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Augustine of Hippo on Biblical Interpretation: Centered, Community-Governed, Sometimes Figurative, ca. 396 Augustine’s approach was centered: all readings.

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Presentation on theme: "Augustine of Hippo on Biblical Interpretation: Centered, Community-Governed, Sometimes Figurative, ca. 396 Augustine’s approach was centered: all readings."— Presentation transcript:

1 Augustine of Hippo on Biblical Interpretation: Centered, Community-Governed, Sometimes Figurative, ca. 396 Augustine’s approach was centered: all readings must contribute to the love of God and one’s neighbor, no matter what. “The plenitude and end of the Law and of all the Sacred Writings is the love of a Being which is to be enjoyed and of a being that can share that enjoyment with us …” (On Christian Doctrine, ). “If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them” ( ). “If on the other hand you have made judgments about them that are helpful for building up this love, but for all that have not said what the author you have been reading actually meant in that place, then your mistake is not pernicious, and you certainly cannot be accused of lying” ( ). “Take up and read”

2 Further guidelines: First, read all the sacred writings (2.8.12). Let the most accepted writings govern the less accepted. (When Augustine wrote, Christians were still debating which writings should be accepted as sacred scripture.) Let the clearest govern the less clear (clarity being determined by the central purpose: love of God and neighbor) (2.9.14). Get a general education in “words” and “things”: “Every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is the Lord’s” ( ). “What is read should be submitted to diligent scrutiny until an interpretation contributing to the reign of charity [i.e., love of God, neighbor and self for God’s sake] is produced. If this result appears literally in the text, the expression being considered is not figurative” ( ). Otherwise, the expression is figurative ( ).

3 The recourse to figurative, or “spiritual,” interpretation mattered to Augustine, because it figured prominently in his conversion to Christianity. As a scholar, he had rejected the Bible because it seemed to portray God as moody and vindictive. Then he started listening to the preaching of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. “I was delighted to hear Ambrose in his sermons to the people saying, as if he were most carefully enunciating a principle of exegesis: “the letter kills, the spirit gives life” [2 Corinthians 3:6]. Those texts which, taken literally, seemed to contain perverse teaching he would expound spiritually, removing the mystical veil. He did not say anything that I felt to be a difficulty, but whether what he said was true I still did not know.” Augustine, Confessions, Augustine was later baptized by Ambrose. Augustine’s Baptism

4 In the 16 th century (1500s) Protestants rejected figurative interpretations as unbiblical (except for typological readings). But one of the earliest Christians to use figurative interpretations was St. Paul: “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother.” Galatians 4:22-26 Compare this with Genesis 16 & 21—Does Paul’s interpretation seem natural or forced? Paul

5 In his early interpretations of Genesis, Augustine alluded to Paul’s example. “If no other way is available of reaching understanding of what is said that is religious and worthy of God, except by supposing that it has all been set before us in a figurative sense and in riddles, we have the authority of the apostles for doing this, seeing that they solved so many riddles in the books of the Old Testament in this manner” On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees, 2.3.

6 For example, here is Genesis 2:4b- 6: “In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up … a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground” Here is Augustine’s interpretation [with comments] in On Genesis, 2.7: The earth and the heavens=the whole visible creation [well, sure] Day=the whole of time [hmmm] Plant of the field=the invisible creation [huh?] The spring rising from the earth and watering the whole face of the ground=the flood of truth drenching the soul before sin [who knew?]

7 Augustine was not satisfied with this early commentary and later wrote another that tried to pay more attention to literal interpretations. Even then, he preferred to keep everything open-ended and invited readers to use their own judgment (On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 1.40). And he did not think interpretations should conflict with “the perceptions of [our] own rational faculties” (2.9).

8 Even a literal reading might not look so literal to today’s readers. For example: Augustine noted the difference between the six days of creation in Genesis 1, and the one day of creation in Genesis 2. He explained the difference by interpreting the days in Genesis 1 as logical steps in a single act of creation which was actually simultaneous (or timeless) (4.52). These timeless, potential moments in God’s knowledge began to unfold in time only in Genesis 2.


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