On Christian Teaching: Background and Preface

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Around 396/397 AD, Augustine began working on De doctrina christiana (translated On Christian Doctrine or, better, On Christian Teaching). His first goal was to set out rules (praecepta) for interpreting the difficult places in the Bible so that other expositors, having imbibed his instructions, would be able to interpret them on their own. His second was to provide guidelines for preachers, a sort of Christian homiletics manual.  He quickly finished most of the first three books, the ones concerning interpretation, but the fourth book concerning preaching and the public publishing took another 30 years.

On Christian Teaching must be set in the context of Augustine’s life. After his baptism in 387, Augustine retired from teaching rhetoric, intending to pursue philosophy in a somewhat monastic environment. However, on a trip to Hippo in 391, he was forcibly ordained as a presbyter (a common practice in those days). He became the bishop of Hippo in 396, about the time he began work on OCT. Thus, concern for the church and exegesis of Scripture play larger roles in OCT than in his earlier works. His experience as a church leader rather than as an independent philosopher has refined which problems he treats and how he resolves them.

A new theological idea is present as well. In the preceding few years, Augustine had been studying Paul. A commentary on Galatians and an unfinished one on Romans testify to his deep engagement. From this study, Augustine was persuaded of man’s inability to believe, unconditional predestination, and salvation through an efficacious calling—ideas now known simply as “Augustinianism.” The breakthrough occurred sometime in 396 or 397, almost exactly when Augustine broke off writing OCT to pen Confessions. So, it is difficult to know whether the original draft of OCT benefited from his new theology; most of the sections stating it explicitly come near the end, added later. Confessions and OCT, however, share many parallels. Each book helps interpret the other.

In the preface to OCT, after stating his intentions for the work, Augustine answers in advance certain classes of critics. The ones that concern him most are those who already know how to interpret the scriptures without having learned from a book of rules. They will say instead that each person should rely on illumination from God. Augustine does not deny that they themselves may have a special gift from God for interpreting the Scriptures. He counsels them, however, not to deride human help when it may be had. God does not gift all the same way, and those who have been blessed not to need teaching should not begrudge the less gifted advice that will help them.

Moreover, didn’t even the gifted exegetes learn to read through human instruction, not by divine gift?  If so, they cannot rule out human teaching. They are certainly not as spiritually insightful as Paul, who, although he had heard God speak to him in a vision, humbly received teaching from Ananias. Besides, some of those same people instruct others themselves! If they really believe what they’re saying, they too should cease instructing others. That will not do, though. Spiritual insight is indeed a gift, and those who possess it are obligated to share it, not only expounding mysteries but teaching others how to expound them for themselves.

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Published in: on January 31, 2011 at 11:28 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Charlie, thanks for your comment on SharperIron. (I don’t keep up via email notifications, so I’m just now seeing the discussion.) You might have seen my reference to Augustine in an earlier post in the series. I just love his “plundering the Egyptians” metaphor. I’m currently in a class at Baylor titled “Reading Augustine,” and I’ve really enjoyed finally getting to look at Confessions, On Christian Teaching, City of God, etc. God bless in your studies at Villanova.


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