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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Augustine > Letter 148

Letter 148 (A.D. 413)

A letter of instructions (commonitorium) to the holy brother Fortunatianus.

Chapter I

1. I write this to remind you of the request which I made when I was with you, that you would do me the kindness of visiting our brother, whom we mentioned in conversation, in order to ask him to forgive me, if he has construed as a harsh and unfriendly attack upon himself any statement made by me in a recent letter (which I do not regret having written), affirming that the eyes of this body cannot see God, and never shall see Him. I added immediately the reason wily I made this statement. namely, to prevent men from believing that God Himself is corporeal and visible, as occupying a place determined by size and by distance from us (for the eye of this body can see nothing except under these conditions), and to prevent men from understanding the expression "face to face " as if God were limited within the members of a body. Therefore I do not regret having made this statement, as a protest against our forming such unworthy and profane ideas concerning God as to think that He is not everywhere in His totality, but susceptible of division, and distributed through localities in space; for such are the only objects cognizable through these eyes of ours.

2. But if, while holding no such opinion as this concerning God, but believing Him to be a Spirit, unchangeable, incorporeal, present in His whole Being everywhere, any one thinks that the change on this body of ours (when from being a natural body it shall become a spiritual body) will be so great that in such a body it will be possible for us to see a spiritual substance not susceptible of division according to local distance or dimension, or even confined within the limits of bodily members, but everywhere present in its totality, I wish him to instruct me in this matter, if what he has discovered is true; but if in this opinion he is mistaken, it is far less objectionable to ascribe to the body something that does not belong to it, than to take away from God that which belongs to Him. And even if that opinion be correct, it will not contradict my words in that letter; for I said that the eyes of this body shall not see God, meaning that the eyes of this body of ours can see nothing but bodies which are separated from them by some interval of space, for if there be no interval, even bodies themselves cannot through the eyes be seen by us.

3. Moreover, if our bodies shall be changed into something so different from what they now are as to have eyes by means of which a substance shall be seen which is not diffused through space or confined within limits, having one part in one place, another in another, a smaller in a less space, a greater in a larger, but in its totality spiritually present everywhere -- these bodies shall be something very different from what they are at present, and shall no longer be themselves, and shall be not only freed from mortality, and corruption, and weight, but somehow or other shall be changed into the quality of the mind itself, if they shall be able to see in a manner which shall be then granted to the mind, but which is meanwhile' not granted even to the mind itself. For if, when a man's habits are changed, we say he is not the man he was -- if, when our age is changed, we say that the body is not what it was, how much more may we say that the body shall not be the same when it shall have undergone so great a change as not only to have immortal life, but also to have power to see Him who is invisible? Wherefore, if they shall thus see God, it is not with the eyes of this body that He shall be seen, because in this also it shall not be the same body, since it has been changed to so great an extent in capacity and power; and this opinion is, therefore, not contrary to the words of my letter. If, however; the body shall be changed only to this extent, that whereas now it is mortal, then it shall be immortal, and whereas now it weighs down the soul, then, devoid of weight, it shall be most ready for every motion, but unchanged in the faculty of seeing objects which are discerned by their dimensions and distances, it will still be utterly impossible for it to see a substance that is incorporeal and is in its totality present everywhere. Whether, therefore, the former or the latter supposition be correct, in both cases it remains true that the eyes of this body shall not see God; or if they are to see Him, they shall not be the eyes of this body, since after so great a change they shall be the eyes of a body very different from this.

4. But if this brother is able to propound anything better on this subject, I am ready to learn either from himself or from his instructor. If I were saying this ironically, I would also say that I am prepared to learn concerning God that He has a body having members, and is divisible in different localities in space; which I do not say, because I am not speaking ironically, and I am perfectly certain that God is not in any respect of such a nature; and I wrote that letter to prevent men from believing Him to be such. In that letter, being carried away by my zeal to warn against error, and writing more freely because I did not name the person whose views I assailed, I was too vehement and not sufficiently guarded,and did not consider as I ought to have done the respect which was due by one brother and bishop to the office of another: this I do not defend, but blame; this I condemn rather than excuse, and beg that it may be forgiven. I entreat him to remember our old friendship, and forget my recent offense. Let him do that which he is displeased with me for not having done; let him exhibit in granting pardon the gentleness which I have failed to show in writing that letter. I thus ask, through your kindly mediation, what I had resolved to ask of him in person if I had had an opportunity. I indeed made an effort to obtain an interview with him (a venerable man, worthy of being honoured by us all, writing to request it in my name), but he declined to come, suspecting, I suppose, that, as very often happens among men, some plot was prepared against him. Of my absolute innocence of such guile, I beg you to do your utmost to assure him, which by seeing him personally you can more easily do. State to him with what deep and genuine grief I conversed with you about my having hurt his feelings. Let him know how far I am from slighting him, how much in him I fear God, and am mindful of our Head in whose body we are brethren. My reason for thinking it better not to go to the place in which he resides was, that we might not make ourselves a laughing-stock to those without the pale of the Church, thereby bringing grief to our friends and shame to ourselves. All this may be satisfactorily arranged through the good offices of your Holiness and Charity; nay, rather, the satisfactory issue is in the hands of Him who, by the faith which is His gift, dwells in your heart, whom I am confident that our brother does not refuse to honour in you, since he knows Christ experimentally as dwelling in himself.

5. I, at all events, do not know what I could do better in this case than ask pardon from the brother who has complained that he was wounded by the harshness of my letter. He will, I hope, do what he knows to be enjoined on him by Him who, speaking through the apostle, says: "Forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as God in Christ has forgiven you;" "Be therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also has loved us." Walking in this love, let us inquire with oneness of heart, and, if possible, with yet greater diligence than hitherto, into the nature of the spiritual body which we shall have after our resurrection. "And if in anything we be diversely minded, God shall reveal even this unto us," if we abide in Him. Now he who dwells in love dwells in God, for "God is love," -- whether as the fountain of love in its ineffable essence, or as the fountain whence He freely gives it to us by His Spirit. If, then, it can be shown that love can at any time become visible to our bodily eyes, then we grant that possibly God shall be so too; but if love never can become visible, much less can He who is Himself its Fountain or whatever other figurative name more excellent or more appropriate can be employed in speaking of One so great.

Chapter II

6. Some men of great gifts, and very learned in the Holy Scriptures, who have, when an opportunity presented itself, done much by their writings to benefit the Church and promote the instruction of believers, have said that the invisible God is seen in an invisible manner, that is, by that nature which in us also is invisible, namely, a pure mind or heart. The holy Ambrose, when speaking of Christ as the Word, says: "Jesus is seen not by the bodily, but by the spiritual eyes;" and shortly after he adds: "The Jews saw Him not, for their foolish heart was blinded," showing in this way how Christ is seen. Also, when he was speaking of the Holy Spirit, he introduced the words of the Lord, saying: "I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it sees Him not, neither knows Him;" and adds: "With good reason, therefore, did He show Himself in the body, since in the substance of His Godhead He is not seen. We have seen the Spirit, but in a bodily form: let us see the Father also; but since we cannot see Him, let us hear Him." A little after he says: "Let us hear the Father, then, for the Father is invisible; but the Son also is invisible as regards His Godhead, for no man has seen God at any time; and since the Son is God, He is certainly not seen in that in which He is God."

7. The holy Jerome also says: "The eye of man cannot see God as He is in His own nature; and this is true not of man only; neither angels, nor thrones, nor powers, nor principalities, nor any name which is named can see God, for no creature can see its Creator." By these words this very learned man sufficiently shows what his opinion was on this subject in regard not only to the present life, but also to that which is to come. For however much the eyes of our body may be changed for the better, they shall only be made equal to the eyes of the angels. Here, however, Jerome has affirmed that the nature of the Creator is invisible even to the angels, and to every creature without exception in heaven. If, however, a question arise on this point, and a doubt is expressed whether we shall not be superior to the angels, the mind of the Lord Himself is plain from the words which He uses in speaking of those who shall rise again to the kingdom: "They shall be equal unto the angels."

Whence the same holy Jerome thus expresses himself in another passage: "Man, therefore, cannot see the face of God but the angels of the least in the Church do always behold the face of God. And now we see as in a mirror darkly, in a riddle, but then face to face; when from being men we shall advance to the rank of angels, and shall be able to say with the apostle, We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord; although no creature can see the face of God, according to the essential properties of His nature, and He is, in these cases, seen by the mind, since He is believed to be invisible."

8. In these words of this man of God there are many things deserving our consideration: first, that in accordance with the very clear declaration of the Lord, he also is of opinion that we shall then see the face of God when we shall have advanced to the rank of angels, that is, shall be made equal to the angels, which doubtless shall be at the resurrection of the dead. Next, he has sufficiently explained by the testimony of the apostle, that the face is to be understood not of the outward but of the inward man, when it is said we shall "see face to face;" for the apostle was speaking of the face of the heart when he used the words quoted in this connection by Jerome: "We, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image." If any one doubt this, let him examine the passage again, and notice of what the apostle was speaking, namely, of the veil, which remains on the heart of every one in reading the Old Testament, until he pass over to Christ, that the veil may be removed. For he there says: "We also, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord," in which face had not been unveiled in the Jews, of whom he says, "the veil is upon their heart," -- in order to show that the face unveiled in us when the veil is taken away is the face of the heart.

In fine, lest any one, looking on these things with too little care and therefore failing to discern their meaning, should believe that God now is or shall hereafter be visible either to angels or to men, when they shall have been made equal to the angels, he has most plainly expressed his opinion by affirming that "no creature can see the face of God according to the essential properties of His nature," and that "He is, in these cases, seen by the mind, since He is believed to be invisible." From these statements he sufficiently showed that when God has been seen by men through the eyes of the body as if He had a body, He has not been seen as to the essential properties of his nature, in which He is seen by the mind, since He is believed to be invisible-invisible, that is to say, to the bodily perception even of celestial beings, as Jerome had said above, of angels, and powers, and principalities. How much more, then, is He invisible to terrestrial beings!

9. Wherefore, in another place, Jerome says in still plainer terms, it is true not only of the divinity of the Father but equally of that of the Son md of that of the Holy Spirit, forming one nature in the Trinity, that it cannot be seen by the eyes of the flesh, but by the eyes of the mind, of which the Saviour Himself says: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

What could be more clear than this statement? For if he had merely said that it is impossible for the divinity of the Father, or of the Son, or of the Holy Spirit, to be seen by the eyes of the flesh, and had not added the words, "but only by the eyes of the mind," it might perhaps have been said, that when the body shall have become spiritual it can no longer be called "flesh;" but by adding the words, "but only by the eyes of the mind," he has excluded the vision of God from every sort of body. Lest, however, any one should suppose that he was speaking only of the present state of being, observe that he has subjoined also a testimony of the Lord, quoted with the design of defining the eyes of the mind of which he had spoken; in which testimony a promise is given not of present, but of future vision: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."

10. The very blessed Athanasius, also, Bishop of Alexandria, when contending against tile Arians, who affirm that the Father alone is invisible, but suppose the Son and the Holy Spirit to be visible, asserted the equal invisibility of all the Persons of the Trinity, proving it by testimonies from Holy Scripture, and arguing with all his wonted care in controversy, labouring earnestly to convince his opponents that God has never been seen, except through His assuming the form of a creature; and that in His essential Deity God is invisible, that is, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are invisible, except in so far as the Divine Persons can be known by the mind and the spirit. Gregory, also, a holy Eastern bishop, very plainly says that God, by nature invisible, had, on those occasions on which He was seen by the fathers (as by Moses, with whom He talked face to face), made it possible for Himself to be seen by assuming the form of something material and discernible.' Our Ambrose says the same: "That the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, when visible, are seen under forms assumed by choice, not prescribed by the nature of Deity; ": thus clearing the truth of the saying, "No man has seen God at any time," which is the word of the Lord Christ Himself, and of that other saying, "Whom no man has seen, nor can see," which is the word of the apostle, yea, rather, of Christ by His apostle; as well as vindicating the consistency of those passages of' Scripture in which God is related to have been seen, because He is both invisible in the essential nature of His Deity, and able to become visible when He pleases, by assuming such created form as shall seem good to Him.

Chapter III

11. Moreover, if invisibility is a property of the divine nature, as incorruptibility is, that nature shall assuredly not undergo such a change in the future world as to cease to be invisible and become visible; because it shall never be possible for it to cease to be incorruptible and become corruptible, for it is in both attributes alike immutable. The apostle assuredly declared the excellence of the divine nature when he placed these two together, saying, "Now, unto the King of ages, invisible, incorruptible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever." s Wherefore I dare not make such a distinction as to say incorruptible, indeed, for ever and ever, but invisible- not for ever and ever, but only in this world. At the same time, since the testimonies which we are next to quote cannot be false,"

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God," and, "We know that, when He shall appear, we shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is" -- we cannot deny that the sons of God shall see God; but they shall see Him as invisible things are seen, in the manner in which He who appeared in the flesh, visible to men, promised that He would manifest Himself to men, when, speaking in tile presence of the disciples and seen by their eyes, He said: "I will love him, and will manifest myself to him." In what other manner are invisible things seen than by the eyes of the mind, concerning which, as the instruments of our vision of God, I have shortly before quoted the opinion of Jerome?

12. Hence, also, the statement of the Bishop of Milan, whom I have quoted before, who says that even in the resurrection it is not easy for any but those who have a pure heart to see God, and therefore it is written, "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." "How many," he says, "had He already enumerated as blessed, and yet to them He had not promised the power of seeing God;" and he adds this inference, "If, therefore, the pure in heart shall see God, it is obvious that others shall not see Him;" and to prevent our understanding him to refer to those others of whom the Lord had said, "Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek," he immediately subjoined, "For those that are unworthy shall not see God," intending it to be understood that the unworthy are those who, although they shall rise again, shall not be able to see God, since they shall rise to condemnation, because they refused to purify their hearts through that true faith which "works by love."s For this reason he goes on to say, "Whosoever has been unwilling to see God cannot see Him." Then, since it occurred to him that, in a sense, even all wicked men have a desire to see God, he immediately explains that he used the words, "Whosoever has been unwilling to see God," because the fact that the wicked do not desire to purify the heart, by which alone God can be seen, shows that they do not desire to see God, and follows up this statement with the words: "God is not seen in space, but in the pure heart; nor is He sought out by the eyes of the body; nor is He defined in form by our faculty of sight; nor grasped by the touch; His voice does not fall on the ear; nor are His goings perceived by the senses." By these words the blessed Ambrose desired to teach the preparation which men ought to make if they wish to see God, viz. to purify the heart by the faith which works by love, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, from whom we have received the earnest by which we are taught to desire that vision.

Chapter IV

13. For as to the members of God which the Scripture frequently mentions, lest any one should suppose that we resemble God as to the form and figure of the body, the same] Scripture speaks of God as having also wings,] which we certainly have not. As then, when we hear of the "wings" of God, we understand the divine protection, so by the "hands" of God we ought to understand His working -- by His "feet," His presence -- by His "eyes," His power of seeing and knowing all things -- by His face, that whereby He reveals Himself to our knowledge; and I believe that any other such expression used in Scripture is to be spiritually understood. In this opinion I am not singular, nor am I the first who has stated it, It is the opinion of all who by any spiritual interpretation of such language in Scripture resist those who are called Anthropomorphites. Not to occupy too much time by quoting largely from the writings of these men, I introduce here one extract from the pious Jerome, in order that our brother may know that, if anything moves him to maintain an opposite opinion, he is bound to carry on the debate with those who preceded me not less than with myself.

14. In the exposition which that most learned student of Scripture has given of the psalm in which occur the words, "Understand, you brutish among the people: and you fools, when will you be wise? He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? Or He that formed the eye, does He not behold?" he says, among other things: "This passage furnishes a strong argument against those who are Anthropomorphites, and say that God has members such as we have. For example, God is said by them to have eyes, because the eyes of the Lord behold all things:' in the same literal manner they take the statements that the hand of the Lord does all things, and that n Adam heard the sound of the feet of the Lord walking in the garden,' and thus they ascribe the infirmities of men to the majesty of God. But I affirm that God is all eye, all hand, all foot: all eye, because He sees all things; all hand, because He works all things; all foot, because He is everywhere present. See, therefore, what the Psalmist says: He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? He that formed the eye, does He not behold?' He does not say: He that planted the ear, has He not an ear? And He that formed the eye, has He not an eye?' But what does he say? He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? He that formed the eye, does He not behold?' The Psalmist has ascribed to God the powers of seeing and hearing, but has not assigned members to Him."

15. I have thought it my duty to quote all these passages from the writings of both Latin and Greek authors who, being in the Catholic Church before our time, have written commentaries on the divine oracles, in order that our brother, if he hold any different opinion from theirs, may know that it becomes him, laying aside all bitterness of controversy, and preserving or reviving fully the gentleness of brotherly love, to investigate with diligent and calm consideration either what he must learn from others, or what others must learn from him. For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be Catholics, and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty, without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve, to condemn and reject anything in their writings, if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have, by the divine help, discovered to be the truth. I deal thus with the writings of others, and I wish my intelligent readers to deal thus with mine. In fine, I do by the help of the Lord most steadfastly believe, and, in so far as He enables me, I understand what is taught in all the statements which I have now quoted from the works of the holy and learned Ambrose, Jerome, Athanasius, Gregory, and in any other similar statements in other writers which I have read, but have for the sake of brevity forborne from quoting, namely, that God is not a body, that He has not the members of the human frame, that He is not divisible through space, and that He is unchangeably invisible, and appeared not in His essential nature and substance, but in such visible form as He pleased to those to whom he appeared on the occasions on which Scripture records that He was seen by holy persons with the eyes of the body.

Chapter V

16. As to the spiritual body which we shall have in the resurrection, how great a change for the better it is to undergo -- whether it shall become pure spirit, so that the whole man shall then be a spirit, or shall (as I rather think, but do not yet confidently maintain) become a spiritual body in such a way as to be called spiritual because of a certain ineffable facility in its movements, but at the same time to retain its material substance, which cannot live and feel by itself, but only through the spirit which uses it (for in our present state, in like manner, although the body is spoken of as animated [animal], the nature of the animating principle is different from that of the body),and whether, if the properties of the body then immortal and incorruptible shall remain unchanged, it shall then in some degree aid the spirit to see visible, i,e. material things, as at present we are unable to see anything of that kind except through the eyes of the body, or our spirit shall then be able, even in its higher state, to know material things without the instrumentality of the body (for God Himself does not know these things through bodily senses),on these and on many other things which may perplex us in the discussion of this subject, I confess that I have not yet read anywhere anything which I would esteem sufficiently established to deserve to be either learned or taught by men.

17. And for this reason, if our brother will J bear patiently any degree whatever of hesitation I on my part, let us in the meantime, because of] that which is written, "We shall see Him as, He is," prepare, so far as with the help of God, Himself we are enabled, hearts purified for that vision. Let us at the same time inquire more calmly and carefully concerning the spiritual body, for it may be that God, if He know this to be useful to us, may condescend to show us some definite and clear view on the subject, in accordance with His written word. For if a more careful investigation shall result in the discovery that the change on the body shall be so great that it shall be able to see things that are invisible, such power imparted to the body will not, I think, deprive the mind of the power of seeing, and thus give the outward man a vision of God which is denied to the inward man; as if, in contradiction of the plain words of' Scripture, "that God may be all and in all," God were only beside the man -- without him, and not in the man, in his inner being; or as if He, who is everywhere present in his entirety, unlimited in space, is so within man that He can be seen outside only by the outward man, but cannot be seen inside by the inward man. If such opinions are palpably absurd -- for, on the contrary, the saints shall be full of God; they shall not, remaining empty within, be surrounded outside by Him; nor shall they, through being blind within, fail to see Him of whom they are full, and, having eyes only for that which is outside of themselves, behold Him by whom they shall be surrounded -- if, I say, these things are absurd, it remains for us to rest meanwhile certainly assured as to the vision of God by the inward man. But if, by some wondrous change, the. body shall be endowed with this power, another new faculty shall be added; the faculty formerly possessed shall not be taken away.

18. It is better, then, that we affirm that concerning which we have no doubt -- that God shall be seen by the inward man, which alone is able, in our present state, to see that love in commendation of which the apostle says, "God is love;" the inward man, which alone is able to see "peace and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord." For no fleshly eye now sees love, peace, and holiness, and such things; yet all of them are seen, so far as they can be seen, by the eye of the mind, and the purer it is the more clearly it sees; so that we may, without hesitation, believe that we shall see God, whether we succeed or fail in our investigations as to the nature of our future body -- although, at the same time, we hold it to be certain that the body shall rise again, immortal and incorruptible, because on this we have the plainest and strongest testimony of Holy Scripture: If, however, our brother affirm now that he has arrived at certain knowledge as to that spiritual body, in regard to which I am only inquiring, he will have just cause to be displeased with me if I shall refuse to listen calmly to his instructions, provided only that he also listen calmly to my questions. Now, however, I entreat you, for Christ's sake, to obtain his forgiveness for me for that harshness in my letter, by which, as I have learned, he was, not without cause, offended; and may you, by God's help, cheer my spirit by your answer.

About this page

Source. Translated by J.G. Cunningham. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102148.htm>.

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