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Augustine: The Principle Is Not Flesh

In a section full of interesting observations, Augustine has this to say about the life-giving principle of Christ:

The Principle is neither the flesh nor the human soul in Christ but the Word by which all things were made.  The flesh, therefore, does not by its own virtue purify, but by virtue of the Word by which it was assumed, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  For speaking mystically of eating His flesh, when those who did not understand Him were offended and went away, saying, “This is an hard saying, who can hear it?” He answered to the rest who remained, “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.” The Principle, therefore, having assumed a human soul and flesh, cleanses the soul and flesh of believers. (City of God 10.24)

Not even the flesh of Christ gives us new life but is only an instrument in conveying the eternal Word to us. The editor of this volume informs us in a note that “principle” is used to mean “beginning,” and so it is the divine nature and role of the Logos as eternal originator which is in view.

And (perhaps it is too-obvious to point out) this also reminds us that everyone reads John 6 figuratively.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

9 replies on “Augustine: The Principle Is Not Flesh”

Pastor Wedgeworth,

Could you say a little bit more about what you mean by your last comment about everyone taking John 6 figuratively? Alas, not all of us find this to be obvious.

Thanks.

Jonathan,

For this post I only meant it was “obvious” that Augustine is reading John 6 figuratively. If “eat my flesh” means, for Augustine, that “the Spirit gives life,” then there is something “mystical” to be sure.

Pastor Wedgeworth,

Thanks for the clarification. It seems to me that Augustine’s reading of the passage is correct and that such a reading must be taken by anyone hoping to hold to a consistently Chalcedonian Christology (human flesh cannot save you from your sins).

I think, then, that you meant to type “Augustine” instead of “everyone” in your final sentence.

Jonathan,

Obviously I was making a sort of statement by saying “everyone,” and I stick by it. Everyone “interprets” what’s going on in specific ways, and no one believes that they chew on skin or have blood in their mouth. They all base their “literal” reading on a thick set of assumptions, most of which are tied up with systematic theologies. Augustine’s interpretation here is helpful because he basically interprets “flesh” to mean “divine nature,” quite the “leap” from a pure biblicism.

Pastor Wedgeworth,

This answer gets to my original question. I’m interested in the statement you are trying to make because Lutherans and Roman Catholics do believe that they put flesh and blood in their mouths. Do they still involve themselves in a figurative reading of John 6?

Jonathan,

Roman Catholics believe that they put body and blood in their mouths, *but*, according to their doctrine, the body and blood are not spatially present, and none of their accidents- everything which makes them physically body and blood to sense experience- are present. Pr Wedgeworth’s point is that those really very remarkable qualifiers render their reading in effect figurative.

What the Lutherans mean is not as clear.

P

Yes, and so a “non-spatial” yet “in the mouth” presence is, well, not very literal. For the Lutherans you will regularly see denials of “carnal” and “Caperniac” understandings of the real presence. So there’s a similar sort of “qualification” going on– a non-carnal corporeality or a non-fleshly flesh.

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