Friday, June 14, 2013

Augustin's Conversion Critiqued and Defended

Some have offered critique of how stylized or superstitious or otherwise faulty is the "conversion" of Augustin (e.g., Adolf von Harnack) as he tells his conversion story in book VIII of his justly famous Confessions.

Dealing with this criticism, B. B. Warfield sympathetically considers what Augustin was doing in writing the Confessions:
The person we meet in [the Confessions] is a person, we perceive, who towers in greatness of mind and heart, in the loftiness of his thought and in his soaring aspirations, far above ordinary mortals: and yet he is felt to be compacted of the same clay from which we have ourselves been molded. . . . It is the very purpose of this book to give the impression that Augustine himself was a weak and erring sinner, and that all of good that came into his life was of God. 
It is especially important for us precisely at this point to recall our minds to the fact that to give such an impression is the supreme purpose of the Confessions. This whole account of his life-history which we have tried to follow up to its crisis in his conversion is written, let us remind ourselves, not that we may know Augustine, but that we may know God: and it shows us Augustine only that we may see God. The seeking and saving grace of God is the fundamental theme throughout. The events of Augustine's life are not, then, set forth in it simpliciter
Speaking then of the aim of Augustin in recounting the sins of his infancy and childhood, Warfield says:
In these traits of the narrative, however, Augustine is not passing judgment on himself alone, but in himself on humanity at large in its state of sin and misery. By an analysis of his own life-history he realizes for himself, and wishes to make us realize with him, what man is in his sinful development on the earth, that our eyes may be raised from man to see what God is in his loving dealing with the children of men. We err, if from the strong, dark lines in which he paints his picture we should infer that he would have us believe that in his infancy, youth, or manhood he was a sinner far beyond the sinfulness of other men. . . .
He knew his own sinfulness as he knew the sinfulness of no other man, and it was his one burning desire that he should in his recovery to God recognize and celebrate the ineffableness of the grace of God. The pure grace of God is thus his theme throughout, and nowhere is it more completely so than in this culminating scene of his conversion. 
—"Augustine and his 'Confessions,'" in The Works of Benjamin B. WarfieldStudies in Tertullian and Augustine (vol. 4; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 267268.

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