On Christian Teaching: Book Two

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Having treated of things in Book 1, Augustine discusses signs in Book 2. Of the many kinds of signs, only words, particularly those in Scripture, concern him. The intent of the authors controls interpretation. “The aim of its readers is simply to find out the thoughts and wishes of those by whom it was written down and, through them, the will of God, which we believe these men followed as they spoke” (9).

Scripture contains complementary plain passages and difficult images, each suited to a level of reader. “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. Virtually nothing is unearthed from these obscurities which cannot be found quite plainly expressed somewhere else” (15).

The interpreter of scripture must pass through stages of moral purification:

1) fear of God, (learning God’s will)

2) holiness, (teachability)

3) knowledge (understanding the ordered loves from Book 1),

4) fortitude (extrication from changeable things),

5) compassion (purifies mind to perfect love of neighbor)

6) single-minded heart (God preeminent over all other loves)

7) wisdom (thus, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”)

Unlike modern hermeneutic texts, Augustine is convinced that interpreting the Scriptures is a task requiring a lifetime of intense moral transformation. A person’s orientation toward God is more significant than her acuteness for grammar or acquaintance with literary theory.

However, he returns to discuss method. First, the exegete must have a good reading knowledge of all the canonical texts, committing them to memory or at least gaining familiarity (24, 30). “Then the matters which are clearly stated in them, whether ethical precepts or articles of belief, should be examined carefully and intelligently” (30). She should start in clear passages, where the connection to faith, hope, and love is evident. Then, she should tackle more obscure passages, using clearer ones as a guide.

In interpreting literal language, Augustine commends the study of the liberal arts. Knowledge of the original languages is vital. Difficulties may be resolved through comparing translations or performing textual criticism. Context can decide between ambiguous meanings. Idioms in the original languages need to be recognized.

Deciphering figurative language requires liberal learning as well. Hebrew names need to be explained. The qualities of animals and plants mentioned in scripture must be known. Numerology is the key to many mysteries, perhaps the most dizzying example being the 50 days of Pentecost multiplied by the 3 eras plus the 3 persons of the Trinity equals the 153 fishes caught in the disciples’ nets.

Pagan learning contains both superstition and genuine knowledge. The Christian is in a position, like the Jews leaving Egypt, to plunder the old pagans, appropriating whatever is useful and discarding the rest. All pagan learning divides into two kinds: learning instituted by humans, and learning instituted by God but discovered by humans. Part of the “human” learning is superstition: magic, amulets, astrology, etc.. These things, insofar as they have power, receive it from demons. (Augustine clearly distinguishes between legitimate medical treatment and superstitious charms.) There are other humanly institutions which, though arbitrary, are nonetheless necessary and useful. Dress that distinguishes class and sex, market conventions, currency, and other things vary among cultures, but the Christian cannot live entirely without them.

The most useful branches of learning are those that are instituted by God and discovered by man. Augustine is a scientific realist, that is, he believes that knowledge of the natural realm is not just the mind imposing order on chaos; it is a re-discovery of the order implanted in it by the divine mind. History belongs here since it is more God’s doings than ours. History, in fact, is particularly useful in solving difficulties in the Bible. Astronomy is a help as well. Mechanical arts are to be used sparingly, just enough that we understand what Scripture means when it refers to them.

Some branches of divinely instituted learning reside within the mind. Logic is one, and is useful in clarifying thinking. Mathematical knowledge also falls into this category; it was discovered in our minds, not invented. Eloquent speaking is dangerous, but useful. In general, Augustine is wary of any branch of learning pursued for any reason other than better understanding and communicating the truth of Scripture. For example, he supports the making of an encyclopedia of plants, but only those plants mentioned in the Bible. He does not share the love of knowledge of the Greeks, or the infatuation with techne of our own time.

Pagan philosophy, too, has things to offer. However, there should be no excess in pagan learning. Readers of the Bible recall that the amount of wealth taken out of Egypt is insignificant compared to the riches attained in Jerusalem. Scripture has much more wisdom to offer than all the riddles of the Greeks.

Published in: on February 3, 2011 at 9:03 am  Leave a Comment  

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