This page is the seventh entry in the Core Book: Confessions series at Wheaton College. Below you will find an abridged version of Dr. Leland Ryken's commentary on Book 7, from his work titled
Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.
In Book 7, Augustine recreates the stages of thinking through which he passed during the time immediately preceding his final conversion. Chapters 1–8 collect the theological and philosophical problems that most vexed Augustine, with the two chief ones being how to conceive of God and the problem of the origin of evil. Chapters 9–17 describe how Augustine’s reading of books by Platonists gave him tentative and partial solutions to the problems with which he wrestled. Chapters 18–21 outline ways in which belief in Christ and the Bible offers a new perspective on both of these problems and the inadequate viewpoint of Platonism.
The specific obstacles that prevented Augustine from embracing Christianity are ones that many people encounter, but they are far from universal. Some readers can, indeed, identify with Augustine’s mistaken notions of God and evil. Still, Platonism today is not the active belief system that it was in Augustine’s day and for the next dozen centuries.
The origin of evil was an extremely important problem for Augustine—intellectually speaking, a life-or-death matter.— DR. LELAND RYKEN, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF ENGLISH
The first problem that stymied Augustine was the nature of God and how we must envision God. Whenever Augustine thought about God, he conceived of him as a physical being inhabiting space (chapter 1). It is quite plausible that Platonic thought would provide a way out of that prison, though Platonism overshot the mark in regard to the spirituality of God, turning him into an abstraction.
Augustine devotes much more space to his inability to find a satisfactory position on the origin of evil (chapters 2-7). We can clearly see three things: (1) the origin of evil was an extremely important problem for Augustine—intellectually speaking, a life-or-death matter; (2) he was relentless in searching for an answer; (3) a breakthrough was reached for Augustine when he heard the story of his friend Ferminus, who was born at exactly the same time as the son of a slave and came to an opposite destiny from the slave’s child. This was sufficient to cure Augustine of his devotion to astrology and convince him of God’s sovereignty in people’s lives.
A transition occurs at the start of chapter 9. In this new section, Augustine tells about his reading of books by Platonists. Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived 429-347 BC. He is best known for his theory of a two-tier universe. The transcendent world above us is a world of ideal forms. The material world that we inhabit is comprised of imperfect and transient images of those ideal forms.
Platonists stressed the idea of a hierarchy downward from the ideal forms… Evil is thus the absence or deprivation of God and goodness.— DR. LELAND RYKEN, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF ENGLISH
The Platonists of the second and third centuries AD worked refinements on Plato’s theory. They stressed the idea of a hierarchy downward from the ideal forms of the transcendent world—an emanation of the divine. Earthly reality, including people, is something decidedly inferior to the eternal spiritual world above. The farther from God that something descends, the more prone to evil it is. Evil is thus the absence or deprivation of God and goodness. The human soul is rising upward to the divine by exercise of virtue. Because all existence is an emanation from God, it has worth, because whatever God is, is good.
We can catch hints of how Augustine adapted Platonic ideas in the direction of Christian doctrine. Additionally, we see Augustine’s awareness of what was lacking.
For Reflection or Discussion:
Book 7 can be read devotionally if we concentrate on the interspersed prayers addressed to God and, even more, on the discoveries that Augustine made about the Christian faith as outlined in chapters 18–21. A good follow-up to Book 7 is to codify your own thinking on theological issues by reading in a book of systematic theology.
At a very general level, in Book 7 Augustine moves by a long process from seeing that some aspects of the Christian faith cannot be explained by philosophy but only by faith in the incarnate Christ. Where does this surface, and what is your own experience of this leap of faith?
Additionally, Augustine is explicit that God wanted him to encounter wrong and inadequate beliefs of other religious systems so he would be better grounded when he finally embraced Christian truth. Does this seem plausible to you, or is it true in your own experience?