Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Tuesday, March 23, 2004

St. Augustine's Marian teaching 

A question came up recently regarding the Mariological teaching of St. Augustine. As much as I would like to write a more lengthy treatment of the subject, it may suffice for the present purpose to simply throw out a few references from St. Augustine's teaching, which may shed light his consideration of the Blessed Virgin.

We find, for example, a reference to Mary which uses the 'New Eve' imagery reminiscent of St. Irenaeus a few centuries earlier.

"Our Lord . . . was not averse to males, for he took the form of a male, nor to females, for of a female he was born. Besides, there is a great mystery here: that just as death comes to us through a woman, life is born to us through a woman; that the devil, defeated, would be tormented by each nature, feminine and masculine, as he had taken delight in the defection of both" (Christian Combat 22:24).

Such imagery, by this time, was more or less commonplace among the Fathers. Although it does not touch on the realm of dogma, it does show a high consideration of the role of the Virgin in the economy of salvation.

We also find a reference to Mary as the 'mother of believers,' which both highlights her ecclesiological and her soteriological importance for Christian doctrine. You may also note St. Augustine's rather bold reference to Mary having 'cooperated' in the work of salvation, a statement which has gotten a good deal of play in the contemporary discussion over Mary's role as 'co-redemptrix':

"That one woman is both mother and virgin, not in spirit only but even in body. In spirit she is mother, not of our head, who is our Savior himself—of whom all, even she herself, are rightly called children of the bridegroom—but plainly she is the mother of us who are his members, because by love she has cooperated so that the faithful, who are the members of that head, might be born in the Church. In body, indeed, she is the Mother of that very head" (Holy Virginity 6:6).

St. Augustine's most famous Marian reference is from his 'On Nature and Grace':

"Having excepted the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins -- for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin? -- So, I say, with the exception of the Virgin, if we could have gathered together all those holy men and women, when they were living here, and had asked them whether they were without sin, what do we suppose would have been their answer?" (Nature and Grace 36:42).

St. Augustine seems here to be issuing a quite uncompromising denial that the Blessed Virgin could have suffered from any taint of sin. Now, many scholars have pointed out quite insistently that Augustine is not here offering any positive teaching regarding the sinlessness of Mary. Rather, in his general discussion of the sinfulness of humanity, he is 'putting aside' the person of the Virgin because of her unique role in bearing the Savior. It is not clear whether Augustine is doing this because (a) he personally believes Mary to be sinless, or (b) he is aware that others hold this belief, and does not want to get dragged into a debate which would distract him from the central purpose of this text. Either way, at the very least this text shows that, in Augustine's day, belief in Mary's sinlessness was widespread enough to enter Augustine's thought, whether or not he personally subscribed to it. But, when placed alongside other Marian texts in Augustine's canon, I think a strong case can be made that he personally subscribed to this belief.

In another text, St. Augustine places a strong emphasis upon Mary's virginity, with a slight hint that he may have considered this state perpetual ('chose to remain'), although this is not explicit:

"In being born of a Virgin who chose to remain a Virgin even before she knew who was to be born of her, Christ wanted to approve virginity rather than to impose it. And He wanted virginity to be of free choice even in that woman in whom He took upon Himself the form of a slave." (Holy Virginity 4:4)

There are certainly more references to the Virgin in St. Augustine's writings, but these are those which carry, at least potentially, the most doctrinal or devotional import.

For the record, a certain Marian prayer, purporting to have been written by St. Augustine, circulates in many prayer books, and especially in that purveyor of misinformation, the internet. This prayer, overflowing with Marian piety as it is, most certainly does not belong to St. Augustine of Hippo. My research, however, has yet to identify the actual source. It may have been one of the numerous pseudo-Augustinian texts which circulated in European monasteries in the early Middle Ages.

# posted by Jamie : 8:58 AM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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