Wednesday, April 4, 2012

An Outline of “Miscellany of Questions in Response to St. Simplicianus”: The early Augustinian doctrine on Grace and Law (Question 1 of 2)

Not very much is known to us regarding St. Simplicianus other than what is told to us through the mouth of St. Augustine and other contemporaries. His importance to the Church and to history have mainly regarded his influence on Sts. Ambrose and Augustine, as well as the conversion of famed philosopher Marius Victorinus, as well as his own bishopric in Milan, succeeding St. Ambrose. Having said this, St. Simplicianus is a saint, who’s feast day is on August 14th in the Ambrosian rite and August 16th, sometimes 14th or 13th, but never the 15th as it once was since the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated on this day. St. Simplicianus is thought to have been born around 320 AD, and died around 400 AD or 401 AD, of which he spent from 396 or 397 AD to his death as the successor of St. Ambrose as bishop of Milan. I won’t go much farther into the biographical details of St. Simplicianus, which can be found in the Confessions of St. Augustine or otherwise online.

[To go to the summary of this long post and the post that goes along with this post, go here:

It was during his ascension to the bishopric of Milan (around the same time as St. Augustine’s rise to the bishopric of Hippo) that he asked St. Augustine a variety of questions regarding difficulties in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and difficulties in the Old Testament references used in St. Paul’s Epistle or otherwise. We will consider then in this article the two questions dealt with by St. Augustine regarding the Epistle to the Romans. Specifically the questions were:

The Two Questions:

1.      How to interpret Romans 7:7-25;

7 What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? God forbid! But I do not know sin, but by the law. For I had not known concupiscence, if the law did not say: You shall not covet. 8 But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. 9 And I lived some time without the law. But when the commandment came, sin revived, 10 and I died. And the commandment that was ordained to life, the same was found to be unto death to me. 11 For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, seduced me: and by it killed me. 12 Wherefore the law indeed is holy: and the commandment holy and just and good. 

13 Was that then which is good made death unto me? God forbid! But sin, that it may appear sin, by that which is good, wrought death in me: that sin, by the commandment, might become sinful above measure. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual. But I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For that which I work, I understand not. For I do not that good which I will: but the evil which I hate, that I do. 16 If then I do that which I will not, I consent to the law, that it is good. 17 Now then it is no more I that do it: but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that there dwells not in me, that is to say, in my flesh, that which is good. For to will is present with me: but to accomplish that which is good, I find not. 19 For the good which I will, I do not: but the evil which I will not, that I do. 20 Now if I do that which I will not, it is no more I that do it: but sin that dwells in me. 21 I find then a law, that when I have a will to do good, evil is present with me. 22 For I am delighted with the law of God, according to the inward man: 23 But I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members. 24 Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 The grace of God, by Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with the mind serve the law of God: but with the flesh, the law of sin.

2.      And then as well how to interpret Romans 9:10-29;

10 And not only she. But when Rebecca also had conceived at once of Isaac our father. 11 For when the children were not yet born, nor had done any good or evil (that the purpose of God according to election might stand): 12 Not of works, but of him that calls, it was said to her: The elder shall serve the younger. 13 As it is written: Jacob I have loved: but Esau I have hated.

14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice with God? God forbid! 15 For he says to Moses: I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy. And I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy. 16 So then it is not of him that wills, nor of him that runs, but of God that shows mercy. 17 For the scripture says to Pharao: To this purpose have I raised you, that I may show my power in you and that my name may be declared throughout all the earth. 18 Therefore he has mercy on whom he will. And whom he will, he hardens. 19 You will say therefore to me: Why does he then find fault? For who resists his will? 20 O man, who are you that reply against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it: Why have you made me thus? 21 Or has not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honour and another unto dishonour? 22 What if God, willing to show his wrath and to make his power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath, fitted for destruction, 23 that he might show the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy which he has prepared unto glory? 24 Even us, whom also he has called, not only of the Jews but also of the Gentiles. 25 As in Osee he says: I will call that which was not my people, my people; and her that was not beloved, beloved; and her that had not obtained mercy; one that has obtained mercy. 26 And it shall be in the place where it was said unto them: you are not my people; there they shall be called the sons of the living God. 27 And Isaiah cried out concerning Israel: If the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved. 28 For he shall finish his word and cut it short in justice: because a short word shall the Lord make upon the earth. 29 And Isaiah foretold: Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left us a seed, we had been made as Sodom and we had been like unto Gomorrha.

It might be apt then for some of our readers to go back and read these passages and their chapters within their contexts. Otherwise we will precede to look at how St. Augustine is trying to interpret these texts.

Analysis of Segment 1:

Purpose of the Law:
To begin with St. Augustine begins his interpretation of the first segment by setting out that it is important to see that St. Paul here is speaking under the personage of someone under the Law (though in his Retractions he cites that it took him quite a while to realize that many of the same struggles as those under the Law are common to those who are under grace), and furthermore to have St. Simplician recall that just before Romans 7:7, St. Paul writes: “We are rid of the law, in which imprisonment we are dead, so that thus we may serve in the new way of the spirit and not the old way of the letter” (Romans 7:6), but St. Augustine adds that then verse 7 is a balancing of that verse 6 in that St. Paul is trying to show that the Law is not bad, nor a sin, even though it is our imprisonment without grace, but that the Law caused us to be aware of sin, and in this awareness of sin it showed the reality of the danger of sin, and in fact can cause an increase in sinfulness and an increase in the awareness of sinfulness. Now, St. Augustine argues:

“This is why it must be understood that the law was given not that sin might be instilled nor that it might be extirpated but only that it be made manifest. In this way it would make the human soul, seemingly secure in its innocence, guilty by the very manifestation of sin so that, inasmuch as sin could not be conquered apart from the grace of God, the soul would be turned by its uneasy awareness of guilt to a receptivity to grace.”

As such then the purpose of the law is to make sin manifest to the one who receives the divine revelation of God’s law and of the division between right and wrong. This is why as St. Augustine points out rightly from St. Paul, sin is not known unless through the law. Grace then removes sin by pardon and renewed life to engage in the commandments with joy.

Concupiscence caused by the Law:
However, St. Augustine further theorizes that the consequence of the law without access to grace is that “the human person could not resist covetousness, it was even increased, because this covetousness grew even more, since, when by acting even against the law it is joined to the offense of transgression, it takes on greater strength than it would have done had there been now law forbidding it.” To which he cites Romans 7:8, “But having seized the occasion, sin brought about every kind of covetousness in me through the commandment.” Here is St. Augustine’s comment regarding covetousness, which is concupiscentiam, which might be translated as concupiscence, or rather as desire for something, usually a desire that is inordinate or sinful. This is St. Augustine’s interesting commentary that the recognition of the law and one’s willful acting against the law increases our desire for sinfulness because once we sin knowingly we have acquired the strength not only to do some act, but rather to take the strength upon ourselves to do some act that we know is sinful and wrong. It should seem then that a greater strength of desire is needed to go against one’s conscience.

The Awareness of Sin and its coming back to life by the Law:
Proceeding onward is a discussion of St. Augustine on the stages of the moral life, that is life without the law, life with the law but without grace, and finally the life with grace and the law. He notes from St. Paul that he writes that “For where there is no law there is no transgression” (Romans 4:15) and “For without the law sin was dead” (Romans 7:8), to which he states that sin in its disordered acts as crimes against justice are present before the law, but without the law to bring recognition of crime there is no fear or guilt of these actions, and so it is that to the person, no sin is made manifest to his awareness. However, St. Augustine comments on St. Paul’s statements: “But with the coming of the commandment sin came back to life” (Romans 7:9) and “But I died” (Romans 7:10), by saying that the guilt of transgression threatens a person with certain punishment of death, since the punishment for sin is death. However, what does it mean for St. Paul to say that sin came back to life? St. Augustine’s interpretation is to look at the entire history of sin, by saying that sin existed and was known at the Fall, and though we may live without the law for some time (as St. Paul), we see sin rear its way back into human history when we begin to become aware of the law. St. Augustine follows on this by going back to the idea of sin causing death by noting that he who keeps the commandments has certain life, but those who contravene the commandments are promised death, and though many lived in error prior to the commandments (which then become sins) our sins become more pernicious and troublesome to us.

Increase in Concupiscence by knowingly sinning:
Yet there is something more to living a life of sin in the light of the law. St. Augustine puts forth that sin grows more desirable because of its prohibition and the act of sinning becomes more sweet, hence the deception spoken of in Romans 7:11 whereby the sweetness of doing a prohibited action is met with guilt and knowledge of incurring death. As follows then the law incurs sorrow for transgression and even a greater strength in transgression since the doing of a prohibited thing is done with guilt and weakness to temptation, though strength enough to overbear against justice.

Is the Law bad for making us sin more?
Ought then the law be blamed for increasing our sinfulness, ought we say the law is bad and is giving us a hard time in life? St. Augustine replies to these questions of Romans 7:12 and Romans 7:13 by stating “There is vice in using a thing badly, not in the commandment itself, which is good, “because the law is good if a person uses it lawfully” (1 Timothy 1:8). To wit the solution to using the law well and lawfully is revealed by St. Augustine as submitting to God in devout humility that the law may be fulfilled by grace. On this account then we summarize with Romans 7:13, “But sin, in order to appear as sin, worked death in me through what was good, so that the sinner and the sin might, by the commandment, be without limit.” And hence we have the Augustinian synthesis again, that the law and commandments were given to man so that sins already committed or being committed might appear to us as sins, that we might be aware of our sinfulness and crimes as a matter of divine justice, and thus death is worked in us and our awareness of our sinfulness ever increases and is made present to us.

The Law is made for the spiritual person under grace:
“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am fleshy.” (Romans 7:14) St. Augustine understands this properly to mean that only the spiritual man may complete the law, that is by grace and not of themselves because grace makes them spiritual. A person is conformed more and more to the spiritual law, a rising in a spiritual disposition, the more he fulfills the law (by grace) because in these actions he takes more delight in the law when he is made to no longer dwell on the burden of fulfilling the commandment, but energized by a love of the light provided by the enlightening commandment. By grace, God forgives sins and pours out the Spirit of love, which is why for the spiritual man practicing righteousness is no longer burdensome, but indeed joyous.

The Law is dangerous to the carnal man, it places him in the slavery of sin:
What then, of St. Paul’s discussion of the fleshy man? St. Augustine regards those who are not perfectly conformed to the spiritual law as those who are in some part still fleshy. Even those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lord and renewed in faith are still referred in part as being fleshy, to which St. Augustine quotes from St. Paul, “And I, brothers, have not been able to speak to you as spiritual persons but as to fleshy ones. Since you are little children in Christ, I have given you milk to drink and not solid food.” (1 Corinthians 3:2) He notes that they are little children in Christ, that is already reborn by grace, and yet they are still in some part fleshy, that is carnal. However, this is not to be confused with those who are not yet under grace, that is those under the law are fleshy because they have not yet been reborn from sin (regeneration and forgiveness of sins by grace) but “sold under sin” (Romans 7:14) on account of willingly accepting the deception of sin, pleasure in sinning and breaking the commandments instead of humility and accepting of grace for the forgiveness of sins. The fleshy part comes in that these desires for sin cannot be fulfilled without finding one’s self as a slave to sin and temptation since he knows he is not capable of himself to avoid these sins. This is a carnal and low lifestyle, to which grace offers freedom from sin, compulsion, and dread of the Lord’s commandments.

Speaking further of this slavery of sin St. Augustine remarks on Romans 7:15, “For, I know not what I do” by discussing how it is not that St. Paul doesn’t know that he’s sinning when he’s under the Law (he clearly said earlier that he became aware of sin by way of the law), but rather in a way very similar to how the Lord exclaimed to the sinful disciple, “I do not know you.” (Matthew 25:12) to which we already know that the Lord knows all. But then to know not in this case is to not be the one who gave rise to or approved of these sinful works, as is said in the Matthew quote. So too the same with St. Paul’s quote here, says St. Augustine, that St. Paul does not approve of what his sinful acts are, the actions are in some part absurd, he wills and desires to do the good, but is left when without grace, without the capacity to overcome temptation and do this good, thus “I know not what I do”.

Disapproval of our sinful acts is a recognition of the goodness of the Law and of the need for grace:
Proceeding we have St. Paul write: “But if I do what I do not want, I consent to the law because of it is good” (Romans 7:16), to which Master Augustine so astutely understands that because St. Paul understands that he does not want to sin then he understands that the law is telling him what is good to do (not sin) and what is not good to do (sin), and by way of his conscience he has consented to and comprehended the law as being good. Only grace can liberate one from this problem of completing what one wills says St. Augustine. But then St. Paul says, “It is no longer I that do it, but the sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:17), which seems to overturn St. Augustine’s understanding of the previous verse. St. Augustine says that St. Paul does not mean that he is not consenting to actually doing the sin, since St. Paul already consented to the goodness and rightness of the commandment, and thus has actually committed a sin, but rather that St. Paul is emphasizing how he has become overwhelmed and that desire (cupiditas) has won a victory over his initial good will to do good, and so St. Paul sins. It is grace that liberates us from the heat of temptation, but without it we cannot overcome the sweetness of desire says St. Augustine.

The Dominion of Sin:
“For I know that good does not dwell in me- that is, in my flesh” (Romans 7:18) to which St. Augustine recounts that St. Paul knows he consents to the law, but still surrenders to sin. And so we ask why is it that there is no good in St. Paul, but only sin? St. Augustine replies that this comes from mortality passed on by the first sin (Adam’s sin) and the constant bombardment of sinful sensual pleasure which comes from our own addition.1 These two things constitute our nature and our habit which create a strong unconquerable covetousness (desire) when put together such that sin that dwells in the flesh, that is has an attachment to the body and possesses a certain rule and control over it. St. Augustine tries to convince that Romans 6: 14 “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for you are not under the law, but under grace”, denotes that to have dominion is as to reside in a place, so that to dwell in the flesh is to have a certain control and residence upon the body (i.e. temptation).

The Will and the Captivity of Acting on the Will in the Dominion of Sin:
Here St. Augustine comments on Romans 7:18, “For to will the good is close at hand, but the doing of it is not.”, to which St. Augustine notes that this is not against the freedom of the will, but rather it is that to will to do good, that is desire and set one’s self up to do the good is within our power, says the early St. Augustine, but to complete what we will, is not. Furthermore, what remains of the first nature, the original state of mankind, to be capable of willing and completing a deed without obstacle of sinful desire (but not necessarily without grace to incline the deed to God’s love) is no longer still with humanity, but rather the only thing left is the capacity to will and the transformed capacity for mortality. The grace of God frees those who have submitted to Him through faith so that they can complete a good deed after a good will. He who does not have grace desires to do the good, wills to do it, but instead does the evil he does not want, and this is on account of the “bond of mortality” from the first sin, and because of sinful habit which unites with the first cause to make not sinning impossible unless grace liberates.

“I find it, therefore, to be a law, that when I want to do good, evil is close at hand.”  (Romans 7:19) and so proceeds St. Augustine in saying that this explains that though the sinner recognizes the law to be good and the desire and will to do good, so too is it mired with difficulty and disordered affections sins easily. St. Augustine relates that it is similar to a person who once having been pushed, easily continues to fall, that is he is in a state by which he gravitates to a fall after a temptation. This happens when covetousness overwhelms the soul, and by which those under the law and without grace cannot hope to overcome this overwhelming state, so then the law binds the sinner in the guilt of transgression so that he must beg for the grace of the Liberator.

“For I am delighted with the law of God according to the inner person: But I see another law in my members opposing the law of my mind and making me captive under the law of sin that is in my members” (Romans 7:22-23) St. Augustine remarks that this reference to the law in his members is the burden of mortality and as such the impermissible actions so often elicit a response of delight from us. St. Augustine remarks then that the law of concupiscence was deigned out as divine punishment in the Fall, but that it opposes the law of the mind which says Do not covet, though the inner person secretly delights in sin even if guilt results later. Hence this is to be understood of how the law of concupiscence holds one in the law of sin, that is the dominion of sin, to which was spoken of earlier regarding it residing in the body.

The Need for Grace; a Vanquished Humanity cannot boast:
Herein the Doctor of Grace deals his significant points in saying that all of this is written “in order to make it clear to humankind, which is held captive, that it must not presume on its own strength.” Which he notes St. Paul is reproving the Jews who boasted proudly of their works of the law, although covetousness reigned far in them. Humanity found itself thus vanquished, condemned, and held captive in their sins and sinful desires, and the law made man not victorious in righteousness but rather defeated, to which the only viable response was to “humbly cry out, Wretched man that I am, who will liberate me from the body of this death? The grace of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:24-25).” And hence concludes St. Augustine that it is not in our free choice is whether to fulfill righteousness whenever we will to do so (this has proven insufficient when overwhelmed by concupiscence and sinful habit), but rather to turn to the Lord to grant the grace of completion of any good work.

A survey of St. Paul’s negative comments on the Law:
St. Augustine notes then that various comments of St. Paul, such as, “The law entered that sin might abound” (Romans 5:20), “The administration of death written in letters of stone.” (2 Corinthians 3:7), “The power of sin is the law” (1 Corinthians 15:56), “You have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you might belong to another, who has risen from the dead” (Romans 7:4), “The passions of sin, which are through the law, were at work in our members, so that they bore fruit for death, but now we are rid of the law, in which imprisonment we were dead, so that thus we may serve in the new way of the spirit and not in the old way of the letter” (Romans 7:5-6) are all said in regard to how the law is dangerous to us because it increases our covetousness because of all of its prohibitions, and thus binds humanity on account of its transgressions caused by covetousness to live guiltily. Human beings are weak after the Fall and must look to the Lord’s grace for assistance. It is only through grace that human kind can fulfill the commandment, and thus the law no longer rules over us, but rather it is fulfilled by and through love. Though St. Augustine says this he goes to pains to show that the law was good and just as shown from previous discussion about St. Paul’s consent to the justice of the law and desire to do the good of the law, but it is post-lapsarian human weakness that cannot but fall to sin. St. Augustine goes then to good lengths to show that these passages on the law are the law of the Jews, and not to be understood as the law of Christ, that is the commandments of the New Law as Manicheans went to good lengths to show. Otherwise it would not make coherent sense that the Law brought about all sorts of sinfulness. There are further arguments made, but they are not instrumental to understanding the gist of the text.

Love is the fulfillment of the Law:
St. Augustine in the later part of his discussion on the first question stating that the law for the Jews was unto the administering of sin, guilt, and thus death, while for the Christian it is the law is fulfilled by love citing, “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10) and then citing Romans 13:8-9 St. Augustine astutely remarks that all of the Old Law is summed up in the New Law’s statement to genuinely love your neighbor is to fulfill the law.

How are we freed from the burden of the Law and why if the Law was good?
St. Augustine remarks then that we have died to the law through the Body of Christ, and though the law was good, dying to it through the Body of Christ is even greater because it removes the law from being something that burdens us and invokes us to fulfill the commandments by fear and threats of punishment. Rather through the Body of Christ is given the grace to love the commandments and fulfill them by love. St. Augustine notes, “The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth were brought about through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Hence the very same law that was done by fear and punishment in Moses has become grace and truth in Jesus Christ in order to be truly fulfilled. And hence Romans 7:4’s “You died to the law” is to be understood to have escaped the law’s punishment “through the Body of Christ” (Romans 7:4) through which sins have been forgiven that would have deserved punishment under the law.

St. Augustine finally asks why was it necessary for St. Paul to say, “We are rid of the law, in which imprisonment we are dead, so that thus we may serve in the new way of the spirit and not the old way of the letter” (Romans 7:6) if the law was good? He states then that the law is called the letter under those who do not yet have the means to fulfill it, the spirit of love, given by grace under the New Testament. Those who have died to sin (through regeneration) have been freed from the letter and from the condemnation written in the letter, and that for those who cannot fulfill the law, the law is simply likened to a letter, that one cannot fulfill, but can read. Hence before regeneration the law is likened to a letter since there is not yet love which can fulfill it and consider the law an object of love. It is like a letter again because it marks out the condemnation of all who read it, though they try and fail to fulfill it.  Those who are renewed in grace are freed from their previous condemnation and are united to the law by understanding and righteousness. Thus the Spirit is He who pours love into our hearts (Romans 5:5) and gives life, though the letter causes death (cf 2 Cor 3:6).

Thus the remarks to the First Question can be summed up by noting that because of the Fall there is a law of concupiscence (covetousness) in our hearts that desires to have things which are prohibited, to move against the law provided by God’s commandments, and though we desire and set out striving to fulfill the commandments, temptation will always overwhelm us, and the sinful habits we develop will make turning from sin even more difficult. This provides for the sinner a condemnation of death, and so the law brings about death, even though the law is just and proper and good. The law then might be said to have been provided that sin, guilt, and death might be made manifest to the sinner that he might be aware of his injustices and wretchedness. This is supposed to move the sinner to realize that he needs God’s help to fulfill the commandments, that he needs the Spirit of love in his heart in order to adore God and His commandments. Love then provided by grace is what fulfills the commandments, and the forgiveness offered to us in regeneration (and by grace) is what lifts us from the condemnation of the law, that is of facing death and Hell. Those who live by grace now know that they must plead for God’s compassion and mercy in times of temptation and that they cannot boast of their own works as providing for their righteousness, but it is the Lord’s grace that repairs the heart and slowly transforms him so as to keep all the commandments with love and faithfulness. This is a process and some are still carnal, that is they are still falling into sinful desires though they have grace to save them when the Lord grants it to them by prayer or by His own will and desire. This is the Augustinian view of Law and Grace, that the Law cannot be fulfilled without Love and Grace, that is the Love that comes from God. Without a fulfilling of the Law we face condemnation, and so the journey is to be made acceptable to God by His grace and transformation of us over time, so that in our last days we might be raised up to see Him face to face.

1.    It is unclear to me to what extent St. Augustine is putting forth a theory of original sin and passed on punishment of mortality (and tendency towards sin??) or simply saying that death comes as a punishment from Adam’s sin, from which St. Augustine says that mortality (which all are born with) comes from the punishment of Adam’s sin.

1 comment:

  1. I do not believe that I ever wrote when this answer to St. Simplicianus was made by St. Augustine. It seems that the response was written around 396 or 397 AD, which would more firmly place it at the very beginning of St. Augustine's episcopacy, which he took on between 395 AD to 396 AD. This is a very important document to analyze I believe, but it isn't the only one that we can read to find St. Augustine's early thoughts on grace and law and sin and predestination. For that we can look to his letters and earlier commentaries on the works of St. Paul.