Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Doctrinal Treatises of St. Augustin: Chapter 11
Chapter 11.—The Essence of God Never Appeared in Itself. Divine Appearances to the Fathers Wrought by the Ministry of Angels. An Objection Drawn from the Mode of Speech Removed. That the Appearing of God to Abraham Himself, Just as that to Moses, Was Wrought by Angels. The Same Thing is Proved by the Law Being Given to Moses by Angels. What Has Been Said in This Book, and What Remains to Be Said in the Next.
Wherefore the substance, or, if it is better so to say, the essence of God, 412 wherein we understand, in proportion to our measure, in however small a degree, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, since it is in no way changeable, can in no way in its proper self be visible.
22. It is manifest, accordingly, that all those appearances to the fathers, when God was presented to them according to His own dispensation, suitable to the times, were wrought through the creature. And if we cannot discern in what manner He wrought them by ministry of angels, yet we say that they were wrought by angels; but not from our own power of discernment, lest we should seem to any one to be wise beyond our measure, whereas we are wise so as to think soberly, as God hath dealt to us the measure of faith; 413 and we believe, and therefore speak. 414 For the authority is extant of the divine Scriptures, from which our reason ought not to turn aside; nor by leaving the solid support of the divine utterance, to fall headlong over the precipice of its own surmisings, in matters wherein neither the perceptions of the body rule, nor the clear reason of the truth shines forth. Now, certainly, it is written most clearly in the Epistle to the Hebrews, when the dispensation of the New Testament was to be distinguished from the dispensation of the Old, according to the fitness of ages and of times, that not only those visible things, but also the word itself, was wrought by angels. For it is said thus: “But to which of the angels said He at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool? Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” 415 Whence it appears that all those things were not only wrought by angels, but wrought also on our account, that is, on account of the people of God, to whom is promised the inheritance of eternal life. As it is written also to the Corinthians, “Now all these things happened unto them in a figure: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” 416 And then, demonstrating by plain consequence that as at that time the word was spoken by the angels, so now by the Son; “Therefore,” he says, “we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip. For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; how shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” And then, as though you asked, What salvation?—in order to show that he is now speaking of the New Testament, that is, of the word which was spoken not by angels, but by the Lord, he says, “Which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard Him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to His own will.” 417
23. But some one may say, Why then is it written, “The Lord said to Moses;” and not, rather, The angel said to Moses? Because, when the crier proclaims the words of the judge, it is not usually written in the record, so and so the crier said, but so and so the judge. In like manner also, when the holy prophet speaks, although we say, The prophet said, we mean nothing else to be understood than that the Lord said; and if we were to say, The Lord said, we should not put the prophet aside, but only intimate who spake by him. And, indeed, these Scriptures often reveal the angel to be the Lord, of whose speaking it is from time to time said, “the Lord said,” as we have shown already. But on account of those who, since the Scripture in that place specifies an angel, will have the Son of God Himself and in p. 66 Himself to be understood, because He is called an angel by the prophet, as announcing the will of His Father and of Himself; I have therefore thought fit to produce a plainer testimony from this epistle, where it is not said by an angel, but “by angels.”
24. For Stephen, too, in the Acts of the Apostles, relates these things in that manner in which they are also written in the Old Testament: “Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken,” he says; “The God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia.” 418 But lest any one should think that the God of glory appeared then to the eyes of any mortal in that which He is in Himself, he goes on to say that an angel appeared to Moses. “Then fled Moses,” he says, “at that saying, and was a stranger in the land of Midian, where he begat two sons. And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sinai an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush. When Moses saw it, he wondered at the sight: and as he drew near to behold it, the voice of the Lord came unto him, saying, I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Then Moses trembled, and durst not behold. Then said the Lord to him, Put off thy shoes from thy feet,” 419 etc. Here, certainly, he speaks both of angel and of Lord; and of the same as the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; as is written in Genesis.
25. Can there be any one who will say that the Lord appeared to Moses by an angel, but to Abraham by Himself? Let us not answer this question from Stephen, but from the book itself, whence Stephen took his narrative. For, pray, because it is written, “And the Lord God said unto Abraham;” 420 and a little after, “And the Lord God appeared unto Abraham;” 421 were these things, for this reason, not done by angels? Whereas it is said in like manner in another place, “And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day;” and yet it is added immediately, “And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him:” 422 of whom we have already spoken. For how will these people, who either will not rise from the words to the meaning, or easily throw themselves down from the meaning to the words,—how, I say, will they be able to explain that God was seen in three men, except they confess that they were angels, as that which follows also shows? Because it is not said an angel spoke or appeared to him, will they therefore venture to say that the vision and voice granted to Moses was wrought by an angel because it is so written, but that God appeared and spake in His own substance to Abraham because there is no mention made of an angel? What of the fact, that even in respect to Abraham an angel is not left unmentioned? For when his son was ordered to be offered up as a sacrifice, we read thus: “And it came to pass after these things that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And He said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt-offering upon one of the mountains that I will tell thee of.” Certainly God is here mentioned, not an angel. But a little afterwards Scripture hath it thus: “And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him.” What can be answered to this? Will they say that God commanded that Isaac should be slain, and that an angel forbade it? and further, that the father himself, in opposition to the decree of God, who had commanded that he should be slain, obeyed the angel, who had bidden him spare him? Such an interpretation is to be rejected as absurd. Yet not even for it, gross and abject as it is, does Scripture leave any room, for it immediately adds: “For now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, on account of me.” 423 What is “on account of me,” except on account of Him who had commanded him to be slain? Was then the God of Abraham the same as the angel, or was it not rather God by an angel? Consider what follows. Here, certainly, already an angel has been most clearly spoken of; yet notice the context: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt-offering in the stead of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place, The Lord saw: 424 as it is said to this day, In the mount the Lord was seen.” 425 Just as that p. 67 which a little before God said by an angel, “For now I know that thou fearest God;” not because it was to be understood that God then came to know, but that He brought it to pass that through God Abraham himself came to know what strength of heart he had to obey God, even to the sacrificing of his only son: after that mode of speech in which the effect is signified by the efficient,—as cold is said to be sluggish, because it makes men sluggish; so that He was therefore said to know, because He had made Abraham himself to know, who might well have not discerned the firmness of his own faith, had it not been proved by such a trial. So here, too, Abraham called the name of the place “The Lord saw,” that is, caused Himself to be seen. For he goes on immediately to say, “As it is said to this day, In the mount the Lord was seen.” Here you see the same angel is called Lord: wherefore, unless because the Lord spake by the angel? But if we pass on to that which follows, the angel altogether speaks as a prophet, and reveals expressly that God is speaking by the angel. “And the angel of the Lord,” he says, “called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and said, By myself I have sworn, saith the Lord; for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, on account of me,” 426 etc. Certainly these words, viz. that he by whom the Lord speaks should say, “Thus saith the Lord,” are commonly used by the prophets also. Does the Son of God say of the Father, “The Lord saith,” while He Himself is that Angel of the Father? What then? Do they not see how hard pressed they are about these three men who appeared to Abraham, when it had been said before, “The Lord appeared to him?” Were they not angels because they are called men? Let them read Daniel, saying, “Behold the man Gabriel.” 427
26. But why do we delay any longer to stop their mouths by another most clear and most weighty proof, where not an angel in the singular nor men in the plural are spoken of, but simply angels; by whom not any particular word was wrought, but the Law itself is most distinctly declared to be given; which certainly none of the faithful doubts that God gave to Moses for the control of the children of Israel, or yet, that it was given by angels. So Stephen speaks: “Ye stiff-necked,” he says, “and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the Law by the disposition of angels, 428 and have not kept it.” 429 What is more evident than this? What more strong than such an authority? The Law, indeed, was given to that people by the disposition of angels; but the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ was by it prepared and pre-announced; and He Himself, as the Word of God, was in some wonderful and unspeakable manner in the angels, by whose disposition the Law itself was given. And hence He said in the Gospel, “For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me; for he wrote of me.” 430 Therefore then the Lord was speaking by the angels; and the son of God, who was to be the Mediator of God and men, from the seed of Abraham, was preparing His own advent by the angels, that He might find some by whom He would be received, confessing themselves guilty, whom the Law unfulfilled had made transgressors. And hence the apostle also says to the Galatians, “Wherefore then serveth the Law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made, which [seed] was ordered 431 through angels in the hand of a mediator;” 432 that is, ordered through angels in His own hand. For He was not born in limitation, but in power. But you learn in another place that he does not mean any one of the angels as a mediator, but the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, in so far as He deigned to be made man: “For there is one God,” he says, “and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” 433 Hence that passover in the killing of the lamb: 434 hence all those things which are figuratively spoken in the Law, of Christ to come in the flesh, and to suffer, but also to rise again, which Law was given by the disposition of angels; in which angels, were certainly the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and in which, sometimes the Father, sometimes the Son, sometimes the Holy Spirit, and sometimes God, without any distinction of person, was figuratively signified by them, although appearing in visible and sensible forms, yet by His own creature, not by His substance, in order to the seeing of which, hearts are cleansed through all those things which are seen by the eyes and heard by the ears.
27. But now, as I think, that which we had undertaken to show in this book has been p. 68 sufficiently discussed and demonstrated, according to our capacity; and it has been established, both by probable reason, so far as a man, or rather, so far as I am able, and by strength of authority, so far as the divine declarations from the Holy Scriptures have been made clear, that those words and bodily appearances which were given to these ancient fathers of ours before the incarnation of the Saviour, when God was said to appear, were wrought by angels: whether themselves speaking or doing something in the person of God, as we have shown that the prophets also were wont to do, or assuming from the creature that which they themselves were not, wherein God might be shown in a figure to men; which manner of showing also, Scripture teaches by many examples, that the prophets, too, did not omit. It remains, therefore, now for us to consider,—since both in the Lord as born of a virgin, and in the Holy Spirit descending in a corporeal form like a dove, 435 and in the tongues like as of fire, which appeared with a sound from heaven on the day of Pentecost, after the ascension of the Lord, 436 it was not the Word of God Himself by His own substance, in which He is equal and eternal with the Father, nor the Spirit of the Father and of the Son by His own substance, in which He Himself also is equal and co-eternal with both, but assuredly a creature, such as could be formed and exist in these fashions, which appeared to corporeal and mortal senses,—it remains, I say, to consider what difference there is between these manifestations and those which were proper to the Son of God and to the Holy Spirit, although wrought by the visible creature; 437 which subject we shall more conveniently begin in another book.
[“Substance,” from sub stans, is a passive term, denoting latent and potential being. “Essence,” from esse, is an active term, denoting energetic being. The schoolmen, as Augustin does here, preferred the latter term to the former, though employing both to designate the divine nature.—W.G.T.S.]65:413
Rom. 12.3Rom. xii. 365:414
2 Cor. 4.132 Cor. iv. 1365:415
Heb. 1:13, 14Heb. 1:13, 1465:416
1 Cor. 10.111 Cor. x. 1165:417
Heb. 2.1-4Heb. ii. 1-466:418
Act. 7.2Acts vii. 266:419
Exod. 2:15, Exod. 3:7, Acts 7:29Ex. ii. 15 and iii. 7, and Acts vii. 29-3366:420
Gen. 12.1Gen. xii. 166:421
Gen. 17.1Gen. xvii. 166:422
Gen. 18:1, 2Gen. 18:1, 266:423
Dominus visus est67:426
Dan. 9.21Dan. ix. 2167:428
In edictis angelorum67:429
Acts 7.51-53Acts vii. 51-5367:430
John 5.46John v. 4667:431
Gal. 3.19Gal. iii. 1967:433
1 Tim. 2.51 Tim. ii. 567:434
Acts 2.1-4Acts ii. 1-468:437
[The reference here is to the difference between a theophany, and an incarnation; already alluded to, in the note on p. 149.—W.G.T.S.]
Next: Book IV
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