Friday, February 25, 2011

The Thematic Structure of Confessions

St__Augustine_4Augustine divides his work into 13 books. Generally scholars have had difficulty finding a way to link the autobiographical material in Books 1-9 with Augustine’s soul searching present reflections in Book 10 and finally his allegorical exegesis of Genesis 1 in Books 11-13. Augustine’s treatment of the theme of memory and the Eucharistic theme Cavadini has identified show how these apparently varied parts fit together. The internal structure of the first nine books seems to follow ages of man according to the ancient world: infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth and maturity. In addition to this simple structure, Augustine may be employing other rhetorical techniques.

William A. Stephany has argued that one can recognize a clear structure to the first nine books of Confessions that is call a chiasm (from the Greek letter chi or ‘X’).[i] In a simple chiasm the elements in one statement are paralleled and reversed in the next statement A-B parallels B-A. For example Amos 5:5;

but do not seek Bethel; Do not come to Gilgal, and do not cross to Beer-sheba.

For Gilgal shall be led into exile, and Bethel shall become nought. (NAB)

In a more complex chiasm a series of items pair leaving a central item for emphasis such as “lying” in Psalm 52:3b.

Psalm 52:1b-5a[ii]


Stephany argues that,

“Books 1-9 of the Confessions form a chiasm, with Book 5 at the center and the other books arranged in pairs on either side of the central book: Book 4, in other words, balancing Book 6; Book 3 balancing Book 7; Book 2 balancing Book 8; and Book 1 balancing Book 9. So seen, Book 5 becomes the center of Augustine's narrative of conversion, the point to which the first four books lead, and from which the last four proceed.”[iii]

A diagram of the flow of Augustine’s account of his life shows the clear parallel elements;


Special emphasis is given to Book 5 and the parallel elements show contrasts between the Fallen and redeemed states. Stephany also comments on the contrasts within Book 5 between the Manichean bishop and Bishop Ambrose;

“At the beginning of the Book, Augustine awaits one Bishop expecting the truth, but he received only rhetoric; at the end of the Book, he frequents the sermons of the other Bishop out of professional curiosity, expecting only rhetoric, but he received the truth.”[iv]

As we begin to work our way through the various books, we will try to keep this overall structure of Books 1-9 in mind.  It is interesting to note that this same structure is seen in the famous Carmen Christi hymn found in Philippians 2.  This is one of St. Augustine’s favorite passages.

Text © Scott McKellar 2011

[i] William A. Stephany “Thematic Structure in Augustine’s Confessions,” Augustinian Studies 20 (1989):129 – 142.

[ii] Robert L Alden, “Chiastic Psalms (II): A Study in the Mechanics of Semantic Poetry in Psalms 51-100” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 19-3 (1976) 191-200, esp. 191-192.

[iii] Stephany, 129-130.

[iv] Ibid. 139.

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