From the beginning of his Christian pilgrimage, when, as a young man, he heard the call, Tolle lege, tolle lege (“Take up and read”), and his eyes lighted on, until the end of his life, when, on his deathbed, he asked that the penitential psalms be written out for him, so that he might read and mediate on them, Augustine loved the Scriptures. As bishop of Hippo, Augustine aimed to preach biblical sermons, and as a writer, Augustine saturated his treatises and letters with quotations from the Bible.
Augustine was also a churchman—one who loved the church, one who pursued his theological studies in the church and for the sake of the church, and one who revered the tradition of the church, developing that tradition and defending it against heretics, both inside and outside the church.
Augustine the Preacher
Hughes Oliphant Old, in his monumental seven volume work, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, devotes almost fifty pages to Augustine as a preacher. Although trained in the art of rhetoric, Augustine “was concerned that the congregation understand the Scriptures, and so he preached without the artificial eloquence that was popular in his day.”1 Augustine’s sermons “show us how one of the most profound theological thinkers the church has ever produced preached theology to a very average, provincial sort of congregation.”2 “Today we read these sermons and wonder how the preacher of a small provincial city in North Africa, preaching well over an hour, could hold the attention of his congregation.”3
That alone ought to be a rebuke to the presumptuous Romish church, who, instead of leading their people to feast on the Word of God as Augustine did, provide barely ten-minute homilies on moralistic subjects, leaving their people in appalling ignorance—something of which, alas, many evangelical churches are just as guilty!
Augustine the Exegete
There can be no doubt that Augustine the preacher—with the other church fathers—revered Scripture. For Augustine, Scripture was the very Word of God. Quotations could be multiplied, but in the interests of space, we offer only one. In a letter to Jerome, Augustine writes, “I have learned to do only those books that are called the Holy Scriptures the honor of believing firmly that none of their writers has ever erred. All others I so read as not to hold what they say to be truth unless they prove it to me by Holy Scripture or clear reason.”4
Augustine was not content merely to admire the Bible. He labored to expound the Bible. Marveling at the detail of Augustine’s exegesis in his commentaries and sermons, one scholar writes, “Augustine finds a great deal in his chosen texts—partly because, being thoroughly convinced of their divine authority, he expects to find a great deal in them.”5 One of Augustine’s most significant works is De Doctrina Christiana, a guide to Bible interpretation. He explains his purpose in the preface:
There are certain precepts for treating the Scriptures which I think may not inconveniently be transmitted to students, so that they may profit not only from reading the work of expositors but also in their own explanations of the sacred writings to others. I have undertaken to explain these rules to those able and willing to learn, if God our Lord will not deny me, in writing, those things which He usually suggests to me in thought.6
Although some of Augustine’s exegetical principles are fanciful, especially his tendency toward allegory, some of what he writes is the basis of our modern Reformed hermeneutics. For example, Augustine teaches the dictum “Scripture interprets Scripture,” so that clearer passages are used to explain obscurer passages:
…The Holy Spirit has magnificently and wholesomely modulated the Holy Scriptures so that the more obscure places present themselves to hunger and the more obscure places may deter a disdainful attitude. Hardly anything may be found in these obscure places which is not found plainly said elsewhere.7
For Augustine biblical interpretation is not merely an intellectual activity for scholars, but a spiritual activity for Christians.
Pride is a danger for exegetes:
In asserting rashly that which the author before him did not intend, he may find many other passages which he cannot reconcile with his interpretation. If he acknowledges these to be true and certain, his first interpretation cannot be true, and under these conditions it happens, I know not why, that, loving his own interpretation, he begins to become angrier with the Scriptures than he is with himself. And if he thirsts persistently for the error, he will be overcome by it.8
For Augustine the fundamental hermeneutical principle is love: “Scripture teaches nothing but charity, nor condemns anything but cupidity, and in this way shapes the minds of men.”9 This hermeneutical principle determines for Augustine whether something should be taken literally or interpreted figuratively:
Those things which seem almost shameful to the inexperienced, whether simply spoken or actually performed either by the person of God or by men whose sanctity is commended to us, are all figurative, and their secret to be removed as kernels from the husk as nourishment for charity.10
Augustine the Apologist
Augustine did not pursue his exegetical labors in a vacuum—he was a churchman, devoted to the dogmas of the church, devoted to defending the truths that had already been elicited from Scripture by the church, and devoted to developing the truth. Therefore, Augustine appeals to those who preceded him, quoting copiously from the fathers in his writings. However, Augustine is not afraid to correct the fathers when he sees that they have erred in their understanding of Scripture.
In Augustine’s writings against the Manicheans, a dualistic Gnostic cult to which Augustine himself had belonged for a time, he defends the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament. In an important work, Contra Faustum, Augustine shows that the New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and that the Old Testament is the inspired Word of God, profitable for Christians. Augustine’s superb insights merit a lengthy quotation:
If we are asked why we do not worship God as the Hebrew fathers of the Old Testament worshipped Him, we reply that God has taught us differently by the New Testament fathers, and yet in no opposition to the Old Testament, but as that Testament itself predicted. For it is thus foretold by the prophet: “Behold, the days come, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt,”. Thus it was foretold that that covenant would not continue, but that there would be a new one. And to the objection that we do not belong to the house of Israel or to the house of Judah, we answer according to the teaching of the apostle, who calls Christ the seed of Abraham, and says to us, as belonging to Christ’s body, “Therefore you are Abraham’s seed,” . Again, if we are asked why we regard that Testament as authoritative when we do not observe its ordinances, we find the answer to this also in the apostolic writings; for the apostle says, “Let no man judge you in meat or drink, or in respect of a holiday, or a new moon, or of Sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come,” . Here we learn both that we ought to read of these observances, and acknowledge them to be of divine institution, in order to preserve the memory of the prophecy, for they were shadows of things to come; and also that we need pay no regard to those who would judge us for not continuing the outward observance; as the apostle says elsewhere to the same purpose, “These things happened to them for an example; and they are written for our admonition, on whom the end of the ages have come,” . So, when we read anything in the books of the Old Testament which we are not required to observe in the New Testament, or which is even forbidden, instead of finding fault with it, we should ask what it means; for the very discontinuance of the observance proves it to be, not condemned, but fulfilled.11
Sometimes, however, Augustine seems to stray from an appeal to Scripture as the final authority as, for example, when he appeals against heretics to the authority of the church. The following statement is infamous:
Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichæus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichæus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you. If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichæus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel. Again, if you say, You were right in believing the Catholics when they praised the gospel, but wrong in believing their vituperation of Manichæus: do you think me such a fool as to believe or not to believe as you like or dislike, without any reason?12
We might be uncomfortable with Augustine’s language, but we need to bear a few things in mind. First, the Catholic Church of Augustine’s day is not the Romish church of our day—with its supposedly infallible pope and imposing Magisterium.13 Second, Augustine does not teach that the church has greater authority than Scripture, or that Scripture depends on the church for its authority. Rather, he teaches that the church has a secondary authority in recognizing Scripture as Scripture—but to recognize something is not the same as to create it. By way of contrast, the writings of the Manicheans have no authority whatsoever.
Keith A. Mathison writes concerning Augustine: “While it is questionable that either of them [Basil and Augustine] actually endorsed a two-source [Scripture and tradition] position, the language they used would later be interpreted as supporting such a position.”14
Augustine loved the Holy Scriptures, and he loved them in the church—only in the church.
Let us do likewise.
1 Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 2, The Patristic Age (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 345.
2 Old, 348.
3 Old, 351.
4 Cited in A. Skevington Wood, Captive to the Word: Martin Luther, Doctor of Sacred Scripture (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1969), 125.
5 Thomas Williams, “Biblical Interpretation” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine (eds. Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann (Cambridge: [Cambridge Companions Online] Cambridge University Press, 2006), 60.
6 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine (trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr.), the Library of Liberal Arts (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1958) [prologue], 3.
7 On Christian Doctrine, [Book II, chapter 6], 38.
8 On Christian Doctrine, [Book I, chapter 37], 31.
9 On Christian Doctrine, [Book III, chapter 10], 88.
10 On Christian Doctrine, [Book III, 12], 90.
11 Contra Faustum, [Book XXXII, chapter 9], trans. Richard Stothert, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 4, ed. Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887).
12 Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus [chapter V, paragraph 6], trans. Richard Stothert, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 4, ed. Philip Schaff (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887). Calvin discusses this quotation in Institutes, Book I, chapter 7, paragraph 3.
13 For example, the Council of Carthage, at the behest of Augustine, met in 418 to condemn Pelagius, despite Pope Zosimus’ objections. Pope Zosimus had mistakenly supported Pelagius and rebuked Augustine and the North African church for condemning him. See Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, Moscow, ID: 2001), 220.
14 Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Canon Press, Moscow, ID: 2001), 151. See also Mathison’s citation of Georges Florovsky, “St. Augustine had no intention ‘to subordinate’ the Gospel to the Church. He only wanted to emphasize that [the] ‘Gospel’ is actually received always in the context of [the] Church’s catholic preaching and simply cannot be separated from the church” (Mathison, 42).