The Mustard Seed
March 2011
"Ask Pastor"
by Pastor Ron Friedrich

St. Augustine on deafness

Recently we read in a widely distributed email: 

Around 300-400 BC, St Augustine, a Bishop that helped promote Christianity, made known his belief that the deaf cannot be taught the Christian faith and cannot be forgiven of their sins. 

This statement is very inaccurate.

First of all, St. Augustine lived AD 354-430, not BC!  He could hardly have "helped promote Christianity" 400 years before Christ was born. 

Secondly, what St. Augustine actually said was that congenital deafness "hinders faith."  Society in his day lacked systematic programs for deaf education and language training, so in that sense, he was right.  He has often been misquoted to say that deaf people could not have saving faith, since Romans 10:17 says "Faith comes by hearing..."  disregarding the rest of that verse which describes "hearing" as a spiritual picture for receiving God's Word.   Receiving God's Word can come just as well by seeing.  St. Augustine did not assign Deaf people automatically to hell.

St. Augustine's comment about deafness was a side comment in a refutation against Pelagius who said that people are born morally neutral with the capability of self perfection, so that neither God's grace nor Christ's sacrifice are necessary for salvation.  St. Augustine asserted that all people are born sinful and are in need of Christ's sacrifice and God's grace. He said that Adam's Fall infects all mankind, and among the effects of sin are death and disease. Death and disease don't happen only because we make wrong moral choices.  Augustine reminds us that a person cannot make a wrong moral choice to cause himself to have a birth defect.  Rather, we inherit a sinful nature from our parents, and that sin works its effects (disease and death) in us from the moment of conception, which can lead to birth defects, like blindness and deafness, "which defect, indeed, hinders faith itself."

Citation for Augustine's text is Ruth E. Bender's The Conquest of Deafness (page 27).

~~Pastor Ron