Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Spirit and the Letter

In the early fifth century, the popular understanding of 1 Corinthians 3:6, where Paul says, “The letter kills and the Spirit gives life,” was that the Old Testament was to be understood allegorically since, in its literal sense, it was a dead letter. On the other hand, the New Testament was to be understood spiritually since it was quickening and life giving. Thus, when Paul spoke of ergon nomou (works of law) most church fathers understood this as referring to the dead, ceremonial law. The Pelagians, following this interpretation, did not believe their doctrine of salvation contradicted that of Paul. Since Paul was only talking about circumcision, the Sabbath, and dietary rules, they could still assert that salvation was by ethical works of the natural man without the help of the Spirit. It was in this context that Augustine of Hippo wrote De spiritu et littera (The Spirit and the Letter). In it he contends that the whole Old Testament letter kills and the grace of Jesus Christ sets us free when love is poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Augustine’s understanding of the “letter” was that it referred to the whole Old Testament law, including the moral law. He believed this since Paul said in Romans, “I would have not known desire, if the law had not said, ‘You shall not desire’ (Rom. 7:7; Ex. 20:17).” The command to “not desire” was certainly not some figurative expression. Paul was talking about the Ten Commandments, the moral law. Further, the text in 2 Corinthians goes on to call the letter that kills the “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:7). To this, Augustine wrote, “Who would be so foolish as to think that it was called the ministry of death carved in letters of stone not on account of all ten commandments but on account of that one commandment that has to do with the Sabbath?” The Pelagians were asserting that Paul was only excluding the keeping of the ceremonial law like the Sabbath from justification. Augustine corrects them by stating that all the commandments were excluded from our justification before God.

In the context of 2 Corinthians 3, there is no mention of circumcision, the Sabbath, or dietary rules. There is only mention of a ministry of death carved in letters of stone received by Moses. This ministry of death killed human beings because Paul said, “The law produced anger, for where there is no law, there is no transgression (Rom. 4:15),” and “Knowledge of sin came through the law” (Rom. 3:20). Since the law forbids sin, it kills human beings by increasing their desire to sin. The object of desire grows more attractive when it is forbidden. Augustine asserts:

“Consider the whole passage [2 Cor. 3] and see whether he says anything on account of circumcision or the Sabbath or any other foreshadowing sacred rite and does not rather say everything for the following reason. The letter forbidding sin does not give life to human beings, but rather kills them by increasing their desire and augmenting sinfulness because of transgression, unless through the law of faith in Christ Jesus grace sets them free, when love is poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

The Spirit gives us life by pouring the love of God into our hearts. If left to our free will, we would only sin since we cannot fulfill the law of God. In our attempt to fulfill it our sinfulness is exposed. However, God, who is rich in mercy, sends His love into our hearts through the Spirit so that we would no longer fear his punishment but delight in his law. Augustine declares:

“For free choice is capable only of sinning, if the way of truth remains hidden. And when what we should do and the goal we should strive for begins to be clear, unless we find delight in it and love it, we do not act, do not begin, do not live good lives. But so that we may love it, the love of God is poured out into our hearts, not by free choice which comes from ourselves, but by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:5).”

Without the Spirit of grace, the Jews of the Old Testament attempted to keep the law out of fear of punishment, not out of love of righteousness. It was an attempt to keep God’s commandments out of obligation, not because the Holy Spirit had given them a new heart to delight in the commandments of God. Augustine writes, “Those who did what the law commanded without the help of the Spirit of grace did so out of fear of punishment, not out of love of righteousness.” The one who has been freed by the Spirit of grace begins to delight in the commandments of God. Augustine states, “If that commandment is observed out of fear of punishment, not out of love of righteousness, it is observed in the manner of a slave, not in the manner of someone free.”

Once the Spirit of grace sets us free from the condemnation of the law, faith is the love of God poured into our heart. God says to us: “Do what I command!” And faith says to God: “Give what you command!” And we ask that by God’s mercy we would be able to fulfill what He commands us. Augustine says, “In that way God’s grace not merely shows us what we are to do, but also helps us so that we are able to do what God has shown us.” This can only happen through faith which is love poured into our hearts by the Spirit of grace. The law is now written in our hearts within us. The law of God is no longer written outside of us on tablets where it kills us, but rather, Augustine writes, “The former law was written outside human beings in order to strike fear into them from outside, while the latter law is written in human beings so that it justifies them within.”

Therefore, justification is not something that occurs outside of us (extra nos) from the viewpoint of God, but rather it is a process that occurs within us (intra nos). Augustine does not teach forensic justification or Christ’s imputed righteousness by which we are declared righteous. Rather, in justification we become righteous through a process by faith which is love given to us as a gift of the Holy Spirit by which we do what God commands. God clothes us with righteousness, but this is not the righteousness of God. It is a righteousness of love by which He makes us righteous. And this is a righteousness we will have more fully as God continues to bestow His love upon us. Augustine writes, “By that faith of Jesus Christ, that is, which he bestowed upon us, we believe that we now have from God and will have more fully from him the righteous life we live.” Therefore, the letter kills externally, but the Spirit of grace gives us a righteousness of love internally by which faith delights in the law.

The most significant contribution of Augustine’s doctrine upon hermeneutics and theology is his understanding of the works of the law in the thought of Paul (Romans 3; Galatians 2-3). By excluding all ethical works whatsoever from salvation, justification became by free grace alone. His method of showing that Paul was not simply speaking of circumcision, dietary rules, and the keeping of the Sabbath, but rather speaking of the entire law, has had implications throughout history. In the 16th century Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue the Tubingen theologians said to the Patriarch of Constantinople,

“Here the blessed Apostle excludes our works from justification. And by excluding the works of the Law, he means not only the ceremonial or civil works, but also the Decalogue, that most exalted part of the Law, the Ten Commandments…. our entire justification takes place freely and by grace alone.”

In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon uses the argument of Augustine:

“Here the adversaries interpret that this refers to Levitical ceremonies [not to other virtuous works]. But Paul speaks not only of the ceremonies, but of the whole Law. For he quotes afterward (7, 7) from the Decalogue: Thou shalt not covet…. Augustine teaches correctly that Paul speaks of the entire Law, as he discusses at length in his book, Of the Spirit and Letter.”

The merits of Mary and the saints contributing to a person’s justification, indulgences, and the Roman doctrine of satisfactions are foreign to Augustine’s thought. Therefore, although Augustine’s doctrine of justification was different then the Augustana the Lutherans were right to bring the doctor of grace into the debate. His arguments can be used today to combat the same false doctrine asserted by E.P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul.


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