Fathers of the Church
by Augustine of Hippo in 408 | translated by J. G. Cunningham
TO THE NOBLE AND JUSTLY DISTINGUISHED LADY ITALICA, A DAUGHTER WORTHY OF HONOUR IN THE LOVE OF CHRIST, BISHOP AUGUSTIN SENDS GREETING IN THE LORD.
1. I have learned, not only by your letter, but also by the statements of the person who brought it to me, that you earnestly solicit a letter from me, believing that you may derive from it very great consolation. What you may gain from my letter it is for yourself to judge; I at least felt that I should neither refuse nor delay compliance with your request. May your own faith and hope comfort you, and that love which is shed abroad in the hearts of the pious by the Holy Ghost, whereof we have now a portion as an earnest of the whole, in order that we may learn to desire its consummate fulness. For you ought not to consider yourself desolate while you have Christ dwelling in your heart by faith; nor ought you to sorrow as those heathens who have no hope, seeing that in regard to those friends, who are not lost, but only called earlier than ourselves to the country whither we shall follow them, we have hope, resting on a most sure promise, that from this life we shall pass into that other life, in which they shall be to us more beloved as they shall be better known, and in which our pleasure in loving them shall not be alloyed by any fear of separation.
2. Your late husband, by whose decease you are now a widow, was truly well known to you, but better known to himself than to you. And how could this be, when you saw his face, which he himself did not see, if it were not that the inner knowledge which we have of ourselves is more certain, since no man "knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in man"? but when the Lord cometh, "who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts," then shall nothing in any one be concealed from his neighbour; nor shall there be anything which any one might reveal to his friends, but keep hidden from strangers, for no stranger shall be there. What tongue can describe the nature and the greatness of that light by which all those things which are now in the hearts of men concealed shall be made manifest? who can with our weak faculties even approach it? Truly that Light is God Himself, for "God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all;" but He is the Light of purified minds, not of these bodily eyes. And the mind shall then be, what meanwhile it is not, able to see that light.
3. But this the bodily eye neither now is, nor shall then be, able to see. For everything which can be seen by the bodily eye must be in some place, nor can be everywhere in its totality, but with a smaller part of itself occupies a smaller space, and with a larger part a larger space. It is not so with God, who is invisible and incorruptible, "who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen nor can see." For He cannot be seen by men through the bodily organ by which men see corporeal things. For if He were inaccessible to the minds also of the saints, it would not be said, "They looked unto Him, and were lightened" [translated by Aug., "Draw near unto Him, and be enlightened"]; and if He was invisible to the minds of the saints, it would not be said, "We shall see Him as He is:" for consider the whole context there in that Epistle of John: "Beloved," he says, "now are we the sons of God; and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is." We shall therefore see Him according to the measure in which we shall be like Him; because now the measure in which we do not see Him is according to the measure of our unlikeness to Him. We shall therefore see Him by means of that in which we shall be like Him. But who would be so infatuated as to assert that we either are or shall be in our bodies like unto God? The likeness spoken of is therefore in the inner man, "which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him." And we shall become the more like unto Him, the more we advance in knowledge of Him and in love; because "though our outward man perish, our inward man is renewed day by day," yet so as that, however far one may have become advanced in this life, he is far short of that perfection of likeness which is fitted for seeing God, as the apostle says, "face to face." If by these words we were to understand the bodily face, it would follow that God has a face such as ours, and that between our face and His there must be a space intervening when we shall see Him face to face. And if a space intervene, this presupposes a limitation and a definite conformation of members and other things, absurd to utter, and impious even to think of, by which most empty delusions the natural man, which "receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God," is deceived.
4. For some of those who talk thus foolishly affirm, as I am informed, that we see God now by our minds, but shall then see Him by our bodies; yea, they even say that the wicked shall in the same manner see Him. Observe how far they have gone from bad to worse, when, unpunished for their foolish speaking, they talk at random, unrestrained by either fear or shame. They used to say at first, that Christ endowed only His own flesh with this faculty of seeing God with the bodily eye; then they added to this, that all the saints shall see God in the same way then they have received their bodies again in the resurrection; and now they have granted that the same thing is possible to the wicked also. Well, let them grant what gifts they please, and to whom they please: for who may say anything against men giving away that which is their own? for he that speaketh a lie, speaketh of his own. Be it yours, however, in common with all who hold sound doctrine, not to presume to take in this way from your own any of these errors; but when you read, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God," learn from it that the impious shall not see Him: for the impious are neither blessed nor pure in heart. Moreover, when you read, "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face," learn from this that we shall then see Him face to face by the same means by which we now see Him through a glass darkly. In both cases alike, the vision of God belongs to the inner man, whether when we walk in this pilgrimage still by faith, in which it uses the glass and the ai'nigma, or when, in the country which is our home, we shall perceive by sight, which vision the words "face to face" denote.
. Let the flesh raving with carnal imaginations hear these words: "God is a Spirit, and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." If this be the manner of/ worshipping Him, how much more of seeing Him! For who durst affirm that the Divine essence is seen in a corporal manner, when He has not permitted it to be worshipped in a corporal manner? They think, however, that they are very acute in saying and in pressing as a question for us to answer: Was Christ able to endow His flesh so as that He could with His eyes see the Father, or was He not? If we reply that He was not, they publish abroad that we have denied the omnipotence of God; if, on the other hand, we grant that He was able, they affirm that their argument is established by our reply. How much more excusable is the folly of those who maintain that the flesh shall be changed into the Divine substance, and shall be what God Himself is, in order that thus they may endow with fitness for seeing God that which is meanwhile removed by so great diversity of nature from likeness to Him! Yet I believe they reject from their creed, perhaps also refuse to hear, this error. Nevertheless, if they were in like manner pressed with the question above quoted, as to whether God can or cannot do this [viz. change our flesh into the Divine substance], which alternative will they choose? Will they limit His power by answering that He cannot; or if they concede that He can, will they by this concession grant that it shall be done? Let them get out of the dilemma which they have proposed to others as above, in the same way by which they get out of this dilemma proposed to others by them. Moreover, why do they contend that this gift is to be attributed only to the eyes, and not to all the other senses of Christ? Shall God then be a sound, that He may be perceived by the ear? and an exhalation, that He may be discerned by the sense of smell? and a liquid of some kind, that He may be also imbibed? and a solid body, that He may be also touched? No, they say. What then? we reply; can God be this, or can He not? If they say He cannot, why do they derogate from the omnipotence of God? If they say He can, but is not willing, why do they show favour to the eyes alone, and grudge the same honour to the other senses of Christ? Do they carry their folly just as far as they please? How much better is our course, who do not prescribe limits to their folly, but would fain prevent them from entering into it at all!
6. Many things may be brought forward for the confutation of that madness. Meanwhile, however, if at any time they assail your ears, read this letter to the supporters of such error, and do not count it too great a labour to write back to me as well as you can what they say in reply. Let me add that our hearts are purified by faith, because the vision of God is promised to us as the reward of faith. Now, if this vision of God were to be through the bodily eyes, in vain are the souls of saints exercised for receiving it; nay, rather, a soul which cherishes such sentiments is not exercised in itself, but is wholly in the flesh. For where will it dwell more resolutely and fixedly than in that by means of which it expects that it shall see God? How great an evil this would be I rather leave to your own intelligence to observe, than labour to prove by a long argument.
May your heart dwell always under the Lord's keeping, noble and justly distinguished lady, and daughter worthy of honour in the love of Christ: Salute from me, with the respect due to your worth, your sons, who are along with yourself honourable, and to me dearly beloved in the Lord.
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.