Reading Scripture with St. Augustine: A Return to God
There are all kinds of reasons for reading Scripture. These vary from person to person, culture to culture, age to age. But for the Fathers of the Church in general, the purpose of reading and meditating on Scripture was (as I mentioned in Augustine’s two rules for reading the Bible) to find our way to God. I will return to this after briefly exploring some alternatives.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was an enormous interest in the closely related disciplines of mythology and archaeology (interpret this relationship how you will!). Accordingly, many read Scripture with a view to unlocking the secrets of ancient cultures, and ferreting out the origins of different customs and rituals. Indeed, the religiosity of the period was often muted into a fascination with universal human yearnings, as expressed variously over time.
Today, I suppose, we would not want even to admit the universality of the yearnings, but a kind of type or figure of what I mean can be found throughout English mystery literature, in the person of the typical elderly, bespectacled Anglican curate. He potters around in dusty books and dustier excavations, endlessly fascinated by both the local church’s architecture and the local village’s customs, and their connection with the myths of bygone days. Here you will seldom find spirituality that cuts like a sword; instead, there are gentle reminders of our desire to be connected to something larger than ourselves.
A different though related case is found in Modernism. Though waning, it still influences too much Scripture scholarship today. Modernism grew out of an acute awareness of the influence of culture on all of our conceptions. Unfortunately, Modernists tended to forget that this valid insight applied to “scientific” persons like themselves as much as to anyone else. Hence the name “Modernism”—a tendency to reinterpret everything according to modern cultural prejudices. But Scripture is the standard against which culture should be measured, not the other way around.
The upshot is that the Modernist reads Scripture in order to dismiss the accounts of the supernatural as symbolic, since he “knows” that all conceptions of the supernatural are merely cultural projections from the natural into the unknown. Many people approach the Word of God in this way even in our “post-Modern” era. The impossible goal is to pare the text back to its “core elements”, usually a pragmatic moral meaning which represents, according to our own lights, either the moral brilliance or the moral peculiarity of the Jews and/or Christians in question.
There are other potential readings, of course. Some of the more peculiar sects have focused so exclusively on the Old Testament as to see patriarchy and polygamy as God’s self-expressed model of human social life. Others have decided that they must shun any technical advancement which goes beyond what is known in Holy Writ. Still others mine the Bible for proof-texts in support of their own positions, which may be, for example, millennial or military or even medical, as in the case of Christian Scientists.
But earnestly desire the higher gifts (1 Cor 12:31)
But the Fathers almost invariably read Scripture to learn what God had revealed about His relationship to the human soul in the context of the Church, the growing Body of Christ, to which the whole New Testament was so obviously directed. To them, the Word of God was a self-disclosure for the purpose of drawing each person and the Church generally into communion with Himself. Often recognizing the deep complexity of different genres and forms far in advance of modern critics, the Fathers were able to see a love story between God and man in every book of Scripture. Reading all in the light of Christ Himself, they found rich evidence in what sometimes seems surprising places, to our more prosaic minds.
In fact, this is exactly what Augustine finds in his extended meditations (which I mentioned in the essay cited above) on the very first sentence of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Including the verses which follow to make up what is now demarcated as the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, Augustine finds in the very act of creation of the physical universe a guide to God’s work in the human soul, including the specific work of the Redeemer, a work of light and grace.
Consider what Augustine says about the gathering of the waters and the forming of dry land so that “the earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruits in which is their seed, each according to its kind” (cf. Gn 1:9-14). He draws a lesson about the “earth” of our souls:
But the souls which thirst for You and which You behold as separated by different bounds from the gathering-together of the sea, these souls You water from Your secret fount of loving kindness, that the earth may bring forth fruit. And it does bring forth its fruit: by the command of You its Lord God, our souls bring forth works of mercy according to their kind. [Confessions 13, 17]
Augustine continues these meditations for multiple sections, each richer than the last, reading every word of the first chapter of Genesis forward to Jesus Christ and, with Christ, forward to the new creation of heaven and earth. Consider again what he does with the Creator’s gift of light:
Thus now not You alone distinguish in the mystery of Your judgment between light and darkness, as before the firmament was made; but now that Your grace has been manifested over the earth, Your spiritual ones also, established and ranged in the same firmament, shine upon the earth and divide day and night, and are for signs and for seasons: for the old things are passed away and behold all things are made new, and our salvation is nearer than when we [first] believed. [13, 18]
Like so many of the Fathers of the Church, Augustine teaches us how to read and appropriate Scripture for precisely the purposes intended by God. Both as individuals and in community we should recognize that we were created out of nothing in His Love, and that we are invested with His grace to bring forth every good fruit for the final perfection of all He has made, in Him. We can bring any number of tools and subsidiary studies to this task, if only our hearts are pure and filled with a longing for God. Apart from this, every interpretation is trivial, but through this light, all Scripture glows with the presence of God.
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