Augustine on Biblical Interpretation
“So anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.”1
Those familiar with the biography of Augustine will know that after being ordained a presbyter in the African town of Hippo, reportedly against his own wishes and desires, he requested time off to study the scriptures intensely.2 However a person views Augustine, it must be acknowledged that Augustine was primarily a pastor and an interpreter of the Bible. His rigorous study of the scriptures before embarking upon the journey of ordained ministry proves how central the scriptures were to Augustine’s thought and life. As a pastor and teacher of the faithful, Augustine wrote On Christian Teaching as a simple guide to biblical interpretation. Like many pastors, Augustine was not simply content to teach the Bible to his congregation. He wanted to equip his congregation to read, interpret, understand, and apply the scriptures on their own.
As the opening quote illustrates, for Augustine, biblical interpretation is always abundantly practical. A correct understanding of the scriptures produces the double love of God and neighbor. A person who does not grow in love does not truly understand the scriptures, even if that person knows a lot about the scriptures. Reading and interpreting the Bible is never meant to be a purely academic or intellectual exercise, although it certainly can be read in that fashion. As Paul says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).” Paul and Augustine are making the same point: the truths of the scriptures are meant to be lived out. For Augustine, the Christian life is ultimately a life of correctly ordered loves–loving the things that ought to be loved in the appropriate measure.3 Therefore, one who truly understands the scriptures will live well and love well.
You Have to Crawl Before You Can Walk
“The most expert investigator of the divine scriptures will be the person who, first, has read them all and has a good knowledge–a reading knowledge, at least, if not yet a complete understanding–of those pronounced canonical.”4
I teach a basic introductory course on the Bible as a great work of literature at my local community college. Each semester I work with students who have either very little or no exposure to the Bible.5 Before we even begin to read any selections from the Bible, I start with a series of lectures that explain the history of the composition and formation of the Bible. Then I make sure that my students have a general sense of the books of the Bible and their arrangement. I explain how books are divided into chapters and verses, a topic tedious for my more experienced readers, I know. My reasons for starting this way are simple: you have to crawl before you can walk. If my students do not grasp the basics of the Bible first, they will have a difficult time reading the oracles of the prophets, the poetry of the Psalms, or the parables of Jesus.
In the same way, Augustine argues that the most advanced students of the scriptures begin by gaining a basic reading knowledge of the Bible. They know the arrangements of the books and can identify the various genres of literature. They have a working knowledge of the history of the Israelite people. They can see how biblical law works, and they understand the purpose and symbolism of biblical ritual and worship. As many Bible teachers recommend, Augustine encourages readers to gain understanding of the original biblical languages.6 If this is not possible, it is best to either consult literal translations or to compare several translations.7 Of course, as a student progresses on this path, other issues become relevant. Eventually readers of the Bible have to learn how to differentiate between passages meant to be read literally and passages meant to be read figuratively, something that can challenge even the most advanced readers.8 Augustine recognizes that becoming an expert interpreter is a “laborious task,” but it begins with the simple task of committing the Bible to memory or, if nothing else, becoming “not totally unfamiliar” with the content of the Bible.9
Dealing With Bad Bible Interpretation
As a pastor and member of a Christian church, I regularly teach my interpretation of the scriptures and listen to others offer their interpretations of the scriptures. At the risk of offending someone, I have to confess that I am routinely disturbed by the amount of bad Bible interpretation floating around. Before it sounds like I am only pointing fingers outward, I must admit that when I look at my old sermon notes I am often mortified by my own preaching. By no means am I immune to misunderstanding a word or expression, overlooking the historical context, or projecting my own issues and baggage onto the text. Clergy and laity are both subject to hermeneutical errors, but this is not the main point I want to make about this issue.
Often times when I hear bad Bible interpretation, I do not know how to respond because I can see that the bad interpretation is bearing a measure of good fruit in the person’s life. Maybe the person has misunderstood an expression in one of Paul’s letters or has taken the prophets out of their historical context, but their reading of the scriptures has increased their double love of God and neighbor. How am I, as a teacher of the Bible, to respond?
“If, as I began by saying, he is misled by an idea of the kind that builds up love, which is the end of the commandment, he is misled in the same way as a walker who leaves his path by mistake but reaches the destination to which the path leads by going through a field. But he must be put right and shown how it is more useful not to leave the path, in case the habit of deviating should force him to go astray or even adrift.”10
In the above quote, Augustine offers a somewhat surprising response. Keeping in mind that the goal of the Christian life is to order one’s loves correctly, the person who has interpreted the Bible wrongly, but loves, has taken a side trail to the right destination. To a certain degree, I find this to be a rather generous attitude toward bad biblical interpretation. Of course, Augustine goes on to say that the person should be corrected and shown both the right path and the right destination, but, as far as it goes, the person’s wrong reading of the Bible has produced a good result. However, the person ultimately needs to be corrected so that future interpretative mistakes do not lead to the wrong destination.
Do We Really Need the Scriptures?
“Therefore a person strengthened by faith, hope, and love, and who steadfastly holds on to them, has no need of the scriptures except to instruct others. That is why many people, relying on these three things, actually live in solitude without any texts of the scriptures.”11
If the goal of reading the Bible is to grow in love, what happens when one reaches the destination? Is there, then, any further need of the scriptures? On a basic level, one might argue that the journey toward love is never fully complete; therefore, the scriptures have continual relevance for the life of faith. However, Augustine makes the provocative statement that a person firmly rooted in faith, hope, and love really has no need for the scriptures. If the purpose of the scriptures is to train a person to live a righteous life and to equip a person to do good works (2 Tim 3:16-17), then I suppose the scriptures cease to have a purpose once a person is living them out. Or maybe it would be better to look at it differently. The person who is living the scriptures has made them a part of their being; at this point there is no longer a need for written texts. As the scriptures themselves prophesy, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people (Jer 31:33b).”
In On Christian Teaching, Augustine outlines his rules for biblical interpretation so that Christians can grow in the double love of God and neighbor. The process of reading and understanding the Bible begins with baby steps–familiarizing one’s self with the content of the Bible–and grows from there. Sometimes readers of the Bible make interpretative mistakes, but it still produces love in their lives. Those readers should be gently corrected and directed back to the right path. Ultimately, if a person grows in their ability to understand the Bible so much so that it becomes a part of the fabric of their being, they have no further need of written texts. When we love well, the text is written on our hearts.