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Home > Fathers of the Church > Against the Pelagians (Jerome) > Book III

Against the Pelagians (Book III)

1. Critob. I am charmed with the exuberance of your eloquence, but at the same time I would remind you that, Proverbs 10:19 In the multitude of words there wants not transgression. And how does it bear upon the question before us? You will surely admit that those who have received Christian baptism are without sin. And that being free from sin they are righteous. And that once they are righteous, they can, if they take care, preserve their righteousness, and so through life avoid all sin.

Attic. Do you not blush to follow the opinion of Jovinian, which has been exploded and condemned? For he relies upon just the same proofs and arguments as you do; nay, rather, you are all eagerness for his inventions, and desire to preach in the East what was formerly condemned at Rome, and not long ago in Africa. Read then the reply which was given to him, and you will there find the answer to yourself. For in the discussion of doctrines and disputed points, we must have regard not to persons but to things. And yet let me tell you that baptism condones past offenses, and does not preserve righteousness in the time to come; the keeping of that is dependent on toil and industry, as well as earnestness, and above all on the mercy of God. It is ours to ask, to Him it belongs to bestow what we ask; ours to begin, His it is to finish; ours to offer what we can, His to fulfil what we cannot perform. For except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it. Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman wakes but in vain. Wherefore the Apostle 1 Corinthians 9:24 bids us so run that we may attain. All indeed run, but one receives the crown. And in the Psalm it is written, O Lord, you have crowned us with your favour as with a shield. For our victory is won and the crown of our victory is gained by His protection and through His shield; and here we run that hereafter we may attain; there he shall receive the crown who in this world has proved the conqueror. And when we have been baptized we are told, John 5:14 Behold you are made whole; sin no more lest a worse thing happen unto you. And again, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man profane the temple of God, him shall God destroy. And in another place, 2 Chronicles 15:2 The Lord is with you so long as you are with Him: if you forsake Him, He will also forsake you. Where is the man, do you suppose, in whom as in a shrine and sanctuary the purity of Christ is permanent, and in whose case the serenity of the temple is saddened by no cloud of sin? We cannot always have the same countenance, though the philosophers falsely boast that this was the experience of Socrates; how much less can our minds be always the same! As men have many expressions of countenance, so also do the feelings of their hearts vary. If it were possible for us to be always immersed in the waters of baptism, sins would fly over our heads and leave us untouched. The Holy Spirit would protect us. But the enemy assails us, and when conquered does not depart, but is ever lying in ambush, that he may secretly shoot the upright in heart.

2. In the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which is written in the Chaldee and Syrian language, but in Hebrew characters, and is used by the Nazarenes to this day (I mean the Gospel according to the Apostles, or, as is generally maintained, the Gospel according to Matthew, a copy of which is in the library at Cæsarea), we find, Behold, the mother of our Lord and His brethren said to Him, John Baptist baptizes for the remission of sins; let us go and be baptized by him. But He said to them, what sin have I committed that I should go and be baptized by him? Unless, haply, the very words which I have said are only ignorance. And in the same volume, If your brother sin against you in word, and make amends to you, receive him seven times in a day. Simon, His disciple, said to Him, Seven times in a day? The Lord answered and said to him, I say unto you until seventy times seven. Even the prophets, after they were anointed with the Holy Spirit, were guilty of sinful words. Ignatius, an apostolic man and a martyr, boldly writes, The Lord chose Apostles who were sinners above all men. It is of their speedy conversion that the Psalmist sings, Their infirmities were multiplied; afterwards they made haste. If you do not allow the authority of this evidence, at least admit its antiquity, and see what has been the opinion of all good churchmen. Suppose a person who has been baptized to have been carried off by death either immediately, or on the very day of his baptism, and I will generously concede that he neither thought nor said anything whereby, through error and ignorance, he fell into sin. Does it follow that he will, therefore, be without sin, because he appears not to have overcome, but to have avoided sin? Is not the true reason rather that by the mercy of God he was released from the prison of sins and departed to the Lord? We also say this, that God can do what He wills; and that man of himself and by his own will cannot, as you maintain, be without sin. If he can, it is idle for you now to add the word grace, for, with such a power, he has no need of it. If, however, he cannot avoid sin without the grace of God, it is folly for you to attribute to him an ability which he does not possess. For whatever depends upon another's will, is not in the power of him whose ability you assert, but of him whose aid is clearly indispensable.

3. C. What do you mean by this perversity, or, rather, senseless contention? Will you not grant me even so much— that when a man leaves the waters of baptism he is free from sin?

A. Either I fail to express my meaning clearly, or you are slow of apprehension.

C. How so?

A. Remember both what you maintained and also what I say. You argued that a man can be free from sin if he chooses. I reply that it is an impossibility; not that we are to think that a man is not free from sin immediately after baptism, but that that time of sinlessness is by no means to be referred to human ability, but to the grace of God. Do not, therefore, claim the power for man, and I will admit the fact. For how can a man be able who is not able of himself? Or what is that sinlessness which is conditioned by the immediate death of the body? Should the man's life be prolonged, he will certainly be liable to sins and to ignorance.

C. Your logic stops my mouth. You do not speak with Christian simplicity, but entangle me in some fine distinctions between being and ability to be.

A. Is it I who play these tricks with words? The article came from your own workshop. For you say, not that a man is free from sin, but that he is able to be; I, on the other hand, will grant what you deny, that a man is free from sin by the grace of God, and yet will maintain that he is not able of himself.

C. It is useless to give commandments if we cannot keep them.

A. No one doubts that God commanded things possible. But because men do not what they might, therefore the whole world is subject to the judgment of God, and needs His mercy. On the other hand, if you can produce a man who has fulfilled the whole law, you will certainly be able to show that there is a man who does not need the mercy of God. For everything which can happen must either take place in the past, the present, or the future. As to your assertion that a man can be without sin if he chooses, show that it has happened in the past, or at all events that it does happen at the present day; the future will reveal itself. If, however, you can point to no one who either is, or has been, altogether free from sin, it remains for us to confine our discussion to the future. Meanwhile, you are vanquished and a captive as regards two out of three periods of time, the past and the present. If anyone hereafter shall be greater than patriarchs, prophets, apostles, inasmuch as he is without sin, then you may perhaps be able to convince future generations as to their time.

4. C. Talk as you like, argue as you please, you will never wrest from me free will, which God bestowed once for all, nor will you be able to deprive me of what God has given, the ability if I have the will.

A. By way of example let us take one proof: I have found David, the Son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who shall do all My will. There is no doubt that David was a holy man, and yet he who was chosen that he might do all God's will is blamed for certain actions. Of course it was possible for him who was chosen for the purpose to do all God's will. Nor is God to blame Who beforehand spoke of his doing all His will as commanded, but blame does attach to him who did not what was foretold. For God did not say that He had found a man who would unfailingly do His bidding and fulfil His will, but only one who would do all His will. And we, too, say that a man can avoid sinning, if he chooses, according to his local and temporal circumstances and physical weakness, so long as his mind is set upon righteousness and the string is well stretched upon the lyre. But if a man grow a little remiss it is with him as with the boatman pulling against the stream, who finds that, if he slackens but for a moment, the craft glides back and he is carried by the flowing waters whither he would not. Such is the state of man; if we are a little careless we learn our weakness, and find that our power is limited. Do you suppose that the Apostle Paul, when he wrote 2 Timothy 4:13 the coat (or cloak) that I left at Troas with Carpus, bring when you come, and the books, especially the parchments, was thinking of heavenly mysteries, and not of those things which are required for daily life and to satisfy our bodily necessities? Find me a man who is never hungry, thirsty, or cold, who knows nothing of pain, or fever, or the torture of strangury, and I will grant you that a man can think of nothing but virtue. When the Apostle was struck by the servant, he delivered himself thus against the High Priest who commanded the blow to be given: God shall strike you, thou whited wall. We miss the patience of the Saviour Who was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and opened not His mouth, but mercifully said to the smiter, John 18:23 If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you smite Me? We do not disparage the Apostle, but declare the glory of God Who suffered in the flesh and overcame the evil inflicted on the flesh and the weakness of the flesh— to say nothing of what the Apostle says elsewhere: 2 Timothy 4:14 Alexander, the coppersmith, did me much evil; the Lord, the righteous Judge, will recompense him in that day.

5. C. I have been longing to say something, but have checked the words as they were bursting from my lips. You compel me to say it.

A. Who hinders you from saying what you think? Either what you are going to say is good— and you ought not to deprive us of what is good— or it is bad, and, therefore, it is not regard for us, but shame that keeps you silent.

C. I will say, I will say after all, what I think. Your whole argument tends to this: You accuse nature, and blame God for creating man such as he is.

A. Is this what you wished, and yet did not wish, to say? Pray speak out, so that all may have the benefit of your wisdom. Are you censuring God because he made man to be man? Let the angels also complain because they are angels. Let every creature discuss the question, Why it is as it was created? And not what the Creator could have made it. I must now amuse myself with the rhetorical exercises of childhood, and passing from the gnat and the ant to cherubim and seraphim, inquire why each was not created with a happier lot. And when I reach the exalted powers, I will argue the point: Why God alone is only God, and did not make all things gods? For, according to you, He will either be unable to do so, or will be guilty of envy. Censure Him, and demand why He allows the devil to be in this world, and carry off the crown when you have won the victory.

C. I am not so senseless as to complain of the existence of the devil, through whose malice death entered into the world; but what grieves me is this: that dignitaries of the Church, and those who usurp the title of master, destroy free will; and once that is destroyed, the way is open for the Manichæans.

A. Am I the destroyer of free will because, throughout the discussion, my single aim has been to maintain the omnipotence of God as well as free will?

C. How can you have free will, and yet say that man can do nothing without God's assistance?

A. If he is to be blamed who couples free will and God's help, it follows that we ought to praise him who does away with God's help.

C. I am not making God's help unnecessary, for to His grace we owe all our ability; but I and those who think with me keep both within their own bounds. To God's grace we assign the gift of the power of free choice; to our own will, the doing, or the not doing, of a thing; and thus rewards and punishments for doing or not doing can be maintained.

6. A. You seem to me to be lost in forgetfulness, and to be going over the lines of argument already traversed as though not a word had been previously said. For, by this long discussion, it has been established that the Lord, by the same grace wherewith He bestowed upon us free choice, assists and supports us in our individual actions.

C. Why, then, does He crown and praise what He has Himself wrought in us?

A. That is to say, our will which offered all it could, the toil which strove in action, and the humility which ever looked to the help of God.

C. So, then, if we have not done what He commanded, either God was willing to assist us, or He was not. If He was willing and did assist us, and yet we have not done what we wished, then He, and not we, has been overcome. But if He would not help, the man is not to be blamed who wished to do His will, but God, who was able to help, but would not.

A. Do you not see that your dilemma has landed you in a deep abyss of blasphemy? Whichever way you take it, God is either weak or malevolent, and He is not so much praised because He is the author of good and gives His help, as abused for not restraining evil. Blame Him, then, because He allows the existence of the devil, and has suffered, and still suffers, evil to be done in the world. This is what Marcion asks, and the whole pack of heretics who mutilate the Old Testament, and have mostly spun an argument something like this: Either God knew that man, placed in Paradise, would transgress His command, or He did not know. If He knew, man is not to blame, who could not avoid God's foreknowledge, but He Who created him such that he could not escape the knowledge of God. If He did not know, in stripping Him of foreknowledge you also take away His divinity. Upon the same showing God will be deserving of blame for choosing Saul, who was to prove one of the worst of kings. And the Saviour must be convicted either of ignorance, or of unrighteousness, inasmuch as He said in the Gospel, John 6:70 Did I not choose you the twelve, and one of you is a devil? Ask Him why He chose Judas, a traitor? Why He entrusted to him the bag when He knew that he was a thief? Shall I tell you the reason? God judges the present, not the future. He does not make use of His foreknowledge to condemn a man though He knows that he will hereafter displease Him; but such is His goodness and unspeakable mercy that He chooses a man who, He perceives, will meanwhile be good, and who, He knows, will turn out badly, thus giving him the opportunity of being converted and of repenting. This is the Apostle's meaning when he says, Romans 2:4-5 Do you not know that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But after your hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, Who will render to every man according to his works. For Adam did not sin because God knew that he would do so; but God inasmuch as He is God, foreknew what Adam would do of his own free choice. You may as well accuse God of falsehood because He said by the mouth of Jonah: Yet three days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. But God will reply by the mouth of Jeremiah, Jeremiah 18:7-8 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to break down, and to destroy it; if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them. And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them. Jonah, on a certain occasion, was indignant because, at God's command, he had spoken falsely; but his sorrow was proved to be ill founded, since he would rather speak truth and have a countless multitude perish, than speak falsely and have them saved. His position was thus illustrated: Jonah 4:10-11 Thou grievest over the ivy (or gourd), for the which you have not laboured, neither made it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night; and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand? If there was so vast a number of children and simple folk, whom you will never be able to prove sinners, what shall we say of those inhabitants of both sexes who were at different periods of life? According to Philo, and the wisest of philosophers, Plato (so the Timæus tells us), in passing from infancy to decrepit old age, we go through seven stages, which so gradually and so gently follow one another that we are quite insensible of the change.

C. The drift of your whole argument is this— what the Greeks call αὐτέξουσιον, and we free will, you admit in terms, but in effect destroy. For you make God the author of sin, in asserting that man can of himself do nothing, but that he must have the help of God to Whom is imputed all we do. But we say that, whether a man does good or evil, it is imputed to him on account of the faculty of free choice, inasmuch as he did what he chose, and not to Him Who once for all gave him free choice.

A. Your shuffling is to no purpose; you are caught in the snares of truth. For upon this showing, even if He does not Himself assist, according to you He will be the author of evil, because He might have prevented it and did not. It is an old maxim that if a man can deliver another from death and does not, he is a homicide.

C. I withdraw and yield the point; you have won; provided, however, that victory is the subverting of the truth by specious words, that is to say, not by truth, but by falsehood. For I might make answer to you in the Apostle's words, 1 Corinthians 11:6 Though I be rude in speech, yet not in knowledge. When you speak, your rhetorical tricks are too much for me, and I seem to agree with you; but when you stop speaking, it all goes out of my head, and I see quite clearly that your argument does not flow from the fountains of truth and Christian simplicity, but rests on the laboured subtleties of the philosophers.

A. Do you wish me, then, once more to resort to the evidence of Scripture? If so, what becomes of the boast of your disciples that no one can answer your arguments or solve the questions you raise?

C. I not only wish, but am eager that you should do so. Show me any place in Holy Scripture where we find that, the power of free choice being lost, a man does what of himself he either would not, or could not do.

8. A. We must use the words of Scripture not as you propose, but as truth and reason demand. Jacob says in his prayer, If the Lord God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a token, shall be God's house; and of all that You shall give me I will surely give the tenth unto You. He did not say, If you preserve my free choice, and I gain by my toil food and raiment, and return to my father's house. He refers everything to the will of God, that he may be found worthy to receive that for which he prays. On Jacob's return from Mesopotamia Genesis 32:2 an army of angels met him, who are called God's camp. He afterwards contended with an angel in the form of a man, and was strengthened by God; whereupon, instead of Jacob, the supplanter, he received the name, the most upright of God. For he would not have dared to return to his cruel brother unless he had been strengthened and secured by the Lord's help. In the sequel we read, The sun rose upon him after he passed over Phanuel, which is, being interpreted, the face of God. Hence Moses also says, I have seen the Lord face to face, and my life is preserved, not by any natural quality— but by the condescension of God, Who had mercy. So then the Sun of Righteousness rises upon us when God makes His face to shine upon us and gives us strength. Joseph in Egypt was shut up in prison, and we next hear that the keeper of the prison, believing in his fidelity, committed everything to his hand. And the reason is given: Genesis 39:23 Because the Lord was with him: and whatsoever he did, the Lord made it to prosper. Wherefore, also, dreams were suggested to Pharaoh's attendants, and Pharaoh had one which none could interpret, that so Joseph might be released, and his father and brethren fed, and Egypt saved in the time of famine. Moreover, God Genesis 46:3-4 said to Israel, in a vision of the night, I am the God of your fathers; fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will make of you there a great nation, and I will go down with you into Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again, and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes. Where in this passage do we find the power of free choice? Is not the whole circumstance that he ventured to go to his son, and entrust himself to a nation that knew not the Lord, due to the help of the God of his fathers? The people was released from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; not the hand of Moses and Aaron, but of Him who set the people free by signs and wonders, and at last smote the firstborn of Egypt, so that they who at first were persistent in keeping the people, eagerly urged them to depart. Solomon Proverbs 3:5-6 says, Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not upon your own understanding: in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Understand what He says— that we must not trust in our wisdom, but in the Lord alone, by Whom the steps of a man are directed. Lastly, we are bidden to show Him our ways, and make them known, for they are not made straight by our own labour, but by His assistance and mercy. And so it is written, Make my way right before Your face, so that what is right to You may seem also right to me. Solomon says the same— Proverbs 16:3 Commit your works unto the Lord, and your thoughts shall be established. Our thoughts are then established when we commit all we do to the Lord our helper, resting it, as it were, upon the firm and solid rock, and attribute everything to Him.

9. The Apostle Paul, rapidly recounting the benefits of God, ended with the words, 2 Corinthians 2:16 And who is sufficient for these things? Wherefore, also, in another place he 2 Corinthians 3:4-6 says, Such confidence have we through Christ to Godward; not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is from God; Who also made us sufficient as ministers of a new covenant; not of the letter but of the spirit; for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life. Do we still dare to pride ourselves on free will, and to abuse the benefits of God to the dishonour of the giver? Whereas the same chosen vessel openly 2 Corinthians 4:7 writes, We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves. Therefore, also, in another place, checking the impudence of the heretics, he 2 Corinthians 10:17-18 says, He that glories, let him glory in the Lord. For not he that commends himself is approved, but whom the Lord commends. And again, 2 Corinthians 12:11 In nothing was I behind the very chiefest Apostles, though I be nothing. Peter, disturbed by the greatness of the miracles he witnessed, said to the Lord, Luke 5:8 Depart from me, for I am a sinful man. And the Lord said to His disciples, John 15:5 I am the vine and you are the branches: He that abides in Me and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from Me ye can do nothing. Just as the vine branches and shoots immediately decay when they are severed from the parent stem, so all the strength of men fades and perishes, if it be bereft of the help of God. No one, John 6:44 He says, can come unto Me except the Father Who sent Me draw him. When He says, No one can come unto Me, He shatters the pride of free will; because, even if a man will to go to Christ, except that be realized which follows— unless My heavenly Father draw him— desire is to no purpose, and effort is in vain. At the same time it is to be noted that he who is drawn does not run freely, but is led along either because he holds back and is sluggish, or because he is reluctant to go.

10. Now, how can a man who cannot by his own strength and labour come to Jesus, at the same time avoid all sins? And avoid them perpetually, and claim for himself a name which belongs to the might of God? For if He and I are both without sin, what difference is there between me and God? One more proof only I will adduce, that I may not weary you and my hearers. Esther 6:1 Sleep was removed from the eyes of Ahasuerus, whom the Seventy call Artaxerxes, that he might turn over the memoirs of his faithful ministers and come upon Mordecai, by whose evidence he was delivered from a conspiracy; and that thus Esther might be more acceptable, and the whole people of the Jews escape imminent death. There is no doubt that the mighty sovereign to whom belonged the whole East, from India to the North and to Ethiopia, after feasting sumptuously on delicacies gathered from every part of the world would have desired to sleep, and to take his rest, and to gratify his free choice of sleep, had not the Lord, the provider of all good things, hindered the course of nature, so that in defiance of nature the tyrant's cruelty might be overcome. If I were to attempt to produce all the instances in Holy Writ, I should be tedious. All that the saints say is a prayer to God; their whole prayer and supplication a strong wrestling for the pity of God, so that we, who by our own strength and zeal cannot be saved, may be preserved by His mercy. But when we are concerned with grace and mercy, free will is in part void; in part, I say, for so much as this depends upon it, that we wish and desire, and give assent to the course we choose. But it depends on God whether we have the power in His strength and with His help to perform what we desire, and to bring to effect our toil and effort.

11. C. I simply said that we find the help of God not in our several actions, but in the grace of creation and of the law, that free will might not be destroyed. But there are many of us who maintain that all we do is done with the help of God.

A. Whoever says that must leave your party. Either, then, say the same yourself and join our side, or, if you refuse, you will be just as much our enemy as those who do not hold our views.

C. I shall be on your side if you speak my sentiments, or rather you will be on mine if you do not contradict them. You admit health of body, and deny health of the soul, which is stronger than the body. For sin is to the soul what disease or a wound is to the body. If then you admit that a man may be healthy so far as he is flesh, why do you not say he may be healthy so far as he is spirit?

A. I will follow in the line you point out,

and you today
Shall ne'er escape; where'r you call, I come.

C. I am ready to listen.

A. And I to speak to deaf ears. I will therefore reply to your argument. Made up of soul and body, we have the nature of both substances. As the body is said to be healthy if it is troubled with no weakness, so the soul is free from fault if it is unshaken and undisturbed. And yet, although the body may be healthy, sound, and active, with all the faculties in their full vigour, yet it suffers much from infirmities at more or less frequent intervals, and, however strong it may be, is sometimes distressed by various humours; so the soul, bearing the onset of thoughts and agitations, even though it escape shipwreck, does not sail without danger, and remembering its weakness, is always anxious about death, according as it is written, What man is he that shall live and not see death?— death, which threatens all mortal men, not through the decay of nature, but through the death of sin, according to the prophet's words, Ezekiel 18:4 The soul that sins, it shall die. Besides, we know that Enoch and Elias have not yet seen this death which is common to man and the brutes. Show me a body which is never sick, or which after sickness is ever safe and sound, and I will show you a soul which never sinned, and after acquiring virtues will never again sin. The thing is impossible, and all the more when we remember that vice borders on virtue, and that, if you deviate ever so little, you will either go astray or fall over a precipice. How small is the interval between obstinacy and perseverance, miserliness and frugality, liberality and extravagance, wisdom and craft, intrepidity and rashness, caution and timidity! some of which are classed as good, others as bad. And the same applies to bodies. If you take precautions against biliousness, the phlegm increases. If you dry up the humours too quickly, the blood becomes heated and vitiated with bile, and a sallow hue spreads over the countenance. Without question, however much we may exercise all the care of the physician, and regulate our diet, and be free from indigestion and whatever fosters disease, the causes of which are in some cases hidden from us and known to God alone, we shiver with cold, or burn with fever, or howl with colic, and implore the help of the true physician, our Saviour, and Matthew 8:25 say with the Apostles, Master, save us, we perish.

12. C. Granted that no one could avoid all sin in boyhood, youth, and early manhood; can you deny that very many righteous and holy men, after falling into vice, have heartily devoted themselves to the acquisition of virtue and through these have escaped sin?

A. This is what I told you at the beginning— that it rests with ourselves either to sin or not to sin, and to put the hand either to good or evil; and thus free will is preserved, but according to circumstances, time, and the state of human frailty; we maintain, however, that perpetual freedom from sin is reserved for God only, and for Him Who being the Word was made flesh without incurring the defects and the sins of the flesh. And, because I am able to avoid sin for a short time, you cannot logically infer that I am able to do so continually. Can I fast, watch, walk, sing, sit, sleep perpetually?

C. Why then in Holy Scripture are we stimulated to aim at perfect righteousness? For example: Matthew 5:8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God, and Blessed are the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord. And God says to Abraham, Genesis 17:1-2 I am your God, be thou pleasing in My sight, and be thou without spot, or blame, and I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly. If that is impossible which Scripture testifies, it was useless to command it to be done.

A. You play upon Scripture until you wear a question threadbare, and remind me of the platform tricks of a conjurer who assumes a variety of characters, and is now Mars, next moment Venus; so that he who was at first all sternness and ferocity is dissolved into feminine softness. For the objection you now raise with an air of noveltyBlessed are the pure in heart, Blessed are the undefiled in the way, and Be without spot, and so forth— is refuted when the Apostle replies, 1 Corinthians 13:9-10 We know in part, and we prophesy in part, and, Now we see through a mirror darkly, but when that which is perfect has come, that which is in part shall be done away. And therefore we have but the shadow and likeness of the pure heart, which hereafter is destined to see God, and, free from spot or stain, to live with Abraham. However great the patriarch, prophet, or Apostle may be, it is Matthew 7:11 said to them, in the words of our Lord and Saviour, If you being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father Which is in heaven give good things to them which ask Him? Then again even Abraham, to whom it was said, Be thou without spot and blame, in the consciousness of his frailty fell upon his face to the earth. And when God had spoken to Him, saying, Your wife Sarai shall no longer be called Sarai, but Sara shall her name be, and I will give you a son by her, and I will bless him and he shall become a great nation, and kings of nations shall spring from him, the narrative at once proceeds to say, Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? And shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? And Abraham said unto God, Oh, that Ishmael might live before you! And God said, Nay, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac, and so on. He certainly had heard the words of God, I am your God, be thou pleasing in My sight, and without spot; why then did he not believe what God promised, and why did he laugh in his heart, thinking that he escaped the notice of God, and not daring to laugh openly? Moreover he gives the reasons for his unbelief, and says, How is it possible for a man that is an hundred years old to beget a son of a wife that is ninety years old? Oh, that Ishmael might live before you, he says. Ishmael whom thou once gavest me. I do not ask a hard thing, I am content with the blessing I have received. God convinced him by a mysterious reply. He said, Yea. The meaning is, that shall come to pass which you think shall not be. Your wife Sara shall bear you a son, and before she conceives, before he is born, I will give the boy a name. For, from your error in secretly laughing, your son shall be called Isaac, that is laughter. But if you think that God is seen by those who are pure in heart in this world, why did Moses, who had previously said, I have seen the Lord face to face, and my life is preserved, afterwards entreat that he might see him distinctly? And because he said that he had seen God, the Lord told him, Exodus 33:20 You can not see My face. For man shall not see My face, and live. Wherefore also the Apostle calls Him the only invisible God, Who dwells in light unapproachable, and Whom no man has seen, nor can see. And the Evangelist John in holy accents testifies, saying, No man has at any time seen God. The only begotten Son Who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. He Who sees, also declares, not how great He is Who is seen, nor how much He knows Who declares; but as much as the capacity of mortals can receive.

13. And whereas you think he is blessed who is undefiled in the way, and walks in His law, you must interpret the former clause by the latter. From the many proofs I have adduced you have learned that no one has been able to fulfil the law. And if the Apostle, in comparison with the grace of Christ, reckoned those things as filth which formerly, under the law, he counted gain, so that he might win Christ, how much more certain ought we to be that the reason why the grace of Christ and of the Gospel has been added is that, under the law, no one could be justified? Now if, under the law, no one is justified, how is he perfectly undefiled in the way who is still walking and hastening to reach the goal? Surely, he who is in the course, and who is advancing on the road, is inferior to him who has reached his journey's end. If, then, he is undefiled and perfect who is still walking in the way and advancing in the law, what more shall he have who has arrived at the end of life and of the law? Hence the Apostle, speaking of our Lord, says that, at the end of the world, when all virtues shall receive their consummation, He will present His holy Church to Himself without spot or wrinkle, and yet you think that Church perfect, while yet in the flesh, which is subject to death and decay. You deserve to be told, with the Corinthians, 1 Corinthians 4:8 You are already perfect, you are already made rich: ye reign without us, and I would that you did reign, that we might also reign with you— since true and stainless perfection belongs to the inhabitants of heaven, and is reserved for that day when the bridegroom shall say to the bride, Song of Songs 4:7 You are all fair, my love; and there is no spot in you. And in this sense we must understand the words: Philippians 2:15 That ye may be blameless and harmless, as children of God, without blemish; for He did not say you are, but may be. He is contemplating the future, not stating a case pertaining to the present; so that here is toil and effort, in that other world the rewards of labour and of virtue. Lastly, John writes: 1 John 3:2 Beloved, we are sons of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that when He shall be manifested, we shall be like Him: for we shall see Him even as He is. Although, then, we are sons of God, yet likeness to God, and the true contemplation of God, is promised us then, when He shall appear in His majesty.

14. From this swelling pride springs the audacity in prayer which marks the directions in your letter to a certain widow as to how the saints ought to pray. He, you say, rightly lifts up his hands to God; he pours out supplications with a good conscience who can say, 'You know, Lord, how holy, how innocent, how pure from all deceit, wrong, and robbery are the hands which I spread out unto You; how righteous, how spotless, and free from all falsehood are the lips with which I pour forth my prayers unto You, that You may pity me.' Is this the prayer of a Christian, or of a proud Pharisee like him who Luke 18:11 says in the Gospel, God, I thank You that I am not as other men are, robbers, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican: I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. Yet he merely thanks God because, by His mercy, he is not as other men: he execrates sin, and does not claim his righteousness as his own. But you say, Now You know how holy, how innocent, how pure from all deceit, wrong, and robbery are the hands which I spread out before You. He says that he fasts twice in the week, that he may afflict his vicious and wanton flesh, and he gives tithes of all his substance. For Proverbs 13:8 the ransom of a man's life is his riches. You join the devil in boasting, I will ascend above the stars, I will place my throne in heaven, and I will be like the Most High. David says, My loins are filled with illusions; and My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness; and Enter not into judgment with Your servant; and In Your sight no man living shall be justified. You boast that you are holy, innocent, and pure, and spread out clean hands unto God. And you are not satisfied with glorying in all your works, unless you say that you are pure from all sins of speech; and you tell us how righteous, how spotless, how free from all falsehood your lips are. The Psalmist sings, Every man is a liar; and this is supported by authority: That God may be true, says St. Paul, Romans 3:4 and every man a liar; and yet you have lips righteous, spotless, and free from all falsehood. Isaiah laments, saying, Isaiah 6:5 Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; and afterwards one of the seraphim brings a hot coal, taken with the tongs, to purify the prophet's lips, for he was not, according to the tenor of your words, arrogant, but he confessed his own faults. Just as we read in the Psalms, What shall be due unto you, and what shall be done more unto you in respect of a deceitful tongue? Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals that make desolate. And after all this swelling with pride, and boastfulness in prayer, and confidence in your holiness, like one fool trying to persuade another, you finish with the words These lips with which I pour out my supplication that You may have pity on me. If you are holy, if you are innocent, if you are cleansed from all defilement, if you have sinned neither in word nor deed— although James says, James 3:2 He who offends not in word is a perfect man, and No one can curb his tongue— how is it that you sue for mercy? So that, forsooth, you bewail yourself, and pour out prayers because you are holy, pure, and innocent, a man of stainless lips, free from all falsehood, and endowed with a power like that of God. Christ prayed thus on the cross: My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me? And, again, Luke 23:46 Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit, and Luke 23:34 Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. And this is He, who, returning thanks for us, had said, Matthew 11:25 I confess to You, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth.

15. Our Lord so instructed His Apostles that, daily at the sacrifice of His body, believers make bold to say, Our Father, Which art in Heaven, hallowed be Your name; they earnestly desire the name of God, which in itself is holy, to be hallowed in themselves; you say, You know, Lord, how holy, how innocent, and how pure are my hands. Then they say: Your Kingdom come, anticipating the hope of the future kingdom, so that, when Christ reigns, sin may by no means reign in their mortal body, and to this they couple the words, Your will be done in earth as it is in Heaven; so that human weakness may imitate the angels, and the will of our Lord may be fulfilled on earth; you say, A man can, if he chooses, be free from all sin. The Apostles prayed for the daily bread, or the bread better than all food, which was to come, so that they might be worthy to receive the body of Christ; and you are led by your excess of holiness and well established righteousness to boldly claim the heavenly gifts. Next comes, Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors. No sooner do they rise from the baptismal font, and by being born again and incorporated into our Lord and Saviour thus fulfil what is written of them, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered, than at the first communion of the body of Christ they say, Forgive us our debts, though these debts had been forgiven them at their confession of Christ; but you in your arrogant pride boast of the cleanness of your holy hands and of the purity of your speech. However thorough the conversion of a man may be, and however perfect his possession of virtue after a time of sins and failings, can such persons be as free from fault as they who are just leaving the font of Christ? And yet these latter are commanded to say, Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors; not in the spirit of a false humility, but because they are afraid of human frailty and dread their own conscience. They say, Lead us not into temptation; you and Jovinian unite in saying that those who with a full faith have been baptized cannot be further tempted or sin. Lastly, they add, But deliver us from the evil one. Why do they beg from the Lord what they have already by the power of free will? Oh, man, now you have been made clean in the laver, and of you it is said, Who is this that comes up all white, leaning upon her beloved? The bride, therefore, is washed, yet she cannot keep her purity, unless she be supported by the Lord. How is it that you long to be set free by the mercy of God, you who but a little while ago were released from your sins? The only explanation is the principle by which we maintain that, when we have done all, we must confess we are unprofitable.

16. So then your prayer outdoes the pride of the Pharisee, and you are condemned when compared with the Publican. He, standing afar off, did not dare to lift up his eyes unto Heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, Luke 18:13 God be merciful unto me a sinner. And on this is based our Lord's declaration, I say unto you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other. For every one that exalts himself shall be abased, and he that humbles himself shall be exalted. The Apostles are humbled that they may be exalted. Your disciples are lifted up that they may fall. In your flattery of the widow previously mentioned you are not ashamed to say that piety such as is found on earth, and truth which is everywhere a stranger, had made their home with her in preference to all others. You do not recollect the familiar words, Isaiah 3:12 O my people, they which call you blessed cause you to err, and destroy the paths of your feet; and you expressly praise her and say, Happy beyond all thought are you! How blessed! If righteousness, which is believed to be now nowhere but in Heaven, is found with you alone on earth. Is this teaching or slaying? Is it raising from earth, or casting down from heaven, to attribute that to a poor creature of a woman, which angels would not dare arrogate to themselves? If piety, truth, and righteousness are found on earth nowhere but in one woman, where shall we find your righteous followers, who, you boast, are sinless on earth? These two chapters on prayer and praise you and your disciples are wont to swear are none of yours, and yet your brilliant style is so clearly seen in them, and the elegance of your Ciceronian diction is so marked that, although you strut about with the slow pace of a tortoise, you have not the courage to acknowledge what you teach in private and expose for sale. Happy man! Whose books no one writes out but your own disciples, so that whatever appears to be unacceptable, you may contend is not your own but some one else's work. And where is the man with ability enough to imitate the charm of your language?

17. C. I can put it off no longer; my patience is completely overcome by your iniquitous words. Tell me, pray, what sin have little infants committed. Neither the consciousness of wrong nor ignorance can be imputed to those who, according to the prophet Jonah, know not their right hand from their left. They cannot sin, and they can perish; their knees are too weak to walk, they utter inarticulate cries; we laugh at their attempts to speak; and, all the while, poor unfortunates! The torments of eternal misery are prepared for them.

A. Ah! now that your disciples have turned masters you begin to be fluent, not to say eloquent. Antony, an excellent orator, whose praises Tully loudly proclaims, says that he had seen many fluent men, but so far never an eloquent speaker; so don't amuse me with flowers of oratory which have not grown in your own garden, and with which the ears of inexperience and of boyhood are wont to be tickled, but plainly tell me what you think.

C. What I say is this— you must at least allow that they have no sin who cannot sin.

A. I will allow it, if they have been baptized into Christ; and if you will not then immediately bind me to agree with your opinion that a man can be without sin if he chooses; for they neither have the power nor the will; but they are free from all sin through the grace of God, which they received in their baptism.

C. You force me to make an invidious remark and ask, Why, what sin have they committed? That you may immediately have me stoned in some popular tumult. You have not the power to kill me, but you certainly have the will.

A. He slays a heretic who allows him to be a heretic. But when we rebuke him we give him life; you may die to your heresy, and live to the Catholic faith.

C. If you know us to be heretics, why do you not accuse us?

A. Because the Titus 3:10 Apostle teaches me to avoid a heretic after the first and second admonition, not to accuse him. The Apostle knew that such an one is perverse and self-condemned. Besides, it would be the height of folly to make my faith depend on another man's judgment. For supposing some one were to call you a Catholic, am I to immediately give assent? Whoever defends you, and says that you rightly hold your perverse opinions, does not succeed in rescuing you from infamy, but charges himself with perfidy. Your numerous supporters will never prove you to be a Catholic, but will show that you are a heretic. But I would have such opinions as these suppressed by ecclesiastical authority; otherwise we shall be in the case of those who show some dreadful picture to a crying child. May the fear of God grant us this— to despise all other fears. Therefore, either defend your opinions, or abandon what you are unable to defend. Whoever may be called in to defend you must be enrolled as a partisan, not as a patron.

18. C. Tell me, pray, and rid me of all doubts, why little children are baptized.

A. That their sins may be forgiven them in baptism.

C. What sin are they guilty of? How can any one be set free who is not bound?

A. You ask me! The Gospel trumpet will reply, the teacher of the Gentiles, the golden vessel shining throughout the world: Romans 5:14 Death reigned from Adam even unto Moses: even over those who did not sin after the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a figure of Him that was to come. And if you object that some are spoken of who did not sin, you must understand that they did not sin in the same way as Adam did by transgressing God's command in Paradise. But all men are held liable either on account of their ancient forefather Adam, or on their own account. He that is an infant is released in baptism from the chain which bound his father. He who is old enough to have discernment is set free from the chain of his own or another's sin by the blood of Christ. You must not think me a heretic because I take this view, for the blessed martyr Cyprian, whose rival you boast of being in the classification of Scripture proofs, in the epistle addressed to Bishop Fidus on the Baptism of Infants speaks thus: Moreover, if even the worst offenders, and those who previous to baptism sin much against God, once they believe have the gift of remission of sins, and no one is kept from baptism and from grace, how much more ought not an infant to be kept from baptism seeing that, being only just born, he has committed no sin? He has only, being born according to the flesh among Adam's sons, incurred the taint of ancient death by his first birth. And he is the more easily admitted to remission of sins because of the very fact that not his own sins but those of another are remitted to him. And so, dearest brother, it was our decision in council that no one ought to be kept by us from baptism and from the grace of God, Who is merciful to all, and kind, and good. And whereas this rule ought to be observed and kept with reference to all, bear in mind that it ought so much the more to be observed with regard to infants themselves and those just born, for they have the greater claims on our assistance in order to obtain Divine mercy, because their cries and tears from the very birth are one perpetual prayer.

19. That holy man and eloquent bishop Augustine not long ago wrote to Marcellinus (the same that was afterwards, though innocent, put to death by heretics on the pretext of his taking part in the tyranny of Heraclian ) two treatises on infant baptism, in opposition to your heresy which maintains that infants are baptized not for remission of sins, but for admission to the kingdom of heaven, according as it is written in the Gospel, John 3:3 Unless a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. He addressed a third, moreover, to the same Marcellinus, against those who say as do you, that a man can be free from sin, if he chooses, without the help of God. And, recently, a fourth to Hilary against this doctrine of yours, which is full of perversity. And he is said to have others on the anvil with special regard to you, which have not yet come to hand. Wherefore, I think I must abandon my task, for fear Horace's words may be thrown at me, Don't carry firewood into a forest. For we must either say the same as he does, and that would be superfluous; or, if we wished to say something fresh, we should find our best points anticipated by that splendid genius. One thing I will say and so end my discourse, that you ought either to give us a new creed, so that, after baptizing children into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you may baptize them into the kingdom of heaven; or, if you have one baptism both for infants and for persons of mature age, it follows that infants also should be baptized for the remission of sins after the likeness of the transgression of Adam. But if you think the remission of another's sins implies injustice, and that he has no need of it who could not sin, cross over to Origen, your special favourite, who says that ancient offenses committed long before in the heavens are loosed in baptism. You will then be not only led by his authority in other matters, but will be following his error in this also.

About this page

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. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/30113.htm>.

Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.

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