If you have ever attended a revival meeting, there always comes a point where someone gets up and gives their testimony. It is usually a person who has had a rough life further complicated by poor choices or sudden tragedies. They always have a happy ending, where the testifier says clearly what God has done for him. Preach it, brother!
The Confessions, by Augustine of Hippo, the late-fourth century AD Catholic Bishop, is just such a testimony, albeit one that requires close to 250 pages. Although the book looks like an autobiography on the surface, it is actually an emotionally-charged altar call from a preacher who knows how to tell his story well.
I confess that this review contains spoilers.
Augustine was a typical fourth-century North African boy. Born to a Christian mother (Monica) and a pagan father, the youth showed a talent for learning, and was especially fond of studying the Roman classics in Latin. After completing his education, he quickly entered the teaching profession, instructing students in rhetoric. And as he advanced, his mother prayed for his eternal soul.
Since this is a testimony, there has to be the part about living a sinful life. By his own account, he became a consumer of “vanities,” elements of life that met his own selfish wants, sometimes at the expense of others. Yet at the time, such behavior didn’t bother him. “I was foul, and I loved it.” He lived with a woman who he had no intention of marrying; he took jobs that built up his personal reputation and honor; and he even dedicated a book to a famous orator, hoping for some public reciprocation. His mother continued to pray.
At nineteen, he attached himself to Manichaenism, a belief system that combined elements of Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, and focused on how cosmological events could help direct one through issues of good and evil, sin and salvation. Augustine was also attracted the philosophy of Neo-Platonism. He put his all into these two groups, but no matter how much he studied, he never found satisfying answers to questions of ultimate importance. Guess what his mother was doing?
Finally he reached a breaking point. “I cast myself down I know not how, under a certain fig-tree, giving full vent to my tears.” At this moment, the voice of a nearby child prompted him to reach for a Bible and find truth in its pages. And he did, moving from degenerate to penitent in a manner of weeks. He went on to become an influential church leader and the author of several important Christian writings, including The Confessions. His mother simply praised God.
It’s a very satisfying testimony, but there’s that thing about the length again. While the book is clearly an autobiography, as much as half the content consists of prayers and doxologies to God. They are quite reverent, but they act to hinder the core testimony. Additionally, of the book’s thirteen chapters, only the first ten are biographical. The last three use the Bible to address specific errors in Manichaen teachings, something that could have been moved easily into its own book.
Even with the extra content, The Confessions does what a testimony is supposed to do. Augustine said that the purpose of the book, the “fruit” of his confession, is that others should read it and believe in God. The book is proof that there were many competing philosophies to choose from during the fourth and fifth centuries AD. By publishing his own confessions, he defined clearly the benefits of Christianity that make it an option for troubled hearts, and he set into motion a revival meeting altar call that lasted for centuries.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.