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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 18

Tractate 18 (John 5:19)

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1. John the evangelist, among his fellows and companions the other evangelists, received this special and peculiar gift from the Lord (on whose breast he reclined at the feast, hereby to signify that he was drinking deeper secrets from His inmost heart), to utter those things concerning the Son of God which may perhaps rouse the attentive minds of the little ones, but cannot fill them, as yet not capable of receiving them; while to minds, of somewhat larger growth, and coming to a certain age of inner manhood, he gives in these words something whereby they may both be exercised and fed. You have heard it when it was read, and you remember how this discourse arose. For yesterday it was read, that therefore the Jews sought to kill Jesus, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God. This that displeased the Jews, pleased the Father. This, without doubt, pleases them too that honor the Son as they honor the Father; for if it does not please them, they will not be pleasing. For God will not be greater because it pleases you, but you will be less if it displeases you. Now against this calumny of theirs, coming either of ignorance or of malice, the Lord speaks not at all what they can understand, but that whereby they may be agitated and troubled, and, on being troubled, it may be, seek the Physician. And He uttered what should be written, that it might afterwards be read even by us. Now we have seen what happened in the hearts of the Jews when they heard these words; what happens in ourselves when we hear them, let us more fully consider. For heresies, and certain tenets of perversity, ensnaring souls and hurling them into the deep, have not sprung up except when good Scriptures are not rightly understood, and when that in them which is not rightly understood is rashly and boldly asserted. And so, dearly beloved, ought we very cautiously to hear those things for the understanding of which we are but little ones, and that, too, with pious heart and with trembling, as it is written, holding this rule of soundness, that we rejoice as in food in that which we have been able to understand, according to the faith with which we are imbued; and what we have not yet been able to understand, that we lay aside doubting, and defer the understanding of it for a time; that is, even if we do not yet know what it is, that still we doubt not in the least that it is good and true. And as for me, brethren, you must consider who I am that undertake to speak to you, and what I have undertaken: for I have taken upon me to treat of things divine, being a man; of spiritual things, being carnal; of things eternal, being a mortal. Also from me, dearly beloved, far be vain presumption, if my conversation would be sound in the house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. 1 Timothy 3:1 In proportion to my measure I take what I put before you: where it is opened, I see with you; where it is shut, I knock with you.

2. Now the Jews were moved and indignant: justly, indeed, because a man dared to make himself equal with God; but unjustly in this, because in the man they understood not the God. They saw the flesh, the God they knew not; they observed the habitation, of the inhabitant they were ignorant. That flesh was a temple, within it dwelt God. It was not the flesh that Jesus made equal to the Father, it was not the form of a servant that He compared to the Lord; not that which He became for us, but that which He was when He made us. For who Christ is (I speak to Catholics) you know, because you have rightly believed; not Word only, nor flesh only, but the Word was made flesh to dwell among us. I recite again concerning the Word what you know: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: here is equality with the Father. But the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. Than this flesh the Father is greater. Thus the Father is both equal and greater; equal to the Word, greater than the flesh; equal to Him by whom He made us, greater than He who was made for us. By this sound catholic rule, which you ought particularly to know, which you who know it hold fast, from which your faith ought not in any case to slip, which is to be wrested from your heart by no arguments of men, let us measure the things we do understand; and the things which, it may be, we do not understand, let us defer, to be hereafter measured by this rule, when we shall be competent to do this. We know Him, then, as equal to the Father, the Son of God, because we know Him in the beginning as God the Word. Why, then, sought the Jews to slay Him? Because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God: seeing the flesh, not seeing the Word. Let Him therefore speak against them, the Word through the flesh; let Him, the dweller within, speak for through His dwelling-place, that whoever can, shall know who He is that dwells within.

3. What says He then to them? Then answered Jesus, and said to them, being indignant because He made Himself equal with God, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son cannot do anything of Himself, but what He sees the Father doing. What the Jews answered to these words is not written: and perhaps they said nothing. Certain, however, who wish to be esteemed Christians, are not silent, but from these words somehow conceive certain opinions in contradiction to us, which are not to be despised, both for their and for our sakes. The Arian heretics, namely, while they assert that the Son, who took upon Himself flesh, is less than the Father, not by the flesh, but before taking flesh, and not of the same substance as the Father, take a handle of misrepresentation from these words, and reply to us: You see that the Lord Jesus, observing the Jews to be moved with indignation at his making himself equal to God the Father, subjoined such words as these, to show that he was not equal with God. For the Jews, say they, were provoked against Christ, because he made him self equal with God; and Christ, wishing to cure them of this impression, and to show them that the Son is not equal to the Father, that is, to God, says this, as if he said, Why are you angry? Why are you indignant? I am not equal to God, since 'the Son cannot do anything of himself, except what he sees the Father doing.' Now, say they, he who 'cannot do anything of himself, but what he sees the Father doing,' is surely less, not equal.

4. In this distorted and depraved rule of his own heart, let the heretic hear us, not as yet chiding, but still as it were inquiring, and let him explain to us what he thinks. For, I suppose, whoever you are (for we may regard him as here present in person), you hold with us, that in the beginning was the Word. I do hold it, says he. And that the Word was with God? This too, says he, I hold. Proceed then, and hold the stronger saying that follows, that the Word was God. Even this, says he, I hold: but yet, this, God the greater; that, God the less. Now this somehow smells of the pagan: I thought I was speaking with a Christian. If there is God the greater, and God the less, then we worship two Gods, not one God. Why, says he; do not you, too, affirm two Gods, equal the one to the other? This I do not assert: for I understand this equality as implying therein also undivided love; and if undivided love, then perfect unity. For if the love that God put in men does make of many hearts of men one heart, and does make many souls of men into one soul, as it is written of them that believed and mutually loved one another, in the Acts of the Apostles, They had one soul and one heart toward God: Acts 4:32 if, therefore, my soul and your soul become one soul, when we think the same thing and love one another, how much more must God the Father and God the Son be one God in the fountain of love!

5. But to these words, by which your heart is disturbed, bend your thought, and reflect with me on that which we were seeking out concerning the Word. We already hold that the Word was God: I join to this another thing, that, having said, This was in the beginning with God, the evangelist immediately subjoined, All things were made by Him. Now will I urge you by questioning, now will I move you against yourself, and sue you against yourself: only keep this in memory concerning the Word, that the Word was God, and all things were made by Him. Hear now the words by which you were moved to assert that the Son is less, forsooth, because He said, The Son cannot of Himself do anything, but what He sees the Father doing. Just so, says he. Explain to me this a little: This is, I presume, how you think, that the Father does certain things, and the Son observes how the Father does, that He may also Himself be able to do those things which He sees the Father doing. You have set up two artisans, as it were: the Father and the Son just like master and learner, like as artisan fathers are wont to teach their sons their craft. Behold, I come down to your carnal sense: for the moment I think as you do, let us see if this our conception finds an issue in harmony with the things which we have just now alike spoken and alike hold regarding the Word, that the Word was God, and that all things were made by Him. Suppose, then, the Father, as an artisan, doing certain works, and the Son as a learner, who cannot of Himself do anything, but what He sees the Father doing: He keenly watches, in a manner, the Father's hands, that, as He sees Him fashioning anything, so He may Himself in like manner fashion something similar by His own works. But the Father here does all those things that He does, and wishes the Son to give heed to Him, and to do the like also Himself; by whom does the Father? Come! now is the time for you to stand to your former opinion, which you recited with me, and held with me; that in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and all things were made by Him. But you, after holding with me, that all things were made by the Word, dost again, with your carnal wit and childish fancy, imagine with yourself God making something, and the Word giving heed; so that when God has made, the Word also may make the like. Now, what does God make without the Word? For if He does anything, then were not all things made by the Word; you have given up the position which you held. But if all things were made by the Word, correct what you understood amiss. The Father made, and made only by the Word: in what way does the Word give heed to see the Father making without the Word, what the Word may do in like manner? Whatever the Father has made, He made it by the Word; else is it false that all things were made by Him. But it is true that all things were made by Him. Perhaps this did not seem enough for you? Well, and without Him was nothing made.

6. Withdraw, then, from this wisdom of the flesh, and let us inquire in what manner it is said, The Son cannot of Himself do anything, but what He sees the Father doing. Let us inquire, if we are worthy to apprehend. For I confess it is a great thing, and altogether difficult; to see the Father doing through the Son: not the Father and the Son doing each His particular works, but the Father doing every work whatsoever by the Son; so that not any works are done by the Father without the Son, or by the Son without the Father, because all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made. These truths being most firmly established in the foundation of faith, what now is the nature of this seeing? You seek, as I suppose, to know the Son doing: seek first to know the Son seeing. For what, in fact, says He? The Son cannot of Himself do anything, but what He sees the Father doing. Note what He said, but what He sees the Father doing. The seeing comes first, the doing follows: He sees in order to do. As for you, why do you seek at present to know how He does, while you understand not as yet how He sees? Why do you run to that which comes later, leaving that which comes first? He declares Himself as seeing and doing, not doing and seeing; because He cannot of Himself do anything, but what He sees the Father doing. Will you that I explain to you how He does? Explain to me how He sees. If you can not explain this, neither can I that. If you are not yet competent to understand this, neither am I to understand that. Wherefore let each of us seek, each knock, that each may merit to receive. Why do you, as if you were learned, unjustly blame me who am unlearned? I in respect of the doing, you in respect of the seeing, being both unlearned, let us inquire of the Master, not childishly wrangle in His school. We have already, however, learned together that all things were made by Him. Therefore it is manifest that it is not a different kind of works that the Father does, that, seeing them, the Son may do other works like them; but the very same does the Father by the Son, because all things were made by the Word. Now, as to how God does, who knows? How made He, I will not say the world, but your own eye, in your carnal attachment to which you compare visible things with invisible? For you conceive of God such things as you are wont to see with these eyes. But if God might be seen with these eyes, He would not have said, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Accordingly, you have an eye of the body to see an artificer, but you have not yet the eye of the heart to see God: hence, what you are wont to see in an artificer, you would transfer to God. Leave earthly things on the earth; set your heart on high.

7. What then, beloved, are we going to explain that which we have asked, how the Word sees, how the Father is seen by the Word, what the seeing of the Word is? I am not so bold, so rash, as to promise to explain this, for myself or for you: however I estimate your measure, still I know my own. Therefore, if you please, not to delay it longer, let us run over the passage, and see how carnal hearts are troubled by the words of the Lord; to this end troubled, that they may not continue in that which they hold. Let this be wrested from them, as some toy is wrested from children, with which they amuse themselves to their hurt, that, as persons of larger growth, they may have more profitable things planted in them, and may be able to make progress, instead of crawling on the earth. Arise, seek, sigh, pant with desire, and knock at what is shut. But if we do not yet desire, not yet earnestly seek, not yet sigh, we shall only be throwing pearls to all indiscriminately, or finding pearls ourselves, regardless of what kind. Wherefore, beloved, I would move a longing desire in your heart. Good character leads to right understanding: the kind of life leads to another kind of life. One kind of life is earthly, another is heavenly: there is a life of beasts, another of men, and another of angels. The life of beasts is excited with earthly pleasures, seeks earthly pleasures alone, and grovels after them with immoderate desire: the life of angels is alone heavenly; the life of men is midway between that of angels and of beasts. If man lives after the flesh, he is on a level with the beasts; if he lives after the Spirit, he joins in the fellowship of angels. When you live after the Spirit, examine even in the angelic life whether you be small or well-grown. For if you are still a little one, the angels say to you, Grow: we feed on bread; you are nourished with milk, with the milk of faith that you may come to the meat of sight. But if there be still a longing for filthy pleasures, if the thoughts be still of deceit, if lies are not avoided, if perjuries be heaped on lies, shall a heart so foul dare to say, Explain to me how the Word sees; even if I be able to do so, even if I myself now see? And further, though not perhaps of this character myself, and I am nevertheless far from this vision, how must that man be weighed down with earthly desires, who is not yet rapt with this desire from above! There is a wide difference between loathing and desiring; and again, between desiring and enjoying. If you live as do the beasts, you loathe; the angels have full enjoyment. If, on the other hand, you live not as the beast, you have no longer loathing: something you desire, and dost not receive: you have, by the very desire, begun the life of the angels. May it grow in you, and be perfected in you; and may you receive this, not of me, but of Him who made both me and you!

8. Yet the Lord also has not left us to chance, since, in that He said, The Son cannot of Himself do anything, but what He sees the Father doing, He meant us to understand that the Father does, not some works which the Son may see, and the Son does other works after He has seen the Father doing; but that both the Father and Son do the very same works. For He goes on to say, For whatever things He does, these also does the Son in like manner. Not after the Father has done works, does the Son other works in like manner; but, whatever He does, these also the Son does in like manner. If these the Son does which the Father does, then it is by the Son that the Father does: if by the Son the Father does what He does, then the Father does not some, the Son others; but the works of the Father and of the Son are the same works. And how does the Son also the same? Both the same, and in like manner. In case you should think them the same, but in a different manner, the same, says He, and in like manner. And how could they be the same and not in like manner? Take an example, which I presume is not too big for you: when we write letters they are first formed by our heart, then by our hand. Certainly: why otherwise have you all agreed, but because you perceived it to be so? It is as I have said, it is manifest to us all. The letters are made first by our heart, then by our body; the hand serves, the heart commands; both the heart and the hand make the same letters. Do you think the heart does some letters, the hand some others? The same indeed does the hand, but not in like manner: our heart forms them intelligibly, but our hand visibly. See how the same things are made, but not in like manner. Hence it was not enough for the Lord to say, Whatever things the Father does, these also the Son does; He must add, and in like manner. For what if you should understand this just as you understand whatever your heart does, this also your hand does, but in a different manner? Here, however, he added, These also the Son does in like manner. If He both does these, and in like manner does, then awake; let the Jew be crushed, let the Christian believe, let the heretic be convinced: The Son is equal to the Father.

9. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that Himself does. Here is that shows. Shows, as it were, to whom? Of course, as to one that sees. We return to that which we cannot explain, how the Word sees. Behold, man was made by the Word; but man has eyes, ears, hands, various members in the body: he is able by the eyes to see, by the ears to hear, by the hands to work; the members are diverse, their offices diverse. One member cannot do the office of another; yet, by reason of the unity of the body, the eye sees both for itself and for the ear, and the ear hears for itself and for the eye. Are we to suppose that something like this holds good in the Word, seeing all things are by Him; and Scripture has said in the psalm, Understand, you brutish among the people; and you fools, at length be wise. He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? And He that formed the eye, shall He not see? Hence, if the Word is He that formed the eye, for all things are by the Word; if the Word is He that planted the ear, for all things are by the Word: we cannot say the Word does not hear, the Word does not see; lest the psalm reprove us, and say, Fools, at length be wise. Therefore, if the Word hears and sees, if the Son hears and sees, are we yet to search for eyes and ears in Him in separate places? Does He by one part hear, by another see; and cannot His ear do what His eye does; and cannot His eye do what His ear can? Or is He not all sight, all hearing? Perhaps yes; nay, not perhaps, but truly yes; while, however, that seeing of His, and that hearing of His, is in a way far other than it is with us. Both to see and to hear exist together in the Word: seeing and hearing are not diverse things in Him; but hearing is sight, and sight is hearing.

10. And we, who see in one way, and hear in another way, how know we this? We return perhaps to ourselves, if we are not the trangressors to whom it is said, Return, O trangressors, to your heart. Isaiah 46:8 Return to your heart: why go from yourselves, and perish from yourselves? Why go the ways of solitude? You go astray by wandering: return. Where? To the Lord. 'Tis quickly done: first return to your own heart; you have wandered abroad an exile from yourself; you know not yourself, and yet you are asking by whom you were made! Return, return to your heart, lift yourself away from the body: your body is your place of abode; your heart perceives even by your body. But your body is not what your heart is; leave even your body, return to your heart. In your body you found eyes in one place, ears in another place: do you find this in your heart? Or have you not ears in your heart? Else of what did the Lord say, Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear? Luke 8:8 Or have you not eyes in your heart? Else of what says the apostle, The eyes of your heart being enlightened? Ephesians 1:18 Return to your heart; see there what, it may be, you can perceive of God, for in it is the image of God. In the inner man dwells Christ, in the inner man are you renewed after the image of God, in His own image recognize its Author. See how all the senses of the body bring intelligence to the heart within of what they have perceived abroad; see how many ministers the one commander within has and what it can do by itself even without these ministers. The eyes report to the heart things black and white; the ears report to the same heart pleasant and harsh sounds; to the same heart the nostrils announce sweet odors and stenches; to the same heart the taste announces things bitter and sweet; to the same heart the touch announces things smooth and rough; and the heart declares to itself things just and unjust. Your heart sees and hears and judges all other things perceived by the senses; and, what the senses do not aspire to, discerns things just and unjust, things evil and good. Show me the eyes, ears, nostrils, of your heart. Diverse are the things that are referred to your heart, yet are there not diverse members there. In your flesh, you hear in one place, see in another; in your heart, where you see, there you hear. If this be the image, how much more mightily He whose the image is! Therefore the Son both hears and sees; the Son is both the hearing itself and the seeing: to hear is to Him the same thing as to be; and to see is to Him the same thing as to be. To see is not the same thing to you as to be; for if you lose your sight, you can be; and if you lose your hearing, you can be.

11. Do we think we have knocked? Is there raised up within us something whereby we may even slightly conjecture whence light may come to us? It is my opinion, brethren, that when we speak of these things, and meditate upon them, we are exercising ourselves. And when we are exercising ourselves, and are as it were bent back again by our own weight to our customary thoughts, we are like weak-eyed persons, when they are brought forth to see the light, if perchance they had no sight at all before, and begin in some sort to recover their sight by the assiduous care of physicians. And when the physician would test the progress of recovery, he tries to show them something which they sought to see, but could not while they were blind: and while the eyesight is now somewhat recovered, they are brought forth to the light; and as they see it, are beaten back in a manner by the very glare; and they answer the physician, as he points out the object, This moment I did see, but now I cannot. What then does the physician? He brings them back to their usual ways, and applies the eye-salve to nourish the longing for seeing that which was seen only for a moment, so that by the very longing he may cure more completely; and if any stinging salves are applied for the recovery of sound ness, let the patient bear it bravely, and, inflamed with love of the light, say to himself, When will it be that with strong eyes I shall see what with sore and weak eyes I could not? He urges the physician, and begs him to heal him. Therefore, brethren, if, it may be, something like this has taken place in your hearts, if somehow you have raised your heart to see the Word, and, beaten back by its light, you have fallen back to your wonted ways; pray the Physician to apply sharp salves, the precepts of righteousness. There is that which you may see, but not that whereby you can see. You did not believe me before that there is that which you may see: you are now, as by the guidance of reason, brought to it: you have drawn near, strained your eyes to see it, throbbed, and shrunk back. You know for certain that there is what you may see, but that you are not yet meet to see it. Therefore be healed. What are the eye-salves? Do not lie, do not swear falsely, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not defraud. But you are used to these, and it is with some pain you are drawn away from old habits: this is what bites, but yet heals. For I tell you freely, by fear of myself and of you, if you give up the healing, and scorn to become meet to enjoy this light, by weakness of your eyes, you will love darkness; and by loving darkness, will remain in darkness; and by remaining in darkness, will be cast even into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. If the love of light has effected nothing in you, let the fear of pain effect something.

12. I think I have spoken long enough, and yet I have not concluded the Gospel lesson: if I go on to declare what remains, I shall burden you, and I fear lest even what has been drawn may be lost; therefore let this be enough for you now, beloved. We are debtors, not now, but always as long as we live; because we live for you. However, do you, by good living, comfort this life of ours, so weak, toilsome, and full of peril in this world; do not afflict and wear us out by your evil manners. For if, when offended with your evil life, we flee from you and separate ourselves from you, and no longer come to you, will you not complain, and say, And if we were sick, you might care for us; and if we were weak, you might have visited us? Behold, we do care for you; behold, we do visit you; but let it not be with us as you have heard from the apostle, I fear lest I have bestowed labor upon you in vain. Galatians 4:11

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Source. Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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