On Christian Teaching – Tyconius’ Rules

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Were it not for Augustine, we might take little or no notice of an exceedingly thoughtful Donatist theologian named Tyconius. He wrote a book called Regularum (Of Rules), promising that these techniques could elucidate almost any passage in the law. Augustine demurs from so high an assessment, but it is worth noting that he features no interpretive method drawn from any other church figure. One thing to keep in mind is that the rules displayed in OCT are the rules as Augustine has interpreted and appropriated them. They are not necessarily entirely accurate to Tyconius’ intentions.

“The first one is ‘On the Lord and his body’ (De domino et eius corpore)” (98). This rule states that since Christ is the head of the church, Scripture may speak of both in the same image. For example, “You are the seed of Abraham” is said to the faithful, but about Christ. Intentionally or not, the rule resonates with Irenaean ideas of recapitulation. Also, it has long survived in theologies that emphasize union with Christ and in covenant theology.

“The second rule is ‘On the Lord’s twofold body’ (De domini corpore bipertito)” (100). However, Augustine thinks it should have been named perhaps “On the mixed church” (De permixta ecclesia). This rule states that, although the Scripture appears to be speaking to one group, it may be speaking to two groups who are temporarily joined together. For example, when passages addressing Israel promise comfort and others threaten destruction, we must understand that the comfort is to the faithful, the true people of God, whereas the judgment is for the bad part temporarily mixed with the rest. The same distinction applies to the New Testament writings, which contain promises for the faithful and warnings to the hypocrites. This rule too features heavily in subsequent theology, except among Baptists, whose doctrine of regenerate church membership minimizes or denies this distinction.

“The third rule is ‘On the promises and the law’ (De promissis et lege)” (103). Augustine edits this rule heavily. Tyconius said that “works were given to us by God according to the merit of our faith,” a statement that seems to have been intended to place works on a more gracious footing than some alternative theologies. Tyconius brought the issues of grace and faith to Augustine’s attention, allowing Augustine to move beyond Tyconius by asserting that faith too is a gift of God. Augustine claims that Tyconius did not make this discovery because he died before the Pelagian crisis, which clarified these issues. Augustine gives no example passages with this rule, so it’s tempting to view this more as an a priori theological principle used to safeguard exegesis than as an interpretive technique.

“The fourth of Tyconius’ rules is ‘on species and genus’ (De specie et genere)” (106). Sometimes Scripture speaks to a particular person, group, or place, but the meaning transcends that particular recipient, applying to the broader class. Something may be said to Egypt that applies to the whole Gentile world, or to Solomon that applies to Christ and the church. This is particularly important regarding Israel: “So ‘spiritual Israel’ becomes not a matter of a single race, but of all the races promised to the fathers in their seed, which is Christ” (113). This fourth rule works together with the first to identify the New Testament church as the recipient of the prophecies of the Old Testament. This understanding has been the majority report in theology, though contemporary Dispensationalism contests it.

The fifth rule, “On measurements of time” (De temporibus) (117), explains discrepancies about numbers. Tyconius realized Jewish synecdoche, counting parts of a day (or other unit) as a full day (full unit). Some biblical authors count days inclusively, other exclusively, thus dispelling contradiction. Also, certain numbers may have special meanings, and when multiplied or added combine those meanings.

The sixth rule, “Recapitulation” (Recapitulationem) (122), states that a narrative that seems to progress chronologically in fact “covertly switches back to earlier matters which had been passed over” (122). Genesis 2 evidences recapitulation, as do some genealogies and prophetic passages.

The final rule is “On the devil and his body” (De diabolo et eius corpore), a mirror of the first rule. Some things spoken of the devil may in fact refer to the wicked on earth. The reverse is also true, as in the Lucifer passage in Isaiah 14.

Augustine emphasizes that these rules are incomplete. They are specific applications of a broader principle, that “one thing is to be understood by another” (133). This is the general principle of metaphorical interpretation from which Tyconius’ rules and all others are derived. Upon completing this discussion of metaphorical interpretation, Augustine closes book three and finishes his discussion of how Scripture should be understood. Book four will explain how Scripture ought to be set forth in preaching.

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Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 9:31 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] Augustine concludes his discussion of his method of biblical interpretation with a summary and an exposition of the Rules of Tyconius, a Donatist who put forth seven rules which would unlock the meaning of the Old Testament. These Rules are conveniently summarized at the Sacra Pagina blog (here). […]


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