In his effort to display the unity and harmony of all Scripture (to which he was forced by the controversy with the Manichaeans) he often strains after comparisons; and this came to be so much of a habit with him, that, where he had no special purpose to gain, he is guilty of the same excess. An instance among many is furnished in the opening chapters of the Sermon on the Mount (iv. 11), where a close comparison is instituted between the Beatitudes and the seven Spiritual operations of Isa. xi. 2, 3. The historical element is nowhere denied, but something else is constantly being superinduced upon it, especially in the Old Testament.
A single illustration of Augustin’s allegorical interpretation will suffice. Turning away from the Psalms, where his imagination is particularly fertile along this line, I extract one on the parable of the five loaves and two fishes, as found in the XXIV. Homily on John. The five loaves mean the five Books of Moses. They are not wheaten, but barley, because they belong to the Old Testament. The nature of barley is such that it is hard to be got at, as the kernel is set in a coating of husk which is tenacious and hard to be stripped off. Such is the letter of the Old Testament, enveloped in a covering of carnal sacraments. The little lad represents the people of Israel, which, in its childishness of mind, carried but did not eat. The two fishes signify the persons of the Priest and King, which therefore point to Christ. The multiplication of the loaves signifies the exposition into many volumes of the five Books of Moses. There were five thousand people fed, because they were under the Law, which is unfolded in five books. “They sat upon the grass;” that is, they were carnally minded, and rested in carnal things. The “fragments” are the truths of hidden import which the people cannot receive, and which were therefore entrusted to the twelve apostles.
The excessive taste for this style of interpretation, in which the homilists and Biblical writers of a thousand years had revelled, was sternly rebuked by the Reformers. Especially did Luther utter his protest, on the ground that the fancies into which this method was apt to lead had a tendency to shake confidence in the literal truth of the sacred volume. He remarks, “Augustin said beautifully that a figure proves nothing;” but, probably from the high regard he had for the great theologian, he did not condemn his allegorizing exegesis.2
However much the great African bishop may have laid himself open to the rebuke of a more critical and mechanical age in this regard and others, his exegesis will continue to be admired for the diligence with which the sacred text is scanned, the reverent frame of heart with which it is approached, and the rich treasures of spiritual truth which it brings forth to the willing and devout reader.
St. Aurelius Augustin
Bishop of Hippo
Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.
Explanation of the first part of the sermon delivered by our Lord on the mount, as contained in the fifth chapter of Matthew.
1. If any one will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find in it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian life: and this we do not rashly venture to promise, but gather it from the very words of the Lord Himself. For the sermon itself is brought to a close in such a way, that it is clear there are in it all the precepts which go to mould the life. For thus He speaks: “Therefore, whosoever heareth these words of mine, and doeth them, I will liken1 him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat2 upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these words of mine, and doeth them not, I will liken3 unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.” Since, therefore, He has not simply said, “Whosoever heareth my words,” but has made an addition, saying, “Whosoever heareth these words of mine,” He has sufficiently indicated, as I think, that these sayings which He uttered on the mount so perfectly guide the life of those who may be willing to live according to them, that they may justly be compared to one building upon a rock. I have said this merely that it may be clear that the sermon before us is perfect in all the precepts by which the Christian life is moulded; for as regards this particular section a more careful treatment will be given in its own place.4
2. The beginning, then, of this sermon is introduced as follows: “And when He saw the great5 multitudes, He went up into a mountain:6 and when He was set, His disciples came unto Him: and He opened His mouth, and taught them, saying.” If it is asked what the “mountain” means, it may well be understood as meaning the greater precepts of righteousness; for there were lesser ones which were given to the Jews. Yet it is one God who, through His holy prophets and servants, according to a thoroughly arranged distribution of times, gave the lesser precepts to a people who as yet required to be bound by fear; and who, through His Son, gave the greater ones to a people whom it had now become suitable to set free by love. Moreover, when the lesser are given to the lesser, and the greater to the greater, they are given by Him who alone knows how to present to the human race the medicine suited to the occasion. Nor is it surprising that the greater precepts are given for the kingdom of heaven, and the lesser for an earthly kingdom, by that one and the same God, who made heaven and earth. With respect, therefore, to that righteousness which is the greater, it is said through the prophet, “Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God:”7 and this may well mean that the one Master alone fit to teach matters of so great importance teaches on a mountain. Then He teaches sitting, as behooves the dignity of the instructor’s office; and His disciples come to Him, in order that they might be nearer in body for hearing His words, as they also approached in spirit to fulfil His precepts. “And He opened His mouth, and taught them, saying.” The circumlocution before us, which runs, “And He opened His mouth,” perhaps gracefully intimates by the mere pause that the sermon will be somewhat longer than usual, unless, perchance, it should not be without meaning, that now He is said to have opened His own mouth, whereas under the old law He was accustomed to open the mouths of the prophets.8
3. What, then, does He say? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” We read in Scripture concerning the striving after temporal things, “All is vanity and presumption of spirit;”9 but presumption of spirit means audacity and pride: usually also the proud are said to have great spirits; and rightly, inasmuch as the wind also is called spirit. And hence it is written, “Fire, hail, snow, ice, spirit of tempest.”10 But, indeed, who does not know that the proud are spoken of as puffed up, as if swelled out with wind? And hence also that expression of the apostle, “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.”11 And “the poor in spirit” are rightly understood here, as meaning the humble and God-fearing, i.e. those who have not the spirit which puffeth up. Nor ought blessedness to begin at any other point whatever, if indeed it is to attain unto the highest wisdom; “but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;”12 for, on the other hand also, “pride” is entitled “the beginning of all sin.”13 Let the proud, therefore, seek after and love the kingdoms of the earth; but “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”14
4. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall by inheritance possess15 the earth:” that earth, I suppose, of which it is said in the Psalm, “Thou art my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”16 For it signifies a certain firmness and stability of the perpetual inheritance, where the soul, by means of a good disposition, rests, as it were, in its own place, just as the body rests on the earth, and is nourished from it with its own food, as the body from the earth. This is the very rest and life of the saints. Then, the meek are those who yield to acts of wickedness, and do not resist evil, but overcome evil with good.17 Let those, then, who are not meek quarrel and fight for earthly and temporal things; but “blessed are the meek, for they shall by inheritance possess the earth,” from which they cannot be driven out.18
5. “Blessed are they that mourn:19 for they shall be comforted.” Mourning is sorrow arising from the loss of things held dear; but those who are converted to God lose those things which they were accustomed to embrace as dear in this world: for they do not rejoice in those things in which they formerly rejoiced; and until the love of eternal things be in them, they are wounded by some measure of grief. Therefore they will be comforted by the Holy Spirit, who on this account chiefly is called the Paraclete, i.e. the Comforter, in order that, while losing the temporal joy, they may enjoy to the full that which is eternal.20
6. “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” Now He calls those parties, lovers of a true and indestructible good. They will therefore be filled with that food of which the Lord Himself says, “My meat is to do the will of my Father,” which is righteousness; and with that water, of which whosoever “drinketh,” as he also says, it “shall be in him a well of water, springing up into everlasting life.”21
7. “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”22 He says that they are blessed who relieve the miserable, for it is paid back to them in such a way that they are freed from misery.
8. “Blessed are the pure in heart:23 for they shall see God.” How foolish, therefore, are those who seek God with these outward eyes, since He is seen with the heart! as it is written elsewhere, “And in singleness of heart seek Him.”24 For that is a pure heart which is a single heart: and just as this light cannot be seen, except with pure eyes; so neither is God seen, unless that is pure by which He can be seen.25
9. “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” It is the perfection of peace, where nothing offers opposition; and the children of God are peacemakers, because nothing resists God, and surely children ought to have the likeness of their father. Now, they are peacemakers in themselves who, by bringing in order all the motions of their soul, and subjecting them to reason—i.e. to the mind and spirit—and by having their carnal lusts thoroughly subdued, become a kingdom of God: in which all things are so arranged, that that which is chief and pre-eminent in man rules without resistance over the other elements, which are common to us with the beasts; and that very element which is pre-eminent in man, i.e. mind and reason, is brought under subjection to something better still, which is the truth itself, the only-begotten Son of God. For a man is not able to rule over things which are inferior, unless he subjects himself to what is superior. And this is the peace which is given on earth to men of goodwill;26 this the life of the fully developed and perfect wise man. From a kingdom of this sort brought to a condition of thorough peace and order, the prince of this world is cast out, who rules where there is perversity and disorder.27 When this peace has been inwardly established and confirmed, whatever persecutions he who has been cast out shall stir up from without, he only increases the glory which is according to God; being unable to shake anything in that edifice, but by the failure of his machinations making it to be known with how great strength it has been built from within outwardly. Hence there follows: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
10. There are in all, then, these eight sentences. For now in what remains He speaks in the way of direct address to those who were present, saying: “Blessed shall ye be when men shall revile you and persecute you.” But the former sentences He addressed in a general way: for He did not say, Blessed are ye poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven; but He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven:” nor, Blessed are ye meek, for ye shall inherit the earth; but, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” And so the others up to the eighth sentence, where He says: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” After that He now begins to speak in the way of direct address to those present, although what has been said before referred also to His present audience; and that which follows, and which seems to be spoken specially to those present, refers also to those who were absent, or who would afterwards come into existence.
For this reason the number of sentences before us is to be carefully considered. For the beatitudes begin with humility: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” i.e. those not puffed up, while the soul submits itself to divine authority, fearing lest after this life it go away to punishment, although perhaps in this life it might seem to itself to be happy. Then it (the soul) comes to the knowledge of the divine Scriptures, where it must show itself meek in its piety, lest it should venture to condemn that which seems absurd to the unlearned, and should itself be rendered unteachable by obstinate disputations. After that, it now begins to know in what entanglements of this world it is held by reason of carnal custom and sins: and so in this third stage, in which there is knowledge, the loss of the highest good is mourned over, because it sticks fast in what is lowest. Then, in the fourth stage there is labour, where vehement exertion is put forth, in order that the mind may wrench itself away from those things in which, by reason of their pestilential sweetness, it is entangled: here therefore righteousness is hungered and thirsted after, and fortitude is very necessary; because what is retained with delight is not abandoned without pain. Then, at the fifth stage, to those persevering in labour, counsel for getting rid of it is given; for unless each one is assisted by a superior, in no way is he fit in his own case to extricate himself from so great entanglements of miseries. But it is a just counsel, that he who wishes to be assisted by a stronger should assist him who is weaker in that in which he himself is stronger: therefore “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” At the sixth stage there is purity of heart, able from a good conscience of good works to contemplate that, highest good, which can be discerned by the pure and tranquil intellect alone. Lastly is the seventh, wisdom itself—i.e. the contemplation of the truth, tranquillizing the whole man, and assuming the likeness of God, which is thus summed up: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” The eighth, as it were, returns to the starting-point, because it shows and commends what is complete and perfect:28 therefore in the first and in the eighth the kingdom of heaven is named, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven;” and, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven:” as it is now said, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”29 Seven in number, therefore, are the things which bring perfection: for the eighth brings into light and shows what is perfect, so that starting, as it were, from the beginning again, the others also are perfected by means of these stages.
11. Hence also the sevenfold operation of the Holy Ghost, of which Isaiah speaks,30 seems to me to correspond to these stages and sentences. But there is a difference of order: for there the enumeration begins with the more excellent, but here with the inferior. For there it begins with wisdom, and closes with the fear of God: but “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And therefore, if we reckon as it were in a gradually ascending series, there the fear of God is first, piety second, knowledge third, fortitude fourth, counsel fifth, understanding sixth, wisdom seventh. The fear of God corresponds to the humble, of whom it is here said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” i.e. those not puffed up, not proud: to whom the apostle says, “Be not high-minded, but fear;”31i.e. be not lifted up. Piety32 corresponds to the meek: for he who inquires piously honours Holy Scripture, and does not censure what he does not yet understand, and on this account does not offer resistance; and this is to be meek: whence it is here said, “Blessed are the meek.” Knowledge corresponds to those that mourn who already have found out in the Scriptures by what evils they are held chained which they ignorantly have coveted as though they were good and useful. Fortitude corresponds to those hungering and thirsting: for they labour in earnestly desiring joy from things that are truly good, and in eagerly seeking to turn away their love from earthly and corporeal things: and of them it is here said, “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst afterrighteousness.” Counsel corresponds to the merciful: for this is the one remedy for escaping from so great evils, that we forgive, as we wish to be ourselves forgiven; and that we assist others so far as we are able, as we ourselves desire to be assisted where we are not able: and of them it is here said, “Blessed are the merciful.” Understanding corresponds to the pure in heart, the eye being as it were purged, by which that may be beheld which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, and what hath not entered into the heart of man:33 and of them it is here said,” Blessed are the pure in heart.” Wisdom corresponds to the peacemakers, in whom all things are now brought into order, and no passion is in a state of rebellion against reason, but all things together obey the spirit of man, while he himself also obeys God: and of them it is here said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”34
12. Moreover, the one reward, which is the kingdom of heaven, is variously named according to these stages. In the first, just as ought to be the case, is placed the kingdom of heaven, which is the perfect and highest wisdom of the rational soul. Thus, therefore, it is said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven:” as if it were said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” To the meek an inheritance is given, as it were the testament of a father to those dutifully seeking it: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” To the mourners comfort, as to those who know what they have lost, and in what evils they are sunk: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” To those hungering and thirsting, a full supply, as it were a refreshment to those labouring and bravely contending for salvation: “Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” To the merciful mercy, as to those following a true and excellent counsel, so that this same treatment is extended toward them by one who is stronger, which they extend toward the weaker: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” To the pure in heart is given the power of seeing God, as to those bearing about with them a pure eye for discerning eternal things: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” To the peacemakers the likeness of God is given, as being perfectly wise, and formed after the imageof God by means of the regeneration of the renewed man: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” And those promises can indeed be fulfilled in this life, as we believe them to have been fulfilled in the case of the apostles. For that all-embracing change into the angelic form, which is promised after this life, cannot be explained in any words. “Blessed,” therefore, “are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This eighth sentence, which goes back to the starting-point, and makes manifest the perfect man, is perhaps set forth in its meaning both by the circumcision on the eighth day in the Old Testament, and by the resurrection of the Lord after the Sabbath, the day which is certainly the eighth, and at the same time the first day; and by the celebration of the eight festival days which we celebrate in the case of the regeneration of the new man; and by the very number of Pentecost. For to the number seven, seven times multiplied, by which we make forty-nine, as it were an eighth is added, so that fifty may be made up, and we, as it were, return to the starting-point: on which day the Holy Spirit was sent, by whom we are led into the kingdom of heaven, and receive the inheritance, and are comforted; and are fed, and obtain mercy, and are purified, and are made peacemakers; and being thus perfect, we bear all troubles brought upon us from without for the sake of truth and righteousness.
13. “Blessed are ye,” says He, “when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great35 is your reward in heaven.” Let any one who is seeking after the delights of this world and the riches of temporal things under the Christian name, consider that our blessedness, is within; as it is said of the soul of the Church36 by the mouth of the prophet, “All the beauty of the king’s daughter is within;”37 for outwardly revilings, and persecutions, and disparagements are promised; and yet, from these things there is a great reward in heaven, which is felt in the heart of those who endure, those who can now say, “We glory in tribulations: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.”38 For it is not simply the enduring of such things that is advantageous, but the bearing of such things for the name of Christ not only with tranquil mind, but even with exultation. For many heretics, deceiving souls under the Christian name, endure many such things; but they are excluded from that reward on this account, that it is not said merely, “Blessed are they which endure persecution;” but it is added,” for righteousness’ sake.” Now, where there is no sound faith, there can be no righteousness, for the just [righteous] man lives by faith.39 Neither let schismatics promise themselves anything of that reward; for similarly, where there is no love, there cannot be righteousness, for “love worketh no ill to his neighbour;”40 and if they had it, they would not tear in pieces Christ’s body, which is the Church.41
14. But it may be asked, What is the difference when He says, “when men shall revile you,” and “when they shall say all manner of evil against you,” since to revile42 is just this, to say evil against?43 But it is one thing when the reviling word is hurled with contumely in presence of him who is reviled, as it was said to our Lord, “Say we not the truth44 that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?”45 and another thing, when our reputation is injured in our absence, as it is also written of Him, “Some said, He is a prophet;46 others said, Nay, but He deceiveth the people.”47 Then, further, to persecute is to inflict violence, or to assail with snares, as was done by him who betrayed Him, and by them who crucified Him. Certainly, as for the fact that this also is not put in a bare form, so that it should be said, “and shall say all manner of evil against you,” but there is added the word “falsely,” and also the expression “for my sake;” I think that the addition is made for the sake of those who wish to glory in persecutions, and in the baseness of their reputation; and to say that Christ belongs to them for this reason, that many bad things are said about them; while, on the one hand, the things said are true, when they are said respecting their error; and, on the other hand, if sometimes also some false charges are thrown out, which frequently happens from the rashness of men, yet they do not suffer such things for Christ’s sake.48 For he is not a follower of Christ who is not called a Christian according to the true faith and the catholic discipline.