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

Augustine on the Goodness of the Corporeal Realm 

A very lively discussion on the paradisical state on Disputations (see here and here) ended up breaking into about thirty sub-discussions, one of which had myself and another commenter, Rob, in a lengthy discussion (really taking off about here) on the moral status of the material order, with Rob (as I read him) taking the position that the material order is, at least in part, culpable for sin. At the end of the day, I was asked to draw upon more resources than I could supply on short demand, so I asked my patient partner in dialogue for permission to continue the conversation here. Rob has rightly requested a greater degree of biblical/doctrinal support for my position, of which he prefers the biblical. I ask permission to get at the biblical through the doctrinal, since this would permit me a more logical arrangement of sources. I have chosen (as my readers might have guessed) to draw upon St. Augustine of Hippo as a partner in dialogue. In some of his anti-Manichaean writings, the doctor of grace, drawing exclusively from biblical sources in a masterful manner, defends his position far better than I could do myself. The position, as I am defining it, is that corporeality (or, 'materiality') is a subset of the created order, subsequently taken up in the Incarnation, and cannot thence be in any way held responsible for evil in the world.

A warning: Some of my quotes get a bit lengthy, but I ask for patience, which always bears fruit in reading Augustine.

First, St. Augustine establishes that the everything created by the all-good God is good, just as it was declared by Him to be good (Gen. 1:9, etc.). This includes, of course, the material and corporeal world, even man's body, which God fashioned from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7):

The highest good, than which there is no higher, is God, and consequently He is unchangeable good, hence truly eternal and truly immortal. All other good things are only from Him . . . . since every nature, so far as it is nature, is good, it follows that no nature can exist save from the most high and true God . . . . Therefore . . . every corporeal entity, is from God. (On the Nature of the Good 1, emphasis added).

The material world, then, cannot be anything but good, unless it were created by another besides God; and matter, too, possesses its share of created beauty - measure, form and order:

For neither is that material, which the ancients called Hyle ['matter'], to be called an evil. For nobody can form and create corporeal beings but God alone; for neither are they created unless there subsist with them measure, form, and order, which I think that now even they themselves confess to be good things, and things that cannot be except from God . . . And because every good is from God, no one ought to doubt that even matter, if there is any, has its existence from God alone. (Ibid., 18)

According to St. Augustine, evil cannot arise from matter itself, or from anything that God created (which would make God responsible for evil), but rather from a 'corruption' or 'defect' in this created order:

When accordingly it is inquired, whence is evil, it must first be inquired, what is evil?, which is nothing else than corruption, either of the measure, or the form, or the order, that belong to nature. Nature therefore which has been corrupted, is called evil, for assuredly when incorrupt it is good; but even when corrupt, so far as it is nature it is good, so far as it is corrupted it is evil. (Ibid., 4, emphasis added).

No nature, therefore, as far as it is nature, is evil; but to each nature there is no evil except to be diminished in respect of good. But if by being diminished it should be consumed so that there is no good, no nature would be left. (Ibid., 17).

The decisive example of such 'corruption' is the moral corruption engendered by the free wills of creatures upon the created order, commonly known as 'sin.' Note that evil does not, then, arise from within the created order, but rather is violently inflicted upon it from without. The human body, then, is not to be viewed as something morally tainted, or even as unseemly; Augustine quotes St. Paul's use of the body as an analogy for the Church (hardly a good choice of metaphors, if the body were the cause of evil):

We deny that there is anything disgraceful in the bodies of saints. Some members, indeed, are called uncomely, because they have not so pleasing an appearance as those constantly in view. But attend to what the apostle says, when from the unity and harmony of the body he enjoins charity on the Church: "Much more those members of the body, which seem to be feeble, are necessary: and those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honor to that part which lacked: that there should be no schism in the body." (1 Cor. 12:22-25). The licentious and intemperate use of those members is disgraceful, but not the members themselves. (Reply to Faustus the Manichaean 29.4, emphasis added)

St. Augustine also refers to the words of St. Paul elsewhere, which refer to a man's obligation to love his own body:

If you are blind to these things, hear at least the words of the apostle. . For the apostle, in speaking of the love which husbands ought to have for their wives gives, as an example, the love of the soul for the body. The words are: "He that loveth his wife, loveth himself: for no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as Christ the Church" (Ephesians 5:28-29) . . . . See where the apostle begins, and to what he ascends. Consider, if you can, the greatness which creation derives from its Creator, embracing as it does the whole extent from the host of heaven down to flesh and blood, with the beauty of manifold form, and the order of successive gradations. Whoever, then, denies that our body and its members, which the apostle so approves and extols, are the handiwork of God, you see whom he contradicts, preaching contrary to what you have received. (Ibid., 21.6-9, emphasis added)

But we can go beyond creation in demonstrating the innate worthiness of the human body; for God took on a human body itself (even more, human flesh itself, as the Gospel of John's opening word remind us) to redeem us. St. Augustine, like the Gospel writers themselves, goes to great pains to press home that this was a true body, taken from among men, and not some illusory, pseudo-human body. There is, in fact, a great significance in God taking a body from among men, for it was men whom He wished to redeem; to paraphrase the well-known words of St. Irenaeus, 'God joined Himself to men, so that men could join themselves to God.' (or as St. John says, "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" - John 4:2.) Just as importantly, what is at stake is the genuine veracity of the Incarnation. Without a doubt, Christ appeared to be a true man, having a human body as all men do (as all agree); if this were not true, if in fact His body only seemed to be like ours (the Docetist position) but was in fact quite different, then God would be responsible for deceit.

Who will venture to say that the Son of God could not, if He had pleased, have made for Himself a true human body in the same way as He did for Adam; for all things were made by Him? or who will deny that He who is the Almighty Son of the Almighty could, if He had chosen, have taken a body from a heavenly substance, or from air or vapor. . . Or, once more, if He had chosen to take a body of none of the material substances which He had made, but to create for Himself from nothing real flesh, as all things were created by Him from nothing, none of us will oppose this by saying that He could not have done it. The reason of our believing Him to have been born of the Virgin Mary, is not that He could not otherwise have appeared among men in a true body, but because it is so written in the Scripture, which we must believe in order to be Christians, or to be
saved. We believe, then, that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, because it is so written in the Gospel; we believe that He died on the cross, because it is so written in the Gospel; we believe that both His birth and death were real, because the Gospel is no fiction. Why He chose to suffer all these things in a body taken from a woman is a matter known only to Himself. . . . But this may be confidently affirmed, that what took place was exactly as we are told in the Gospel narrative. . . . How can this infamous liar [Faustus the Manichee], who declares that Christ feigned death, expect to be believed? Did Christ utter falsehood when He said, "It behoves the Son of man to be killed, and to rise the third day?" And do you tell us to believe what you say, as if you utter no falsehoods? In that case, Peter was more truthful than Christ when he said to Him, "Be it far from Thee, Lord; this shall not be unto Thee;" for which it was said to him, "Get thee behind me, Satan" . . . . But that He feigned all the experiences of humanity is only your opinion in opposition to the Gospel. In reality, when the evangelist says that Jesus slept, that He was hungry, that He was thirsty, that He was sorrowful, or glad, and so on,-these things are all true in the sense of not being feigned, but actual experiences . . . . Still, the things are true; and the accurate narrative of them is intended to instruct whoever believes in Christ's gospel in the truth, not to delude him with falsehoods. (Ibid., 27.7-8)

If Christ deceived us about the nature of His body, making it seem a normal human body when it was not, then he was also deceptive about His resurrection body, of which He gave all appearances that it was tangible:

Hence also the marks which He showed to His doubting disciples must have been false; and Thomas was not assured by truth, but cheated by a lie, when he exclaimed, "My Lord, and my God." And yet you would have us believe that your tongue utters truth, though Christ's whole body was a falsehood. Our argument against you is, that the Christ you make is such that you cannot be His true disciples unless you too practise deceit (Ibid., 29.2)

But if Christ's resurrection was a true resurrection, then so too will ours be. St. Augustine dwells at length upon the words of St. Paul, which - although they affirm the great difference between the earthly and resurrection body - at the same time affirm that it is one and the same body.

[A]s St. Paul teaches: "It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body." To illustrate this distinction between the natural and the spiritual body, the apostle adds what I have quoted already about the first and the last Adam. Then he goes on: "But this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." And to explain what he means by flesh and blood, that it is not the bodily substance, but corruption, which will not enter into the resurrection of the just, he immediately says, "Neither shall corruption inherit incorruption." And in case any one should still suppose that it is not what is buried that is to rise again, but that it is as if one garment were laid aside and a better taken instead, he proceeds to show distinctly that the same body will be changed for the better, as the garments of Christ on the mount were not displaced, but transfigured: "Behold, I show you a mystery; we shall not all be changed, but we shall all rise." Then he shows who are to be changed: "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall rise incorruptible, and we shall be changed." And if it should be said that it is not as regards our mortal and corruptible body, but as regards our soul, that we are to be changed, it should be observed that the apostle is not speaking of the soul, but of the body, as is evident from the question he starts with: "But some one will say, How are the dead raised, and with what body do they come?" So also, in the conclusion of his argument, he leaves no doubt of what he is speaking: "This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality." (Ibid., 11, emphasis added)

Crucial here, as St. Augustine points out, is that the New Testament contains an ambiguous usage of the word 'flesh' (Greek sarx). 'Flesh' can sometimes refer to the corporeal body in general, as when Jesus says to His disciples, "Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have" (Luke 24:39). Or 'flesh' can refer specifically to the mortal and corruptible body which precedes the resurrection, which St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:50 shall not inherit the Kingdom of God. If 'flesh' means the same thing in both passages, then it follows that the resurrected Lord could not inherit the Kingdom of God, since He insists that He indeed has flesh (cf., Ibid., 12). The word 'flesh' can also take on an additional meaning in the New Testament, which has a particular moral meaning. St. Augustine references Romans 8:8 - "Those who are in the flesh cannot please God." Now, as he points out (Ibid.), we cannot take 'flesh' in this passage in either of the two aforementioned senses, for then the passage would read that no one having a corporeal body could please God. This, of course, would include Christ, whom we have already demonstrated must have had a corporeal body; even if one claims (wrongly, I think) that His post-resurrection body was incorporeal, one would still have to admit that He only began pleasing God after the resurrection, and not before. Thus, we must admit an additional, moral meaning of the term 'flesh' - St. Augustine interprets it to mean living according to the things of the world, or 'preferring worldly goods.' It is in this sense that we must interpret passages such as John 6:63: 'The Spirit gives life, the flesh counts for nothing." To interpret them otherwise would be to denigrate God's creation and that which He has taken on in the Incarnation.

In summary, a theological position which would see materiality or corporeality as the source of sin seems to do violence both to the goodness of God's creation and the authenticity of the Incarnation.

# posted by Jamie : 1:33 PM


Under the Patronage of
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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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