Christology of the Fathers
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Between the Councils of Nicea and Ephesus
arose a series of patristic writers that have shaped Christology on its kerygmatic
side more than any other factor in the history of the Church. Nicea had clarified
the divine nature of the Savior and Ephesus would define His divine personality,
but in the interim was a century that for output of theological genius has not
been duplicated since; and even the thirteenth century produced its great synthesis
of faith only because it had the monumental work of Augustine, Jerome and Chrysostom
to lean upon.
It is impossible to do more than get a glimpse
of these hundred remarkable years; but they cannot be passed by without leaving
a one-sided impression of the Christian religion--as though it depended solely
on the periodic councils to forward the development of dogma. Actually the
councils themselves could be so effective because they had the wisdom of saintly
scholarship on which to draw for a deeper understanding of revelation, here
of the Word of God become Man.
Rather than enter into a detailed analysis
of each writer, it seems wiser to see them all briefly in historical context,
and then concentrate on the one who did most to advance scientific Christology,
St. Augustine, to see the groundwork he laid for future generations to build
Witness to Christ and His Mother
St. Ephrem (306-373 A.D.) was a Syrian
exegete and biblical commentator whose voluminous output is mostly in verse.
Among his varied productions are cycles of hymns on the great feastdays of the
He is best known for his attention to
the Mother of Christ, on whose privileges he dwelt at length and opened the
way for developments in Mariology that were given dramatic sanction at the Council
of Ephesus. His special concern was to vindicate Mary's virginity and unrivaled
holiness. He says of her, speaking to Christ, "You alone and your Mother
are in all ways wholly pure; for in you there is no stain, and in your Mother
there is no sin." (1)
Ephrem is rightly considered the forerunner
of the Immaculate Conception. He contrasted Mary with Eve, and set the stage
for calling the Mother of Christ a mediatrix between the human race and her
divine Son. "Mary and Eve," he wrote, "were two people without
guilt. As two simple people they were originally the same. But later one because
the cause of our death, and the other the cause of our life." (2)
Ephrem's contemporary, St. John Chrysostom
(347-407 A.D.), was not a theologian nor technically an exegete. He was by
early profession a lawyer, then became a hermit, priest, and finally bishop
of Constantinople. His eloquence gained him the name "Golden-mouthed"
and his unsparing denunciation of the moral laxity of clergy and laity won him
exile and equivalent martyrdom.
Always the preacher, Chrysostom
did much to show the need for redemption by the Savior's blood and the necessity
of obedience to His teachings, especially of charity. In Christology, he did
not concern himself to explain how the two natures were united in Christ. In
the spirit of the Antiochian school, however, he insisted mainly on the humanity
of Christ, His life, works and death. If there is some inadequacy in his concept
of the Lord's humanity, it would be in the direction of extolling the finite
nature assumed by the divinity--to a point that diminished the effort, sometimes
painful, which Christ exerted on such critical occasions as the agony in the
Garden and dying on the Cross.
The bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose (339-379
A.D.), has been over-shadowed by his famous neophyte Augustine. But in his own
right, he should be numbered among the more influential persons who determined
the future course of both Christology and Mariology.
He recognized in Christ the existence
of two distinct natures, and also of two wills. Yet he affirmed with equal insistence
on Christ's unity, and that in Him we may not separate the One who is "From
the Father," and who was born "of the Virgin Mary."
Like Hilary, he explained the Redemption
by a realist theory of expiation. Christ freely offered Himself to the Father
as more than sufficient ransom for us by His blood. At times Ambrose talks about
the claims which the devil had on the human race; but these references may be
taken as rhetorical expressions and not as measured theology.
The Blessed Virgin figures greatly in
Ambrosian literature not only as a perpetual virgin and inviolate person, but
as the one who began the institution of Christian virginity. De Institutione
Virginis is one of the early writings which helped establish devotion
to the Mother of God and laid the principles for a life of celibacy according
to the counsels. Sometimes wrongly accused of demeaning the state of marriage,
Ambrose did say that virginity was more pleasing to God, for those who have
the grace, because it leads the faithful soul more surely to the mystical marriage
Yet all Christians, the married and celibate,
need to know and love Christ if they want to reach perfection, or even survive
the temptations of this world. "We have all things in Christ," he
said. "Christ is everything to us. If you are wounded and need to be healed,
He is the physician. If you are oppressed by the heat of trial, He is your refreshment.
If you are burdened by sin, He is your righteousness; and if you need help,
He is your abiding strength. If you fear death, He is your life; and if you
desire heaven, He is your way there. If you fear darkness, He is your light;
and if you want food, He is all the nourishment that need be had. Taste, therefore,
and find out how satisfying is the Lord; and how blessed is the man who hopes
in Him." (3)
Perhaps the most controversial of the
Fathers, St. Jerome (342-420 A.D.), was a contemporary and correspondent of
Augustine. He was also an indefatigable defender of several areas of the faith
that involve the person and work of Christ.
Like Augustine, he battled the Pelagians
who claimed that grace was not necessary for salvation and therefore that Christ's
redemption was quite dispensable. But his forte was defending the principles
of Christian morality that showed from the Church's constant tradition that
Christ's command to baptize did not carry with it the promise of no lapse into
sin after baptism, no matter how fervently a convert receives the faith. He
further demonstrated that faith alone will not save a person, and acceptance
of Christ as Savior does not guarantee perseverance until death.
Not unlike Ambrose, but more so, Jerome
so praised virginity that he has been charged with denigrating matrimony. The
charge is not true, while it must be admitted that Jerome's sometimes intemperate
language (which brought him trouble) may leave that impression.
Jerome was one of the pioneers of the
religious life, in whose favor he wrote to meet the criticism of his day. Always
his first premise was that a life of the counsels must be pleasing to God because
the Son of God practiced them during His own stay on earth.
He vigorously championed Mary's perpetual
virginity, tracing belief in this doctrine to the apostolic age. She was evidently
a virgin before the birth of Christ, as testified by Luke. She was also a virgin
after His birth (against -Helvidius) because this has been the teaching of the
Church since the first century--Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Ireneaus, Justin
and others who held the traditional position against deniers of the fact like
the Gnostics. She was a virgin in delivery of Christ (against Jovinian) also
because this had always been believed in the Church. Jovinian's difficulty was
that he ruled out virginity as such as a counsel pleasing to God.
For all his asceticism, Jerome was tinged
with Origenism. He had so exalted a notion of Christ's merits, that he claimed
they were not only sufficient to save all men, but de facto would save
everyone born into the world. After 394 A. D., Jerome modified this extreme
position but still said that at least all Christians would finally be saved,
and that the torments of sinners would not be eternal (such was the mercy of
Christ) provided they had never apostatized.
Similarly Jerome's lifelong association
with the Rabbis in Palestine made him suspect the canonicity of the Deutero-canonical
books of the Old Testament, notably the sapiential writings with their concept
of the Wisdom of God, anticipating the Logos of St. John.
He was particularly clear about the two-fold
nature of Christ, of whom he wrote: "The glory of the Savior is the gibbet
of His triumph. Crucified as man, he is glorified as God. We say this not as
though we believed that there were two individuals, one God and the other man,
or that there are two persons in the Son of God, as some new heresy calumniously
teaches. One and the same Son of God is also the Son of Man."
The bishop of Hippo in Africa, St. Augustine
(354-430 A.D.), dominates his age like a giant, and all Christian theology since
his time has been colored and in many ways formed by his mind.
His early days and youth have some bearing
on his teaching about Christ. Born in Africa, where Christological issues had
been debated for more than a century, Augustine led a life of dissipation and
for nine years was a Manichaean. But he wrote later on that there were three
things he never completely lost even in his worst days: faith in providence,
at least a dim awareness of sanctions after death, and trust in Christ as Savior.
He dropped Manichaeism after a long struggle
because it fostered a sceptical philosophy of life, because of the immorality
of its followers, and because of its exclusion of Christ from the ambit of faith.
After conversion, he preached and wrote
so extensively that his extant works seem to be the production of several men,
and his soundness of doctrine has made him an authority in the Church, second
only to the Bible.
While Arianism was still rife in his
day, and a number of pieces by Augustine combat this heresy, his Christology
and Soteriology can best be seen in the framework of the three main problems
he faced and solved theologically: Manichaeism, which raised the question of
where evil originates; Donatism, whose premise was a new concept of the Church;
and Pelagianism, that denied man's need of divine grace to reach his destiny.
Each of these problems was enveloped
in the aura of Christ, whose suffering of evil to expiate evil answers Manichaeism;
whose established Church was designed to channel the merits of His passion;
and whose grace makes Him the second Adam, to restore Adam's progeny to the
friendship of God.
Christ and Manichaeism. In
its teachings, Manichaeism held that the moral and physical evil in the world
ultimately came from an essentially evil Being outside of man; that some creatures
are essentially evil; that the Good Deity is not infinite nor omnipotent; that
material things are bad so that pleasure (and joy) are wicked.
In their Christology, the Manichaeans
were Docetistic--Jesus was a devil, on his human side, who held the Christ (spirit)
imprisoned. They were therefore against a historical Jesus and said He was only
a symbol who appeared to die, suffer, and rise from the dead. Yet they were
cautious in speaking about these things with Christians, so as not to intrude
themselves too radically. As a result they led many astray.
Augustine refuted the Manichaeans directly, distinguishing
between two kinds of evil, physical, and moral. In God's providence, physical
evil is a result of moral evil or sin. He wills it as a consequence of sin,
and in order to expiate sin.
Accordingly the Manichaean error is rooted
in two mistaken judgments: taking evil univocally to mean whatever displeases
or is painful, and refusing to admit that the source of moral evil is in the
heart of man himself. The Incarnation of the Son of God gives the lie to both
these premises. Christ became man and undertook a life of trial and hardship,
without being subject to sin, and by this dichotomy severed once and for all
the false identification of pain and real evil. Were it not for the mortal
body He assumed and the passible flesh He had, the Savior would not have suffered
for the redemption of mankind. The very humanity in which He became incarnate
became the instrument of humanity's reconciliation with God. Is it still possible
to call evil that which has been the means of producing so much good?
Donatism and the Mystical Body of Christ.
The occasion for the Donatist
schism, turned heresy, was an imperial edict in 303 A.D., which demanded that
Christians deliver up the sacred books to be burned. Certain Numidians claimed
that anyone who had delivered up the books ceased to be a Christian and could
no longer administer the sacraments validly. Carthage became the arena in which
this rigorism became entrenched when a certain Caecilian was declared invalidly
consecrated bishop because his consecrator was supposed to have been a traditor
during the time of persecution.
The rigorists clustered around the rival
to the See of Carthage, Donatus. They were condemned by Rome but their schism
lasted for centuries; and Tagaste, where Augustine was born, had only shortly
before his birth been converted from Donatism.
At least fourteen of Augustine's treatises
are against the Donatists, revealing insights into Christ's role in the Church
that would never have come to light except for the distorted Christology of
the followers of Donatus.
Augustine argued that the Donatists cannot
represent the true Church because Christ founded His society for all men; but
the Donatists cater to only an elite few. They claim that only good people belong
to the Church, and that sin drives a Christian out of the Body of Christ. Augustine
counters by quoting parables and the example of Christ, showing that He came
to call not only (or especially) the holy but sinners to follow Him.
The critical test of following Christ,
Augustine urged, is obedience to the See of Peter, whom the Savior chose to
unify His Church. Separated from Peter, the Donatists are separated from Christ.
No doubt Christ wants His sacraments
to be administrated by holy men, and unworthy priests and prelates are an abomination
in the sight of God. Nevertheless, the value of the sacraments they confer
does not depend on their sanctity, nor their efficacy on detachment from sin.
When baptism is administered, it is Christ who baptized through His earthly
minister; when the Eucharist is consecrated and the Mass offered, it is Christ
again who is the principal priest and consecrator.
Pelagianism against the Necessity of the
Redemption. The principal heresy of naturalism in Christian history
was born of Stoic philosophy that infected certain writers from apostolic times.
Yet, the full-blown system of Pelagianism into which it developed did not arise
until the beginning of the fifth century. A British lay-monk, Pelagius, first
popularized the theory, together with his disciple Celestius. Little is known
about the life of Pelagius, except that he was born in England about 354 A.
D. (the year of Augustine's birth) and came to Rome where he became alarmed
by the low morality of priests and people. He concluded that the only hope of
reform lay in placing all the responsibility for sin on the free wills of men, to the point of
denying the necessity of Christ's redemption or of divine grace.
The premises served as basis for Pelagius'
thesis. Arguing from the principle that "a person is free if he does what
he wills and avoids what he wills to avoid," he said that heaven is attainable
by use of our natural faculties alone, since nothing but the free will is needed
to practice virtue and keep out of sin. From the axiom that "Adam neither
injured nor deprived us of anything," Pelagius decided that men require
no special help to repair what Adam is supposed to have lost.
Pelagius and Celestius went to Africa
in 410 A.D., the latter staying to find himself charged with heresy by the Council
of Carthage, while Pelagius went on to Palestine and met the same treatment
at the hands of St. Jerome. On request of the bishops of North Africa, Innocent
I condemned Pelagius, who for a time deceived Pope Zozimus, Innocent's successor,
into acquitting him. Though Pelagius leaves the scene at this point, eighteen
Italian bishops, led by Julian of Eclanum, refused to submit to the Pope and
proceeded to elaborate Pelagianism into a compact system of doctrine.
Its basic principle is the affirmation
of the self-sufficiency of man's free will. We can always will and do good,
even when we de facto will and do otherwise, depending on our own moral
In the Pelagian scheme there is no room
for original sin derived from Adam by carnal generation. What we now call preternatural
gifts of bodily immortality and integrity were never really possessed by Adam.
He left us only a bad example, and the proneness we have to sin is not inherited
through our parents from Adam but acquired by our own misdeeds.
Baptism therefore can have no strict remissive
function, and a person can be saved without it. At most its purpose is to incorporate
us into the Church, or unite us with Christ, or make us members of a mysterious
heavenly kingdom, but never absolutely necessary for salvation.
For the same reason, sanctifying grace
is not the necessary basis of supernatural activity, but only a sort of remedy
for actual sins or a spiritual adornment of Christians and a sign of their divine
adoption. Actual graces are only external, in the form of preaching, miracles,
revelation and the example of Jesus Christ. The Savior is Second Adam only in
the sense in which the first Adam misled humanity by the pattern of disobedience;
Christ "redeems" us by giving us the model of obedience to the will
of God. His redemption is not intrinsic to the soul.
If, for the sake of argument, real supernatural
grace were needed, it would be only as light for the mind but never internal
grace for the will. "You destroy the will, Pelagius protested, "if
you say it needs any help." The only true "grace" we possess
is the faculty of free choice, a gift from God that sets us above the brute creation.
For the Pelagians predestination
is a misnomer. It should rather be called foreknowledge. Divine activity does
not penetrate into the very heart of human activity, to elevate and transform
it. God merely foresees that we are going to do something. He in no way predestines
our free choices or directs what they are going to be. By the same token, the
Redemption by Christ does not give us a new birth but only lifts us to a higher
stage of natural activity, and the influence of Christ's passion and death
is purely extrinsic to those for whom He died.
Among the more obvious
corollaries of Pelagianism was a consequent rigorism in conduct and concept
for Christianity. It allowed no distinction between grave and venial sin; once
a person sinned, then he was out of Christ's friendship and out of the Church,
and not a Christian; and so the Church was composed only of saints.
Augustine's greatest claim to fame is the defence
of Christ's redemption against the Pelagians--and of the necessity of His grace
for salvation. Through volumes of closely reasoned theology, he vindicated all
the premises of Soteriology on which the Church has built ever since.
- God's sovereignty over
the human will includes His sovereignty over man's liberty. He would not be
God if He were not Master of all that exists and operates.
- Adam sinned not only in
himself but for the human race. His offence has infected all his progeny. We
are born in a state of sin before the age of reason and before we can offend
- Mankind therefore needs
a Redeemer, who is Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God.
- His grace is indispensable
for man's salvation, and no one reaches heaven except through Christ, who said,
"Without me you can do nothing."
- Concupiscence has deeply
injured man's nature and weakened our resistance to evil. Yet we are able to
withstand temptation, with Christ's help, and thereby merit more grace on earth
and a heavenly reward.
- Although Christ's grace
is absolutely necessary, it can be reconciled with man's autonomy. He does not
coerce our compliance but solicits our love.
Pelagianism and Augustine's defence of grace
are the foci around which centuries later will revolve the Christology of the
Reformation and the Council of Trent. Trent, like Augustine, stressed the need
of Christ not only to redeem mankind (because man had sinned), but to raise
mankind to a supernatural state of being (because men are creatures and not
Providential Function of Error.
In Augustines' judgment, the mysteries of faith, including the Incarnation and
Redemption, have benefited from the rise of doctrinal errors. Seeing that his own theological development
was conditioned by the aberrations of Manes, Donatus and Pelagius--Augustine's
observations in this matter are highly pertinent.
The Catholic Church has been vindicated
by heretics, and those that think rightly have been proved by those that think
wrongly. For many things lay hid in the Scriptures, and when the heretics had
been cut off, they troubled the Church of God with questions. Those things were
then opened up which lay hid, and the will of God was understood.
Was the Trinity perfectly treated of
before the Arians carped at it? Was penance perfectly dealt with before the
Novations raised their opposition? So too, baptism was not perfectly handled
before the rebaptisers who were cast out of the fold contradicted the teaching.
Nor was the doctrine of the true oneness of Christ clearly set forth until after
those who divided Christ began to weigh upon the weak.
In all these cases, those who understood
took upon themselves to bring out into the open the obscure teachings of the
faith; and by their discourses and disputations they helped to strengthen their
weaker brethren against the assaults of the ungodly. (4)
Consistent with this attitude, Augustine
helped others better understand what he had discovered through years of personal
involvement in heresy. As a convert from Manichaeism, he grasped the inner
meaning of error as few men before or after him
Augustine could speculate about man's sinfulness
and his need for redemption, and he wrote many volumes of profound analysis
into the mystery of the Incarnation. We shall draw on this wisdom, as the Church
has done, in seeing the development of doctrine on Christ through Ephesus and
Chalcedon, up to Trent and the two Councils of the Vatican. The most quoted
single authority in II Vatican's Constitution on the Church is St. Augustine.
But Augustinian speculation grew out
of deeply personal experience. In the profoundest sense of that term, the Manichaean
rhetorician had found Christ as his own Savior. Theology came afterwards; first
There are two passages in the Confessions
that summarize what Augustine felt, and what happened to him as an individual
before he ever preached or taught others to believe about the Savior.
The first occurs a moment after he hears
the children shouting, "Take and read!" He had been struggling for
years, and always the main problem was chastity, joined to an inveterate pride.
In a flash grace struck. He rushed for the New Testament, to "take up and
read," and read at random the first words that met his eyes.
I rose to my feet. I snatched up the
book, opened it, and read in silence the passage upon which my eyes fell first:
"Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not
in strife and envying. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision
for the flesh in conscupiscence"
I had no wish to read further; there
was no need to. For immediately I had reached the end of this sentence it was
as though my heart was filled with a light of confidence and all the shadows
of my doubt were swept away.
Before shutting the book I put my finger
on some other marker in the place and told Alypius (a friend) what had happened.
By now my face was perfectly calm. And Alypius in his turn told me what had
been going in himself, and which I knew nothing about. He asked to see the passage
which I had read, nor did I know the words which followed. They were these:
"Him that is weak in the faith, receive."
He applied this to himself, and told
me so. He was strengthened by the admonition; calmly and unhesitatingly he joined
me in a purpose and a resolution so good, and so right for his character, which
had always been very much better than mine.
The next thing we do is to go inside
and tell my mother. How happy she is! We describe to her how it all took place,
and there is no limit to her joy and triumph. Now she was praising You, "who
are able to do above that which we ask or think" (Ephesians 3:20). She
saw that with regard to me You had given her so much more than she used to ask
for when she wept so pitifully before You.
You converted me to You in such a way
that I no longer sought a wife nor any other worldly hope. I was now standing
on that rule of faith, just as You had shown me to her in a vision so many years
before. So You had changed her mourning into joy, a joy much richer than she
had desired and much dearer and purer than that which she looked for by having
grandchildren of my flesh. (5)
These few sentences epitomize more than
Augustine's conversion, or even the psychology of his discovery of Christ as
personal Savior. They retell in a fast moving narrative, the main features of
how Christ comes into a man's life to change it from error and sin to
discipleship and sanctity.
At the beginning is the dull experience,
sometimes (as with Augustine) of years standing, that things are not
going well. There is consciousness of moral evil and mental uncertainty. This
is often coupled with a true desire of amendment, but to no avail. The flesh
is too weak, and passions (lust and selfishness) too strong.
All the while someone is praying and
begging God for the grace of repentance. It is seldom the one who needs the
grace, but another who cares for his spiritual welfare. When the confused sinner
prays for himself, as Augustine did, his prayer is half-hearted and more of
a velleity. "Make me chaste, Lord," Augustine would say, "but
not yet." Yet prayer is essential, especially the prayer of those in God's
friendship who unite their petition with wholesome sacrifice.
Suddenly comes a change, though more
often the heart has been changing gradually but there is often a marked crisis
between two states of soul--a before and an after. Anyone who experienced
this kind of conversion, even on a minor scale, has no doubt that a new life
has begun and old ways are shed.
At this crucial point, the person of
Christ figures prominently and perceptibly as the One through whom the change
of heart took place; that it was His grace at work and, above the natural capacities
of the sinner, made a new man out of him.
Subjectively two spiritual emotions demonstrate
the presence of grace, and the finding of Christ in the soul: peace of mind
and joy of will. Where confusion and doubt had prevailed, now there is quiet
of intellect and assurance that there are answers to life's problems and that
life is not a mad dream. And where the volitional faculties had been torn between
extremes and may be near despair, now they experience a happiness that is all
the more real for being indescribable. No one who has gone through this crisis
doubts it, and anyone who has been through it knows exactly what Augustine means
The net effect of this transition is
to change the mind and will permanently and endow them with powers they never
had before. The mind acquires convictions that are unseatable, absolute certainties
about the role of Christ in one's life, and the relevance of His teachings for
men. And the will develops a courage that baffles even the person who is thus
changed. He wants to attempt great things for Christ's kingdom and cannot be
satisfied with anything less than all.
This finds a ready echo in like-minded
persons, whether former friends or new acquaintances, who are asked (often urged)
to share in what the man who finds Christ has discovered for himself. Augustine
was anticipated in this apostolic zeal by St. Paul, and followed by St. Ignatius.
And in lesser measure, every one who makes the same discovery has the same reaction.
Christ is too good to keep to oneself; He must be shown to others and the power
of His grace revealed to those who badly need Him and sadly are unaware of what
The second classic passage in "experienced
Soteriology" comes shortly after the story of his conversion. Augustine
is reflecting on how widely he sought for some go-between to reconcile him with
God, knowing his own weakness and inability to do it alone.
We should recall that in Oriental thought,
including Manichaeism, the recognized mediators between God and the human race
were some kind of spirits, lesser deities we might call them. Islam has them
by the legion, and the two principal Asian religions, Hinduism and Buddhism,
are filled with such ethereal beings that demand incantation or invocation from
Whom could I find to reconcile me to You? Was
I to seek the help of angels? By what prayers, what sacraments? Many people
in their attempts to return to You and not being able to do so by their own
strength have, so I hear, tried this way and have fallen into a desire for strange
visions and have become, rightly, the victims of delusions.
They are seeking a mediator through whom to become
clean, but this was not he. It was the devil, transforming himself into an angel
of light, and for proud flesh it proved a strong attraction that he himself
had not a body of flesh. For they were mortal and sinners; You, Lord, to whom
they wished to be reconciled, are immortal and without sin.
So a mediator between God and men should have
something in common with God and something in common with men. If he were in
both respects like men, he would be far from God, and if he were in both respects
like God, he would be far from men, and so neither way could he be mediator.
Many are deceived by the evil spirit, who tries
to make men believe that he can deliver them and bring them the peace and joy
they desire. He poses as scornful of sin--it is only natural to indulge passion
and nurture one's pride. At the same time, he pretends to be divine--by simulating
something of God's attributes. In this way the unwary are seduced. "That
deceitful mediator, by whom, according to Your secret judgment, pride deserves
to be mocked, has one thing in common with men--namely, sin--and appears to
have another thing in common with God--that is, not being clothed in the mortality
of flesh, he can pretend to be immortal."
For years Augustine had followed the standard
of Satan, and enlistment had brought him nothing but pain and distress. Until
he found Christ.
The true mediator in whom in Your secret mercy
You have shown to men, and have sent Him so that they, by His example, might
learn humility, that appeared between mortal sinners and the immortal Just One,
is the Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus.
He is mortal with men and just with God. Thus,
because the wages of justice is life and peace, He can, by a justice conjoined
with God, make void the death of those sinners who were justified by Him. He
was willing to let death be common to both Him and them.
He was revealed to the holy men of old so they
might be saved through faith in His passion that was to come, just as we may
be saved through faith in His passion now that it is in the past. For insofar
as He is man, He is mediator; but insofar as He is the Word, He is not midway
between God and man; for He is equal to God, both God with God, and together
Speaking from the depths of his soul, Augustine
thanks the Father for not sparing His only Son, but sending Him to become human
and mortal--which means subject to pain and to death--in order to deliver this
servant from the bondage of sin. "He that thought it not robbery to be
equal to You, was made subject even to the death of the cross. He alone, free
among the dead, having power to lay down His life, and power to take it up again."
In this dual role of man--to suffer; and of God--to reconcile, Christ fulfilled
the paradigm of all priesthood.
Then follows one of Augustine's famous figures
of speech, in which he contrasts the relationship of passive and active functions
in Christ the great High-priest, sent by the Father to intercede with the Father.
He was to You (the Father) both victor and victim,
and victor because victim. For He was to You both priest and sacrifice, and
priest because sacrifice. And He made us sons to You instead of slaves by being
born of You and by becoming Your slave.
With reason, then, my hope in Him is
strong, that You will heal all my infirmities by Him who sits at Your right
hand and makes intercession for us. Otherwise I should despair. For many and
great are my weaknesses, many they are and great. But Your medicine has more
power still. We might have thought that Your Word was far from any union with
man, and we might have despaired, unless it had been made flesh and dwelt among
Terrified by my sins and the mass and
weight of my misery, I had pondered in my heart a purpose of flight to the wilderness.
But You forbade me and gave me strength by saying, "Therefore Christ died
for all, that they who love may now no longer live to themselves, but to Him
who died for them."
See, Lord, I cast my care upon You, that
I may live and understand the wondrous things of Your law. You know my ignorance
and my weakness. Teach me and heal me. Your only Son, in whom are hidden all
the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, has redeemed me with His blood. Let not
the proud speak evil of me, for my thoughts are on the great price of my redemption.
I eat and drink it, and pass it on to others to eat and drink the same. (6)
The Church's ascetical teaching since
Augustine has been influenced by his stress on Christ whose humanity and divinity
are both necessary for our salvation and sanctification. Since He was God,
the sacrifice He offered on the cross had infinite value; because He was man,
the sacrifice was made possible--only a human being can make an oblation to
God, and only a mortal man can make this oblation His body and blood.
Yet Augustine also understood that Christ's
sacrifice must be freely appropriated by us if it is to become effective. Objectively
the Lord died for all men: "The shedding of innocent blood has blotted
out all the sins of the guilty" potentially. (7) In other words, "the
blood of your Lord, if you will it, is given for you; if you do not will it,
it is not given for you. This is the important point, that He gave it once and
for all. The blood of Christ is salvation to those who wish it, punishment to
those who refuse." (8)
Not for a moment did Augustine doubt that Christ's
redemptive work had to be freely accepted to produce the effect which God intended
by dying on the cross. If a half lifetime of sin had convinced him that he needed
divine grace, the method of his conversion told him that the grace could have
The Blessed Virgin.
Augustine's personal devotion to Mary and vindication of her privileges should
be emphasized. It has been said that the veneration of Mary was held in abeyance
in the Church until late in the patristic age, after Christ's true divinity
and unique mediatorship was clarified by all the early councils. Yet Augustine
has a well-developed Mariology before Ephesus and Chalcedon, without a trace
of fear that recognition of Mary's place in religion would detract from the
role of Christ in the economy of salvation.
Like Athanasius before him, Augustine freely
spoke of Mary as Mother of God, Theotokos, made possible because she
gave birth to a divine person, whose human body came from His human mother.
It was Mary's faith, he believed, that played
the most prominent part in her cooperation with Christ in His redemptive work.
In this sense, she was the sacrament that in visible form gained for mankind
the Source of invisible grace. She thus became a Second Eve, in a way comparable
(though subordinate) to the way Christ was Second Adam. "We draw near to
a great sacrament," according to the Christian Agony, "that
life should be born to us of a woman because death came to us through a woman."
With Jerome, Augustine never doubted
Mary's perpetual virginity. Again her faith is credited for the marvel of conception
without intercourse: "Mary was a virgin before conception, and a virgin
after giving birth. It is unthinkable that bodily integrity should disappear
from the flesh in which Verity first appeared." (10)
She was also free from all sin, by comparison
with even the holiest men of the Old Law or her spouse, Joseph. There was no
doubt in Augustine's mind that Mary was personally sinless, and the text from
his treatise on Nature and Grace is one of the best known in Augustinian
literature. In context, he is refuting Pelagius' denial that we need grace
to be saved. To illustrate his point, Pelagius names a series of saintly persons,
men and women, from Abel in Genesis to John the Baptist and Joseph in the Gospels.
Augustine admits that all these people
were holy, but they were not without some sin, apart from the Mother of God.
We must except the holy Virgin Mary,
concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins,
out of honor to the Lord. From Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming
sin in every particular (omni ex parte) was conferred on her who had
the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin. With this exception
of the Virgin, if we could assemble all the aforementioned holy men and women,
and ask them whether they lived without sin while they were in this life, what
do you suppose would be the answer? Would it be in the language of our author
(Pelagius), or in the
words of the apostle John, "If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves."
Many authors believe that Augustine taught not
only Mary's personal sinlessness but her Immaculate Conception, suggested by
such expressions as omni ex parte. Given the Pelagian arguments he was
combating, it seems certain that Augustine claimed Mary was immune from sin
from the first moment of her existence.
Conference transcription from a talk that Father Hardon gave to the
Institute on Religious Life
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Copyright © 2004 Institute on Religious Life