These, with the contents of our former volume, comprise eight of the fifteen works contributed by the great author to the defence of the Catholic faith against Pelagius and his most conspicuous followers. The prefaces and chapter headings, which have been, as heretofore, transferred to their proper places in this volume from the Benedictine edition of the original, will afford the reader preliminary help enough, and thus render more than a few general prefatory remarks unnecessary here.
The second book in the first of these treatises adds some facts to the historical information contained in our preceding volume; Pelagius is shown to be at one, in the main, with Cœlestius, the bolder but less specious heretic. They were condemned everywhere—even at Rome by Pope Zosimus, who had at first shown some favour to them. These authoritative proceedings against them gave a sensible check to their progress in public; there is, however, reason to believe that the opinions, which the Pelagian teachers had with great industry, and with their varied ability, propounded, had created much interest and even anxiety in private society. The early part of the first of the following treatises throws some light on this point, and on the artful methods by which the heretics sought to maintain and extend their opinions; it affords some evidence also of the widespread influence of St. Augustin. The controversy had engaged the attention of a pious family in Palestine; Pelagius was in the neighbourhood; and when frankly questioned by the friends, he strongly protested his adherence to the doctrine of Grace. “I anathematize,” he exclaimed with suspicious promptitude, “the man who holds that the grace of God is not necessary for us at every moment and in every act of our lives: and all who endeavour to disannul it, deserve everlasting punishment.” It was an act of astonishing duplicity, which Augustin, to whom the case was referred, soon detected and exposed. It is satisfactory to find that the worthy Christians to whom the Saint addressed his loving labour were confirmed in their simple faith; and in one of the last of his extant letters, towards the close of his days on earth, the venerable St. Jerome, in the course of the following year, united the gratitude of Albina, Pinianus, and Melania, with his own to his renowned brother in the west, whom he saluted as “the restorer of the ancient faith.” “Macte virtute,” said the venerable man, “in orbe celebraris; et, quod signum majoris est gloriæ, omnes heretici detestantur.” [Go on and prosper; the whole world endows thee with its praise, and all heretics with their hatred.]
In the latter part of the first treatise in this volume, one of the most formidable of the Pelagian objections to the Catholic doctrine of original sin is thrown out against marriage: “Surely that could not be a holy state, instituted of God, which produced human beings in sin!” Augustin in a few weighty chapters removes the doubts of his perplexed correspondents, and reserves his strength for the full treatment of the subject in the second treatise, here translated, On Marriage and Concupiscence. It is a noble monument of his firm grasp of Scripture truth, his loyal adherence to its plain meaning, and his delicate and, at the same time, intrepid handling of a subject, which could only be touched by a man whose mind possessed a deep knowledge of human nature—both in its moral and its physiological aspects, and in its relations to God as affected by its creation, its fall, and its redemption.
This treatise introduces us to a change of circumstances. The preceding one was, as we have seen, addressed to a small group of simple believers in sacred truth, who were not personally known to the author, and, though zealous in the maintenance of the faith, occupied only a private place in society; but the present work was written at the urgent request of a nobleman in high office as a minister of state, and well known to the writer. It is pleasant to trace a similar earnestness, in such dissimilar ranks, in the defence of the assailed faith: and it illusp. 10 trates the wide stretch of mind and comprehensive love of Augustin, that he could so promptly sympathize with the anxieties of all classes and conditions in the Christian life; and, what is more, so administer comfort and conviction out of the treasures of his wisdom, as to settle their doubts and reassure them in faith. Nor does the change end here. Instead of Pelagius and Cœlestius, Augustin has in this work to confute the powerful argument of Julianus, bishop of Celanum, the ablest of his Pelagian opponents. This man was really the mainstay of the heresy; he had greater resources of mind and a firmer character than either of his associates;—more candid and sincere than Pelagius, and less ambitious and impatient than Cœlestius, he seemed to contend for truth for its own sake, and this disposition found a complete response in the Churchs earnest and accomplished champion. Notwithstanding the difficulty and delicacy of the subject, which removes, no doubt, the treatise De Nuptiis et Concupisentiâ out of the category of what is called “general reading,” the great author never did a higher service to the faith than when he provided for it this defence of a fundamental point. The venerable Jerome rejoiced at the good service, and longed to embrace his brother Saint from his distant retreat of Bethlehem. “Testem invoco Deum,” he wrote to Augustin, and his dear friend and helper Alypius, “quod si posset fieri, assumptis alis columbæ, vestris amplexibus implicarer.”
In the last and longest work, translated for this volume, we come upon a change, both of subject and circumstances, as complete as that we have just noticed. Vincentius Victor, whose unsafe opinions are reviewed, was a young African of great ability and rhetorical accomplishment. His fluent tongue had fairly bewitched not only crowds of thoughtless hearers, but staid persons, whose faith should have been proof against a seductive influence which was soon shown to be transient and flimsy. The young disputant seems to have been more of a schismatic in the Donatist party, than a heretic with Pelagius; showy, however, and unstable, and hardly weighing the consequence of his own opinions, he began to air his metaphysics, and soon fell into strange errors about the nature and origin of the human soul. In his youthful arrogance he happened to censure Augustin for his cautious teaching on so profound a subject; kindly does the aged bishop receive the criticism, show its unreasonableness, and point out to his rash assailant some serious errors which he was propounding at random. He also reproves one of Victors friends, who happened to be a presbyter, for allowing himself to be misled by the young mans eloquent sophistry; and in the latter half of his treatise, with fatherly love and earnestness, he advises Victor to renounce his dangerous errors, some of which were rankly Pelagian, and something worse. The result of Augustins admonitions—adorned as they were with great depth and width of reflection and knowledge (extending this time even to physical science, on some facts of which he playfully comments with the ease of a modern experimenter), with loving consideration for his opponents inexperience, kindly deference to his undoubted abilities, and a pious desire to win him over to the cause of truth and godliness—was entirely satisfactory. We find from the Retractations (ii. 56), that Victor in time abjured all his errors, and doubtless, like another Apollos, ably employed his best powers in the service of true religion. This was a real trophy, great among the greatest of Augustins achievements for faith and charity. For so great a soul to stoop to the level of so captious a spirit, and with industrious love and patience to trace out and refute all its ambitious error, was “a labour of love” indeed. He remembered the wise counsel of the apostle: “Count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother;” and he reaped the victory the Saviour promised: “Thou hast gained thy brother.”
[Volume III. of the Edinburgh edition appeared without dedication or preface, in 1876. It contained translations of Augustins treatises on Grace and Free-Will, Rebuke and Grace, The Predestination of the Saints, The Gift of Perseverance, and of his work Against Two Letters of the Pelagians. Of these, only the first was from the pen of Dr. Holmes, the rest being the work of Dr. Robert Ernest Wallis, whose name has been accordingly placed on the general titlepage of this revision.—W.]
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