Retractions · Series · Uncategorized

Series Introduction: Retractions

Saint Augustine in His Study (Sandro Boticelli, 1480)

I have to begin with the classic deserted island question: If you were stranded on an island by yourself and could only bring one book, which one would you bring?

I think the question, stated in this way, is a bit unfair. Any Christian, after all, is going to answer “the Bible” (I hope). So I’ll reframe the question: which non-biblical book would you bring, and why?

For my part, I would bring the Confessions of St. Augustine. As these professors have remarked in their excellent course on the Confessions, by the time you finish reading it, you are ready to begin reading it again.

Unfortunately, this post has little to do with the Confessions. (I’m sure I’ll talk about it much more in the future.) I only bring it up to make this point: I agree with some scholars that Augustine is the most important non-biblical writer in the history of Christianity for a number of reasons. I don’t plan on defending this claim, so you can take it or leave it as my mere opinion.

In many respects I want to imitate Augustine, especially how he constantly applied his mind to thinking about God and the Bible. For that reason, I’m going to begin a series that is inspired by his example: the “Retractions.”

Augustine’s Retractations

Near the end of his life , Augustine began writing a book that he called the Retractations. (The Retractations was published in 427.)[1] During his life (from 354-430 A.D.) he wrote many books, letters, and sermons that were copied and circulated during his day and for centuries after his death. He was so prolific as a writer that his close friend and biographer Possidius wrote this about him:

And so many things were dictated and published by him and so many things were discussed in the church, written down and amended, whether against various heretics or expounded from the canonical books for the edification of the holy sons of the Church, that scarcely any student would be able to read and know them all.
—Possidius, Life of Augustine

I have to add to Possidius’ claim just a little bit to make what he meant clear to you. Again, according to professors Cook and Herzman, a full translation of Augustine’s works will span at least 48 volumes. Furthermore, by reading the Confessions and Retractations, we know that some of his works no longer survive. Even more startlingly (to me, at least), is the fact that he didn’t begin writing as a Christian until after his conversion at 33 years old.

His Retractations was a noble project, then—one that he never completed. In the prologue to it Augustine said that he wanted to review his writings and correct anything that dissatisfied him.[2] In the course of the book, he ends up reviewing about 93 works (books, letters, sermons) that he wrote.[3]

Augustine also indicates in the prologue that his review is motivated by the fact that he is a teacher. To this effect he quotes James 3:1-2, which says this:

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well. (NASB)

This Scripture is clear: Teachers are held to a high standard. Not only that, but because it is inevitable that humans will fail, that should motivate us to think hard about becoming teachers. For Augustine, this meant that he should take stock of all that he wrote as a teacher, to make sure that it matched what the “Teacher” (Jesus) said.[4] Otherwise, God would hold him accountable for the things that he said but no longer believed.

My Retractions

Some have translated the Latin retractatio as “retractions,” which in English can mean to withdraw what one has said. Some have pointed out, though, that this doesn’t necessarily capture what is meant by the Latin retractatio, nor what Augustine actually did in this work.

I don’t know Latin (yet), so I won’t debate the proper understanding of retractatio. Suffice it to say that some understand the word to mean something more like a “reconsideration” than an outright retraction. This fits well with Augustine’s purpose because there are times he elaborates on things he says, rather than simply withdrawing what he said.

In any case, I said in the beginning of this post that this series of retractions is inspired by Augustine’s example. If something ends up in this series, it is because I’ve changed my mind about it. Further elaborations will not. That’s why it is inspired by Augustine’s Retractations, not a direct imitation.

More on Being Blameless

I am wedded to doing theology by providing clear arguments. That means I am going to stick my neck out in many cases by providing you with my premises and conclusions. I’ve been convinced by writers like Oliver Crisp that analytic theology is a way of doing systematic theology. And that’s the way I plan to progress toward making up my mind about God.

Part of making oneself clear means that one is open to a lot more criticism, but as I’ve said elsewhere, part of my aim in this is to be blameless. I think withdrawing things I’ve said that are arguably false or mistaken is one way to uphold this principle. It also shows that I take repentance seriously.

As I’ve said, since I believe I’ve been given a gift for teaching, that implies I’m a teacher. And that means, as Augustine recognized, that I will be held to a higher standard for the things I say. Being open and honest about how I’ve changed my mind, I hope, will abate judgment upon me by my critics, and by God, for being an irresponsible thinker.

Will I be perfect? No. But neither was Augustine, and he became a saint worthy of imitation.

 


[1] Augustine, The Retractations, trans. Mary Inez Bogan (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1999), xiii.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid., xiii.

[4] Ibid., 4.

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