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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 98

Tractate 98 (John 16:12-33)

1. From the words of our Lord, where He says, I have yet many things to say unto you, but you cannot bear them now, there arose a difficult question, which I recollect to have put off, that it might be handled afterwards at greater leisure, because my last discourse had reached its proper limits, and required to be brought to a close. And now, accordingly, as we have time to redeem our promise, let us take up its discussion as the Lord Himself shall grant us ability, who put it into our heart to make the proposal. And the question is this: Whether spiritual men have anything in doctrine which they should withhold from the carnal, but declare to the spiritual. For if we shall say, They have not, we shall meet with the reply, What, then, is to be made of the words of the apostle in writing to the Corinthians: I could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal. As unto babes in Christ, I have given you milk to drink, and not meat to eat: for hitherto you were not able; neither yet now are you able; for you are yet carnal? 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 But if we say, They have, we have cause to fear and take heed, lest under such a pretext detestable doctrines be taught in secret, and under the name of spiritual, as things which cannot be understood by the carnal, may seem not only capable of being whitewashed by plausible excuses, but deserving also to be lauded in preaching.

2. In the first place, then, your Charity ought to know that it is Christ Himself as crucified, wherewith the apostle says that he has fed those who are babes as with milk; but His flesh itself, in which was witnessed His real death, that is, both His real wounds when transfixed and His blood when pierced, does not present itself to the minds of the carnal in the same manner as to that of the spiritual, and so to the former it is milk, and to the latter it is meat; for if they do not hear more than others, they understand better. For the mind has not equal powers of perception even for that which is equally received by both in faith. And so it happens that the preaching of Christ crucified, by the apostle, was at once to the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Gentiles foolishness; and to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, the power of God, and the wisdom of God; 1 Corinthians 1:23-24 but to the carnal, as babes who held it only as a matter of faith, and to the spiritual, as those of greater capacity, who perceived it as a matter of understanding; to the former, therefore, as a milk-draught, to the latter as solid food: not that the former knew it in one way out in the world at large, and the latter in another way in their secret chambers; but that what both heard in the same measure when it was publicly spoken, each apprehended in his own measure. For inasmuch as Christ was crucified for the very purpose of shedding His blood for the remission of sins, and of divine grace being thereby commended in the passion of His Only-begotten, that no one should glory in man, what understanding had they of Christ crucified who were still saying, I am of Paul? 1 Corinthians 1:12 Was it such as Paul himself had, who could say, But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ? Galatians 6:14 In regard, therefore, even to Christ crucified, he himself found food in proportion to his own capacity, and nourished them with milk in accordance with their infirmity. And still further, knowing that what he wrote to the Corinthians might doubtless be understood in one way by those who were still babes, and differently by those of greater capacity, he said, If any one among you is a prophet, or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things that I write unto you are the commandment of the Lord; but if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant. 1 Corinthians 14:37-38 Assuredly he would have the knowledge of the spiritual to be substantial, wherever not only faith had found a suitable abode, but a certain power of understanding was possessed; and whereby such believed those very things which as spiritual they likewise acknowledged. But let him be ignorant, he says, who is ignorant; because it was not yet revealed to him to know that which he believes. When this takes place in a man's mind, he is said to be known of God; for it is God who endows him with this power of understanding, as it is elsewhere said, But now, knowing God, or rather, being known of God. Galatians 4:9 For it was not then that God first knew those who were foreknown and chosen before the foundation of the world; Ephesians 1:4 but then it was that He made them to know Himself.

3. Having ascertained this, therefore, at the outset, that the very things, which are equally heard by the spiritual and the carnal, are received by each according to the slender measure of his own capacity—by some as babes, by others as those of riper years—by one as milk nourishment, by another as solid food—there seems no necessity for any matters of doctrine being retained in silence as secrets, and concealed from infant believers, as things to be spoken of apart to those who are older, or possessed of a riper understanding; and let us regard it as needful to act thus, just because of the words of the apostle, I could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal. For even this very statement of his, that he knew nothing among them but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, 1 Corinthians 2:2 he could not speak unto them as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal; because even that they were not able to receive as spiritual. But all who were spiritual among them received with spiritual understanding the very same truths which the others only heard as carnal; and in this way may we understand the words, I could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, as if he said, What I did speak, you could not receive as spiritual, but as carnal. For the natural man— that is, the man whose wisdom is of a mere human kind, and is called natural [literally, soulish] from the soul, and carnal from the flesh, because the complete man consists of soul and flesh— perceives not the things of the Spirit of God; 1 Corinthians 2:14 that is, the measure of grace bestowed on believers by the cross of Christ, and thinks that all that is effected by that cross is to provide us with an example for our imitation in contending even to death for the truth. For if men of this type, who have no desire to be anything else than men, knew how it is that Christ crucified is made of God unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption, that, according as it is written, He that glories, let him glory in the Lord, 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 they would doubtless no longer glory in man, nor say in a carnal spirit, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas; but in a spiritual way, I am of Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:12

4. But the question is still further raised by what we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews: When now for the time ye ought to be teachers, you have need again to be taught which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and have become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that uses milk has no experience in the word of righteousness; for he is a babe. But strong meat belongs to them that are perfect, even those who by habit have their senses exercised to distinguish good from evil. Hebrews 5:12-14 For here we see, as if clearly defined, what he calls the strong meat of the perfect; and which is the same as that which he writes to the Corinthans, We speak wisdom among them that are perfect. 1 Corinthians 2:6 But who it was that he wished in this passage to be understood as perfect, he proceeded to indicate in the words, Even those who by habit have their senses exercised to distinguish good from evil. Those, therefore, who, through a weak and undisciplined mind, are destitute of this power, will certainly, unless enabled by what may be called the milk of faith to believe both the invisible things which they see not, and the comprehensible things which they do not yet comprehend, be easily seduced by the promise of science to vain and sacrilegious fables: so as to think both of good and evil only under corporeal forms, and to have no idea of God Himself save as some sort of body, and be able only to view evil as a substance; while there is rather a kind of falling away from the immutable Substance in the case of all mutable substances, which were made out of nothing by the immutable and supreme substance itself, which is God. And assuredly whoever not only believes, but also through the exercised inner senses of his mind understands, and perceives, and knows this, there is no longer cause for fear that he will be seduced by those who, while accounting evil to be a substance uncreated by God, make God Himself a mutable substance, as is done by the Manicheans, or any other pests, if such there be, that fall into similar folly.

5. But to those who are still babes in mind, and who as carnal, the apostle says, require to be nourished with milk, all discoursing on such a subject, wherein we deal not only with the believing, but also with the understanding and the knowing of what is spoken, must be burdensome, as being still unable to perceive such things, and be more fitted to oppress than to feed them. Whence it comes to pass that the spiritual, while not altogether silent on such subjects to the carnal, because of the Catholic faith which is to be preached to all, yet do not so handle them as, in their wish to simplify them to understandings that are still deficient in capacity, to bring their discourse on the truth into disrepute, rather than the truth that is in their discourse within the perceptions of their hearers. Accordingly in his Epistle to the Colossians he says: And though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and that which is lacking in your faith in Christ. Colossians 2:5 And in that to the Thessalonians: Night and day, he says, praying more abundantly, that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith. 1 Thessalonians 3:10 Here we are, of course, to understand those who were under such primary catechetical instruction, as implied their nourishment with milk and not with strong meat; of the former of which there is mention made in the Epistle to the Hebrews of an abundant supply for such as nevertheless he would now have had to be feeding on solid food. Accordingly he says: Therefore leaving the word of the beginning of Christ, let us have regard to the completion; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of the baptismal font, and of the laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. Hebrews 6:1-2 This is the copious supply of milk, without which even they cannot live, who have already indeed their reason sufficiently in use to enable them to believe, but who cannot distinguish good from evil, so as to be not only a matter of faith, but also of understanding (which belongs to the department of solid food). But when he includes doctrine also in his description of the milk, it is that which has been delivered to us in the Creed and the Lord's Prayer.

6. But let us be far from supposing that there is any contrariety between this milk and the food of spiritual things that has to be received by the sound understanding, and which was wanting to the Colossians and Thessalonians, and had still to be supplied. For the supply of the deficiency implies no disapproval of that which existed. For even in the very food that we take, so far is there from being any contrariety between milk and solid food, that the latter itself becomes milk, in order to make it suitable to babes, whom it reaches through the medium of the mother's or the nurse's body; so did also mother Wisdom herself, who is solid food in the lofty sphere of angels, condescend in a manner to become milk for babes, when the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. But the man Christ Himself, who in His true flesh, true cross, true death, and true resurrection is called the pure milk of babes, is, when rightly understood by the spiritual, found to be the Lord of angels. Accordingly, babes are not to be so fed with milk as always to remain without understanding the Godhead of Christ; nor are they to be so withdrawn from milk as to turn their backs on His manhood. And the same thing may also be stated in another way in this manner: they are neither so to be fed with milk as never to understand Christ as Creator, nor so to be withdrawn from milk as ever to turn their backs on Christ as Mediator. In this respect, indeed, the similitude of maternal milk and solid food scarcely harmonizes with the reality as thus stated, but rather that of a foundation: for when the child is weaned, so as to be withdrawn from the nourishment of infancy, he never looks again among solid food for the breasts which he sucked; but Christ crucified is both milk to sucklings and meat to the more advanced. And the similitude of a foundation is on this account the more suitable, because, for the completion of the structure, the building is added without the foundation being withdrawn.

7. And since this is the case, do you, whoever you be, who are doubtless many of you still babes in Christ, be making advances towards the solid food of the mind, not of the belly. Grow in the ability to distinguish good from evil, and cleave more and more to the Mediator, who delivers you from evil; which does not admit of a local separation from you, but rather of being healed within you. But whoever shall say to you, Believe not Christ to be truly man, or that the body of any man or animal whatever was created by the true God, or that the Old Testament was given by the true God, and anything else of the same sort, for such things as these were not told you previously, when your nourishment was milk, because your heart was still unfit for the apprehension of the truth: such an one provides you not with meat, but with poison. For therefore it was that the blessed apostle, in addressing those who appeared to him already perfect, even after calling himself imperfect, said, Let us, therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. And that they might not rush into the hands of seducers, whose desire would be to turn them away from the faith by promising them the knowledge of the truth, and suppose such to be the meaning of the apostle's words, God shall reveal even this unto you, he immediately added, Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule. Philippians 3:15-16 If, then, you have come to some understanding of what is not at variance with the rule of the Catholic faith, whereto you have attained as the way that is guiding you to your fatherland; and hast so understood it as to feel it a duty to dismiss all doubts whatever on the subject: add to the building, but do not abandon the foundation. And surely of such a character ought to be any teaching given by elders to those who are babes, as not to involve the assertion that Christ the Lord of all, and the prophets and apostles, who are much farther advanced in age than themselves, had in any respect spoken falsely. And not only ought you to avoid the babbling seducers of the mind, who prate away at their fables and falsehoods, and in such vanities make the promise, forsooth, of profound science contrary to the rule of faith, which we have accepted as Catholic; but avoid those also as a still more insidious pest than the others, who discuss truthfully enough the immutability of the divine nature, or the incorporeal creature, or the Creator, and fully prove what they affirm by the most conclusive documents and reasonings, and yet attempt to turn you away from the one Mediator between God and men. For such are those of whom the apostle says, Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God. Romans 1:21 For what advantage is it to have a true understanding of the immutable Good to one who has no hold of Him by whom there is deliverance from evil? And let not the admonition of the most blessed apostle by any means lose its place in your hearts: If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that you have received, let him be accursed. Galatians 1:9 He does not say, More than you have received; but, Other than you have received. For had he said the former, he would be prejudging himself, inasmuch as he desired to come to the Thessalonians to supply what was lacking in their faith. But one who supplies, adds to what was deficient, without taking away what existed: while he that transgresses the rule of faith, is not progressing in the way, but turning aside from it.

8. Accordingly, when the Lord says, I have yet many things to say unto you, but you cannot bear them now, He means that what they were still ignorant of had afterwards to be supplied to them, and not that what they had already learned was to be subverted. And He, indeed, as I have already shown in a former discourse, could so speak, because the very things which He had taught them, had He wished to unfold them to them in the same way as they are conceived in regard to Him by the angels, their still remaining human weakness would be unable to bear. But any spiritual man may teach another man what he knows, provided the Holy Spirit grant him an enlarged capacity for profiting, wherein also the teacher himself may get some further increase, in order that both may be taught of God. Although even among the spiritual themselves there are some, doubtless, who are of greater capacity and in a better condition than others; so that one of them attained even to things of which it is not lawful for a man to speak. Taking advantage of which, there have been some vain individuals, who, with a presumption that betrays the grossest folly, have forged a Revelation of Paul, crammed with all manner of fables, which has been rejected by the orthodox Church; affirming it to be that whereof he had said that he was caught up into the third heavens, and there heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter. Nevertheless, the audacity of such might be tolerable, had he said that he heard words which it is not as yet lawful for a man to utter; but when he said, which it is not lawful for a man to utter, who are they that dare to utter them with such impudence and non-success? But with these words I shall now bring this discourse to a close; whereby I would have you to be wise indeed in that which is good, but untainted by that which is evil.

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Source. Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701098.htm>.

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