"Take Up and Read": Basics of Augustine's Biblical Interpretation

By Froehlich, Karlfried | Interpretation, January 2004 | Go to article overview
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"Take Up and Read": Basics of Augustine's Biblical Interpretation


Froehlich, Karlfried, Interpretation


Augustine was convinced that the Bible is meant to promote one thing: the love of God and neighbor. Although the human language of the inspired scriptures constitutes a formidable challenge, studying the Bible may be the best use of our limited life span. God the master rhetorician will teach, delight, and move anyone who takes it up and reads.

As in other areas of the theological enterprise, Augustine's influence on the development of biblical interpretation in the West can hardly be overestimated. Medieval and Reformation exegetes eagerly excerpted his commentaries and other writings, and compilations such as the Ordinary Gloss or Florus Diaconus's florilegium on the Pauline Epistles kept Augustine's biblical exegesis constantly before the eyes of theologians. The same holds true for his theory of interpretation. For many centuries, Augustine's treatise On Christian Doctrine (or Teaching Christianity) remained the standard treatment, which later attempts such as Hugh of St. Victor's Didascalicon could supplement but not supplant. In more recent times, Augustine has come under much critical scrutiny, but his scriptural expositions are still read and used by pastors in all denominations.

A coherent Augustinian theology is difficult to extract from his writings, for Augustine was not a monolithic thinker. As he developed and changed, so did his view of the Bible, moving from snobbish disdain to unrestrained admiration. He knew the name and the stories of Jesus from his pious mother but, in his teens, he found the Latin Bible unpalatable and unworthy to be regarded as respectable literature (Conf. 3.5.8-9). During years of association with the Manicheans, Augustine developed a rational criticism of the Old Testament, for its crude anthropomorphisms and seemingly immoral teachings were unacceptable to a serious youth in search of the truth. Yet, at the end of his life, his view of the Bible had changed radically. He now praised it as the book of books and celebrated the biblical God as the master rhetorician whose eloquent word had the power to persuade, instruct, delight, and move beyond the power of anyone using the instrument of language. As Augustine tells it, the spiritualizing interpretation of Old Testament texts, especially the prophets, in the sermons of Bishop Ambrose of Milan first opened up for him the possibility of revising his earlier judgment (Conf. 5.14.24). Ambrose followed Origen's hermeneutics of ascent: the interpreter of scripture must leave behind the material level of a literal understanding and move to the spiritual level, scripture's true sense, which concerns the fate of the soul, its predicament, and its salvation. Augustine remembered Ambrose citing 2 Cor 3:6 as a hermeneutical key (Conf. 6.4.6). Stimulated by Tyconius's third rule, he himself later interpreted the verse more accurately in terms of the difference between keeping the law outwardly and relying on the inward gift of grace for finding life. The mature Augustine outgrew the methodology of easy allegorization. In fact, during the final decades of his career, he sought wherever he could to vindicate the "proper" sense of biblical words and stories-the literal sense-without discarding the hermeneutics of ascent.

THE DEPTH OF SCRIPTURE

The best example of Augustine's development as an exegete is his lifelong preoccupation with the first chapters of Genesis. Manichean exegesis took the text at face value and poured scorn and contempt on the crass materialism of the story of creation and fall. Augustine's first anti-Manichean writing was a Genesis commentary, On Genesis against the Manicheans (388/89 C.E.). Toward the end of his life, looking back at this initial attempt in his Retractationes, he observed that he had not yet been able to interpret Genesis in its "proper" sense and therefore resorted to allegorization. A second effort, On Genesis According to the Letter, Incomplete (about 393), was abandoned at Gen 1:26 because he felt the project failed to achieve its aims.

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