Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

Augustine and Bernard on Speech and Silence

It is sometimes said, wrongly, that Augustine was an “apophatic” theologian.1 Augustine, it is true, saw there to be a yawning divide between an infinite and holy God and finite and sinful man that compromised man’s speech about God; yet that twofold distance is overcome by the Word and the Word-made-flesh, respectively. Thus while human speech can never comprehend the divine infinity and majesty, there is nevertheless a duty placed upon man to speak positively about God.2

One famous passage in which this issue occurs, touching on both man’s duty to speak and the inadequacy of his words to fully take the measure of God’s transcendent excellence, occurs near the very beginning of the Confessions. After a lengthy eulogy of God’s paradoxical perfections, Augustine writes:

et quid diximus, deus meus, vita mea, dulcedo mea sancta, aut quid dicit aliquis, cum de te dicit? et vae tacentibus de te, quoniam loquaces muti sunt.

And what have we said, my God, my life, my holy sweetness,3 or what does anyone say when he speaks about you? But woe to those who are silent about you, for the talkative are mute.

The last phrase is somewhat obscure. Gillian Clark comments: “A.’s magnificent burst of language ends with an acknowledgement that he has not really said anything,4 because language is wholly inadequate to express the greatness of God. Yet the silence of those who have something to say (the tacentes) is bad, because the ‘people who talk’, the loquaces, are muti: they fail to say anything. A. uses loquaces of people who have much to say, like the Manichaeans (3.6.10), but all of it mistaken or trivial: almost ‘the chattering classes’.”

Several centuries later, the anonymous author of the Jubilus rhythmicus, de nomine Jesu (“Jesu, dulcis memoria”), attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux and the basis for the popular hymns “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee” and “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts,” makes much the same point about the silence of inability and the injunction to speak that nevertheless remains.

Cum digne loqui nequeam

de te, tamen ne sileam:

amor facit ut audeam,

cum de te solum gaudeam.

Although I am unable to speak worthily

about you, nevertheless let me not be silent:

love makes me to dare,

since about you only do I rejoice.

We can be thankful that our God is a speaking God–that he lisps to us in human language and both allows and enables his creatures stutter and stammer their praises in response. More than that, Jesus, the eloquence of God, renews our speech by the power of his Spirit, that we may heartily approach him, with confidence drawing near to the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16). As we do so, he further bestows mercy and the help of his grace, and purifies our communion with him.

  1. It is also said, wrongly, of the Cappadocians; but that is a topic for another time.
  2. I’ve touched on speech and silence from a different perspective here.
  3. Even here there are two positive predications of God.
  4. I think that this rather overstates the case, as my remarks above indicate.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.