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FREQUENT preaching in the congregation was held by St. Augustine to be an indispensable part of a Bishop's duty; and to his own unremitting assiduity as a Preacher we are indebted at this day for most that remains of his invaluable labours as an Interpreter. Few, comparatively, of his exegetical works were composed at leisure in the closet. Thus his great work on the Psalter consists chiefly of Sermons which he had preached from time to time, for the most part before he had conceived the design of forming a complete exposition of the Psalms. Of the Enarrations which were not preached, Possidius reckons only twenty-six: the remaining hundred and twenty-three were “ tractatus,” that is, not " commentarii," but Sermons ad populum. Towards the close of the year 415, we find St. Augustine intent upon finishing what was necessary to complete this work, (Epist. 169, 1.) and it appears that he had but just brought it to a conclusion, when he took in hand to expound the entire Gospel of St. John, in a course of Sermons; which, together with a course on the First Epistle, delivered in Easter-week, occupied most part, if not the whole, of the year 416. Only in this way was be permitted by the multiplicity of his avocations to put forth a continuous interpretation of the Theological Gospel.
Like most of his other Sermons, these “ Tractates” were delivered ex tempore, taken down in writing at the time,
and sent forth, revised indeed, but with little alteration either of matter or of method. That we have them, in the main, as they were preached, is obvious from their familiar and colloquial style, the frequent iteration, and especially the great length at which he dwells upon some parts of his subject, when, to a reader, he might seem to have exhausted all that was necessary to be said. He is not addressing himself to readers, but to a mixed audience, and he shews himself unwilling to quit any topic of argument or illustration, until he has reason to believe that what he has said has taken hold of his hearers. It may be presumed, however, that few readers of St. Augustine's Sermons will regard it as a blemish, that they lack the oratorical finish of style or condensation of matter which he was so well able to have given them ; so vividly do they bring before us the very person, look, and tones of the great Doctor, such as he was seen and heard while expounding the Scriptures in the congregation. The consummate dialectician and accomplished orator, the man whose voice ruled synods, and on whose wisdom the wisest of his age waited for instruction, is here exhibited to the life as a Preacher, intent upon the work which he has in hand, and affectionately desirous to impart his wonderful insight and fervid apprehension of Divine Truth to the very rudest of his provincial and Punic hearers. He has left on record more than one lively description of his own preaching. Thus in his treatise, “ The Instruction of the Christian Teacher,” he says of himself, that “he is cheered by the eager attention with which the people listen to him; now by their acclamations evincing that he has cleared up some difficult question to their satisfaction ; now in their quickened apprehension even outrunning his utterance, forestalling the word he would speak, and finishing his sentence for him. Their applause, as it betokens their love of the truth, fills him with delight, not unmixed however with alarm for himself. But if the matter be of graver moment, it does not satisfy him to know that he is understood : he cannot quit the subject until he sees the tears rise to their eyes." (de Doct.
Christ. 4,53.) But he is far from being contented with his own performance. “My preaching almost always displeases me. I eagerly long for something better, of which indeed I often have an inward enjoyment in my thoughts before I set about putting them into audible words. Then when I find that I have not power to utter the thing as it exists in my mind, it grieves me that my tongue is unavailing to do justice to that which is in my heart. What I myself understand, I wish the bearers to understand every wbit: and I feel that I am not speaking so as to effect this. The conception lights up the mind with a kind of rapid flash: the utterance is slow, lagging, far unlike the thing it would express: and while the words are yet on their way, the conception has already drawn itself in to its hidden retreats. Only it did, in its wonderful way, leave some traces of its presence impressed upon the memory, which last through the momentary intervals of time which are spent in the articulation, and for these same traces we make the vocal signs. ... Now we, being for the most part ardently desirous of benefitting the hearer, want to speak just as the conception is at the moment, when for the very straining of the mind we cannot speak at all. Not succeeding, we are pained, and feel as if we are labouring in vain, weary and drooping: so this very weariness makes the speech duller and more languid than it was when of itself it brought on the sense of weariness. But then, for my own part, I often perceive by the eagerness of those who desire to hear me, that my discourse is not so frigid as it seems to my own feelings; and I do my best not to be wanting in presenting to them what they kindly welcome.” (De Catechizandis Rudibus, 3. 4.) Eloquence of words, according to the rules of art, he little regarded : nay, he would rather be ungrammatical than not be understood by the people. (Enarr. in Psalm 38, 20.) “It is the character of ingenuous minds, that they love the truth which is given in the words, not the words in which it is given. What are we the better for a goldep key, if it cannot unlock what we want to open; what the worse for a wooden key, if it can?
when all we want is to have that opened which was shut.” (De Doctr. Christiana, 4, 24.)
As doctrinal Sermons, these discourses on St. John are particularly instructive, as exhibiting a continuous tract of the homiletic labours of St. Augustine, from that period of his ministry when his dogmatic system was fully developed, and upon a subject which necessarily carries him over the whole range of the Christian verities. In general, he excludes polemics from his popular preaching. Not so in these discourses. In the earlier part of the course, he has much controversy with the Donatists: and it seems that these very Sermons were the means of bringing back great numbers to the Church. The Arian heresy which had seemed well-nigh dead was beginning to shew symptoms of life: the Churches of Africa too were already in danger of being infected with this pestilence, which was creeping into places where it was before unknown, in company with the multitudes who sought refuge there from the political storms of the times. Therefore St. Augustine goes largely into this controversy : and these Homilies may be profitably studied in connexion with his other pieces against the Arians, and especially with his great dogmatic work on the Holy Trinity. The heresy of the Pelagians is not mentioned by name, though the controversy was thickening: for in that same year it was that the African Churches passed sentence of condemnation on the new doctrine, in the Councils of Carthage and Milerum. The need of instructing his people against these errors was not overlooked, and St. Augustine not only inculcates fully the doctrines of grace, but sharply reproves the advocates of the opposite errors.
As an interpreter of the Word of God, St. Augustine is acknowledged to stand at an eleration which few have reached, none surpassed. It detracts but little from his merits to say, that the external helps which enabled Origen and St. Jerome to fix the sacred text with greater exactness, were wanting to the Bishop of Hippo, and that bis
Latin and Septuagint occasionally led him into interpretations which cannot be justified on grounds of criticism. Not that he was careless of such helps, or slighted the philological element in sacred exegesis. Indeed, in his treatise de Doctrina Christiana, or, “the Instruction of the Christian Teacher," he has enunciated the principles of Sacred Hermeneutics, and thence deduced a method and rules which, even in respect of the technical processes of interpretation, are still most profitable to be studied and borne in mind. But the distinguishing qualities of St. Augustine, as an interpreter, are to be seen in bis profound religious earnestness, his heart-felt appreciation of the perfect harmony and unity of the Word of God, his firm persuasion that nothing there is accidental and unmeaning, but every utterance full of truth and power for all ages; that to believe is the way to understand; that things obscure, startling, and apparently contradictory in the Scriptures, are not only useful as a discipline of faith, but hints of the presence, it may be, of some deep spiritual significance, therefore not to be shrunk from or slurred over, but to be searched into, until that which furnished the infidel with matter of cavilling shall yield to the believer edification and spiritual joy. Therefore even in his popular preaching he is not withheld from the discussion of Scripture difficulties by the fear of unsettling the minds of the less-instructed believers. A highly interesting specimen of his manner of dealing with such questions, will be found in the Fourth and Fifth of these Homilies, where he states and gives his solution of the question arising from the collation of St. John i. 31. with St. Matthew iij. 13." and thence derives an argument
• On fuller consideration, the sug- Christ, or did he not? If not, why gestion offered in the note on Hom. iv. did he say, when Christ came to the 15. p. 59. is withdrawn. Some of the river, I have need to be baptized of earlier editors seem to have felt the Thee? (The inference, not expressed, difficulty which presented itself to the is, Ergo jam noverat: then,] Si ergo mind of the Translator, and met it by jam noverat, if consequently he did inserting non before noverat, to which know Him, certain it is (however) that tbe Mss., so far as appears from the he got to know Him then first when published collations, lend no authority. he saw the dove descending,” as reIn fact, the difficulty arises only from lated in John i. 31: i. e. certe tunc the suppression of the inference from cognovit is not illative, but adversative the first clause. "Did John know to si ergo jam noverat.