Episcopal Letter-writing in the Early Fifth Century

This is an exchange recounted in Augustine’s letter, and I find it rather interesting. Maybe you will too.

Augustine, “Letter 98” in Letters 1-99 (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2001): 431-2.
[I]n bringing what you wrote to an end, you go on to say, “I ask you, then, please reply briefly to these questions, not so that you state what the practice of the Church demands, but so that you give reasons.”
To begin, it is hilarious – I think – that this other bishop would be so pointed in asking Augustine for reasons rather than an appeal to tradition. You could almost read this as an insult to Augustine. In any case, it shows that this other bishop knew Augustine’s texts and his habitual manners of responding to arguments and questions on the topic of baptism. Moving on to Augustine’s rejoinder…
Having read and reread this letter of yours and having considered it to the extent that the limitations on my time permitted, I was reminded of my friend, Nebridius. Since he was most diligent and keen at investigating obscure questions, especially ones pertaining to the doctrine of religion, he deeply disliked a brief reply to a profound question. And he tolerated very poorly anyone who made such a demand, and he stopped such a man with anger on his countenance and in his voice, if the person in question could be treated in such a way, since he considered beneath his dignity someone who asked such questions, because he did not know that on such an important topic so much could have been said and ought to have been said.

So, Augustine comes back with the smack-down. How dare this bishop ask for a ‘brief’ answer on such an important topic? This is similar to the all-too-frequent teacher’s frustration of having to field questions from students that would have been easily answered by the assigned reading, had the student done that reading. Obviously, the asker has no idea what they are doing, and they are therefore imposing on the answerer’s good will. But, Augustine isn’t done yet…
But with you I am not angry in the same way as Nebridius used to be in such a case. You are, after all, a bishop busy with many concerns, as I am. For this reason you neither easily find time to read something lengthy, nor do I find such time to write something of the sort. For he [Nebridius] was at that time a youth who refused to listen to brief answers to such questions and asked many questions in conversation with us; as a man of leisure he asked questions of a man of leisure. But you, well aware of who is making demands upon whom, bid me to reply briefly on so important an issue. Look, I am doing the best I can; may the Lord help me that I may be able to do what you ask.
This response, taken as a whole, is kind of like Augustine saying: "This reminds of the time I knew a guy who got mad at people for doing what you seem to be doing, and rightly so - but, you're not actually doing the exact same thing, are you?" This expertly relativizes the demands laid upon Augustine, while also reasserting Augustine's authority, all the while maintaining a courteous tone...on the surface.

In any case, Augustine back-pedals a bit after laying down the hurt, balancing out his thinly-veiled consternation with his fellow bishop’s stipulation. He gives the bishop the benefit of the doubt, assuming that he asked for a brief answer in order to save time for both of them, since they are both very busy. But, even this counter-weight contains a barb. Look at the second to last sentence: “But you, well aware of who is making demands upon whom…” Now, I ask you – does Augustine think the other bishop is really aware of this, or does Augustine think that the other bishop needs reminding of precisely who is imposing upon whom, namely, he upon Augustine? I can’t help but see here a thought similar to “Look, you asked me these questions, and if I stop to take the time to answer you, I’ll answer as I very well please.”

Now, I’m being very hard on Augustine here. A far more charitable reading could be ventured. But, this all strikes me as rather amusing – the subtle parry and thrust that accompanied (accompanies?) ecclesiastical interaction. It also reminds us that theology and theological debate are very human undertakings pursued by very human people. All those who assume this weighty task always require advancement in sanctification - even the greats, like Augustine.


Rob Haskell said…
That is a very interesting little interchange. It reminds me of a friend I used to have (only kidding). I can't help but think that on one level Agustine just doesn't get it. The bishop asks for brief reply and the first thing Augustine does is write a long-winded introduction about the propriety of... long-windedness.I can see the bishop turning to his assistant upon receiving the letter and and saying, "See, this is exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about!"

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