Best Commentaries: The best deal on the best commentaries: 50% off in July. Save now or 888-568-3589.

Augustine the Reader: Why You Should Take Up & Read ‘Confessions’

The image shows a figure with their head in their hands, surrounded by symbols and text. The text is from a quote from St. Augustine's Confessions.

Augustine’s Confessions is a great book. It has been read by the greats: great minds and great saints—from Petrarch in the sixteenth century to Sigmund Freud, Albert Camus, and Hannah Arendt in the twentieth. It cannot be ignored. We read Augustine’s Confessions, and we at once encounter a mind both ancient and modern. We meet a man of another world, yet a man who has, to a great extent, made our world. In his Confessions, Augustine began conversations we are still having.1

Confessions is a good book. Not every great book is good. Confessions is well-written and rewards re-reading, but ultimately it is good because it is true. It is a book by and for the restless soul, which is every soul. It appeals to great minds but is meant for poor hearts. It has renewed the church more than once. Evangelical historian Timothy Larsen once told me,

When I was maybe seventeen years old, I read Augustine’s Confessions for the first time. Augustine talked about his love of the Psalms, and it was so powerful to me. It was like, “Oh, this living thing that I’ve touched, you’ve touched. I recognize that life in you. You’re a fourth-century African, but we both have felt the power of the living word of God, and I recognize that in you.”2

Larsen’s experience is one frequently arranged by Augustine’s Confessions, a book which has a way of flattening time.3 It forms a connection with our faith’s past through someone who died centuries ago. Augustine might in every other respect have looked nothing like us, but we marvel that he seems to “get” us. He knows something about us that we tend to forget or prefer to ignore. And if we listen, we might find rest for our souls.

How ought we to read Augustine’s Confessions? Who is Augustine to us? We can read him as an existentialist. Many have. Others as a theologian. As an ethicist. As a pastor. As an apologist. Even as a Neoplatonist philosopher. But I favor reading Augustine as a reader, as this has a way of drawing out the underlying structure of Confessions.

What is Augustine’s Confessions about?

The first nine books of Augustine’s Confessions span the first thirty-three years of his life, ending with the death of his mother, Monica. Book X is a status update from the contemporary Augustine, explaining where he is now, a decade after the events of Book IX. By the time he sits down to write in AD 397, he had been a priest for six years and a bishop for just over one. The final three books exegete Genesis 1:1–31 and reflect on a range of lofty subjects, including the Trinity, heaven and earth, and time and eternity.

Augustine took a number of years to write many notable works, such as The City of God or The Trinity. Most scholars believe he took four years to write Confessions between 397 and 401. But I tend to agree with Garry Wills that he wrote the whole thing in two weeks in 397 while bedridden. This is important for how we analyze the work, for it allows us to assume that Augustine wrote with the end in sight from the beginning. The books were not cobbled together at different times of his life, but exist as a coherent literary entity, given that “a single sustained effort seems to have produced Confessions.”4

The reason many scholars have disagreed with Wills has to do with the final three books of Confessions. Here, Augustine suddenly stops telling of his life and turns to speculate on the nature of time and eternity. It feels like he is shifting genres, but their inclusion feels abrupt only if we forget into what literary genre Confessions falls.

What genre is Augustine’s Confessions?

As Peter Brown, Augustine’s magisterial biographer, wrote, “The Confessions are one of the few books of Augustine’s where the title is significant.”5 By confession (Latin, confessio), Augustine means something specific. It may help to begin by explaining what he doesn’t mean by it.

Usually, the term “confession” refers to the confession of sins, a confession made in the hopes of forgiveness (Prov 28:13; 1 John 1:9–10). And while there’s plenty of talk about sins in Confessions, Augustine is clear that every sin he brings up has been long forgiven (Conf. I.5.6; II.7.15). He is looking back from the other side of the cleansing power of his baptism (Conf. IX.2.4), writing from the perspective of someone who is now reconciled with his God. Additionally, while Augustine identifies sinful habits as a major obstacle that kept him from the knowledge of God, this is far from the primary subject of Confessions. Other obstacles included the content of his early education, his family’s expectations, pressures from his peers, and his professional ambitions. He even at times puts aside his own story and makes confession on behalf of others, such as his friend Alypius, who was pressured by friends into spectating the gladiatorial games (Conf. VI.7.11—10.16); or his mother, who loved wine too much (Conf. IX.8.18). Both accounts report how someone failed and how God restored each to spiritual health. Confessions is less a litany of personal wrongdoings than a portrait of the human condition in a broken world, a world that resists God and yet yearns to rest in God. Augustine does not use the Latin word confessio in the regular penitential sense. When Augustine talks about himself, he is really talking about all of us, about a whole of which he is a part, for the fall is a crack that cuts through every soul.

Augustine provides us his own definition of confessio: “accusation of oneself; praise of God.”

Augustine provides us his own definition of confessio: “accusation of oneself; praise of God” (Serm. 67.2). Confessions follows this two-part pattern. Augustine never brings up a personal sin which does not conclude by yielding praise to God’s justice and deliverance. This is his ultimate purpose for dredging up his history: not to find forgiveness or beat himself down, but to find God in his memories so that his soul may “give you glory that it may love you more, and let it confess to you your own merciful dealings, that it may give you glory” (Conf. V.1.1). So rather than ask what Augustine is confessing in his Confessions, we do better to ask who Augustine is confessing. He is confessing God and his “merciful dealings” (Conf. V.10.20).

Augustine glories in the fact that while he was not always present with God, God was always present with him, though he at the time was too blind to see it. Confessio is the practice of walking through our memories with the eyes to see. Augustine can relive his twenties, only now “in my God’s presence”—which he had neglected to do at the time (Conf. V.3.3). This helps explain the turning point after Book X that has tripped up scholars. Beginning in Book XI, Augustine turns from himself to God, from temporal things to eternal things, from self offering to divine receiving. This receiving is not passive, but an active inquiring, pursuing, glimpsing, resting. This transition corresponds with the movements from faith to contemplation we see throughout Augustine’s writings. Faith purifies the heart, which makes it clear enough to contemplate God. “Contemplation is indeed the reward of faith, and our hearts are purified by faith in preparation for this reward” (De Trin. I.8, 17). Through confessio, Augustine has purified his soul to prepare it to contemplate the divine. Understood this way, not only do we see all thirteen books as a coherent whole, but we understand that the first ten books are like a warm-up for the last three. It is simply the mode of prayer that has changed. Augustine has confessed things about himself; now he must confess something about God, and these are the major confessions of Confessions

In conclusion, the genre is the title. This is not an autobiography (at least, not in the modern sense), but a long written prayer. Augustine has two audiences, God and us readers; he addresses the first and is aware of the latter. We are welcome to eavesdrop so that we may be encouraged (Conf. X.3.3), but Augustine never breaks his prayer to address us.6

Augustine the reader

A remarkable feature of Confessions is its depiction of Augustine’s spiritual progress being worked out through books. Today this is common enough. Most of us can name at least one book (besides the Bible) that has changed our lives. But it is rare, albeit not unknown (Seneca and Galen, for example), for major ancient thinkers in antiquity to have reputations as avid readers. Augustine is the first to biographically trace the works that mark his spiritual journey to God. In a certain respect, Confessions is less a biography than a spiritual bibliography, building up to a reading, not just of a book, but the Book: Scripture.7

To a great extent, Augustine is writing as a reader to readers about reading. Hardly a book of Confessions goes by when he does not remark on language, education, literature, or memory. 

Augustine’s spiritual and intellectual life was profoundly and independently bookish in a way it wasn’t for earlier generations of philosophers. The intellectual life, as Augustine imagined it, was impossible without like-minded friends; Augustine defined friendship as a union of minds (whereas romantic love is a union of bodies), and “reading elegantly written books together” (Conf. IV.8.13) helped facilitate this union. In this way, reading helped create the community required for the intellectual life.

Men’s positions were commended to Augustine on account that they were “an avid student of books dealing with such matters” (Conf. VII.6.8) or “read widely and with discrimination” (Conf. VIII.2.3); meanwhile, Augustine was disappointed if he found a respected intellectual was not well-read (e.g., Faustus; Conf. V.6.10–11). When getting to know his mentor, Ambrose of Milan, who played a crucial role in convincing him of the truth of Christianity, one of the first things that impressed Augustine was Ambrose’s manner of reading silently (Conf. VI.3.3). For Augustine, the intellectual was a reader. In this way, reading helped establish intellectual authority.

Augustine made a point to read the literature of any school or movement in which he took interest and compare it with the works of other schools; this comparative work led to his departure from Manichaeism (Conf. V.3–5). As soon as he and his friends began to be persuaded of Catholic Christianity, an immediate concern was where they could acquire books on the subject (Conf. VI.11.18). What we see in Augustine is not simply emphasis on texts in intellectual settings as was done in many philosophical classrooms at the time, but a vigorous independent reading practice.8 Unlike most philosophers, Augustine read extensively, privately, and of his own initiative.

Reading and holiness

The act of reading is repeatedly treated in Confessions as a means to spiritual transformation. Victorinus, who translated into Latin the books of the Platonists that so benefited Augustine, was said to have overcome his pride and started attending church because of his “avid reading” of Scripture (Conf. VIII.2.4). As a new convert, Augustine would attest the Psalms were a particularly potent antidote to pride (Conf. IX.4.8). But such powers to convert the soul were not limited to Scripture. Augustine’s friend, Ponticianus, tells of two court officials of his acquaintance at Treier who, while reading Athanasius’s The Life of Antony, experienced “a change … in that hidden place within … where you [God] alone can see.” Reading “stripped their minds of the world” (Conf. VIII.6.15). They followed Antony’s example and dedicated their lives to prayer and celibacy. The book can be a mechanism for heart change and moral reform.

So it would be for Augustine. In the famous conversion scene in the garden, what Augustine read pierced his heart (Conf. X.6.8), driving truth into his inmost self. This is notable, because this is exactly what Plato thought books couldn’t do: they were good for refreshing the memory, but they operated on the surface of the mind, like words written on water (Phaed. 276b–d). For Plato, only a living voice can imprint the heart. Augustine is part of a new intellectual atmosphere in late antiquity that grants to the written word powers traditionally reserved for the living voice. The written word can “speak”; in the case of Scripture, the speaker is God.

Augustine’s reading program

The most significant advances of Augustine’s spiritual life are precipitated by books. He identifies picking up Cicero’s Hortensius at the age of eighteen (Conf. III.4.7–8) as the start of his spiritual journey which would last more than a decade and culminate in his conversion to Christianity at thirty-one (Conf. VIII.7.16). At twenty, he read Aristotle’s Categories. This marked a watershed moment in his intellectual development, since it was what we might call a “Great Work” that he understood without the guidance of a mentor (Conf. IV.16.28). Not long after, he read “the books of the Platonists” (Conf. VII.9.13). Regrettably, we don’t know which titles he read in particular, but they freed his mind from materialistic concepts of God. Now he was able to think theologically—i.e., to think of God in terms worthy of God’s nature, which primed him to understand the writings of Paul and acknowledge Christ as the Mediator between God and humanity. After his conversion, on retreat at Cassiciacum, he found rest in the Scriptures; in particular, Psalm 4 (Conf. IX.4.8). As a reader, Augustine organized and interpreted his life through the books he read. One could derive from the structure of Confessions a reading program, of sorts; each book is like a rung in a ladder lifting Augustine higher to the knowledge of God.

We could spend an article on each of these works. For the sake of time, I will linger on the last soul-shifting book of Confessions before Augustine takes up his rest in the Bible in Book IX: Athanasius of Alexandria’s hagiography, The Life of Antony.

Take Your Bible Study Deeper, Faster

Life imitating literature: Augustine’s conversion in the garden

The most famous story from Confessions is the conversion in the garden. It is also the most misunderstood. To summarize, Augustine retreats in tears to the garden. Under a fig tree, he hears what might have been children next door chanting, “Take up and read.” He interprets this as a divine command and opens up a copy of the epistles of Paul to a random verse. What he reads also happens to be a command: “Not in dissipation and drunkenness, nor in debauchery and lewdness, nor in arguing and jealousy; but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh or the gratification of your desires” (Rom 13:13–14). He had no need to read further; no sooner had he finished this verse than he was filled with divine light (Conf. VIII.12.29). 

Conversion to—celibacy?

The story is often construed as an instantaneous “new birth” experience of the sort popularized by revivalists such as George Whitefield and Billy Graham, where a radical change of mind from unbelief to belief overcomes the individual. However, Augustine admits he was “certain” of the truths of orthodoxy long before the struggle in the garden (Conf. VIII.5.11). He was already a “believer.” What is more, if what Augustine was struggling with was belief, then why would a verse about renouncing the flesh be so effective? Would not John 3:16 have been more appropriate?

In fact, his newfound belief had created a conflict within Augustine. His soul may have been newly Christian, but his body was still captive to the habits of the old sinner.

Even though a person may be delighted with God’s law as far as his inmost self is concerned, how is he to deal with that other law in his bodily members which strives against the law approved by his mind, delivering him to the law of sin dominant in his body? (Conf. VII.21.27).

The testing point was chastity.

I was quite sure that surrendering myself to your love would be better than succumbing to my lust, but while the former course commended itself and was beginning to conquer, the latter charmed and chained me. (Conf. VIII.5.12)

Every time Augustine strove for the heights of chastity, he found himself dragged back down by the weight of his flesh—a weight amassed over years of sinning and self-gratification. He realized a special grace was required to end this struggle between his mind and flesh, integrating them so that “I ceased to will all that I had wont to will, and now willed what you willed” (Conf. IX.1.1).

The passage from Romans spoke directly to his condition. There was a conversion of sorts in the garden, but it was from fleshly bondage to chastity, not from unbelief to belief. Augustine already had faith. Now he had been given the gift of celibacy.

Gospel cleromancy?9

By the time of Augustine’s birth at the end of the fourth century, using books to divine secret knowledge, such as foretelling the future or discerning someone’s mind, was an established practice. Virgil, the celebrated Latin poet, was the preferred source for this sort of divination. The first mention of this practice, known as sortes Vergilianae (“Virgilian lots”), is recorded in a late-Roman biography of Hadrian, attributed to Aelius Spartianus. There, the young Hadrian wished to predict what the emperor of that time, Trajan, really thought of him, so he opened Virgil’s Aeneid to a random page and read the first line his eyes came upon, wherein Aeneas saw “the Roman king whose laws shall establish Rome anew.”10 This satisfied Hadrian, who, it turned out, would eventually be adopted by Trajan and succeed him as emperor of Rome.11 Historians such as William Harris have drawn comparisons between the sortes Vergilianae and Augustine’s use of the epistles of Paul in the garden. Harris reckons Augustine was engaging in a sort of “gospel cleromancy, dipping into the text at random for guidance about the future.”12 Under the fig tree, Harris would have us believe, Augustine invented sortes Scripturae.

Harris gives us nothing more than a surface comparison. This is regrettable, since beyond the basic motions of opening a book to a random page, there is nothing else in common between the sortes Vergilianae practiced by Hadrian and the reception of divine light experienced by Augustine through the word of God. To Harris’s credit, Augustine is aware of a practice at least resembling sortes Vergilianae when he wrote that astrologers would at times seek “guidance in the pages of some poet who was singing of an unrelated matter and had something quite different in mind” (Conf. IV.3.5), but he only speaks critically of the practice and there is no indication he ever engaged in it himself. Unlike Hadrian, Augustine did not open his book to make a prediction, nor did he do so of his own initiative, but in obedience to a command to “take up and read,” and there is no record that he used the Scriptures this way again. In conclusion, the sortes Vergilianae seems an inadequate analog for the use of Paul’s epistles in the garden. 

To understand this moment, we must again appreciate Augustine as a reader. Just before his turn in the garden, Augustine had heard from a friend, Ponticianus, about a book: The Life of Antony, by Athanasius of Alexandria. Though seldom read today, this was among the most influential works of early Christianity. It had apparently achieved such fame by Augustine’s lifetime that his friend could express surprise he hadn’t heard of it (Conf. VIII.6.14). The book tells of a young Egyptian, Antony, who had inherited his family’s estate, and uncertain about what to do with it, wandered into church, where he heard a single line of Scripture read aloud: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matt 19:21). Though Christ had addressed these words to the rich young ruler, Antony received the words “as if the passage were read on his account” as an answer to his dilemma.13 This encounter with the living God through his Word initiated a life of prayer and world-renunciation which progressed until Antony became the first desert monk in the Christian tradition.

While he never held the book itself, this encounter with Athanasius’s hagiography was the inciting event for the episode in the garden. It threw Augustine into turmoil by exposing his whole life to himself: since picking up Cicero’s Hortensius twelve years earlier, he had sought wisdom, but hadn’t seemed able to find it; and what truth he had found was powerless to reform his life (Conf. VIII.7.17). The highly educated and well-read were supposed to be the exemplars of a life lived according to divine wisdom, but instead, people “who have not worn themselves out with research, nor spent a decade and more reflecting on these questions,” were renouncing the flesh and living freely in the grace of God (Conf. VIII.7.18). “The untaught are rising up and taking heaven by storm,” Augustine raved to his friend, “while we with all our dispassionate teachings are still groveling in this world of flesh and blood!” (Conf. VIII.8.19). No doubt the figure of Antony loomed behind this statement, as he was called “Great” but was famously illiterate. In an earlier book, Augustine had named honor, wealth, and marriage as the chief worldly glories (Conf. VI.6.9), and each Antony had exchanged in turn for humility, good works, and prayer, triumphing exactly where Augustine was failing. Until learning of Antony, Augustine didn’t seem to think such a life was possible (see Conf. VI.12.21–22), but now he was without excuse.

As a reader, Augustine organized and interpreted his life through books. When Augustine found himself in the garden and heard the chant to take up and read, he recalled

believing that this could be nothing other than a divine command to open the Book and read the first passage I chanced upon; for I had heard the story of how Antony had been instructed by a gospel text. He happened to arrive while the gospel was being read, and took the words to be addressed to himself. … So he promptly converted to you by this plainly divine message. (Conf. VIII.12.29; emphasis added)

The Life of Antony is Augustine’s frame of reference for interpreting the random, childish chant. Throughout Book VIII, he is interacting with this text: its sudden introduction by Ponticianus also introduces the terms of his spiritual–existential crisis, but in the end it supplied the model to resolve the very struggle it initiated. For this reason, Athanasius’s hagiography is a better reference point than sortes Vergilianae for understanding Augustine’s use of Paul’s epistles in the garden. Augustine did not think he was engaging in an act of “gospel cleromancy” under God’s providential hand. Rather, opening the book to a random page was a choice to simulate the experience of walking into a church during the middle of a lectionary reading.

Augustine’s conversion in the garden is an example of life imitating literature. Under the fig tree, Augustine re-enacted a literary event so that he could hear a line of Scripture as Antony had, i.e., as though it were directly addressed to him and his present struggle. Scripture is a book that has the power to address the soul personally with divine power—not only convincing the mind but reforming all of life with its truth—but Augustine required a different book, The Life of Antony, to learn to hear Scripture this way.

Rest in the Book

An advantage of framing Confessions around acts of reading is it explains several features of the work that have befuddled scholars. For example, why doesn’t Augustine ever describe his baptism? For him, baptism was the entry into the new life of Christ (see Conf. IX.4.12); there, like Christ himself, we are named God’s sons and daughters (see Matt 3:17). Augustine had mentioned at least two instances when he could have been baptized and regretted he hadn’t—as a young boy (Conf. I.11.17–12.19) and again as a young man (Conf. V.9.16), and both times the occasion for considering baptism was he had fallen perilously ill. Repeatedly delayed, his baptism would have been a natural and satisfying conclusion to the autobiographical portion of Confessions. Instead, he merely alludes to it after the fact, anti-climatically.

Understanding that the Augustine of Confessions is Augustine the reader helps us recognize that the proper “end” of his narrative is not baptism so much as rest in the Scriptures. After his conversion in the garden, Augustine finally summarizes all that has transpired as a new relationship with a Book:

I had been a lethal nuisance, bitter and blind and baying against honey-sweet scriptures distilled from heaven’s honey, scriptures luminous by your light, but now to think of the enemies of that scripture caused me anguish. (Conf. IX.4.11)

To this rest he leads us along, the readers of the reader, by finishing Confessions with three books “about the holy Scripture,” with a commentary “from the words ‘At the origin God made heaven and earth’ [Gen 1:1] through to the Sabbath repose [i.e., Gen 1:31]” (Retract. 2.6.1). Far from the dry academic exegesis of modern commentaries, Augustine’s exegesis does not shy away from allegory, philosophical speculations, and sustained theological contemplations of the Trinity. Augustine did not see Scripture merely as a text, but as a venue for our life in God where the soul freed from the cloud of sin could approach the sight of her Lord and Savior and be transformed. This is the vision of God to which Confessions had been building from the beginning. And so, as Garry Wills put it, “It should not be surprising that a long prayer should end in the presence of the God being prayed to.”14

I’m Protestant, so why should I read Augustine’s Confessions?

Depending on your tradition, Augustine will sometimes seem oh-so-Protestant and at other times oh-so-Catholic. Many will share an experience similar to Timothy Larsen’s and recognize in Augustine a brother in Christ. Others will fret about his approval of doctrines such as baptismal regeneration and praying for the souls of the departed (e.g., he hopes the readers of Confessions will “remember Monica, your servant, at your altar”; Conf. IX.13.37). Yet we cannot ignore Augustine’s exceptionally positive reception history in Protestantism—though that story begins before Protestantism.

Augustine reported that none of his books “has been read more and with greater approval than Confessions” (Gift of Continuing Fidelity 20.53). But after his lifetime and throughout the medieval period, the book, while it never disappeared, was little read. This was due to the advent of scholasticism, a religious movement that grafted the work of theology to the austerities of Aristotilean logic. The net effect was that theological work now resembled the meticulous systematization of doctrine rather than exegesis of Scripture, which was how theology was done in the patristic era. The scholastic approach favored other works of Augustine’s, such as The Trinity or The City of God, but left Confessions to gather dust.

The first great break with the intellectual assumptions of scholastic theology was made by Petrarch (1304–1374), the father of Christian Humanism. Rather than assessing truth according to scholastic systematics, Petrarch called for a return to Scripture and the Latin Fathers, particularly Augustine. In Augustine, Petrarch found resources for a renewed religious outlook; but this wasn’t the Augustine of the scholastics, but rather, as the historian Charles Stinger summarized it, “the Augustine of the Confessions, with its intimate portrayal of searching self-analysis, moral ambivalence, despair, and ultimate conversion to trust in the grace of Christ.”15 After languishing in obscurity for centuries, Petrarch revived Confessions as a Christian classic for the first time since Augustine’s death.

Here, in the existential spirituality of Augustine, came the birth of the Christian Humanist movement, which avidly sought renewal by critically examining and recovering patristic works—Augustine, most of all. Alongside this return to the fontes Augustini came criticism of late-medieval scholasticism for its emphasis on critical subtlety to the neglect of patristic tradition. Most dramatically, the Humanists broke with the thirteenth-century view of theology as a “science.” Instead, as Stinger summarized:

Theology must rest on divine authority as revealed in Scripture, not on logico-metaphysical demonstration, for it is impossible to infer eternal laws from the essentially contingent foundations of human perception. Since theology depends on divine authority, the task of the theologian is not to synthesize Aristotelian metaphysics with the truth of revelation, but rather to know the meaning of Holy Scripture.16

The Augustinian theological school of the fourteenth century re-emphasized the authority of Scripture over philosophical speculation. Their aim was to recover the way theology had been done in the centuries of the Fathers: scriptural, not “scientific”; exegetical, not systematic. To understand what Scripture says is the whole task of any theology we would call Christian, according to the Augustinians.

Little wonder that a young German who launched a Reformation from a backwater nearly two centuries later happened to be an Augustinian monk. Building on the work of the Humanists, Martin Luther and the Reformers after him considered Augustine preeminent among the Church Fathers. They would revisit his works throughout their lifetimes to such an extent that he became the most-often quoted Father in their writings. James K. A. Smith did not exaggerate when he suggested that the Reformation could be construed as an Augustinian renewal movement within medieval Christendom.17 One may ask whether it is possible to understand historic Protestantism without first understanding Augustine.

Augustine of Hippo is not only the source for much of Protestantism’s historic beliefs, but he is also the means for further inter-denominational discourse. Augustine is the key—not a key—ecumenical figure between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism: both sides quote him, claim him for their own, and look to him as an authority.18 To a great extent, he is the dividing line between Protestantism and Catholicism, but a border connects as well as separates. Gathered around Augustine, we have enough purchase for dialogue.

It is pointless to ask whether Augustine is a Protestant or not: he is the common inheritance of all Western Christians. But if we were to catch him at his “most Protestant,” we must turn to Confessions.

Which translation of Augustine’s Confessions should I read?

One’s preferred translation depends on one’s reading goals. I admit I am less proficient on this matter than others: there are so many translations of Augustine’s Confessions that it is something of a minor field. But here are a few recommendations I can make with confidence.

If you want a straightforward and literal translation for studying the original Latin, I recommend John K. Ryan (1960). If you want an established and venerated translation—the sort you would likely be assigned in a class—I recommend Henry Chadwick (1991). If you want the rising industry standard that captures some of Augustine’s eloquence and is sympathetic to his Catholic spirituality, reach for Maria Boulding (1997). If you want my personal favorite, grab a copy of Thomas Williams (2019). Not only is this translation tight, bright, and beautiful, but it captures the fluid way Augustine weaved Scripture into his speech by omitting the quotation marks around Scripture passages and inserting the citation in the margins, not in-text or in the footnotes.

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts

On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts

Regular price: $24.99

Add to cart
Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter

Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter

Regular price: $15.40

Add to cart
The Confessions of Saint Augustine

The Confessions of Saint Augustine

Regular price: $9.99

Add to cart
Search Your Print Library from Your Digital Device. Find out more
  1. For an appreciation of Augustine as our contemporary, pick up James K. A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Grand Rapids, IL: Brazos, 2023). I think this title should be required reading for young folk just leaving home for college or a career.
  2. Blake Adams, “Interview with Timothy Larsen: Evangelical Biblicism over the Years,” Modern Reformation, May 2, 2022.
  3. For an example of what I mean, see Margaret R. Miles, Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2012). In this memoir, the author recalls her childhood in a fundamentalist household while holding, as it were, Augustine’s Confessions in the other hand. Not only does she find an unlikely friend and refuge in Augustine, but Confessions supplies her with a literary model for understanding her own spiritual journey.
  4. Garry Wills, Augustine’s ‘Confessions’: A Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 10.
  5. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 45th anniv. ed. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 169. First published in 1967.
  6. On what sort of readers Augustine anticipated while writing, see Jason David Beduhn, “Anticipated Readers,” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s ‘Confessions,’ 46–59, ed. Tarmo Toom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020).
  7. Augustine is not trying to show off how well-read he is. Confessions bears little resemblance to, say, the Miscellanies of Clement of Alexandria, wherein Clement takes pains to demonstrate his considerable learning by quoting or alluding to a piece of Greek literature every few sentences.
  8. For a survey of the role and use of texts in philosophical contexts, see H. Gregory Snyder, Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World: Philosophers, Jews and Christians (New York: Routledge, 2000).
  9. The argument below is my own contribution to Augustine studies. I am not aware of anyone else who has attempted to refute the proposal that Augustine engaged in an act of biblical cleromancy.
  10. Aelius Spartianus, Vita Hadriani, 2.8, quoted in Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (New York, NY: Penguin, 1996), 209.
  11. The sortes Vergilianae would not perish with the advent of Christianity. King Charles I famously performed the sortes during a visit to a library in Oxford. To “make a trial of his fortunes,” the king opened a copy of the Aeneid and read, “May he be harried in war by audacious tribes, and exiled from his own land.” A few years later, he would be condemned as a traitor by his own people and beheaded at Whitehall. See Manguel, History of Reading, 210.
  12. William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 303. Harris adds, “The advice he received was entirely familiar to him, but now had supernatural authority.” Harris, Ancient Literacy, 303, fn. 84.
  13. Athanasius of Alexandria, The Life of Antony, 1, in Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg, The Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 31.
  14. Wills, Augustine’s Confessions, 148.
  15. Charles L. Stinger, Humanism and the Church Fathers (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1977), 98.
  16. Stinger, Humanism and the Church Fathers, 96–97.
  17. James K. A. Smith, Letters to a Young Calvinist (Grand Rapids, IL: Brazos, 2010), 38–41.
  18. Because he wrote exclusively in Latin, Augustine had virtually zero influence in the Greek-speaking East. For this reason, few Orthodox Christians have read him. I happen to know an Orthodox priest who has. When I asked his opinion of Confessions, he shrugged and said Augustine was “a bit whiny.”
Written by
Blake Adams

Blake Adams (MA, Wheaton College) is an editor, writer, and trained historian. His research interests include early Christian literature and biblical exegesis. He serves as Lead Sacristan at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, IL. Visit him at his website:

View all articles

Your email address has been added

Written by Blake Adams