I noted in my previous blog that I consider Augustine of Hippo one of the most important Christian thinkers in history, behind only the Apostle Paul and possibly Origen of Alexandria. There is little question in my mind that Augustine is the most important figure in the development of Western Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism). His work would exert a profound influence on the other thinkers we will look at in this blog—Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley.
Augustine was born in Thagaste in North Africa (in what is now Algeria) in 354. His mother, Monica (after whom Santa Monica is named), was a devout Christian while his father, Patrick, was not, though he would be baptized shortly before his death. From an early age, Augustine showed great intellectual promise, and his family made great sacrifices to ensure for him a classical education that would, by his early 20s, help make him into one of the great public intellectuals of his era. He would go on to become a master rhetorician in Carthage, then Rome, and finally Milan where he would convert to Christianity in 386. Shortly thereafter he would return to Africa to dedicate himself to the monastic life before being pressed into service as the bishop of Hippo, a position he would hold until his death in 430. We ultimately associate him with this city because it was there that he wrote his most important theological texts.
Augustine and the Book of Scripture
Augustine was one of the most prolific writers of the ancient world, and one scholar has quipped that anyone claiming to have read all that he wrote is actually a liar!1 Quite possibly his most important book is his Confessions in which he details his life leading up to his conversion. Scholars consider this the first true autobiography, but it is far more than this. Written entirely in the form of a prayer of gratitude and worship to God, it not only recounts many of the key events in his life, but also gives us a window into his intellectual development. Important for our discussion of the two books, Augustine’s Confessions reveals his struggles to come to terms with the Book of Scripture in the years leading up to his conversion.
By Augustine’s time, the orthodox Christian Church (I use the term to distinguish it from such group as the Gnostics, Marcionites, Arians, Donatists, and other ‘heretical’ groups) had firmly landed on the biblical canon that we are familiar with today—the very list of texts advocated first by Irenaeus of Lyons almost two centuries beforehand. His greatest contributions to our understanding of Scripture, however, came in the way that he believed that we should read Scripture. For one thing, Augustine was very clear to affirm that the Word of Godpar excellence is in fact Jesus Christ. So, Augustine would have been careful not to speak of Scripture as the Word of God in the way that many contemporary evangelicals do—which is to identify all of Scripture as God’s words, as Muslims do when affirming that the Qur’an was dictated verbatim to Mohammed. But Augustine also affirmed that God spoke through the prophets, gospel writers, and other authors of Holy Writ. In this sense, Scripture is the "Word of God" for the Church—God speaks to us through it.
Formerly, Augustine affirmed what he called a literal reading of Scripture, but he did not mean literal in exactly the way that we do today, so this deserves some clarification.2 For Augustine, a literal interpretation meant allowing Scripture to speak for itself by attending to the intentions of the author. According to Augustine, how we hear the Word of God in Scripture is not always a simple matter. So, like Origen, Augustine believed that there were multiple layers to Scripture and different ways of interpreting it. For this reason Augustine would have found problematic the view of many contemporary Christians that we can only understand Scripture to speak literally by attending to its plain, propositional meaning. Of course, he believed, there are certainly places that clearly imply a plain, propositional reading of Scripture. Jesus is clearly intending to be heard in this way when He commands us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, even as—just a few verses later—He is speaking metaphorically when teaching that we should cut off limbs that cause us to sin (Matt. 5:30, 44).
In this respect, Augustine was drawing upon the Origenist approach to scriptural interpretation;3 but he also put his own twist on it. As we saw in a previous blog, Origen relied heavily upon an allegorical reading to Scripture, seeking to unpack even the simplest and most straight-forward of passages for their deeper, hidden meanings. Augustine believed that much of Scripture had deeper, sometimes hidden meaning (insofar as its meaning might not be immediately apparent to the uneducated reader), but not always. Sometimes it just meant what it said. Other times, neither a straight-forward nor allegorical approach is appropriate, but a third approach is called for: a figurative reading. By this, Augustine especially had Old Testament passages in mind that he believed were best understood as pointing to God’s full self-revelation in Jesus Christ. In this sense he would see certain Old Testament commandments regarding animal sacrifice as properly understood in the ways that they prefigured the ultimate sacrifice Christ would make on the cross.
In part 2, Mark Mann examines how Augustine interpreted the opening chapters of Genesis.
1. See Eugene TeSelle, Augustine (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006).
2. See St. Augustine, “The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 2 vols., translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, SJ (Paulist Press, 1982). I was introduced to this text by Mark Noll’s work, as he draws heavily upon it in both The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1985) and, more recently, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans, 2011). Alister McGrath also has a wonderful discussion of Augustine’s “The Literal Meaning” that was published in Christianity Today in 2009 and can be found online here.
3. Augustine was not necessarily a big fan of Origen, for certain aspects of Origen’s theology had been censured by Augustine’s time. Nevertheless, Origen’s work—especially his Platonism—had a tremendous impact on the theology of Ambrose of Milan, a bishop and theologian who was instrumental in Augustine’s conversion to Christian faith.