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Book 13: Symbols and Devotional Truths in Genesis

Confessions Book 13 setting sun 200 x 113This page is the thirteenth 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 13, from his work titled
Christian Guides to the Classics: Augustine's Confessions.

Summary:

The book of Genesis continues to be the frame of reference for what Augustine does in Book 13. As he progresses selectively through the story of creation, he conducts a word association exercise in which his mind makes a connection between a detail in the text and something in the spiritual life. The basic mode is symbolism, as Augustine turns the details of Genesis into a collection of independent symbols for spiritual experience. The result is a sharing of the connections that Augustine makes as he ponders the Genesis story of creation. This process becomes an exercise of the symbolic imagination (a common literary impulse).

In Augustine’s symbolic imagination, God’s rest is a picture of the heavenly rest that is the goal of every believer... 'After [our good works in this life] we hope to rest in your great sanctification.' — Dr. Leland Ryken, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF ENGLISH

Augustine does his customary bringing together of verses from the entire Bible; we follow his thinking far beyond the book of Genesis. For example, in a single sentence, God’s creation command, “Let there be lights in the firmament,” telescopes into a quotation from Acts 2:2–3 about Pentecost, with its rushing wind and tongues of fire. They were joined in Augustine’s imagination and thus in what he wrote.

The result is a meditative work of literature. We are not thinking an issue through but contemplating piecemeal a succession of Bible verses and images and metaphors for spiritual realities that are sometimes occasioned by the Genesis story of creation but that more often find their point of origin in Augustine’s process of meditation. It is a prolonged meditation on spiritual truths that are pictured or suggested by details in the creation story. It prompts us to meditate on aspects of God and spiritual experience. Book 13 lends itself to being read a page or two at a time the way we read a passage for daily devotions.

Commentary:

The story of every individual Christian is seen in the movement from perfection to fall to renewal. At this point, the symbolism of the title Genesis comes into play and becomes a paradigm for the entire autobiographical story that Augustine has told: he, too, fell into the bondage of sin and experienced a new beginning within him when he was converted. This paradigm emerges most clearly near the end (chapter 34), where it serves the function of summing up the disparate threads that Augustine has put before us thus far.

But the climactic subject of the entire Confessions is four brief chapters (35–38) devoted to God’s resting on the seventh day. In Augustine’s symbolic imagination, God’s rest is a picture of the heavenly rest that is the goal of every believer. Augustine expresses this goal thus: “After [our good works in this life] we hope to rest in your great sanctification.” This concluding motif of eternal rest gives the entire Confessions an envelope structure, recalling the opening aphorism that “our heart is restless until it rests in you.”


For Reflection or Discussion:

The key to enjoying Book 13 is to read it as a devotional work—a collection of individual ideas and images that we are intended to ponder as we read the book slowly (and preferably not at a single sitting). In such devotional reading, we can ponder the individual spiritual insights that Augustine puts before us or that we ourselves reach as we meditate on Book 13.

The Christian faith has been expressed through the centuries, starting with the Bible, partly by means of great images and metaphors; with which of these do you particularly resonate as you read Book 13?

Which of Augustine’s symbols prompts new insights into the Christian life?

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