Augustine is the only human being between Saint Paul and Thomas Aquinas with a life story that many Christians think they know, principally from his Confessions. A twentieth-century Augustinian scholar, Professor James J. O'Donnell, argues in his book, 'Augustine: A New Biography,' that Confessions is not really an autobiography in the modern sense.
Instead, O'Donnell claims the Confessions is primarily an address by Augustine to God. And so, O'Donnell writes, 'human readers are not only disregarded, but seated in the balcony and ignored by the performer on stage.' Is O'Donnell correct? Well, Augustine had something to say on this matter himself!
"The thirteen books of my Confessions,which praise the just and good God in all my evil and good ways, and stir up towards him the mind and feelings of men. As far as I am concerned, they had this effect on me when I wrote them, and they still do when I read them. What others think is their own business: I know at least that many of the brethren have enjoyed them and still do." (Augustine: Retractions II. 6, 1)
The Confessions is not the autobiography of Augustine. He did not choose to include - or exclude - various incidents in his life because of their relative significance to an appropriate chronology of his first thirty years on this earth. Instead, the Confessions consciously focuses on those crucial episodes and events that Augustine chose in hindsight. His plan was to select powerful instances of the grace of God in his life. There often were events whose deeper significance Augustine had not noticed while these events were happening.
Throughout the Confessions, Augustine intends that his readers do not focus on himself as a sinner like themselves, but rather marvel at the great gift of grace (in Latin, gratia) that God gave to him and to all other human beings. As well as the excellent spiritual goals of praising the grace (in Latin, gratia) of God, there were also more mundane incentives for his composing the Confessions.
Various authors have nominated various reasons. It is known that the friend of Augustine, Alypius, introduced Paulinus of Nola to the writings of Augustine. Subsequently Paulinus asked Augustine about his path and process to the Christian church. Was the writing of the Confessions partly prompted by this? Henry Chadwick, an Augustinian scholar of recent decades, has noted that some of the contemporaries of Augustine were not quite convinced of the depth of his conversion at Milan, and Augustine was not going to remain silent about the powerful action of Divine Providence in leading him to conversion.
Professor Peter Brown, another recent Augustinian scholar, has suggested that the rapid change of Augustine from a new Christian living in a community of laymen to becoming a church official and an important Christian author drove him write his Confessions. He suggests that Augustine sought a deeper conversion by now repeating his original conversion spiritually within his mind and heart. To publish his journey to conversion at the hands of god was also an act of spiritual kindness and pastoral example to others.
In his Confessions, he proclaims to anyone who is listening that the grace of God can gently touch even the most proud or obstinate soul. And his having such a motive had both implications and pastoral opportunities. For example, would this motive have encouraged him rhetorically to over-portray his moral evil so that the reaching down of God to save him would appear even more generous? Regardless of what degree of truth there may be in each of these theories, it is safe to say that Augustine wrote the Confessions for his God, and for himself as a vehicle for his praising of this God.
To give Augustine the final words on the subject - even if not accepting it as his greatest reason - he says that he wrote the Confessions for "a people curious to know the lives of others, but careless to amend their own." He clearly wished to demonstrate the providence and mercy of God as shown in the life of one sinner, and to make sure that no one should think any better of him than he really was.
In his Retractations, Augustine stated, "My Confessions, in thirteen books, praise the righteous and good God as they speak either of my evil or good, and they are meant to excite the minds and affections of people towards God. At least as far as I am concerned, this is what they did for me when they were being written and they still do this when read. What some people think of them is their own affair [ipse viderint in the original Latin text]; but I do know that they have given pleasure to many of my brethren and still do so." (Retractations, II, 6)(Confessions continued on the next page.)