Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 16

Blackwell Companion to Augustine “Augustine and Scripture”: Draft 15 JULY 2008 Michael Cameron, University of Portland, Oregon, USA

1. Introduction

2. The Character of Scripture

3. Divine Rhetorical Strategy

4. Love at the Center and the “Hermeneutics from Above”

5. God’s Eyelids: Plain and Obscure

6. Literal Sense(s)

7. Temporal Dispensation and the “Hermeneutics from Below”

8. Knowing Scripture, Knowing Self

9. Conclusion

10. For Further Reading


Augustine began his Christian life pondering a text from Paul, and ended it musing on Psalms posted in large letters around his bed. The busy life in between was a constant “asking, seeking, knocking” at Scripture’s door (Matt. 7:7, a favorite text). With some 45,000 references by one estimate jostling one another in his more than one hundred surviving works, Scripture’s importance to Augustine’s life and thought needs no proof. But a quote can vivify it. After more than twenty-five years of reading Scripture as a committed Christian, he wrote to a friend, echoing Cicero’s De Oratore, that he still felt like an apprentice.

For the depth (profunditas) of the Christian writings is so great that I would daily make progress in them if I tried with the greatest leisure, the highest desire, and greater talent to master them alone from the beginning of boyhood up to decrepit old age. It is not that one comes to those matters that are necessary for salvation with such great difficulty, but, though each person grasps them in the faith without which one does not live a pious and upright life, there remain to be understood by those making progress so many things, and things cloaked with such shadows of mysteries, and there lies hidden so great a depth of wisdom, not only in the words by which they are stated that way but also in the realities that are to be understood, that those who are the oldest, the most intelligent, and the most ardent with the desire to learn, experience what the same scripture says in another passage [Sirach 18:6], When a human being has come to the end, then he is at the beginning. (Ep. 137.3, trans. R. Teske)

Augustine’s progress in the Scriptures makes a fascinating story. Many readers first encounter it in the beguiling but bewilderingly prodigious number of Scripture references in his masterwork, the Confessions. That conversion narrative does not merely quote texts; in many ways Scripture itself tells the story. Augustine becomes Adam in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3, and the prodigal son of Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. He is the Pauline schizophrenic at once devoted to and rebelling against God’s law in Romans 7, and the mystical deer panting for God’s fountain in Psalm 42. He knits the prologue of the Fourth Gospel to Platonic philosophy, and spends an

entire book pondering a single verse of Genesis. Throughout the work he speaks the words of the Psalms as if they were his own. Augustine’s self-portrayal in Confessions rises up from these frequent Scripture citations like a visage in a pointillist painting. The best frame in which to set Augustine’s relationship to Scripture is his lifelong quest for wisdom. He was trained in the work of grammarians and had a philologist’s love affair with language. From late adolescence he fervently pursued philosophy and was deeply impressed by rational thought; but being naturally religious he sought the fullness of understanding in the spiritual realm. Intensely communal and hungry for friendship, he loved to do group work on ideas and texts. Trained as a rhetorician, the art of spoken persuasion served as a paradigm for understanding how to interpret texts. All these streams merged on the day he converted to Catholic Christianity and its view of Scripture. Not a classic exegetical scholar like Origen or Jerome, Augustine knew Greek rudimentarily and Hebrew not at all. But he read widely in the tradition of interpretation that was available to him (Dulaey 2002ff.). He adapted some ideas from the interpretive tradition (e.g. Tyconius’s “rules,” (Doc. Chr. 3.30.42-37.56), and used others only as temporary props (e.g. the Greek “four senses”; Util. Cred. 3.5-9; Gn. Litt. Imp. 2.5). He fashioned some original interpretive lenses like the schema of the four ages that portray salvation history (before the law, under the law, under grace, in peace; Exp. Prop. Rom. 13-18; Martin 2001: 42). Gradually he developed a framework that served his writing and preaching for more than thirty years. Along the way he contributed to the history of Christian exegesis a tireless practice and reflection on the conditions of reading the biblical text as a participant in its truth.

As with so many other themes in Augustine’s thought, his perspective on Scripture is marked by both continuity and dynamic movement, like a great rolling river pushing relentlessly toward the sea of eternal truth, but maneuvering and adjusting to the terrain along the way. Where this river took him becomes clear from his reflections on the interpretive process. Any study of that process naturally will give precedence to his great handbook of interpretation, De doctrina christiana (On Christian Teaching). But to limit the perception of his biblical interpretation to that work, as short treatments of his thought commonly do, is a mistake. Profound as that work is, it barely notices important aspects of his scriptural vision. Augustine reflected, often acutely, on the work of interpretation while he was actually doing it. Furthermore, Scripture ties closely into other major themes of his work (for example, see the dense scriptural reasoning in Books 1- 4 of his treatise mystical-intellectual treatise De trinitate, [On the Trinity]). As a result many clues to his understanding of Scripture lie scattered about a wide range of his works, and the fuller view we want, the more panoramic it must be. What follows therefore will try to grasp the lineaments of Augustine’s hermeneutic by scanning an array of works along with De doctrina, using a series of thematic lenses to bring focus. Some caveats as we begin. Augustine’s practice was quite different from what most modern readers since the Enlightenment are accustomed to expect as they look upon Scripture as an object from which to draw dogmas or myths or history or random inspiration. Augustine did not view it as a textual object that yields correct content to those operating upon it with the proper analytic method. The unity of Scripture in the divine will relates all local meanings to the one Voice coming to expression in them all. To meet Augustine in his natural Scripture habitat demands that we to step away temporarily from looking past a text to the critical approximations of its content and composition history. Augustine asks not how Scripture was composed, but how it should be received. He did not work analytically upon Scripture (“What can we observe about this text?”), but hermeneutically from within Scripture (“How does this text disclose of the mind

of God?”) As purely religious as that sounds, his reflection on the nature of interpretation is astute and humane enough to shed light on the act of interpretation as such, as theorists like Heidegger and Gadamer recognized (Bochet 2004: 91-92; Bruns 1984: 159). In a word, Augustine looks not so much for meaning as for understanding, and the difference appears on every page he wrote.


For Augustine, God’s majesty surpasses the Scriptures (En. ps. 8.8), so readers look for light from the same source as the Scripture writers themselves, who confess with John the Baptist that “from his fullness we have all received” (Jn 1:15; En. Ps. 120.4). Scripture is a forest that nourishes the spiritual deer roaming among its shadows and sunlit patches (Conf. 11.2.3); an amphitheater simultaneously hosting many events that delight the eyes on several levels of meaning (En. 2 Ps. 32.2.25); a parchment scroll unfurling God’s will across the heavens (En. Ps. 103.1.8); indeed it is the firmament itself, the created by of God’s finger, the Holy Spirit, to lift humanity’s eyes from earth to heaven (En. Ps. 8.7; Bochet 2004: 25-31). Scripture uses human authors and words, and so features the same rhetorical devices found in all discourse. Devices like figures of speech, staged dialogues, and shifting verb tenses, are etched into Scripture’s deepest character. On the other hand, Scripture isn’t like any other book because its words are faithful conduits to the divine Mind. God inspired the writers of Scripture by wisdom that respected the human act of writing while it revealed his will for salvation. A fecund diversity of authors, times, images, stories, genres, events, characters, rites, even anomalies and contradictions, all serve a single divine discourse. He once said in a sermon:

There is but one single utterance of God (unus sermo Dei) amplified through all the scriptures, dearly beloved. Through the mouths of many holy persons a single Word makes itself heard (sonet), that Word who, being God-with-God in the beginning, has no syllables, because he is not confined by time. Yet we should not find it surprising that to meet our weakness he descended to the discrete sounds we use, for he also descended to take to himself the weakness of our human body. (En. Ps. 103.4.1).

The divine descent to Scripture’s humble speech replicates the humility of the incarnation (both “bowed the heavens”; En. Ps. 8.8; 17.10). The classic source for Augustine’s

understanding of the need for Scripture appears in an early comment on Genesis 2:5-6, “For God had not yet rained upon the earth, nor was there a man to work on it, for a spring was coming up from the earth and watering the whole face of the earth.” (Gn. adv. Man. 2.4.5-5.6). Once upon a time in Eden, says Augustine, God spoke continually to human beings within, like a spring gushing forth from the ground beneath. Sin wreaked havoc when we turned from God and glued our attention to external things. The gushing spring was blocked. In ineffable mercy, God responded by watering us externally by words from the prophets and apostles. Like all airy human words their sayings float like clouds, and their obscurities are like mist; but from them

comes “divine teaching from human words

face of our earth as by a gushing spring. So that we might once more look for the inner spring that wells up to eternal life (Jn. 4:14), Augustine continues, our Lord “deigned to assume our cloud of flesh and flooded us with the heavy downpour of the Gospel.”


rain from the clouds.” God will again water the

Augustine here suggests his vision of Christ the inner Teacher (Mag. 11.38ff.; cf. Matt. 23:10; Eph. 3:16-17), which combines the gushing inner spring of Eden, the authoritative voice of Jesus in the Gospels, and the Christian radicalization of the Platonic “learning as remembrance.” Like Socrates in the Meno acting as the midwife for knowledge forgotten since our worldly birth, Scripture brings to fruition the seed sown secretly in the soul by Christ. He instructs both advanced souls in the recondite truths of spiritual reason and “little ones” in the elementary truths of faith. Other external teachers merely prompt the soul to hear his instruction. The Teacher put his method on display in the incarnation.

The one true Teacher, the incorruptible truth, the sole interior Teacher, does the teaching. He also became exterior in order to call us back from exterior things to interior ones, and taking the form of a servant in order that his loftiness might become known to those who are rising up, he deigned to be seen as lowly by those who were lying prostrate. (C. Ep. Man. 36.41)

Just as humility is the exterior Teacher’s key to the inner Teacher’s work, Scripture’s humble form melts human pride in order to render us fit to hear the inner Teacher’s voice. Scripture not only teaches and portrays humility, its very form imitates the Teacher’s humility in flesh. If Scripture anywhere seems too unbecoming to be the word of the eternal, infinite, invisible and unchanging God of power, goodness, and love, then spiritual readers know that its very simplicity and homespun quality are marks of God lowering himself to human understanding, while also laying an axe to human pride.


Ambrose famously taught Augustine to link the enigmas of the Old Testament to Paul’s axiom, “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6, Conf. 5.14.24; 6.4.6). This was not the mere escape hatch of allegory so often suggested. Augustine suddenly recognized a strategy at work that was familiar from his rhetorical training. Cicero’s standard for interpreting difficult written texts distinguished between a law’s written form (scriptum) and its author’s will or intention (voluntas) (Eden 1997:8-10; 57-63). What appears to be a confused mass of stories, written in a distasteful style, about some people with questionable morals and an unspiritual love for temporal things, actually hid a deeply spiritual message from God. The insight not only untied certain knotty passages for Augustine; it opened him to perceive Scripture in its entirety as a work of divine eloquence. This book’s human words appeared also as “signs given by God” (Doc. Chr. 2.2.3) that have “a certain eloquence in teaching conducive to salvation that is suited to turn the affections of the learners from visible things to invisible ones, from bodily things to non-bodily ones, and from temporal things to eternal ones” (Ep. 55.7.13). Augustine even saw divine power speaking through human events the way human beings speak through words (Ep. 102.33, Strauss 1959: 104-113). Seeing it as a work of divine eloquence suddenly brought whole Christian Bible back into play in Augustine’s search for wisdom. As a result, he became “the first major thinker to regard the Scriptures generically as a work of rhetoric, that is, as work of figural eloquence with designs upon its audience” (Bruns 1984: 148). For Augustine Scripture is a single vast discourse ordered by divine Wisdom, who “reaches mightily from end to end, and disposes all things sweetly” (Wisdom 8:1; Vera. rel.

51.100; Mor 1.16.27). That text’s last phrase (disponit omnia suaviter) rang rhetorical to him, perhaps intimating parts the standard five-fold structure of discourse (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery) that he knew from rhetorical handbooks like Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (3.3.1). The second and third parts were especially relevant: “arrangement” (dispositio) and “style” (elocutio). Both aspects “accommodate” discourses to particular audiences, and served as principles for learning not only how to compose discourses but also how to interpret them. Both gave priority to the whole discourse as the proper context for understanding its individual parts. Within those two which Quintilian discusses special features of them both, and particularly urges oeconomica dispositio (“economic arrangement”) and decorum as the two most important skills that a young rhetor must learn (Eden 1997: 27-31). Augustine uses both to understand the God’s strategy in Scripture. Oeconomica dispositio referred to artful rhetorical arrangement designed for maximum effect. Perceiving this formal principle of “economy” draws the hearer’s or reader’s attention from the interlocking parts of discourse back to the speaker’s central intention. God beautifully arranged (“disposed”) the parts of the divine discourse into a congruent whole that is discoverable by observant reason. Augustine often demonstrated this rational congruence in his early work by placing apparently contradictory passages side by side to show their harmony (e.g. Mor. 1.8.13-18.34; C. Adim. passim). Against the Manichean rejection of the Old Testament on grounds of incongruence with New Testament, Augustine insisted on the “fit” or congruity between the Old and New Testaments. “There is one God of both Testaments” (Mor. 1.17.30), he

says, who adapted its different parts to the different needs of its readers, just as a physician gives a patient first this medicine, then that one, according to need. Scripture’s different characters act good or bad, its authors use different strategies and words, and its texts show gaps and contradictions; but everything converges upon the divine voluntas (Doc. Chr. 2.9.14). Decorum is an aesthetic principle of style that judges the aptness of speech for particular people, places, and occasions. The “sweetness” of Wisdom’s discourse derived from its adapting eternal truth to “speak to our condition,” as the Quaker saying goes. Readers who object to Scripture often simply don’t or won’t develop a sense for Scripture’s decorum. Apparent contradictions or ambiguities in Scripture often resolve themselves when set within the framework of God’s accommodating speech, and even become the occasion for finding deeper truths (Dodaro 2000:

171-174). Readers looking through this rhetorical lens can refer the Bible’s kaleidoscopic variety back to its one divine source of light. Later in the 390’s, perhaps linked to a sharpened sense of the integral role of the humanity Christ and of his body the church in salvation, Augustine deepened his sense of Scripture’s unity by strong attention to Christ’s fulfillment of prophecy. He added to “rational congruence” a picture of Scriptural discourse as a single body. Quintilian had said that the parts of a discourse should feature such “cohesion that there will be no trace of any suture: they must

form a body, not a congeries of limbs

bond of union, with the result that our speech will give the impression not merely of having been put together (composita) but of natural continuity (continua)” (Institutio Oratoria 7.10.16-17; Eden 1997:30-31). Augustine came to think of the Scriptures as just such a unified body that replicates the body of Christ, with Christ the head as its author. In rereading the books of the prophets and apostles that he once thought were contradictory, Augustine suddenly found peering back at him a single divine Face (Conf. 7.21.27). Christ’s voice appeared to clothe itself in the words of the psalmist David and the apostle Paul; they spoke in his name like the angels and prophets who declared, “Thus says the Lord,” and then spoke in the first person (C. Adim.


with what precedes and follows by an intimate

9.1). Isaiah in the Old Testament and Peter in the New spoke “with one mouth” (C. Faust. 11.6), while Jesus “wrote” as by his own hand the contrasting genealogies of the Gospels through members of his body, Matthew and Luke (Cons. Ev. 1.35.54). Before his incarnation Christ sent forth members of his body like Abraham and Jacob so that everything they said and did might be written down “for our sake” (with constant reference to Rom. 15:4 and 1 Cor. 10:1-11; viz. Cat. Rud. 3.6). The Old and New Testaments belong together derives not only because their teachings do not contradict each other, but because they share a single identity under different forms. To reject Israel’s Scriptures as Manicheans did made their Christianity not just irrational, it was self- destructive, because to deny the Old Testament is to deface Christ. The Old Testament is the New Testament in a different, “secret” form. Because this principle is so central, Augustine developed some rhyming jingles to remember it. “In the Old Testament is the secret hiding of the New; in the New is the showing forth of the Old” (occultatio/ manifestatio; Cat. Rud. 4.8). “Old Testament revealed in New, New veiled in Old” (revelatum/velatum; En. Ps. 105.36); and the most famous version, “New in Old concealed, and Old in New revealed” (lateat/pateat; Qu. Exod. [2]73).


De doctrina christiana is not a manual for establishing biblical authority, that is, for unprejudiced exploration of “what the Bible really means” that critically judges its truth apart from faith. Rather, given the Bible’s authority as revelation to saving faith, Augustine teaches those with spiritual reason how to proceed in an orderly way to uncover its riches. His question is not “How do I accept the Bible?” but “Having accepted it, what do I do with it?” His thumbnail answer is that one should discover Scripture’s core claim upon the reader and let all the work of interpretation drive incessantly toward it. That core claim is love (caritas). It is the divine will (voluntas) behind Scripture’s wild variety, and the needle in the haystack of its many figures, parables, rites and events. It is the revelation lying like an open book in both Testaments, a treasure that is on full and provocative display in Christ’s self-oblation on the cross. Therefore it is the “office of the interpreter” (En. Ps. 79.1) to find it, display it, and to build it up in readers and hearers. Love therefore is the apex of Augustine’s teaching in the crucial first book of De doctrina christiana. Book 1 trains the force of the Great Commandment of love toward God and neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40) upon the special task of interpreting Scripture. Love provides the key to the Scripture content to be found by the reader who reads well, as well as the key to the good reader’s attitude. Augustine frames the discussion around “things” (res), realities independent of ourselves with whom we have a relationship. Only one “thing” may be “enjoyed” with the full devotion of our being, and that is God. Neighbors are people whom we are called to love in order to enjoy God together. Everything in Scripture revolves around this command and must be referred to it.

The chief purpose (summa) of all that we have been saying in our discussion of things is to make it understood that “the fulfillment and end of the law” [cf. Rom. 13:10; 1 Tim. 1:5] and all the divine scriptures is to love the thing which must be enjoyed and the thing that together with us can enjoy that thing (since there is no need for a commandment to

love oneself)

of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. (Doc. Chr. 1.35.39-36.40)


who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part

Spiritual reason fortified by faith and love defines everything in the created world by its relation to love for God and by its usefulness in bringing the soul and its neighbor to love for God. Everything in Augustine’s exegesis radiates out from this center. “Any idea about salvation, whether conceived by a mind or proclaimed by a mouth or carved out of any page of Scripture whatsoever, has no other end than love” (En. ps. 140.1). In the figurative world of the creation poetry in Psalm 103, when God “covers [the sky’s] higher regions with waters”, the sky signifies Scripture, and the higher regions of the sky signify love. Figuratively speaking, love is the “higher way” spelled out in Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Cor. 13, and the waters that are “poured out” into our heart by the Spirit in Rom. 5:5. Since love occupies the higher regions of Scripture to which every reader ascends, love is the theme of what might be called Augustine’s “hermeneutics from above.”


Along with many other ancient thinkers, Augustine divided texts into the plain and the obscure. The alternation between finding the one and searching out the other is like the opening and closing of God’s eyelids. (Ps. 8:5; En. ps. 8.10). Finding the truth of love brings joy and strength, while searching for it exercises the seekers to their benefit.

Look for nothing else anywhere in Scripture, and let no one lay any other command on you [than love of God and neighbor]. Whatever is obscure in Scripture, this is what hides there, and whatever is plain in Scripture, this is what stands open there. If there weren’t things standing out in the open anywhere they wouldn’t feed you, and if things didn’t lie hidden anywhere they wouldn’t exercise you. (En. Ps. 140. 2)

Interpretation’s goal is to bring the obscure into the light, and to make the strange familiar. In classic pedagogic fashion, the known clarifies the unknown, and plain things make obscure things clear (Doc. Chr. 2.9.14; Ep. 93.8.24). But in contrast to thinkers like Philo and Origen, who see Scripture’s inner core as a mystery available only to the initiated (though Augustine can speak that way when it suits him), for Augustine Scripture’s highest mysteries are available to everyone in an accommodated form at the level that is appropriate to them, from the simplest to the most sophisticated. Scripture’s obscurity does not so much hide mysteries as adorn them so as to excite the attraction of inquirers (Bruns 1984: 158).

Isn’t it the case that the more eminently respectable a person is, the more veils and curtains there are hanging in his house? Veils inspire respect for the secret hidden behind them. But for those who show respect the veils are lifted, while those who scoff at the veils are turned out and not allowed anywhere near them. Because we, then, have passed over to Christ, the veil is taken away. (S. 51.5)

Difficulty and danger lie not so much in the types of expression, whether literal or figurative, plain or obscure, as in the type of person who reads being spiritual or “carnal.” In carnal readers the divine gift of spiritual reason is so mired in temporal, flesh-oriented modes of thought that it is deaf to the call of its native spiritual realm, and follows only the letter of the text without referring to its spirit (2 Cor. 3:6). At work in them is the “death of the soul” (cf. Rom. 8:6), and reason misfires when it confuses the divine rhetorical strategy in the text by taking literal expressions figuratively and figurative expressions literally. Examples are the Jews, who take spiritual signs of things for the things themselves (Augustine was not capable of conceiving a spiritual Judaism that was not Christianity), and pagan Gentiles, who revere useless material things as signs of other useless things (Doc. Chr. 3.5.9-7.11). Augustine, unlike modern readers, attends less to whether a text is literal or figurative than to whether it is plain or obscure, or “ambiguous.” But some expressions can be so ambiguous that even spiritual readers can’t tell whether it is literal or figurative, so that they should know, not how to categorize it, but how to read it. Here is where spiritual readers, knowing Scripture’s core to be love as the divine voluntas, have a simple rule for judging whether a text is literal or figurative.

We must first explain the way to discover whether an expression is literal or figurative. Generally speaking, it is this: anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related

either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative. Good morals have to do with our love of God and our neighbour, the true faith with our understanding of

God and our neighbour

a rule of this kind: the passage being read should be studied with careful consideration until its interpretation can be connected with (perducatur) the realm of love. If this point is made literally, then no kind of figurative expression need be considered (Doc. Chr. 3.10.14, 15.23; trans. Green)


in dealing with figurative expressions we will observe

Augustine’s rule emphasizes not what the text is in itself for an unprejudiced (i.e. uncommitted) reader, but how the spiritual reader is to understand the text. Because love is the linchpin of spiritual understanding, all true interpretation is spiritual interpretation in the sense that it takes all texts in terms of the divine will for the soul’s conversion. Accordingly, many literal expressions often already obviously give the spiritual sense. If the rule shows they are figurative, then the spiritual reader knows how to deploy the right skills for “shelling the nuts of the text’s secrets (enucleanda secreta) for the nourishing food of love” (Doc. Chr. 3.12.18). Not only is the spiritual reader’s conviction about love confirmed by Scripture’s teaching, but the work of passing from sign to reality fans the reader’s love into flame like a torch waving in the wind (Ep. 55.21).


Augustine’s idea of the literal sense was extremely broad compared with the modern idea of equating a text’s meaning only with the intention of the author in its original historical context. An early work speaks of understanding a text literally “in no other way than as the letters sound” (Gn. adv. Man. 2.2.3; Cat. Rud. 9.13) and of any such interpretation as legitimate so long as it squares with the baseline of Christian faith. De doctrina Book 1 marks that baseline

as the faith leading to the love that was configured by Wisdom when it took human flesh for the sake of leading human beings back to God. But this limit hardly restricts the spectacular range of possibilities for literal interpretation that can overwhelm the interpreter—as it overwhelmed Augustine’s own first attempt in Gn. Litt. Imp. (see Retr. 1.17). His famous saying in Confessions about Scripture’s breathtaking depths relates not to figurative but to literal interpretations:

How amazing is the profundity of your words! We are confronted with a superficial meaning that offers easy access to the unlettered; yet how amazing their profundity, O my God, how amazingly deep they are! To look into that depth makes me shudder, but it is the shudder of awe, the trembling of love. (Conf. 12.14.17; trans. Boulding)

In the long discussion that follows in Confessions Book 12, Augustine conducts a dialogue with interpreters who constrained the possibilities for literal interpretation by funneling them through the author’s intention, in this case, Moses’ intention in Genesis 1. Augustine agreed with this approach in principle (Doc. Chr. 2.5.6), but on a practical level he thought it problematic. To begin with, even discounting the historical and linguistic barriers to understanding, if there are several plausible options we can’t really be sure which meaning Moses had in mind. Further, since he was aware that his words would teach many different people across many generations about God, Augustine asks, would not Moses have wanted those words to allow as many true meanings as possible? But even more importantly, anticipating Paul Ricoeur’s idea of a written text’s “surplus of meaning,” he argues that one should not separate an author’s intention from the truth of the matter being discussed (Conf. 12.23.32). To interpret well it is enough for us to know that Moses could write nothing untrue, and we should allow interpretation to flourish while letting love moderate the discussion about which interpretation is best. In any case, we can rest knowing that the Holy Spirit has taken all these possible meanings into account. If someone chooses an interpretation that misses the author’s intention, but still teaches love, then it’s a case of “no harm, no foul”: a wrong road to the right place is still useful (Doc Chr. 1.36.41). Despite the generosity of these theoretical reflections we should note that in practice Augustine’s work with Scripture’s literal sense seems hardwired for apologetics. His literal readings of Genesis defended against the perception of various kinds of hurts sustained, fouls incurred, and wrong roads taken concerning Scripture’s rational credibility, first against the Manicheans and then against non-Christian critics. It was not his favorite mode of reading Scripture, but Augustine labored dutifully at developing his skill for interpreting literally, and ultimately returned to tackle Genesis 1-3 in the twelve books of De Genesi ad litteram. A fresh reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans 9 in answer to a question radicalized his perception of the priority of grace to say that even the human will to believe was itself God’s doing (Simpl. 2.1ff.; Retr. 2.1). In line with this he later contended insistently and at great length for the literal sense, especially of Paul’s letters, in many works disputing with the Pelagians over the doctrine of grace.


As majestic as it is, Scripture is nevertheless not in itself the eternal word of God. It is rather part of God’s massive rescue program to save humanity and return it to right reason.

Augustine calls that program the “temporal dispensation” (dispensatio temporalis; Ver. Rel. 7.13, F. et Symb. 4.8). Other elements of this program include the church, the sacraments, and even the flesh of Christ. After strikingly declaring that Christ’s humanity is only a temporary means to be “used” to bring us to God (Doc. Chr. 1.34.38), Augustine with equal boldness says that anyone fully formed in faith, hope, and love in this life (he seems to be thinking of desert monks) “has no need of the Scriptures except to instruct others” (Doc. Chr. 1.39.43). Scripture is our constantly necessary daily bread on pilgrimage in this life, but against the backdrop of eternal life it must be considered a temporary help. “When we finally get there, do you imagine that we shall be listening to a book? We shall be seeing the Word itself, listening to the Word itself, eating, it, drinking it, as the angels do now. Do the angels need books, or lectures, or readers?” (S. 57.7). The “temporal dispensation” of remedial aids returns reason to health, which allows one to undertake the work of scripture interpretation in the first place. But with the inner

Teacher, Scripture calls the soul beyond temporal created things to thirst for the eternal. “In the Augustinian optic, one goes to the eternal by the temporal, more than one finds the eternal within

the temporal

at the service of this interior teaching, which, in return, gives inexhaustible fecundity to reading

it” (Bochet 2004: 52-53). Surprisingly in De doctrina christiana the general conception of Scripture’s place in the Christian economy of salvation “remains largely implicit” (Bochet 1997: 474). A brief reference connects it with remarks on how we are formed for the love that fulfills God’s commandments, but only in order to describe the kind of lower order love that we must bear toward it.

Scripture is only a mediation, necessary, to be sure, but only provisional. It stands

To enlighten and enable us [to achieve love], the whole temporal dispensation was set up by divine providence for our salvation. We must make use of this, not with a permanent love and enjoyment of it, but with a transient love and enjoyment of our journey, or of our conveyances, so to speak, or any other expedients whatsoever (there may be a more appropriate word) so that we love the means of transport only because of our destination. (Doc. Chr. 1.35.39)

That De doctrina. says little more than this shows its focus on love’s “hermeneutic from above.” But many other texts, especially his sermons, display a “hermeneutic from below” that zeroes in reading Scripture from the standpoint of the beginnings of faith in Christ where love gets its start. For instance, Enarratio in psalmum 130 characterizes the ascent from below to above as a movement from believing John 1:14 (“the Word became flesh”) to understanding John 1:1 (“the Word was God”). To speak of the Word’s divinity is to say that he is the bread on which angels live; but to eat that bread we first need the Word’s humanity.

This bread has been prepared for you too, but you have to grow up by getting your nourishment from milk until you are ready for bread. “How am I to grow up on milk?”

you ask. First of all believe in what Christ became to accommodate your weakness, and

hold firmly on to that

to [us] so that men and women might eat the bread of angels and manna fall upon a more

richly privileged people of Israel: The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us

Lord Jesus Christ made the bread that was himself into milk for us by becoming incarnate

and appearing as a mortal man, so that in him death might be abolished and we, by believing in the flesh which the Word took to himself, might not wander way from the


was only one way for heavenly bread to be made available


Word. Let us use this means to grow; let us get our nourishment from this milk. (En. Ps. 130.9, 11)

This is Augustine’s “hermeneutics from below.” Its movement parallels the “faith” part of “faith seeking understanding,” and draws especially on the dynamics of prophecy and fulfillment. Augustine unfolded this perspective at length in his work Contra Faustum Manichaeum in 33 books, some of which are as long as entire treatises. Conveniently we find Augustine explaining this perspective more briefly in a short but important work called De

catechizandis rudibus (Instructing Beginners in Faith). Augustine wrote to reassure Deogratias,

a catechist from Carthage who worried about the quality of his instruction after repeatedly

teaching only the basics of Christian faith. De catechizandis rudibus (especially 3.5-6.10) adds

important supplements to the more didactic presentation of De doctrina; it even includes two model addresses (16.24-27.55) that open a unique window “from below” on Augustine’s workshop of biblical interpretation. De catechizandis rudibus picks up where Book 1 of De doctrina leaves off. Christian teachers, he says, must refer all they say to the standard of “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and unfeigned faith”— quoting 1 Tim. 1:5, the same verse that culminates Book 1 of De doctrina. But now Augustine says this is “not enough” (non tantum): teachers must also “purposefully turn the glance” of hearers toward this love by making them aware of the story of God’s love in Scripture. Deogratias may have been unnerved at first when Augustine told him that his story should run from Genesis 1:1 all the way to the present moment in the church’s history (Cat. Rud. 3.5)! But he discovered on reading further that that did not mean reproducing

the whole scriptural narrative from the Pentateuch to the Acts of the Apostles. What it required is

a summary sketch (recalling Quintilian’s oeconomica dispositio mentioned above) that includes

only the history’s “critical turning points” (articuli), such as the Exodus, the entry in to the Promised Land, the covenant with David, and the Exile. The teacher should linger over these points because they are clues to the meaning of the entire salvation story. These momentous events should stand out like gems strung together on the quietly beautiful “gold necklace” (aurum) of the truth that laces through them all (Cat. Rud. 6.10) The pearl of great price is Christ, of course, whose death fully revealed the depth of God’s love (Rom. 5:8), and wooed our love in return by its breathtaking display of divine humility. Nothing invites love more than being loved first. Nothing so disarms proud human beings like this love, “as they see before their feet the Godhead grown weak by sharing our garments of skin” (7.18.24; cf. Gen. 3:21). Christ, God and man, and mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5) sets his followers on fire with his own fire of love for God and neighbor; so in him they fulfill the double command to love that stands at the center of Scripture. If it is true that all the Scriptures before the Lord’s coming were written to announce that coming, and that everything written with divine authority after his coming “tells of Christ and counsels love” (Christum narrat et dilectionem monet), then not only the Law and Prophets but all the Christian Scriptures hang on the two commandments of love for God and neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40). The story of divine love forms the substructure of Scripture’s unity. It also tells a Christian teacher how to teach: they are to tell the story so that seekers “by hearing may believe, by believing may hope, and by hoping may love” (Cat. Rud. 4.8). Augustine here specifies Christ’s death in humility as the focus of a “hermeneutic from below.” But it ascends step by step to understanding the love of God that characterizes the “hermeneutic from above.”

The hermeneutic perspectives “from below” and “from above” come together neatly in Enarratio in psalmum 140.1-6. This psalm, Augustine says, is somewhat obscure (subobscurus), but like Scripture’s many profound mysteries they are “hidden deep lest you scorn them, sought out so they’ll exercise you, and opened up so they’ll nourish you.” What is clear is that the psalm speaks of a kind of love comes from someone who loves “from a pure heart” (1 Tim. 1:5), that is, according to God’s will (secundum Deum). Augustine goes on:

This is the love that cries out “from a pure heart,” a heart like the one that prays this psalm in just these words and in just this way. And who this is, I can tell you in a snap:

it is Christ. (En. Ps. 140.2)

This love teaches that the words of the psalms are actually ours, though it is Christ who speaks. How can this be? Remember, says Augustine, how love works. “Love cries out to Christ from us (de nobis), while love cries out from Christ for us (pro nobis).” So then, “Let’s hear

Christ speaking, but also let each person recognize his or her own voice, as it were fixed fast

(haerens) within Christ’s body

speaks in the person of his body.” That’s why Christ quoted that other psalm, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 21:2). He was speaking for us. As Paul tells us, we were there with him on the cross: “our old man was nailed to the cross with him so that our sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer serve sin” (Rom. 6:6). The movement between love and Christ is one of the most characteristic of his Expositions of the Psalms. Over and over he explains that Christ demonstrated God’s love by his death, and indeed Christ is this love. By believing we receive it, participate in it, and become it. What these Scriptures reveal is the “marvelous exchange, the divine transaction” (mira commutatio, divine commercia) that Christ sealed between earth and heaven when he took our sin and death and gave us his righteousness and life. He “transfigured us into himself,” and so also made our own voice to speak the biblical text; so we become the subject of the Scripture that we read (En. 2 Ps. 30.3; 40.6). “We are Christ” (En. 2 Ps. 26.2), whose head took away not the Old Testament but its veil (Util. Cred. 3.9; 2 Cor. 3:14-16). Christ enables therefore a distinctively Christian hermeneutic, an act of empathic transposition of selves that has common parallels in human experience (everything from movies to sports depends on imaginatively projecting ourselves into another’s experience), but that occurs here to an unparalleled degree. The inner Teacher enables Christians read their lives in Scripture as in a mirror. However, understanding of Scripture requires submission to Scripture by way of conversion of mind and heart. Because it begins with faith, the submission is possible for the lowliest member of Christ’s body, while it remains so fundamental that its most advanced members never go beyond it. Augustine tells his people, “I feed you on what I feed on myself” (S. 339.4). In contrast to the strong unity of Old and New Testaments that Augustine stresses in other contexts, this conversion perspective highlights their difference. Christians sing a “new song” to the Lord wherein Old and New Testaments are not so much books any longer as way stations marking the journey of conversion. “Old man, old song; new man, new song. Old Testament, old song; New Testament, new song” (En. Ps. 149.1). Something irreducibly novel did emerge under the new covenant. Christ’s human will-to-death for the sake of loving God and neighbor was unprecedented; he became sin, and took up the Law’s curse and fulfilled the its commands in us so that we might become God’s righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13; Rom. 8:3). In this way he changed the Law’s function from instilling fear to infusing love.


is not I who speak, but the whole Christ (totus Christus). He

Furthermore, the old sacraments of the Law once performed by the ancient people of God now change their function; they once exacted obedient performance but have now become witnesses to fulfillment that Christians read for building up love, rather than perform out of cringing fear (C. Faust. XX). To show how Christ’s paschal sacrifice opened the passage from the old to the new covenant, Augustine deftly fused two New Testament texts that turn on the word “fulfill”:

Matt. 5:17 (“I came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them”), Romans 13:10 (“the fulfillment of the law is love”), with John 1:17 (“while the law was given through Moses, it became grace and truth through Jesus Christ” reading facta est in the strong sense of “became”).

“Fulfillment” occurred in the human life and death of our Lord, who by enacting the love that the law demanded made the law a conduit of grace. “The law is fulfilled when things prescribed there are carried out, or things prophesied there are shown forth. When the law itself is fulfilled, it becomes grace and truth. Grace pertains to the fullness of love, truth to the fulfillment of the


Christ cried out the prayer of Psalm 21:2 both “in the psalm and on the cross” (Trin. 4.3.6) in order to reveal that the voice of the psalms and of all Scripture is his own. The heat of his passion “melted his heart” (Psalm 21:15), that is the Scriptures, and made the hard wax of

prophecy into a fluid that was transparent to its fulfillment in him (En. 2 Ps. 21.15). So for us the crucified Christ is both the exegesis of Scripture and its foremost exegete (En. Ps. 45.1; de Lubac 1998: 237ff.). Christ, says Augustine, “meets and refreshes me everywhere in those books,

everywhere in those scriptures

difficulty to set my desire on fire to find him, and that makes me eagerly absorb what I find and hold it for salvation deep in my bones” (C. Faust. 12.27). Christ meets and refreshes Christians by speaking to his body all the Scriptures that he wrote through his body and for his body. Indeed, “he cries out everywhere through the Law, the Prophets, the Psalms, the Epistles, the Gospels” (En. Ps. 100.13).


did both” (C. Faust. 17.6; cf. En. Ps. 73.2).


from open texts or from secret ones. He uses some


The final category has been mentioned already a number of times because it is so intimately tied to Augustine’s thought. Because knowledge and love of God together constitute wisdom (En. Ps. 135.8), and knowledge and love of God and neighbor is Scripture’s central teaching, all true interpretation of Scripture is at the same time interpretation of oneself. As Scripture’s obscuroity emerges into clarity, we ourselves emerge into light. This is the Augustinian version of what moderns call the “hermeneutical circle, ” that is, “the essential correlation in his work between interpretation of the scriptural text and the interior attitude of the subject” (Bochet 2004: 92). De doctrina christiana offers a seven step schema of ascent toward spiritual perfection that integrates the beatitudes of Matthew 5:3-10 with the sevenfold gift of the Spirit in Isaiah 11:2-3. Scripture interpretation belongs to the third step, “knowledge.” The first two steps, “fear of God” and “reverence,” point clearly to spiritual practices that the interpreter must undertake in order to understand Scripture. The third step establishes a clear correlation between the understanding of Scripture and grieving for oneself in repentance before God; that remorse is a condition of receiving the grace of love that fulfills Scripture’s double command of love. To know what Scripture says one must do what Scripture says; but Scripture itself aids the seeker. It not only portrays humility; it presses its own humble form into the believing reader. Because

“like knows like,” humility renders the reader fit to gain access the treasures of humble love hidden in Christ (Conf. 7.20.26). So Scripture helps to answer both Augustine’s famous prayer, “Grant what you command and command what you will” (Conf. 10.29.40), and his less famous one, “O Lord, bring me to perfection, and reveal to me the meaning of these pages” (Conf. 11.2.3). Augustine’s use of Scripture throughout the Confessions illustrate the first three steps of ascent in De doctrina; indeed the schema may have supplied the structure of the Confessions. Books 1-10 narrate his personal story of passing from unbelief to (1) fear of God and a (2) reverent spirit, while Books 11-13 show him arriving at (3) knowledge of the Scriptures. Nevertheless, the knowledge of Scripture clearly imbues Confessions from its very first lines. “But the point of arrival is at the same time a point of departure. Since the reading of Scripture is the very mainspring of the Confessions, it is, in effect, what makes possible the new self- understanding that Augustine displays there” (Bochet 2004: 100). But Augustine clearly hopes to do more in the Confessions than recount his own story: he wants his readers to replicate it their own lives. To do this he mimics Christ’s own process. For Augustine, Christ used the hermeneutical principle of transfiguration to draw the members of his body to look through him at themselves in the mirror of Scripture. The church reads its own image in Scripture when she “knows herself” in the testimonies of the holy books (Ep. 93.9.29). This is the principle of participation whereby Augustine reads himself in reading of Adam or David or the Prodigal Son or Paul. By the same principle he woos readers to see themselves through him in the same mirror. Augustine in this way uses Scripture to universalize his personal experience. He is aware that what is true for an individual’s entire life, of which his actions are the parts, is true for the entire sweep of human history, whose individual human lives are the parts (Conf. 11.28.38). This insight provides the link between his Scripture story and the story of all humanity that he tells in De Civitate Dei (The City of God). As in the Confessions, Augustine seeks to lead his readers to transformation by a knowledge of the Scriptures; that is the why thee last twelve books of that work is essentially a reading of the holy books (Bochet 2004: 502-503).


Interest in Augustine’s work on Scripture continues to grow. Within the last two decades, new English translations have appeared for De doctrina christiana, Sermones, Enarrationes in psalmos and In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus (Tractates on John’s Gospel). What is Augustine’s staying power for those interested in biblical interpretation in the Third Millennium? His historical data is obsolete, his arcane word studies unusable (though entertaining), his number mysticism bizarre, and his exegesis rife with doctrinal presuppositions and escapes into spiritual interpretation. So why bother with Augustine’s hermeneutics? Despite all, a close reading of Augustine’s interpretive approach suggests elements of a permanent legacy. In closing I offer some observations that readers is invited to receive as an idiosyncratic list of suggested files to keep open while discovering the riches of Augustine by reading him directly

1. Augustine Gets Hermeneutics Right Augustine grasps well what’s at stake in the interpretive process. He not only seeks biblical knowledge, but analyzes the conditions and implications of what he learns. When he proposes love as the core hermeneutical issue, it is not a take-or-leave proposition but an insight into how human beings learn. Acknowledging love as a constituent part of knowledge joins human

persons to the act of knowing; it is “personal knowledge.” Augustine thought that recognizing faith as a first principle lead inexorably to the work of reason to which that faith then remains answerable. He could speak to simple believers of the depth and validity of their views while pushing them toward reasoned reflection, and could urge seasoned believers toward continue their ascent while returning often to faith’s simple foundations.

2. “Principled Pliability”

Augustine’s scripture work shares the restless dynamism of his thought. His most famous saying, “You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in You” (Conf 1.1.1) also captures his biblical work: asking, seeking, knocking, testing, searching, and if need be, revising. His biblical music is jazz, not a minuet. But he returns repeatedly, even ravenously, to crucial themes of “the rule of faith.” Firm at the center, he is dexterous at the margins. Taking his stand within a particular tradition allows him to remain coherent while ringing changes on fundamental themes. His biblical interpretation is humane, flexible, creative, and even playful. “In essentials unity, in doubtful matters liberty, in all things charity” is a 17th century saying often mistakenly attributed to Augustine; but in issues of exegesis, it breathes the Augustinian spirit.

3. For the Love of Words

To watch Augustine work on Scripture is to witness a man in a profound romance with words. He lives and breathes their potency. Rhetoric serves honorably as a strategy for accommodating truth to the capacities of different audience. In his world texts and readers come together in living dialogue, and reader can become the text as the text that clothes the divine Voice shatters and remakes the reader. Words mediate the transcendent, like “the mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5).


What follows is highly selective. Many valuable works and extensive bibliographies are scattered throughout the various critical editions, translations, secondary works on Augustine’s exegetical works. For individual topics one should see Augustine through the Ages ed. A Fitzgerald (Eerdmans 1999) and the standard work of reference the Augustinus-Lexikon (1986- ). For Augustine’s hermenutics, see Isabelle Bochet, “Le Firmament de l’Écriture”:

L’hermeneutique augustinienne (Paris: Institut d’Études Augustinienne, 2004) gathers the fruit of many years of research and many articles scattered in journals and elsewhere.). Also important are her notes complementaire to BA 11/2 De doctrina Christiana (IEA 1997). See also Brian Stock, Augustine the Reader (Harvard Belknap, 1996 The standard work on the Enarrationes in psalmos in Michael Fiedrowicz, Psalmus vox totius Christi: Studien zu Augustins “Enarrationes in psalmos” Freiburg-Basel-Wien: Herder, 1997. An English précis is available as the “Introduction” to Expositions of the Psalms 1-32, trans. Maria Boulding, OSB WSA III/15 (New City Press, 2000), 13-66. Analysis of Augustine’s hermeneutics appears in Eric Plumer’s introduction to his translation of Augustine’s Commentary on Galatians (Oxford, 2003), 60-121. Jason Byassee studies the framework of Augustine’s

hermeneutic for preaching in Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine (Eerdmans, 2007). On Augustine’s encounter with Paul, see Thomas F. Martin, Rhetoric and Exegesis in Augustine’s Interpretation of Romans 7:24-25A (Mellen, 2001), On the sources of Augustine’s early exegesis, see Martine Dulaey’s series “L‘apprentissage de l’exégèse biblique par Augustin (1) Années 386-389.” Revue des Études Augustinienne 48 (2002), 267-295; (2) Années 390-392” RÉA 49 (2003), 43-84; Années 393-394 RÉA 51 (2005): 21-65. Setting Augustine’s hermeneutics in ancient context is an essay by Gerald Bruns, “The Problem of Figuration in Antiquity,” in Hermeneutics: Problems and Prospects, eds. G. Shapiro and A. Sica (University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), 147-164; and Kathy Eden, Hermeneutics and the Rhetorical Tradition (Yale, 1997). Robert Dodaro’s essay on the rhetorical roots of Augustine’s exegesis, “Literary Decorum in Scriptural Exegesis: Augustine of Hippo, Epistula 138,” appears (2:159-174) along with other important papers on Augustine in L’esegi di Padri Latini, Dalle origini a Gregorio Magno, Roma, Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum (coll. Studia Ephemeridis Augustinianum 68), 2000, 2 vols. On Augustine’s terms for figurative exegesis see Robert Bernard. In Figura. Diss. Princeton, 1984. My work focuses on strand of Augustine’s hermeneutical framework for preaching and its christologcial roots: Augustine’s Development of Figurative Scripture Interpretation, 386-400 (Oxford, 2009). On De doctrina christiana, see Karla Pollmann, Doctrina Christiana: Untersuchungen zu den Anfängen der christlichen Hermeneutik unter besonderer Berücksichtigung von Augustinus, De doctrina christiana. Freiburg: Universitätverlag, 1996; Duane W. H. Arnold and Pamela Bright eds. De doctrina christiana: A Classic of Western Culture (Notre Dame, 1995) Charles Kannengiesser reviews Augustine’s use of the Bible in his Handbook of Patristic Exegesis, vol. 2 (Brill, 2004, p 1149-1218) to which Pamela Bright subjoined an essay on the hermeneutics of the Confessions (p 1219-1233). Several essay collections focus on Augustine as biblical interpreter: Saint Augustin et la Bible, ed. Anne-Marie La Bonnnardiere (Beauchesne, 1986), which was partly translated with new English essays as Augustine and the Bible, ed. Pamela Bright (Notre Dame, 1999); Augustine the Exegete ed. Frederick van Fleteren (Peter Lang 2001). Volume 3 of Bertrand de Margerie’s Introduction to the History of Exegesis, covers Augustine (trans. P. de Fontnouvelle; Petersham, MA: Saint Bede’s, 1991). Among still valuable older works stands Gerald Bonner, “Augustine as Biblical Scholar” in the Cambridge History of the Bible I: (Cambridge, 1970), 541-562; Gerhard Strauss, Schriftgebrauch, Schriftauslegung und Schriftbeweis bei Augustin (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1959); Maurice Pontet, L’Exégèse S. Augustin Predicateur (Aubier n.d. [1945]).