Nicene and Post Nicene-Fathers, Vol. I:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
The Confessions: Chapter IV
Chapter IV.—He Recognises the Falsity of His Own Opinions, and Commits to Memory the Saying of Ambrose.
5. As, then, I knew not how this image of Thine should subsist, I should have knocked and propounded the doubt how it was to be believed, and not have insultingly opposed it, as if it were believed. Anxiety, therefore, as to what to retain as certain, did all the more sharply gnaw into my soul, the more shame I felt that, having been so long deluded and dep. 92 ceived by the promise of certainties, I had, with puerile error and petulance, prated of so many uncertainties as if they were certainties. For that they were falsehoods became apparent to me afterwards. However, I was certain that they were uncertain, and that I had formerly held them as certain when with a blind contentiousness I accused Thy Catholic Church, which though I had not yet discovered to teach truly, yet not to teach that of which I had so vehemently accused her. In this manner was I confounded and converted, and I rejoiced, O my God, that the one Church, the body of Thine only Son (wherein the name of Christ had been set upon me when an infant), did not appreciate these infantile trifles, nor maintained, in her sound doctrine, any tenet that would confine Thee, the Creator of all, in space—though ever so great and wide, yet bounded on all sides by the restraints of a human form.
6. I rejoiced also that the old Scriptures of the law and the prophets were laid before me, to be perused, not now with that eye to which they seemed most absurd before, when I censured Thy holy ones for so thinking, whereas in truth they thought not so; and with delight I heard Ambrose, in his sermons to the people, oftentimes most diligently recommend this text as a rule,—“The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life;” 447 whilst, drawing aside the mystic veil, he spiritually laid open that which, accepted according to the “letter,” seemed to teach perverse doctrines—teaching herein nothing that offended me, though he taught such things as I knew not as yet whether they were true. For all this time I restrained my heart from assenting to anything, fearing to fall headlong; but by hanging in suspense I was the worse killed. For my desire was to be as well assured of those things that I saw not, as I was that seven and three are ten. For I was not so insane as to believe that this could not be comprehended; but I desired to have other things as clear as this, whether corporeal things, which were not present to my senses, or spiritual, whereof I knew not how to conceive except corporeally. And by believing I might have been cured, that so the sight of my soul being cleared, 448 it might in some way be directed towards Thy truth, which abideth always, and faileth in naught. But as it happens that he who has tried a bad physician fears to trust himself with a good one, so was it with the health of my soul, which could not be healed but by believing, and, lest it should believe falsehoods, refused to be cured—resisting Thy hands, who hast prepared for us the medicaments of faith, and hast applied them to the maladies of the whole world, and hast bestowed upon them so great authority.
1 Cor. 3.6. The spiritual or allegorical meaning here referred to is one that Augustin constantly sought, as did many of the early Fathers, both Greek and Latin. He only employs this method of interpretation, however, in a qualified way—never going to the lengths of Origen or Clement of Alexandria. He does not depreciate the letter of Scripture, though, as we have shown above (iii. sec. 14, note), he went as far as he well could in interpreting the history spiritually. He does not seem, however, quite consistent in his statements as to the relative prominence to be given to the literal and spiritual meanings, as may be seen by a comparison of the latter portions of secs. 1 and 3 of book xvii. of the City of God. His general idea may be gathered from the following passage in the 21st sec. of book xiii.:—“Some allegorize all that concerns paradise itself, where the first men, the parents of the human race, are, according to the truth of Holy Scripture, recorded to have been; and they understand all its trees and fruit-bearing plants as virtues and habits of life, as if they had no existence in the external world, but were only so spoken of or related for the sake of spiritual meanings. As if there could not be a real terrestrial paradise! As if there never existed these two women, Sarah and Hagar, nor the two sons who were born to Abraham, the one of the bond-woman, the other of the free, because the apostle says that in them the two covenants were prefigured! or as if water never flowed from the rock when Moses struck it, because therein Christ can be seen in a figure, as the same apostle says: Now that rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10.4).…These and similar allegorical interpretations may be suitably put upon paradise without giving offence to any one, while yet we believe the strict truth of the history, confirmed by its circumstantial narrative of facts.” The allusion in the above passage to Sarah and Hagar invites the remark, that in Gal. 4.24, the words in our version rendered, “which things are an allegory,” should be, “which things are such as may be allegorized.” [Ἁτινά ἐστιν ἀλληγορούμενα. See Jelf, 398, sec. 2.] It is important to note this, as the passage has been quoted in support of the more extreme method of allegorizing, though it could clearly go no further than to sanction allegorizing by way of spiritual meditation upon Scripture, and not in the interpretation of it—which first, as Waterland thinks (Works, vol. v. p. 311), was the end contemplated by most of the Fathers. Thoughtful students of Scripture will feel that we have no right to make historical facts typical or allegorical, unless (as in the case of the manna, the brazen serpent, Jacobs ladder, etc.) we have divine authority for so doing; and few such will dissent from the opinion of Bishop Marsh (Lecture vi.) that the type must not only resemble the antitype, but must have been designed to resemble it, and further, that we must have the authority of Scripture for the existence of such design. The text, “The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life,” as a perusal of the context will show, has nothing whatever to do with either “literal” or “spiritual” meanings. Augustin himself interprets it in one place (De Spir. et Lit. cc. 4, 5) as meaning the killing letter of the law, as compared with the quickening power of the gospel. “An opinion,” to conclude with the thoughtful words of Alfred Morris on this
Chapter ( Words for the Heart and Life, p. 203), “once common must therefore be rejected. Some still talk of letter and spirit in a way which has no sanction here. The letter with them is the literal meaning of the text, the spirit is its symbolic meaning. And, as the spirit possesses an evident superiority to the letter, they fly away into the region of secret senses and hidden doctrines, find types where there is nothing typical, and allegories where there is nothing allegorical; make Genesis more evangelical than the Epistle to the Romans, and Leviticus than the Epistle to the Hebrews; mistaking lawful criticism for legal Christianity, they look upon the exercise of a sober judgment as a proof of a depraved taste, and forget that diseased as well as very powerful eyes may see more than others. It is not the obvious meaning and the secret meaning that are intended by letter and spirit, nor any two meanings of Christianity, nor two meanings of any thing or things, but the two systems of Moses and of Christ.” Reference may be made on this whole subject of allegorical interpretation in the writings of the Fathers to Blunts Right Use of the Early Fathers, series i. lecture 9.92:448
Augustin frequently dilates on this idea. In sermon 88 (cc. 5, 6, etc.), he makes the whole of the ministries of religion subservient to the clearing of the inner eye of the soul and in his De Trin. i. 3, he says: “And it is necessary to purge our minds, in order to be able to see ineffably that which is ineffable [i.e. the Godhead], whereto not having yet attained, we are to be nourished by faith, and led by such ways as are more suited to our capacity, that we may be rendered apt and able to comprehend it.”
Next: Chapter V
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