Action Alert!

Fathers of the Church

Letter CLXIX


”Augustine’s correspondence, the mark and expression of the influential personality and apostolic zeal of the author, is rich in historical, philosophical, theological, exegetical, spiritual, literary, and autobiographical content” (Agostino Trapè). Here, in answering some questions from Evodius on the Trinity, he also mentions his progress in writing The City of God, commentaries on the Psalms, and On the Trinity.


The extant correspondence of St. Augustine includes more than 270 letters, including well over 200 written by him. Those numbered 124-231 span the period from the conference between Catholic and Donatist bishops held in 411, and the rise of the Pelagian heresy, until Augustine’s death in 430.

by Augustine of Hippo in 415 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


CHAP. I. — 1. If acquaintance with the treatises which specially occupy me, and from which I am unwilling to be turned aside to anything else, is so highly valued by your Holiness, let some one be sent to copy them for you. For I have now finished several of those which had been commenced by me this year before Easter, near the beginning of Lent. For, to the three books on the City of God, in opposition to its enemies, the worshippers of demons, I have added two others, and in these five books I think enough has been said to answer those who maintain that the [heathen] gods must be worshipped in order to secure prosperity in this present life, and who are hostile to the Christian name from an idea that that prosperity is hindered by us. In the sequel I must, as I promised in the first book, answer those who think that the worship of their gods is the only way to obtain that life after death with a view to obtain which we are Christians. I have dictated also, in volumes of considerable size, expositions of three Psalms, the 68th, the 72d, and the 78th. Commentaries on the other Psalms — not yet dictated, nor even entered on — are eagerly expected and demanded from me. From these studies I am unwilling to be called away and hindered by any questions thrusting themselves upon me from another quarter; yea, so unwilling, that I do not wish to turn at present even to the books on the Trinity, which I have long had on hand and have not yet completed, because they require a great amount of labour, and I believe that they are of a nature to be understood only by few; on which account they claim my attention less urgently than writings which may, I hope, be useful to very many.

2. For the words, "He that is ignorant shall be ignored," were not used by the apostle in reference to this subject, as your letter affirms; as if this punishment were to be inflicted on the man who is not able to discern by the exercise of his intellect the ineffable unity of the Trinity, in the same way as the unity of memory, understanding, and will in the soul of man is discerned. The apostle said these words with a wholly different design. Consult the passage and you will see that he was speaking of those things which might be for the edification of the many in faith and holiness, not of those which might with difficulty be comprehended by the few, and by them only in the small degree in which the comprehension of so great a subject is attainable in this life. The positions laid down by him were, that prophesying was to be preferred to speaking with tongues; that these gifts should not be exercised in a disorderly manner, as if the spirit of prophecy compelled them to speak even against their will; that women should keep silence in the Church; and that all things should be done decently and in order. While treating of these things he says: "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him know the things which I write to you, for they are the commands of the Lord. If any man be ignorant, he shall be ignored;" intending by these words to restrain and call to order persons who were specially ready to cause disorder in the Church, because they imagined themselves to excel in spiritual gifts, although they were disturbing everything by their presumptions conduct. "If any man think himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him know," he says, "the things which I write to you, for they are the commands of the Lord." If any man thinks himself to be, and in reality is not, a prophet, for he who is a prophet undoubtedly knows and does not need admonition and exhortation, because "he judgeth all things, and is himself judged of no man." Those persons, therefore, caused confusion and trouble in the Church who thought themselves to be in the Church what they were not. He teaches these to know the commandments of the Lord, for he is not a "God of confusion, but of peace." But "if any one is ignorant, he shall be ignored," that is to say, he shall be rejected; for God is not ignorant — so far as mere knowledge is concerned — in regard to the persons to whom He shall one day say, "I know you not," but their rejection is signified by this expression.

3. Moreover, since the Lord says, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God," and that sight is promised to us as the highest reward at the last, we have no reason to fear lest, if we are now unable to see clearly those things which we believe concerning the nature of God, this defective apprehension should bring us under the sentence, "He that is ignorant shall be ignored." For when "in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save those who believed." This foolishness of preaching and "foolishness of God which is wiser than man" draws many to salvation, in such a way that not only those who are as yet incapable of perceiving with clear intelligence the nature of God which in faith they hold, but even those who have not yet so learned the nature of their own soul as to distinguish between its incorporeal essence and the body as a whole with the same certainty with which they perceive that they live, understand, and will, are not on this account shut out from that salvation which that foolishness of preaching bestows on believers.

4. For if Christ died for those only who with clear intelligence can discern these things, our labour in the Church is almost spent in vain. But if, as is the fact, crowds of common people, possessing no great strength of intellect, run to the Physician m the exercise of faith, with the result of being healed by Christ and Him crucified, that "where sin has abounded, grace may much more abound," it comes in wondrous ways to pass, through the depths of the riches of the. wisdom and knowledge of God and His unsearchable judgments, that, on the one hand, some who do discern between the material and: the spiritual in their own nature, while pluming themselves on this attainment, and despising that foolishness of preaching by which those who believe are saved, wander far from the only path which leads to eternal life; and, on the other hand, because not one perishes for whom Christ died, many glorying in the cross of Christ, and not withdrawing from that same path, attain, notwithstanding their ignorance of those things which some with most profound subtlety investigate, unto that eternity, truth, and love, — that is, unto that enduring, clear, and full felicity,in which to those who abide, and see, and love, all things are plain.

CHAP. II. — 5. Therefore let us with steadfast piety believe in one God, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; let us at the same time believe that the Son is not [the person] who is the Father, and the Father is not [the person] who is the Son, and neither the Father nor the Son is [the person] who is the Spirit of both the Father and the Son. Let it not be supposed that in this Trinity there is any separation in respect of time or place, but that these Thee are equal and co-eternal, and absolutely of one nature: and that the creatures have been made, not some by the Father, and some by the Son, and some by the Holy Spirit, but that each and all that have been or are now being created subsist in the Trinity as their Creator; and that no one is saved by the Father without the Son and the Holy Spirit, or by the Son without the Father and the Holy Spirit, or by the Holy Spirit without the Father and the Son, but by the ,Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the only one, true, and truly immortal (that is, absolutely unchangeable) God. At the same time, we believe that many things are stated in Scripture separately concerning each of the Three, in order to teach us that, though they are an inseparable Trinity, yet they are a Trinity. For, just as when their names are pronounced in human language they cannot be named simultaneously, although their existence in inseparable union is at every moment simultaneous, even so in some places of Scripture also, they are by certain created things presented to us distinctively and in mutual relation to each other: for example, [at the baptism of Christ] the Father is heard in the voice which said, "Thou art my Son;" the Son is seen in the human nature which, in being born of the Virgin, He assumed; the Holy Spirit is seen in the bodily form of a dove, — these things presenting the Three to our apprehension separately, indeed, but in no wise separated.

6. To present this in a form which the intellect may apprehend, we borrow an illustration from the Memory, the Understanding, and the Will. For although we can speak of each of these faculties severally in its own order, and at a separate time, we neither exercise nor even mention any one of them without the other two. It must not, however, be supposed, from our using this comparison between these three faculties and the Trinity, that the things compared agree in every particular, for where, in any process of reasoning, can we find an illustration in which the correspondence between the things compared is so exact that it admits of application in every point to that which it is intended to illustrate? In the first place, therefore, the similarity is found to be imperfect in this respect, that whereas memory, understanding, and will are not the soul, but only exist in the soul, the Trinity does not exist in God, but is God. In the Trinity, therefore, there is manifested a singleness [simplicitas] commanding our astonishment, because in this Trinity it is not one thing to exist, and another thing to understand, or do anything else which is attributed to the nature of God; but in the soul it is one thing that it exists, and another thing that it understands, for even when it is not using the understanding it still exists. In the second place, who would dare to say that the Father does not understand by Himself but by the Son, as memory does not understand by itself but by the understanding, or, to speak more correctly, the soul in which these faculties are understands by no other faculty than by the understanding, as it remembers only by memory, and exercises volition only by the will? The point, therefore, to which the illustration is intended to apply is this, — that, whatever be the manner in which we understand, in regard to these three faculties in the soul, that when the several names by which they are severally represented are uttered, the utterance of each separate name is nevertheless accomplished only in the combined operation of all the three, since it is by an act of memory and of understanding and of will that it is spoken, — it is in the same manner that we understand, in regard to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that no created thing which may at any time be employed to present only one of the Three to our minds is produced otherwise than by the simultaneous, because essentially inseparable, operation of the Trinity; and that, consequently, neither the voice of the Father, nor the body and soul of the Son, nor the dove of the Holy Spirit, was produced in any other way than by the combined operation of the Trinity.

7. Moreover, that sound of a voice was certainly not made indissolubly one with the person of the Father, for so soon as it was uttered it ceased to be. Neither was that form of a dove made indissolubly one with the person of Holy Spirit, for it also, like the bright cloud which covered the Saviour and His three disciples on the mount, or rather like the tongues of flame which once represented the same Holy Spirit, ceased to exist as soon as it had served its purpose as a symbol. But it was otherwise with the body and soul in which the Son of God was manifested: seeing that the deliverance of men was the object for which all these things were done, the human nature in which He appeared was, in a way marvellous and unique, assumed into real union with the person of the Word of God, that is, of the only Son of God,— the Word remaining unchangeably in His own nature, wherein it is not conceivable that there should be composite elements in union with which any mere semblance of a human soul could subsist. We read, indeed, that "the Spirit of wisdom is manifold;" but it is as properly termed simple. Manifold it is, indeed, because there are many things which it possesses; but simple, because it is not a different thing from what it possesses, as the Son is said to have life in Himself, and yet He is Himself that life. The human nature came to the Word; the Word did not come, with susceptibility of change, into the human nature; and therefore, in His union to the human nature which He has assumed, He is still properly called the Son of God; for which reason the same person is the Son of God immutable and co-eternal with the Father, and the Son of God who was laid in the grave, — the former being true of Him only as the Word, the latter true of Him only as a man.

8. Wherefore it behoves us, in reading any statements made concerning the Son of God, to observe in reference to which of these two natures they are spoken. For by His assumption of the soul and body of a man, no increase was made in the number of Persons: the Trinity remained as before. For just as in every man, with the exception of that one whom alone He assumed into personal union, the soul and body constitute one person, so in Christ the Word and His human soul and body constitute one person. And as the name philosopher, for example, is given to a man certainly with reference only to his soul, and yet it is nothing absurd, but only a most suitable and ordinary use of language, for us to say the philosopher was killed, the philosopher died, the philosopher was buried, although all these events befell him in his body, not in that part of him in which he was a philosopher; in like manner the name of God, or Son of God, or Lord of Glory, or any other such name, is given to Christ as the Word, and it is, nevertheless, correct to say that God was crucified, seeing that there is no question that He suffered this death in his human nature, not in that in which He is the Lord of Glory.

9. As for the sound of the voice, however, and the bodily form of a dove, and the cloven tongues which sat upon each of them, these, like the terrible wonders wrought at Sinai, and like the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, were produced only as symbols, and vanished when this purpose had been served. The thing which we must especially guard against in connection with them is, lest any one should believe that the nature of God — whether of the Father, or of the Son, or of the Holy Spirit — is susceptible of change or transformation. And we must not be disturbed by the fact that the sign sometimes receives the name of the thing signified, as when the Holy Spirit is said to have descended in a bodily form as a dove and abode upon Him; for in like manner the smitten rock is called Christ, because it was a symbol of Christ.

CHAP. III. — 10. I wonder, however, that, although you believe it possible for the sound of the voice which said, "Thou art my Son," to have been produced through a divine act, without the intermediate agency of a soul, by something the nature of which was corporeal, you nevertheless do not believe that a bodily form and movements exactly resembling those of any real living creature whatsoever could be produced in the same way, namely, through a divine act, without the intermediate agency of a spirit imparting life. For if inanimate matter obeys God without the instrumentality of an animating spirit, so as to emit sounds such as are wont to be emited by animated bodies, in order to bring to the human ear words articulately spoken, why should it not obey Him, so as to present to the human eye the figure and motions of a bird, by the same power of the Creator without the instrumentalist of any animating spirit? The objects of both sight and hearing m the sound which strikes the ear and the appearance which meets the eye, the articulations of the voice and the outlines of the members, every audible and visible motion — are both alike produced from matter contiguous to us; is it, then, granted to the sense of hearing, and not to the sense of sight, to tell us regarding the body which is perceived by this bodily sense, both that it is a true body, and that it is nothing beyond what the bodily sense perceives it to be? For in every living creature the soul is, of course, not perceived by any bodily sense. We do not, therefore, need to inquire how the bodily form of the dove appeared to the eye, just as we do not need to inquire how the voice of a bodily form capable of speech was made to fall upon the ear. For if it was possible to dispense with the intermediate agency of a soul in the case in which a voice, not something like a voice, is said to have been produced, how much more easily was it possible in the case in which it is said that the Spirit descended "like a dove," a phrase which signifies that a mere bodily form was exhibited to the eye, and does not affirm that a real living creature was seen! In like manner, it is said that on the day of Pentecost, "suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a mighty rushing wind, and there appeared to them cloven tongues like as of fire," in which something like wind and like fire, i.e. resembling these common and familiar natural phenomena, is said to have been perceived, but it does not seem to be indicated that these common and familiar natural phenomena were actually produced.

11. If, however, more subtle reasoning or more thorough investigation of the matter result in demonstrating that that which is naturally destitute of motion both in time and in space [i.e. matter] cannot be moved otherwise than through the intermediate agency of that which is capable of motion only in time, not in space [i.e. spirit], it will follow from this that all those things must have been done by the instrumentality of a living creature, as things are done by angels, on which subject a more elaborate discussion would be tedious, and is not necessary. To this it must be added, that there are visions which appear to the spirit as plainly as to the senses of the body, not only in sleep or delirium, but also to persons of sound mind in n their waking hours, — visions which are due not to the deceitfulness of devils mocking men, but to some spiritual revelation accomplished by means of immaterial forms resembling bodies, and which cannot by any means be distinguished from real objects, unless they are by divine assistance more fully revealed and discriminated by the mind's intelligence, which is done sometimes (but with difficulty) at the time, but for the most part after they have disappeared. This being the case in regard to these visions which, whether their nature be really material, or material only in appearance but really spiritual, seem to manifest themselves to our spirit as if they were perceived by the bodily senses, we ought not, when these things are recorded in sacred Scripture, to conclude hastily to which of these two classes they are to be referred, or whether, if they belong to the former, they are produced by the intermediate agency of a spirit; while, at the same time, as to the invisible and immutable nature of the Creator, that is, of the supreme and ineffable Trinity, we either simply, without any doubt, believe, or, in addition to this, with some degree of intellectual apprehension, understand that it is wholly removed and separated both from the senses of fleshly mortals, and from all susceptibility of being changed either for the worse or for the better, or to anything whatever of a variable nature.

CHAP. IV. — 12. These things I send you in reference to two of your questions, — the one concerning the Trinity, and the other concerning the dove in which the Holy Spirit, not in His own nature, but in a symbolical form, was manifested, as also the Son of God, not in His eternal Sonship (of which the Father said: "Before the morning star I have begotten Thee"), but in that human nature which He assumed from the Virgin's womb, was crucified by the Jews: observe that to you who are at leisure I have been able, notwithstanding immense pressure of business, to write so much. I have not, however, deemed it necessary to discuss everything which you have brought forward in your letter; but on these two questions which you wished me to solve, I think I have written as much as is exacted by Christian charity, though I may not have satisfied your vehement desire.

13. Besides the two books added to the first three in the City of God, and the exposition of three psalms, as above mentioned, I have also written a treatise to the holy presbyter Jerome concerning the origin of the soul, asking him, in regard to the opinion which, in writing to Marcellinus of pious memory, he avowed as his own, that a new soul is made for each individual at birth, how this can be maintained without overthrowing that most surely established article of the Church's faith, according to which we firmly believe that all die in Adam, and are brought down under condemnation unless they be delivered by the grace of Christ, which, by means of His sacrament, works even in infants. I have, moreover, written to the same person to inquire his opinion as to the sense in which the words of James, "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all," are to be understood. In this letter I have also stated my own opinion: in the other, concerning the origin of the soul, I have only asked what was his opinion, submitting the matter to his judgment, and at the same I time discussing it to some extent. I wrote these I to Jerome because I did not wish to lose an opportunity of correspondence afforded by a certain very pious and studious young presbyter, Orosius, who, prompted only by burning zeal in regard to the Holy Scriptures, came to us from I the remotest part of Spain, namely, from the shore of the ocean, and whom I persuaded to go on from us to Jerome. In answer to certain questions of the same Orosius, as to things which troubled him in reference to the heresy of the Priscillianists, and some opinions of Origen which the Church has not accepted, I have written a treatise of moderate size with as much brevity and clearness as was in my power. I have also written a considerable book against the heresy of Pelagius, being constrained to do this by some brethren whom he had persuaded to adopt his fatal error, denying the grace of Christ. If you wish to have all these, send some one to copy them all for you. Allow me, however, to be free from distraction in studying and dictating to my clerks those things which, being urgently required by many, claim in my opinion precedence over your questions, which are of interest to very few.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF I/I, Schaff). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.