Confessions Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow: Augustine’s Big Word

Welcome to our first edition of 5 Minutes in Church History. Let’s start with one of the towering figures in church history, Augustine. Now, first things first. How do you pronounce his name? I had a church history professor in seminary who liked to say St. Augustine is in Florida, St. Augustine is in heaven. Let’s go with that.

I’m struck by the very first word in Augustine’s classic, the Confessions. The word usually gets translated “Great.” A recent translation has the word as “Vast.” The Latin is “Magnus.” And Augustine uses it to refer to God.

This is why we need church history. We need to be reminded of what matters and what matters most. Do you know a sociologist of a few decades ago called us the belly-button generation? We are so consumed with our own selves, so captivated by our own selves.

This sociologist was saying we’re like infants when they first discover their own belly button. They’re utterly fascinated by it. Okay, when you’re an infant. But, as we grow up if we fail to see there’s a world around us, we are living pretty shallow lives. If we’re still fascinated by our belly buttons, something is wrong.

Enter Augustine and his opening word, Magnus, in Confessions. There is something and someone far greater than us. The Greatest, in fact. This first word and the truth it represents controls Augustine’s great book. After Augustine calls God the Greatest, he refers to himself as a mere segment, a dot. Now that’s perspective.

Historians tell us Confessions is the first true autobiography. Kings had written chronicles of their exploits and conquests. But Augustine writes the first autobiography.

True enough. But we would be wrong to assume that Augustine is the main character. That role belongs to God. Augustine calls God the “Hound of Heaven” who relentlessly tracks Augustine down, and draws Augustine to himself. God made Augustine, and God made us, too, for himself. But we run the other way. And our restless hearts propel us in the opposite direction.

So the first paragraph ends:

You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless (unquietam—in the Latin), until they find their rest (pace—peace) in you.

We are not at peace. But, this God who made us, desires to remake us. Augustine liked to call humanity “Adam’s sinful lump.” And this Great Potter, the Magnus, pulls some clay from this lump and reshapes it. He redeems sinful hearts through the atoning blood of the sacrifice of the God-man on the cross. He gives us peace. So Paul says in Romans 5:1:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, this is a Great God. The Greatest. Our very first word should be none other than Augustine’s. Our reflex should be I am but a mere segment a dot. And you, O God, are Great.

The Confessions is more than an autobiography, it’s even more than a classic text—perhaps the finest text in all of Christian history. Augustine’s Confessions is a prayer. And it should be the prayer of all of us.

So now we can reenter the 21st century. Now we can come back to a place where, as Ed Welch put it so well in a book title, “When people are big”—they are magnus—”and God is small”—he is the segment. We can come back to this world that has it so mixed-up with the far better perspective. And say, “Magnus.” Vast and great are you alone, God.

What a challenging, and comforting thought for us for the week.