Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
City of God: Chapter 2
Chapter 2.—What Was Prophetically Prefigured in the Sons of Noah.
The things which then were hidden are now sufficiently revealed by the actual events which have followed. For who can carefully and intelligently consider these things without recognizing them accomplished in Christ? Shem, of whom Christ was born in the flesh, means “named.” And what is of greater name than Christ, the fragrance of whose name is now everywhere perceived, so that even prophecy sings of it beforehand, comparing it in the Song of Songs, 861 to ointment poured forth? Is it not also in the houses of Christ, that is, in the churches, that the “enlargement” of the nations dwells? For Japheth means “enlargement.” And Ham (i.e., hot), who was the middle son of Noah, and, as it were, separated himself from both, and remained between them, neither belonging to the first-fruits of Israel nor to the fullness of the Gentiles, what does he signify but the tribe of heretics, hot with the spirit, not of patience, but of impatience, with which the breasts of heretics are wont to blaze, and with which they disturb the peace of the saints? But even the heretics yield an advantage to those that make proficiency, according to the apostles saying, p. 310 “There must also be heresies, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” 862 Whence, too, it is elsewhere said, “The son that receives instruction will be wise, and he uses the foolish as his servant.” 863 For while the hot restlessness of heretics stirs questions about many articles of the catholic faith, the necessity of defending them forces us both to investigate them more accurately, to understand them more clearly, and to proclaim them more earnestly; and the question mooted by an adversary becomes the occasion of instruction. However, not only those who are openly separated from the church, but also all who glory in the Christian name, and at the same time lead abandoned lives, may without absurdity seem to be figured by Noahs middle son: for the passion of Christ, which was signified by that mans nakedness, is at once proclaimed by their profession, and dishonored by their wicked conduct. Of such, therefore, it has been said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” 864 And therefore was Ham cursed in his son, he being, as it were, his fruit. So, too, this son of his, Canaan, is fitly interpreted “their movement,” which is nothing else than their work. But Shem and Japheth, that is to say, the circumcision and uncircumcision, or, as the apostle otherwise calls them, the Jews and Greeks, but called and justified, having somehow discovered the nakedness of their father (which signifies the Saviours passion), took a garment and laid it upon their backs, and entered backwards and covered their fathers nakedness, without their seeing what their reverence hid. For we both honor the passion of Christ as accomplished for us, and we hate the crime of the Jews who crucified Him. The garment signifies the sacrament, their backs the memory of things past: for the church celebrates the passion of Christ as already accomplished, and no longer to be looked forward to, now that Japheth already dwells in the habitations of Shem, and their wicked brother between them.
But the wicked brother is, in the person of his son (i.e., his work), the boy, or slave, of his good brothers, when good men make a skillful use of bad men, either for the exercise of their patience or for their advancement in wisdom. For the apostle testifies that there are some who preach Christ from no pure motives; “but,” says he, “whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.” 865 For it is Christ Himself who planted the vine of which the prophet says, “The vine of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel;” 866 and He drinks of its wine, whether we thus understand that cup of which He says, “Can ye drink of the cup that I shall drink of?” 867 and, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” 868 by which He obviously means His passion. Or, as wine is the fruit of the vine, we may prefer to understand that from this vine, that is to say, from the race of Israel, He has assumed flesh and blood that He might suffer; “and he was drunken,” that is, He suffered; “and was naked,” that is, His weakness appeared in His suffering, as the apostle says, “though He was crucified through weakness.” 869 Wherefore the same apostle says, “The weakness of God is stronger than men; and the foolishness of God is wiser than men.” 870 And when to the expression “he was naked” Scripture adds “in his house,” it elegantly intimates that Jesus was to suffer the cross and death at the hands of His own household, His own kith and kin, the Jews. This passion of Christ is only externally and verbally professed by the reprobate, for what they profess, they do not understand. But the elect hold in the inner man this so great mystery, and honor inwardly in the heart this weakness and foolishness of God. And of this there is a figure in Ham going out to proclaim his fathers nakedness; while Shem and Japheth, to cover or honor it, went in, that is to say, did it inwardly.
These secrets of divine Scripture we investigate as well as we can. All will not accept our interpretation with equal confidence, but all hold it certain that these things were neither done nor recorded without some foreshadowing of future events, and that they are to be referred only to Christ and His church, which is the city of God, proclaimed from the very beginning of human history by figures which we now see everywhere accomplished. From the blessing of the two sons of Noah, and the cursing of the middle son, down to Abraham, or for more than a thousand years, there is, as I have said, no mention of any righteous persons who worshipped God. I do not therefore conclude that there were none; but it had been tedious to mention every one, and would have displayed historical accuracy rather than prophetic foresight. The object of the writer of these sacred books, or rather of the Spirit of God in him, is not only to record the past, but to depict the future, so far as it regards the city of God; for whatever is said of those who are not its citizens, is given either for her instruction, or as a foil to enhance her glory. p. 311 Yet we are not to suppose that all that is recorded has some signification; but those things which have no signification of their own are interwoven for the sake of the things which are significant. It is only the ploughshare that cleaves the soil; but to effect this, other parts of the plough are requisite. It is only the strings in harps and other musical instruments which produce melodious sounds; but that they may do so, there are other parts of the instrument which are not indeed struck by those who sing, but are connected with the strings which are struck, and produce musical notes. So in this prophetic history some things are narrated which have no significance, but are, as it were, the framework to which the significant things are attached.
Song of Sol. 1.3.310:862
1 Cor. 11.19.310:863
Prov. 10.5. (LXX.).310:864
2 Cor. 13.4.310:870
1 Cor. 1.25.
Next: Chapter 3
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