Glory and Shame in the Incarnation

1200px-fra_angelico_-_conversion_de_saint_augustinI’m working through the Gospel of John with a friend who pointed me to Frederick Bruner’s commentary on John. This is how a commentary should be written! Bruner not only tries to capture the history of the church’s interpretation with each passage by quoting extensively from commentators of various times and traditions, he also takes modern critical issues seriously.

One quotation that he offers on the prologue of John is from Augustine. He quotes:

“A certain Platonist once said that the beginning of this Gospel ought to be copied in letters of gold, and placed in the most conspicuous place in every church.” Augustine, The City of God, chap. 29, in C.A., 4/1:23[1]

This is clearly beautiful and the idea of seeing these words in gold in every church is breathtaking. Nevertheless, it’s curious that Bruner pulls this quotation not from the City of God directly but from Thomas Aquinas’s quoting of Augustine in Catena Aurea: Commentary on the Four Gospels.  In Aquinas’s telling, this statement is used to show a Platonist who eventually saw the light. The darkness, though it is bad in many places of Scripture, is not actually always bad, but is simply a precursor to grasping the true light. Here is his quotation in full:

“We should bear in mind, however, that darkness is not always used in a bad sense, but sometimes in a good, as in Psalm xvii. He made darkness His secret place: the things of God being unknown and incomprehensible. This darkness then I will call praiseworthy, since it tends toward light, and lays hold on it: for, though it were darkness before, while it was not known, yet it is turned to light and knowledge in him who has learned. AUG. A certain Platonist once said, that the beginning of this Gospel ought to be copied in letters of gold, and placed in the most conspicuous place in every church.”[2]

What’s fascinating about this is that when one actually goes to the City of God to find the paragraph, one finds that Augustine is making the exact opposite point with this statement about the Platonist. This quotation comes from the final paragraph of chapter 29 of book 10 which is about how the Platonists are not able to humble themselves to accept the incarnation. The full paragraph from City of God is:

“This is the beginning of the holy Gospel which we call the Gospel According to John. There is a story I often heard recounted by a holy old man called Simplicianus, who later became head of the Church in Milan, as its bishop. He told us that a certain Platonic philosopher used to say that this passage should be inscribed in letters of gold and set up in the most prominent place in every church. But God the great teacher, became of no account in the eyes of the proud simply because ‘the Word became fleshand dwelt among us.’ And so it was not enough for the unfortunate that they should be sick, they must needs glory in their sickness, and be ashamed to take the medicine which could cure them. Now the result of this is not to exalt them, but to ensure for them a more disastrous fall.”[3] 

The point that Augustine is making is one that is similar to the point made by Athanasius in my post yesterday. God is not found where we want him to be found. We want God to live up to our lofty, glorious ideals, but he comes in normal flesh, as a baby in a feeding trough. It is not that the Platonist finally came around to seeing the light, it’s that he refused to look at the true light because he preferred to look at his own darkness and call it light. He wanted glories in golden words, but what he got was God made flesh, therefore he refused to take his medicine and instead gloried in his illness.



[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI;Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2012), 5.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea: Commentary On the Four Gospels Collected Out of the Works of the Fathers, New Edition. (Oxford: James Parker and Co., 1874), 6:23.

[3] Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books, 1972), 417.


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