Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Hermeneutic of Augustine

Augustine also practiced somewhat of an allegorical approach to the interpretation of the biblical text. It is interesting to note that, along with Origen, both a literal and allegorical sense is maintained. This may be because it is impossible not to have a literal meaning of a text; the text objectively does have a literal referent in some way (to say otherwise is to deny the historicity of biblical events, which is something neither seemed wont to do). Gundlach recognized this when he mentioned, “in addition to the literal, he practiced the allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures, and while he declared their inerrancy he also said he would not have believed them had not the Church declared them true.”[1]
            The culture behind which Augustine operated was interesting. He taught both in Carthage and then eventually in Rome, teaching philosophy while unsaved.[2] It may be that his own conversion provided the sufficient motivator for interpreting allegorically. The story of his conversion is that Augustine was grieved over his own spiritual condition, and sexual transgressions. While out in a garden, he apparently heard a voice of a child, telling him to “pick up and read.” A copy of the letters of Paul was nearby, so Augustine picked that up and read. Reading from Romans 13, he concluded the passage had been meant for him to read.[3] This individualized meaning may have contributed to his understanding of biblical passages in the future; he would be able to locate an allegorized or spiritual meaning.
            During his time as bishop he was able to accomplish much in the way of composing literature. Of a matter of necessity, anything written dealing with a passage of Scripture bore the stamp of a particular hermeneutic employed. Earlier it was mentioned Augustine used a literal method as well. This method asserted itself as part of an overall scheme which allowed for both literal and allegorical means. This scheme allowed for the earlier idea of a text’s main goal (which he thought to be loving God and other people).[4] It also included: cross-referencing other passages of Scripture, consulting Church tradition, and then finally examining the context of the passage in question.[5]
            Like Origen, it seems Augustine viewed the allegorical interpretation as “built in” to the text itself, so that there was indeed an objective meaning to be gleaned from the text. This would protect him from charges of inventing the text’s meaning. At times, the ability to correlate a text or idea analogically to another biblical thought served him well. With respect to the Trinity he argued for using creation as an analogical metaphor for a coherent model of the Trinity.[6] While not itself a biblical passage, nonetheless this is a demonstration of Augustine’s mind and method of analogical interpretation; he understood the Trinity in terms of something more “concrete.”
            Specific examples of Augustine’s use of the allegorical method should be examined. With respect to parables, especially, he believed each detail in the story corresponded to a particular referent. All of these referents were used to display an overall, centralized point (with each detail containing separate, but useful, teaching points). The parable of the Good Samaritan contains quite a list of potential interpretive details:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho: Adam
Jerusalem=the heavenly city of peace, from which Adam fell.
Jericho=the moon, and thereby signifies Adam’s mortality
robbers=the devil and his angels
beat him=by persuading him into sin
leaving him half dead=as a man he lives, but he died spiritually.
the Samaritan=…Christ himself is meant.[7]

            Each and every character and each and every phrase is given a corresponding spiritual referent, and the entire parable is seen as an allegory for the fall of man. Fee contends Augustine viewed parables as “simple stories for those on the outside to whom the ‘real meanings,’ the ‘mysteries,’ were hidden; these belonged only to the church and could be uncovered by means of allegory.”[8]
            Viewing the parable given by Christ as an allegory gives the purpose of the story a different intent than would be obtained by other methods. If the parable concerns the original fall of man then the purpose of the parable is to demonstrate God provides reconciliation through Jesus Christ and the Church.
            In addition to parables, another example should be examined. In this case, the book of Genesis is also consulted. The creation story again finds an allegorical proponent in the Confessions of Augustine. Writing against those who would oppose him, he contends the creation by God of the “heavens and the earth” constitutes an allegory for the immaterial and the material (with consideration for man’s soul and body).[9]

            This allegory would allow him to apply the text in support of the dualism of man over and against the contentions of any would-be critics who may say otherwise. Ferguson says of Augustine’s treatment of this passage, “having found God, he loves to rediscover him in all his creatures and in Scripture.”[10]
            He himself claims of this passage that “[heaven and earth] was called by these names, because contained in it there were these confused things not as yet distinguished by their qualities and forms, the which now being digested in their own orders, are called heaven and earth, the former being the spiritual, the latter the corporeal creature.”[11]
            He seemed to take umbrage at the suggestion that he intended and interpretation for a passage that was not also intended by the original writer.
What, I say, doth it hinder me, should I think otherwise of what the writer thought than some other man thinketh? Indeed, all of us who read endeavour to trace out and to understand that which he whom we read wished to convey; and as we believe him to speak truly, we dare not suppose that he has spoken anything which we either know or suppose to be false.[12]
That Augustine would suggest that a man may simply, on a whim, decide a text’s meaning subjectively was unconscionable to him. In regards to his allegorical interpretation, then, it cannot be said he wanted to force the text to say any particular truth. If another man differed in his interpretation of the text, Augustine felt that interpretation could still be legitimate, so long as God had revealed its meaning. On this topic, he commented, “what hurt is it if a man understand what Thou…dost show him to be true although he whom he reads understood not this, seeing that he also understood a Truth, not, however, this Truth?”[13]
          Yet another example can be gleaned from Genesis 1, this time in verse 26. Hall notes the critics of Augustine who were extremely literal used this verse to deny God was a spirit. “Some argued that if humanity had been created in the image of God as Genesis 1:26 clearly stated, then God must be a material substance of some kind.”[14] This, Hall argues, seemed to put Augustine on the road to a more allegorical interpretation (in order to demonstrate the Bible’s teaching of both dualism and the spiritual, not physical, nature of God).[15]
            Hall somewhat defends the notion of allegorical interpretation by Augustine, pointing out that sometimes what is called “spiritualizing” or “allegory” is in reality nothing more than the recognition of varying figures of speech within a literal method or hermeneutic.[16]
            Augustine wished to recognize the meaning within the text that the original author intended. In order to accomplish this, he made a dichotomy of ideas, where there is in a literal sense what actually happened, and in a spiritual sense that which the author wanted any reader to understand. He reflects on this when he proclaims, “one [method] concerning the truth of the things, the other concerning the meaning of him who reports them. For in one way we inquire…what is true; but in another, what Moses, that excellent servant of Thy faith, would have wished that the reader and hearer should understand by these words.”[17]
            With respect to Augustine’s work, On Christian Doctrine, he sets out to explain the method by which the interpreter is to obtain the meaning of the biblical text. In fact, he explains that the five loaves and two fishes are actually allegorically indicative of God’s grace multiplying human efforts, including his own.[18]
            Next, a comparative summary should be undertaken as to the potential differences between Augustine and Origen. Origen believed in philosophical inquiry and “free thinking.” This would naturally result in wide-ranging ideas, some not even necessarily hinted at within Scripture. Augustine, on the other hand, believed there was something to be gained by laborious understanding of the figures of speech within the text itself.[19] A consequence of this difference is that Origen would obtain views that may be viewed as heterodox, while Augustine’s views would probably be accepted in the Church (since the Church adhered to the thought of the main idea and church tradition).[20]
            They both seemed to view narratives in light of the Church. As demonstrated prior, Origen viewed the story of Lot as a warning to the Church to avoid pride, vainglory, and unrighteousness.[21] Augustine viewed parables as holding meaning that must be obtained via the Holy Spirit, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan.[22]
            Augustine seemed to view his interpretive method to be the combating of heretical views.[23] Origen seemed to be concerned with finding the truth of the matter in his method, which he deemed best.[24] The two men differed in cultural setting and time but they did not differ on the basic method by which they obtained the textual meaning.
            The methods of both men were allegorical yet Origen believed there was a moral sense to every narrative passage. Augustine believed the allegorical method was to be used to obtain any meaning that God had truly intended through the human author. To miss this would be to miss the actual intent.[25] It appears, from each of his examples that this paper has examined, that Augustine argued analogically from other biblical texts or already-revealed principles.
            This paper has examined the interpretive views of both Origen and Augustine. Examples have been provided from both men and a contrastive section was examined as well. While both agreed that a literal sense is in some way intended, they both also agreed the real meaning of Scripture must incorporate the allegorical method in their primary hermeneutic.
            Augustine. Confessions. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/confess.html.
            ----. On Christian Doctrine. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/augustine/doctrine.html.
            Clement of Alexandria. Stromata. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf02.vi.iv.v.vii.html.

        Elwell, Walter A. ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI:                                   Baker Academic, 2001.

            Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998.

            Ferguson, Everett. Church History, Volume 1: From Christ to Pre-Reformation. Grand                               Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

            Fee, Gordon & Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. Grand Rapids,                                MI: Zondervan, 2003.

            Hall, Christopher A. Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove, IL:                                 IVP Academic, 2002.

            ----. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic,                                  1998.

            Klein, William W., Craig L. Blomberg, & Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical                    Interpretation. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993.

            Origen. Origen: Homilies on Genesis and Exodus, The Fathers of the Church Vol. 71.                                Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002.

            ----. On Prayer. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/origen/prayer.html

                [1] B. J. Gundlach, Walter A. Elwell, ed.,  “Augustine of Hippo,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 123.
                [2] Ferguson, 269.

                [3] Ibid, 270.
                [4] Klein, 41.
                [5] Ibid.

                [6] Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 77.
                [7] Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 150.

                [8] Ibid, 149-150.

                [9] Augustine, Confessions, Book XII, Chapter XVII. (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf101.vi.XII.XVII.html).
                [10] Ferguson, 269.

                [11] Augustine, Chapter XVII.

                [12] Ibid, Chapter XVIII.
                [13] Ibid. It seems a material implication of this view is that if an interpreter comes to a conclusion opposite that of Augustine, this interpretation may nonetheless be valid. In this way, it seems the text is subjective rather than objective. This makes it slightly difficult to analyze with precision the view of Augustine and interpretive philosophy.

                [14] Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1998), 119.

                [15] Ibid, 119-122.

                [16] Ibid, 123.
                [17] Augustine, Chapter XXIII.

                [18] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book I, Chapter I.

                [19] Ibid, Book II, Chapter VI. It also seems as though Augustine believed that if the interpreter labored intensively, God would reward him with a correct interpretation and the text’s true meaning, otherwise hidden.

                [20] Klein, 39-41.
                [21] Ibid.

                [22] Fee, 150. Of course, the charge that such an interpretation would be anachronistic is parried by Augustine in claiming that such an allegorical interpretation is built into the text already (so that any charges of anachronism are effectively moot).

                [23] Hall, Reading Scriptures with the Church Fathers, 122.

                [24] Klein, 39. This can be seen in Origen’s insistence that each text contains a moral instruction. If Origen has obtained the moral instruction, then what the text says that the reader “ought” to do is in fact best with respect to hermeneutically-gained meaning.

                [25] Ibid, 41. What the text actually “intended to say,” when it cannot be interpreted literally as didactic instruction, should be taken in a figurative sense.

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