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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 36

Tractate 36 (John 8:15-18)

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1. In the four Gospels, or rather in the four books of the one Gospel, Saint John the apostle, not undeservedly in respect of his spiritual understanding compared to the eagle, has elevated his preaching higher and far more sublimely than the other three; and in this elevating of it he would have our hearts likewise lifted up. For the other three evangelists walked with the Lord on earth as with a man; concerning His divinity they have said but little; but this evangelist, as if he disdained to walk on earth, just as in the very opening of his discourse he thundered on us, soared not only above the earth and above the whole compass of air and sky, but even above the whole army of angels and the whole order of invisible powers, and reached to Him by whom all things were made; saying, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made. To this so great sublimity of his beginning all the rest of his preaching well agrees; and he has spoken concerning the divinity of the Lord as none other has spoken. What he had drank in, the same he gave forth. For it is not without reason that it is recorded of him in this very Gospel, that at supper he reclined on the Lord's bosom. From that breast then he drank in secret; but what he drank in secret he gave forth openly, that there may come to all nations not only the incarnation of the Son of God, and His passion and resurrection, but also what He was before His incarnation, the only Son of the Father, the Word of the Father, coeternal with Him that begot, equal with Him by whom He was sent; but yet in that very sending made less, that the Father might be greater.

2. Whatever, then, you have heard stated in lowly manner concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, think of that economy by which He assumed flesh; but whatever you hear, or read, stated in the Gospel concerning Him that is sublime and high above all creatures, and divine, and equal and coeternal with the Father, be sure that this which you read appertains to the form of God, not to the form of the servant. For if you hold this rule, you who can understand it (inasmuch as you are not all able to understand it, but you are all bound to trust it) — if, I say, you hold this rule, as men walking in the light, you will fight against the calumnies of heretical darkness without fear. For there have not been wanting those who, in reading the Gospel, followed only those testimonies that concern the humility of Christ, and have been deaf to those which have declared His divinity; deaf for this reason, that they may be full of evil words. There have likewise been some, who, giving heed only to those which speak of the excellency of the Lord, even though they have read of His mercy in becoming man for our sakes, have not believed the testimonies, but accounted them false and invented by men; contending that our Lord Jesus Christ was only God, not also man. Some in this way, some in that: both in error. But the catholic faith, holding from both the truths which each holds and preaching the truth which each believes, has both understood that Christ is God and also believed Him to be man: for each is written and each is true. Should you assert that Christ is only God, you deny the medicine whereby you were healed: should you assert that Christ is only man, you deny the power whereby you were created. Hold therefore both. O faithful soul and catholic heart, hold both, believe both, faithfully confess both. Christ is both God and also man. How is Christ God? Equal with the Father, one with the Father. How is Christ man? Born of a virgin, taking upon Himself mortality from man, but not taking iniquity.

3. These Jews then saw the man; they neither perceived nor believed Him to be God: and you have already heard how, among all the rest, they said to Him, You bear witness of yourself; your witness is not true. You have also heard what He said in reply, as it was read to you yesterday, and according to our ability discussed. Today have been read these words of His, You judge after the flesh. Therefore it is, says He, that you say to me, You bear witness of yourself; your witness is not true, because you judge after the flesh, because you perceive not God; the man you see, and by persecuting the man, you offend God hidden in Him. You, then, judge after the flesh. Because I bear witness of myself, I therefore appear to you arrogant. For every man, when he wishes to bear commendatory witness of himself, seems arrogant and proud. Hence it is written, Let not your own mouth praise you, but let your neighbor's mouth praise you. Proverbs 27:2 But this was said to man. For we are weak, and we speak to the weak. We can speak the truth, but we can also lie; although we are bound to speak the truth, still we have it in our power to lie when we will. But far be it from us to think that the darkness of falsehood could be found in the splendor of the divine light. He spoke as the light, spoke as the truth; but the light was shining in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not: therefore they judged after the flesh. You, says He, judge after the flesh.

4. I judge not any man. Does not the Lord Jesus Christ, then, judge any man? Is He not the same of whom we confess that He rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven, there sits at the right hand of the Father, and thence shall come to judge the quick and the dead? Is not this our faith of which the apostle says, With the heart man believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation? Romans 10:10 When, therefore, we confess these things, do we contradict the Lord? We say that He shall come a judge of the quick and the dead, while He says Himself, I judge not any man. This question may be solved in two ways: Either that we may understand this expression, I judge not any man, to mean, I judge not any man now; in accordance with what He says in another place, I am not come to judge the world, but to save the world; not denying His judgment here, but deferring it. Or, otherwise, surely that when He said, You judge after the flesh, He subjoined, I judge not any man, in such manner that you should understand after the flesh to complete the sense. Therefore let no scruple of doubt remain in our heart against the faith which we hold and declare concerning Christ as judge. Christ has come, but first to save, then to judge: to adjudge to punishment those who would not be saved; to bring them to life who, by believing, did not reject salvation. Accordingly, the first dispensation of our Lord Jesus Christ is medicinal, not judicial; for if He had come to judge first, He would have found none on whom He might bestow the rewards of righteousness. Because, therefore, He saw that all were sinners, and that none was exempt from the death of sin, His mercy had first to be craved, and afterwards His judgment must be executed; for of Him the psalm had sung, Mercy and judgment will I sing to You, O Lord. Now, He says not judgment and mercy, for if judgment had been first, there would be no mercy; but it is mercy first, then judgment. What is the mercy first? The Creator of man deigned to become man; was made what He had made, that the creature He had made might not perish. What can be added to this mercy? And yet He has added thereto. It was not enough for Him to be made man, He added to this that He was rejected of men; it was not enough to be rejected, He was dishonored; it was not enough to be dishonored, He was put to death; but even this was not enough, it was by the death of the cross. For when the apostle was commending to us His obedience even unto death, it was not enough for him to say, He became obedient unto death; for it was not unto death of any kind whatever: but he added, even the death of the cross. Philippians 2:8 Among all kinds of death, there was nothing worse than that death. In short, that wherein one is racked by the most intense pains is called cruciatus, which takes its name from crux, a cross. For the crucified, hanging on the tree, nailed to the wood, were killed by a slow lingering death. To be crucified was not merely to be put to death; for the victim lived long on the cross, not because longer life was chosen, but because death itself was stretched out that the pain might not be too quickly ended. He willed to die for us, yet it is not enough to say this; He deigned to be crucified, became obedient even to the death of the cross. He who was about to take away all death, chose the lowest and worst kind of death: He slew death by the worst of deaths. To the Jews who understood not, it was indeed the worst of deaths, but it was chosen by the Lord. For He was to have that very cross as His sign; that very cross, a trophy, as it were, over the vanquished devil, He was to put on the brow of believers, so that the apostle said, God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world. Galatians 6:14 Nothing was then more intolerable in the flesh, nothing is now more glorious on the brow. What does He reserve for His faithful one, when He has put such honor on the instrument of His own torture? Now is the cross no longer used among the Romans in the punishment of criminals, for where the cross of the Lord came to be honored, it was thought that even a guilty man would be honored if he should be crucified. Hence, He who came for this cause judged no man: He suffered also the wicked. He suffered unjust judgment, that He might execute righteous judgment. But it was of His mercy that He endured unjust judgment. In short, He became so low as to come to the cross; yea, laid aside His power, but published His mercy. Wherein did He lay aside His power? In that He would not come down from the cross, though He had the power to rise again from the sepulchre. Wherein did He publish His mercy? In that, when hanging on the cross, He said, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. Luke 23:34 Whether, then, it be that He said, I judge not any man, because He had come not to judge the world, but to save the world; or, that, as I have mentioned, when He had said, You judge after the flesh, He added, I judge not any man, for us to understand that Christ judges not after the flesh, like as He was judged by men.

5. But that you may know that Christ is judge even now, hear what follows: And if I judge, my judgment is true. Behold, you have Him as your judge, but acknowledge Him as your Saviour, lest you feel the judge. But why has He said that His judgment is true? Because, says He, I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. I have said to you, brethren, that this holy Evangelist John soars exceedingly high: it is with difficulty that he is comprehended. But we need to remind you, beloved, of the deeper mystery of this soaring. Both in the prophet Ezekiel, and in the Apocalypse of this very John whose Gospel this is, there is mentioned a fourfold living creature, having four characteristic faces; that of a man, of an ox, of a lion, and of an eagle. Those who have handled the mysteries of Holy Scripture before us have, for the most part, understood by this living creature, or rather, these four living creatures, the four evangelists. They have understood the lion as put for king, because he appears to be, in a manner, the king of beasts on account of his strength and terrible valor. This character is assigned to Matthew, because in the generations of the Lord he followed the royal line, showing how the Lord was, along the royal line, of the seed of David. But Luke, because he begins with the priesthood of Zacharias, mentioning the father of John the Baptist, is designated the ox; for the ox was an important victim in the sacrifice of the priests. To Mark is deservedly assigned the man Christ, because neither has he said anything of the royal authority, nor did he begin with the priestly function, but only set out with the man Christ. All these have departed but little from the things of earth, that is, from those things which our Lord Jesus Christ performed on earth; of His divinity they have said very little, like men walking with Him on the earth. There remains the eagle; this is John, the preacher of sublime truths, and a contemplator with steady gaze of the inner and eternal light. It is said, indeed, that the young eagles are tested by the parent birds in this way: the young one is suspended from the talons of the male parent and directly exposed to the rays of the sun; if it looks steadily at the sun, it is recognized as a true brood; if its eye quivers, it is allowed to drop off, as a spurious brood. Now, therefore, consider how sublime are the things he ought to speak who is compared to the eagle; and yet even we, who creep on the earth, weak and hardly of any account among men, venture to handle and to expound these things; and imagine that we can either apprehend when we meditate them, or be apprehended when we speak.

6. Why have I said this? For perhaps after these words one may justly say to me: Lay aside the book then. Why do you take in hand what exceeds your measure? Why trust your tongue to it? To this I reply: Many heretics abound; and God has permitted them to abound to this end, that we may not be always nourished with milk and remain in senseless infancy. For inasmuch as they have not understood how the divinity of Christ is set forth to our acceptance, they have concluded according to their will: and by not discerning aright, they have brought in most troublesome questions upon catholic believers; and the hearts of believers began to be disturbed and to waver. Then immediately it became a necessity for spiritual men, who had not only read in the Gospel anything respecting the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, but had also understood it, to bring forth the armor of Christ against the armor of the devil, and with all their might to fight in most open conflict for the divinity of Christ against false and deceitful teachers; lest, while they were silent, others might perish. For whoever have thought either that our Lord Jesus Christ is of another substance than the Father is, or that there is only Christ, so that the same is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; whoever also have chosen to think that He was only man, not God made man, or God in such wise as to be mutable in His Godhead, or God in such wise as not to be man; these have made shipwreck from the faith, and have been cast forth from the harbor of the Church, lest by their inquietude they might wreck the ships in their company. Which thing obliged that even we, though least and as regards ourselves wholly unworthy, but in regard of His mercy set in some account among His stewards, should speak to you what either you may understand and rejoice with me, or, if you cannot yet understand, by believing it you may remain secure in the harbor.

7. I will accordingly speak; let him who can, understand; and let him who cannot understand, believe: yet will I speak what the Lord says, You judge after the flesh; I judge not any man, either now, or after the flesh. But even, if I judge, my judgment is true. Why is Your judgment true? Because I am not alone, says He, but I and the Father that sent me. What then, O Lord Jesus? If You were alone would Your judgment be false: and is it because You are not alone, but Thou and the Father that sent You, that You judge truly? How shall I answer? Let Himself answer: He says, My judgment is true. Why? Because I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. If He is with You, how has He sent You? And has He sent You, and yet is He also with You? Is it so that having been sent, You have not departed from Him? And You came to us, and yet abode there? How is this to be believed? How apprehended? To these two questions I answer: You say rightly, how is it to be apprehended; how believed, you say not rightly. Rather, for that reason is it right to believe it, because it is not immediately to be apprehended; for if it were a thing to be immediately apprehended, there would be no need to believe it, because it would be seen. It is because you do not apprehend that you believe, but by believing you are made capable of apprehending. For if you do not believe, you will never apprehend, since you will remain less capable. Let faith then purify you, that understanding may fill you. My judgment is true, says He, because I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. Therefore, O Lord our God, Jesus Christ, Your sending is Your incarnation. So I see, so I understand: in short, so I believe, in case it may smack of arrogance to say, so I understand. Doubtless the Lord Jesus Christ is even here; rather, was here as to His flesh, is here now as to His Godhead: He was both with the Father and had not left the Father. Hence, in that He is said to have been sent and to have come to us, His incarnation is set forth to us, for the Father did not take flesh.

8. For there are certain heretics called Sabellians, who are also called Patripassians, who affirm that it was the Father Himself that had suffered. Do not thou so affirm, O Catholic; for if you will be a Patripassian, you will not be sane. Understand, then, that the incarnation of the Son is termed the sending of the Son; and do not believe that the Father was incarnate, but do not yet believe that He departed from the incarnate Son. The Son carried flesh, the Father was with the Son. If the Father was in heaven, the Son on earth, how was the Father with the Son? Because both Father and Son were everywhere: for God is not in such manner in heaven as not to be on earth. Hear him who would flee from the judgment of God, and found not a way to flee by: Whither shall I go, says he, from Your Spirit; and whither shall I flee from Your face? If I ascend up into heaven, You are there. The question was about the earth; hear what follows: If I descend unto hell, You are there. If, then, He is said to be present even in hell, what in the universe remains where He is not present? For the voice of God with the prophet is, I fill heaven and earth. Jeremiah 23:24 Hence He is everywhere, who is confined by no place. Turn not thou away from Him, and He is with you. If you would come to Him, be not slow to love; for it is not with feet but with affections you run. You come while remaining in one place, if you believe and lovest. Wherefore He is everywhere; and if everywhere, how not also with the Son? Is it so that He is not with the Son, while, if you believe, He is even with you?

9. How, then, is His judgment true, but because the Son is true? For this He said: And if I judge, my judgment is true; because I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. Just as if He had said, My judgment is true, because I am the Son of God. How dost Thou prove that You are the Son of God? Because I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. Blush, Sabellian; you hear the Son, you hear the Father. Father is Father, Son is Son. He said not, I am the Father, and I the same am the Son; but He says, I am not alone. Why are You not alone? Because the Father is with me. I am, and the Father that sent me; you hear, I am, and He that sent me. Lest thou lose sight of the person, distinguish the persons. Distin guish by understanding, do not separate by faithlessness; lest again, fleeing as it were Charybdis, thou rush upon Scylla. For the whirlpool of the impiety of the Sabellians was swallowing you, to say that the Father is the same who is Son: just now you have learned, I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me. You acknowledge that the Father is Father, and that the Son is Son; you acknowledge rightly. But do not say the Father is greater, the Son is less; do not say, the Father is gold, the Son is silver. There is one substance, one Godhead, one co-eternity, perfect equality, no unlikeness. For if you only believe that Christ is another, not the same person that the Father is, but yet imagine that in respect of His nature He is somewhat different from the Father, you have indeed escaped Charybdis, but you have been wrecked on the rocks of Scylla. Steer the middle course, avoid each of the two perilous sides. Father is Father, Son is Son. You say now, Father is Father, Son is Son: you have fortunately escaped the danger of the absorbing whirl; why would you go unto the other side to say, the Father is this, the Son that? The Son is another person than the Father is, this you say rightly; but that He is different in nature, you say not rightly. Certainly the Son is another person, because He is not the same who is Father and the Father is another person, because He is not the same who is Son: nevertheless, they are not different in nature, but the selfsame is both Father and Son. What means the self-same? God is one. You have heard, Because I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me: hear how you may believe Father and Son; hear the Son Himself, I and the Father are one. John 10:30 He said not, I am the Father; or, I and the Father is one person; but when He says, I and the Father are one, hear both, both the one, unum, and the are, sumus, and you shall be delivered both from Charybdis and from Scylla. In these two words, in that He said one, He delivers you from Arius; in that He said are, He delivers you from Sabellius. If one, therefore not diverse; if are, therefore both Father and Son. For He would not say are of one person; but, on the other hand, He would not say one of diverse. Hence the reason why He says, my judgment is true, is, that you may hear it briefly, because I am the Son of God. But I would have you in such wise believe that I am the Son of God, that you may understand that the Father is with me: I am not Son in such manner as to have left Him; I am not in such manner here that I should not be with Him; nor is He in such manner there as not to be with me: I have taken to me the form of a servant, yet have I not lost the form of God; therefore He says, I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me.

10. He had spoken of judgment; He means to speak of testimony. In your law, says He, it is written that the testimony of two men is true. I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me bears witness of me. He expounded the law to them also, if they were not unthankful. For it is a great question, my brethren, and to me it certainly appears to have been ordained in a mystery, where God said, In the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall stand. Is truth sought by two witnesses? Clearly it is; so is the custom of mankind: but yet it may be that even two witnesses lie. The chaste Susanna was pressed by two false witnesses: were they not therefore false because they were two? Do we speak of two or of three? A whole people lied against Christ. Luke 23:1 If, then, a people, consisting of a great multitude of men, was found a false witness, how is it to be understood that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall stand, unless it be that in this manner the Trinity is mysteriously set forth to us, in which is perpetual stability of truth? Do you wish to have a good cause? Have two or three witnesses, — the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. In short, when Susanna, the chaste woman and faithful wife, was pressed by two false witnesses, the Trinity supported her in her conscience and in secret: that Trinity raised up from secrecy one witness, Daniel, and convicted the two. Therefore, because it is written in your law that the witness of two men is true, receive our witness, lest you feel our judgment. For I, says He, judge not any man; but I bear witness of myself: I defer judgment, I defer not the witness.

11. Let us, brethren, choose for ourselves God as our judge, God as our witness, against the tongues of men, against the weak suspicions of mankind. For He who is the judge disdains not to be witness, nor is He advanced in honor when He becomes judge; since He who is witness will also Himself be judge. In what way is He witness? Because He asks not another to learn from Him who you are. In what way is He judge? Because He has the power of killing and making alive, of condemning and acquitting, of casting down into hell and of raising up into heaven, of joining to the devil and of crowning with the angels. Since, therefore, He has this power, He is judge. Now, because He requires not another witness that He may know you; and that He who will hereafter judge you is now seeing you, there is no means whereby you can deceive Him when He begins to judge. For there is no furnishing yourself with false witnesses who can circumvent that judge when He shall begin to judge you. This is what God says to you: When you despised, I did see it; and when you believed not, I did not frustrate my sentence. I delayed it, not removed it. You would not hear what I enjoined, you shall feel what I foretold. But if you hear what I enjoined, you shall not feel the evils which I have foretold, but you shall enjoy the good things which I have promised.

12. Let it not by any means surprise any one that He says, My judgment is true; because I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me; while He has said in another place, The Father judges not any man, but all judgment has He given to the Son. We have already discoursed on these same words of the evangelist, and we remind you now that this was not said because the Father will not be with the Son when He comes to judge, but because the Son alone will be apparent to the good and the bad in the judgment, in that form in which He suffered, and rose again, and ascended into heaven. For at that moment, indeed, as they were beholding Him ascending, the angelic voice sounded in the ears of His disciples, So shall He come in like manner as you have seen Him going into heaven; Acts 1:11 that is, in the form of man in which He was judged, will He judge, in order that also that prophetic utterance may be fulfilled, They shall look upon Him whom they pierced. But when the righteous go into eternal life, we shall see Him as He is; that will not be the judgment of the living and the dead, but only the reward of the living.

13. Likewise, let it not surprise you that He says, In your law it is written that the testimony of two men is true, that any man should hence suppose that this was not also the law of God, because it is not said, In the law of God: let him know that, when it is said thus, In your law, it is just as if He said, In the law which was given to you; given by whom, except by God? Just as we say, Our daily bread; and yet we say, Give us this day.

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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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