Augustine on the usefulness of Heretics

Augustine on the usefulness of Heretics May 31, 2019

Continuing to work through a volume of the church fathers, I’ve stumbled across this gem from one of Augustine’s sermons:

Mark then, holy brethren, the usefulness of heretics; their usefulness, that is, in respect of the designs of God, who makes a good use even of those that are bad; whereas, as regards themselves, the fruit of their own designs is rendered to them, and not that good which God brings out of them. Just as in the case of Judas; what great good did he! By the Lord’s Passion all nations are saved; but that the Lord might suffer, Judas betrayed Him. God then both delivers the nations by the Passion of His Son, and punishes Judas for his own wickedness. For the mysteries which lie hid in Scripture, no one who is content with the simplicity of the faith would curiously sift them, and therefore as no one would sift them, no one would discover them but for cavillers who force us. For when heretics cavil, the little ones are disturbed; when disturbed, they make search, and their search is, so to say, a beating of the head at the mother’s breasts, that they may yield as much milk as is sufficient for these little ones. They search then, because they are troubled; but they who know and have learnt these things, because they have investigated them, and God hath opened to their knocking, they in their turn open to those who are in trouble. And so it happens that heretics serve usefully for the discovery of the truth, whilst they cavil to seduce men into error. For with less carefulness would truth be sought out, if it had not lying adversaries; “For there must be also heresies among you,” and as though we should enquire the cause, he immediately subjoined, “that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” (Sermon I.11) 

In other words, heretics are useful (despite themselves, but not despite God’s sovereign plan) because they force us to dig down deep into difficult theological questions which we would otherwise gloss over.

This line is also excellent:

The Word of God is never silent, though it is not always heard. (Sermon I.17)

With that said, there are still a few bits in the sermon that I think are less useful. This is one of the places Augustine gives his less-than-helpful view of marriage and the place of sex. Namely, that even in the context of marriage it should only be done for the purpose of making children. This, in turn, affects his exegesis of the Old Testament practice of polygamy. To be sure we need a way to understand this practice in its Scriptural context, but I’m not sure that dropping the mic on “it was so there would be more children” is the way to go.

Still, that aside (and that has to be set aside a LOT in Augustine), this is a solid sermon and should be slowly read and appreciated.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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