Interpreting Scripture with Augustine

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It has been said that church history is “the history of the interpretation of Holy Scripture”[1]. Augustine’s personal history can also be viewed through the same lens. The correct interpretation of the Bible played a major part in Augustine’s spiritual history and historical legacy. Both aspects are well known.

Augustine’s spiritual history was shaped by his understanding of the Bible. After reading Cicero and being stirred for a love of wisdom, Augustine turned to the Bible to seek wisdom there. However, he was turned off by the Bible’s “painfully unstylish Latin.”[2] He didn’t understand at that point that the Bible, in it’s humble style, is “a text lowly to the beginner but, on further reading, of mountainous difficulty and enveloped in mysteries.”[3] He was then seduced for 9 years by a heretical group called the Manichees, who attacked the Bible because of its problematic passages. After meeting Ambrose in Milan, he found answers to all their challenges, especially by means of an allegorical interpretation of those passages. His early book, On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, catalogs and refutes many of these challenges. Thus, interpretation steered his spiritual history, from heretic to skeptic to catholic. This is so much the case, that Peter Brown has said that “the last three books of his Confessions are in many ways the most strictly autobiographical part of the whole book.”[4] If you haven’t read the Confessions, the last three books are a relentless, kaleidoscopic, and dizzying interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis.

Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture and his methods of interpretation set the church up for the next thousand years after him. His influence was so significant that some have said that much of Western theology is just “a series of footnotes to Augustine.”[5] Although City of God and the Confessions demonstrate Augustine’s exegetical methods, On Christian Teaching is unique among his written works because it is a textbook that teaches those very methods. The first sentence is, “There are certain rules for interpreting the scriptures which, as I am well aware, can usefully be passed on to those with an appetite for such study to enable them to progress not just by reading the work of others who have illuminated the obscurities of divine literature, but also by finding illumination themselves.”[6] Augustine wants to empower and perfect future interpreters and teachers by passing on the rules of the game, so that they can interact with the divine text directly without having to receive everything blindly or secondhand. Thus, Augustine discusses in this book “the process of discovering” and “the process of presenting.”

For anyone wanting to understand Augustine’s exegetical methods, On Christian Teaching is a must read. However, many of his principles crop up elsewhere. Below are ten points, collected from various works, that show some of Augustine’s key concepts when it comes to understanding the Bible rightly.

Key Concepts in Augustine’s Method of Interpretation of Scripture

1. The Relationship Between the Testaments

The New Testament lies concealed in the Old, the Old lies revealed in the New. (Questions on the Heptateuch 2.73)

The Old Testament, you see, is the promise in figure and symbol; the New Testament is the promise spiritually understood. (Sermon 4.9)

2. The Arrangement of Scripture

It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organized the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscurer ones. (On Christian Teaching 2.6.8)

3. Interpreting Obscure Passages

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. (On Christian Teaching 2.9.14)

4. The Goal of Interpretation

The fulfillment and end of the law and all the divine scriptures is to love the thing which must be enjoyed and the thing which together with us can enjoy that thing… Anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. (On Christian Teaching 1.36.41)

5. Author’s Intent

The person examining the divine utterances must of course do his best to arrive at the intention of the writer through whom the Holy Spirit produced that part of scripture; he may reach that meaning or carve out from the words another meaning which does not run counter to the faith, using the evidence of any other passage of the divine utterances. Perhaps the author too 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. (On Christian Teaching 3.27.38)

6. Diversity of Interpretations

What difficulty is it for me, I say, if I understand the text in a way different from someone else, who understands the scriptural author in another sense? 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? (Confessions 12.18.27)

7. Four Senses of Scripture

Four ways of expounding the law have been laid down by some scripture commentators, which can be named in words derived from the Greek, while they need further definition and explanation in plain Latin; they are the way of history, the way of allegory, the way of analogy, the way of aetiology. History is when things done by God or man are recounted; allegory when they are understood as being said figuratively; analogy, when the harmony of the old and new covenants is being demonstrated; aetiology, when the causes of the things that have been said and done are presented. (Unfinished Literal Commentary on Genesis 2.5)

All divine scripture is twofold, as the Lord points out when he says, A scribe learned in the kingdom of heaven is like a householder bringing forth from his treasury new things and old (Mt 13:52), which are also said to be the two testaments. In all the holy books, however, one ought to note what eternal realities are there suggested, what deeds are recounted, what future events foretold, what actions commanded or advised. So then, in accounts of things done, what one asks is whether they are all to be taken as only having a figurative meaning, or whether they are also to be asserted and defended as a faithful account of what actually happened. No Christian, I mean, will have the nerve to say that they should not be taken in a figurative sense, if he pays attention to what the apostle says: All these things, however, happened among them in figure (1 Cor 10:11), and to his commending what is written in Genesis, And they shall be two in one flesh (Gn 2:24), as a great sacrament in Christ and in the Church (Eph 5:32). (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 1.1.1)

8. Allegorical Meaning

All these things [Jerusalem, Sarah and Hagar, the smitten rock] stood for something other than what they were, but all the same they were themselves bodily realities. And when the narrator mentioned them he was not employing figurative language, but giving an explicit account of things which had a forward reference that was figurative. So then the tree of life also was Christ….He is rightly called whatever came before him in order to signify him. (The Literal Meaning of Genesis 8.4.8)

Anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative. (On Christian Teaching 3.10.14)

9. The Relationship Between Allegory and History

Now in my opinion it is certainly a complete mistake to suppose that no narrative of events in this type of literature has any significance beyond the purely historical record; but it is equally rash to maintain that every single statement in those books is a complex of allegorical meanings….In spite of that, I do not censure those who have succeeded in carving out a spiritual meaning from each and every event in the narrative, always provided that they have maintained its original basis of historical truth. (City of God 17.4)

To be sure, we must not suppose that all the events in the narrative are symbolical; but those which have no symbolism are interwoven in the story for the sake of those which have this further significance. For it is only the share of the plough that cuts through the earth; but the other parts of the plough are essential to make this operation possible. It is only the strings of the lyre, and of other similar musical instruments, that are designed to produce the music; but to effect the result the other components are included in the framework of the instruments. These parts are not struck by the player, but the parts which resonate when struck are connected with them. Similarly, in prophetic history some things are recorded which have no prophetic significance in themselves; but they are there for the significant events to be attached to them, moored to them, as we might say. (City of God 16.2)

10. The Depth of Scripture

What wonderful profundity there is in your utterances! The surface meaning lies open before us and charms beginners. Yet the depth is amazing, my God, the depth is amazing. (Confessions 12.14.17)

For such is the depth of the Christian Scriptures that, even if I were attempting to study them and nothing else, from boyhood to decrepit old age, with the utmost leisure, the most unwearied zeal, and with talents greater than I possess, I would still be making daily progress in discovering their treasures. (Letter 137, 1.3)


 

1. Gerhard Ebeling, The Word of God and Tradition, p. 28
2. Robin Lane Fox, Augustine: Conversions to Confessions, p. 85
3. Augustine, Confessions 3.5.6
4. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo,  p. 262
5. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), p. 330
6. Augustine, On Christian Teaching Preface

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