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.

Love as Revelation

This post is the final in a series of responses to papers delivered at the Biennial Conference on Philosophy, Religion and Culture at the Catholic Institute of Sydney, 5th-7th October 2012.

Well, I’m not sure that I’ve kept the best till last, but I’ve kept my own paper till last in this series reflecting on ‘The Expressible and the Inexpressible’ conference.  I’ve given you here a copy of the abstract, introduction and conclusion of the paper.  Click over to the reddresstheology writing page to read the whole paper if you’re interested.


‘Love As Revelation’


In his 1963 work Love Alone: The Way of Revelation, Hans Urs Von Balthasar proposed a ‘third way’ of conceiving the theological category of ‘revelation’ beyond cosmological or anthropological methods.  He calls this method love as revelation.  This paper asks, first, what did von Balthasar mean by this phrase and second, why would contemporary Australian theologians be interested?  Von Balthasar is seeking an aesthetic way of speaking about God that respects the particularity of the Christian gospel whilst acknowledging the limitations of human knowing.  As such, it is a resource that might address some contemporary philosophical concerns about knowledge and reason, subjectivity and objectivity, being and thinking.


Good afternoon and thank-you for coming to hear about Love after lunch.  I am Michelle Trebilcock.  I live in Melbourne with my two gorgeous boys aged 6 and 8, I’m an Anglican Priest, and I’m 8 months in to a full-time doctoral student with St Mark’s Canberra in Public and Contextual Theology.  My project is developing a mystical hermeneutic for Public conversations about God, religion and ethics, grounded in this concept of Love as Revelation which I am sharing with you today.

In this paper, I will outline a proposal from Hans Urs von Balthasar that, at its foundation, Christian truth is not just about love, it is love.  Love is not just the content of Christian revelation – God so loved the world(John 3:16); God is love (1 John 4:8); Love the Lord your God…and your neighbour… ( Deut 6:5/ Matt 22:37/ etc.); and so on – Love is the way of revelation. 

Love is the how, the how we know, the how we know it and the how we make sense of being human.

Love is the methodology, the step-by-step process, the hermeneutic and epistemology of spirituality and of religious knowledge.


When we love another person, we love them for the ways that they are different to us, as well as the ways that they are the same. When we love another well, we help them to become all that they are uniquely capable of being, without diminishment of our own uniqueness.  It is not relative truth, but neither is it one-dimensional. Love is empirically conscious only by its symptoms and causes but within the subjectivity of the person experiencing love, is known absolutely.  To apply love as an avatar for ‘how we know’, is to insist on an embodied, conversational epistemology and hermeneutic. The goal is kenotic openness to the ‘truth’ of the person before us, without diminishing the ‘truth’ of our own selves.

Just imagine, how the hyperpluralistic, public discourses of our country would be transformed is Christians entered into the dialogue in this way: leading the conversation towards beauty, goodness and truth by its tone and tenor, rather than the abstract presentation of dogma.  That is my vision for a mystical hermeneutic for public theology – a hermeneutic of love as revelation.

Love Alone: The Way of Revelation by Hans Urs von Balthasar

(London; Compass, 1968) (originally published in German, 1963)

I take a big breath as I start this post: this is the core text for the first section of my thesis project and I’ve now read it three times and made pages and pages of notes! Eventually I’ll need to write 25,000 words responding to it in one way then another (before I write another 55,000 words taking the concept in my own direction) but for you, dear readers, this is a special ‘sneak peak.’

In Love Alone, von Balthasar proposes that love is not just the content of Christian revelation – John 3:16 (God so loved the world); 1 John 4:8 (God is love); Deut 6:5/ Matt 22:37/ etc (love the Lord your God…and your neighbour…); and so on – love is the way of revelation.

Love is the how, the how we know, the how we know it and the how we make sense of being human.
Love is the methodology, the step by step process, the hermeneutic and epistemology of that knowledge which we hold at the core of our being.
Or, to quote a now classic Australian phrase, “it’s just the vibe of the thing”!

Here’s a quote from a book:
‘just as in love I encounter the other as the other in all his freedom, and am confronted by something which I cannot dominate in any sense, so in the aesthetic sphere, it is impossible to attribute the form which presents itself to a fiction of my imagination. In both cases the ‘understanding’ of that which reveals itself cannot be subsumed under categories of knowledge which imply control. Neither love in the freedom of its gratuitousness, nor beauty, since it is disinterested, are ‘products’ – least of all of some person’s need. To reduce love to the level of a ‘need’ would be cynicism and egoism; only when the pure gratuity of love has been recognized can one speak of it in terms of fulfillment. To dissolve the magic of beauty into some ‘truth’ that lies behind or beyond the appearance, is to banish beauty altogether and simply shows that its specific quality has never been felt.’ (p.45)

In the earliest centuries of Christian theology a cosmological method was the pathway to God-logic – we hypothesize about God through what we know of the natural world. In recent centuries, culminating in the high liberal Protestantism of von Balthasar’s era, an anthropological method has predominated – we hypothesize about God through what we know of human nature. Now, however, the time is ripe for a ‘Third Way’ – the way of love. What we know about God we know because of and through the experience of love.

“Love can only be perceived by love”, argues von Balthasar. So if Christians want to claim that the content of the Christian message is love, the container of the message must also be love, otherwise it cannot hope to communicate effectively. This is all the more important for Christian theology because we seek to make known God who is Love – not just in action but in essence. But it’s also the postmodern medium is the message thing.

There are several connections that I will make with von Balthasar’s work and the broader disciplines of philosophy and theology. I apologise if I’m lost in PhD language, but I’ve tried to be as plain as possible – a great discipline for my academic writing!

First, in focusing on love as a form of knowledge, I hope to address the postmodern skepticism about universal truth without dissolving the unique contribution of any single perspective. When we love another person, we love them for the ways that they are different to us, as well as the ways that they are the same. When we love another well, we help them to become all that they are uniquely capable of being, without diminishment of our own uniqueness. I think ‘truth’ works in this way. It is not absolutely relative, but neither is it one-dimensional. In conversation, the goal should be open to the ‘truth’ of the person before us, without diminishing the ‘truth’ of our own selves.

Second, specifically in relation to Christian theology, if the Christian gospel is to retain its distinctiveness in a pluralist environment, Christ must remain at the centre. Love enables us to do that, for in the particular form of Christian revelation, Divine Love enters the realm of human logic via the incarnation of the Word of God who is Love. So, Balthasar suggests a modified approach to pluralist integration: loving (learning from) other others should not diminish ourselves. Ideally, love builds up both parties in the conversation.

Third, love deconstructs power. The notion of love challenges subconscious assumptions about hierarchy in human relationships. Is it possible to couple racism, sexism, ageism or any other kind of -ism with the word love? ‘Love can, a priori (and thus as faith), only be in agreement with love – not with non-love.’ (p.68) There is no love without vulnerability, and there is no vulnerability without recognition that we are finite, fallible and fragile!  So the only question left is how do we respond to vulnerability? Focusing on love uncovers the strategies we use for coping with the anxiety of difference. Love as knowledge sits deep within the human psyche, often as subconscious knowledge but is fundamentally responsible for our motivations in theological discourse.

Finally, love is a kind of pre-cognition. We all ‘know’ what love is, but poets and philosophers have yet to come up with a satisfactory definition. Like ‘beauty’ it is a wondrous mystery that we grasp at and for but recognise clearly when we encounter it.  My 6 year old knows nothing of romantic love as I do, but does that mean we cannot have a conversation about it?  My friend Shan had an arranged married, my friend Alice had a terrible marriage, but does that mean we do all intuitively recognise what the love of a good husband is like?  Love then, can act as a kind of ‘avatar’ – a symbol which might allude to meaning rather than empirically define it and refer to a vast array of related but non-identical experiences for which the commonality is that we refer to by the same linguistic concept.  I am absolutely fascinated by this idea and it’ll form the middle section of my thesis.

The final section of my thesis will outline how love might be used to describe a certain methodology for public conversations about God, religion and ethics. That is, when the starting point is that we all start from different points, how on earth do we find our way to a shared vision for our community? I think that ‘public theologians’ (I do have a Public Theology scholarship for this thing!) have an important prophetic role to play in public discourse, not by the content of our message, but by the way we enter into conversation with others with respect for difference, but confidence in our own experience.

There is a lot to like about von Balthasar, but there is also stuff not to like:  he has a skewed idea of gender and in the end, love for von Balthasar is very heavily conceived in terms of self-sacrificial obligation which diminishes the one who is loving.   Lots of feminists won’t have a bar of him,  but I think Luce Irigaray can redeem him!

So there it is, what I will be spending the next 2 1/2 years trying to sound convincing! Wish me luck.