20 Quotes from On Christian Teaching by Augustine

On Christian TeachingI finished reading On Christian Teaching by Saint Augustine quite a while back now (May) and never got around to posting these 20 Quotes on it. If you’re not familiar with this format, here are the basics:

  1. I got the idea from the Desiring God blog
  2. I like to do these after I finish a book
  3. It’s like a book review, minus the traditional review part
  4. The review consists of 20 quotes that I liked
  5. I like doing these because it makes me go back through the book and look it over once more AND because it gives other potential readers a chance to see what this book has to offer


On Christian Teaching is made up of four books—three on discovering truth in the Scriptures and one on presenting the truth to others. Here’s how the four books break down:

Book 1 is about “things”. Augustine says that of all the things, some are to be used and some are to be enjoyed. Ultimately, the only thing that is to be enjoyed is the Triune God and all other things are to be used to that end. Book one is the most theological and abstract of the four books and contextualizes Augustine’s teaching in the following books.

Book 2 is about the interpretation of “unknown signs”, both literal and metaphorical. This book is very practical and didactic and, in the process of instructing, Augustine ends up discussing the canon of Scripture, the benefits of knowing the original languages, textual criticism, literal versus dynamic translations, the meaning of biblical names and numbers, futile pagan superstitions, and the use of knowing history, chronology, and logic. He ends the book with the classic analogy often used by the church fathers of “plundering the Egyptians.”

Book 3 is about the interpretation of literal and figurative “ambiguities”. Right in the middle of book 3, Augustine breaks off writing and then finally resumes writing thirty years later. He includes a short overview of Tyconius’ seven rules of interpretation.

Book 4 is about rhetoric, eloquence, and wisdom. Augustine says that the aim of preaching is to instruct, to delight, and to move. He provides many examples from Scripture and from two contemporaries (Ambrose and Cyprian) that illustrate three different styles of speaking to accomplish this—the restrained style, the mixed style, and the grand style.

So much for the overview. Here are the twenty quotes I most enjoyed.


Twenty Quotes

There are two things on which all interpretation of scripture depends: the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt. (8)

There are some things which are to be enjoyed, some which are to be used, and some whose function is both to enjoy and use… But if we choose to enjoy things that are to be used, our advance is impeded and sometimes even diverted, and we are held back, or even put off, from attaining things which are to be enjoyed, because we are hamstrung by our love of lower things. (9)

The things which are to be enjoyed, then, are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity that consists of them, which is a kind of single, supreme thing… it is not easy to find a suitable name for such excellence. (10)

Have I spoken something, have I uttered something, worthy of God? No, I feel that all I have done is to wish to speak… (10)

Anyone who fails to see this is like a blind man in the sun, who cannot be helped by the brightness of such a clear and powerful light shining into his eyes. But someone who sees this yet runs away from it has a mind whose insight is weakened by his habit of living in the shadows cast by the flesh. Those, then, who follow what is secondary and inferior to whatever they admit to be better and more outstanding are, as it were, blown away from their homeland by the adverse winds of their own perverted characters. (12)

When we speak, the word which we hold in our mind becomes a sound in order that what we have in our mind may pass through ears of flesh into the listener’s mind: this is called speech. Our thought, however, is not converted into the same sound, but remains intact in its own home, suffering no diminution from its change as it takes on the form of a word in order to make its way into the ears. In the same way the word of God became flesh in order to live in us but was unchanged. (13-14)

A doctor treating a physical wound applies some medications that are contrary—a cold one to a hot wound, a dry one to a wet wound, and so on—and also some that are similar, such as a round bandage to a round wound…and he does not apply the same dressing to all wounds, but matches like with like. So for the treatment of human beings God’s wisdom—in itself both doctor and medicine—offered itself in a similar way. Because human beings fell through pride it used humility in healing them. We were deceived by the wisdom of the serpent; we are freed by the foolishness of God. (14)

This reward is the supreme reward—that we may thoroughly enjoy God and that all of us who enjoy Him may enjoy one another in Him. (25)

There is this important difference between temporal things and eternal things: something temporal is loved more before it is possessed, but will lose its appeal when attained, for it does not satisfy the soul, whose true and certain abode is eternity. The eternal, on the other hand, is loved more passionately when obtained than when desired… however high one’s expectations while on the way, one will find it even more impressive on arrival. (28)

But casual readers are misled by problems and ambiguities of many kinds, mistaking one thing for another. In some passages they find no meaning at all that they can grasp at, even falsely, so thick is the fog created by some obscure phrases. I have no doubt that this is all divinely predetermined, so that pride may be subdued by hard work and intellects which tend to despise things that are easily discovered may be rescued from boredom and reinvigorated. (32)

It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organized the holy scriptures so as to satisfy hunger [ward off starvation] by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom [drive away boredom] by means of its obscurer ones. (33)

One should proceed to explore and analyse the obscure passages, by taking examples from the more obvious parts to illuminate obscure expressions and by using the evidence of indisputable passages to remove the uncertainty of ambiguous ones. (37)

It is a miserable kind of spiritual slavery to interpret signs as things, and to be incapable of raising the mind’s eye above the physical creation so as to absorb the eternal light. (72)

Anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative. (75)

So all, or nearly all, of the deeds contained in the books of the Old Testament are to be interpreted not only literally but also figuratively. (84)

Sometimes not just one meaning but two or more meanings are perceived in the same words of scripture…the person examining the divine utterances must of course do his best to arrive at the intention of the writer… he may reach that meaning or carve out from the words another meaning… perhaps the author saw that very meaning in the words which we are trying to understand. Certainly the Spirit of God who worked through the author foresaw without any doubt that it would present itself to a reader or listener, or rather planned that it should present itself, because it too is based on the truth. (87)

There is a danger of forgetting what one has to say while working out a clever way to say it. (103)

Eloquent speakers give pleasure, wise ones salvation. (105)

So there is a kind of eloquence appropriate to writers who enjoy the highest authority and a full measure of divine inspiration. They spoke in their own particular style, and it would be inappropriate for them to have used any other style, or for others to have used theirs. It is appropriate to them, and the humbler it seems, the more thoroughly it transcends that of others, not in grandiloquence but in substance. (106)

It is the nature of good minds to love truth in the form of words, not the words themselves. What use is a golden key, if it cannot unlock what we want to be unlocked, and what is wrong with a wooden one, if it can, since our sole aim is to open closed doors? (117)

He should be in no doubt that any ability he has and however much he has derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so, by praying for himself and for those he is about to address, he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words… before he opens his thrusting lips he should lift his thirsting soul to God so that he may utter what he has drunk in and pour out what has filled him. (121)

So the speaker who is endeavoring to give conviction to something that is good should despise non of these three aims—of instructing, delighting, and moving his hearers—and should make it his prayerful aim to be listened to with understanding, with pleasure, and with obedience. (123)

More important than any amount of grandeur of style to those of us who seek to be listened to with obedience is the life of the speaker. (142)

3 thoughts on “20 Quotes from On Christian Teaching by Augustine

  1. Enjoyed reading these this morning. The last one! The life of the speaker more important than what one says. Also the matter of enjoying what one should be using might hinder our going on to gain the use of what we are just enjoying.


    • Yeah, some of these quotes are golden. I love the ones on enjoying God and also the ones on the end about the life of a minister to “become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words.” Augustine actually talks a lot about enjoying God, the corporate Christ (what he calls the whole Christ), and deification. Pretty solid stuff!


      • A Brother expressed his dissatisfaction with his lack of
        relationship with the saints recently. Reading this this evening I wonder if this matter of enjoying and using applies to the ‘church’. We should use it more? More contact.


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