesus of Nazareth…the Christ can we name God… In Augustinian christology, the Form Christ gathers all other forms to name God…. Augustine’s theology is theocentric through and through. At the same time, Augustine’s theocentrism is constituted in and through his emphatic christomorphism.” The conversion of the heart through the grace of Christ described in Book 8 was essential for the creation of the proper inquiry about how to know and praise God that Augustine later described in the first chapters of Book 1.
These five chapters, while often analyzed, continue to produce new insights into Augustine’s thinking. The first chapter confronts the problem of the relation between knowing and praising: “Grant me, Lord, to know and understand which is first, to call upon you or to praise you, and to know you or to call upon you” (“da mihi, domine, scire et intellegere utrum sit prius invocare te an ladare te, et scire te prius sit an invocare te”). The answer to the conundrum is given in terms of the hard-won message gained through Augustine’s pilgrimage back to God set forth in Books 4 to 9. God must first be known before he can be properly invoked (invocare), sought (quaerere/requirere), and found through praise (invenire/laudare), but proper knowledge of God is not gained through our own personal effort. Only the faith that comes through the Word made flesh and the ministry of the preacher enables us to speak to God in proper fashion: “Lord, my faith calls upon you, the faith you gave me and inspired in me through the enfleshment of your Son and the ministry of your preacher.” Given that faith alone allows us to address God correctly, chapters two and three of the opening of the Confessiones turn to the issue of location: where is the God whom we are addressing? In a long series of questions Augustine explores the problem of the mode of God’s presence as the supreme spiritual being who is both in all things as their deepest reality and yet beyond them in his transcendence, concluding with the rhetorical query, “Or are you everywhere in a total way and yet nothing can totally take hold of you?” (an ubique totus es et res nulla te totum capit?).
Augustine is now in a position to direct a real invocation to God in the form of an address that is also a summary of his understanding of the divine nature. Chapter four may initially seem like an exercise in philosophical inquiry (the platonici would have agreed with much of what the bishop says), but once again Augustine corrects such a view by beginning with scripture, the words of Psalm 17:32: “Who are you therefore, my God? Who, I ask, except the Lord God? For who is Lord save the Lord, or who is God save our God?” What follows is one of the bishop’s most remarkable texts on God: a short treatise de divinis nominibus. In a quasi-hymnic and liturgical fashion, making much use of antithetical parallelism, Augustine provides the reader with a list of fifty-two predicates or names of God, expressed not in the third person, but, as befits the nature of the Confessiones, in the vocative. As Werner Simon has shown, these are not really philosophical terms, but are for the most part taken from scripture, especially from the Psalms.
Augustine begins with ten predicates in five pairs ascribed to God on the basis of what Scott MacDonald has called the principle of supremacy, that is, God must be spoken of as the highest in any category of thinking. The attributes appear as a quasi-doxology, and, indeed, they later formed the basis for an early medieval liturgical prayer. The group begins with terms that are more or less synonymous: summe, optime/ potentissime, omnipotentissime, but moves on to pairs that express different, even antithetical, aspects of the divine nature: misericordissime et iustissime/ secretissime et praesentissime/ pulcherrime et fortissime. Some of these predicates, such as omnipotentissime, are grammatically incorrect, but demanded by the supremacy of God’s nature. Augustine follows this first list of attributes with two longer lists of dual attributes, mostly paradoxical or antithetical. The first collection has six members. God is praised as:
stabilis et incomprehensibilis unmoving and incomprehensible
immutabilis, mutans omnia unchanging and changing all things
numquam novus, numquam vetus never new, never old
innovans omnia et in vetustatem perducens superbos et nesciunt renewing all things
(Wis. 7:27) and drawing back the proud into decay and they know it not (Jb 9:5 VL)
semper agens, semper quietus always in action, always at rest
colligens et non egens gathering together and not needing [anything]
At this point Augustine introduces a break by inserting two clauses listing three non-antithetical attributes each intended to express God’s loving care for all things (portans et implens et protegens/ creans et nutriens et perficiens). After that he closes his mini-treatise with a new series of twelve dual predicates, mostly antithetical and drawn from the biblical account of God’s dealings with his people during the time of the Old and New Laws. Finally, the hymn of praise at the end of chapter four closes with the invocation of a central theme in the bishop’s theology necessary for understanding all speech about God, what has been called the sermo fallibilis, that is, the simultaneous insufficiency and necessity of speaking about God. “What have we said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness; or what does anyone say when he speaks of you? Yet woe to those who keep silent about you, though even those who say much are [really] mute.”
Chapter five, containing two paragraphs, closes the beginning of Book 1 by investigating our personal appropriation of the doctrine of God set out in chapter four. Augustine first returns to the kind of tortured questions seen in chapters one and two, as he struggles to discern what God means to him personally and what he means to God. The answer depends on God: “Tell me by way of your merciful acts (Ps. 106:8), Lord my God, what you are to me. Say to my soul, ‘I am your salvation’” (Ps. 34:3). Now that God is clearly understood as the God who saves, Augustine can close with the plea of the constricted and sinful soul to be enlarged and made whole through God’s forgiveness, utilizing, once again, the language of the Psalms (Pss. 18:13-14, 26:12, and Ps. 129:3). At the end the bishop gives everything over into God’s hands, admitting that he cannot contend with God, “who is the Truth.” “I do not deceive myself lest my iniquity lie to itself.”
The eruption of antithetical pairs of attributes for God in chapter four is what interests me here. Why did Augustine make this move? The supremacy principle of language about God does not seem to demand it, but further insight into the nature of God’s existence may provide a clue. In his early treatise De moribus manichaeorum Augustine had recognized that nothing is contrary to God except nothing itself, that is, non-being. Therefore, attributes that seem antithetical if applied to created beings, may not be so when ascribed to God. From early on Augustine insisted that God must be immutable, but mutability means changing--gaining and losing something--not lack of activity. Therefore, God can be immutabilis, but as mutans omnia. Furthermore, Augustine’s continuing meditations on God’s absolute simplicity—God is what he has—meant that everything that could be ascribed to God was really one, or identical, with the divine nature. Therefore, although creatures may be active (agens) at one time, and at rest (quietus) at another, passing from one state to the other, or even simultaneously active with respect to some condition while at rest with respect to another, God, in the supremacy of his nature, is always, simply, and immutably, semper agens/semper quietus. While this antithesis is not verbally present in the biblical text, it seems clear that it has a scriptural root in Augustine’s ongoing meditations on God’s continuing creative action and the rest (requies) ascribed to him on the seventh day in Genesis 2:2.