St. Augustine, de Trinitate, Book III

“…while yet I cannot resist my brethren when they exact of me, by that law by which I am made their servant, that I should minister above all to their praiseworthy studies in Christ by my tongue and by my pen, of which two yoked together in me, Love is the charioteer; and while I myself confess that I have by writing learned many things which I did not know.”

Writing continues to be, for Augustine, a pastoral project. As mentioned before, many would rather simply contemplate God, and this is indeed what we are called to do.  It is, as in the story of Martha and Mary, “the better part.” It is the “one thing necessary.”

Nevertheless, on earth we are called to love not only God but our neighbor.  It is hard to imagine a way in which we could love our neighbor more than by bringing them to the truth or, if they are there, confirming them in it, so that they may know the truth and it may set them free, both now and eternally.  We not only wish to know God, but to serve him, and Augustine, as pastor and bishop, continues to fulfill this.

Serving God, however, always has its rewards, although they certainly need not be temporal.  Here, however, Augustine notes that he learns much through his writing.  In being called again to the active life, he is not turned away from the contemplative. Indeed, we can only share the fruits of our contemplation after we have done the contemplating.  Teaching, as so many involved in such work will attest, is a great means of learning. And a bishop is a teacher.  He is arguably first a teacher, and then a sanctifier, and only then and because of these first two, a governor.  He is to follow his exemplar, who is Christ, as prophet, priest, and king.  He is to teach, to sanctify, and to govern.

Let us return, however, to the teaching of de Trinitate itself. Augustine had posed three questions in Book II, Chapter 3.  After a brief recapitulation, he proceeds here to formulate a response to the second of those questions…

“Let us, then, continue our inquiry now in order. ..the second head in that division the question occurred, whether the creature was formed for that work only, wherein God, in such way as He then judged it to be fitting, might be manifested to human sight; or whether angels, who already existed, were so sent as to speak in the person of God, assuming a corporeal appearance from the corporeal creature for the purpose of their ministry; or else changing and turning their own body itself, to which they are not subject, but govern it as subject to themselves, into whatever forms they would, that were appropriate and fit for their actions, according to the power given to them by the Creator.”

Augustine makes the point that there will be mystery in the exact “how” of God and His messengers.  Did the angels “assume” (and by this he does not imply a true incarnation) a matter that did not pre-exist so as to manifest themselves to man?  Or rather, did they assume (as in take over) pre-existing matter to do likewise? Certainly, it could have been both.  Perhaps “the three” that visited Abraham were created simply for these meetings, and then disappeared later, whereas, at the burning bush, a preexisting bush was set aflame yet was not consumed.

Whatever they (the angels, His messengers) did, they did with power from God, as authorized and derived from Him.  God is always the cause, at least in the sense of being the cause of something’s existence as such.  God is the primary mover, and nothing happens outside of His [consequent] will.  The difference between antecedent will and consequent will is not directly addressed here, but Augustine seems to demonstrate that the difference is to be understood in the way he repeatedly claims that all happens by God’s will, yet any evil acts are by His “permission.”  Later in Book III, he will say this in more explicit terms:

“But neither do the good angels do these things, except as far as God commands, nor do the evil ones do them wrongfully, except as far as He righteously permits. For the malignity of the wicked one makes his own will wrongful; but the power to do so, he receives rightfully, whether for his own punishment, or, in the case of others, for the punishment of the wicked, or for the praise of the good.”

Augustine tells us, indeed, that this path follows all the way up to God in all things, whether by inanimate object, as well as by creatures, rational or non-rational, although each in their own way:

“But as the more gross and inferior bodies are governed in due order by the more subtle and powerful ones, so all bodies are governed by the living spirit; and the living spirit devoid of reason, by the reasonable living spirit; and the reasonable living spirit that makes default and sins, by the living and reasonable spirit that is pious and just; and that by God Himself, and so the universal creature by its Creator, from whom and through whom and in whom it is also created and established. And so it comes to pass that the will of God is the first and the highest cause of all corporeal appearances and motions.”

Augustine has certainly assumed miracles in his exposition thus far, and the teaching is almost universally accepted by Christians.  I know of few who would deny miracles but still claim to be Christians before the time of David Hume and his contemporaries and followers.

Nevertheless, those who would deny the possibility of miracles, as spoken of in the Old Testament, are addressed. Speaking of God’s providence and His being the cause, as addressed above, of all things, Augustine states that it is the same God who does both.

“Who ordinarily clothes the trees with leaves and flowers except God? Yet, when the rod of Aaron the priest blossomed, the Godhead in some way conversed with doubting humanity.”

Augustine is not saying that miracles are merely unexplained happenings of the natural order, although one could possibly think this by a superficial reading of the text.  Certainly, one should not go around explaining everything as a miracle immediately simply because one doesn’t understand the cause.  Many things that seemed unexplainable in Augustine’s day may perhaps be explained today by the physical sciences (of course, many scientists try to explain too much with their method, and come up with such absurdities as “the law of gravity created the universe”).

We must not become either rationalists or fideists, as there is always a tendency to let happen.  This is what we see with the creationist vs. darwinianist controversy, and this type of debate is nothing new. Indeed, the existence and the movement of the heavens, and the progress of the species, are all to be looked upon with wonder, knowing God is the original source and designer, no matter what method He uses in their sustainment.  The existence of anything is amazing, whether the simply or the complex.

“Jacob’s stone, therefore, as I said, signified something better than did the serpents of the magicians; yet the deed of the magicians was much more wonderful. But these things in this way are no hindrance to the understanding of the matter; just as if the name of a man were written in gold, and that of God in ink.”

God came to humble the proud, but to exalt the humble. We should not be confused by the simple and think it is not sacred.  The humanity of Jesus and the Eucharist are prime examples of the lowly things God uses. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53). Yet we would look at human achievement and think these things to be the greater. God will let those who are proud wallow in the mire of their conceit, and remain confused:

“I see here what may occur to a weak judgment, namely, why such miracles are wrought also by magic arts; for the wise men of Pharaoh likewise made serpents, and did other like things. Yet it is still more a matter of wonder, how it was that the power of those magicians, which was able to make serpents, when it came to very small flies, failed altogether.”

The letter to the Hebrews confirms the main contention of Augustine: “God, who, at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all, in these days hath spoken to us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the world” (Heb 1:1-2).  Angels are, by definition, messengers.

“It is manifest, accordingly, that all those appearances to the fathers, … we say that they were wrought by angels; “

He again says that:

“…both by probable reason, so far as a man, or rather, so far as I am able, and by strength of authority, so far as the divine declarations from the Holy Scriptures have been made clear, that those words and bodily appearances which were given to these ancient fathers of ours before the incarnation of the Saviour, when God was said to appear, were wrought by angels.”

Noting as before that these things we do not know by our reason, although they are not in contradiction to our reason, we look to God’s revelation of Himself.  We trust not only what is said of God but the God who says it.  In fact, in faith, we must trust the message and the messenger:

“For the authority is extant of the divine Scriptures, from which our reason ought not to turn aside; nor by leaving the solid support of the divine utterance, to fall headlong over the precipice of its own surmisings, in matters wherein neither the perceptions of the body rule, nor the clear reason of the truth shines forth.”


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