PATRISTIBLOG: Augustine’s Sermons on 1 John – PART 1

You may remember my intention to work through St. Augustine’s sermons, or tractates, on 1 John.

I think it is time to get at them.

I am motivated in part because in these sermons, Augustine tackles, among other things, “enemy love”.  Since I, imperfect in my charity, am striving right now to view people who clearly hate me and the Church’s good bishops with as much Christian love as I can, Augustine’s sermons are personally relevant.

Aside from my personal failings in charity and thoughts about myself – which I freely admit  – who among us does not struggle not to feel hatred for people who do us wrong?  Even when those wrongs are only imagined?

Hatred for others kills the life of grace in the soul.  It is a fundamental rejection of Christ, a contradiction of terms for one who styles herself as Christian.  I really try not to hate enemies of the Church, and I think I avoid it most of the time.  But it is hard to love them.  This is what Augustine tackles.  Enemy love.  And why we have to do it.

We will, therefore, seek some help from the great Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine of Hippo (+430).

And so we begin.

We will use the free, online version available at New Advent, by H. Browne, in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7.  The translation has the advantage is sticking closely to the Latin.  However, it is a bit archaic.  You will find words such as “haply”, which means “perhaps” and has nothing to do with your mood.  You will find “mark!” and “lo!”.   Reading it aloud is a very good idea, but you will find it challenging.  You can find the Latin text for free online here.

Homily 1 begins with a reading of 1 John 1:1-2:11 and then follows Augustine’s analysis.

Remember, I expect you to read Augustine’s sermon. I provide these notes as a pry-bar to get you into a text, an original, primary, patristic text.

To help, this time, I recorded it quickly.  It might be a little rough in places.  I had a lot of stops and starts from interruptions.

CONTEXT:  It is just after Easter.   Augustine the bishop is sitting on his bishop’s chair after the reading was sung.  He has the scroll of Scripture on his lap and is working line by line.   He will speak about “infants”, or in Latin “infantes”, which is a nickname for the newly baptized.  Augustine is instructing new Christians in particular, but not ignoring the already baptized. Augustine is also carrying on a polemic against Donatists, who have torn the Church apart in schism.  Donatists split into a Church of the “pure”, as it were, after some bishops and priests had fallen in time of persecution and had handed over sacred books to imperial officials.  That disqualified them, for Donatists, from ever giving valid sacrament, since, for Donatists, sacraments depended on the holiness of the one giving them, as they the man himself imparted holiness.  Augustine will along the course of this make a reference to “Africans”.  They are in North Africa, that lively, sometimes ferocious, Church which experienced the century before terrible persecutions and which has its share of theological and political controversies.  Africans here are Catholics, not just any denizen of that continent and not those who went into schism.

Keep in mind, Augustine is speaking off the cuff.  Stenographer secretaries are writing everything down just as he speaks it in the church.  Augustine gets repetitive in some sections, circling around and around as he thinks and pounds home his verses so people will remember.  These are not edited later.  We have them as they were spoken. Augustine doesn’t preach in the manner of, say, an article in Aquinas’s Summa, very linear. He peals the onion.  He unwinds the skein of yarn.  He circles around with an eye on the edge and end and an eye on the center and core and he twirls you around with him.  There is real logic and you can trace linear arguments, but they are sometimes buried in the mass of repetition of texts and phrases of Scripture which we weaves and winds and unwinds.

Augustine starts be setting up contrasts of light and darkness, that which is eternal and that which is worldly and mortal, divine and human, life and death, unity and fellowship versus separateness.

The first bit Augustine quotes is itself a summary of the whole letter.  We start with God’s nature, and the Trinity and we move to fellowship and forgiveness.  The elements Augustine is going to bring out are contained already in the first verses.  There is no mention of the Spirit… but He is there, unmentioned, because fellowship can be with the Fa and son is through the Holy Spirit, who is the fellowship between the Father and the Son.  The principle themes are already present in the first verses.

Let’s leave martyrs aside and touching Christ aside for a little while.

“In that charity… in that unity”, these are codes words for the Holy Spirit.  John hasn’t explicitly brought in the Spirit yet, but all three Persons of the Trinity are there.  There are code words for the Holy Spirit in both John and, therefore, Augustine.

There are two groups: infants and who were baptized in the past, but they have succumbed to sin.  Donatists believed that the sins of the lay faithful could only be absolved through the bishop with a clean conscience because he did not hand over scriptures ….  you will hear “cup against cup” … this is like “altar against altar”, which is a reference to the schism of the Donatist Church.

Augustine affirms that every man sins, even in small ways, even venial sins.  Light sins, which we mustn’t make light of.  “Many drops make a river.”

Augustine stresses the need for humility.  We must admit we sin.  Therefore humility helps lead to confession which leads to charity and forgiveness.

Augustine revs up in paragraph 6.  There is really good stuff here.  For Augustine, humility is the root of charity.  Humility is the necessary condition for charity.  Humility, for Augustine, is self-knowledge.  Self-knowledge concerns concrete ways in which I am a sinner.  This rubs against the Donatists, who think that they are a Church of the sinless.  Forgiveness, therefore, must be ongoing because the true Church, the Catholic Church, is made up of sinners, but saved sinners, because they can be forgiven sins even after baptism.

Think about it this way: Augustine is saying, and he is right, that holiness is dependent on acknowledgment that we are sinners.  I think we have to be very wary of anyone who plays down the fact that we are sinners or who thinks that talking about sin is too negative.

In any event, as you read sermon, watch how closely Augustine roots his though in scriptural texts.  He goes around and around with his quotes to drive home that post-baptismal sins can be forgiven.  We know this from scripture.  But forgiveness requires confession, to both God and to man.  We must tell men what we are!  We must tell God who we are!  It isn’t enough to do just one.  We have to do both.

In par. 7 we get into the problem of presumption.  Saying “Lord! Lord!” is not sufficient.  There must be an intention to change our ways.   Considering 6 and 7 together you get the impression that Augustine is talking about the sacrament of penance, though we celebrate it differently in modern times.  The point is, we cannot take forgiveness for granted or as automatic.  We need an interior disposition to receive forgiveness and we must then express it outwardly to men as well as God.

Furthermore. we have an “advocate”, a “propitiator”.  Jesus Christ.  We sometimes today call the Holy Spirit Advocate, Paraclitus.  Augustine is quoting 1 John, which says Jesus is the Advocate.  REmember that whatever the Son does, the Spirit does too, and the Father also does.  They act together.

Moving to par 8, Augustine says John drank in the secrets of the Lord’s mysteries.  Whew.   I may have to come back to that at another time.  However, John included himself in the ranks of sinners, which is pure anti-Donatist rhetoric.  Donatists excluded themselves form the ranks of sinners and formed a Church of the pure.  Augustine is moving now into his treatment of schism.  Augustine had a real horror of schism.

Augustine also gets into intercession for the people by bishops, but he stresses that people have to pray for the bishops.  They pray together as a Body, but Christ is the Head of the Body.  You can hear in this section that Augustine is gesturing, point around.  Read this aloud.

Also, for Augustine, the whole world is the res catholica, not just in Africa.

This whole paragraph is against the Donatist idea that the bishop is the sole mediator.

We are also here getting into knowledge of God.  For Augustine, knowing God means loving God, and therefore, as we shall see, neighbor.  In order to know God, we have to love our enemy.  This is a key point, and one of the most important things to take away from this sermon.

Knowledge and love are interchangeable for Augustine.  We know someone to the extent that we love them and love them to the extent that we know them.  Knowing God is perfected (lots of perfection language here) in the love of enemies.

The first step of love of enemies is back in paragraph 6: admission that one is a sinner, which is the way into truth, which is charity.  But charity is the Holy Spirit. That means, necessarily, love of enemy.  He knows God who loves his enemy.  That’s the logic.

Augustine runs together all sorts of verses.  It can get confusing, like a maze. But they are all moving the argument toward the conclusion that we know God and love God to the extent that we love our enemy.  The intertexting of the verses is designed by Augustine to bring people to that point.  You could map out the logic.  The repetition is strange to our ears, but this is Augustine technique.  Eventually, however, he clearly says the conclusion.

In par. 9 Augustine talks more about being perfected in love.  What is perfection of love? To love even enemies, and love them for this end, that they may be brethren.

For Augustine there are three types of people to love and three types of love.  There is brother love, neighbor love and enemy love.  We must love frater (people in the Church with us), proximus (neighbor), and inimicus (enemy).  A really useful article for this is the voice for inimicus in the Augustinius Lexicon.  You won’t find it on Amazon, alas.

We are commanded to love proximus.  Higher yet, is love of enemy.

Get to love of enemy and you get to real love of God.  Enemy love is love of God perfected.

When Augustine in this section talks of “carnal” love, and isn’t talking about sex.  It is loving in the sense of selfishness, what you get for yourself.  We should love a man’s spiritual good, not any temporal good.

However, temporal goods are really goods.  Temporal goods are not automatically evil.  Pizza and money are real goods, air  conditioning is a good.  They are real goods.  But are spiritual goods which are greater goods.  From the point of view of ethics, for Augustine it is lawful to desire a temporal good unless and until it conflicts to the spiritual good.  If it does, a sin is committed.

So, in par. 9, we learn from Augustine that we love enemies so as to wish them to become brethren; Love your enemies, so that they may be called into fellowship with us.

For Augustine, the concrete way if loving enemies is to pray for them.  That’s what Jesus did.  On the Cross we prayed to the Father to forgive His enemies.

In par 10, Augustine gets into the commandment that we love one another.  The old man and new man language here refers to the pre- and post baptismal state of the infantes and the already baptized.  But there is more to it  “But why an ‘old’ commandment? Not as pertaining to the old man.”  Augustine is saying here that the command to love one’s enemy existed in the old law, but we didn’t really see it because of darkness.  Therefore, it is both new and it is old, something we had from the beginning but better understood now that there is greater light.  The commandment is clear now that Christ has taught it and demonstrated it.

In par 11, we have again the three steps on the ladder of love.  Augustine, by the way, calls the Holy Spirit mother this section!  Charity is the Holy Spirit and charity is our mother.  Let’s not press this too far, of course.  Augustine doesn’t think the Holy Spirit is female.  That would be a silly claim.  He is playing with the images.

Par 12 gets into scandal, offenses.  He is really into the problem in this section of the sermon of splitting from the Church.  Particularly, splitting from the Church because of hatred of some teaching.  Tell that to some of the groups we see around us today.  Augustine says:

“For he that forsakes the Church, how is he in Christ who is not in the members of Christ?”

Where the Church is, there Christ is. Split from the Church, split from her teachings, you split from Christ.  It’s simple.

The image of the burning of the sun (Christ) and the moon (the Church) is in this section too, but it isn’t too hard.  You’ll follow it right away.  Those burned by the sun create schisms when the leave the Church.  They break unity.  Augustine refers to brotherly love, here, which is the frater love of those who are in the Church with us.

For Augustine, we must bear all things for the sake of unity in Christ’s Church.  “Africans”, remember, are the Catholics, not the Donatists.  Donatists deserted the whole world the res catholica.   Again, we must bear all things for the sake of unity and we do so because of love, even to the point of enemy love.

“If you loved your brethren, there would be none occasion of stumbling in you.”

Remember that Donatists skipped from the real Church, the res catholica, the “whole world” and started their own thing because they were scandalized by the weakness and sins of some bishops, priests, others, who caved during the persecutions of the 3rd century in North Africa.

Don’t we hear about this today?  Have you ever heard of someone saying that she is leaving the Church – usually very self-righteously as if she isn’t a sinner too – because someone else, a bishop a priest, more than one, are weak sinners who did some terrible (real or imagined) thing?   We have to turn that inside out and say, could you find no one who was holy?  A saved sinner truly striving to love properly?  We can always find good people around.  The fact that there are sinners in the Church shouldn’t shock us.  Of course, if people want to leave the Church and do leave the Church, that means, per force, that they are defective in loving.

For Augustine, schism is a violation of love.  If you don’t like what someone in the Church is saying, a truth of Catholic teaching that is, you must bear the burden.  You cannot leave the Church because of hard truths or the sins of some or even of many.

For Augustine, Donatists actually hate their brethren.  Catholics must not, cannot hate their brethren.  Augustine is saying that Catholics who don’t see Donatists as fratres really should.  Donatists, on the other hand, don’t see Catholics as fratres.  , Catholics must see Donatists as fratres.  Donatists are baptized.

This calls to mind something from years ago.  Wasn’t it Paul VI who referred to Anglicans as our “separated brethren”?  Joseph Ratzinger, however, in the Ratzinger Report has a chapter entitled “Brethren, but separated”.  That comma is important.

For Augustine Donatists are fratres, but so separated that the Holy Spirit does not dwell in them.  Their sacraments are not efficacious.  They become efficacious when they return to the Church.  This is because they don’t possess charity, which is the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit’s gift.  The Holy Spirit wants to dwell in Donatists, in schismatics, but He can’t.   They reject charity because they deny possibility of salvation to Catholics.

In par. 12, Augustine seems to know that he has been going on for a while: “Not that I am going to speak for a long time…”

In par. 13, we get into the image of the stone and mountain.  It is pretty clear.  You’ll see what Augustine is doing here rather easily.  You might notice that the kingdoms of the world are split apart by Christ, but that underscores his point about true love as the source of true unity.

Here is something important to consider when reading about brother love, neighbor love and enemy love, in light of his assertion that we must truly bear all things for the sake of unity.

Augustine talks about brother love and separated brethren, but that does not keep him from pointing out their errors, reproaching them, upbraiding them, castigating them, chiding them for the errors.

Love of separted brethren, caritas fraterna, does not not not cancel out correctio fraterna! Caritas fraterna includes correctio fraterna.  It even includes correptioCorreptio is literally a “seizing” and therefore “reproach”.

Remember the famous Augustinian adage, “Love and do what you will”?  “Ama et quod vis fac!” In the proper context, the adage actually means love the Donatist and punish him.  Punish to correct, but from love.  It is addressed to the military who must compel the Donatists back into the Catholic Church, which was eventually the sad and necessary situation after virtually everything else failed.  We must somethings correct in the hard sense, even through suppression.  But, for Augustine, we must do it in in love, not in anger.  That is the tricky part.  When we love, we truly desire the good of the other and we are willing to do what it takes to help them from love.

Think about this in terms of “dialogue” today, with, say, dissenters.  Dialogue does not mean not pointing out error.  It means exactly pointing out error, because dialogue must be about the truth!

Back to the sermon.  Again, Donatists separated themselves from the real Church, the whole church, because they don’t have charity for Catholics.  And in the very last line, Augustine names Donatus for the first and only time.

The very last lines are a bit of a puzzle, actually. It may be that Augustine is referring to a split among the Donatists themselves. The Maximillianists split from Donatists.  But when Augustine says, “and do tolerate for the sake of Donatus those whom they condemn” he probably not talking about the Maximillianists.  That “and do tolerate for the sake of Donatus those whom they condemn”, perhaps aims at the fact that Donatists don’t recognize that they are not holy, that they are the real sinners.  If they really understood love and Christ, they would condemn themselves!  But, because they look to the ideas of Donatus, not Christ, they don’t condemn themselves.  What appears to be unity among Donatists themselves, is really a toleration on false basis.  At least that is what I suspect he is saying.

So, this keynote sermon in his series on 1 John is about tough love, in the sense of the highest love, enemy love as the hardest to attain, but also its flip side, applying hard things in love to enemies in order to win them back into fellowship and unity for their sake.

Augustine works his themes and verses, winding and unwinding them. He moves around in circles, round and about his points.  While focusing on the center he winds all around the edges of the discourse at the same time.  Sometimes you might ask “Where is he going?”, but trust him and follow him.  You’ll get there.

I suggest that you read your sermon now, Augustine’s 1st Tractate on 1 John.

Just do it.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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4 Responses to PATRISTIBLOG: Augustine’s Sermons on 1 John – PART 1

  1. Luke Whittaker says:

    Thanks for pointing us in this direction, Father Z.. I saved the sermons to my desktop to begin reading over the weekend.

  2. JKnott says:

    I have been looking forward to this ever since you mentioned it Father.
    I am so grateful. . Thank you.

  3. benedetta says:

    This was very interesting to go through.

    The process of correptio is not a pleasant one in any time and place it seems but no one develops healthily without it. In my younger days, all convinced and righteous of one path or political thing (in this case it was liberal) I remember particular moments when people who themselves had taken the particular path I was contemplating or idealizing and had experienced real hardship and consequences, for themselves and others, who chided me, not in a political sense, or in terms of faith, but simply to say, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and here is why, from my perspective having been there and from how it has effected others, well of course it would be immensely ignorant and disrespectful for me, I felt, to ignore their experiences and what they made of it and think myself righteous and entitled all the same to proceed. Sometimes growth means speaking or doing the thing which is not going to be popular but is faithful to who we are in the community of the Church.

  4. Andrew says:

    As with all the Fathers, I am struck by the free usage of allegory in the interpretation of the sacred text. For example (one out of many): “For the Psalm says “The sun shall not burn you by day, neither the moon by night”: i.e. if you hold fast to charity, neither in Christ shall you suffer a scandal, nor in the Church; etc.”