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Augustine’s two rules for reading the Bible

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 30, 2014

St. Augustine, whom most consider the greatest of all the Church Fathers, spends the last three “books” of his Confessions interpreting the spare outline of the Creation recorded in Genesis. The result is a moving tribute to Divine Love, and to the surpassing fulfillment each soul finds in God alone. But along the way he teaches us two important things about how to read Scripture. They are well worth passing along.

Book XI reflects on “In the beginning, God created” and Book XII reflects on the completion of that initial sentence, for in the beginning God created “heaven and earth”. Book XIII examines the “days” of Creation, yet another great mystery. Augustine’s exploration of the text is at once prayerful and philosophical, bringing to bear everything he can summon from both Faith and reason. Twenty pages on a subject and verb; twenty more on a direct object; and on from there: You or I might falter, but Augustine seems to have little trouble.

Lesson One

For example, Augustine examines the different ways in which the phrase “in the beginning” can be understood. It could be understood temporally (in which case he wonders how an eternal being can act in any sort of succession, and how there can be a beginning if as yet there were no such thing as time, and how one can discern a relationship of time with eternity). Or it could be understood logically, as in the proper order of a single explanation or argument (so perhaps God created a sort of formless raw material of heaven and earth in the beginning, and then—logically speaking—formed it into individual features and components, all in the same eternal decree).

In the course of this discussion, Augustine attempts to discern the nature of time itself, how we measure it, how the present is always in a sense coming out of the future and flowing into the past. He also wonders about the nature of “foreseeing” something, including true prophecy. In all, he finds a great deal to occupy himself in considering the truth which underlies “in the beginning God created heaven and earth”—before he even begins to unlock the meaning of “heaven” and “earth”. He also identifies the wide variety of different positions others have taken on the exact meaning of the text, showing how each interpreter tries to capture a particular aspect of the truth.

Out of all of this, Augustine creates a fixed principle of Biblical exegesis. It is possible, he says, to see many truths in the revealed text, but it is not possible to assert exactly which one the sacred author had in mind. The Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, and obviously knows every aspect of the truth contained in the text. Therefore, even after the most rigorous textual analysis, one reader sees one meaning while another reader captures a different meaning. But no reader, however great his expertise, can assert that: “The sacred author had my meaning in mind; he agrees with me. My interpretation is therefore the sole and definitive meaning of the text.”

In a very different work, On Christian Doctrine (De Doctrina Christiana), Augustine makes a similar point without requiring the reader to follow his own enormously deep reflections on any particular text. In this basic instructional manual, he simply teaches that we are all free to read Scripture and take from the text whatever the Holy Spirit inspires for our good. But we must neither claim to know the author’s intention nor assert a universal and definitive meaning of any text. The former is known only by the Holy Spirit. The latter belongs to the Church alone.

For Augustine, it is not important that the sacred author should agree with the reader. Such arguments arise from pride. What is important is that the reader should permit the Holy Spirit to help him to find something to his own spiritual benefit in what the sacred author has written: “In this diversity of true opinions, let Truth itself bring harmony; and may our God have pity upon us that we may use the law lawfully, for the end of the commandment which is pure charity” (cf. 1 Tim 1:8,5).

Lesson Two

The second lesson Augustine offers in his extensive reflections on Genesis is drawn from his whole approach to Scripture. At every exegetical moment, Augustine is seeking to grow in his understanding of who God is, who he himself is, and how he can grow in union with God. One presumes Augustine would seek to plumb these realities in any text he chose to interpret. In fact, that is the point I am making here. But the account of creation in Genesis fairly forces the receptive mind to realize that God is eternally self-sufficient, that he creates out of nothing and without any need, and that therefore He creates in an eternal act of infinite love.

To read the Confessions is to see how Augustine himself grew to recognize these deep spiritual realities which underlie the very brief account of creation in Genesis. To see him wrestle with the meaning of that text at the end of his confessions, in which he has unsparingly recounted both his sins and God’s incomparable mercy, is to participate in a model of Biblical exegesis. It is in fact the model, the only model appropriate to the efforts of a creature engraced by his Creator to understand and embrace his one true end.

The very last paragraph of the Confessions captures the purpose of the Christian in meditating upon the Scriptures:

Some indeed of our works are good through Your grace, but they are not eternal: after them we hope that we shall find rest in the greatness of Your sanctification…. What man will give another man the understanding of this, or what angel will give another angel, or what angel will give a man? Of You we must ask, in You we must seek, at You we must knock. Thus only shall we receive, thus shall we find, thus will it be opened to us.

The purpose of reading and reflecting on Sacred Scripture is to find our way to God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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