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

Letter of Paul, Letter of Grace, Letter of Christ

In Sermon 162C (Dolbeau 10), on Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2 (on the history of the exegesis of this passage, cf. my essay here),1 Augustine gives a helpful sketch of the various “levels” on which one can speak of the genesis and authorship or “voice” of Scripture, or, to put it another way, of the various ways in which one can answer the question, “From where? Who speaks?”

The background: Augustine, who believes Paul’s rebuke is real and genuine, is arguing against a rival exegesis that claims that the rebuke was only feigned and that Peter (because Peter) didn’t actually do anything wrong. For Augustine, that position, if true, would throw all of the veracity of Scripture into doubt; the text gives no indication that Paul’s account is anything other than reportage. “What,” he says, “do I believe with more security in the divine books, if I do not believe what is written in that letter?”

It is at this point that he sets out just what that letter is:

Apostolica epistula est, canonica epistula est, Pauli epistula est, qui plus omnibus illis laboravit, non ipse autem, sed gratia Dei cum illo. Ergo gratiae Dei epistula est. Et si recolamus quis in illo loquebatur, Christi epistula est. An vultis, inquit, experimentum eius accipere, qui in me loquitur Christus?

It is an apostolic letter, it is a canonical letter,2 it is a letter of Paul, who labored more than all the others, but not he himself, but the grace of God with him. Therefore it is a letter of the grace of God. And if we should recall who was speaking in him, it is a letter of Christ. “Do you want,” he says,” to receive proof of him who is speaking in me, that is, Christ?”3

Here is the logic. The letter is apostolic and canonical because it is a letter of Paul. But Paul’s letter has that status not because of any qualifications of his own but rather because he is an agent of the grace of God. But in his case this does not mean simply that God helps him; it means that he does not speak of himself. He speaks, but another voice speaks in him, and that is the voice of Christ. Paul can say–in a way no one now can say–that the Lord Jesus Christ speaks through him. Because that is so, Augustine can call Galatians not only a letter of Paul, but a letter of Christ himself.

Given all that, the injunction that Augustine makes immediately afterwards is apt: Audi et time. “Hear and fear.” That is as good a description as any you will find of what one’s posture ought to be when reading the Bible.4  

  1. The sermon was preached at Carthage during Lent in 397; see the table in Augustine through the Ages, 779.
  2. N.b. that Augustine knew this well before any “ecumenical” declaration about Tables of Contents.
  3. 2 Corinthians 13.3. The translation is my own.
  4. And it is what is described with such power in John Webster’s Holy Scripture.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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