Augustine’s Restless Heart
“Man is one of your creatures, Lord, and his instinct is to praise you.… The thought of you stirs him so deeply that he cannot be content unless he praises you, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no peace until they rest in you” (translation by R. S. Pine-Coffin).
These are some of the opening lines of one of the great Christian classics of all time: the Confessions of the colossal North African theologian and church leader Augustine. Augustine lived and wrote around the beginning of the 400s, just as the page of history was beginning to turn in the western world from the long-standing hegemony of the ancient Roman Empire towards the predominantly Christian culture of the early medieval period.
Augustine was a crucial figure in this historical change. In his formative years he drank deeply from the fountains of ancient Classical learning; then, in his Christian ministry and writings, he laid much of the foundation for all later Christian theology in the west.
For being the spiritual memoirs of such a titanic historical person, Augustine’s Confessions is arrestingly relatable. His mother was a strong Christian, but his unbelieving father was ambitious for him to succeed in a high-powered career. The story of the Confessions is of Augustine becoming enthralled, then later disillusioned, first with Classical philosophy and rhetoric, then with a bizarre and fantastical cult, before he was finally convinced of the truth of Christianity and devoted his life (and prodigious intellectual talents) to the service of Christ.
But it’s not just Augustine’s thinking that changed. Augustine is very transparent about his personal life. As a young man his life was dominated by his intellectual curiosity, career ambition, and sexual promiscuity. His conversion to Christianity changed all of this. In Christ, Augustine’s restless heart at last found peace.
Augustine’s contribution to later theology is vast and varied; both Reformation theology and Roman Catholic theology look back to Augustine as a foundational voice. Reflecting on this, B.B. Warfield argued that Augustine’s teaching about God’s grace (which was beloved by the reformers) was inconsistent with his teaching about the sacramental system of the church (which informs Roman Catholicism). In fact, the Reformation, Warfield argued, was in a sense “the triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the church.”
However one assesses that particular claim, one thing is certain: many of the doctrines we treasure, including the Reformation’s emphasis on God’s sovereign grace towards helpless sinners, have been passed down to us through Augustine’s hands. As Charles Spurgeon once said, “The doctrine which I preach to you is that of the Puritans: it is the doctrine of Calvin, the doctrine of Augustine, the doctrine of Paul, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.”
Grace-Based Action Point
If you read one Christian classic this year (and I hope you will!) consider making it Augustine’s Confessions. You will find there a deeply human character, warts and all. You will also find a brilliant mind and a warm heart challenging you to love Christ more deeply and devote yourself to Him more completely. And from the very first paragraph, you will be reminded that God made you for Himself, and that your heart will find no peace until it rests in Him.
Yours in Christ,