On Christian Teaching: Book 1

[For other articles on OCT, click here.]

Note: The translation is by R. P. H. Green, and the numbering follows the CSEL edition.

Having discussed the background and preface of On Christian Teaching, I move to an analysis of book 1. OCT is one of the more readable of Augustine’s works, because his common practice is to outline the forthcoming section and define his terms at the beginning. We see this immediately: “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” (1). The first three books deal with discovering, the last with presenting.

Soon we come to another distinction. “All teaching is teaching of either things or signs, but things are learnt through signs” (4). Now, the word “thing” (res) technically encompasses everything that exists. However, Augustine is using it to mean things that are things only, that do not also serve as signs. “Signs” (signa) is a broad category as well; it encompasses any thing that serves to signify something else. Words are the preeminent signs; they serve no purpose other than to signify things. (Thus, Augustine would be skeptical of some modern linguistic theories that make words merely signs of other signs.)

Some things can, at certain times, also be used as signs. Augustine gives a log as an example. Now, normally, a log is just a log. However, the log Moses threw into the bitter waters was a sign. Throughout Scripture, ordinary things often become signs. Though Augustine does not say so here in OCT, I think it is accurate to say that his views of mystical ascent from created things to eternal things render the whole creation a sign, at least for those who have the spiritual eyes to envision it so.

But Augustine treats of things first, and again we encounter a division. “There are some things which are to be enjoyed (frui), some which are to be used (uti), and some whose function is both to enjoy and use” (7). “To enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake. To use something is to apply whatever it may be to the purpose of obtaining what you love” (8). This distinction serves not only as an introduction to Augustine’s method of interpretation, but also as a description of the Christian life. Augustine often uses the metaphor of a journey to explain this distinction. A group of travellers, seeking their homeland, become enthralled with travelling and forget their purpose. Likewise, the great danger Christians face is becoming enmeshed with things that ought to be used, so that they captivate us and draw us from our true source of blessedness.

“The things which are to be enjoyed, then, are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity comprised by them” (10). The Trinity is the highest, the greatest, the most desirable of all things. Yet, people do not recognize him as such. They cling to lesser things. What is reason for this? Sin is a pollutant to our souls. “Our minds must be purified so that they are able to perceive that light and then hold fast to it” (22). Since we are humans, our purification consists of wisdom (Christ) adapting itself to our human condition, to repair it and lead it back to God. “So although it is actually  our homeland, it has also made itself the road to our homeland” (23). The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ furnishes believers with not only faith, but also hope, and he now binds his church “in a bond of unity and love like a healing bandage” (33).

Augustine encounters a particular thorny problem, the status of human beings in the scheme of use and enjoyment. “We have been commanded to love one another, but the question is whether one person should be loved by another on his own account or for some other reason. If on his own account, we enjoy him; if for another reason, we use him” (40). Stipulating that what we enjoy constitutes our blessedness, Augustine concludes we cannot enjoy others, or even ourselves. Rather, we love all people for God’s sake.

Of all the things to be used, “there are four things that are to be loved—one, that which is above us; two, that which we are, three, that which is close to us; four, that which is beneath us” (33). The four are God, ourselves, our neighbors, and our bodies. We all naturally love ourselves and our own bodies, so Scripture’s great commandments concern “a double love of God and of one’s neighbor” (37).

A perhaps even more sensitive question arises. “God loves us … but in what way does he love us—so as to use us or to enjoy us” (73)? Something we enjoy is something we need to be happy. God needs nothing, so he uses rather than enjoys us. But, since we use things to get what makes us happy, he cannot use us in the way that we use things. (One wonders if Augustine’s options are really useful in speaking about God’s love.) “So the kind of use attributed to God, that by which he uses us, is related not to his own advantage, but solely to his goodness” (76). He, having everything he needs and wants, is free to “use” us unto our own happiness.

The purpose of this discussion is to establish that the “just and holy life” (59) is one of ordered loves. He loves what ought to be loved, and prioritizes his loves appropriately. God is loved most, then souls, then bodies. Angels too count as our neighbors (71). Only God is loved for his own sake. All other loves flow like a river toward God; sin is the diverting of some love from its proper end. God arranged “the whole temporal dispensation … for our salvation” (85), but we must use it as a road rather than a destination.

The one who understands the scriptures understands that their chief goal is “to build up this double love of God and neighbour” (86). If someone accomplishes this,  he is not a liar, even if his interpretation diverges from the author’s intent. Yet, he ought to be better instructed so that he does not swerve from the truth permanently. “So there are three things which all knowledge and prophecy serve: faith, hope, and love” (90). Right interpretation relates the scripture to these three.

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Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 9:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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