Tag Archives: theology

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.