Category Archives: Patristics

Augustine and Signs

“Now he is in bondage to a sign who uses, or pays homage to, any significant object without knowing what it signifies: he, on the other hand, who either uses or honors a useful sign divinely appointed, whose force and significance he understands, does not honor the sign which is seen and temporal, but that to which all such signs refer. Now such a man is spiritual and free even at the time of his bondage, when it is not yet expedient to reveal to carnal minds those signs by subjection to which their carnality is to be overcome.” -St. Augustine in On Christian Doctrine

The Zen masters say: A finger is excellent for pointing at the moon, but woe to him who mistakes the finger for the moon!

What we see here is that it is not the Catholics but the protestants who are stuck in paganism. They seem, like gentiles of old, to not be freed from worshiping signs of signs, thinking they cannot even “use the finger to point to the moon.” When a pagan worshipped before an idol, he may have worshiped this idol. But even if he did not, he worshiped some other created thing, this idol being a sign that pointed towards it.

But with a crucifix or an icon, we have a sign that points toward, not some other “thing” but to the true God, for example. We aren’t worshiping the sign, but rather, understand what a sign is for.

In fact, just a few lines later in the same chapter, Augustine continues

“But at the present time, after that the proof of our liberty has shone forth so clearly in the resurrection of our Lord, we are not oppressed with the heavy burden of attending even to those signs which we now understand, but our Lord Himself, and apostolic practice, have handed down to us a few rites in place of many, and these at once very easy to perform, most majestic in their significance, and most sacred in the observance; such, for example, as the sacrament of baptism, and the celebration of the body and blood of the Lord. And as soon as any one looks upon these observances he knows to what they refer, and so reveres them not in carnal bondage, but in spiritual freedom.”

This patristic text makes so much more sense out of John 6 which tells us “it is the spirit which gives life, the flesh is of no avail.” For the flesh of the Lord clearly is “of avail;” if it hadn’t gone to the cross, their would be no salvation for man.  But rather, seeing it in a worldly way instead of in the “freedom of the Spirit,” that would hinder us.

No wonder that a few chapters later Augustine can state simply “Now Scripture asserts nothing but the Catholic faith.” Whatever one may argue, there is no doubt that the Bishop of Hippo, who also appealed to the decisions of Rome for so many of his writings, meant it in no distant way than it would be taken to mean today.

Overview of Patristics

The Fathers of the Church can be roughly divided into certain time periods, but it important to establish, first, what it means to be a Father of the Church. The four necessary criteria are orthodoxy of faith, holiness of life, Church approval, and antiquity, as basically defined by St. Vincent, himself an eventual Church Father.

Orthodoxy of faith certainly does not mean that each Father had to get everything right or be discounted.  The early Church was in a time of rapid learning and reflection, and certainly there were disputes even between what are now considered the Fathers.  Origin, for example, even took much of his allegorical interpretation too far in some areas, but his vast and great speculative writing still win him a place among the Fathers. As to holiness of life, one can immediately recognize that certain Fathers are not canonized saints, and canonization is certainly not a prerequisite to be considered a Father.  Again, we might mention Origin, Tertullian, and others. Still, a general holiness of life spent trying to be conformed to the will of God is recognized in those titled “Father of the Church.”

Church approval is a rather straight forward criteria, as it is the Church that has determined the list (or lists) of Fathers. Their teaching and writings have become part of the living tradition of the Church. As to antiquity, we see that St. Vincent himself was eventually called a Father, even as he probably considered “antiquity” to have ended before his own time.  Generally the Patristic era begins with the Apostolic Fathers and ends with the seventh or eighth century.

To the Apostolic Fathers belong those “Christian writers of the first and second centuries who are known, or are considered, to have had personal relations with some of the Apostles, or to have been so influenced by them that their writings may be held as echoes of genuine Apostolic teaching.”[1] Most of these Fathers were bishops, and some became martyrs. It took almost no time in the early church for heresies to develop (we even see Paul writing against them in some of the New Testament epistles). Much of the teaching of the Apostolic Fathers is on what it means to be a Christian, what it means to live in a world that is, for the most part, Pagan, and how to stand fast in the faith against persecution. Among the great Fathers of this period are St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Polycarp of Smyrna.

Apologetics means, broadly speaking, a form of apology. An apologist basically fulfills the command of the First Epistle of St. Peter, to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.”[2] St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus of Lyons are two of the first Apologists, who offered defenses of the faith of the Catholic Church against the background of the culture and philosophy of the time.

Whether it was pagan thought or Gnosticism, for example, the apologists’ writings focused on a rational vindication of Catholic belief and practice.

St. Justin Martyr, for example, was a philosopher who searched many philosophical traditions for the truth, until he came to rest in the peace of the Gospel of Christ. He used his knowledge of various philosophies to defend the faith in dialogues with both the Pagans and the Jews. St. Iranaeus of Lyons wrote a large work commonly called Against the Heresies, and is an immense apologetic focused mostly on the early gnostic sects.

The third century brought us such great minds as that of Tertullian and of Origen. Here, we enter a time when the Church seemed to be making a decision (cognitively or not) about whether to establish its teachings in the language of the Hellenized culture or not. Tertullian would ask the famous question “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” but the majority of the Fathers seemed to move in the other direction. Philosophy, especially neoplatonic philosophy, had a well established vocabulary that proved quite useful to the Church once it started reflecting deeply on such mysteries as personhood, the dual nature of Christ, and the unity and diversity of the Trinity. Several of the recognized Fathers from this period have never been canonized, such as Novation, as well as Origin and Tertullian, already mentioned above.

The fourth century and early fifth century is the great age of the Fathers, and is considered the Golden Age, bringing us such teachers as St. Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, and St. Jerome, the great Biblical scholar and exegete of the east, as well as St. John Chrysostom, the Golden mouthed. St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, and St. Basil the Great also belong to this era. There are, in fact, too many great names to mention here. Saints Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, and Gregory the Great are known as the four great Western Church Fathers.[3]

These authors wrote in a time, generally, when Catholicism was accepted and no longer persecuted in the Roman world. With greater freedom, and following the council of Nicaea, we see timeless tomes emerge on the Trinity, the unity of the Church, the two natures and one person of Christ, and reflections on the work of the Holy Spirit. Also, discussion (and often disputes) among the bishops on tough questions come to surface. With some of the focus turned away from defending the faith against those on the outside, further clarification on the Church from within is debated. Details of such issues as the relationship of grace and free will and the meaning of the Church as both the Body of Christ and as human institution can be more freely discussed after the “victory” of Christianity in the empire.

Among these Fathers in the West, Augustine of Hippo deserves special mention. St. Augustine is commonly referred to as the Doctor of Grace, as his reflections on the necessity of grace in the life of man to do anything good at all permeate his writings.  His contemplation of grace as a free gift of God certainly appears in the pages of his great works such as the Confessions, The City of God, and the Trinity, and is clearly brought out in his polemic against the Pelagian heresy. This issue and its resolution (although the mystery of grace and free will is likely to never to be resolved this side of the grave) in St. Augustine is defining for the western Church.

Augustine is cited almost constantly by all sides in many debates, such as that between the protestant reformers and the Catholic Church. His authoritative standing is unquestioned among almost all Christians. St. Augustine is only rivaled in Catholic thought, outside the Biblical authors themselves, by St. Thomas Aquinas. Among our separated brethren, however, Augustine is clearly received in a way that Aquinas is not. Catholic and non-Catholic alike, the development of the church in the west is built with the influence of Augustine.

Of the later Fathers, we have such names as St. John of Damascus, who some consider the last of the Fathers. In the West, some consider the end of the Patristic era to be with Gregory; others would extend it to Saint Isidore who died in Spain in 636; others would extend it to the great English author and historian, Saint Bede, who died in 735. While there is obviously diversity in the authoritative “end” of the Patristic era, it is clearly sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries.

The Church Fathers are the guarantors of an authentic Catholic Tradition.[4] Not only did they reflect upon and pastorally share the fruits of their contemplation with the early church, but they provide the link with those who walked with Christ Himself. They had a brilliant way of never separating theological insight from spiritual life, and they developed not only our way of understanding the fundamental truths of our faith, but developed the very language by which we do so. They are a guide to the belief and worship of the early Christians, and have led many non-Catholic Christians “back to Rome.”

 

 


[1] Newadvent.org

[2] 1Peter 3:15

[3] ICU Patristics, Lecture 2

[4] ICU Patristics, Lecture 1

Psalm One (Augustine)

I present here a short reflection on Psalm One with the aid of St. Augustine’s Commentary.

 

Blessed is the man who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence. But his will is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he shall meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree which is planted near the running waters, which shall bring forth its fruit, in due season. And his leaf shall not fall off: and all whatsoever he shall do shall prosper. Not so the wicked, not so: but like the dust, which the wind driveth from the face of the earth. Therefore the wicked shall not rise again in judgment: nor sinners in the council of the just. For the Lord knoweth the way of the just: and the way of the wicked shall perish.

 

St. Augustine wastes no time in the commentary on the Psalms in letting us know the centrality of Christ. The first comment on verse 1 of the first psalm is “This is to be understood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord Man.” We immediately see that the Psalms, thought pre-Christian in date, are Christ centered, and refer us directly to the Son of God Incarnate. Unlike the first Adam, the second Adam is He “who hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the chair of pestilence.” Only united to this perfect man may we also be called sons of the Father. If it is “no longer I but Christ that lives in Me” I can understand myself to be the man in this Psalm.

 

“’He will meditate by day and by night,’ is to be understood either as without ceasing; or ‘by day’ in joy, ‘by night’ in tribulations.” Meditating on the law of the Lord means a firm and constant disposition to hold fast to God in all circumstances, times, and places.  Our delight is in God in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for better or worse, as the wedding vows say.  After all, we, as the Church, are the bride of Christ. These vows should hold at least as firm in our commitment to God as they do to our earthly spouse, if we have one.

 

“If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink;” for “he shall be like a tree which is planted near the running waters.” Augustine references many passages from the Gospels that directly relate to the third verse of the Psalm. It is our life in Christ that nourishes us.  We are the branches, He the vine, and we must abide in Him to bear fruit.

 

“Not so the wicked, not so.” As we are told that the Godly man of verse one refers first and foremost to Christ, the new Adam, we may remember here the fall of the first Adam, who after “he had consented and tasted of the forbidden tree that he might be as God, hid himself from the Face of God.” He is the dust that the wind driveth from the face of the earth.  We are dust and to dust we shall return, if we not be united to the new Adam, who has overcome death.

 

“For the Lord knoweth the way of the just: and the way of the wicked shall perish.” It is as if He were to say to the just “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom,” and to the unjust “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

 

Psalm One could be said to sum up the Gospels and indeed the entire Christian life.  The opening words of the Didache tell it plainly: “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.”

Augustine and Original Sin

Augustine and Original Sin

 

Introduction

Original sin* is the privation of sanctifying grace in consequence of the sin of Adam.1 Augustine recognized this, but can be interpreted to have implied some sort of direct physical existence of this sin in much of his writing, a point that would tie some positive aspect of sin as inherited rather than a pure negation of the gifts of grace. In much of his writing, original sin can be seen as a positively inherited disease as much as it is a negation of an inheritance of grace. This may likely be tied with his theories of the origin of the human soul, which he never seemed to work out to his own satisfaction.2 Augustine certainly came to recognize that evil is not a substance but a privation of existence, yet his writings have been interpreted by some as implying a sort of actually existing thing, “original sin,” in his doctrine of the fall, as the way to understand the handing on of what we call original sin. The question is whether or not what is passed on from Adam to humanity thereafter is a positive thing or the absence of something.  Is it some “substance sin” that is passed on, or is it the lack of grace, for example, that constitutes original sin as something inherited?

Misunderstandings and misuses of Augustine have lead to many modern errors regarding the doctrines of sin, man, grace, and salvation. While these errors should be seen for what they are in light of the rest of the Bishop of Hippo’s writing, many problematic passages, when read away from the context of his voluminous work, can certainly be wrongly interpreted. This can be seen, for example, when he speaks of the Incarnation, in which Christ, to avoid being conceived in sin, had to be born of a virgin, avoiding the seed of man, where each man inherited Adam’s sin.3

While Augustine cannot be said to be a systematic writer in the way we see such later thinkers as Aquinas and Duns Scotus, we can build a doctrine from his works on many topics. The difficult and troublesome passages must be read in light of this doctrine of Augustine, and here is the proper place to set forth his principle understanding of evil, the human soul, and sin before doing so.  Only in this context can we approach the more difficult passages of Augustine with facility.

Augustine’s Doctrine of Evil

No doctrine of sin can be understood apart from the doctrine of evil. It is advisable to first, therefore, briefly examine Augustine’s teachings on evil. One of the most basic problems for all theologians and philosophers is the reconciling of the existence of a good God with the reality of evil.

The young Augustine, as a Manichean, understood a world with two principle causes.4 The good world, or rather the good within the world, was caused by a good being. Likewise, the evil world was caused by an evil being.  This evil world is what we know as the world of matter.  For Augustine at this stage of his life, good is already understood as an ontological reality, but evil has a real ontological status as well.  This is the dualist approach of the early Augustine. “But what did this further me, imagining that Thou, O Lord God, the Truth, wert a vast and bright body, and I a fragment of that body? Perverseness too great! But such was I.”5

As his understanding grew and his faith changed, Augustine was able to begin to comprehend a purely spiritual world. He also came to realize that being, as being, is good, for it participates in existence, and all true existence is good.  Evil is a privation of being where it should be. In other words, it is not evil for a rock to be “blind,” for the nature of a rock does not include seeing. However, it is an evil (at least a physical evil) for an eye to not be able to see, for an eye, by nature, is for seeing.  Evil, then, is a lack of goodness where goodness should, by design, be.

It is Augustine’s understanding of creation ex nihilo that establishes this point for him.  A God who creates from nothing is a God who is completely sovereign, and there can only be one sovereign God. Eliminating the efficient cause of evil leads to eliminating evil itself as an ontological reality.

“All things which He has made are good because made by Him, but they are subject to change because they were made, not out of Him, but out of nothing.”6

It is now the mutability as the possibility of a defect in the way a thing should be that is evil.  Moral evils, because they are done by one who should choose God and yet rejects Him for some lesser good, are the responsibility of the one committing them.  One cannot simply blame the body and the matter for evil. Moral evil is directly linked to the will of the one doing the evil.

Augustine’s Doctrine of the Soul

It was generally an uncontested doctrine, at least among Christians, that man was a composite being made up of body and soul.  But there were several theories about the time of the soul’s creation and when it “entered” the body.

 

One view was that of Origen, who maintained a view similar to that of Plato, where the soul was created beforehand and then placed, in time, in a body.  This view was rejected, by Augustine’s day, by most of the Christian fathers. The most common view was that of creationism, by which God created the soul at the moment He placed it in the body.

 

J.N.D. Kelly states “The explanation to which Augustine on the whole leaned, although with many hesitations, was the traducianist one associated with Tertullian.”7 Traducianism is that view whereby each soul is somehow generated from the parent’s soul. “Augustine himself was critical of the materialist strain in Tertullian’s brand of traducianism, but observed that a spiritual version of the same theory fitted in best with his teaching about original sin.”8

 

Augustine’s thought developed over time, and the changes from his earlier materialist days led him to a long struggle with understanding the origin of the soul.  It certainly was of the spiritual realm, but Augustine nevertheless seems to have held to a trudacianist view of the soul’s origin. If the soul was created immediately by God and in no way linked to the parents of the new child, then it seemed to make little sense how original sin might be passed on.  Could it be purely through the matter? This would not make sense if the sin was committed by the complete person, most especially because the powers of the intellect and will are in the soul, and this is where the decision to sin or not to sin resides. The body is the instrument, and although the passions have their place in the complete person, it is in the will that the fall occurred, and it must be here that it is passed on to each generation.

 

Augustine himself, however, “claimed in his Retractationes (I.I.3) that he did not know…whether souls come to be in the body from the one soul of Adam or are individually created.”9

 

Certainly, then, this doctrine of the complete person being the composite of the soul and the body is difficult to reconcile with the passing on of original sin from one generation to the next.

 

“While traducianism seems most easily to explain the common inherited guilt of original sin and the need for infant baptism, it seems to endanger the incorporeality of the soul…While creationism is thoroughly compatible with the incorporeality of the soul made in the image of God, it makes it more difficult to understand how a soul could be created by God with the guilt of Adam’s sin.”10

 

We cannot know for certain what final conclusion, if any, Augustine came to on the origin of the soul.  We do know, however, that it presented a great difficulty for him, and his view of original sin cannot be separated from his search for an understanding of the way in which it might be passed on from Adam to the rest of man.

Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin

Augustine’s masterpiece, the City of God, gives great insight into his thought on original sin. The work focuses on the fall of the angels and man and the two cities that are lived out side by side by those who are members of this world and members of the Kingdom of Heaven.  While there are certainly many sources to contemplate while discerning Augustine’s understanding of original sin, it will suffice for now to take a few passages from his opus magnum and see just what it is that Augustine understood by the belief in the Fall.

 

“Wherefore we must say that the first men were indeed so created, that if they had not sinned, they would not have experienced any kind of death; but that, having become sinners, they were so punished with death, that whatsoever sprang from their stock should also be punished with the same death. For nothing else could be born of them than that which they themselves had been. Their nature was deteriorated in proportion to the greatness of the condemnation of their sin, so that what existed as punishment in those who first sinned, became a natural consequence in their children.”11

 

Augustine argues, against the Pelagians, that sin is innate and not acquired. It is not something that is merely learned by example, but is transmitted by propagation, not imitation. His voluminous writings against the Pelagians provide a wealth of information on the intricacies of mans freedom and its relation to man’s condition both before and after the fall, and cannot be ignored by one who seriously ponders the Fall.  However, for brevity and the relative clarity in which Augustine presents his argument, we will here stay within the framework of the City of God.

 

“We all existed in that one man, since, taken together, we were the one man who fell into sin through the woman who was made out of him before sin existed. Although the specific form by which each of us was to live was not yet created and assigned, our nature was already present in the seed from which we were to spring.”12

 

The sin of our parents is passed on to all of humanity.  It is a privation of the graces and gifts we had when we were first created by God, and this original sin, although often called a stain, can just as accurately be described as the loss of an inheritance. A stain would seem to be a positively existing thing handed on from one generation from the next, while the loss of an inheritance is more likely to be viewed as a negative form of the same consequence.  Which direction Augustine actually leaned in his understanding and preaching of original sin must be extracted through much reading and contemplation, and is a task that cannot be settled in just a few short passages.

Questions on Augustine’s Doctrine and Difficulties Related to Sin as a Deprivation

Almost all Christians recognize some authority in Augustine as a Christian writer and theologian. Among them, the reformers, especially of the Calvinist or Reformed camp, highlight Augustine’s emphasis on grace.  He is, indeed in the Catholic tradition, called the Doctor of Grace.  One of what is known as the five points of reformed theology is that, without making the finer distinctions that have developed within this tradtion, man is totally depraved.  The five points are primarily an emphasis of God’s grace and its necessity for any good in the world, including that of man’s free choices. This first point, that of total depravity, is directly related to man’s nature after original sin.

Our purpose here will not be a broad look at this doctrine, but of examples of Augustine’s writings that could be misinterpreted to say that the good in man’s nature that was created by God (God said that it was very good) was itself changed. Certain passages of Augustine could be seen to lean in the direction of an actual change in man’s nature. One such passage is from his City of God:

“And what was born was not human nature as it was originally created but as it becomes after the first parents’ sin and punishment – as far, at least, as concerns the origin of sin and death.”13

 

Augustine, however, had earlier argued that man had supernatural and preternatural gifts in his original state before the fall.  Some of these gifts had the effect of allowing man’s rational soul complete power over his appetitive desires.  This meant that his passions would be controlled by his reason.  One result of the fall is that this is no longer the case.  The passions sometimes dominate the reason in the man.  This has an effect on the nature in man in that the man was created to have these gifts from God and be “whole” thereby. The nature itself, however, was not changed, and the rest of the context of Augustine’s writings verify that this was his thought:

 

“One can argue that an alteration of the soul’s native abilities would be tantamount to the creation of a new species. It is awful enough to be told we are at present disadvantaged because of the misdeeds of our ancestors. It would be monstrous to be told that our kind was created as a punishment for misdeeds perpetrated by superior beings of a different species.”14

 

We see that in fact we must retain the same nature if we are to inherit original sin.  Original sin includes within it the guilt of what a man did, and if Adam before the fall was not the same as Adam after the fall, then we would be using Adam the man that lost the grace of God and Adam after he lost the grace of God in an equivocal way.

“As soon as our first parents had disobeyed God’s commandments, they were immediately deprived of divine grace…The fact is that the soul…was now deprived of its original mastery over the body…being unable to hold the flesh completely in subjection as would always have been the case, if only the soul had remained subject to God.”15

So man’s nature itself is not altered. The intellect is still aimed at truth; the will to love, and the passions to obey reason. They just cannot do it well. The body now suffers and dies because God withdraws his protection. Had Adam not sinned it seems likely that he would have passed on his nature intact with all the gifts and further, if each man were now created from the dust of the earth, he would not inherit original sin.

The inheritance of original justice, while being philosophically indemonstrable, fits the context of the account of man’s creation with the supernatural and preternatural gifts. Although these gifts stand above man’s nature, there is no Scriptural reason to deny that, had Adam not sinned, the offspring of Adam would have been gifted with these same gifts.  Likewise, had each new generation been created anew from the dust, no handing on of the defect incurred by Adam’s failure would be handed on, at least in no way demonstrable from Scripture or reason.

Man, however, is co-creator with God in the generation of new human beings. The generation of new life is linked, of course, with the sexual act and the seed of man.  Augustine has often been portrayed as linking the sexual act itself, or rather the lust involved in it after the fall, with the passing on of original sin.

We see an interesting case in the Enchiridion, in which Augustine states the following regarding the Incarnation of Christ: “…no part was wanting in that human nature He put on, save that it was a nature wholly free from that taint of sin – not such a nature as is conceived between the two sexes through carnal lust, which is born in sin…but such as it behooved a virgin to bring forth, when a mother’s faith, not her lust, was the condition of conception.”16 J.N.D. Kelly takes this passage and others as speaking of the necessity that Christ be born without the seed of man and the sexual act itself in order that He not attain the stain of original sin. “Marriage as mankind knows it (after the fall) seems inseparable from sexual pleasures of which man in his innocence was ignorant. It was in view of this, to avoid the taint of concupiscence, that the Saviour chose to be born of a pure virgin.”17

Concluding Remarks

Although Augustine cannot be said to have been a systematic writer like some of his contemporaries and many of the later scholastic authors, a clear and consistent doctrine of his beliefs can be drawn from his writings.  The topic of original sin is certainly one of the more difficult of Christian theology, and Augustine certainly labored both to understand and to explain this central tenant of the faith.  What can be known for sure is that Augustine, true to the Catholic faith both before and after him, understood man to be created good in the image and likeness of God, to have fallen of his own free will, and to have therefore affected all of humanity which would come from him as father of the human race. It is also clear that Augustine described evil as a privation of existence, and that, although there are certainly difficult passages in his works, whatever the method of the passing on of original sin, it must be in conformity with this general principle that evil is no being but a lack thereof. Augustine must always be read in the context of the particular works and their purpose, as well as the totality of the writings which he has left us, which, of course, includes the development of his thought and his Retractions. Only then may we reflect properly on Augustine himself and on the all important doctrine of original sin.

 

*Original sin may be taken to mean: (1) the sin that Adam committed; (2) a consequence of this first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam. From the earliest times the latter sense of the word was more common, as may be seen by St. Augustine’s statement: “the deliberate sin of the first man is the cause of original sin” (De nupt. et concup., II, xxvi, 43). It is the hereditary stain that is dealt with here. (NewAdvent.org, Original Sin)

 

Footnotes:

  1. CCC #406ff
  2. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 136
  3. Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. (New York, NY: Harper Collins. 1978), 365
  4. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 40
  5. Augustine. Confessions. by Trans, J.M. Lelen, (New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing. 1997.), 100
  6. Augustine. City of God. by Trans, Edmund Hill, (New York City: New City Press. 2005.), 245
  7. Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines, 345
  8. Ibid, 345
  9. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 121
  10. Ibid, 121-122
  11. Augustine. City of God, 271
  12. Ibid, 279
  13. Ibid, 272
  14. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 47
  15. Augustine. City of God, 278
  16. Augustine. The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity, 43
  17. Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines,365

 

Bibliography

 

Primary Sources

 

Augustine. City of God. by Trans, Edmund Hill, New York City: New City Press. 2005.

 

Augustine. Confessions. by Trans, J.M. Lelen, New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing. 1997.

 

Augustine. The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Charity. By Trans, Harbert, Bruce.  Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2008.

 

Augustine. On Nature and Grace. At New Advent. http://www.newadvent.org.

 

Augustine, On the Grace of Christ and On Original Sin. At New Advent. http://www.newadvent.org.

 

Secondary Sources

 

Bercott, David W. A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson. 1998.

 

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkley: University of California Press. 2000.

 

Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 1978

 

Stump, Eleonore and Norman Kretzmann. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2001.

 

Willis, John R. The Teachings of the Church Fathers. San Francisco: Ignatius. 2002.

 

A Short Reflection on Augustine and Pelagius

Pelagius and Augustine on Grace

St. Augustine is commonly referred to as the Doctor of Grace, as his reflections on the necessity of grace in the life of man to do anything good at all permeate his writings.  His contemplation of grace as a free gift of God certainly appears in the pages of his great works such as the Confessions, The City of God, and the Trinity. However, a more systematic view can be gleaned from his encounter and dialogue with the doctrines of Pelagius, a monk and moralist who taught at Rome around the turn of the 5th century A.D. The contrary views on man, human nature, and the doctrine of grace is in many ways the greatest legacy of Augustine and his mark on the teaching of the Catholic Church to this day.

Pelagius seemed to be primarily concerned with right conduct, and the pessimistic views of man as a lump of sin could be demoralizing to those who would desire to live an upright life in service to God. He was distressed by Augustine’s prayer of “Give what thou command, and command what thou will,”1 for it seemed to make mere puppets of men in God’s hands. If we are wholly determined by divine grace, it might seem hardly necessary to give a real personal effort to do the Lord’s will. Pelagius, therefore, rejected such a view, as he understood it, so as to ensure the responsibility that men must take for their own action and their own failures.

Pelagius argued for three features of our action: power, will, and realization.  For him, the first came completely from God, but the latter are found in us.  God gave us our free will, and therefore we cooperate or reject to do that which God has given us the power to do.  This gives us both the merit or the blame for our actions, and it would seem difficult for us to be blamed for our failures if these were due completely to God not giving us the grace to will to do them. This, in essence, was the struggle for Pelagius in accepting the position of Augustine.

For man to have a truly free will that might receive real praise for what he does as well as real culpability, Pelagius’ understanding of the Fall and the nature of original sin had to differ as well from that of Augustine. To Pelagius’ understanding, the nature of original sin was more by way of bad example of each sinful parent, rather than a soiling of the soul handed down by the parents.  Man must be truly free to choose good or evil, and not unduly influenced by God in either direction to have true freedom and thus true responsibility for his actions. Grace was then limited to the external, be it good influence, preaching of the Gospel, etc.

In fact, because of his belief in the soul being created immediately by God, it seemed impossible for this stain of sin to be handed down.  Pelagius actually saw the belief in a handing down of the stain of sin as compatible only with a traducian theory of the soul’s origin, and could in some instances accuse Augustine of having an old residue of his Manichean past still about him.

Before moving on to Augustine’s position on grace, it is important to note that Augustine never seemed to work out his view on the origin of the soul, vacillating between a creationist and traducianist view.  He seemed to know that his doctrine of the handing on of original sin from the first man was favorable to the traducianist theory.2

Saint Augustine contrasts the initial state of man with his fallen condition after original sin, and his view of free will here is slightly different than that of Pelagius.  For Augustine, the distinction must be made that before the fall, Adam had the power not to sin, but sinned. After the fall, man cannot not sin, and his nature is wounded. “Man’s liberty is curtailed since he is drawn towards sin by concupiscence. Augustine sees the role of grace as breaking this slavery and thereby freeing man. On his own man would have eternally been held captive…Pelagius is held to have taught that man can begin his work of salvation, that he can merit God’s help and grace. Saint Augustine holds that grace is not subject to merit, rather it precedes man’s actions.”3

The fundamental mystery here is that of free will and grace.  Certainly, both men held that our power to do good comes from the good God alone.  In an effort to defend the free will of man, Pelagius would say that man must be able to somehow cooperate with God of man’s own volition. For Augustine, this cooperation is itself a good, and so must be preceded by some action of God. Otherwise, man takes his first steps back towards God on his own.  This makes man the “first mover” in this way, and this cannot be, not only by the doctrine of revealed truth, but even in a metaphysical sense.

The mystery of grace and free will remains with us today, and likely always will, this side of Heaven.  Man’s freedom and God’s absolute providence are difficult if not impossible for the human mind to reconcile.  Whether it is Augustine and Pelagius, the John Calvin and Jacob Arminius, or even, at times in the past, the Jesuits and the Dominicans, we will always in our mind have the tendency to, in attempted to uphold the truth of one or other of these truths (free will and Divine providence) find ourselves somehow emphasizing one to the detriment of the other.

Saint Augustine won the day with his defense of the absolute necessity of God’s grace being preceded by no action of ours and this initial grace merited in no way by man, and likewise the doctrine of original sin, as understood by the Church, is heavily influenced by the reflections of Augustine. For example, the Catechism explicitly states that “The Church’s teaching on the transmission of original sin was articulated more precisely in the fifth century, especially under the impulse of St. Augustine’s reflections against Pelagianism, and in the sixteenth century, in opposition to the Protestant Reformation. Pelagius held that man could, by the natural power of free will and without the necessary help of God’s grace, lead a morally good life; he thus reduced the influence of Adam’s fault to bad example.”4 Nevertheless, through the centuries, many great minds have prayerfully pondered these truths more and more deeply. Almost every great mind, however, that has spoken well on this most difficult of subjects, has certainly had to wrestle with the brilliant teachings of the Doctor of Grace.

 

 

Notes:

 

  1. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pg. 357
  2. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, pg. 122
  3. International Catholic University, Patristics, Lecture 5
  4. Catechism of the Catholic Church 406

Augustine and Original Sin

Introduction

Original sin is the privation of sanctifying grace in consequence of the sin of Adam. Augustine recognized this, but can be interpreted to have implied some sort of direct physical existence of this sin in much of his writing, a point that would tie some positive aspect of sin as inherited rather than a pure negation of the gifts of grace. In much of his writing, and tied with his theories of the origin of the human soul, which he never seemed to work out to his own satisfaction, original sin can be seen as a positively inherited disease as much as it is a negation of an inheritance of grace. Augustine certainly came to recognize that evil is not a substance but a privation of existence, yet his writings have been interpreted by some as implying a sort of actually existing thing, “original sin,” in his doctrine of the fall, as the way to understand the handing on of what we call original sin.

Misunderstandings and misuses of Augustine have lead to many modern errors regarding the doctrines of sin, man, grace, and salvation. While these errors should be seen for what they are in light of the rest of the Bishop of Hippo’s writing, many problematic passages, when read away from the context of his voluminous work, can certainly be wrongly interpreted. This can be seen, for example, when he speaks of the Incarnation, in which Christ, to avoid being conceived in sin, had to be born of a virgin, avoiding the seed of man, where each man inherited Adam’s sin.

While Augustine cannot be said to be a systematic writer in the way we see such later thinkers as Aquinas and Duns Scotus, we can build a doctrine from his works on many topics. We must read difficult and troublesome passages in light of this doctrine of Augustine, and so we shall set forth his principle understanding of evil, the human soul, and sin here before doing so.  Only in this context can we approach the more difficult passages of Augustine with facility.

Augustine’s Doctrine of Evil

No doctrine of sin can be understood apart from the doctrine of evil. We will first, therefore, briefly examine Augustine’s teachings on evil. One of the most basic problems for all theologians and philosophers is the reconciling of the existence of a good God with the reality of evil.

The young Augustine, as a Manichean, understood a world with two principle causes.  The good world, or rather the good within the world, was caused by a good being. Likewise, the evil world was caused by an evil being.  This evil world is what we know as the world of matter.  For Augustine at this stage of his life, good is quite real ontologically, and evil has a real ontological status as well.  This is the dualist approach of the early Augustine. “But what did this further me, imagining that Thou, O Lord God, the Truth, wert a vast and bright body, and I a fragment of that body? Perverseness too great! But such was I.”(Confessions, pg 111 – bk iv, 16)

As his understanding grew and his faith changed, Augustine was able to begin to comprehend a purely spiritual world. He also came to realize that being, as being, is good, for it participates in existence, and all true existence is good.  Evil is a privation of being where it should be.  It is a lack of goodness.

It is Augustine’s understanding of creation ex nihilo that establishes this point for him.  A God who creates from nothing is a God who is completely sovereign, and there can only be one sovereign God. Eliminating the efficient cause of evil leads to eliminating evil itself as an ontological reality.

“All things which He has made are good because made by Him, but they are subject to change because they were made, not out of Him, but out of nothing.” (City of God, pg. 245)

It is now the mutability as the possibility of a defect in the way a thing should be that is evil.  Moral evils, because they are done by one who should choose God and yet rejects Him for some lesser good, are the responsibility of the one committing them.  One cannot simply blame the body and the matter for evil. Moral evil is directly linked to the will of the one doing the evil.

Augustine’s Doctrine of the Soul

It was generally an uncontested doctrine, at least among Christians, that man was a composite being made up of body and soul.  But there were several theories about the time of the soul’s creation and when it “entered” the body.

One view was that of Origen, who maintained a view similar to that of Plato, where the soul was created beforehand and then placed, in time, in a body.  This view was rejected, by Augustine’s day, by most of the Christian fathers. The most common view was that of creationism, by which God created the soul at the moment He placed it in the body.

J.N.D. Kelly tells us that “The explanation to which Augustine on the whole leaned, although with many hesitations, was the traducianist one associated with Tertullian.” (ECW, pg. 345) Traducianism is that view whereby each soul is somehow generated from the parent’s soul. “Augustine himself was critical of the materialist strain in Tertullian’s brand of traducianism, but observed that a spiritual version of the same theory fitted in best with his teaching about original sin.” (Early Christians Doctrines, pg.345)

Augustine’s changed understanding from his earlier materialist days would lead him to a long struggle with understanding the origin of the soul.  It certainly was of the spiritual realm, but Augustine nevertheless seems to have held to a trudacianist view of the soul’s origin. If the soul was created immediately by God and in no way linked to the parents of the new child, then it seemed to make little sense how original sin might be passed on.  Could it be purely through the matter? This would not make sense if the sin was committed by the complete person, most especially because the powers of the intellect and will are in the soul, and this is where the decision to sin or not to sin resides. The body is the instrument, and although the passions have their place in the complete person, it is in the will that the fall occurred, and it must be here that it is passed on to each generation.

Augustine himself, however, “claimed in his Retractationes (I.I.3) that he did not know…whether souls come to be in the body from the one soul of Adam or are individually created.” (Cambridge Companion to Augustine pg 121)

Certainly, then, this doctrine of the complete person being the composite of the soul and the body is difficult to reconcile with the passing on of original sin from one generation to the next.

“While traducianism seems most easily to explain the common inherited guilt of original sin and the need for infant baptism, it seems to endanger the incorporeality of the soul…While creationism is thoroughly compatible with the incorporeality of the soul made in the image of God, it makes it more difficult to understand how a soul could be created by God with the guilt of Adam’s sin.” (Cam Comp p121-122)

We cannot know for certain what final conclusion, if any, Augustine was to come to on the origin of the soul.  We do know, however, that it presented a great difficulty for him, and his view of original sin cannot be separated from his search for an understanding of the way in which it might be passed on from Adam to the rest of man.

Augustine’s Doctrine of Original Sin

Augustine’s masterpiece on the fall of the angels and man and the two cities that are lived out side by side by those who are members of this world and members of the Kingdom of Heaven is called the City of God.  While there are certainly many sources to contemplate while discerning Augustine’s understanding of original sin, it will suffice for now to take a few passages from his opus magnum and see just what it is that Augustine understood by the belief in the Fall.

“Wherefore we must say that the first men were indeed so created, that if they had not sinned, they would not have experienced any kind of death; but that, having become sinners, they were so punished with death, that whatsoever sprang from their stock should also be punished with the same death. For nothing else could be born of them than that which they themselves had been. Their nature was deteriorated in proportion to the greatness of the condemnation of their sin, so that what existed as punishment in those who first sinned, became a natural consequence in their children.” (City of God, pg.271)

Augustine argues, against the Pelagians, that sin is innate and not acquired. It is not something that is merely learned by example, but is transmitted by propagation, not imitation. His voluminous writings against the Pelagians provide a wealth of information on the intricacies of mans freedom and its relation to man’s condition both before and after the fall, and cannot be ignored by one who seriously ponders the Fall.  However, here we will stay within the framework of the City of God.

“We all existed in that one man, since, taken together, we were the one man who fell into sin through the woman who was made out of him before sin existed. Although the specific form by which each of us was to live was not yet created and assigned, our nature was already present in the seed from which we were to spring.” (City of God, pg. 279)

The sin of our parents is passed on to all of humanity.  It is a privation of the graces and gifts we had when we were first created by God, and this original sin, although often called a stain, can just as accurately be described as the loss of an inheritance. A stain would seem to be a positively existing thing handed on from one generation from the next, while the loss of an inheritance is more likely to be viewed as a negative form of the same consequence.  Which direction Augustine actually leaned in his understanding and preaching of original sin must be extracted through much reading and contemplation, and is a task that cannot be settled in just a few short passages.

Questions on Augustine’s Doctrine and Difficulties Related to Sin as a Deprivation

Almost all Christians recognize some authority in Augustine as a Christian writer and theologian. Among them, the reformers, especially of the Calvinist or Reformed camp, emphasis Augustine’s emphasis on grace.  He is, indeed in the Catholic tradition, called the Doctor of Grace.  One of what is known as the five points of reformed theology is that man is totally depraved.  The five points are primarily an emphasis of God’s grace and its necessity for any good in the world, including that of man’s free choices. This first point, that of total depravity, is directly related to man’s nature after original sin.

Our purpose here will not be a broad look at this doctrine, but of examples of Augustine’s writings that could be misinterpreted to say that the good in man’s nature that was created by God (God said that it was very good) was itself changed. Certain passages of Augustine could be seen to lean in the direction of an actual change in man’s nature. One such passage is from his City of God:

“And what was born was not human nature as it was originally created but as it becomes after the first parents’ sin and punishment – as far, at least, as concerns the origin of sin and death.” (City of God, pg. 272)

Augustine, however, had earlier argued that man had supernatural and preternatural gifts in his original state before the fall.  Some of these gifts had the effect of allowing man’s rational soul complete power over his appetitive desires.  This meant that his passions would be controlled by his reason.  One result of the fall is that this is no longer the case.  The passions sometimes dominate the reason in the man.  This has an effect on the nature in man in that the man was created to have these gifts from God and be “whole” thereby. The nature itself, however, was not changed, and the rest of the context of Augustine’s writings verify that this was his thought.

“One can argue that an alteration of the soul’s native abilities would be tantamount to the creation of a new species. It is awful enough to be told we are at present disadvantaged because of the misdeeds of our ancestors. It would be monstrous to be told that our kind was created as a punishment for misdeeds perpetrated by superior beings of a different species.” (Cambridge Companion, pg.47)

We see that in fact we must retain the same nature if we are to inherit original sin.  Original sin includes within it the guilt of what a man did, and if Adam before the fall was not the same as Adam after the fall, then we would be using Adam the man that lost the grace of God and Adam after he lost the grace of God in an equivocal way.

“As soon as our first parents had disobeyed God’s commandments, they were immediately deprived of divine grace…The fact is that the soul…was now deprived of its original mastery over the body…being unable to hold the flesh completely in subjection as would always have been the case, if only the soul had remained subject to God.” (City of God, pg. 278)

So man’s nature itself is not altered. The intellect is still aimed at truth; the will to love, and the passions to obey reason. They just cannot do it well. The body now suffers and dies because God withdraws his protection. Had Adam not sinned he would have passed on his nature intact with all the gifts and if each man were now created from the dust of the earth he would not inherit original sin.

Man, however, is co-creator with God in the generation of new human beings. The generation of new life is linked, of course, with the sexual act and the seed of man.  Augustine has often been portrayed as linking the sexual act itself, or rather the lust involved in it after the fall, with the passing on of original sin.

We see an interesting case in the Enchiridion, in which Augustine states the following regarding the Incarnation of Christ: “…no part was wanting in that human nature He put on, save that it was a nature wholly free from that taint of sin – not such a nature as is conceived between the two sexes through carnal lust, which is born in sin…but such as it behooved a virgin to bring forth, when a mother’s faith, not her lust, was the condition of conception.” (Ench p43) J.N.D. Kelly takes this passage and others as speaking of the necessity that Christ be born without the seed of man and the sexual act itself in order that He not attain the stain of original sin. “Marriage as mankind knows it (after the fall) seems inseparable from sexual pleasures of which man in his innocence was ignorant. It was in view of this, to avoid the taint of concupiscence, that the Saviour chose to be born of a pure virgin.” (ECD, pg 365)

Concluding Remarks

Although Augustine cannot be said to have been a systematic writer like some of his contemporaries and many of the later scholastic authors, a clear and consistent doctrine of his beliefs can be drawn from his writings.  The topic of original sin is certainly one of the more difficult of Christian theology, and Augustine certainly labored both to understand and to explain this central tenant of the faith.  What can be known for sure is that Augustine, true to the Catholic faith both before and after him, understood man to be created good in the image and likeness of God, to have fallen of his own free will, and to have therefore affected all of humanity which would come from him as father of the human race. It is also clear that Augustine described evil as a privation of existence, and that, although there are certainly difficult passages in his works, whatever the method of the passing on of original sin, it must be in conformity with this general principle that evil is no being but a lack thereof. Augustine must always be read in the context of the particular works and their purpose, as well as the totality of the writings which he has left us.  Only then may we reflect properly on Augustine himself and on the all important doctrine of original sin.

*Original sin may be taken to mean: (1) the sin that Adam committed; (2) a consequence of this first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam. From the earliest times the latter sense of the word was more common, as may be seen by St. Augustine’s statement: “the deliberate sin of the first man is the cause of original sin” (De nupt. et concup., II, xxvi, 43). It is the hereditary stain that is dealt with here. (NewAdvent.org, Original Sin)

Augustine on Angels, Free Will, and the Passions

A short reflection on Book XII of The City of God

Angels, I would say, have no passions, since they do not have bodily desires to take care of “in time.” In other words, they do not seek an immediate pleasure or relief of pain, and in this way, are not moved to a lesser good that may be in conflict with a greater good. At least, they do not have physical passions. Of course, the issue goes deeper than this, but that is enough for my point here.

Studying the angels intellect and will, even though unaffected by human passions, is a good exercise in knowing ourselves. After all, our own passions are a good and are designed to be directed by our reason.

Augustine, in much of the first half of Book XII, takes up the problem of the will in the angels, a possibility of a bad will having an efficient cause, and just how the will must always seek good, but not, by necessity, the ultimate good. His discussion reminds us that, true to the Catholic faith and to good philosophy in ethics and in psychology, we are always after the good, at least the apparent good. No one can will evil in a direct sense, but only, in chosing a lesser good over a better, wills what is evil.

Again, Augustine’s discussion of the “two cities” of angels, with all the twists and turns of goodness, will, efficient cause, etc, is also a great reflection on our own powers of intellect and will, and a reminder that our passions are to be under the control of our reason. They, too, are a good thing in themselves, however poorly our passions seem to lead us as a result of original sin. After all, our passions direct us to good things. It is a matter of our intellect to discern if these good things are appropriate to try and achieve (should we “will” them) given the circumstances and what other greater good may be neglected in doing so.

Augustine, City of God, Book XI

“Of This Part of the Work, Wherein We Begin to Explain the Origin and End of the Two Cities.”

“The city of God we speak of is the same to which testimony is borne by that Scripture, which excels all the writings of all nations by its divine authority, and has brought under its influence all kinds of minds, and this not by a casual intellectual movement, but obviously by an express providential arrangement. For there it is written…” As in other works by Augustine on things divine, he immediately makes it clear that faith in the revealed truth of God is a prerequisite for what will be said. It will be reasonable, for it is faith seeking understanding of the God who is Author of both faith and reason, but it is not a logical deduction arrived at by the power of the unaided human mind.

As we turn to book XI of Augustine’s de Civitate Dei, the Bishop of Hippo “will endeavor to treat of the origin, and progress, and deserved destinies of the two cities (the earthly and the heavenly, to wit), which, as we said, are in this present world commingled, and as it were entangled together. And, first, I will explain how the foundations of these two cities were originally laid, in the difference that arose among the angels.”

In Book XI, it seems no subject of the Christian faith and of philosophical thought is barred entry. Time and Space, Matter and Form, Infinite and Finite, and a host of other philosophical issues are brought to the fore almost immediately. Likewise, the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, Creation, and Grace are immediately debated against a would be opponent.  The central doctrine, however, would seem to be that man is created by God and for God, and the two cities, intermixed as they must be in this life, are of those who worship themselves and those who worship the one true God.

Creation of the universe by God and the non-eternal state of this creation are first laid out. Time and space did not exist “before” God created, and it is to this effect that many of the philosophical arguments are brought out and developed.

After setting forth and discussing, in the fashion typical of Augustine (winding ones’ way and neglecting no turn in the arguments), the topics listed above, among others, he turns to the creation of the angels. Augustine has already, by this point, shown that, according to the Scriptures, it seems clear that the angels were created at the very beginning of the “days” we read of in Genesis. The angels, being pure intellectual creatures and immaterial, either immediately fell or were immediately perfected in grace, depending on whether they chose God or self as their object of worship. Satan himself was not created evil, but rather, through pride, lost the sight of God. All angels were, from the moment of their creation, beings of light.

“But angels are not the only rational or intelligent creatures who we think should be called blessed.” Augustine moves here to the creation of man, in the state of original blessedness, original justice.  Man was created with certain gifts from God.  He was created with natural gifts, preternatural gifts, and supernatural gifts. A natural gift is that which is proper to the structure of nature.  A preternatural gift is that which goes beyond the structure of the nature of the material universe (from “praeter naturam”, beyond nature).  A supernatural gift is that which goes beyond any created nature, and belongs only to God, and this is grace.

Even though he has already refuted the pagans (But to the enemies of this city we have replied in the ten preceding books, according to our ability and the help afforded by our Lord and King) he will refer back to them and continue to examine their arguments and errors. Likewise, the errors of the heretics, and especially of the Manicheans, are repeatedly condemned.

The goodness of God and that all good is from God is a central theme in Augustine as a whole, and that all being is good insofar as it is being (contra his early Manichean beliefs). This theme is central to Book XI as well. God is the creator of everything, including the material world. “Since, therefore, what He sees is good would not have been made unless it was good before He made it, we must say: He teaches, He does not learn, that it is good.”

Of course, goodness is what we seek, and we recognize the good in things and then love them.  For the Creator, the “order” is reversed: He loves and therefore it is good. It is often said that “one thing would not be better than another, unless God loved it more,” and it is hard to deny this for, the contrary answer would be that God somehow recognizes goodness in something and is moved to love it. For the immutable God, this is simply absurd.  It would imply a change in God.

“So if we ask ‘who made it?’ the answer is ‘God’; if we ask ‘how?’ the answer is that God said: ‘Let it be. And it was done’; if we ask ‘why?’ the answer is ‘Because it is good.’”

Augustine will return to the Scriptures and expound on their meaning. He will return to “the philosophers” and discuss the truths and errors of their thought; the Platonists, although having error in their doctrine as well, are “the closest to the truth.” He will discuss the writings and teachings of the Fathers of the Church. For if one is, after faith, seeking understanding, no subject, no topic, is out of play. God created all (all that exists; not evil, for example, for it doesn’t ‘exist’ but is rather the lack of existence where existence should rightly be), and all existing things point in some way to God. If we want to know, live, and share the faith, we do not avoid questions of philosophy, of science, of culture. Augustine meets all of these head on in turn. Book XI of The City of God is a perfect example of such an endeavor.

Patristic Theology of Man and Grace

The Fathers of the Church, by reflecting on revealed truth, contributed much to our understanding of the human person.  As created in the image and likeness of God but wounded by original sin, reflecting on man can tell us something of God, and likewise, reflecting on God tells us something of man. Ultimately, we were created by God and for God, and it is this overarching theme that must form the basis of any reflection on the human person.

The first major theme of the Fathers is that of the created human person.  The human person is created, according to revelation, in the image and likeness of God.  All things reflect God in some way, but man (and in this way he is also like the angels) has intellect and will.  He is therefore free in a way other created beings, rather animate or inanimate, are not.  Man, then, is in some way master of his own decisions and, ultimately, his end. But man is made, as we said, not only by God but for God, and because of this, his only rightful end is to choose God. He is not, therefore, free to choose what his end should be, but he is free to choose or reject that which he was created for.

This brings us to the second great theme of the Fathers on this subject; that of the original state of humankind. Man was created in what might be called the state of original justice. He was created with natural gifts, preternatural gifts, and supernatural gifts. A natural gift is that which is proper to the structure of nature.  A preternatural gift is that which goes beyond the structure of the nature of the material universe (from “praeter naturam”, beyond nature).  A supernatural gift is that which goes beyond any created nature, and belongs only to God.

However, original sin, or the Fall, injured but did not erase completely, all of these gifts. But “O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.” We come to a third theme of the Fathers, that of the Redeemer and of the justification, through grace, of man.

Man lost, through his rejection of God, and this due to pride, his share in the divine life. The supernatural gifts in man were lost through sin, the preternatural gifts erased, and even the natural strengths of man were greatly injured (This is not to be confused with the error of total depravity. Man is wounded in the sense that he lost the preternatural gifts so the natural gifts did not work well together  but they remain in their natural orientation:  the intellect to truth, the will to good and the passions to be obedient to reason.  The preternatural gifts insured they would be used well). The infinite God was rejected by finite man, and only an infinite love could redeem man. Man, however, has no way of such an offer to God, and so grace alone, God’s own gift of self, would be required.

The salvation of man, then, depends on the supernatural grace of God. Through our Redeemer, Christ Jesus, we are made “partakers of the divine nature” and it has been said that “God became man so that man might become God.” This is, of course, meant in no pantheistic way, but is consistent with revealed truth, which tells us that “we will be like God, for we shall see Him as He is.”

Grace, however, does not rule out man’s free will and his participation in his own salvation. As St. Augustine tells us, “God who created you without you, will not save you without you.” God wills that all be saved, but we remain free, and many reject the salvation offered by God through His Son. To those then that are saved, all glory is due to God.  But to those that are damned, the fault is completely their own.

Of course, this teaching, which is that of the Fathers in general and of Augustine, the “Doctor of Grace,” specifically, has always been a controversial one, and because of this, especially in light of the Reformation and its disputes on faith and works, many of the other aspects of the Fathers on the doctrine of Grace has received less attention than they deserve.

The doctrines of the divinization of man and the indwelling of the Trinity in man are key to understanding the Patristic teachings on grace, and again, because of the focus on faith and works for the last several centuries, sadly, much of the Fathers’ teaching on these topics is not well known.

The bestowal of grace and gifts is the work of the Trinity. Grace is a gift that comes from the Father, comes through the Son, and is given in the Holy Spirit. This could lead us into the patristic understanding of the Trinity itself, where the Father has a primacy of origin but not of nature, and into the appropriations within the Trinity, as discussed especially by St. Augustine. But here, we note that, although God is One and in His being works as one toward creation, the Persons do act in their own ways towards creation. This, of course, we only know through revelation, and the Fathers reflect on this at great length.

There is no doubt, however, that the understanding of grace and free will was of great importance in the writings of the earliest Christians, and much was debated and discussed from the earliest times. Controversies certainly arose in reconciling the providence of God with the freedom of man, and the greatest of these controversies was that of Pelagius and Augustine. But even Augustine, who preached so strongly the primacy of grace (Command what you will; give what you command“), tells us that “God does not command impossibilities, but by commanding admonishes you do what you can and to pray for what you cannot.”

The Church Fathers have a deep and rich reflection on man, his creation in the image and likeness of God, and of his salvation through the Grace of God merited through our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Only the slightest introduction, of course, could be offered here in so short an essay, but a lifetime could be spent reflecting on the great patristic contribution that has been left to us as a wonderful gift.

Augustine – Seeking to know God

Why does Augustine discuss the word “metheglin” in book X of De Trinitate?

“What you are absolutely ignorant of you simply cannot love in any sense whatever.” To love something then means to know some aspect of it, at the least. You may love something, of course, without fully comprehending it, and in most cases this is the normal way. Indeed, we will never comprehend God.

However, there has to be something which is the object of our love. This something could even be knowledge itself, and to know there is something unknown that you want to know is to already know “something” is there to know. You may not know the answer to a question, but you, knowing the question, will desire the answer. You cannot desire the answer without knowing there is a question to which an answer belongs.

Here, Augustine uses the unknown word “metheglin,” and the point is that, upon hearing this, one recognizes that this is a word, and that it therefore is a sign that, once known, provides meaning. It is like seeing smoke and knowing there is some cause. We can love fire by loving smoke and loving its cause, without knowing what that cause actually is. Here, we do somewhat the same thing with a conventional sign rather than a natural one.

As a rational animal, we seek to know, and an unknown sign is something we are aware of that in turn makes us aware of something we do not know. Naturally, then, we want to know this. We seek the cause, and eventually, we seek the first cause. We rest in knowing this first cause, and love this resting.

“When we hear of ‘God’ we know we hear a sign that has meaning. That much we know; but the reality of God we are driven to seek.”

This, of course, reminds one of the Ontological argument of St. Anslem and his followers (followers at least in this). And the fool says in his “heart,” not his “mind,” there is no God. So we, by this argument, seem to know God in some way and seek to know him all the more. We don’t think of it like “gobbledy goo” or some made up term, but that there is a real substance to know behind the term. If there was just a sound, but nothing we knew it signified, we wouldn’t seek to know what it meant. So, as Anselm himself intended to extend in some way the thought of Augustine as he interpreted it, in the term God we know something real is there that we want to know more.

‘Enter into the cell of your mind, shut out everything except God and whatever helps you to seek Him once the door is shut. Speak now, my heart, and say to God, “I seek your face; your face, Lord, I seek.”‘ – Proslogion

I am not here trying to affirm or deny the validity of the argument, but merely reflect on it as a development of seeking to know that which we know in some way but not in another…it is certainly different from hearing “metheglin” which we may not know the meaning of at all, or of “unicorn,” of which knowledge of its meaning does not affirm its existence. Yet, we know something of God, and yet we do not comprehend God.

Do we therefore know something of God and not something else, like a percentage of God that we do and do not know? I think not.  We cannot say that we are limited in our knowledge of God because we can only know a certain “amount” of Him (He is infinite; what would “amount” mean?) or a certain “part” of Him (He is simple and not composed of parts and thus, what would this mean either?).

So we may learn that metheglin  is the Greek word for mead (temetum is the Latin word), a sort of wine made with honey. We can even approach “comprehending” it.  But we cannot do this with God. We cannot, then, know God in a univocal way with knowing things of this world, yet we are not agnostic in our knowledge of God either.  Once again, analogy comes into play.

We must “seek His face” always.  Our joy, after all, is in contemplating God, who is (except of Himself) never to be comprehended.