St. Augustine's On Christian Teaching (Review)

Below is a short review I wrote up for a class presentation, which deals with Augustine's book On Christian Teaching. Here, I interact here mainly with Book I but still, if you want to get an idea of how he did exegesis and thought about the end-goal of biblical interpretation, you may find this review helpful. Enjoy.

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Near the end of Book I of his On Christian Teaching, St. Augustine makes a curious statement: “Therefore, a person strengthened by faith, hope, and love, and who steadfastly holds on to them, has no need of the scriptures except to instruct others” (I.93). Such a view, for Augustine, is rooted in 1 Cor. 13.8-13 whereat the Apostle Paul asserts that while one day prophecies, tongues and knowledge will cease, faith, hope and love—of which, the greatest is love—will never vanish. Perfect love, for Augustine, is actually more binding and authoritative than the very Scriptures themselves. To be sure, this argument is of the utmost importance for Augustine as his exegetical method is deeply rooted in this principle.

It may seem strange then, that Augustine even finds it necessary to exert the effort to produce a volume on the principles of scriptural interpretation (see esp. I.1) at all. This being said, Augustine realizes that given the fallen and impaired nature of human beings, there is always a possibility for errant and / or misleading interpretations. His work, then, seeks to act as a guiding corrective against such measures (I.57). Though his overarching approach is deeply rooted in his exegesis of 1 Cor. 13, he seems to take as his explanatory point of departure, Mt. 22.37-40: “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind…and love your neighbor as yourself…”

By starting here, Augustine is able to begin to develop his theory—influenced, of course, by Platonic thought—of “things” and “signs” (I.5-6). In Book I, he focuses on “things,” which, at this point, he is only really interested in considering as entities that “exist” (I.3.6) and which are capable of being “loved” (I.8). Of such “things,” God (the Trinity) is the “supreme thing” (I.10) that exists and there is no thing in existence that is greater (I.16) or more enjoyable. Therefore, humans, who “by virtue of having a rational soul and thus a higher status than animals” (I.40) are actually not greater than animals—who also love themselves and their own bodies—if they cannot love their neighbor (I.57-63) and likewise, God.

In fact, Augustine teases this view out even more when he says that “loving” (and therefore enjoying) one’s neighbor, is, in all reality, an act of “enjoying God rather than that human being” (I.79). Indeed, the two are so intertwined that he proceeds to say: “So anyone who thinks he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them” (I.86). Regarding exegesis, it is intriguing that, for Augustine, even those who have misunderstood and / or misinterpreted the Scriptures can still actually be considered edifiers of the community of God, if their interpretation “builds up love” as the double commandment exhorts (I.88).

This, then, is the “chief purpose” of it all: “that the fulfillment and end of the law (Rom. 13.10; 1 Tim. 1.5) and all the divine scriptures is to love the thing which must be enjoyed and the thing which together with us can enjoy that thing…” (I.84). If this one scriptural point is missed, vies Augustine, pseudo-interpretation has occurred and the doors have been opened wide for division to creep into the community. Such a “lapse” argues Augustine, encourages “evil to spread” (I.89) and when evil spreads, people become immune to being able to genuinely love because “love itself decays” (I.89).

This is precisely why, without fully contradicting himself, Augustine can say at once that some have “no need of the scriptures, except to instruct others” (I.93) while for some, “faith will falter if the authority of holy scripture is shaken” (I.89). In the former, persons have based their love of the “other” and the “supreme thing” on the foundational Pauline principle (1 Cor.) of “perfect” love, whereas the latter have based their ideas of love on “misled” interpretations (of Scripture and reality) that result in “injustice (I.88). The reason, then, that Augustine seeks to issue any sort of guiding principles to the interpretive process at all is so that in the end, people will not use Scripture for the purposes of self-gain (e.g. through misinterpretation) but rather to love God and to love others more. Any exegesis whatsoever that does not result in the fulfillment of this double command and therefore purposefully veers away from “perfect” love (1 Cor.), is to be avoided and rejected at all costs; this, then, is the chief-end of the Augustinian hermeneutic.

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