Christus totus and the Confessions: Augustine’s Ecclesiology and the Puzzle of the Presence of Christ in his Confessions
Where is Christ in the Confessions? Augustine goes on and on about his soul and God, but says very little about Christ. Christ is a marginal character in the narrative. This renders the Confessions a prime example of what Basil Studer has identified as the theocentrism of Augustine. Yet I offer up the possibility that Christ is not as absent from the Confessions as it seems. In light of Augustine’s earlier writings on the concept of Christus totus, Christ may be present in the Confessions in the form of the Church.
In order to make this case, I will first describe Basil Studer’s analysis of the problem of Christocentrism and theocentrism in Augustine. Following Studer’s lead, I will test his thesis against the Confessions. I will then turn to an analysis of Augustine’s concept of Christus totus, particularly as found in his Homilies on First John. Finally, I will return to the Confessions to argue that the significant role played by the Church therein may imply an incognito presence of Christ. My purpose is to show that the Christus totus concept complicates but does not solve the Christocentric-theocentric problem in the Confessions.
Before proceeding, it is important to recognize the nature of my argument. I am arguing for conceptual plausibility rather than historical certainty. Augustine’s theology is full of inconsistencies – for good or ill. In this particular case, there may be no intended connection between Christus totus and the Confessions. I aim only prove a more modest point: that it is not impossible for Christ to be present in the Confessions incognito through the Church.
The Christocentric-Theocentric Puzzle in Augustine’s Confessions
Even a casual reading of Augustine’s Confessions reveals the near absence of the word “Christ” in its pages. Augustine offers his Confessions directly to God, with only a few passing reference to Christ. He appears to have an immediate relation to God with the mediation of Christ. Such an observation could be dismissed as a simply a matter of semantics. But such a dismissal is forced to deny the fact of Augustine’s training in rhetoric and his thoughtfulness as a theologian. For a rhetor turned theologian like Augustine, nothing is mere semantics.
What, then, is the relationship between Christ and God in Augustine’s Confessions? In his insightful study, The Grace of God and the Grace of Christ in Augustine of Hippo, Basil Studer answers this very question in reference to Augustine’s entire corpus. Studer approaches this question by comparing two words studies in Augustine: “God” and “Christ.”[i] His aim is to fill a gap in Augustine studies that miss the subtle relation between these terms due to long-held assumptions on the relation of nature and grace in Augustine. The term Augustine pairs with both God and Christ is grace. Studer aims to see how Augustine relates these two “graces.”
Studer’s basic thesis is that although Augustine takes very seriously the role of Christ in redemption, he is ultimately theocentric rather than Christocentric. Studer makes this case by tracing the use of the terms “Christ” and “God” to show that even the references to Christ are ultimately aimed at bringing the Christian to God.
The ordering of Studer’s treatment is important. He deals first with Christ, then with God. Studer does not accuse Augustine of having a sort of vague God-concept of which Christ is a mere instance; rather, Christ comes first in the path to God. Studer asserts, “If one is determined to contrast the grace of Christ with the grace of God, one cannot achieve this simply by linking the latter to the God of the philosophers and the former to the God of faith.”[ii] Augustine’s theocentrism is therefore teleological: one must go through Christ to get to God.
The significance of these prepositions ought not be missed. Studer repeatedly quotes the following formula as a summary of Augustine’s Christology: per Christum hominem ad Christum Deum. This formula presents Christ as the gateway and the goal, the way and the homeland.[iii] Yet in his understanding of Christ as mediator, Augustine “move[s] beyond this seemingly Christocentric formula.”[iv] The emphasis ultimately falls on the last word of the formula: Deum. As Studer summarizes, “Augustine’s teaching on God shows how legitimate it is to understand the seemingly Christocentric formulas in a theological and even a theocentric way.”[v] Although there is no separation or opposition between Christ and God, the latter is finally ordered above the former.
Studer’s analysis is especially helpful when we turn to Augustine’s Confessions. As was already mentioned, Augustine speaks directly to God; the presence of Christ is rather marginalized. Take for instance Book I, wherein Augustine makes numerous statements about God while Christ is barely even mentioned. He calls God “my God.”[vi] The dance between God and Augustine is the dominant plot line that ties together the Confessions. As a character or figure in the story, Christ is not even secondary; he is a distant co-star.
Studer offers a brief survey of the presence of the word “Christ” in the Confessions. After listing and discussing each case, Studer remarks that the Confessions narrate Augustine’s understanding of Christ from a vague awareness in childhood to a rather complex understanding of the ontological constitution and soteriological significance of Christ. He concludes by characterizing Augustine’s use of the term Christ as “exegetical, liturgical and apologetic.”[vii] Despite these hints of Augustine’s typical use of the term, Christ does not play a central role in the Confessions.
Studer’s brief study on Christ in the Confessions can be contrasted with his more extended treatment on God in the Confessions. God is certainly a central character in the Confessions. We can learn a great deal about Augustine’s concept of God from its pages. Augustine patterned his Confessions after the book of Psalms, and so addresses God directly.[viii] We encounter in the Confessions numerous discussions of the nature of God and divine attributes. For instance, the unity of mercy and justice in God is a prominent theme in this work.[ix] Next to Augustine himself, God is the central figure of the Confessions.
It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Christ is irrelevant in the Confessions. Augustine points to the significance of the name of Christ (III.4, 6; VI.4). His stern apologetic for Orthodox Christology reveals the importance of Christ for Augustine (VII.9, 18-19). Augustine concludes the narrative portion of his Confessions with an extended reflection on the work of Christ (X.42-43). So it is fair to say that Christ is not completely forgotten in the Confessions.
Nevertheless, Studer’s thesis still applies to the Confessions. When asserting the significance of the name of Christ, he also mentions God as a proper name (III.6). Christ serves as an “example of humility” in the search for God (VIII.2). The divine Word is mentioned numerous times without an accompanying use of the name Christ (IV.11; IX.3). Even his reflection on the work of Christ does not contradict Studer’s description of the relation between Christ and God. Humanity is saved through him; our ills are cured through him (X.43). The logic of the passage fits well within the formula per Christum hominem ad Christum Deum. In light of the evidence, we can conclude that although Christ is far from absent in the Confessions, his role is filled out and defined by Augustine’ theocentrism.
Following Studer’s word study method, it can be concluded that Augustine’s Confessions are theocentric. Any apparent Christocentrism is ultimately modified by his theocentrism, in striking accordance with the terms of Studer’s thesis. However, before passing a final judgment on Augustine’s Confessions, we must take into account a forgotten character: the Church. The Catholic Church plays a significant role in Augustine’s Confessions. At first glance, such an observation might be ignored as irrelevant to the issue of Christ in the Confessions. Yet, in light of Augustine’s Christus totus concept, the Church is quite relevant when making any assertions about Christ. Before turning to the role of the Church in the Confessions, and how this might modify our conclusions regarding the presence of Christ therein, I will defend the potential relevance of the Church in the Confessions by describing Augustine’s concept of the Christus totus.
Augustine’s Concept of the Christus totus
The role of Christus totus in Augustine’s theology is often forgotten.[x] The idea unites Christology and ecclesiology by affirming the real connection of Christ, the head, to the Church, his body. Quasten summarizes the concept saying, “Christ, as head, is always present and active in his body, the church; the church and Christ form one single person.”[xi] One the one hand, to speak of Christ alone is to forget the whole Christ, for Christ united to the Church. One the other, to speak of the Church alone is also to forget the whole Christ, for the Church is united to Christ. Christ and his Church together are the Christus totus.
Although the idea is spread throughout his corpus, Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John are the key to understanding the concept of Christus totus. Immediately in the first homily, Augustine explains the concept and then coins the phrase Christus totus. After commenting on John’s reference to the witnesses of the embodied Christ, Augustine says, “Verbum caro factum est, et habitavit in nobis; illi carni adjungitur ecclesia, et fit Christus totus, caput et corpus [The Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us; to that flesh is joined the church, and there is made the whole Christ, head and body]” (In. Epist. Io. 1.2).[xii]
Lewis Ayres points out the significance of the context of this famous formula. Augustine is speaking about the physical aspect of the Word’s appearance. Augustine intentionally plays on the words “martyr” and “witness” to lift up the continued physical testimony to the physical appearance of the immaterial Word of God.[xiii] In a sense, the embodiment of the Word is not finished at the ascension of Christ. Rather, he continues to be embodied in those who witness to him.
Augustine made use of this concept in his ecclesiological controversy with the Donatists. Augustine saw the tragedy of institutional division in the Church. He and his opponents had different ecclesiological views, yet both sides claimed to affirm Orthodox Christology. Hence, Augustine made his ecclesiological case by appealing to Christology. With the aid of the concept of Christus totus, Augustine could accuse those who divide the Church of actually denying the very incarnation of the Word. In his sixth homily on 1 John, he declares: “He came to gather in one, you come to unmake. You would pull Christ’s members asunder. How can it be said that you do not deny that Christ is come in the flesh, [if you have] torn asunder the Church which he has gathered together?” (In. Epist. Io. VI.14). Therefore, the Christus totus concept served Augustine well in the midst of theological controversy.
Yet we would be amiss to think of this concept as a mere speculation in service of ecclesiastical disputes. It also had considerable practical import. For Augustine, Christus totus meant that the unseen God could be seen in his Church. The concept therefore underwrote his call to brotherly love. He puts it well in his fifth homily: “You may say to me, I have not seen God; can you say to me, I have not seen man? Love your brother. For if you love your brother whom you see, at the same you will also see God” (In. Epist. Io. V.7). By linking ecclesiology to Christology with the Christus totus concept, Augustine can make an appeal for love of neighbor that is ultimately aimed toward the love of God.
Augustine’s discussion and application of the concept of Christus totus is not found exclusively in his Homilies on First John. Tarsicius J. van Bavel argues that Augustine lifts the concept from Paul.[xiv] The phrases “body of Christ” and “in Christ” play a central role in his epistles. Furthermore, Paul speaks repeatedly of the unity of Christ and Christians, especially in suffering.
Such a unity in suffering is not
unique to Paul among the writers of the New Testament. Van Bavel notes, “Augustine frequently quotes
two New Testament texts about Christ’s identification with the human being.”[xv] These two texts are Matthew 25:31-46 and Acts
9:4. In both cases, Christ speaks of his
people in the first person singular. In
Matthew 25, the Son of Man addresses the sheep and the goats regarding their
compassion when he was sick, hungry, or in prison. He declares, “Whatever you do to the least of
these, you do to me.” In Acts 9, Jesus
asks Saul on the road to
One might object, however, that all this language in the New Testament and Augustine is merely figurative. There is no real, ontological connection between Christ and Christians, is there? In response, it must first be noted that simply identifying a concept as a “metaphor” or “figure” does not necessarily discredit its realistic import. Some of the most significant ontological realities are expressed through metaphor. Additionally, one must remember that in the ancient world identity was often construed in corporate terms. Van Bavel cites a story of Livy’s where an aristocrat calms a rebellion by appealing to a head-and-body analogy similar to that found in the New Testament. The aristocrat is the head of which the lower classes are the body. Amazingly, this speech appeals to the lower classes and the rebellion ends.[xvi] Finally, in the case of Augustine, his language is so striking and his use of the concept so forceful that it is difficult to suggest he is only waxing metaphorically. The following passage from his Homilies on the Gospel of John is a case in point:
Then let us rejoice and give thanks that we are made not only Christians, but Christ. Do you understand, brothers, and apprehend the grace of God upon us? Marvel, be glad, we are made Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members: the whole man is he and we… The fullness of Christ, then, is head and members. Head and members, what is that? Christ and the Church (In. Io. XXI.8).
Therefore, we can agree with the van Bavel statement, “This is more than a simple comparison or metaphor; it is a personal unity.”[xvii] Christus totus is a realistic concept for Augustine.
This realism begs another question: does the concept of Christus totus take away from the uniqueness of Christ? Does the affirmation that we have no Christ without his Church make Christ incomplete? Whatever one makes of the Christology of Augustine in general, this specific concept is not intended to detract in the least bit from Christ’s uniqueness and completeness. The priority in the formula is always given to Christ. Christ can be identified without the Church. Yet Christ chooses not to limit his identifiability to himself alone, but shares it with the Church. As van Bavel insightfully notes, “It is not so that Christ would be incomplete without us or with a church… The union of Christ and the human being is a matter of unity through identification (not identity), freely chosen out of love.”[xviii] So Christ graciously unites himself to us, so that he cannot be found without us or us without him.
The Church in the Confessions
What does Christus totus have to do with the Confessions? More specifically, how does it relate to the Christocentric-theocentric problem found within its pages? Although Augustine does not refer explicitly to the Christus totus in the Confessions, the concept may very well be operative under the surface. If so, then the significant role of the Church in the Confessions must be taken into account when assessing the presence of Christ of the Confessions. If Christ and his Church are one, then where the Church appears in the Confessions, Christ is present incognito.
Before tracing the role of the Church in the Confessions, it is necessary to specify the force of my argument. I am not claiming that every time Augustine mentions the Church, Christ is automatically present. Nor do I intend to counter Studer’s thesis regarding the theocentrism of Augustine. Rather, I simply wish to suggest the plausibility that Christ is less absent in the Confessions if we take the Christus totus concept into account. God’s role may still ultimately overshadow Christ’s role, but since Augustine’s Homilies on First John predate the Confessions, it is not impossible that the deep unity of Christ and his Church exposited in the former is operative in the later.
In order to display the significant role of the Church in the Confessions, I will outline its numerous references to the Church. Such an approach parallels Studer’s word study method. I aim to present a cumulative case argument that, after God and Augustine himself, the Church is the key third character in the Confessions. Only after this case is made, will I return to my hypothesis that Christ is present in the Confessions indirectly through the Church.
Although it is typically read as a narration of the dance between God and the soul, Augustine’s Confessions can also be seen as a retelling of the long courtship between Augustine and the Church. From the beginning, the Church is present through catechism, worship, and his mother. His later intellectual struggles are not described as abstract reflections, but as directly relevant for his relationship to the Church. Under the influence of Ambrose, he says, “I began to believe that the Catholic faith … might fairly be maintained… I therefore decided to remain a catechumen in the Catholic Church” (V.14). As he embarks on his “road to conversion,” he does not just talk about abstract ideas, but also about “the one Church, the Body of your only Son” (VI.4). He eventually begins to “prefer the Catholic teaching,” repeatedly contrasting “the Church” with Manichees and other false philosophies (VI.5). As he goes on to reject numerous other ideas, he is “glad to find that our spiritual mother, your Catholic Church, also rejected such beliefs” (VII.1). The Church is clearly a concrete figure in Augustine’s Confessions.
From the beginning of the Confessions, Augustine deals with his ecclesial identity. The external sign of this identity is baptism. He was a taught as a catechumen in preparation for baptism, yet it was ultimately delayed (I.11). He watches his dead friend be baptized, and is confused by the sight (IV.4). Later, his desire to get married is connected to his Mother’s expectation that he will be baptized (VI.13). Although the famous tolle lege sequence is recounted with climactic fervor, Augustine links his forgiveness of sins not with this experience but with his subsequent baptism. As he puts it, “O Most merciful Lord, did you not forgive this sin and remit its guilt, as well as all my other horrible and deadly sins, in the holy water of baptism? (IX.2). As Augustine narrates his avoidance and eventual acceptance of baptism, his ecclesial identity takes the foreground. The church is therefore given a significant role in the plot of the Confessions.
In addition to its sacraments, the
Church is also seen in its individual members.
Numerous representatives of the Church play key roles in Augustine’s
journey. One of the most significant of
these is his mother. It is easy,
especially in our post-Freud context, to forget that Monica fills two roles in
the story. She is not only Augustine’s
mother, but she is a pious, saintly woman who prays for Augustine’s
conversion. She represents the church at
its best. Augustine draws an explicit
parallel between his mother and the Church: “I appealed to the piety of my own
mother and to the mother of us all, your Church” (I.11). Monica’s prayers are answered when “a bishop
who had lived his life in the Church” comes into Augustine’s life
(III.12). Her piety shows forth when he
leaves her at the shrine of Cyprian to sneak away on a ship to Rome (V.9). This image draws a rhetorical association
between Monica and Cyprian, the great saint of the African church. When Monica visits him in
An equally crucial character in Augustine’s development is Ambrose. Just as in a post-Freud context it is hard to think of Monica as anything but Augustine’s mother, it is equally difficult in a post-Harnack context to think of Ambrose as anything but the bearer of Neo-Platonism. Yet despite his Platonic insight, Ambrose is more than just an intelligent man. He is a bishop of the Church. He therefore represents to Augustine the teaching of the Church. Augustine listens to his sermons every Sunday (VI.3). This fact is telling, because Augustine does not encounter Ambrose primarily as an intellectual teacher or mentor. Rather, he sits under his teacher as a bishop in a cathedral. So we can see that a crucial character like Ambrose also serves as a representative of the Church.
There is one additional piece of
evidence that exhibits the significance of the Church in the Confessions. In book VIII, Augustine shares how he was
heard two stories, both of which helped to drive him to conversion. The first is the story of Victorinus. Augustine goes to Simplicianus, a bishop and
the former mentor of Ambrose, seeking counsel.
Simplicianus tells how the famed Victorinus would come to him in
private, and says, “‘I want you to know that I am now a Christian.’ Simplicianus used to reply, ‘I shall not
believe it or count you as a Christian until I see you in the
The second story is even more crucial for the narrative structure of Augustine’s Confessions. During his tolle lege experience, Augustine recalls that Anthony used of scripture as an immediate and personal word from God upon his conversion. Augustine picks up Romans 13:13-14 and is overcome with confidence in his faith (VIII.12). Anthony, of course, was not just any spiritual man but a great saint of the Catholic Church. So even at the moment of his so-called conversion, Augustine was under the influence of the Church in the form of her saints.
The foregoing survey is intended to exhibit the significance of the Church in the Confessions. The story is not simply about Augustine and God in abstraction from the Church; rather, it is about Augustine’s complex relationship with the Church and its representatives. Augustine finally comes to God through the influence of these representatives and the acceptance of the Church’s sacraments.
I intend to tie this less controversial argument to the more subtle possibility that Christ is present incognito through the Church in the Confessions. The name of Christ is certainly quite marginal in the Confessions, yet in the light of the Christus totus idea, it is conceptually plausible that Augustine would not see this marginality of Christ as a problem. For Augustine, Christ accompanies his Church, and the Church is far from absent in the Confession.
Although this suggestion is intended merely as a conceptual possibility, I would like to offer a bit of textual evidence in support of my thesis. As we have already encountered, the name of Christ is only mentioned a few times in the Confessions. What has not been explored is the fact that many of these references also contain references to the Church. Augustine speaks of the “one Church, the Body of your only son, in which the name of Christ had been put upon me as a child” (VI.4). He says later, “[M]y heart clung firmly to the faith in Christ your Son, our Lord and Saviour, which it had received in the Catholic Church” (VII.5). Finally, toward the end of the narrative portion of the Confessions, Augustine declares, “Let the ears of your Church, the ears of my devout brothers in Christ, listen to my words” (X.34). These few texts exhibit how Christ and his Church are paired together in the Confessions. It is therefore all the more likely that Christ is conceptually present when only the Church can be seen in the story.
In the course of this essay, I have exhibited the conceptual possibility that Christ is more present in the Confessions than it seems. I made my case by appealing to Augustine’s earlier concept of Christus totus. In light of this concept, the significance of the Church in the Confessions is not to be ignored when assessing the role this work gives to Christ. This possibility does not contradict Studer’s insightful claim that Augustine is theocentric rather than Christocentric. Rather, it complicates the matter by adding another term to the relationship: the Church. Despite its ultimate theocentrism, the Confessions should not be accused of forgetting Christ entirely, for he may very well be present with the Church as the Christus totus.
[i] Basil Studer, The Grace of Christ and the Grace of God in Augustine of Hippo: Christocentrism or Theocentrism? (Transl.: Matthew J. O’Connell; Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1997) 1.
[ii] Studer, The Grace of Christ 158.
[iii] Studer, The Grace of Christ 44-47.
[iv] Studer, The Grace of Christ 155.
[v] Studer, The Grace of Christ 156.
[vi] Augustine, Confessions (Ed.: R. S. Pine-Coffin; New York: Penguin, 1961) I.4. Hereafter cited in-text by book in Roman numerals, section in Arabic numerals.
[vii] Studer, The Grace of Christ 21.
[viii] Studer, The Grace of Christ 78.
[ix] For a discussion of the just and merciful God in the Confessions, see Studer, The Grace of Christ and the Grace of God 83-84
[x] Tarsicius J. van Bavel, “The ‘Christus Totus’ Idea: A Forgotten Aspect of Augustine’s Spirituality” in Thomas Finan and Vincent Twomey, eds., Studies in Patristic Christology (Portland Oregon: Four Courts Press, 1998) 85.
[xi] Johannes Quasten, Patrology (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1986) IV:447.
[xii] All translations of Augustine’s Homilies are from In Epistolam Joannis ad Parthos Tractatus Decem, in Opera Omnia 3:2 (Parisiis: Apud Gaume Fratres, 1836), checked against Augustine, “Homilies on the Gospel of John and on the First Epistle of John,” Philip Shaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series 1, Volume 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956). Hereafter cited in-text by tractate in Roman numerals, paragraph in Arabic numerals.
[xiii] Lewis Ayres, “Augustine on God as Love and Love as God” Pro Ecclesia V/4 (Fall 1996) 473.
[xiv] Van Bavel, “The ‘Christus Totus’ Idea” 84-87.
[xv] Van Bavel, “The ‘Christus Totus’ Idea” 88.
[xvi] Van Bavel, “The ‘Christus Totus’ Idea” 84.
[xvii] Van Bavel, “Church” 171.
[xviii] Tarsicius J. van Bavel, “Church” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Gen. Ed.: Allan D. Fitzgerald; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999) 171.
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