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What is Confession?

One of the interesting things about reading Augustine’s Confessions is the way it makes one reflect on what the practice of confession means in a full theological sense. Clearly Augustine’s act of confessing in his account includes what we normally think of, namely the public admission of sin. However it is clearly much, much more than that for Augustine. All throughout the Confessions the language is saturated with longing, prayer, inquiry, exultation, sorrow, joy, and hope. In short, the language of the Confessions is the language of the pslams, or more generally, of prayer.

Put even more succinctly, for Augustine, confession ultimately is centered in speaking the truth about God and creation in all its dramatic complexity and contingency. “Confession” means something like profession of the fullness of our faith, proclamation of the gospel in all its dimensions. Confession is the passionate commitment to speak the truth in all its beauty in the face of our own manifest slavery and contradiction. However for Augustine this task is not one of sheer moral resolve, let alone humiliation, rather it is an exercise of joy in God.

To boil it all down, confession must ultimately be seen as the articulation of our own doxological transformation. In confession we recount how we have been and continue to be caught up into God’s radical love which draws us away from sin and futility and towards the fullness of life and joy in sharing in the triune life. In short, confession is doxology. In confession we are drawn to speak (or sing) the truth of God’s intrusion into our lives of sin and slavery out of the excess of the joy that comes from knowing God and knowing ourselves and our neighbors in God.

Confession is not a difficult moral duty. Rather it is an exercise of doxological delight in the beauty of how God has seized in Christ and through the Spirit given us a share in the very life of the Trinity.


  1. kim fabricius wrote:

    1. If you asked Augustine what the Confessions is about, one thing he would surely insist is, “It’s not about me!” Ironically, because it’s not, it also is!

    2. “Doxological delight” – what a lovely phrase! To be sure, the Confessions is a prayer – a roller coaster ride of a prayer. And a “a long poem” (Serge Lancel).

    3. Augustine is having a confidential conversation with the Lord, but Paul is at his shoulder, and there is a didactic purpose to his writing.

    4. Oops! Augustine didn’t write the Confessions, he dictated it.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 3:53 pm | Permalink
  2. Brad A. wrote:

    Interesting #4, Kim – Even there, he’s confessing in public.

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  3. roger flyer wrote:

    His most doxological statement: “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee, O God.”

    Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 7:38 pm | Permalink
  4. Austin wrote:

    This doxology is also a “spiritual practice,” as Hadot says. I.e., it is a way of re-formulating his own history colliding with God’s history, and as a practice, it is meant to develop a different perception of the world. As I understand what Augustine is doing, he’s trying to show his readers a technique for re-figuring one’s perception of what you’ve done, and in this way, show that all you do has its source in God, and hence any confession is ultimately confessing God.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 6:33 am | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    I’m pretty sure “Confessiones” (as in the title of this work) is intended in a sense distinct from what one might call “the Sacrament of Penance.”

    As in… the title of this work does not have the same meaning as “confess” in the sentence: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink
  6. Hill wrote:

    Maybe more succinctly, we can confess our faith, and we can confess our sins, but the meaning of confess in each case is different, if somewhat related. I don’t think it really makes sense to say “confessing our sins” = doxology. The type of confessing Augustine is doing here may in fact equal something like doxology, but no one would really suggest that that is a “difficult moral duty.”

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Yes, the meaning is distinct, but I don’t think its fundamentally divergent. Its not two different things but two varied instantiations of one reality. In both cases confessing means to proclaim what is true. How that gets inflected depending on the subject matter under discussion will of course be different, but it seems to me that both sorts of confession are of the same genus.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 11:39 am | Permalink
  8. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Did reading the Confessions make you quit facebook?

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 2:51 pm | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    I’m just not sure that saying they are ultimately the same gets us. Anyone who has done either will tell you how radically different the experience of them is. Certainly one leads to the other and is in fact the precondition of the other. The human experience of the need to confess one’s sins seems experientially prior to doxology, however.

    “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” or something.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    It seems to me that on the experiential level there’s as much difference within these two forms of confession as there is between them.

    And…I have done both…so there.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    No, getting disgusted at myself for how I spend my time made me quit facebook.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  12. Hill wrote:

    Sorry didn’t mean it in that sense. I figured you Anabaptists had some sort of confession going on.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    We try.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    I’m not trying hard enough :(

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  15. Hill wrote:

    Life as a Pelagian is really freaking hard.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 5:26 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Saving yourself is damn hard work I hear.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 5:38 pm | Permalink
  17. Hill wrote:

    Tell me about it.

    Wednesday, September 2, 2009 at 5:39 pm | Permalink
  18. Jason Barr wrote:

    I think this is a really good point, there’s a tendency in modernity to conceive of any kind of speaking of God as conjectural navel-gazing whereas for Augustine the truth is the reverse – to speak of the self adequately one must first speak of God and confess the truth about God. The self is defined in light of God, and not vice-versa.

    While it is undeniably true that we can only speak of God from our own contexts, and therefore our vision of God will be colored by that, I think it is possible to articulate words about God that touch upon (maybe “palpate” is a good word) truths that are not delimited by our own contexts – ways of speaking of God that burst out of our own visions and allow our ways of seeing, knowing, and speaking to be transformed. I have this Jean-Luc Marion-esque train of thought going on right now and I’m not quite sure how to articulate it.

    Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 2:23 am | Permalink

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