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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters of St. Jerome > Letter 144

Letter 144

Letter CXLIV. From Augustine to Optatus.

Augustine writes to Optatus, bishop of Milevis, to say that he cannot send him a copy of his letter to Jerome on the origin of the soul (Letter CXXXI.) as it is incomplete without Jerome's reply which he has not yet received. He then criticises the arguments with which Optatus combats traducianism and points out that his reasoning is inconclusive. The date of the letter is A.D. 420. The letter has been somewhat compressed in translation: the involved sentences of the original have been simplified and its redundancies curtailed.

To the blessed lord and brother, sincerely loved and longed-for, his fellow bishop Optatus, Augustine [sends] greeting in the Lord.

1. By the hand of the reverend presbyter Saturninus I have received a letter from you, venerable sir, in which you earnestly ask me for what I have not yet got. You thus show clearly your belief that I have already had a reply to my question on the subject. Would that I had! Knowing the eagerness of your expectation, I should never have dreamed of keeping back from you your share in the gift; but if you will believe me, dear brother, it is not so. Although five years have elapsed since I dispatched to the East my letter (which was one of inquiry, not of assertion), I have so far received no reply, and am consequently unable to untie the knot as you wish me to do. Had I had both letters, I should gladly have sent you both; but I think it better not to circulate mine by itself lest he to whom it is addressed and who may still answer me as I desire should prove displeased. If I were to publish so elaborate a treatise as mine without his reply to it, he might be justly indignant, and suppose me more intent on displaying my talents than on promoting some useful end. It would look as if I were bent on starting problems too hard for him to solve. It is better to wait for the answer which he probably means to send. For I am well aware that he has other subjects to occupy him which are more serious and urgent than this question of mine. Your holiness will readily understand this if you read what he wrote to me a year later when my messenger was returning. The following is an extract from his letter:

A most trying time has come upon us in which I have found it better to hold my peace than to speak. Consequently my studies have ceased, that I may not give occasion to what Appius calls 'the eloquence of dogs.' For this reason I have not been able to send any answer to your two learned and brilliant letters. Not, indeed, that I think anything in them needs correction, but that I recall the Apostle's words: 'One judges in this way, another in that; let every man give full expression to his own opinion.' All that a lofty intellect can draw from the well of holy scripture has been drawn by you. So much your reverence must allow me to say in praise of your ability. But though in any discussion between us our joint object is the advancement of learning, our rivals and especially the heretics will ascribe any difference of opinion between us to mutual jealousy. For my part, however, I am resolved to love you, to look up to you, to reverence and admire you, and to defend your opinions as my own. I have also in a dialogue which I have recently brought out made allusion to your holiness in suitable terms. Let us, rather, then, strain every nerve to banish from the churches that most pernicious heresy, which feigns repentance that it may have liberty to teach in our churches. For were it to come out into the light of day, it would be expelled and die.

2. You can see, worshipful brother, from this reply that my friend does not refuse to answer my inquiry; he postpones it because he is condemned to give his time to more urgent matters. Moreover, that he is well disposed towards me is clear from his friendly warning that a controversy between us begun in all charity and in the interests of learning may be misconstrued by jealous and heretical persons as due to mutual illfeeling. No; it will be better for the public to have both together, his explanation as well as my inquiry. For, as I shall have to thank him for instructing me if he is able to explain the matter, the discussion will be of no small advantage when it comes to the knowledge of the world. Those who come after us will not only know what view they ought to take of a subject thus fully argued but will also learn how under the divine mercy brothers in affection may dispute a difficult question and yet preserve each other's esteem.

3. On the other hand, if I were to publish the letter in which I raise this obscure point without the reply in which it may be set at rest, it might circulate widely and reach men who comparing themselves, as the Apostle says, with themselves, 2 Corinthians 10:12 would misconstrue a motive which they could not understand, and would explain my feeling towards one whom I love and esteem for his immense services not as it would appear to them (for it would be invisible to them) but as their own fancy and malice would dictate. Now this is a danger which, so far as in me lies, I am bound to guard against. But if a document which I am unwilling to publish is published without my consent and placed in hands from which I would withhold it, then I shall have to resign myself to the will of God. Indeed, had I wished to keep my words permanently undivulged I should never have sent them to any one. For if (though I hope it may not be so) chance or necessity shall prevent any reply being ever given me, my letter of inquiry is still bound sooner or later to come to light. Nor will it be useless to those who read it; for, although they will nor find what they seek, they will learn how much better it is, when one is uninformed, to put questions than to make assertions; and in the meantime those whom they consult will work out the points raised by me, laying aside contention and in the interests of learning and charity trying to obtain sound opinions about them. Thus they will either arrive at the solutions they desire, or their faculties will be quickened and they will learn from the investigation that farther inquiry is useless. At present, however, as I have no reason to despair of an answer from my friend I have decided not to publish the letter I have sent him, and I trust, my dear comrade, that this decision may commend itself to you. It should do so, for you have not asked for my letter so much as for the answer to it; and this I would gladly send you if I had it to send. It is true that in your epistle you speak of the lucid demonstration of my wisdom which in virtue of my life the Giver of light has bestowed upon me; and if by this you mean not the way in which I have stated the problem but a solution which I have obtained of the point in question, I should like to gratify your wish. But I must admit that I have so far failed to discover how the soul can derive its sin from Adam (a truth which it is unlawful to question) and yet not itself be derived from Adam. At present I think it better to sift the matter farther than to dogmatize rashly.

4. Your letter speaks of many old men and persons educated by learned priests whom you have failed to recall to your modest way of thinking, and to a statement of the case which is truth itself. You do not, however, explain what this mode of expression is. If your old men hold fast what they have received from learned priests, how comes it that you are troubled by a boorish mob of unlettered clerics? On the other hand, if the old men and the unlettered clerics have wickedly departed from the priests' teachings, surely these latter are the persons to correct them and restrain them from controversial excesses. Again when you say that you as a new-fledged and inexperienced teacher have been afraid to tamper with the doctrines handed down by great and famous bishops, and that you have been loth to draw men into a better path lest you should cast discredit on the dead, do you not imply that in refusing to agree with you the objects of your solicitude are but preferring the tradition of great and famous bishops to the views of a new-fledged and inexperienced teacher? Of their conduct in the matter I say nothing, but I am most anxious to learn that mode of expression which is truth itself, not the thing expressed, but the mode of expression.

5. For you have made it sufficiently plain to me that you disapprove of those who assert that men's souls are derived from that of the protoplast and propagated from one generation to another; but as your letter does not inform me, I have no means of knowing on what grounds and from what passages of scripture you have shown this view to be false. What does commend itself to you is not clear either from your letter to the brothers at Cæsarea or from that which you have lately addressed to me. Only I see that you believe and write that God has been, is, and will be the maker of men, and that there is nothing either in heaven or on earth which does not owe its existence wholly to Him. This is of course a truism which nobody can call in question. But as you affirm that souls are not propagated, you ought to explain out of what God makes them. Is it out of some pre-existing material, or is it out of nothing? For it is impossible that you should hold the opinion of Origen, Priscillian, and other heretics that it is for deeds done in a former life that souls are confined in earthly and mortal bodies. This opinion is, indeed, flatly contradicted by the apostle who says of Jacob and Esau that before they were born they had done neither good nor evil. Romans 9:11 Your view of the matter, then, is known to me though only partially, but of your reasons for supposing it to be true I know nothing. This was why in a former letter I asked you to send me your confession of faith, the one which you were vexed to find that one of your presbyters had signed dishonestly. I now again ask you for this, as well as for any passages of scripture which you have brought to bear on the question. For you say in your letter to the brothers at Cæsarea that you have resolved to have all definitions of dogma reviewed by lay judges, sitting by general invitation, and investigating all points touching the faith. And you continue: the divine mercy has made it possible for them to put forward their views in a positive and definite form, which your modest ability has reinforced with a great weight of evidence. Now it is this great weight of evidence which I am so anxious to obtain. For, so far as I can see, your one aim has been to refute your opponents when they deny that our souls are the handiwork of God. If they hold such a view, you are right in thinking that it should be condemned. Were they to say the same thing of our bodies, they would be forced to retract it, or else be held up to execration. For what Christian can deny that every single human body is the work of God? Yet when we admit that they are of divine origin we do not mean to deny that they are humanly engendered. When therefore it is asserted that our souls are procreated from a kind of immaterial seed, and that they, like our bodies, come to us from our parents, yet are made souls by the working of God, it is not by human guesses that the assertion is to be refuted, but by the witness of divine scripture. Numbers of passages may indeed be quoted from the sacred books which have canonical authority, to prove that our souls are God's handiwork. But such passages only refute those who deny that each several human soul is made by God; not at all those who while they admit this contend that, like our bodies, they are formed by divine agency through the instrumentality of parents. To refute these you must look for unmistakable texts; or, if you have already discovered such, show your affection by communicating them to me. For though I seek them most diligently I fail to find them.

As stated shortly by yourself (at the end of your letter to the brothers at Cæsarea) your dilemma is as follows: inasmuch as I am your son and disciple and have but recently by God's help come to consider these mysteries, I beg you with your priestly wisdom to teach me which of two opposite views I ought to hold. Am I to maintain that souls are transmitted by generation, and that they are derived in some mysterious way from Adam our first-formed father? Wisdom 10:1 Or am I with your brothers and the priests who are here to hold that God has been, is, and will be the author and maker of all things and all men?

6. Of the two alternatives which you thus put forward you wish to be urged to choose one or other; and this would be the course of wisdom if your alternatives were so contrary that the choice of one would involve the rejection of the other. But as it is, instead of selecting one of them a man may say that they are both true. He may maintain that the souls of all mankind are derived from Adam our first-formed father, and yet believe and assert that God has been, is, and will be the author and maker of all things and all men. How on your principles is such a man to be confuted? Shall we say: If they are transmitted by generation God is not their author, for He does not make them? In that case he will reply: Bodies too are engendered and not made by God; on your showing, then He is not their author. Will any one maintain that God is the maker of no bodies but Adam's which He made out of the dust and Eve's which He formed out of Adam's side; and that other bodies are not made by Him because they are engendered by human parents?

7. If your opponents go so far in maintaining the derivation of souls as to deny that they are made and formed by God, you may use this argument as a weapon to confute them so far as God's help enables you. But if, while they assert that the soul's beginnings come from Adam first and then from a man's parents, they at the same time hold that the soul in every man is created and formed by God the author of all things, they can only be confuted out of scripture. Search therefore till you find a passage that is neither obscure nor capable of a double meaning; or if you have already found one, hand it on to me as I have begged you to do. But if, like myself, you have so far failed to discover any such passage, you must still strain every nerve to confute those who say that souls are in no sense God's handiwork. This seems to be your opponents position, for in your first letter you write that they have secretly whispered scandalous doctrines and have forsaken your communion and the obedience of the church on account of this foolish, nay impious opinion. Against such men defend and uphold by every possible expedient the doctrine you have laid down in the same letter, that God has been, is, and will be the maker of souls; and that everything in heaven and on earth owes its existence wholly to Him. For this is true of every creature; and as such is to be believed, asserted, defended, and proved. God has been, is, and will be the author and maker of all things and all men as you have told your fellow bishops of the province of Cæsarea, exhorting them to adopt the doctrine by the example of your brothers and fellow priests. But there are two quite distinct dilemmas: (1) Is God the author and maker of all souls and bodies (the true view), or is there something in nature which He has not made (a view which is wholly erroneous)? (2) If souls are undoubtedly God's handiwork, does He make them directly, or indirectly by propagation? It is in dealing with this second dilemma that I would have you to be sober and vigilant. Else in refuting the propagation-theory you may fall incautiously into the heresy of Pelagius. Everybody knows that human bodies are propagated by generation; yet if we are right in saying that all human souls— and not only those of Adam and Eve— are created by God, it is clear that to assert their transmission by generation is not to deny their divine origin. For in this view God makes the soul as He makes the body, indirectly by a process of generation. If the truth condemns this as an error, some fresh argument must be sought to confute it. No persons could better advise you on the point (if only they were within reach) than those dead worthies whom you feared to discredit by drawing men away from them into a better path. They were, you said, great and famous bishops while you were a new-fledged and inexperienced teacher; thus you were loth to tamper with their doctrines. Would that I could know on what passages these great men rested their opinion that souls are transmitted! For in your letter to the brothers at Cæsarea, you speak of their view with a total disregard of their authority, as a new invention, an unheard-of doctrine; though we all know that, error as it may be, it is no novelty but old and of ancient date.

8. Now when we have reason to be doubtful about a point, we need not doubt that we are right in doubting. There is no doubt but that we ought to doubt things that are doubtful. For instance, the Apostle has no doubt about doubting whether he was in the body or out of the body when he was carried up into the third heaven. 2 Corinthians 12:4 Whether it was thus or thus, he says, I know not; God knows. Why may not I, then, so long as I have no light, doubt whether my soul comes to me by generation or unengendered? Why may I not be doubtful about this, so long as I do not doubt that in either case it is the work of God most high? Why may I not say; I know that my soul owes its existence to God and is altogether His handiwork; but whether it comes by generation, as the body does, or unengendered, as was Adam's soul, I know not; God knows. You wish me to assert positively one view or the other. I might do so if I knew which was right. You may have some light on the point, and if so you will find me keener to learn what I know not than to teach what I know. But if, like myself, you are in the dark, you should pray, as I do, that either through one of His servants, or with His own lips, He would teach us who said to His disciples: Be not ye called masters; for one is your master, even Christ. Matthew 23:10 Yet such knowledge is only expedient for us when He knows it to be expedient who knows both what He has to teach and what we ought to learn. Nevertheless, to you, my dear friend, I confess my eagerness. Still much as I desire to know this after which you seek, I would sooner know when the desire of all nations shall come and when the kingdom of the saints will be set up, than how my soul has come to its earthly abode. But when His disciples (who are our apostles) put this question to the all-knowing Christ, they were told: It is not yours to know the times or the seasons which the Father has put in His own power. Acts 1:7 What if Christ, who knows what is expedient for us, knows this knowledge not to be expedient? Through Him I know that it is not ours to know the times which God has placed in His own power; but concerning the origin of souls, I am ignorant whether it is or is not ours to know. If I could be sure that such knowledge is not for us, I should cease not only to dogmatize, but even to inquire. As it is, though the subject is so deep and dark that my fear of becoming a rash teacher is almost greater than my eagerness to learn the truth, I still wish to know it if I can do so. It may be that the knowledge for which the psalmist prays: Lord, make me to know mine end, is much more necessary; yet I would that my beginning also might be revealed to me.

9. But even as touching this I must not be ungrateful to my Master. I know that the human soul is spiritual not corporeal, that it is endowed with reason and intelligence, and that it is not of God's essence but a thing created. It is both mortal and immortal: the first because it is subject to corruption and separable from the life of God in which it is alone blessed, the second because its consciousness must ever continue and form the source of its happiness or woe. It does not, it is true, owe its immersion in the flesh to acts done before the flesh; yet in man it is never without sin, not even when its life has been but for one day. Of those engendered of the seed of Adam no man is born without sin, and it is necessary even for babes to be born anew in Christ by the grace of regeneration. All this I know concerning the soul, and it is much; the greater part of it, indeed, is not only knowledge but matter of faith as well. I rejoice to have learned it all and I can truly say that I know it. If there are things of which I am still ignorant (as whether God creates souls by generation or apart from it— for that He does create them I have no doubt) I would sooner know the truth than be ignorant of it. But so long as I cannot know it I had rather suspend my judgment than assert what is plainly contrary to an indisputable truth.

10. You, my brother, ask me to decide for you whether men's souls as made by the Creator come like their bodies by generation from Adam, or whether like his soul they are made without generation and separately for each individual. For in one way or the other we both admit that they are God's handiwork. Allow me then in turn to ask you a question. Can a soul derive original sin from a source from which it is not itself derived? For unless we are to fall into the detestable heresy of Pelagius, we must both of us allow that all souls do derive original sin from Adam. And if you cannot answer my question, pray give me leave to confess my ignorance alike of your question and of my own. But if you already know what I ask, teach me and then I will teach you what you wish to know. Pray do not be displeased with me for taking this line, for though I have given you no positive answer to your question, I have shown you how you ought to put it. When once you are clear about that, you may be quite positive where you have been doubtful.

This much I have thought it right to write to your holiness seeing that you are so sure that the transmission of souls is a doctrine to be rejected. Had I been writing to maintainers of the doctrine I might perhaps have shown how ignorant they are of what they fancy they know and how cautious they should be not to make rash assertions.

It may perhaps perplex you that in my friend's answer as I have quoted it in this letter he mentions two letters of mine to which he has no time to reply. Only one of these deals with the problem of the soul; in the other I have asked light on another difficulty. Again when he urges me to take more pains for the removal from the church of a most pernicious heresy, he alludes to the error of the Pelagians which I earnestly beg you, my brother, at all hazards to avoid. In speculating or arguing on the origin of the soul you must never give place to this heresy with its insidious suggestions. For there is no soul, save that of the one Mediator, which does not derive original sin from Adam. Original sin is that which is fastened on the soul at its birth and from which it can only be freed by being born again.

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Source. Translated by W.H. Fremantle, G. Lewis and W.G. Martley. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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