A Treatise on the spirit and the letter
by aurelius augustin, bishop of hippo;
In One Book, Addressed to Marcellinus, a.d. 412.
Extract from Augustin's "Retractations,"
Book II. Chap. 37,
On the Following Treatise,
"De spiritu et littera."
The person 1 to whom I had addressed the three books entitled De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione, in which I carefully discussed also the baptism of infants, informed me, when acknowledging my communication, that he was much distrurbed because I declared it to be possible that a man might be without sin, if he wanted not the will, by the help of God, although no man either had lived, was living, or would live in this life so perfect in righteousness. He asked how I could say that it was possible of which no example could be adduced. Owing to this inquiry on the part of this person, I wrote the treatise entitled De Spiritu et Littera, in which I considered at large the apostle's statement, "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." 2 In this work, so far as God enabled me, I earnestly disputed with those who oppose that grace of God which justifies the servances of the Jews, who abstain from sundry meats and drinks in accordance with their ancient law, I mentioned the "ceremonies of certain meats" [quarumdam escarum cerimoniae] 3 --a phrase which, though not used in Holy Scriptures, seemed to me very convenient, because I remembered that cerimoniae is tantamount to carimoniae, as if from carere, to be without, and expresses the abstinence of the worshippers from certain things. If however, there is any other derivation of the word, which is inconsistent with the true religion, I meant no refernce whatever to it; I confined my use to the sense above indicated. This work of mine begins thus: "After reading the short treatise which I lately drew up for you, my beloved son Marcellinus," etc.
Marcellinus, in a letter to Augustin, had expressed some surprise at having read, in the preceding work, of the possibility being allowed of a man continuing if he willed it, by God's help, without sin in the present life, although not a single human example anywhere of such perfect righteousness has ever existed. Augustin takes the opportunity of discussing, in opposition to the Pelagians, the subject of the aid of God's grace; and he shows that the divine help to the working of righteousness by us does not lie in the fact of God's having given us a law which is full of good and holy precepts; but in the fact that our will itself, without which we can do nothing good, is assisted and elevated by the Spirit of grace being imparted to us, without the aid of which the teaching of the law is "the letter that killeth," because instead of justifying the ungodly, it rather holds them guilty of transgression. He begins to treat of the question proposed to him at the commencement of this work, and returns to it towards its conclusion; he shows that, as all allow, many things are possible with God's help, of which there occurs indeed no example; and then concludes that, although a perfect righteousness is unexampled among men, it is for all that not impossible.
The Tribune Marcellinus with whose name are connected many other treatises of Augustin. In this work the author informs us that the occasion of its composition was furnished by this person, who mooted an inquiry touching a statement in the preceding books Concerning the Merits and the Remission of Sins. Those books, as we have already indicated, were published A.D., 412. Now in the Retractations there is placed after these very books the present work Concerning the Spirit and the Letter,--not indeed, immediately next, but in the fourth place after,--so that it was written, no doubt, about the end of the same year, A.D. 412, some time previous to the death of Marcellinus, who was killed in the month or September of the following year, 413. This present work is also mentioned in the book On Faith and Works, c. 14; and in that On Christian Doctrine, iii. 33. Compare the notes on p. 15 and p. 130. ↩
2 Cor. iii. 6. ↩
See chap. 36 [xxi.]. ↩