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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III:
Doctrinal Treatises of St. Augustin: Chapter 8

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 8.—Of the Method to Be Pursued in Catechising Those Who Have Had a Liberal Education.

12. But there is another case which evidently must not be overlooked. I mean the case of one coming to you to receive catchetical instruction who has cultivated the field of liberal studies, who has already made up his mind to be a Christian, and who has betaken himself to you for the express purpose of becoming one. It can scarcely fail to be the fact that a person of this character has already acquired a considerable knowledge of our Scriptures and literature; and, furnished with this, he may have come now simply with the view of being made a partaker in the sacraments. For it is customary with men of this class to inquire carefully into all things, not at the very time when they are made Christians, but previous to that, and thus early also to communicate and reason, with any whom they can reach, on the subject of the feelings of their own minds. Consequently a brief method of procedure should be adopted with these, so as not to inculcate on them, in an odious fashion 1381 things which they know already, but to pass over these with a light and modest touch. Thus we should say how we believe that they are already familiar with this and the other subject, and that we therefore simply reckon up in a cursory manner all those facts which require to be formally urged upon the attention of the uninstructed and unlearned. And we should endeavor so to proceed, that, supposing this man of culture to have been previously acquainted with any one of our themes, he may not hear it now as from a teacher; and that, in the event of his being still ignorant of any of them, he may yet learn the same while we are going over the things with which we understand him to be already familiar. Moreover, it is certainly not without advantage to interrogate the man himself as to the means by which he was induced to desire to be a Christian; so that, if you discover him to have been moved to that decision by books, whether they be the canonical writings or the compositions of literary men worth the studying, 1382 you may say something about these at the outset, expressing your approbation of them in a manner which may suit the distinct merits which they severally possess, in respect of canonical authority and of skillfully applied diligence on the part of these expounders; 1383 and, in the case of the canonical Scriptures, commending above all the most salutary modesty (of language) displayed alongside their wonderful loftiness (of subject); while, in those other productions you notice, in accordance with the p. 291 characteristic faculty of each several writer, a style of a more sonorous and, as it were more rounded eloquence adapted to minds that are prouder, and, by reason thereof weaker. We should certainly also elicit from him some account of himself, so that he may give us to understand what writer he chiefly perused, and with what books he was more familiarly conversant, as these were the means of moving him to wish to be associated with the church. And when he has given us this information, then if the said books are known to us, or if we have at least ecclesiastical report as our warrant for taking them to have been written by some catholic man of note, we should joyfully express our approbation. But if, on the other hand, he has fallen upon the productions of some heretic and in ignorance, it may be, has retained in his mind anything which 1384 the true faith condemns, and yet supposes it to be catholic doctrine, then we must set ourselves sedulously to teach him, bringing before him (in its rightful superiority) the authority of the Church universal, and of other most learned men reputed both for their disputations and for their writings in (the cause of) its truth. 1385 At the same time, it is to be admitted that even those who have departed this life as genuine catholics, and have left to posterity some Christian writings, in certain passages of their small works, either in consequence of their failing to be understood, or (as the way is with human infirmity) because they lack ability to pierce into the deeper mysteries with the eye of the mind, and in (pursuing) the semblance of what is true, wander from the truth itself, have proved an occasion to the presumptuous and audacious for constructing and generating some heresy. This, however, is not to be wondered at, when, even in the instance of the canonical writings themselves, where all things have been expressed in the soundest manner, we see how it has happened,—not indeed through merely taking certain passages in a sense different from that which the writer had in view or which is consistent with the truth itself, (for if this were all, who would not gladly pardon human infirmity, when it exhibits a readiness to accept correction?), but by persistently defending, with the bitterest vehemence and in impudent arrogance, opinions which they have taken up in perversity and error,—many have given birth to many pernicious dogmas at the cost of rending the unity of the (Christian) communion. All these subjects we should discuss in modest conference with the individual who makes his approach to the society of the Christian people, not in the character of an uneducated man, 1386 as they say, but in that of one who has passed through a finished culture and training in the books of the learned. And in enjoining him to guard against the errors of presumption, we should assume only so much authority as that humility of his, which induced him to come to us, is now felt to admit of. As to other things, moreover, in accordance with the rules of saving doctrine, which require to be narrated or discussed, whether they be matters relating to the faith, or questions bearing on the moral life, or others dealing with temptations, all these should be gone through in the manner which I have indicated, and ought therein to be referred to the more excellent way (already noticed). 1387



Reading odiose, for which several mss. give otiose = idly.


Utilium tractatorum


Reading exponentium. Various codices give ad exponendum = in expounding.


Reading quod, with Marriott. But if we accept quod with the Benedictine editors, the sense will = and in ignorance it may be that the true faith condemns them, has retained them in his mind.


Aliorumque doctissimorum hominum et disputationibus et scriptionibus in ejus veritate florentium. It may also be = bringing before him the authority of the Church universal, as well as both the disputations and the writings of other most learned men well reputed in (the cause of) its truth.




1 Cor. 12.311 Cor. xii. 31. See also above, § 9.

Next: Chapter 9