On Christian Teaching – Book Three

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Once the student of Scripture has progressed in holiness and possesses a knowledge of biblical languages and accurate texts, he is ready to tackle the ambiguities of Scripture. “Ambiguity in Scripture resides either in literal or in metaphorical usages” (2). If the ambiguity appears in the literal sense, the interpreter should check the punctuation, choosing the option that conforms most closely to the rule of faith. If the ambiguity persists, he should consult the context. Latin contains particular problems, such as the length of vowels, that must be resolved either by grammar, context, or recourse to the original language.

The ambiguities of metaphorical words are less easily resolved.  “The letter kills but the spirit gives life” warns interpreters not to interpret figurative expressions in carnal ways. “It is, then, 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” (21).

The Old Testament Jews were enslaved in this way, yet their slavery was not entirely evil. It was a special sort of bondage, “like the protection of children by a pedagogue” (22). “Those who did believe … clearly showed what an advantage it was to have had the protection of a pedagogue in this way; for the result was that the signs temporarily imposed on them in their slavery drew the thoughts of those who observed them to the worship of the one God who created heaven and earth.” (23) The Gentiles, whose slavery was entirely of their own imagination, were in a far worse predicament.

New Testament realities constitute the “things” to which the Old Testament “signs” pointed. A spiritual person, then, is one who worships a divinely instituted sign, recognizing its significance. A slightly lower stage is “the person who does not understand what a sign means, but at least understands that it is a sign” (32). Only the person who worships the sign as the thing is a slave.

Since it is an error to interpret literal as figurative and vice versa, there must be a way to make this distinction. “Anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative” (33). Since interpretation finds its end in the twofold love of God and neighbor, it is crucial to distinguish between scriptural morality and the customs of a particular culture:

“Scripture enjoins nothing but love, and censures nothing but lust, and molds men’s minds accordingly…. What unbridled lust does to corrupt the mind and body is called wickedness (flagitium); what it does to harm another person is called wrongdoing (facinus). All sins can be divided into these two kinds, but wickedness comes first. Once it has depleted the mind and as it were bankrupted it, it rushes on to commit wrongdoing in order to remove the obstacles to wickedness or to find assistance for it. Similarly, what love does to benefit itself is self-interest (utilitas), and what it does to benefit a neighbour is known as kindness (beneficientia). And here self-interest comes first, because nobody can do good to another out of resources which he does not possess. The more the realm of lust is destroyed, the more the realm of love is increased.” (36-38)

Harsh and cruel words and deeds in Scripture are meant to destroy the realm of lust. Even in the midst of this discussion of scriptural vs. cultural morality, Augustine finds biblical heroes doing things he thinks are wrong. Thus, these episodes must be interpreted figuratively. “No person in his right mind should ever think that the Lord’s feet were anointed by a woman with precious ointment…. A good perfume signifies a good reputation: anyone who enjoys this through the deeds of an upright life anoints Christ’s feet in a figurative sense” (43). He defends the polygamy of the patriarchs by saying that they did not take carnal pleasure in their many wives, but thought only of producing offspring. “I approve the man who exploits the fertility of many women for a purpose other than sex more highly than one who enjoys one woman’s flesh for its own sake” (61).

Once the exegete is certain that an expression should be taken figuratively, he must discover the precise figure. “But since there are many ways in which things may resemble other things, we should not imagine that there is a hard and fast rule that a word will always have the meaning that it has in a particular place” (78). The same term might bear multiple different, or even entirely opposite, figurative meanings. Sometimes the interpreter may arrive at several meanings, all consistent with the rule of faith. If so, all of them are acceptable, though he should strive to match the intentions of the author as closely as possible. Augustine imagines, though, that perhaps the Holy Spirit, while inspiring the Scriptures, did in fact reveal multiple meanings of passages to the authors. A major difference between Augustinian and modern hermeneutics is Augustine’s greater willingness to subsume multiple levels of meaning under the author’s intent (84-86).

All of the literary devices found in pagan literature occur in the Bible, and understanding them can help the reader unpack many passages. The best help in interpreting Scripture, however, comes not from the pagans, but from a Donatist theologian named Tyconius. It’s possible that the heat of the Donatist controversy kept Augustine from finishing On Christian Teaching in the 390’s. He had to wait until a time when his readers would be willing to receive assistance from a Donatist. Since Tyconius’ rules are so influential for Augustine’s hermeneutic, I will treat them in a separate article later.

Published in: on February 10, 2011 at 3:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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