The following post contains all of St Augustine’s Tractate # 11 on Jn 2:23-3:5. It includes an excerpt from Tractate # 12 on Jn 3:6-8.
CHAPTER 2:23–25; 3:1–5.
1. OPPORTUNELY has the Lord procured for us that this passage should occur in its order to-day: for I suppose you have observed, beloved, that we have undertaken to consider and explain the Gospel according to John in due course. Opportunely then it occurs, that to-day you should hear from the Gospel, that, “Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he shall not see the kingdom of God.” For it is time that we exhort you, who are still catechumens, who have believed in Christ in such wise, that you are still bearing your sins. And none shall see the kingdom of heaven while burdened with sins; for none shall reign with Christ, but he to whom they have been forgiven: but forgiven they cannot be, but to him who is born again of water and of the Holy Spirit. But let us observe all the words what they imply, that here the sluggish may find with what earnestness they must haste to put off their burden. For were they bearing some heavy load, either of stone, or of wood, or even of some gain; if they were carrying corn, or wine, or money, they would run to put off their loads: they are carrying a burden of sins, and yet are sluggish to run. You must run to put off this burden; it weighs you down, it drowns you.
2. Behold, you have heard that when our Lord Jesus Christ “was in Jerusalem at the Passover, on the feast day, many believed in His name, seeing the signs which He did.” “Many believed in His name;” and what follows? “But Jesus did not trust Himself to them.” Now what does this mean, “They believed,” or trusted, “in His name;” and yet “Jesus did not trust Himself to them;”? Was it, perhaps, that they had not believed on Him, but were feigning to have believed, and that therefore Jesus did not trust Himself to them? But the evangelist would not have said, “Many believed in His name,” if he were not giving a true testimony to them. A great thing, then, it is, and a wonderful thing: men believe on Christ, and Christ trusts not Himself to men. Especially is it wonderful, since, being the Son of God, He of course suffered willingly. If He were not willing, He would never have suffered, since, had He not willed it, He had not been born; and if He had willed this only, merely to be born and not to die, He might have done even whatever He willed, because He is the almighty Son of the almighty Father. Let us prove it by facts. For when they wished to hold Him, He departed from them. The Gospel says, “And when they would have cast Him headlong from the top of the mountain, He departed from them unhurt.”1 And when they came to lay hold of Him, after He was sold by Judas the traitor, who imagined that he had it in his power to deliver up his Master and Lord, there also the Lord showed that He suffered of His own will, not of necessity. For when the Jews desired to lay hold of Him, He said to them, “Whom seek ye? But they said, Jesus of Nazareth. And said He, I am He. On hearing this saying, they went backward, and fell to the ground.”2 In this, that in answering them He threw them to the ground, He showed His power; that in His being taken by them He might show His will. It was of compassion, then, that He suffered. For “He was delivered up for our sins, and rose again for our justification.”3 Hear His own words: “I have power to lay down my life, and I have power to take it again: no man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself, that I may take it again.”1 Since, therefore, He had such power, since He declared it by words, showed it by deeds, what then does it mean that Jesus did not trust Himself to them, as if they would do Him some harm against His will, or would do something to Him against His will, especially seeing that they had already believed in His name? Moreover, of the same persons the evangelist says, “They believed in His name,” of whom he says, “But Jesus did not trust Himself to them.” Why? “Because He knew all men, and needed not that any should bear witness of man: for Himself knew what was in man.” The artificer knew what was in His own work better than the work knew what was in itself. The Creator of man knew what was in man, which the created man himself knew not. Do we not prove this of Peter, that he knew not what was in himself, when he said, “With Thee, even to death”? Hear that the Lord knew what was in man: “Thou with me even to death? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.”2 The man, then, knew not what was in himself; but the Creator of the man knew what was in the man. Nevertheless, many believed in His name, and yet Jesus did not trust Himself to them. What can we say, brethren? Perhaps the circumstances that follow will indicate to us what the mystery of these words is. That men had believed in Him is manifest, is true; none doubts it, the Gospel says it, the truth-speaking evangelist testifies to it. Again, that Jesus trusted not Himself to them is also manifest, and no Christian doubts it; for the Gospel says this also, and the same truth-speaking evangelist testifies to it. Why, then, is it that they believed in His name, and yet Jesus did not trust Himself to them? Let us see what follows.
3. “And there was a man of the Pharisees, Nicodemus by name, a ruler of the Jews: the same came to Him by night, and said unto Him, Rabbi (you already know that Master is called Rabbi), we know that Thou art a teacher come from God; for no man can do these signs which Thou doest, except God be with him.” This Nicodemus, then, was of those who had believed in His name, as they saw the signs and prodigies which He did. For this is what he said above: “Now, when He was in Jerusalem at the passover on the feast-day, many believed in His name.” Why did they believe? He goes on to say, “Seeing His signs which He did.” And what says he of Nicodemus? “There was a ruler of the Jews, Nicodemus by name the same came to Him by night, and says to Him, Rabbi, we know that Thou art a teacher come from God.” Therefore this man also had believed in His name. And why had he believed? He goes on, “For no man can do these signs which Thou doest, except God be with him.” If, therefore, Nicodemus was of those who had believed in His name, let us now consider, in the case of this Nicodemus, why Jesus did not trust Himself to them. “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Therefore to them who have been born again doth Jesus trust Himself. Behold, those men had believed on Him, and yet Jesus trusted not Himself to them. Such are all catechumens: already they believe in the name of Christ, but Jesus does not trust Himself to them. Give good heed, my beloved, and understand. If we say to a catechumen, Dost thou believe on Christ? he answers, I believe, and signs himself; already he bears the cross of Christ on his forehead, and is not ashamed of the cross of his Lord. Behold, he has believed in His name. Let us ask him, Dost thou eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink the blood of the Son of man? he knows not what we say, because Jesus has not trusted Himself to him.
4. Therefore, since Nicodemus was of that number, he came to the Lord, but came by night; and this perhaps pertains to the matter. Came to the Lord, and came by night; came to the Light, and came in the darkness. But what do they that are born again of water and of the Spirit hear from the apostle? “Ye were once darkness, but now light in the Lord; walk as children of light;”3 and again, “But we who are of the day, let us besober.”4 Therefore they who are born again were of the night, and are of the day; were darkness, and are light. Now Jesus trusts Himself to them, and they come to Jesus, not by night, like Nicodemus; not in darkness do they seek the day. For such now also profess: Jesus has come near to them, has made salvation in them; for He said, “Except a man eat my flesh, and drink my blood, he shall not have life in him.”5 And as the catechumens have the sign of the cross on their forehead, they are already of the great house; but from servants let them become sons. For they are something who already belong to the great house. But when did the people Israel eat the manna? After they had passed the Red Sea. And as to what the Red Sea signifies, hear the apostle: “Moreover, brethren, I would not have you ignorant, that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea.” To what purpose passed they through the sea? As if thou wert asking of him, he goes on to say, “And all were baptized by Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”1 Now, if the figure of the sea had such efficacy, how great will be the efficacy of the true form of baptism! If what was done in a figure brought the people, after they had crossed over, to the manna, what will Christ impart, in the verity of His baptism, to His own people, brought over through Himself? By His baptism He brings over them that believe; all their sins, the enemies as it were that pursue them, being slain, as all the Egyptians perished in that sea. Whither does He bring over, my brethren? Whither does Jesus bring over by baptism, of which Moses then showed the figure, when he brought them through the sea? Whither? To the manna. What is the manna? “I am,” saith He, “the living bread, which came down from heaven.”2 The faithful receive the manna, having now been brought through the Red Sea? Why Red Sea? Besides sea, why also “red”? That “Red Sea” signified the baptism of Christ. How is the baptism of Christ red, but as consecrated by Christ’s blood? Whither, then, does He lead those that believe and are baptized? To the manna. Behold, “manna,” I say: what the Jews, that people Israel, received, is well known, well known what God had rained on them from heaven; and yet catechumens know not what Christians receive. Let them blush, then, for their ignorance; let them pass through the Red Sea, let them eat the manna, that as they have believed in the name of Jesus, so likewise Jesus may trust Himself to them.
5. Therefore mark, my brethren, what answer this man who came to Jesus by night makes. Although he came to Jesus, yet because he came by night, he still speaks from the darkness of his own flesh. He understands not what he hears from the Lord, understands not what he hears from the Light, “which lighteth every man that cometh into this world.”3 Already hath the Lord said to him, “Except a man be born again, he shall not see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born again when he is old?” The Spirit speaks to him, and he thinks of the flesh. He thinks of his own flesh, because as yet he thinks not of Christ’s flesh. For when the Lord Jesus had said, “Except a man eat my flesh, and drink my blood, he shall not have life in him,” some who followed Him were offended, and said among themselves, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” For they fancied that, in saying this, Jesus meant that they would be able to cook Him, after being cut up like a lamb, and eat Him: horrified at His words, they went back, and no more followed Him. Thus speaks the evangelist: “And the Lord Himself remained with the twelve; and they said to Him, Lo, those have left Thee. And He said, Will ye also go away?”—wishing to show them that He was necessary to them, not they necessary to Christ. Let no man fancy that he frightens Christ, when he tells Him that he is a Christian; as if Christ will be more blessed if thou be a Christian. It is a good thing for thee to be a Christian; but if thou be not, it will not be ill for Christ. Hear the voice of the psalm, “I said to the Lord, Thou art my God, since Thou hast no need of my goods.”4 For that reason, “Thou art my God, since of my goods Thou hast no need.” If thou be without God, thou wilt be less; if thou be with God, God will not be greater. Not from thee will He be greater, but thou without Him wilt be less. Grow, therefore, in Him; do not withdraw thyself, that He may, as it were, diminish. Thou wilt be renewed if thou come to Him, wilt suffer loss if thou depart from Him. He remains entire when thou comest to Him, remains entire even when thou fallest away. When, therefore, He had said to His disciples, “Will ye also go away?” Peter, that Rock, answered with the voice of all, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” Pleasantly savored the Lord’s flesh in his mouth. The Lord, however, expounded to them, and said, “It is the Spirit that quickeneth.” After He had said, “Except a man eat my flesh, and drink my blood, he shall not have life in him,” lest they should understand it carnally, He said, “It is the Spirit that quickeneth, but the flesh profiteth nothing: the words which I have spoken unto you are spirit and life.”5
6. This Nicodemus, who had come to Jesus by night, did not savor of this spirit and this life. Saith Jesus to him, “Except a man be born again, he shall not see the kingdom of God.” And he, savoring of his own flesh, while as yet he savored not of the flesh of Christ in his mouth, saith, “How can a man be born a second time, when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” This man knew but one birth, that from Adam and Eve; that which is from God and the Church he knew not yet: he knew only those parents that bring forth to death, knew not yet the parents that bring forth to life; he knew but the parents that bring forth successors, knew not yet the ever-living parents that bring forth those that shall abide.
Whilst there are two births, then, he understood only one. One is of the earth, the other of heaven; one of the flesh, the other of the Spirit; one of mortality, the other of eternity; one of male and female, the other of God and the Church. But these two are each single; there can be no repeating the one or the other. Rightly did Nicodemus understand the birth of the flesh; so understand thou also the birth of the Spirit, as Nicodemus understood the birth of the flesh. What did Nicodemus understand? “Can a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” Thus, whosoever shall tell thee to be spiritually born a second time, answer in the words of Nicodemus, “Can a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” I am already born of Adam, Adam cannot beget me a second time. I am already born of Christ, Christ cannot beget me again. As there is no repeating from the womb, so neither from baptism.
7. He that is born of the Catholic Church, is born, as it were, of Sarah, of the free woman; he that is born of heresy is, as it were, born of the bond woman, but of Abraham’s seed. Consider, beloved, how great a mystery. God testifies, saying, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” Were there not other patriarchs? Before these, was there not holy Noah, who alone of the whole human race, with all his house, was worthy to be delivered from the flood,—he in whom, and in his sons, the Church was prefigured? Borne by wood, they escaped the flood. Then afterwards great men whom we know, whom Holy Scriptures commends, Moses faithful in all his house.1 And yet those three are named, just as if they alone deserved well of him: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: this is my name for ever.”2 Sublime mystery! It is the Lord that is able to open both our mouth and your hearts, that we may speak as He has deigned to reveal, and that you may receive even as it is expedient for you.
8. The patriarchs, then, are these three, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You know that the sons of Jacob were twelve, and thence the people Israel; for Jacob himself is Israel, and the people Israel in twelve tribes pertaining to the twelve sons of Israel. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob three fathers, and one people. The fathers three, as it were in the beginning of the people; three fathers in whom the people was figured: and the former people itself the present people. For in the Jewish people was figured the Christian people. There a figure, here the truth; there a shadow, here the body: as the apostle says, “Now these things happened to them in a figure.” It is the apostle’s voice: “They were written,” saith he, “for our sakes, upon whom the end of the ages is come.”3 Let your mind now recur to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the case of these three, we find that free women bear children, and that bond women bear children: we find there offspring of free women, we find there also offspring of bond women. The bond woman signifies nothing good: “Cast out the bond woman,” saith he, “and her son; for the son of the bond woman shall not be heir with the son of the free.” The apostle recounts this; and he says that in those two sons of Abraham was a figure of the two Testaments, the Old and the New. To the Old Testament belong the lovers of temporal things, the lovers of the world: to the New Testament belong the lovers of eternal life. Hence, that Jerusalem on earth was the shadow of the heavenly Jerusalem, the mother of us all, which is in heaven; and these are the apostle’s words.4 And of that city from which we are absent on our sojourn, you know much, you have now heard much. But we find a wonderful thing in these births, in these fruits of the womb, in these generations of free and bond women: namely, four sorts of men; in which four sorts is completed the figure of the future Christian people, so that what was said in the case of those three patriarchs is not surprising, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” For in the case of all Christians, observe, brethren, either good men are born of evil men, or evil men of good; or good men of good, or evil men of evil: more than these four sorts you cannot find. These things I will again repeat: Give heed, keep them, excite your hearts, be not dull; take in, lest ye be taken, how of all Christians there are four sorts. Either of the good are born good, or of the evil, are born evil; or of the good are born evil, or of the evil good. I think it is plain. Of the good, good; if they who baptize are good, and also they who are baptized rightly believe, and are rightly numbered among the members of Christ. Of the evil, evil; if they who baptize are evil, and they who are baptized approach God with a double heart, and do not observe the morals which they hear urged in the Church, so as not to be chaff, but grain, there. How many such there are, you know, beloved. Of the evil, good; sometimes an adulterer baptizes, and be that is baptized is justified. Of the good, evil; sometimes they who baptize are holy, they who are baptized do not desire to keep the way of God.
9. I suppose, brethren, that this is known in the Church, and that what we are saying is manifest by daily examples; but let us consider these things in the case of our fathers before us, how they also had these four kinds. Of the good, good; Ananias baptized Paul. How of the evil, evil? The apostle declares that there were certain preachers of the gospel, who, he says, did not use to preach the gospel with a pure motive, whom, however, he tolerates in the Christian society, saying, “What then, notwithstanding every way, whether by occasion or in truth, Christ is preached, and in this I rejoice.”1 Was he therefore malevolent, and did he rejoice in another’s evil? No, but rejoiced because through evil men the truth was preached, and by the mouths of evil men Christ was preached. If these men baptized any persons like themselves, evil men baptized evil men: if they baptized such as the Lord admonishes, when He says, “Whatsoever they bid you, do; but do not ye after their works,”2 they were evil men that were baptizing good. Good men baptized evil men, as Simon the sorcerer was baptized by Philip, a holy man.3 Therefore these four sorts, my brethren, are known. See, I repeat them again, hold them, count them, think upon them; guard against what is evil; keep what is good. Good men are born of good, when holy men are baptized by holy; evil men are born of evil, when both they that baptize and they that are baptized live unrighteously and ungodly; good men are born of evil, when they are evil that baptize, and they good that are baptized; evil men are born of good, when they are good that baptize, and they evil that are baptized.
10. How do we find this in these three names, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? We hold the bond women among the evil, and the free women among the good. Free women bear the good; Sarah bare Isaac: bond women bear the evil; Hagar bare Ishmael. We have in the case of Abraham alone the two sorts, both when the good are of the good, and also when the evil are of the evil. But where have we evil of good figured? Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, was a free woman: read, She bare twins; one was good, the other evil. Thou hast the Scripture openly declaring by the voice of God, “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”4 Rebecca bare those two, Jacob and Esau: one of them is chosen, the other is reprobated; one succeeds to the inheritance, the other is disinherited. God does not make His people of Esau, but makes it of Jacob. The seed is one, those conceived are dissimilar: the womb is one, those born of it are diverse. Was not the free woman that bare Jacob, the same free woman that bare Esau? They strove in the mother’s womb; and when they strove there, it was said to Rebecca, “Two peoples are in thy womb.” Two men, two peoples; a good people, and a bad people: but yet they strive in one womb. How many evil men there are in the Church! And one womb carries them until they are separated in the end: and the good cry out against the evil, and the evil in turn cry out against the good, and both strive together in the bowels of one mother. Will they be always together? There is a going forth to the light in the end; the birth which is here figured in a mystery is declared; and it will then appear that “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”
11. Accordingly we have now found, brethren, of the good, good—of the free woman, Isaac; and of the evil, evil—of the bond woman, Ishmael; and of the good, evil—of Rebecca, Esau: where shall we find of the evil, good? There remains Jacob, that the completion of these four sorts may be concluded in the three patriarchs. Jacob had for wives free women, he had also bond women: the free bear children, as do also the bond, and thus come the twelve sons of Israel. If you count them all, of whom they were born, they were not all of the free women, nor all of the bond women; but yet they were all of one seed. What, then, my brethren? Did not they who were born of the bond women possess the land of promise together with their brethren? We have there found good sons of Jacob born of bond women, and good sons of Jacob born of free women. Their birth of the wombs of bond women was nothing against them, when they knew their seed in the father, and consequently they held the kingdom with their brethren. Therefore, as in the case of Jacob’s sons, that they were born of bond women did not hinder their holding the kingdom, and receiving the land of promise on an equality with their brothers; their birth of bond women did not hinder them, but the father’s seed prevailed: so, whoever are baptized by evil men, appear as if born of bond women; nevertheless, because they are of the seed of the Word of God, which is figured in Jacob, let them not be cast down, they shall possess the inheritance with their brethren. Therefore, let him who is born of the good seed be without fear; only let him not imitate the bond woman, if he is born of a bond woman. Do not thou imitate the evil, proud, bond woman. For how came the sons of Jacob, that were born of bond women, to possess the land of promise with their brethren, whilst Ishmael, born of a bond woman, was cast out from the inheritance? How, but because he was proud, they were humble? He proudly reared his neck, and wished to seduce his brother while he was playing with him.
12. A great mystery is there. They were playing together, Ishmael and Isaac: Sarah sees them playing, and says to Abraham, “Cast out the bond woman and her son; for the son of the bond woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” And when Abraham was sorrowful, the Lord confirmed to him the saying of his wife. Now here is evidently a mystery, that the event was somehow pregnant with something future. She sees them playing, and says, “Cast out the bond woman and her son.” What is this, brethren? For what evil had Ishmael done to the boy Isaac, in playing with him? That playing was a mocking; that playing signified deception. Now attend, beloved, to this great mystery. The apostle calls it persecution; that playing, that play, he calls persecution: for he says, “But as then he that was born after the flesh, persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, so also now;” that is, they that are born after the flesh persecute them that are born after the Spirit. Who are born after the flesh? Lovers of the world, lovers of this life. Who are born after the Spirit? Lovers of the kingdom of heaven, lovers of Christ, men that long for eternal life, that worship God freely. They play, and the apostle calls it persecution. For after he said these words, “And as then be that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, so also now;” the apostle went on, and showed of what persecution, he was speaking: “But what says the Scripture? Cast out the bond woman and her son: for the son of the bond woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”1 We search where the Scripture says this, to see whether any persecution on Ishmael’s part against Isaac preceded this; and we find that this was said by Sarah when she saw the boys playing together. The playing which Scripture says that Sarah saw, the apostle calls persecution. Hence, they who seduce you by playing, persecute you the more. “Come,” say they, “Come, be baptized here, here is true baptism for thee.” Do not play, there is one true baptism; that other is play: thou wilt be seduced, and that will be a grievous persecution to thee. It were better for thee to make Ishmael a present of the kingdom; but Ishmael will not have it, for he means to play. Keep thou thy father’s inheritance, and hear this: “Cast out the bond woman and her son; for the son of the bond woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
13. These men, too, dare to say that they are wont to suffer persecution from catholic kings, or from catholic princes. What persecution do they bear? Affliction of body: yet if at times they have suffered, and how they suffered, let themselves know, and settle it with their consciences; still they suffered only affliction of body: the persecution which they cause is more grievous. Beware when Ishmael wishes to play with Isaac, when he fawns on thee, when he offers another baptism: answer him, I have baptism already. For if this baptism is true, he who would give thee another would be mocking thee. Beware of the persecution of the soul. For though the party of Donatus has at times suffered somewhat at the hands of catholic princes, it was a bodily suffering, not the suffering of spiritual deception. Hear and see in the very facts of Old Testament history all the signs and indications of things to come. Sarah is found to have afflicted her maid Hagar: Sarah is free. After her maid began to be proud, Sarah complained to Abraham, and said, “Cast out the bond woman;” she has lifted her neck against me. His wife complains of Abraham, as if it were his doing. But Abraham, who was not bound to the maid by lust, but by the duty of begetting children, inasmuch as Sarah had given her to him to have offspring by her, says to her: “Behold, she is thy handmaid; do unto her as thou wilt.” And Sarah grievously afflicted her, and she fled from her face. See, the free woman afflicted the bond woman, and the apostle does not call that a persecution; the slave plays with his master, and he calls it persecution: this afflicting is not called persecution; that playing is. How does it appear to you, brethren? Do you not understand what is signified? Thus, then, when God wills to stir up powers against heretics, against schismatics, against those that scatter the Church, that blow on Christ as if they abhorred Him, that blaspheme baptism, let them not wonder; because God stirs them up, that Hagar may be beaten by Sarah. Let Hagar know herself, and yield her neck: for when, after being humiliated, she departed from her mistress, an angel met her, and said to her, “What is the matter with thee, Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid?” When she complained of her mistress, what did she hear from the angel? “Return to thy mistress.”1 It is for this that she is afflicted, that she may return; and would that she may return, for her offspring, just like the sons of Jacob, will obtain the inheritance with their brethren.
14. But they wonder that Christian powers are roused against detestable scatterers of the Church. Should they not be moved, then? How otherwise should they give an account of their rule to God? Observe, beloved, what I say, that it concerns Christian kings of this world to wish their mother the Church, of which they have been spiritually born, to have peace in their times. We read Daniel’s visions and prophetical histories. The three children praised the Lord in the fire: King Nebuchadnezzar wondered at the children praising God, and at the fire around them doing them no harm: and whilst he wondered, what did King Nebuchadnezzar say, he who was neither a Jew nor circumcised, who had set up his own image and compelled all men to adore it; but, impressed by the praises of the three children when he saw the majesty of God present in the fire what said he? “And I will publish a decree to all tribes and tongues in the whole earth.” What sort of decree? “Whosoever shall speak blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut off, and their houses shall be made a ruin.”2 See how an alien king acts with raging indignation that the God of Israel might not be blasphemed, because He was able to deliver the three children from the fire: and yet they would not have Christian kings to act with severity when Christ is contemptuously rejected, by whom not three children, but the whole world, with these very kings, is delivered from the fire of hell! For those three children, my brethren, were delivered from temporal fire. Is He not the same God who was the God of the Maccabees and the God of the three children? The latter He delivered from the fire; the former did in body perish in the torments of fire, but in mind they remained steadfast in the ordinances of the law. The latter were openly delivered, the former were crowned in secret.3 It is a greater thing to be delivered from the flame of hell than from the furnace of a human power. If, then, Nebuchadnezzar praised and extolled and gave glory to God because He delivered three children from the fire, and gave such glory as to send forth a decree throughout his kingdom, “Whosoever shall speak blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut off, and their houses shall be brought to ruin,” how should not these kings be moved, who observe, not three children delivered from the flame, but their very selves delivered from hell, when they see Christ, by whom they have been delivered, contemptuously spurned in Christians, when they hear it said to a Christian, “Say that thou art not a Christian”? Men are willing to do such deeds, but they do not wish to suffer, at all events, such punishments.
15. For see what they do and what they suffer. They slay souls, they suffer in body: they cause everlasting deaths, and yet they complain that they themselves suffer temporal deaths. And yet what deaths do they suffer? They allege to us some martyrs of theirs in persecution. See, Marculus was hurled headlong from a rock; see, Donatus of Bagaia was thrown into a well. When have the Roman authorities decreed such punishments as casting men down rocks? But what do those of our party reply? What was done I know not; what, however, do ours tell? That they lung themselves headlong and cast the infamy of it upon the authorities. Let us call to mind the custom of the Roman authorities, and see to whom we are to give credit. Our men declare that those men cast themselves down headlong. If they are not the very disciples of those men, who now cast themselves down precipices, while no man persecutes them, let us not credit the allegation of our men: what wonder if those men did what these are wont to do? The Roman authorities never did employ such punishments: for had they not the power to put them to death openly? But those men, while they wished to be honored when dead, found not a death to make them more famous. In short, whatever the fact was, I do not know. And even if thou hast suffered corporal affliction, O party of Donatus, at the hand of the Catholic Church, as an Hagar thou hast suffered it at the hand of Sarah; “return to thy mistress.” A point which it was indeed necessary to discuss has detained us somewhat too long to be at all able to expound the whole text of the Gospel Lesson. Let this suffice you in the meantime, beloved brethren, lest, by speaking of other matters, what has been spoken might be shut out from your hearts. Hold fast these things, declare such things; and while yourselves are inflamed, go your way thither, and set on fire them that are cold.
TRACTATE 12 (Excerpt)
1. WE observe, beloved, that the intimation with which we yesterday excited your attention has brought you together with more alacrity, and in greater number than usual; but meanwhile let us, if you please, pay our debt of a discourse on the Gospel Lesson, which comes in due course. You shall then hear, beloved, as well what we have already effected concerning the peace of the Church, and what we hope yet further to accomplish. For the present, then, let the whole attention of your hearts be given to the gospel; let none be thinking of anything else. For if he who attends to it wholly apprehends with difficulty, must not he who divides himself by diverse thoughts let go what he has received? Moreover, you remember, beloved, that on the last Lord’s day, as the Lord deigned to help us, we discoursed of spiritual regeneration. That lesson we have caused to be read to you again, so that what was then left unspoken, we may now, by the aid of your prayers in the name of Christ, fulfill.
2. Spiritual regeneration is one, just as the generation of the flesh is one. And Nicodemus said the truth when he said to the Lord that a man cannot, when he is old, return again into his mother’s womb and be born. He indeed said that a man cannot do this when he is old, as if he could do it even were he an infant. But be he fresh from the womb, or now in years, he cannot possibly return again into the mother’s bowels and be born. But just as for the birth of the flesh, the bowels of woman avail to bring forth the child only once, so for the spiritual birth the bowels of the Church avail that a man be baptized only once. Therefore, in case one should say, “Well, but this man was born in heresy, and this in schism:” all that was cut away, if you remember what was debated to you about our three fathers, of whom God willed to be called the God, not that they were thus alone but because in them alone the figure of the future people was made up in its completeness. For we find one born of a bond woman disinherited, one born of a free woman made heir: again, we find one born of a free woman disinherited, one born of a bond woman made heir. Ishmael, born of a bond woman, disinherited; Isaac, born of a free woman, made heir: Esau, born of a free woman, disinherited; the sons of Jacob, born of bond women, made heirs. Thus, in these three fathers the figure of the whole future people is seen: and not without reason God saith, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob: this,” saith He, “is my name for ever.”1 Rather let us remember what was promised to Abraham himself: for this was promised to Isaac, and also to Jacob. What do we find? “In thy seed shall all nations be blessed.”2 At that time the one man believed what as yet he saw not: men now see, and are blinded. What was promised to the one man is fulfilled in the nations; and they who will not see what is already fulfilled, are separating themselves from the communion of the nations. But what avails it them that they will not see? See they do, whether they will or no; the open truth strikes against their closed eyes.
3. It was in answer to Nicodemus, who was of them that had believed on Jesus, that it was said, And Jesus did not trust Himself to them. To certain men, indeed, He did not trust Himself, though they had already believed on Him. Thus it is written, “Many believed in His name, seeing the signs which He did. But Jesus did not trust Himself to them. For He needed not that any should testify of man; for Himself knew what was in man.” Behold, they already believed on Jesus, and yet Jesus did not trust Himself to them. Why? because they were not yet born again of water and of the Spirit. From this have we exhorted and do exhort our brethren the catechumens. For if you ask them, they have already believed in Jesus; but because they have not yet received His flesh and blood, Jesus has not yet trusted Himself to them. What must they do that Jesus may trust Himself to them? They must be born again of water and of the Spirit; the Church that is in travail with them must bring them forth. They have been conceived; they must be brought forth to the light: they have breasts to be nourished at; let them not fear lest, being born, they may be smothered; let them not depart from the mother’s breasts.
4. No man can return into his mother’s bowels and be born again. But some one is born of a bond woman? Well, did they who were born of bond women at the former time, return into the wombs of the free to be born anew? The seed of Abraham was in Ishmael also; but that Abraham might have a son of the bond maid, it was at the advice of his wife. The child was of the husband’s seed, not of the womb, but at the sole pleasure of the wife. Was his birth of a bond woman the reason why he was disinherited? Then, if he was disinherited because he was the son of a bond woman, no sons of bond women would be admitted to the inheritance. The sons of Jacob were admitted to the inheritance; but Ishmael was put out of it, not because born of a bond woman, but because he was proud to his mother, proud to his mother’s son; for his mother was Sarah rather than Hagar. The one gave her womb, the other’s will was added: Abraham would not have done what Sarah willed not: therefore was he Sarah’s son rather. But because he was proud to his brother, proud in playing, that is, in mocking him; what said Sarah? “Cast out the bond woman and her son; for the son of the bond woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”1 It was not, therefore, the bowels of the bond woman that caused his rejection, but the slave’s neck. For the free-born is a slave if he is proud, and, what is worse, the slave of a bad mistress, of pride itself. Thus, my brethren, answer the man, that a man cannot be born a second time; answer fearlessly, that a man cannot be born a second time. Whatever is done a second time is mockery, whatever is done a second time is play. It is Ishmael playing, let him be cast out. For Sarah observed them playing, saith the Scripture, and said to Abraham, “Cast out the bond woman and her son.” The playing of the boys displeased Sarah. She saw something strange in their play. Do not they who have sons like to see them playing? She saw and disapproved it. Something or other she saw in their play; she saw mockery in it, observed the pride of the slave; she was displeased with it, and she cast him out. The children of bond women, when wicked, are cast out; and the child of the free woman, when an Esau, is cast out. Let none, therefore, presume on his birth of good parents; let none presume on his being baptized by holy men. Let him that is baptized by holy men still beware lest he be not a Jacob, but an Esau. This would I say then, brethren, it is better to be baptized by men that seek their own and love the world, which is what the name of bond woman imports, and to be spiritually seeking the inheritance of Christ, so as to be as it were a son of Jacob by a bond woman, than to be baptized by holy men and to become proud, so as to be an Esau to be cast out, though born of a free woman. Hold ye this fast, brethren. We are not coaxing you, let none of your hope be in us; we flatter neither ourselves nor you; every man bears his own burden. It is our duty to speak, that we be not judged unhappily: yours to hear, and that with the heart, lest what we give be required of you; nay, that when it is required, it may be found a gain, not a loss.
5. The Lord says to Nicodemus, and explains to him: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Thou, says He, understandest a carnal generation, when thou sayest, Can a man return into his mother’s bowels? The birth for the kingdom of God must be of water and of the Spirit. If one is born to the temporal inheritance of a human father, be he born of the bowels of a carnal mother; if one is born to the everlasting inheritance of God as his Father, be he born of the bowels of the Church. A father, as one that will die, begets a son by his wife to succeed him; but God begets of the Church sons, not to succeed Him, but to abide with Himself. And He goes on: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We are born spiritually then, and in spirit we are born by the word and sacrament. The Spirit is present that we may be born; the Spirit is invisibly present whereof thou art born, for thou too must be invisibly born. For He goes on to say: “Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The Spirit bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest its voice, but knowest not whence it cometh, or whither it goeth.” None sees the Spirit; and how do we hear the Spirit’s voice? There sounds a psalm, it is the Spirit’s voice; the gospel sounds, it is the Spirit’s voice; the divine word sounds, it is the Spirit’s voice. “Thou hearest its voice, and knowest not whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.” But if thou art born of the Spirit, thou too shalt be so, that one who is not born of the Spirit knows not, as for thee, whence thou comest, or whither thou goest. For He said, as He went on, “So is also every one that is born of the Spirit.”