Augustine (400) – Letter 54, To Januarius

Saint_Augustine_PortraitThanks for reading this latest installment from my current project of reading (and blogging) through Augustine’s works.

This book is known as Letter 54 (A.D. 400) [Also called Book I of Replies to Questions of Januarius.] To His Beloved Son Januarius, Augustine Sends Greeting in the Lord. These are longer letters and the two letters to Januarius are typically referenced together as one work.



Augustine states that he would like to know what Januarius believed regarding the questions that he sent in – it might have helped his reply to be shorter. But he chose to proceed with a response.

regard to the questions which you have asked me, I would like to have known what your own answers would have been; for thus I might have made my reply in fewer words, and might most easily confirm or correct your opinions, by approving or amending the answers which you had given. This I would have greatly preferred. But desiring to answer you at once, I think it better to write a long letter than incur loss of time.

As Augustine has stated before (and after) elsewhere, the Sacraments of the church are very few, easy to observe, and have much significance. He refers specifically here only to Baptism and The Lord’s Supper. However, he does generally reference “other things as are prescribed in the canonical Scriptures”. Any other things not in Scripture may be approved and useful, though possibly not on the same level.

in accordance with which He has bound His people under the new dispensation together in fellowship by sacraments, which are in number very few, in observance most easy, and in significance most excellent, as baptism solemnized in the name of the Trinity, the communion of His body and blood, and such other things as are prescribed in the canonical Scriptures, with the exception of those enactments which were a yoke of bondage to God’s ancient people, suited to their state of heart and to the times of the prophets, and which are found in the five books of Moses. As to those other things which we hold on the authority, not of Scripture, but of tradition, and which are observed throughout the whole world, it may be understood that they are held as approved and instituted either by the apostles themselves, or by plenary Councils, whose authority in the Church is most useful, e.g. the annual commemoration, by special solemnities, of the Lord’s passion, resurrection, and ascension, and of the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven, and whatever else is in like manner observed by the whole Church wherever it has been established.

And regarding those other observances, Augustine grants liberty – i.e. they are not binding as the Canonical Sacraments. Yet he does say that it is wise to do this practice if the Church where you find yourself is practicing them and it’s not contrary to faith. He mentioned a practice in “Confessions” that his mother was performing as she knew it from a church she was at in one area. There would be offered prayers and observances for the dead at their graves. Jerome told Augustine’s mother that this ought not to be practiced and she complied. Another takeaway from this is that the Church was not monolithic in its practices at this time.

In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live.

Here is the first instance that I have read, chronologically, of Augustine even mentioning “doing penance”. As I mentioned in the post for “On The Good of Marriage” regarding “Sacraments” of marriage and ordination, it would be presumptuous for us to take this early mention as anything more than having a person being asked by the bishop who is the overseer of his church to not partake of communion until he has repented. To read into it the later development of Catholic Penance would be going too far. And, further, he says that the bishop has appointed the person to do penance – not the priest. This may be an example of the germ of the practice of “doing penance” but should not be seen as more than that.

Certainly; if the wound inflicted by sin and the violence of the soul’s distemper be such that the use of these remedies must be put off for a time, every man in this case should be, by the authority of the bishop, forbidden to approach the altar, and appointed to do penance, and should be afterwards restored to privileges by the same authority; for this would be partaking unworthily, if one should partake of it at a time when he ought to be doing penance, and it is not a matter to be left to one’s own judgment to withdraw himself from the communion of the Church, or restore himself, as he pleases.

Augustine mentions here that Paul, in writing to Corinth, said that he would tell them more about the universal practice of Communion when he arrived rather than writing it in the letter.

But when the apostle, speaking of this sacrament, says, Wherefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, tarry one for another: and if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that you come not together unto condemnation, he immediately adds, and the rest will I set in order when I come. [1 Corinthians 11:33-34] Whence we are given to understand that, since it was too much for him to prescribe completely in an epistle the method observed by the universal Church throughout the world, it was one of the things set in order by him in person, for we find its observance uniform amid all the variety of other customs.


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