Podcast: Augustine’s ‘Confessions’, Book 9

Mere FidelityOnce again, Mere Fidelity is discussing the topic of Augustine’s Confessions. This week, Derek, Matt, and I move on to a discussion of book nine, the final part of the more autobiographical portion of the work.

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About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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4 Responses to Podcast: Augustine’s ‘Confessions’, Book 9

  1. Yana Nikolova says:

    Great episode.

    One thing that really shocked me in book IX (especially in the wake of the Paige Patterson scandal) was the treatment of abused wives as Augustine recounts Monica’s life. He doesn’t even denounce the abusive husbands, but rather the wives who are complaining about being disfigured! And Monica is praised for shutting them up!

    That 4th century context is much more similar to the 1st century one than today. So it struck me that when 1 Peter 3 talks about wives submitting so that they may win over husbands, it probably *is* also talking about submitting to abuse. Obviously today the situation is different, since spousal abuse is criminalized, but it’s still very troubling. Made me really sad to read that. Augustine doesn’t treat the situation as ideal, but he does seem to think that beating is within the prerogative of the husband (Monica appeals to the marriage contract). I wonder at the extent to which Biblical cultures (Hebrew and Hellenistic) would have thought the same.

    What did you think about that section (IX.ix)?

    • It really is a passage shocking to modern sensibilities! I would be extremely concerned if I were to see a Christian leader advocating such an approach in key respects today. The victim-blaming element is particularly dangerous.

      Yes, you are correct: the fourth century context would have been close to that of the first. We shouldn’t harbour romantic illusions about this: for many women historically, marriage would have been pretty grim and cruel, quite akin to slavery.

      Augustine’s point—and he is clearly idealizing his mother’s approach here, albeit not her situation—is not primarily about the justification of the perverse marriage culture of his day, but about Christian response to injustice and oppression. The submission of the beaten wife is, he is arguing, a Christian response to the cruelty of her husband. His issue is not that such women should never have recourse to other authorities to aid them—for most women, such authorities simply didn’t exist—but that they should submit to and accord their husbands honour, even under such circumstances.

      And here Augustine is taking a biblical approach, albeit one that we find a hard word. The oppressed and mistreated Christian is called to submit to authorities and not to dishonour them. This doesn’t mean that we can’t appeal to other just authorities to respond to injustice, but that we must always act in a way that shows honour to divinely established rule, even when exercised by wicked persons. We can legitimately seek to vote out our political leaders and present legal obstacles to the achievement of their ends, but we must always submit to them and show them due honour.

      The Christian is called to patient endurance and submission. The battered wife should submit to and honour her husband by not trying to tear him down in conversation with other wives or poison his relationships with his children, for instance. In our powerlessness we can often take any opportunity to dishonour those over us, but Christians are called to resist this impulse.

      The Christian wife’s submission does not mean that she cannot have recourse to other proper authorities to help her, nor that she has no right to separate from her husband. Such recourse is compatible with submission, although such recourse wasn’t available to most wives in the ancient world.

      The Christian slave is called to patient endurance, faithful obedience, and honourable behaviour towards even cruel masters, serving God rather than men. However, such slaves are also called to take advantage of whatever opportunities they might have for freedom. Christian citizens are called to similar submission and to honour even those rulers that are seeking to kill them. Likewise, Christian wives are called to submit to and honour their husbands, living as to Christ, rather than men. Such submission allows for us to appeal to other authorities, but not to be the sort of people who despise authorities (even Michael doesn’t revile Satan).

      Putting the deeply problematic victim-blaming to one side, Monica’s counsel to women to honour and submit to even abusive husbands is Christian counsel. The change with our own day is not that we are no longer to submit to cruel people who may have authority over us, but that we are blessed to live in a better ordered society, where we have greater recourse against abusive leaders, so that our righteous submission to authority is much less likely to take the form of submission to tyrannical and unchecked rule, whether of a husband, a king, a master, or parents.

      • Yana Nikolova says:

        That’s very helpful, thanks. I think the point about marriage being quite grim in the past (and for many presently) is important. We should disabuse ourselves of idealized notions of what it was like “in the good old days”. I feel like that attitude also makes people reticent to identify actual sin that was tolerated in the past, because it messes with their declinist paradigm, so they try to justify it instead. We really should appreciate how far we’ve come in many areas. Though that sometimes complicated how we evaluate the morality of past figures and the extent to which they should be seen as examples to follow.

        Having a submissive attitude toward authority (whatever authority it may be), I think is really difficult for us today, when society valorizes rebellion (often just for the sake of it). But is there ever warrant for righteous rebellion? Thinking out loud here.

        Anyways, thanks for the interaction. Very thoughtful (and biblical) as always.

      • Yes, there is no Golden Age to which we could return. And differentiating Scripture’s teaching concerning how people should act in oppressive social situations from its teaching concerning how society should be ordered is important. Saying that Christian slaves should obey their masters, or even that Christian slave-owners should treat their slaves with care and dignity is not the same thing as justifying or valorizing the institution of slavery.

        Rebellion is a different thing from resistance or even from displacing of evil authorities. Rebellion seems to involve a deeper opposition to authority as such. For instance, refusing to obey the ungodly commands of a wicked ruler is not of itself rebellion: you can resist such commands in a way that shows respect for the ruler and the authority that they wield. Likewise, appealing to other lawful authorities to act against a wicked and oppressive authority is not rejecting authority more generally.

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