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Fathers of the Church

Letter CXXV


”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). In this letter to Alypius he discusses the commitment of Pinianus, a wealthy and pious man, to remain in Hippo, whose people desired him for a presbyter, along with accusations that the people and clergy of Hippo, along with Augustine (and Alypius, in whose diocese Pinianus might otherwise have resided), had as their real motive to profit from his wealth.


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 411 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


1. We are deeply grieved, and can by no means regard it as a small matter, that the people of Hippo clamorously said so much to the disparagement of your Holiness; but, my good brother, their clamorous utterance of these things is not so great a cause for grief as the fact that we are, without open accusation, deemed guilty of similar things. For when we are believed to be actuated in retaining God's servants among us, not by love of righteousness, but by love of money, is it not to be desired that persons who believe this concerning us should with their voices avow what is hidden in their hearts, and so obtain, if possible, remedies great in proportion to the disease, rather than silently perish under the venom of these fatal suspicions? Wherefore it ought to be a greater care to us (and for this reason we conferred together before this happened) to provide how men to whom we are commanded to be examples in good works may be convinced that there is no ground for suspicions which they cherish, than to provide how those may be rebuked who in words give definite utterance to their suspicions.

2. Wherefore I am not angry with the pious Albina, nor do I judge her to deserve rebuke; but I think she requires to be cured of such suspicions. It is true that she has not pointed at myself the words to which I refer, but has complained of the people of Hippo, as it were, alleging that their covetousness has been brought to light, and that in desiring to retain among them a man of wealth who was known to despise money, and to give it away freely, they were moved, not by his fitness for the office, but by regard to his ample means; nevertheless, she almost said openly that she had the same suspicion of myself, and not she only, but also her pious son- in-law and daughter, who, on that very day, said the same thing in the apse of the church. In my opinion, it is more necessary that the suspicions of these persons should be removed than that their utterance of them should be rebuked. For where can immunity and rest from such thorns be provided and given to us, if they can sprout forth against us even in the hearts of intimate friends, so pious and so much beloved by us? It is by the ignorant multitude that such things have been thought concerning you, but I am the victim of similar suspicions from those who are the lights of the Church; you may see, therefore, which of us has the greater cause for grief. It seems to me that both cases call, not for invectives, but for remedial measures; for they are men, and their suspicions are of men, and therefore such things as they suspect, though they may be false, are not incredible. Persons such as these are of course not so foolish as to believe that the people are coveting their money, especially after their experience that the people of Thagaste obtained none of their money, from which it was certain that the people of Hippo would also obtain none. Nay, all the violence of this odium comes against the clergy alone, and especially against the bishops, whose authority is visibly pre-eminent, and who are supposed to use and enjoy as owners and lords the property of the Church. My dear Alypius, let not the weak be encouraged through our example to cherish this pernicious and fatal covetousness. Call to mind what we said to each other before the occurrence of this temptation, which makes the duty all the more urgent. Let us rather by God's help endeavour to have this difficulty removed by friendly conference, and let us not count it sufficient to be guided by our own conscience alone; for this is not one of the cases in which its voice alone is sufficient for our direction. For if we be not unworthy servants of our God, if there live in us a spark of that charity which seeketh not her own, we are bound by all means to provide things honest, not only in the sight of God, but also in the sight of men, lest, while drinking untroubled waters in our own conscience, we be chargeable with treading with incautious feet, and so making the Lord's flock drink from a turbid stream.

3. For as to the proposal in your letter that we should discuss together the obligation of an oath which has been extorted by force, I beseech you, let not the method of our discussion involve in obscurity things which are perfectly clear. For if inevitable death were threatened in order to compel a servant of God to swear that he would do something forbidden by laws both human and divine, it would be his duty to prefer death to such an oath, lest he should be guilty of a crime in fulfilling his oath. But in this case, in which the determined clamour of the people, and only this, was forcing the man, not to a crime, but to that which if it were done would be lawfully done; when, moreover, there was indeed apprehension lest some reckless men, such as are mixed with a multitude even of good men, should through love of rioting break out into some wicked deeds of violence, if they found a pretext for disturbance and for plausibly justifiable indignation, but there was no certainty of this fear being realized, —who will affirm that it is lawful to commit a deliberate act of perjury in order to escape from uncertain consequences, involving, I shall not say loss or bodily injury, but even death itself? Regulus had not heard anything from the Holy Scriptures concerning the impiety of perjury, he had never heard of the flying roll of Zechariah, and he confirmed his oath to the Carthaginians, not by the sacraments of Christ, but by the abominations of false gods; and yet in the face of inevitable tortures, and a death of unprecedented horror, he was not moved by fear so as to swear under constraint, but, because he had given his oath, he of his own free will submitted to these, lest he should be guilty of perjury. In that age, also, the Roman censors refused to inscribe in the roll, not of saints inheriting heavenly glory, but of senators received into the curia of Rome, not only men who, through fear of death and of cruel tortures, had chosen rather to commit manifest perjury than to return to merciless enemies, but also one who had believed himself clear of the guilt of perjury, because, after giving his oath, he had under the pretext of alleged necessity violated it by returning; in which we see that those who expelled him from the senate took into consideration, not what he himself had in his mind when he gave his oath, but what those to whom he pledged his word expected from him. Yet they had never read what we sing continually in the Psalm: "He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not." We are wont to speak of these instances of virtue with the highest admiration, although they are found in men who were strangers to the grace and to the name of Christ; and yet do we seriously imagine that the question whether perjury is occasionally lawful is one for an answer to which we should search the divine books, in which, to prevent us from falling into this sin by inconsiderate oaths, this prohibition is written: "Swear not at all "?

4. I by no means dispute the perfect correctness of the maxim, that good faith requires an oath to be kept, not according to the mere words of him who gives it, but according to that which the person giving the oath knows to be the expectation of the person to whom he swears. For it is very difficult to define in words, especially in few words, the promise in regard to which security is exacted from him who gives his oath. They, therefore, are guilty of perjury, who, while adhering to the letter of their promise, disappoint the known expectation of those to whom their oath was given; and they are not guilty of perjury, who, even though departing from the letter of the promise, fulfil that which was expected of them when they gave their oath. Wherefore, seeing that the people of Hippo desired to have the holy Pinianus, not as a prisoner who had forfeited liberty, but as a much-loved resident in their town, the limits of that which they expected from him, though it could not be adequately embraced in the words of his promise, are nevertheless so obvious that the fact of his being at this moment absent, after giving his oath to remain among them, does not disturb any one who may have heard that he was to leave this place for a definite purpose, and with the intention of returning. Accordingly, he will not be guilty of perjury, nor will he be regarded by them as violating his oath, unless he disappoint their expectation; and he will not disappoint their expectation, unless he either abandon his purpose of residing among them, or at some future time depart from them without intending to return. May God forbid that he should so depart from the holiness and fidelity which he owes to Christ and to the Church! For, not to speak of the dread judgment of God upon perjurers, which you know as well as myself, I am perfectly certain that henceforth we shall have no right to be displeased With any one who may refuse to believe what we attest by an oath, if we are found to think that perjury in such a man as Pinianus is to be not only tolerated without indignation, but actually defended. From this may we be saved by the mercy of Him who delivers from temptation those who put their trust in Him! Let Pinianus, therefore, as you have written in your communication, fulfil the promise by which he bound himself not to depart from Hippo, just as I myself and the other inhabitants of the town do not depart from it, having, of course, full freedom in going and returning at any time; the only difference being, that those who are not bound by any oath to reside here have it also in their power at any time, without being chargeable with perjury, to depart with no purpose of coming back again.

5. As to our clergy and the brethren settled in our monastery, I do not know that it can be proved that they either aided or abetted in the reproaches which were made against you. For when I inquired into this, I was informed that only one from our monastery, a man of Carthage, had taken part in the clamour of the people; and this was not when they were uttering insults against you, but when they were demanding Pinianus as presbyter.

I have annexed to this letter a copy of the promise given to him, taken from the very paper which he subscribed and corrected under my own inspection.

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.