On Christian Doctrine by Saint Augustine of Hippo

As one does, when researching for a PhD in theology, I’ve had to dip into a bit of Augustine this past week!  On Christian Doctrine is a collection of four books from the fourth century Church Father outlining just how it is we get from words from a person’s lips, to true knowledge about God – or, when it comes down to it, about anything!

It’s a little surreal after reading so much twentieth century psycholinguistic theory over the past six months, to come to an ancient writer struggling with essentially the same problems and suggesting eerily similar solutions!  Augustine describes ‘words’ as ‘signs which point to real things’.  Jacques Lacan would say language is a system of Symbols, referring to the Real, through the interpretive framework of the Imagery.  There are differences, of course, and it would be a mistake to conflate such fundamentally different social and philosophical cultures into one.  Besides, it is Augustine that concerns me in this moment.

In book 1, Augustine explores ‘things’ (res in Latin).  Things can be ‘used’ or ‘enjoyed’, but Augustine urges the Christian to use things to enjoy God, and enjoy God alone, for enjoying things of the created order – be they self, another human, an aspect of nature or a human-man thing – is always idolatry.  It’s a description of reality that borrows heavy from Plato and betrays Augustine’s characteristically pessimistic anthropology.

In book 2, Augustine explains what he means by ‘signs’, with a particular focus on words, which he describes as ‘signs’ that point to ‘things’.  Some words are clear or ‘natural’ signs with a direct relationship to the thing, such as smoke is a sign of fire.  Other words are ‘given’ a meaning to their sign, by human beings who are desiring to communicate something of a ‘thing’ which has no material representation which can be plainly known to all by the use of their five senses.  This includes the whole task of theology, love, beauty and pretty much everything else I am interested in communicating about on reddresstheology!  Augustine argues that there is a connection between an actual ‘thing’ and a given ‘sign’, but the meaning of the sign is necessarily constructed through human mediation and hence the opportunity for miscommunication abounds.  Interestingly, he says that because true knowledge of God is held internally in the human person, the scripture is only a tool that God uses to stir up that truth within individual human beings and scripture is, therefore, theoretically unnecessary if God decides to reveal Godself directly to a person’s ‘heart’.

Book 3 suggests strategies for interpreting ambiguous passages in scripture: it’s not rocket science really, but it’s surprising how much we need to be reminded of these simple strategies when we encounter confusion in our understanding of the bible.  First and foremost, Augustine argues, we must work out what is figurative and what is literal.  Common sense says that if the text is nonsense when taken literally, then it must be figurative.  The rule of faith suggests that if all knowledge helps us to love God and our neighbour – if a text taken literally cannot lead us into love, then it must be figurative!  If the text still doesn’t make sense, then we look at context, including the immediate context of the passage within it’s text, the whole canonical context, and the context of ourselves as reader.  Ultimately, there is nothing in scripture which does not lead towards the double love of God and neighbour, so that is the ultimate standard by which all interpretations must abide, for love is the telos, the goal of scripture, just as love is the goal of everything God does, is and communicates to God’s creation!

The final book is about preaching, or the presentation of scripture to a learning community.

I could summarise the whole thing myself, but there’s a new book out from Matthew Levering, offering introductions to his most important works, which is so well written that I’m going to cheat and give you his two succinct paragraph summary of instead.

    In the Prologue of On Christian Doctrine, Augustine responds to “Christians who rejoice to know the Sacred Scriptures without human instruction.”  God could have revealed things directly to each individual human, and in some cases God has revealed himself directly.  But in almost every case, God has required that we learn from others.  Even in speaking to us directly in Jesus Christ, God ensured that we would learn Jesus’ words and deeds from others, who would have to interpret them.  The divinity of Jesus Christ is mediated to us through his humanity, and the biblical signs that testify to him are mediated to us through Israel and the Church.  The guidance of the Holy Spirit does not take away from the profound presence of human mediation and interpretation at the heart of God’s work of salvation.  Why did God choose this way to reveal himself?
Augustine’s answer is that given the needs and capacities of fallen human nature, God reveals himself through signs so as to train us in love.  Since we must learn about God through signs that have been given in history, we can come to God only within the community of wisdom and love built up by Christ and the Holy Spirit.  To learn from Christ in the Church means to learn how to move from sign to thing, so as to cleave in love to the unseen God who is revealed through signs.  those whose task it is to interpret Scripture for others must employ its signs for the purpose of leading others to love of God and neighbor.  This purpose does not mean abandoning the liberal arts or the methods of persuasive public speaking.  But it does mean redirecting such learning towards the goal of Christian wisdom.  If such a redirection is to succeed, Christian interpreters must not become puffed up by their learning and must practice what they preach.  In the school that is the Church, the labor of learning and teaching is at the service of the love of God and neighbor.

If you’ve been reading reddresstheology for a while and know something about my PhD topic – Love as Revelation – you will probably have seen the connections with that project: love is not just the what of Christian teaching, it is also the how, why, when and where.  However, what has struck me even more reading On Christian Doctrine at this time, is it’s relevance to Christians engaged in a conversation about the scriptural teaching on diverge gender and sexualities.

A productive conversation about sex and scripture fundamentally relies on a prior conversation about the conversation.  How do we read scripture in the midst of this difficult conversation with multiple commitments, complex emotions and shifting philosophical foundations for reasoning from texts?  Each individual in the conversation has an interpretive framework – whether they acknowledge it or not – which may or may not be a compatible with the interpretive framework of their conversation partner.  In stable societies and cultures individuals can assume a certain level of functional similarities across members of the same community, but his ceases to be the case during times of epoch transition that we are currently living through.

Why does Augustine help in this context?  Because he reminds us to focus on what is clear, before we focus on what is ambiguous.  What is crystal clear in scripture is the dual commandment to love God and neighbour.

“So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.” (1.36.40)

This is a pretty indisputable starting point for Christians in disagreement as to how to read scripture:  can we agree that any interpretation we propose must pass a simple test?  It must be shown to have an outcome in reason and experience that can be described as loving.  It must promote love of God and love of neighbour.  If we agree to this hermeneutical principle, we can discuss how different interpretations of the text might best promote this higher, clearer goal of double love.

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