The Wisdom of the Reflected Light:
Divine Illumination in Augustine's Thought
by Jules Grisham
He [John] was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.
– John 1:9
There exists another power, not only that by which I give life to my body, but also that by which I enable its senses to perceive. The Lord made this for me, commanding the eye not to hear, the ear not to see, but providing the eye to see and the ear to hear, and each of the other senses in turn to be in its proper place and carry out its proper function. I who act through these diverse functions am one mind.
– Augustine, Confessions 
But distinct from [the objects of the intellect] is the light by which the soul is illumined, in order that it may see and truly understand everything, either in itself or in the light. For the light is God himself, whereas the soul is a creature; yet, since it is rational and intellectual, it is made in his image. And when it tries to behold the Light, it trembles in its weakness and finds itself unable to do so. Yet from this source comes all understanding it is able to attain.
– Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis 
Augustine was indebted to Platonism for his conviction that only those things which are characterized by necessity, universality, immutability, and eternity may rightly be declared objects of true knowledge, and that these objects really exist as universal ideas or Forms, upon whose ideal reality the visible things of our world are patterned. He also accepted as true the notion that these Forms – which he referred to in Latin as rationes aeternae, or “eternal reasons” – could be apprehended only by reason, and that they were thus unknowable by means of the senses. Moreover, he retained from Plotinus the crucial notion that the Forms subsist as eternal ideas in the mind of God, and thus partake in the divine attributes. But he rejected, as we shall see, Plato’s attempt to account for this non-empirically acquired knowledge by means of a triple emphasis on recollection, reincarnation, and the preexistence of the soul. In place of such wholly unscriptural doctrines, Augustine elaborated a view by which all human knowledge may be understood as arising by, as it were,the shining of divine light on the objects to be known, by which illumining we attain to true and certain knowledge. “God,” he wrote, “is to the soul what the sun is to the eye. God is not only the truth in, by, and through whom all truths are true. He is not only the wisdom in, by, and through whom all humans are made wise. He is also the light in, by, and through whom all intelligible things are illumined.” 
Illumination, therefore, was Augustine’s answer to the question of how we know the eternal ideas which subsist in the mind of God.  But the question, in turn, as to what he meant by this has been the cause of much controversy over the centuries. There have been four schools of thought on the matter, and it is to those conflicting understandings of Augustine’s doctrine which we will turn our attention in this paper. First, we will review the underlying issues in Augustine’s move away from Platonic recollection, then we will examine each of the interpretations of his thought with regard to divine illumination.
We hope to show, first, that Augustine’s illumination is not to be identified with Aristotle’s active intellect, insofar as the latter is understood to be that faculty of mind which abstracts essences from phenomenal “snapshots” received and retained by the passive intellect; second, that it is not merely concerned with the issue of the certainty of our knowledge; but, third, that it is in fact the very precondition of all knowledge which can be attained through the senses. Specifically, divine illumination is the origin and sustenance of our wisdom, that knowledge of the eternal Ideas subsisting in the mind of God which we are then enabled to apply as criteria in judging and evaluating the phenomena of our experience. It will be seen that, if this interpretation is correct, Augustine will have anticipated many of the epistemological developments of the last two centuries.
Eugene Portalie frames our issue rather nicely: “The problem under consideration is the explanation of the origin of intellectual ideas which, according to Augustine, are totally different from the inferior knowledge given by the senses. Sense cognition constitutes only science [scientia], whereas he is searching for the origin of wisdom [sapientia]. How do we gain access to the ideas of the divine wisdom?”  That is the question which we shall seek to answer.
2. THE REALITY OF THE FORMS AND THEIR UNKNOWABILITY BY THE SENSES
For Augustine as for Plato, the Forms are eternal and immutable archetypes or patterns of reality. And insofar as all visible things participate in and with the Forms by imitating them, Forms may be understood as the exemplary cause of all things, and indeed as the foundation of all reality.  Augustine regarded these Forms as eternally subsisting in the mind of God, and viewed them as “principle forms or stable and unchangeable essences of things. They are themselves not formed, and they are eternal and always in the same state because they are contained in God’s intelligence. They neither come into being nor do they pass away, but everything that can or does come into being and pass away is formed in accordance with them.” 
In his dialogue, Phaedo, Plato argues that the knowledge of particular things and relationships has first to be preceded by knowledge of Forms. To demonstrate this, he uses the example of equality, and shows how in judging the relative similarity of any two things, one must first have knowledge of the Equal itself, a necessary principle which proceeds all data, and a criterion against which all data will later be compared (and always fall short).  In this manner he refutes the empiricist position – that universals are known through sense experience by a process of abstraction from particular things – and makes his case that Forms, as the only objects of which we can attain true knowledge (in light of their necessity, universality, immutability, and eternity), cannot be known from the senses, but only by reason.
Then, having made a powerful case for a rationalist epistemology, Plato steps out into murkier waters. He reasons that since we began using our sensory faculties from the time we were born, yet could not possibly have gained our knowledge of the Equal by means of sense experience, therefore “we must have acquired it before we were born.”  And a little later, he adds, “Our souls, then, existed earlier on, before inhabiting human form; they existed apart from bodies, and they had intelligence.” 
Thus, according to Plato, we are able by reason to apprehend the Forms because we can be led by various means to remember them; this is his doctrine of recollection. And the fact that we remember them, though we never acquired this knowledge through the gateways of our senses – senses which have been operational since birth, moreover – suggests that we thus remember knowledge from before this life; this gets into the matters of the preexistence of the soul and reincarnation.
3. A BRIEF DISCUSSION CONCERNING THE ROLE OF FORMS IN HUMAN JUDGMENT
Augustine saw that the underlying principle at work in Plato’s example of the Equal itself – as also for the Greater, the Smaller, the Beautiful, the Good, the Just, the Holy, and so on – is that Forms enable us to make those necessary judgments about finite things by which we can be said to have knowledge of anything at all. Forms, the rationes aeternae, are the standards, the criteria, by which we are able to engage in rational activity and interpret the world, making conscious, reflective judgments about the things we experience.  This knowing-in-light-of-Formal-criteria, then, is a crucial enterprise in the operation of our rationality, and the name which Augustine gives to this activity is intellectus, “that activity of the soul or mind which perceives, understands, and judges intelligible things in the divine light of eternal truth.” 
Intellectus finds things intelligible and evaluates their veracity and fittingness, by itself and not through bodily sensation and imagination. Just as sense and imagination behold the sensible world, intellectus has as its object the world of intelligible and eternal reality. Unlike ratio inferior and scientia, which refer to temporal things, intellectus is identical with ratio superior or sapientia, that is, the power of inner sight which judges the data of sensory perception according to their likeness to intellectual forms. 
Thus our knowledge of the Forms is, for Augustine, the crucial precondition for the rational judgment and evaluation which, when applied to the things of experience, is the basis of our knowledge of them. Or put in other terms, the presence of rationes aeternae in the mind which would seek to understand a given finite fact is synonymous with the wisdom (sapientia) by which sensory-based knowledge (scientia) is possible, and without which scientia would be quite impossible. The fact that the Forms are “there” in and/or available to the rational structure of the human mind, in such manner as to enable any and all processing of phenomena from a meaningless stream of percepts into objects of true knowledge, or concepts, is very interesting in its striking similarity to Kant’s thoughts on human knowledge. In Kant’s system, the formal structure of the mind, with its categories of understanding, is latent until activated by incoming phenomenal content, at which time the former “processes” the latter according to a priori capabilities which were present prior to activation.
As we shall see, this concept of a priori presence, but latent function is a feature of Augustine’s system as well, according to which the rationes aeternae present in and to the human mind are in a sense the structure of human understanding by which all phenomena is understood. In short, Augustine’s Forms do the job of Kant’s categories.
4. AUGUSTINE’S REJECTION OF PLATONIC RECOLLECTION AND PREEXISTENCE
We have seen how, in Augustine’s system, the knowledge of the Forms is essentially the wisdom (sapientia) by which sense-based knowledge (scientia) is made possible. Now we must address the question of how the human mind comes to possess this wisdom? How do we come to know the rationes aeternae which subsist eternally in the mind of God? Let us briefly examine three possible answers which Augustine rejected: knowledge of Forms by sense experience, by Platonic recollection, and by teaching. 
We have already discussed Plato’s rejection of the notion that knowledge of the Forms can be acquired through sensory experience when we recalled his use of the Equal itself to prove his case in Phaedo. Augustine rejected this argument, too. “Whoever thinks with exactitude of unity,” he wrote in On the Freedom of the Will, “will discover that it cannot be perceived by the senses. Whatever comes into contact with a bodily sense is proved to be not one but many, for it is corporeal and therefore has innumerable parts.”  Unity cannot somehow be abstracted from the confused multiplicity of experience, but exists prior to it. Again, Augustine writes, “True equality and similitude, true and primal unity, are not perceived by the eye of the flesh or by any bodily sense, but are known by the mind.”  So knowledge of the Forms is independent of sense experience. (And this only makes sense, given our earlier discussion of intellectus. The Forms enable knowledge of sensory data, not vice versa. To assert that sapientia is the precondition for scientia, but then to say that sapientia is in turn derived or abstracted from scientia renders the entire thought meaningless in its circularity.)
Well then, if the Forms must be known as a precondition for further knowledge, and if they are not knowable by means of sense experience, then the next argument for how we come to know them might be the preexistence of the soul. We have seen that this is the line of reasoning Plato went down along in his elaboration of the doctrine of recollection. Augustine clung to this particular item of philosophical baggage for a time after his conversion, and advocated (in the company of the earlier Origen) the preexistence of souls as a valid Christian doctrine. But as he grew in the faith and in the knowledge of the Bible, he came to see that the position was wholly unscriptural, and he abandoned it.  In place of this notion he came to argue that God implanted in us a knowledge of the Forms contemporaneous with our birth. “In other words, Augustine’s account of human knowledge replaced Plato’s appeal to reincarnation and recollection with a theory of innate ideas that belong to humankind by virtue of our creation in the image of God.”  And in place of recollection, in the Platonic sense of past lives or eternal preexistence, Augustine would come, as we shall see, to emphasize the role of memory in our knowledge.
This brings us to a third possible source by which we came to know the Forms: teaching. But Augustine rejects this idea as well. In his early work, On the Teacher, he writes, “Concerning universals of which we can have knowledge, we do not listen to anyone speaking and making sounds outside ourselves. We listen to Truth which presides over our minds within us, though of course we may be bidden to listen by someone using words. Our real Teacher is he who is listened to, who is said to dwell in the inner man, namely, Christ, that is, the unchangeable power and eternal wisdom of God.”  According to the view which Augustine develops here, the mind can have ideas which exist only in latent form, of which it may remain unconscious.
We remember or actualize latent knowledge of necessary truth stored in what Augustine calls the memory. To know a priori truth is to remember now as a result of the continuous presence of God’s light within us. Thus we learn by consulting the truth present within our own mind… The Forms and laws of mathematics are present in the memory as latent or virtual truth. They are present not necessarily as objects of thought but as predispositions of the mind to think in certain ways. 
Memory is thus the link between the earlier view of recollection and the later one of illumination. And while human teaching may serve to trigger the memory, to activate it, in its knowledge of Forms, yet ultimately this awakening is the work of the true Teacher, Jesus Christ.
In summary, then, we have seen that Augustine rejects Plato’s recollection, insofar as it is predicated upon unscriptural notions of the preexistence and reincarnation of the soul. “In its place,” writes Diogenes Allen, “Augustine holds the view that God illumines the mind so that it is able to achieve some knowledge of eternal truths from sensible things since what is nonsensible cannot otherwise be known by the senses.”  And he concludes his own discussion of the matter as follows:
Whenever we make a true judgment, it derives its necessity and universality from some illumination of our minds by the Forms in the mind of God. Thus it is from Christ alone, the divine Wisdom, that we gain truth, not only of spiritual matters but about this world. (Augustine never explains very precisely how our minds are illumined by the eternal truths, the Forms.) 
And this opens the door to our theological controversy!
5. THREE INTERPRETATIONS OF AUGUSTINE’S DOCTRINE OF ILLUMINATION
The question of just how we come to know the eternal Forms which subsist in the mind of God has generated much controversy over the years. We will examine, very briefly, three of these rival interpretations for what Augustine might have meant by illumination, before proceeding to an analysis of the fourth.
The first view was formulated by Thomas Aquinas, who saw in Augustine’s notion of divine illumination a remarkable similarity to the active intellect of Aristotle. Aristotle distinguished between two aspects or faculties of the mind. There is, on the one hand, the passive intellect, which receives the phenomena flowing into the mind through the gateways of the senses, and which retains phantasms or “snapshots” of the phenomenal objects in the memory. Then there is, on the other hand, the active intellect, which actively abstracts the essential property, the form, from the stored datum, and so constructs the objects of real human knowledge. Of this active intellect, Aristotle claims it to be separable from the body, and immortal.  As this runs against the grain of the rest of his system, by which body, soul, and mind are fairly holistic and require each other to continue in existence, the notion of the active intellect’s separability has generated controversy. Moreover, he refers to it as being like light, which when shed on data is capable of illuminating and extracting the essence of a thing, its meaning.
The connection for Thomas was an obvious one, then. He held that Aristotle’s active intellect, an individual and particular aspect of each human being, was synonymous with Augustine’s references to the light by which the human mind knows.  But this position effectively turns the rest of Augustine’s system on its head. The function of the active intellect is to extract essences from empirically-derived data. This is the very opposite of Augustine’s conception of wisdom (sapientia) serving as the precondition for knowledge (scientia). As we mentioned before, to invert this, and to attempt to gain sapientia from scientia would, in an Augustinian framework, be absurd.
The second major view is sometimes referred to as the Franciscan theory. This view holds that God’s illumination directly produces, infuses, and impresses the divine forms upon the human mind, and that these infused forms then become our wisdom-norms for judging and evaluating reality.  TeSelle writes with reference to this view that “all intelligibles are known ‘in God’ through an immediate vision of God himself.”  Frederick Copleston pointed out the obvious weakness of this theory, which is that God’s role of agent intellect would seem to render us merely passive receivers of God’s intellectual activity. 
Next, we turn our attention to the view advocated by Copleston and Etienne Gilson, known as the Formal theory. According to this view, God’s illuminating activity is purely formal in nature. Its function is not to impose definite content (as in the Franciscan view) but simply “to convey the quality of certainty and necessity to certain ideas.”  Gilson describes the doctrine of illumination in terms of Augustine’s own liberation from skepticism. Augustine, being a rationalist, considered intelligible truth to be the best safeguard against skepticism. The power of “intellectual knowledge,” “true knowledge,” is that it must be so (e.g., 2+2=4), and because it must be so, it must be so universally, and so immutably, and so too eternally. The object of “true knowledge” is in some senses even more certain than ourselves, as we are contingent, temporal, mutable. “Rather,” Gilson continues, “every time the mind forms a judgment, our mind is so to speak in contact with something that is immutable and eternal. But to say ‘immutable’ and ‘eternal’ is tantamount to saying God. The existence of immutable truths in mutable minds is the proof of the existence of God.” 
The role of the eternal Forms in our own assurance and certainty of truth is an interesting idea, and is certainly valid as far as it goes, but it seems not to go far enough, nor entirely to do justice to Augustine’s conception of divine illumination, as we shall see. Even so, TeSelle writes:
[The Gilsonian position] is the only one which seems fully defensible to me, [in that it] attempts to think through the problem as Augustine saw it and recognizes that he was concerned not primarily with ‘ideogenesis’ (the origin of ideas in the mind, whether by implantation or by vision or by the activity of man’s own agent intellect) but with the validity of our judgments and the regulating authority under which our minds act… Illumination, at its minimal and most surreptitious level, then, may be experienced as nothing more than a sense of responsibility before higher norms, or a sense of certitude about the validity of one’s knowledge and judgments, or even a hesitant questioning after their validity.” 
Thus, “the debate is whether divine illumination is concerned with the origin of our ideas or merely with the ground of their certitude. Was Augustine attempting to show that God is the efficient cause of our ideas of the unchanging forms, or was he trying simply to explain why certain ideas are necessary and immutable?” 
6. DIVINE ILLUMINATION AND THE LOGOS DOCTRINE
The fourth interpretation of Augustine’s doctrine of divine illumination which we will discuss is elaborated by Ronald Nash, and represents a substantial modification of the Franciscan theory which we discussed above. He begins his argument by explaining that any adequate account of the issue must deal with three seeming paradoxes in Augustine’s thought: first, that the human intellect is both active and passive with regard to the forms; second, that the forms both are and are not separate from the human mind; and third, that the human mind both is and is not a light that makes knowledge possible.  We will examine these in order.
The first paradox – that the human intellect is both active and passive – is resolved by our seeing clearly what we have been saying through the length of this paper, that the mind is passive in its receipt of the knowledge of the forms (wisdom, sapientia), but active in its knowing (scientia) of corporeal things. Put another way, the eternal Forms are imprinted on us, our knowledge of them a given; conversely, though phenomena might be said to “imprint” themselves on us also, yet the mind is active in scientia because this phenomena we encounter must be judged according to the Forms.
With regard to the second paradox – that the forms both are and are not separate from the human mind – listen to this passage by Augustine from On the Trinity: “If the eternal reasons are not distinct from the human mind, they will suffer from the same mutability and finiteness that characterize human reason… [But] unless something of our own [mind] were subjoined to them [the Forms], we should not be able to employ them as our measures by which to judge of corporeal things.”  The solution to this paradox is recalling that we are created in God’s image, to image God and to think His thoughts after Him, to His glory. Thus we can say that Forms subsist first in the mind of God, then secondarily and in a derived sense, in the rational structure of human beings, created in the image of God.  Accordingly, writes Nash, “innate ideas exist within the mind implicitly or virtually. Even when they are not present as objects of conscious thought, they are in the mind as predispositions of the mind to think in certain ways. Human knowledge involves an actualization of latent or virtual knowledge stored in the mind.” 
Finally, with regard to the third paradox – that the human mind both is and is not the light which makes knowledge possible – while Augustine makes clear in On the Gospel According to John, 3.4, that “the light of minds [the light which makes knowledge possible] is above all minds,” yet in his Against Faustus, 20.7, he suggests that there are two lights that make knowledge possible – the uncreated light of God and the created light of the human intellect.  Nash uses the example of the moon deriving its light from the source, the sun; so too must the rational mind be regarded as a reflection of the truth it images, God. The effect is that all human knowledge is a consequence of the shining of two lights. Or, to put it differently, we know God’s truth because the rational structure of our minds are patterned after the eternal Forms of his own mind. Accordingly, “as an inherent part of our rational nature, we possess forms of thought by which we know and judge sensible things… All the truths of reason have their ground in [God’s] very being; they subsist in his own mind. Because humankind was created in the image of God, the human mind is a secondary and derivative source of light that reflects in a creaturely way the rationality of the Creator.” 
Nash concludes that the Forms which the human mind know are a priori, virtual preconditions of knowledge – that is, they cannot be derived by experience, they are in the mind even when not objects of thought, and they are necessary in the acquisition of all knowledge, by means of their application to sensory data as criteria and standards of judgment, evaluation, and analysis.
Among all the interpretations we have presented, thus, this last seems best to conform with the rationalist emphasis of Augustine’s thinking. We see that Augustine’s doctrine of illumination points to an ongoing illumination of the human mind by God, by which the human mind’s wisdom is activated. Reflecting God’s light, the light of our mind then proceeds to judge and to evaluate phenomena of our experience, unto knowledge. And the light which lightens every mind and makes knowledge possible is the divine Logos, Jesus Christ, our Teacher.
Near the beginning of our paper, we framed the question as Portalie asked it: “How do we gain access to the ideas of the divine wisdom?”  The answer, according to Augustine’s theory of divine illumination, is that we gain this access by God’s enlightening. Specifically, illumination may be understood as that ongoing “shining” activity of God by which humans are enabled to know the Ideas which subsist eternally in His mind – Ideas which were already there “impressed” on our souls from birth, by virtue of our being made in God’s image, but latent, awaiting activation to then serve as the wisdom of the reflected light, the rational criteria of the human mind, by which we may then judge and evaluate the phenomena we experience and come, in light of these evaluations, to knowledge of the world around us.
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Fitzgerald, Allan D., ed. Augustine Through the Ages. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
Gilson, Etienne. History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. New York: Random House, 1954.
Nash, Ronald H. Life’s Ultimate Questions: an Introduction to Philosophy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.
________. The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1969.
________. The Word of God and the Mind of Man. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1982.
Plato. The Dialogues of Plato: Phaedo. Trans. R.S. Bluck. New York: Bantam Books, 1986.
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1 Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 10.7.11.
2 Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis, XII; trans. J.H. Taylor, S.J., St. Augustine De Genesi ad Litteram, Bk. XII (St. Louis University Dissertation, 1948), 139, quoted in Vernon J. Bourke, The Essential Augustine (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1974), 97.
3 Augustine, On the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 12.15.24, quoted in Allan D. Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine Through the Ages, article: Divine Illumination (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).
4 Ronald H. Nash, The Word of God and the Mind of Man (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1982) 80.
5 Eugene Portalie, A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1960), 109.
6 Ronald H. Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions: an Introduction to Philosophy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 149.
7 Augustine, On Various Questions, 46.1-2.
8 Plato, The Dialogues of Plato: Phaedo, trans. R.S. Bluck (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), 81.
9 Ibid., 86.
10 Ibid., 87.
11 Eugene TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 100.
12 Fitzgerald, Augustine Through the Ages, article: Intellectus, 452.
13 Ibid., 452.
14 Nash, Word of God, 82.
15 Augustine, On the Freedom of the Will, 2.8.22.
16 Augustine, On True Religion, 30.55.
17 Augustine, On the Trinity, 12.15.24.
18 Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions, 156.
19 Augustine, On the Teacher, 11.
20 Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions, 157-58.
21 Diogenes Allen, Philosophy for Understanding Theology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 48.
22 Ibid., 89.
23 Aristotle, On the Soul, 3.5, quoted in Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions, 110.
24 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1.1.84, a.6, quoted in Fitzgerald, Augustine Through the Ages, article: Divine Illumination.
25 Fitzgerald, Augustine Through the Ages, article: Divine Illumination.
26 TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian, 104.
27 Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy, vol. 2, Augustine to Scotus (Westminster: Newman Press, 1962), 64.
28 Fitzgerald, Augustine Through the Ages, article: Divine Illumination.
29 Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York: Random House, 1954), 76.
30 TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian, 104-06.
31 Fitzgerald, Augustine Through the Ages, article: Divine Illumination.
32 Nash, Word of God, 85.
33 Augustine, On the Trinity, 12.2.2.
34 Fitzgerald, Augustine Through the Ages, article: Divine Illumination.
35 Nash, Word of God, 87.
36 Fitzgerald, Augustine Through the Ages, article: Divine Illumination.
37 Nash, Word of God, 81.
38 Eugene Portalie, A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1960), 109.