Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Fathers of the Church

Letter CXXXV


Here Volusianus, responding to Augustine’s offer to answer his questions about Scripture (letter CXXXII), asks him how to answer a friend who had expressed doubts about the possibility and fittingness of the Incarnation and of the virginal motherhood of Mary. (From letters CXXXVI and CXXXVI it becomes clear that the “friend” is Volusianus himself.)


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 412 | translated by J. G. Cunningham


1. O man who art a pattern of goodness and uprightness, you ask me to apply to you for instruction in regard to some of the obscure passages which occur in my reading. I accept at your command the favour of this kindness, and willingly offer myself to be taught by you, acknowledging the authority of the ancient proverb, "We are never too old to learn." With good reason the author of this proverb has not restricted by any limits or end our pursuit of wisdom; for truth, secluded in its original principles, is never so disclosed to those who approach it as to be wholly revealed to their knowledge. It seems to me, therefore, my lord truly holy, and father justly revered, worth while to communicate to you the substance of a conversation which recently took place among us. I was present at a gathering of friends, and a great many opinions were brought forward there, such as the disposition and studies of each suggested. Our discourse was chiefly, however, on the department of rhetoric which treats of proper arrangement. I speak to one familiar with the subject, for you were not long ago a teacher of these things. Upon this followed a discussion regarding "invention" in rhetoric, its nature, what boldness it requires, how great the labour, involved in methodical arrangement, what is the charm of metaphors, and the beauty of illustrations, and the power of applying epithets suitable to the character and nature of the subject in hand. Others extolled with partiality the poet's art. This part also of eloquence is not left unnoticed or unhonoured by you. We may appropriately apply to you that line of the poet: "The ivy is intertwined with the laurels which reward your victory." We spoke, accordingly, of the embellishments which skilful arrangement adds to a poem, of the beauty of metaphors, and of the sublimity of well-chosen comparisons; then we spoke of smooth and flowing versification, and, if I may use the expression, the harmonious variation of the pauses in the lines. The conversation turned next to a subject with which you are very familiar, namely, that philosophy which you were wont yourself to cherish after the manner of Aristotle and Isocrates. We asked what had been achieved by the philosopher of the Lyceum, by the varied and incessant doubtings of the Academy, by the debater of the Porch, by the discoveries of natural philosophers, by the self-indulgence of the Epicureans; and what had been the result of their boundless zeal in disputation with each other, and how truth was more than ever unknown by them after they assumed that its knowledge was attainable.

2. While our conversation continues on these. topics, one of the large company says: "Who among us is so thoroughly acquainted with the wisdom taught by Christianity as to be able to resolve the doubts by which I am entangled, and to give firmness to my hesitating acceptance of its teaching by arguments in which truth or probability may claim my belief?" We are all dumb with amazement. Then, of his own accord, he breaks forth in these words: "I wonder whether the Lord and Ruler of the world did indeed fill the womb of a virgin; — did His mother endure the protracted fatigues of ten months, and, being yet a virgin, in due season bring forth her child, and continue even after that with her virginity intact?" To this he adds other statements: "Within the small body of a crying infant He is concealed whom the universe scarcely can contain; He bears the years of childhood, He grows up, He is established in the rigour of manhood; this Governor is so long an exile from His own dwelling-place, and the care of the whole world is transferred to one body of insignificant dimensions. Moreover, He falls asleep, takes food to support Him, is subject to all the sensations of mortal men. Nor did the proofs of so great majesty shine forth with adequate fulness of evidence; for the casting out of devils, the curing of the sick, and the restoration of the dead to life are, if you consider others who have wrought these wonders, but small works for God to do." We prevent him from continuing such questions, and the meeting having broken up, we referred the matter to the valuable decision of experience beyond our own, lest, by too rashly intruding into hidden things, the error, innocent thus far, should become blameworthy.

You have heard, O man worthy of all honour, the confession of our ignorance; you perceive what is requested at your hands. Your reputation is interested in our obtaining an answer to these questions. Ignorance may, without harm to religion, be tolerated in other priests; but when we come to Bishop Augustin, whatever we find unknown to him is no part of the Christian system. May the Supreme God protect your venerable Grace, my lord truly holy and justly revered!

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.

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