The following is excerpted from Augustine’s tractate no. 8 on the gospel of John, on chapter 2 verses 1-4. The great father of the church wrote something like 5,400 words on these four verses in this tractate alone, and there is another, tractate no. 9, on verses 1-2, of roughly the same length.
Among many other things, I discovered in this passage a rich display of natural theology in its finest form and a wonderful articulation of a natural-supernatural organism in creaturely reflection upon God and the works of His hands. In Reformed theology these days there is much debate—both historical and systematic—over the nature and value of natural theology. F. Junius, in his Treatise on True Theology, distinguishes two kinds of natural theology: one ‘pagan’, based on ‘natural’ or unregenerate reason, and another consisting of reflection on the ‘natural’ world, which reflection is grounded in the principia of revealed theology, including Scripture and regeneration (Spirit-wrought union with Christ). This distinction is often neglected in contemporary discussions, and ambiguity ensues. Depending on what ‘natural’ is meant to indicate, natural theology is often either defended without adequate distinction between the healthy model and the speculative one; or on the other hand natural theology is dismissed wholesale when it is feared that one kind, the univocal, is the substance of the whole. In this excerpt, writing some 1,200 years before Junius, Augustine employs a similar distinction and wields a doxological natural theology worthy of commendation. My comments to follow.
So writes Augustine:
The miracle indeed of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby He made the water into wine, is not marvelous to those who know that it was God’s doing. For He who made wine on that day at the marriage feast, in those six water-pots, which He commanded to be filled with water, the self-same does this every year in vines. For even as that which the servants put into the water-pots was turned into wine by the doing of the Lord, so in like manner also is what the clouds pour forth changed into wine by the doing of the same Lord. But we do not wonder at the latter, because it happens every year: it has lost its marvelousness by its constant recurrence. And yet it suggests a greater consideration than that which was done in the water-pots. For who is there that considers the works of God, whereby this whole world is governed and regulated, who is not amazed and overwhelmed with miracles? If he considers the vigorous power of a single grain of any seed whatever, it is a mighty thing, it inspires him with awe. But since men, intent on a different matter, have lost the consideration of the works of God, by which they should daily praise Him as the Creator, God has, as it were, reserved to Himself the doing of certain extraordinary actions, that, by striking them with wonder, He might rouse men as from sleep to worship Him. A dead man has risen again; men marvel: so many are born daily, and none marvels. If we reflect more considerately, it is a matter of greater wonder for one to be who was not before, than for one who was to come to life again. Yet the same God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, does by His word all these things; and it is He who created that governs also. The former miracles He did by His Word, God with Himself; the latter miracles He did by the same Word incarnate, and for us made man. As we wonder at the things which were done by the man Jesus, so let us wonder at the things which where done by Jesus God. By Jesus God were made heaven, and earth, and the sea, all the furniture of heaven, the abounding riches of the earth, and the fruitfulness of the sea—all these things which lie within the reach of our eyes were made by Jesus God. And we look at these things, and if His own spirit is in us they in such manner please us, that we praise Him that contrived them; not in such manner that turning ourselves to the works we turn away from the Maker, and, in a manner, turning our face to the things made and our backs to Him that made them.
At the outset Augustine distinguishes a certain group of people whom he calls “those who know that it was God’s doing.” Tracking carefully with the structure of the written testimony and the design of the evangelist (John 1:1-3; 20:30-31), Augustine goes on to identify the Jesus who attended the wedding at Cana and changed water to wine with the same Word of God through whom all things were made, and as Paul would add to an identical confession, in whom all things hold together (Col 1:17). Jesus himself is the Word (Gen 1:3) that brings light out of the formless void; and he is, if in His Spirit, the very immanent Word that animates and sustains His own creation (Gen 8:22). If we may say that the breath of life (Gen 2:7) is the very same Word who took on flesh and walked among us (John 1:14), and who became a Spirit welling up to eternal life in those who believe (John 3:16; 4:14; 1 Cor 15:45), then we should say that a person’s answer to Jesus’ question, ‘who do you say that I am?’ is also the basis for his theology of the natural world. So Augustine says next that the very same one who turned water to wine that day at Cana, the one who came to give eternal life (John 6:27, 33, 40; 10:10), is the one who animates the ‘ordinary’, perennial processes to which we are accustomed.
This passage is remarkable for its profound wedding of general and special revelation. Augustine writes: “A dead man has risen again; men marvel: so many are born daily, and none marvels.” It is not enough even to say ‘he is risen’ unless one knows Him to be the humiliated eternal Son, the very Word of divine creative power, who suffered in the form of a servant unto resurrection, new-creation glory for the sake of those loved by the Father (Rom 8:28-30).
And so this is, in my view, a wonderful example of biblically sound natural theology. It may be called natural because it reflects upon God’s non-verbal self-revelation in and with the things that have been made. It may be called theology because it issues into doxology in Spirit and in Truth; it knows in covenant communion by grace through faith the one true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.