There is a beautiful correspondence between the Old and New Testament, between these (at first glance) very different testaments that have been bound together and now make up one book.
If we recognize that the Bible is ultimately the product of one divine Author operating through the many and diverse (and often very) human authors, then we should expect to find some point of similitude (if not always perspicuous) that ties them together. Not only this, we are pressed to find some hermeneutical key, a critical insight, that allows us to unlock the meaning of so much Old Testament text. If we don’t, then we risk marginalizing the majority of Scripture—75% of it is Old Testament. Thankfully this question of continuity, despite all discontinuity (Mark 2:27-28; Acts 10:13-15; Gal. 6:15), is at least fundamentally resolved in the New Testament itself. From the very first Christians (who were Jewish) down throughout the centuries, Christians have affirmed that the Old and New Testament interface on an organic level.
In the early fifth century, Augustine memorably put it this way:
“The New Testament lies concealed in the Old, the Old lies revealed in the New.”
The veil has been done away with in Christ (2 Cor. 3:14-16), but the tattered remains of that veil may still drape across whole tracts of the Old Testament. Jesus Himself recognized that the Scriptures needed to be opened up with a critical hermeneutic (Luke 24:27, 32). In The City of God Augustine did his best to clear away this veil by tackling the symbolic meaning of the Old Testament in many places. Thus, you have chapter subheadings such as:
- “The spiritual interpretation of the paradise of Eden does not conflict with its historical truth” (13.21)
- “The symbolism of Abel, Seth, and Enos, with reference to Christ and the Church” (15.18)
- “Noah’s ark as a symbol of Christ and the Church” (15.26)
- “The account of the Flood is neither merely historical nor purely allegorical” (15.27)
- “The prophecies of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, who personifies the Church” (17.4)
- “The witness, direct and allegorical, to Christ and his Church in Psalm 45” (17.16)
Augustine’s approach goes beyond how some evangelicals today would appropriate the Old Testament in seeking for simple promise-fulfillment correspondence or a story line of redemption. These approaches are essential and needed, but a more robust understanding of the Bible must also recognize the allegorical element operative in Holy Writ (Gal. 4:24). This most often comes into play through shadows, prefigures, and types. However, while most people recognize the method of typology, many people are at a loss for discovering types in the Old Testament or prefer to limit themselves to what is explicitly called out as typology in the New Testament. In other words, if the New Testament hasn’t identified something in the Old Testament as a type or explained its spiritual meaning, then it is “off limits” to allegorization. That is why I have cited Augustine above—in his symbolic interpretation of the Old Testament he exhibits a balanced combination of freedom, judiciousness, and humility.
Freedom of Interpretation
Augustine displays a confident freedom in interpreting the text even when no explicit New Testament indicator authorizes such an interpretation. He in no way feels confined to a one-to-one correspondence.
Thus he presents quite a free interpretation of the symbolism of Noah’s ark, which springs from the inspired record in its details. This especially comes through in Against Faustus, book 12. The point is that Augustine latches on to, what to him are, inspired details that indicate a spiritual meaning, a New Testament reality, concealed within the Old Testament historical narrative. And he demonstrates a persistent power to convert these details into meaningful symbols of Christ and the Church as he sees fit.
When the question comes up about what the animals in the ark ate for a year, Augustine comments:
[God] could indeed have endowed these creatures with the ability to live without food–this would have been easy for his divine power–had it not been that their eating played its part in completing the allegorical representation of so great a mystery. In fact, only a love of disputation would allow anyone to contend that the details of the historical narrative are not symbols designed to give a prophetic picture of the Church… The meaning is so abundantly clear on this particular point [the animals symbolizing clean and unclean men in the church], that we must never think of doubting that the other details have their own meanings, although the language is rather more obscure and the references less easy to recognize.
Augustine never gets around to saying what he thinks these details mean, but in principle he feels that there must be some spiritual significance. However, Augustine is far from capricious or subjective (i.e. the text means whatever he wants it to mean). He is always mindful of the Rule of Faith (which doesn’t necessarily guarantee uniformity of interpretation) and seeks to anchor his figurative interpretation in a comparative analysis of Scripture, while simultaneously insisting that the literal sense of a passage always be respected. Thus Augustine’s freedom in assigning spiritual meaning to the Old is always informed by the clear revelation of the New.
One should proceed to explore and analyze the obscure passages, by taking examples from the more obvious parts to illuminate obscure expressions and by using evidence of indisputable passages to remove the uncertainty of ambiguous ones.
Judiciousness of Interpretation
Augustine allegorizes with an adroit judiciousness. In The City of God he is methodically marching through the Old Testament history to show the history and development of the City of God. He is applying himself to the apologetic task at hand and is working under a “governing vision”, so to speak. Thus he harnesses certain stories to his theological vision of history that will further his case, while simply passing others by in silence. Often he relinquishes certain details in the biblical accounts that don’t appear central to his purpose.
In a section entitled “The meaning of Abraham’s sacrifice” (16.24), Augustine launches an ambitious interpretation of Abraham’s sacrifice in Genesis 15 that extends all the way to the end of the age, symbolized by the sunset, with the Great Tribulation and Antichrist’s persecution, symbolized by Abraham’s “dark and mighty dread.” Augustine’s interpretation is in line with his intention- to show the development and ultimate perseverance of the City of God. But he doesn’t employ every element of the story.
Now it would be tedious to discuss every detail and explain every meaning, and it would go beyond the purpose of this work. Therefore we need to understand only what suffices for our inquiry.
In book 12 of the Confessions, Augustine clearly reveals his pastoral judiciousness in assigning spiritual meaning to Old Testament texts regardless of whether or not those meanings were the original intent of the author.
In Bible study all of us are trying to find and grasp the meaning of the author we are reading… As long as each interpreter is endeavoring to find in the holy scriptures the meaning of the author who wrote it, what evil is it if an exegesis he gives is one shown to be true by You, light of all sincere souls, even if the author whom he is reading did not have that idea and, though he had grasped a truth, had not discerned that seen by the interpreter?
In book 12 (30.41–32.43) of the Confessions, Augustine reveals at least five motives operating behind his interpretation of the Old Testament:
- To grasp the light of truth
- To foster love for God, the fount of truth
- To render spiritual profit to his readers
- To enable others to feed on God
- To be preserved from error
Thus he allegorizes intermittently and judiciously, to bring these stories under the auspices of his intention, which is ultimately pastoral and theological.
Humility of Interpretation
Despite Augustine’s intrepid allegorization he maintains a humble sense of his own relativity. Although he puts forth his understanding with pastoral confidence, he leaves room for others to advance their own position, so long as, above all, they are true.
In expounding the symbolism of the garden of Eden, he concludes with:
And there may be other more valuable lines of interpretation. There is no prohibition against such exegesis, provided that we also believe in the truth of the story as a faithful record of historical fact.
In the section on Noah’s ark:
Besides, there is certainly the possibility that someone may explain these points more adequately than I can, or one man than another… And there may be other explanations and better ones, that could be advanced, which would be in harmony with the faith of this City. I would be prepared to say the same about all the other interpretations which can be put forward on this topic.
This is a pretty amazing admission for someone as qualified and influential as Augustine. Here is THE authority of Western theology, the man to whom all of scholastic theology defaulted, making room for others to come along side him, to join him on the barricades. He even suggests that he hasn’t staked his claim on everything, that truth isn’t his private possession.
Interestingly enough, Karl Barth expresses a similar attitude in the preface to the first edition of his The Epistle to the Romans:
And yet, now that my work is finished, I perceive that much remains which I have not yet heard and into which I have not yet penetrated. My book is therefore no more than a preliminary undertaking. Further co-operation is necessary. If only many, better equipped than I, would appear on the scene and set to work to bore for water at the same source!
All this may leave one wondering how to measure the value of an interpretation. Or must we accept every interpretation equally and indiscriminately? Augustine may seem content to allow a diversity of interpretations in the name of charity, but ultimately he reasons that there must be a “paramount” and intended meaning behind every text. While every interpretation may be true, there is one specifically intended truth behind every text.
What we may in fact be noticing is that the Bible has a variety of “readings.” Each perspective may be 100% “right,” even if each perceives only 1% of the full truth.
This is basically saying that there is an ultimate meaning of the divine Author working through, and sometimes behind, whatever the human authors meant. If the reading community grasps this paramount meaning, they have ascertained the whole truth. While other reading communities may not grasp this ultimate meaning, what they ascertain may be wholly true. In both instances the reading community is applying an interpretational framework of understanding to the text to derive meaning. In other words, they are operating within a certain paradigm.
One criterion to measure this is what Thomas Khun calls, “maximum internal coherence.” In other words, since the entire Bible is the product of one divine mind, we should be able to discover a guiding hermeneutical paradigm that does justice to the entire Bible without jeopardizing or excluding various truths. This paradigm will guide and inform our interpretation of the Old Testament in light of the New Testament reality and allow us to uncover a deep, intrinsic congruity between the two testaments.
- Paradigm Changes in Missiology (lifeandbuilding.com)
- Paradigm Change in Theology (lifeandbuilding.com)
1. Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch 2.73
2. Augustine, City of God 15.27
3. Augustine, On Christian Teaching 2.9.14
4. Augustine, City of God 16.24
5. Augustine, Confessions 12.18.27
6. Augustine, City of God 13.21
7. Ibid., 15.26
8. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6 ed., p. 2
9. Kerry Robichaux, A Prolegomenon to a Hermeneutic of the Bible According to the Intrinsic Being of God, p. 5
10. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, p. 3