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This Great Sacrament

Nuptial Imagery in Saint Augustines Ecclesiology

James Columcille Dever

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1 Introduction
In the fifth chapter of his Epistle to the Ephesians Paul exhorts
Christians to lead a virtuous life as followers of God, walking in love and in
light, avoiding the thicketed paths of sin and darkness. He offers specific
counsel to those who are married, urging love and submission after the
example of Christ and the Church: Just as the Church is subject to Christ,
so too should wives be to their husbands in all things. Husbands, love your
wives, just as Christ loved the Church, and handed himself over for her
(Eph. 5:24-25). The Church is sanctified in her submission, washed in the
water and word of life (Eph. 5:26). Through this bath (loutr, lavacro), one
is incorporated into Christ, a living member of his flesh and his bones. And,
like us, Christ loves his own flesh, nourishes it, and cherishes it. The unity
of Christ and the Church is an intimate cleaving, a delicate enfolding of
many into one in the unity of charity. Paul names this unity mystrion touto
mega, which Jerome rendered into the Latin: sacramentum hoc magnum,
this great sacrament (Eph. 5:32).
Augustine refers to this verse in his early treatise De Genesi contra
Manichos (ca. 388/389) commenting on the text of Genesis: A man shall
leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in
one flesh (2, 13.19; Gen. 2:24).1 On the literal level, Augustine claims that
this is simply what human beings usually do: they pair off and exchange
fleshly intimacies with one another. He discerns in this verse, however, a
1 Augustine, On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, in On Genesis,
trans. Edmund Hill, O.P. (New York: New City Press, 2002).
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prophecy that prefigures the joining together of Christ with his Bride, the
Church. Augustine goes on to interpret the fact that the two were naked
and not ashamed (Gen. 2:25) by means of another Pauline text: I am
attached to you as one man, to present you to Christ as a chaste virgin (2
Cor. 11:2). That Adam and Eve could behold the other as naked without
shame indicates their simplicity and chastity (2 Cor. 11:3), but by extension
the purity of Church as virgin awaiting the consummation of her marriage
to Christ. From this brief text emerge three images of the Church that
Augustine will later develop in his preaching against the Donatists: Church
as Bride, as Mother, and as Virgin.
In this essay, I will attend to the multivalent use of these images as
Augustine develops them in his treatises De bono coniugali (400) and De
sancta virginitate (401).2 These texts explicitly treat the institution of
marriage in society and the Church as well as in relation to the life of
consecrated virginity. I will argue that Augustines theology of marriage and
of virginity both inform and are strengthened by the anti-Donatist
ecclesiology evident in his later Tractatus in Epistolam Johannis ad Parthos
(=Tractates on the First Letter of John, 407).3 To do so, I will first offer an
account of Augustines notion of sacramentum in his treatise De bono
coniugali, paying particular attention to the ways in which Augustine treats
2 Ibid, On Marriage and Virginity, trans. Ray Kearney, ed. David G. Hunter,
(New York: New City Press, 1999); I have compared all translations to the
Latin text of Walsh, P.G., Augustine: De bono coniugali and De sancta
virginitate, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
3 Ibid, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, trans. Boniface Ramsey, (New
York: New City Press, 2008)
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the relationship between marriage (matrimonium) and motherhood. I will


then offer an interpretation of his account of virginity in De sancta
virginitate and introduce Mary, Virgin and Mother, as a type for the Church,
at once pure and fruitful. Finally, I will turn to the explicitly anti-Donatist
passages in the Tractates on the First Letter of John and show how the
grammar of Augustines account of marriage and virginity apply within his
arguments against the Donatists, who willingly separate themselves from
the Church for the sake of their own perceived purity.
2 Matrimony and Motherhood
In his treatise De bono coniugali (=b. coniug.), Augustine lays the
conceptual groundwork for the image of the Church as Bride and Mother
against the background of the Roman concept of marriage (matrimonium). I
will therefore first sketch out the grammar of Roman marriage and then
turn to Augustines treatment of marriage in Christian terms. Augustines
use of sacramentum, which we have already seen used in the Pauline
epistles to speak of the union of Christ and the Church, introduces a key
conceptual shift away from Roman practice and towards a distinctively
Christian notion of marriage. For Augustine as for Paul, Christian marriage
sacramentally prefigures the realization of the promised union between
Christ and the Church, and points to the reality that the one Church arises
from a plurality of peoples, Jews and Gentiles, married people and virgins,
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The Romans deployed two key terms to describe marital union:


matrimonium and coniugium.4 Roman matrimonium is a legal term that
names a relationship that makes a woman into a wife and potential mother
(mater) based on the mutual consent of she, her husband, and the
paterfamilias of both, if he is still living. In Republican Rome, the
paterfamilias gave his daughter into the hand of her husband, signifying
his transfer of legal and economic potestas over her and any children she
might bear later in the marriage. This practice seems to have essentially
disappeared in the Empire, however, marriages then being contracted
without the hand. In this arrangement, the woman legally remained under
the potestas of either her paterfamilias or her legitimate tutor, in the
instance of her fathers death.5 The second term, coniugium, is a more
general word for marital union often used for relationships outside of the
specifically Roman institution of marriage. It is etymologically related to the
Latin verb coniugere, to join together, which was often used with some
form of matrimonium to describe joining in marriage.6
Roman marriage was thus first and foremost a legal state confirmed
by a contract based on mutual consent of all parties present. Legal

4 See the detailed discussion of these concepts and definitions in Treggiari,


Susan, Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time
of Ulpian, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 5-11
5 See, Nathan, Geoffrey S. The Family in Late Antiquity: The Rise of
Christianity and the Endurance of Tradition, New York: Routledge Press,
2000, pp. 16-17; Cf. Treggiari, Susan, Divorce Roman Style: How Easy and
How Frequent was it? in Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome,
ed. Beryl Rawson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 31-32.
6 Ibid, pp. 6-7
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recognition of this contract may have been accompanied by the joining of


right hands, a feast, or sacrifice, but these practices were customary,
rather than necessary for the new bond to be realized.7 All that was
necessary for the married state to exist was the continued will of the couple.
The primary reason for marriage in the Roman world was the production of
offspring (proles). Marriage guaranteed their status as Roman citizens, who
were this capable of inheriting property (patrimonium) without legal
interruption. Divorce and remarriage were relatively common, if not
frequent, in the Empire among the upper classes of society.8 Divorce was
relatively easy to acquire. The original contract was simply dissolved either
by mutual consent, or unilaterally by the will of either spouse; the law did
not require any causes for divorce to be named.9 Socially, however, the
cause had to be serious in order for the divorcing partner, especially the
wife, to avoid damage to her or his reputation. While the culture generally
tolerated divorce and remarriage, it was seen as a failure with respect to
the loyalty (fides) expected of married couples.10
In the late fourth century, Christians had to defend their views on
marriage against various ascetical movements both within and outside of
the Church. Particularly relevant here are the Manicheans, who, according
to Augustine, considered procreation a trick used by the Kingdom of
7 See, Nathan, Family, p. 16 and Treggiari, Roman, pp. 32-33
8 Treggiari, Divorce, pp. 45-46 suggests that one chance in six of a first
marriage being dissolved by divorce within the first decade and about the
same chance of it being dissolved by death.
9 Ibid, pp. 38-46
10 Nathan, op. cit. 5, p. 21
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Darkness to ensnare those dispersed particles of the Kingdom of Light in


material human bodies.11 While Manichean Elect observed strict
continence in accordance with their views that any erotic intimacy,
especially the procreative kind, aided the Kingdom of Darkness, the
Auditors were not expected to maintain the same standards. They were
encouraged to practice contraception in their sexual relations so as to avoid
the perceived sin of procreation.12 Christians rejected this denial of the
fundamental claim of the creation account of Genesis, viz. the essential
goodness of creation. Factions within the Church, however, did not always
articulate this position clearly as it pertained to marriage and consecrated
virginity. In his Retractationes (=retr., 2, 22.48),13 Augustine claims that De
bono coniugali was written in response to the controversy surrounding the
monk Jovinian, who, among other things,14 equated the merit of consecrated
virginity and marriage by appealing to the Old Testament saints.15 Jerome
had written a characteristically scathing response to Jovinian that appeared,
11 See, Clark, Elizabeth A. Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality, Selections
from Fathers of the Church, Vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic
University of America Press, 1997), p. 3; see also, Brown, Peter, The Body
and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity,
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 391-392.
12 See, Noonan, John T. Jr. Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the
Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 1986), Chapter 4, The Morals of the Manichees and St.
Augustine, pp. 107-142
13 See, Augustine, Revisions, trans. Boniface Ramsey, ed. Roland Teske, S.J.
(New York: New City Press, 2010)
14 See, Budzin, Allan J. Jovinians Four Theses on the Christian Life: An
Alternative Patristic Spirituality, in Toronto Journal of Theology Vol. 4, Is. 1
(1988), pp. 44-60
15 See, Hunter, David G. Resistance to the Virginal Ideal in Late Fourth
Century Rome, Theological Studies, Vol. 48 (1987), pp. 45-64
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even those close to Jerome, to exalt consecrated virginity only by


denigrating marriage.16 Augustines aim in De bono coniugali is to steer a
middle course between the two, affirming the superiority of the celibate life
(against Jovinian) as well as the goodness of marriage (against Jerome). In
doing so, Augustine articulates an account of spousal unity that is intimately
entwined with his understanding of the sacramental unity of Christ and the
Church, both at present and eschatologically.
While Augustine inherits a good deal of his marital lexicon from
Roman custom, his treatise De bono coniugali begins with nature and
Scripture. Human nature, he writes, is a social entity (sociale quiddam)
and has naturally the great benefit and power of friendship (b. coniug.,
1.1).17 The natural bond of husband and wife (ideal typically) produces
children, who stitch together the fabric of society through their own
subsequent friendships, marriages, and children, who grow up to do the
same.18 This arrangement exists according to Gods plan in the beginning,
who wished to produce all persons out of one for the sake of the natural

16 See, Jerome, Contra Jovinianum (PL, 23); see also, Jerome, Epistul,
48.2; 50.2 for the reactions of Pammachius and Domino to Jeromes
teaching.
17 Latin quotations from b. coniug. and virg. will be taken from the edition
of Walsh, P.G., Augustine: De bono coniugali and De sancta virginitate,
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). On Augustines use of amicitia
here, see Burt, Donald, O.S.A. Friendship and Subordination in Earthly
Societies, Augustinian Studies, Vol. 22 (1991), pp. 83-123.
18 Cf. Aristotle, Politics, I, 2.1252a25-1253 b1 and Cicero, De officiis, 1.50-58
for two classical accounts of the natural sociability of the human race and
the union of man and woman as the basic unit of society.
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bond of kinship.19 God draws Eve forth and forms her, not from the dust of
the earth, but from the living flesh of her counterpart, Adam, which
Augustine sees as a sign of the strength of their union. The union can be
further strengthened by sexual intimacy (concubitus) and the propagation
of children as the one honorable fruit of this intimacy, but this need not be
the case. For Augustine, an intimate relationship of friendship and kinship
can exist between spouses who remain childless. For those who are capable
of procreating, on the other hand, their thought of becoming parents
attaches a certain seriousness to the ardor of the pleasure they
experience in their erotic life together (b. coniug., 3.3). For Augustine (and
against the Manicheans), the Gospels confirm the goodness of marriage for
Christians, both in Christs prohibitions of divorce (see Mk. 10: 1-11; Mt. 19:
1-12; Lk. 16:18)20 and in his presence at the wedding at Cana (Jn. 2:1-12).21
That having been said, Augustines media via also asserts the superiority of
the life of consecrated virginity for Christians, who live in a time of
expectation awaiting the in-breaking of the kingdom of God (see b. coniug.,
17.19; 22.27-23.31). While Augustine will focus on the superiority of the
19 Cf. Augustine, De Genesi adversus Manichaeos (=Gn. adv. Man.), I,
23.40; II, 13.19; 24.37 and De Genesi ad litteram (=Gn. litt.), IX, 3.5-19.11;
see also, Clark, Elizabeth A. Heresy, Asceticism, Adam, and Eve:
Interpretations of Genesis 1-3 in the Later Latin Fathers, in Ascetic Piety
and Womens Faith: Essays on Late Ancient Christianity, Studies in Women
and Religion, Vol. 20 (Ontario: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1986), pp. 353-373
20 See also, Augustine, De coniugiis adulterinis (=adul. coniug.), I, 9.9-12.13
for a discussion of these Gospel passages.
21 See also, Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 9.9; Answer to
Adimantus, 3.1-3; the Gospel teachings on divorce and Christs presence at
the wedding at Cana are two loci classici for early Christian theologians
defending the value of marriage.
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celibate life in his later De sancta virginitate, he consistently affirms the


superiority of the celibate life while simultaneously affirming the goodness
of the married state.
The bulk of De bono coniugali is written to affirm the goods of
marriage, of which Augustine names three: offspring (proles), mutual
fidelity (fides), and the sacramental bond (sacramentum).22 The first two, as
we have seen, are common features of Roman marriage. The third, however,
is unique to Christian marriage and Augustine deploys sacramentum in two
mutually related senses, both of which draw the readers attention to the
indissoluble bond of unity between Christ and the Church. First and
foremost sacramentum refers to the character of Christian marriage as
indissoluble. Quoting Matthews Gospel (Mt. 5:32), Augustine writes,
entering into the marriage contract is a matter of such sacredness that it is
not annulled by that separation (b. coniug., 7.7). What is at issue here for
Augustine is the remarriage of the respective spouses after a civil divorce.
The Gospel says that adultery is legitimate grounds for separation, but
Augustine does not think that this frees either spouse to remarry until the
death of the other. Failure to acquire the other two goods is not grounds for
dissolving the sacramental union. Adultery is the prime offense against
fides, but Augustine is clear that even then one may separate from an
unfaithful spouse, but not be legitimately joined to another until her or his
death. Sterility of one of the spouses is also not viable grounds for divorce
22 See also, Augustine, DGL, 9, 7.12; Contra Iulianum (=c. Jul.), 3, 16.30;
25.57; 5, 12.46
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and remarriage: Once sacramental marriage (sacramentum nupti) has


been entered into it cannot be dissolved by any means except by the death
of one of them. The marriage bond remains even if because of evident
infertility no children result (b. coniug., 15.17). Faced with this difficult
conclusion, Augustine suggests that it would not be so unless something
from this weak moral condition of mankind was being used as a symbol
(sacramentum) of something greater, viz. to symbolize the indissoluble
union of Christ and the Church (b. coniug., 7.7).
This brings us to the second sense of sacramentum: a sign or symbol of the
future realization of the heavenly City of God. Christian marriage, which
makes one flesh out of the mutual self-gift of two persons, signifies that
[out] of many souls there will arise a city of people with a single soul and
single heart turned to God (b. coniug., 18.21). Thus, marriage also
symbolizes the eschatological perfection of the Church. The Old Testament
saints prefigured by sign and symbol the advent of Christ and his union with
the Church. Augustine writes, in the times when the mystery of our
salvation was still hidden under the veil of prophetic symbols (propheticis
sacramentis), even those who were [capable of celibacy] entered into
marriage because of the duty to continue the race (b. coniug., 13.15).
Furthermore, the saints of the Old Testament who engaged in polygamy
were not guilty of sin. Rather, their unions symbolized our future Churches
arising from all nations though subject to the one man, Christ (b. coniug.,
18.21). These marriages prefigured the bond of unity available to all people

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in the Church, who propagates her children not through sexual union and
physical birth like the people of Israel, but rather though rebirth in water
and the Spirit in baptism.
In De bono coniugali, Augustine provides the conceptual resources to
draw the following ecclesiological conclusions. The Church is the ideal
Bride of Christ: procreative, faithful, and bound to him by an indissoluble
sacramental union. Bound to Christ in matrimonium, the Church is made
suitable for legitimate motherhood, bringing forth a multitude of souls, and
uniting them under the gentle yoke of Christ. So too through Adam God
produced many from one, beginning with the creation of Eve from Adams
living flesh. Christs living presence in the Church makes her fecund
through the administration of the sacraments. Like our mother Jerusalem
(b. coniug., 16.18), the Church must be filled with the people of God, who
are made participants in the Eucharistic community through baptism.
Augustine had noted that the fact that Eve was drawn forth from Adams
side indicates the strength of their union; so too does the union of the
Church to Christ flow from Christs side, marked by the strong bond of
mutual fidelity. Married couples are called to exercise fidelity and mutual
submission to one another. Those who form the members of the Church
evidence their faithfulness to Christ in their obedience to her authoritative
teaching. The bond of sacramentum both strengthens the fidelity of the
Church and increases her fertility. In the same manner that marriage in the
Old Testament symbolized the building up of the one city of God from many,

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so too does Christian marriage, serves as a sign in the post lapsarian world
of the hoped for promise of indissoluble unity in Gods heavenly city.
3 Purity and Pride
In De sancta virginitate (=virg.), written immediately after De bono
coniugali, Augustine builds upon the ecclesiological themes that he had
begun to develop in his prior discussion the goods of marriage. In this
treatise, he extends the matrimonial image of the Church as Bride and
Mother and unites these to the Pauline image of the Church as Virgin
betrothed to the one man, Christ (2 Cor. 11:2). He also incarnates this
image in his discussion of the Virgin Mary, who models the humility and the
charity that should crown the virginal life. Augustine describes his purpose
for writing De sancta virginitate in his Retractationes: Insofar as I was
able, in one book I have shown that [virginity] is a gift of God, how great a
gift it is, and with what great humility it is to be guarded (retr., 2, 23.49).
My aim in this section will be twofold: first, to show how Augustine develops
his understanding of consecrated virginity from his understanding of the
virginal maternity of Mary and the Church; second, to give an account of
Augustines vehement warnings against the threat of pride in connection to
his understanding of the gift of grace and the virtues.
For Augustine, the significance of virginity derives from the
matrimonial relationship that the Church bears towards Christ, both in the
devastated world and eschatologically. The consecrated virgin signifies in
her flesh the integrity of the faith preserved spiritually by the Church. She

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voluntarily binds herself to Christ in a virginal matrimony whereby she is


made fecund by her spouse, Christ. Augustine writes, The Church as a
whole is holy both physically and spiritually, but she is not physically a
virgin as a whole, though she is spiritually (virg., 2.2). The Church is not
physically a virgin because she is a mixed body made up of both virgins and
married people, who both share in her holiness by maintaining the integrity
of the faith spiritually. Both virgins and married Christians thus share in the
maternal fecundity of the Church by doing the will of the Father in the unity
of charity (see Mt. 12:50).
The Church in the devastated world bears the promise of life
everlasting, eagerly anticipating the realization of her eschatological
perfection as the heavenly City of God (see virg., 24.24). Virgins thus
proleptically participate in the life of the saints and angels in heaven, where
they neither marry, nor are given in marriage (see Mk. 12:25; Mt. 22:29;
Lk. 20:35). Virginal integrity, Augustine writes, belongs with the angels,
and in corruptible flesh it is a foretaste of eternal incorruptibility (virg.,
13.12). It is not only beneficial in our devastated world, but earns a greater
reward in the city of God: there will be commendation for those who made
[this vow] and kept it and a palm of greater glory once they arrive into
the presence of Christ the Bridegroom (virg., 14.14; 18.18). Augustine,
following Paul (see 1 Cor. 7:26) certainly affirms the goodness of virginity in
the sculum as a means of avoiding some of the difficult burdens that fall
upon those who are married (virg., 16.16), but (against Jovinian) asserts

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that it is the virgins participation in the angelic mode of life that affirms the
eschatological value of virginity. Virginity is certainly a good in this life, but
also affords those who receive it as a gift wholly focused on Christ a higher
degree of joy in the city of God: It will be the joy of the virgins of Christ,
about Christ, in Christ, with Christ, following Christ, through Christ,
because of Christ (virg., 27.27).
Augustines Christological focus discloses the extent to which the
paradigmatic virgin is Mary, who signifies the Church as both pure Virgin
and fecund Mother of God.23 The life of consecrated virgins is an attentive
following of Christ and an imitatio Mari, who gave birth physically to
Christ and conformed her heart to his. The Church, in turn, spiritually gives
birth to her own members, the body of Christ. According to Augustine, Mary
was elected by God to receive Christs faith as well as to conceive
Christs flesh after she had already voluntarily consecrated her virginity to
God (virg., 3.3; 4.4). She is thus the ideal type of the consecrated virgin,
who differs in that she was given the added privilege of bearing Christs
human flesh in her own as physical mother: Only Mary, then, is mother and
virgin both spiritually and physically, both Christs mother and Christs
virgin (virg., 6.6). Mary was made so through her cooperation with the
charity of Christ offered to her as a gratuitous gift. This charity both

23 See, Hunter, David G., Helvidius, Jovinian, and the Virginity of Mary in
Late Fourth Century Rome, Journal of Early Christian Studies, Vol. 1
(1993), pp. 47-71, who locates controversy over the perpetual virginity of
Mary in the context of Jovinians anti-Manichaean polemic.
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enabled her to give birth to Christ and to remain intimately united to him, a
model of the unity in charity to which the Church is called.
Augustine gradually shifts his focus from the great glory of chastity
to the great security of humility (virg., 31.31).24 As Augustine sees it,
because virgins participate more intimately in the pure maternity of the
Church as Bride of Christ, they are more susceptible to the sin of pride
(superbia). The danger, Augustine writes, is pride (superbia), and the
more exalted the person, the stronger will be its assault (virg., 31.31).
Pride, in the sense that Augustine uses it here, is a sort of possessive
ownership of ones virtue, implicitly or explicitly making the false claim that
it originates in the self.25 Rather, Augustine thinks that the life of
consecrated virginity and indeed all of the virtues of the Christian life are
gifts gratuitously given by God and unmerited by his creatures. The life of
the virgin should be directed toward the cultivation of the unity in charity
exemplified by the life of the Virgin Mary, who acknowledged with gratitude
that her fertility as the Mother of God was a gift given to her. Living the full
24 Hunter, Augustinian Pessimism? A New Look at Augustines Teaching on
Sex, Marriage and Celibacy, in Augustinian Studies, Vol. 25, 1994, p. 163,
notes [virg.] is remarkable for how little it actually says about the nature of
virginity[Augustine] seems more interested in restricting the claims to
superiority being made by Christian virgins.
25 See, Markus, R.A., De civitate dei: Pride and the Common Good,
Proceedings of the Villanova Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance
Conference, 12/13 (1987-1988), pp. 1-16, who argues that Augustine had
arrived at his conception of pride in De civitate dei after a subtle shift in
emphasis from his earlier works. Prior to 400, he had considered pride as a
form of disruption of the right rational order of things, or an instance of
the minds going out of itself towards material things. After 400,
Augustine begins to place self-love and the sequestration of ones love
away from the common good the heart of his doctrine of superbia.
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Christian life means leaving the market economy of exchange behind and
participating in Gods economy of gifts given and used with gratitude.26
Augustine considers humility to be the means of acquiring and
preserving love, and both of these to be the antidote to pride and envy.
Christ is the teacher of humility in his Incarnation, preaching, and death
(virg., 31.31; 33.33). Augustine writes that Christ, came down from heaven
under the weight of his love (pondere caritatis) in order to liberate his
creation from the weight of pride (virg., 37.38; cf. 50.50). Christ constantly
preached humility and commended those who acknowledged their need of
Christs aid (virg., 32.32; see, Mt. 8:8-10; 15:28). This is why virgins must
contemplate the crucified Christ: Gaze with the minds eyes on the wounds
of the crucified one, the marks in the flesh of the risen one, the blood of the
dying one, the price paid for the faithful, the transaction completed by the
redeemer (virg., 54.55). This is the Christ whom the proud resist because
they willfully resist his invitation to receive their virtues as gifts in this
economy where their individual efforts count for nothing.
The chastity and humility of the virgin thus signifies the purity of the
faith held by the expectant Church on earth who focuses all her attention on
her divine Lover. In beholding his equality to the Father simultaneously with
his obedience to his mother, Mary, the virgin learns the obedience that she
26 See, Griffiths, Paul J. Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar
(Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2009), pp. 5074. The motto of the economy of exchange is the Latin do ut des, I give
so that you may give back, whereas the transfer of goods under the sign of
gift participates (albeit in an imperfect and damaged way) in the Triune
Gods primal gift of the cosmos.
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in turn must cultivate with respect to the Church as her mother. This
expectant gaze of the virgin is trained on the unity of Christ to the one
Church as a mixed body from the most spiritual to the most carnal, from
the apostles to the lowliest of repentant sinners waiting with hope for the
full number of the saints to be gathered to her bosom with the angels in the
everlasting nuptial embrace of the Triune God, giver of all good gifts.
4 Unity in Charity
The doctrinal controversy between Augustine and the Donatists began long
before Augustine became the bishop of Hippo in 396 and continued after his
death in 430.27 The debate over the administration of the sacraments, and
especially baptism, was ultimately rooted in the more fundamental
disagreement concerning the nature of the Church. Here, I will first sketch
out the contours of the Donatist conception of the Church as evident from
Augustines Tractates on the First Letter of John (ca. 406-407),28 which
integrate an anti-Donatist polemic into an account of the bond of charity
that binds together the mixed body of the Church on earth, awaiting her
perfection in the sculum futurum. I will show that the Donatist
ecclesiology is remarkably similar to Augustines account of proud virgins
27 See also, Brown, Peter, Religious Dissent in the Later Roman Empire:
The Case of North Africa, History, Vol. 46 (1961), pp. 83-101; Jones,
A.H.M., Were Ancient Heresies National or Social Movements in
Disguise? Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 10 (1959), pp. 280-298;
Markus, R.A., Christianity and Dissent in Roman Africa: Changing
Perspectives in Recent Work, Studies in Church History, Vol. 9 (1972), pp.
21-36; for the wider social, political, and cultural aspects of the Donatist
controversy.
28 See, <http://www.augustinus.it/latino/commento_lsg/index2.htm> I have
compared Ramseys translation with the Latin text throughout.
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that he developed in the second half of his treatise De sancta virginitate and
that their sacramental theology is incompatible with Augustines
understanding of sacramental indissolubility in De bono coniugali.
Comparing these texts yields an Augustinian theology of a Church that is in
the process of being perfected in unity and holiness, confessing its radical
dependence on the Triune Gods gift of enduring love.
Donatism traces its roots back to the Great Persecution of the emperor
Diocletian from around 303-305.29 In the years following 305, some
Christians in North Africa viewed those bishops guilty of traditio, handing
over the Scriptures to the authorities, as guilty of apostasy, which
threatened the integrity of the Church from the top down. In Carthage, a
certain deacon, Caecilian, was elected to succeed the previous bishop,
Mensurius, who was suspected to have been guilty of traditio as well as
failing to give sufficient aid to imprisoned Christians. Caecilians opponents
declared him invalidly ordained by traditores, and thus elected their own
candidate, Majorinus, to serve as their leader. With this establishment of an
alternate hierarchy a schism was established in North African Christianity
that would bear the name of Majorinuss successor, Donatus, until the end
of the seventh century.

29 See, Fred, W.H.C. The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman


North Africa, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp.3f. My subsequent
account of the general history is indebted to this study. See also, Markus,
R.A., Donatus, Donatism, in Augustine Through the Ages: An
Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B.
Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), pp. 284-287
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This early history left its mark on the subsequent sacramental theology and
ecclesiology of the Donatist Church. The Donatists viewed public acts of
scandal as a kind of contagion that infected the whole body of the Church.
The bishop, as head of the local Church, was responsible for the health of
the body.30 If he committed an act of betrayal, or some public scandal, he
was exiled from the community and any sacraments he administered
afterwards were declared invalid. In order for the infection to be cleansed,
the traditor, or even the spiritual heirs of those thought to be traditores, had
to be re-baptized into Donatist community. 31 Included in this latter group
were Catholics who were thought to still bear the stain of the guilt of their
leaders in the Great Persecution. Thus, the Donatist Church envisioned
itself as a community of the elect, preserving the purity of their identity as
Church from the impure, secular world. The Church, on this view, is the
refuge of saints, which preserves and increases in holiness by
sequestration.32
Augustines anti-Donatist writings span nearly his entire episcopal
career in some form or another, but his major works in this particular
controversy were composed between 397-412. During this time period
Augustine wrote both De bono coniugali and De sancta virginitate (40030 See, Evans, Robert F. One and Holy: The Church in Latin Patristic
Thought, (London: Camelot Press, Ltd., 1972)
31 Theologically, the Donatists considered themselves heirs of Cyprian of Carthage (d.
258), who had fought similar ecclesial battles with the Novatians following the persecution
of Decian in 249/50 and following. See, Willis, Geoffery G. Saint Augustine and the Donatist
Controversy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950), pp. 93-112

32 See also, Brown, Peter, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, (New York:


Dorset Press, 1986), pp. 212-225
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401). In the Easter season of 407, in the midst of the Donatist controversy,
Augustine preached his Tractates on the First Letter of John (=ep. Jo.),
which focus primarily on charity. His account of charity in these sermons
highlights the unitive force of the one charity that brings peace as a
consequence of humility (ep. Jo., proem.). Division marks the devastation
following the fall, but Christ constituted the Church as the locus of unity for
those who confess his name. Augustine understands the schism of the
Donatists primarily as a failure to live into that charity commanded by
Christ and given to the Church. Applying the ecclesiology latent in both De
bono coniugali and De sancta virginitate to the interpretation of these
Tractates will shed some light on Augustines understanding of the nature
of the Church in response to Donatism.
Nuptial images occur throughout these Tractates and they are most
often applied to the identification of Christ with the Church. The unity of the
Church is a gift that flows from the unity of Christs human nature with his
divine nature. Augustine connects the opening lines of the Epistle to Psalm
19: [He] pitched his tent (posuit tabernaculum suum) in the sun and, like a
bridegroom coming forth from his marriage bed, rejoiced like a giant to run
his course (ep. Jo., 1.2; Ps. 19:4-5). Christ pitched his tent in the sun as the
Word of God, the creator by whom all things were made. The marriage bed
(sponsi thalamus), however, is the womb of the Virgin Mary, because in
that virginal womb two things were joined, a bridegroom and a bride, the
bridegroom being the Word and the bride being flesh (ep. Jo., 1.2). The

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Church is joined to the person of Jesus Christ, the totus Christus as both
head and body. This does not imply that Christ in some way needs us.
Rather, it is we, the members of the Church, who need him to be our
advocate with the Father (see ep. Jo., 1.8). The totus Christus is thus an
integral unity, imaged by the unity of husband and wife. For Augustine,
every celebration of the Church is the celebration of her marriage to Christ:
in the Church those who attend, if they attend well, become the bride, for
the whole Church is the bride of Christ, whose origin and firstfruits are the
flesh of Christ: there the bride is joined to her bridegroom in the flesh (ep.
Jo., 2.2). Augustine agrees with Paul that this is a great sacrament (ep.
Jo., 3.7) because it does not admit of dissolution. There ought not be two
altars in the same city for the same reason that a husband and wife should
not have separate marriage beds. The bed they share in common is the
place where their love for one another takes physical form in their sexual
intimacy. So too, Christs marriage bed, whether in Marys womb or on the
altar of the Church, is a place of unity where the weight of Christs love
becomes flesh.
In De bono coniugali Augustine had argued that the sacramental bond
of the Church marks both the indissoluble union of man and wife, as well as
that of Christ and the Church. Augustine twice likens marriage to the
sacrament of ordination (sacramentum odinationis). The first considers a
matter of ecclesiastical discipline: any man who had been married more
than once was not considered suitable for ordination to the priesthood (b.

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coniug., 18.21). This is due to the fact that both marriage and ordination
signify unity. Divorce and remarriage flatly contradict the unity to which the
sacramental bond points. The second instance draws a parallel between the
sacrament of ordination, the indelible mark of baptism, and the indissoluble
bond of Christian marriage. Augustine writes, [The sacramental bond of
matrimony] is like ordination to the priesthood, which takes place for the
purpose of forming a community of faithful (b. coniug., 24.32). As in the
case of a childless marriage, even if the priest does not assemble a
congregation, he is marked forever as a priest. This mark endures even in
the case of some failure on his part to live up to the dignity of his vocation:
If anyone is dismissed from office for some wrongdoing, he will not be
deprived of the Lords sacrament once it has been received, although it will
remain as something he will have to answer for at the judgment (ibid). In
the same way that the ordained ministers of the Church constitute her
members through the administration of the sacraments, and especially the
Eucharist, so too does Christ provide for his bride and body the Church as
husband and head.
Drawing these two texts together yields a powerful response to the
Donatist sacramental theology. In the same way that divorce does not
annihilate the sacramental bond between husband and wife because of the
greater significance of the union of Christ and the Church, neither does
some moral lapse on the part of the priest deprive him of his priesthood or
the sacraments he administers of their validity. The Donatists viewed the

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infidelity of the hierarchy as a contagion that would infect the whole body of
the faithful, rendering the sacraments administered by them invalid and
without efficacy. Augustine, for his part, believes that Christ is the one who
makes sacraments efficacious irrespective of the personal disposition of the
minister.33 The sacraments are the work of the Church as united to Christ in
the Holy Spirit, the bond of love, who vivifies the Church in the unity of
charity.
The person of Christ is thus the locus of true unity for all those who
confess that Jesus is Lord (ep. Jo., 3.7). This includes those members of the
body of Christ from whom individual members are corporeally and
spatially separated: Brothers, our eyes dont see each other as though
they dont know each other. Dont they know each other in the charity of the
bodys structure (in caritate compaginis corporalis)?They go together;
they are focused together. The gaze (intentio) is one; the positions are
diverse (ep. Jo., 6.10). The Church as body of Christ thus extends
throughout the whole world and cannot be located in only one place.
Members of the Church maintain their unity with the rest of the body by
intently focusing their vision upon Christ, who teaches the humility that is a
necessary precursor to charity. Christ as the Word of God is utterly
splendid in form beyond the sons of men (see, ep. Jo., 9.9; Ps. 45:2), but
33 See, Bonner, Gerald, The Church and the Eucharist in the Theology of
Saint Augustine, in Gods Decree and Mans Destiny, (London: Variorum
Reprints, 1987), pp.448-461; Burns, J. Patout, Christ and the Holy Spirit in
Augustines Theology of Baptism, in Augustine from Rhetor to Theologian,
ed. J. McWilliam (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1992), pp. 161171
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he condescended to our collective loathsomeness in order to


accommodate himself to our human manner of seeing. In the form of a
slave, Christ has neither splendor nor comeliness, but his assumption of
human nature allows him to initiate the process of our restoration by
reconstituting our desire and training it upon himself (see, ep. Jo., 4.6; 9.2).
This applies to the whole Church preparing to receive the longed for
embrace of the Bridegroom at the consummation of all things. The Church
fully realizes her virginity both physically and spiritually in the eschaton
because her number will then fixed and the confession of her faith will be
purified. For Augustine, the Church here and now is a pilgrim on a journey
towards her eschatological fulfillment when Christ finally will perfect his
identification with the Church, whose eyes will at last be perfectly cleansed
by love (ep. Jo., 9.10).
The intimate cleaving of the Church to the one flesh of Christ is what
makes the sin of schism so damning to Augustine, and pride paves the way
to schism (see ep. Jo., 1.8). In De sancta virginitate, Augustine argued that
the higher calling of the virgins made them more susceptible to the vice of
pride: The more she has reason to be pleased with herself, the more I am
apprehensive that by being pleased with herself she will be displeasing to
him who resists the proud and gives his grace to the humble (virg., 34.34;
Jas. 4:6). To succumb to this vice would amount to an act of expropriation
with respect to the gift of virginity, falsely claiming that one is in control of

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ones own virginal integrity.34 The proud virgin is thus rendered incapable of
the paradigmatic Christian speech-act: confessio.35 All Christians ask for
forgiveness of sin, and by so doing acknowledge, what we ourselves are,
viz. sinners in desperate need of Gods grace (virg., 48.48).
Failure to confess ones sin is to cut oneself off from the confessing
Church, which is still journeying towards her promised perfection. The
confessing Church, according to Augustine, is made up of sinners as well as
saints: grains of wheat and worthless chaff, who remain commingled until
the final winnowing on the day of judgment. Augustine writes: [Christs]
body is still in the process of being healed and wont be in perfect health
until the resurrection of the dead (ep. Jo., 3.4; 4.4). Until that day,
Christians are called upon by Christ to preserve their unity as his body,
covering both the multitude of their own sins as well as those of their
brothers and sisters with fraternal charity (ep. Jo., 10.3). The Donatists,
like the proud virgins deny the truth of confessio. With their lips that claim
that Jesus is Lord, but they arrogate to themselves the act of separating the
wheat from the chaff before its proper time (ep. Jo., 3.9-10). That work is
only proper to the Lord, whose gaze alone is capable of penetrating the vain
displays of our own moral rectitude and perceiving the true quality of our
hearts.

34 See, Griffiths, Paul J. Lying: An Augustinian Theology of Duplicity, (Grand


Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004), pp. 85-100; cf. Ibid, op. cit. 10, pp. 176-81
35 See, Augustine, Confessiones, 10, 1.1-2.2, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.A.,
(New York: New City Press, 1997)
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The best that Christians can do on this side of the eschaton is discern
the presence of charity in our own hearts and, when we inevitably find it
lacking, confess: The bad is mine and the good is his, and the good that I
do is his good, for whatever bad I do is from me (ep. Jo., 8.2; cf. 6.3).
According to Augustine, confessio is above all an act of love, because it
covers a multitude of sins (ep. Jo., 1.6; 1 Pt. 4:8). In the same way that the
road to schism was paved by pride, so too is the way to unity in charity
paved by the humility whereby we confess that we are sinners (ibid). In
confessing our need for God to give what he commands, we become capable
of enduring the inevitable shortcomings of our brothers and sisters and
thereby participate more intimately in the unity in charity, which will be
perfected in the heavenly City.
5 Conclusion
For Augustine, the Eucharistic liturgy is the celebration of the
marriage of Christ and the Church. It is in this indissoluble union that all
Christian marriages participate and derive their own indissoluble character.
In the same way that matrimonium makes one capable of becoming a
mother, so too does the maternity of the Church derive from the indissoluble
bond of Christ the Bridegroom with the Church. The Church gives birth in
the baptismal font and gathers around the one marriage bed of the altar
because Christ guarantees the efficacy of the sacraments, regardless of who
happens to administer them. The Church is virginal in the purity with which
she adheres to the faith, but is not yet physically virginal because her

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members are both married and celibate. The celibate members of the
Church participate more fully in her eschatological realization, when none
will marry nor be given in marriage. In order to gain the glory proper to
them, however, they must be fully joined to the Church, who confesses her
need for the Savior to give what he commands. The Church as both Mother
and Virgin is realized most perfectly in Mary, who serves as both the
physical mother of Christs flesh and the spiritual mother of Christians who
constitute his body, the Church. The hoped for perfection of the Church is
thus glimpsed in the ascended flesh of Mary, who gazes with unveiled eyes
upon the Triune God who created her, dwelled within her, and was born
from her.
Augustines ecclesiology depends, first and last, on the lordship of
Jesus Christ as head of his own body, which he so desired to identify with
the Church. The core of Augustines response to Donatist claims about their
own pure Church depend on his understanding of Christs headship as
that by which the Church is sanctified, and not any word or work of any
individual member of it. Speaking to the Church, Christ says: Thus you are
to know that I am indispensible to you, not you to me (ep. Jo., 1.12). Christ
is the sinless one, who was made sin on behalf of sinners. It is his holiness
in which the Church participates, albeit imperfectly in hoc sculum. The
Church, for Augustine, is a mixed body and God only knows who among that
temporal body will be incorporated into the heavenly City in sculum
futurum. Augustines account of the Church thus rejects the expropriative

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stance of Donatists, who wanted to anticipate the day of judgment and


arrogate the proper activity of Christ to themselves in separating the sheep
from the goats before the foreordained hour. Their attempt to imminatize
the eschaton, in Augustines mind, does violence to the one marriage bed,
which is alternatively the womb of the Virgin Mary, where the Word of God
took on human flesh, and the Christian altar, where the consecrated bread
and wine become the flesh and blood of Christ adored and consumed by his
body, the Church. In eating the corpus Christi, the members of the Church
paradoxically receive what they themselves are, elevated and transformed
by the kenotic love of Christ the Bridegroom.

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