Elements of Christianity

by James J. O'Donnell

Augustine's elevation to the bishopric of Hippo in 395 gave him full powers to preach and teach in the church. Not long after, he characterized the bishop's life as one divided between looking after his flock, snatching a little rest where he could, and meditating on the scripture.[[1]] The last task was the most difficult and private: to preach and teach meant to proclaim the biblical message.

Conscious of his duty, Augustine soon began a work in four books on scriptural interpretation, which comes to us as his Christian Doctrine..[[2]] The first two books and part of the third were written c. 395/396, while the remainder was added c. 426/427, perhaps largely from notes and drafts retained from the earlier period.

Faith and Revelation

Just as an analysis of the use of language begins by using words of some kind, so an exploration of Christian theology begins with assumptions central to that theology. Augustine was conscious of these paradoxes, so Christian Doctrine begins with a dense and subtle book in which he makes his assumptions explicit. Since the purpose of this book is introductory, readers often pass through it briskly to get to the real business at hand, the manual of exegesis in Books 2 and 3, without penetrating the sophistication of thought and expression in this little summa of Christian teaching.

The starting point is deceptively simple and obvious. All teaching consists of two parts: things and signs (1.2.2). Theology makes certain claims, using the signs of language, about the things that make up reality. It begins with the metaphysical claim, to be explored in detail in the later books of Christian Doctrine, that language and reality can be securely related to each other in some way.

Every sign, of no matter what sort, is itself a thing. Semaphore gestures with the hands are just so much flesh in motion; language is just so much blast of wind; a printed text is just a curiously ornate arrangement of ink on paper. Before any sign can have meaning, it must be given that meaning by some reasoning being. Hence there is no watertight division between things and signs. Mark Twain's description in Life on the Mississippi of the complex language the riverboat pilot could read where laymen could only see ripples on the stream is a relevant parable of the conventional nature of language. For the purposes of this preliminary book, Augustine will concern himself with things insofar as they are things and leave the discussion of the interpretation of signs until later.

In this world, things exist as we encounter them. Augustine thus defines only two classes: the things that we enjoy and the things that we use (1.3.3). This, like the distinction between signs and things, is a purely utilitarian distinction and makes (for the moment) no metaphysical claims. Some things enter our consciousness as instruments by which other things may be obtained or affected --they are there to be used. Other things seem to have more final value, and are objects for which instruments are employed..[[3]] At first it is unclear whether Augustine intends any absolute distinction between classes of things or merely a distinction in our relations with things. For the most part, the latter seems to obtain. Things to be enjoyed themselves seem to fall into a hierarchy with a single highest good--enjoyed but never used--at the pinnacle.

But this ethical analysis will preoccupy us a little further on, after we have seen the theological use Augustine makes of his distinction. Suffice it to say for the moment that the distinction itself (like the distinction between things and signs) is purely neutral and does not point towards any particular value system. Augustine's purpose in these short opening chapters is to provide himself with a neutral vocabulary with which to describe basic Christian doctrine. Indeed, the whole of the first book is a tour-deforce for the way Augustine can use two simple a priori categories as the framework for a full and comprehensive theoretical description of Christian theology.

Even after we appreciate this, we are slightly unready for the abrupt statement that soon follows: "The things to be enjoyed are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the very Trinity, one particular thing, the highest of things, the same to all who enjoy it." (1.5.5) Here the philosopher, who has appreciated Augustine's analysis and perhaps likened it to that of Kant, suddenly and urgently suspends his consent. So flat and arbitrary a statement as this prejudices all debate about the way values will be assigned using the thing/sign and use/enjoyment distinctions. Augustine knew this perfectly well; the aim of this treatise, after all, was to discuss Christian doctrine. At some point, Augustine had to begin to speak of specifically Christian things. He was not one to do so in any tentative or questioning manner.

Two things need to be said about this assumption (some would say arrogation) of authority. First, when he wrote these words, Augustine spoke as a bishop of the Christian church, that is to say, as one of the direct successors of the apostles, with the same authority to preach and teach in the church as they had. He spoke, not out of any personal authority derived from superior wisdom and training, but out of the authority that came to him by virtue of his office. He could say what the church said with no diffidence at all.

Second, in due course he makes clear, as he describes the ways of God's intervention in the world, how it is that this ecclesiastical authority makes sense within the structure of Christian doctrine. But it must be admitted and emphasized that this work exists only within that structure. Augustine was never concerned with demonstrating the truth of the Christian religion entirely on the basis of principles accessible to the unaided human reason. As Christian Doctrine makes clear, divine revelation, that is to say, intervention in human affairs by a power anterior to all human reasoning, is the necessary condition of Christian theology. Perhaps when that revelation has done its work well, it might be possible to reconstruct the doctrines of Christianity as they would appear if the unaided human reason were in fact capable of devising them, but even in that case, only faith would make it possible to assent to that exercise of the rational faculty.

At any rate, Augustine is clear in stating where he begins: with the trinity. He lived at the end of a century that had worked out the church's basic trinitarian doctrines, at the ecumenical councils of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381. Christians finally had a universal vocabulary in which to state what they believed about God, Christ, and the Spirit lucidly and concisely without error or imprecision..[[4]] Simple creeds are important as a foundation for a treatise such as this; when new candidates for church membership were instructed for baptism during the forty days before Easter, two themes predominated: introduction to the creed as a statement of the essentials of belief (all creeds were trinitarian in shape; what we call the Apostles' Creed was one of the most common) and introduction to the Lord's prayer as the prime medium of spirituality.

In a few chapters, Augustine then states the essentials of Christian belief in God, with a most important preamble: God is ineffable, that is, we can say nothing truly meaningful about one who transcends the categories of human language. Indeed, it is the wisdom of God that gives reasonableness to all things in human life. This feat is accomplished through the incarnation of the Word of God--and suddenly we have moved to the second person of the trinity. The mystery of incarnation is the nexus between God and man, by which, "though God himself is our home, for our sake he made himself the very road that would lead us home." A brief summary of the human life of Christ culminates with the resurrection and ascension (1.6.6 - 1.15.14).

What follows is an assertion that the church is the true body of Christ (1.16.15). What Augustine does not say so explicitly as we would like (but what would be obvious to his audience) is that in his discussion of the church we are meant to see the presence of the third person of the trinity, the Spirit. The foundation of the church at the first Pentecost consisted in the gift of the Spirit to the apostles gathered in the upper room. Viewed in this way, the three persons of the trinity represent God the unapproachable, God the mediator, and God the indwelling spirit. Knowledge, through revelation, moves down from above in this image, while human response moves back up from the church (body of Christ) to Christ (Word of God) to the ineffable godhead itself.

Here in a dozen pages, then, Augustine has laid out his assumptions. Since they arise from the teaching authority of the church he represented, his statement of them thus resembles in outline one of those simple baptismal creeds. But although he has presented this material in what seems to be a rather abstract and forbidding way, his is in fact a manner precisely suited to the development of his hermeneutical theory and practice in the following books. The second principal section of the first book of Christian Doctrine is devoted to a sketch of the implications of the distinction between use and enjoyment (1.22.20 - 1.34.38). This outline makes sense when seen as a statement of the way in which members of the church, the body of Christ, are to conduct themselves.

The fundamental principle persists in all its simplicity: human beings are to enjoy God. All other things and people they are to use.

To our ears this sounds crudely exploitative. We do not like to "use people." We have learned to appreciate the hidden costs of traditional social structures, and the self-seeking possibilities of apparent altruism. Can Augustine be rescued from a charge of cynicism? Perhaps..[[5]] He insists that what makes all the difference is the object towards which "use" is directed. We are rightly repelled when we see at a man who "uses" people to aggrandize power and satisfy greed; in that case, the object towards which "use" is directed is the selfish interest of a single individual with no right to such advantage over his fellows and no sure intrinsic goodness or benevolence to lighten his rule.

For Augustine, the aim is altogether different. The center of all "enjoyment" is God--perfectly good, perfectly benevolent, perfectly reliable. God rules creation in somewhat the way that a playwright rules the stage, but God is much more firmly in control. God's goodness is so complete and perfect that dependence on his judgment and authority is completely without danger or risk. The behavior of petty tyrants in this world becomes, in Augustine's view, a vicious mimicry of divine governance, with some of the structure retained, but with all of the values perverted. What makes the difference is a good or bad object of "enjoyment."

Augustine envisions, moreover, a situation in which all "enjoyment" of ourselves is at least potentially ruled out. The goodness of God is so great and his judgment so reliable that the individual can abandon all self-will and self-directed exploitation once and for all. To say that Christians exploit others becomes then a special way of describing obedience to the second of the two great commandments of Christianity: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor." We are to love that which is good in our neighbors for the love of God, while hating what is evil, and to "use" ourselves in exactly the same relentless and uncompromising fashion. This kind of love sounds terrifying (perhaps "awesome" is a better word), but if it can be given perfectly, with exact perceptions of good and evil, it can lose all power to terrify. In like manner, something "terrific" always adheres to Christian descriptions of heaven, for heaven's is a life that knows nothing of the quirks, foibles, and small irrational attachments of human life in this world. The life described is one fit only for heroes--but promised to all. No longer is it as universally obvious as it once was that all men and women naturally desire such a life.

The Augustinian ethic reveals itself in practice as hierarchical. Proper use of all people and things requires an accurate assessment of their relative value in the plan of salvation. All right love is based on right knowledge. Order exists in nature, and only when order is perceived (that is, only when nature is seen as God created it and not merely as man imagines it) can the commandments of love genuinely be fulfilled. As Augustine puts it, "That man lives in justice and holiness who is an uncorrupted judge of things. He has an ordinate love and neither loves what he should not love, nor fails to love what he should love, or loves one thing more than he should, nor loves two things equally that deserve different loves, nor loves differently two things that deserve equal loves. Every sinner, insofar as he is a sinner, is not to be loved; but every man, insofar as he is a man, is to be loved on account of god. God is to be loved on account of himself."(1.27.28)

The implications of the Christian idea of love that was preached throughout Europe for over a thousand years deserve to be drawn a little more clearly. First, ordinary self-love is put in its place. Men are part of a whole larger than themselves and their needs and wants cannot dictate values to the whole. They have responsibilities, even to themselves, to recognize that this is so and to refrain from asserting private advantage at the expense of others--and even where others would not be hurt. The seven deadly sins (pride, avarice, lust, envy, gluttony, sloth, and wrath), even if committed in perfect solitude, do harm to the sinner. (A system of this kind takes the individual seriously in a way that one which merely counsels that we refrain from harming others cannot. This quality of the Augustinian system deserves to be called democratic.)

Second, love of fellow man appears in new light. The romantic love that was invented in the middle ages and glorified in the modern world runs a risk of going astray, for when the love of one person for another becomes all-consuming and exclusive, it begins to resemble idolatry (the medieval authors who toyed with the notion we call courtly love still knew this) and becomes a kind of false religion. When the lover's praise of his mistress flirts with hyperbole, it is forgiveable, but when the hyperbole begins to be taken seriously, some derangement has occurred.

Third, this view of love is profoundly communitarian. In a system in which every person voluntarily knows and accepts his or her place in the ordered pattern of society and acts for the best interests of every other member of that society and of the society as a whole at all times, a theoretically perfect life is in view. The medieval world could both attempt to establish such a system on earth and yet accept the inevitability of failure through sin; the modern world either tries to establish such a utopian system (under a variety of dictatorial regimes) or else (under more liberal regimes) refuses to believe that such a system is even possible--both systems pervert the democratic ideal by carrying it to excess. True love of neighbor eschews grand schemes that attempt to impose one person's views on others and contents itself with doing what is possible. "We ought to hope all men love God with us," (1.29.30) Augustine says, and explains by a homely example. Consider, he says, the devoted fan of some theatrical celebrity and how he loves everyone who shares his enthusiasm--not for the sake of those who share the enthusiasm, but for the sake of the star they all admire; and consider how he labors ceaselessly to spread his enthusiasm far and wide; and how he loathes with a special passion anyone he finds who is indifferent to the charisma of the beloved. In parody this is how God and man could behave towards one another, on condition that man truly understood and accepted the perfect goodness and desirability of God.

At this point in Christian Doctrine, Augustine inserts what looks like a digression on the relations of men and angels (1.30.31-33)..[[6]] Augustine stresses certain features of the picture he has just drawn by making us consider it sub specie aeternitatis, and so he draws us for a moment out of the morass of imperfect human society and bids us consider heaven. Will we still love our neighbor in heaven? Yes, but in a much different way; for there, our neighbors will no longer need our help to draw near to God, and our love will concentrate itself much more directly on God himself.

This shows how much the sinfulness of human life makes love of neighbor a more rather than a less urgent command. Our fellow mortals are in a state every bit as perilous as our own, at all times in danger of eternal damnation and loss of God. In that light, their need for our help becomes obvious and the legitimacy of conceiving love of neighbor in terms of the use/enjoyment distinction becomes more intelligible.

The next section of Book 1 takes another unexpected turn. Suddenly Augustine is talking about how God does not enjoy us, but rather uses us himself (1.31.34). First we began with God, then saw the structure of divine involvement in human life, and now have been considering the human response to that divine gesture. Here in the last chapters of this part of the book, we return to the point at which we began, considering the relation between God and man from God's point of view at last. This is a salutary reminder that Augustine's view of the world is resolutely theocentric, and that indeed if it were not so, we could easily charge him with hypocrisy. To take God's point of view as the most important is a logical consequence of the principles Augustine has been discussing in earlier chapters.

For since God is the central point of all that exists, God does not, in some half-hearted reciprocal way, treat us just as we treat him. He acts instead with what could be described as an act of justified selfishness, making us the instruments of his own goodness and glory. God alone of all need not be humble. God is the source of all that is: insofar as men share in his being, they are good; insofar as men are evil, they decline to share that goodness and so earn punishment--which is, in the truest sense of the hackneyed phrase, "for their own good." When we love God and God loves us, we act in all ways in God, and thence comes all power to act for the good of all.

Hence a recapitulation of the themes of the book (1.32-35). First, the distinction between use and enjoyment gains new force from the finality of what has just been said about God; then, attention returns to the way that leads us home, that is, to Christ the mediator. Finally, Augustine confronts us with the crucial point of contact where theory becomes practice in the church animated by the spirit and, in particular, through the revealing act of God in scripture. A brief chapter is worth quoting in full:

"The sum and substance of all we have said here is this: let the reader understand that the whole aim and purpose of God's law and scripture is the love of that which is to be enjoyed [i.e., God] and of that which can enjoy along with us [i.e., neighbor]; for there is no need of a command to love ourselves. For us to know and do this, this whole worldly arrangement was made by divine providence for our salvation. We are to use the world, not with the love and delight we would show to our true home, but only with the passing love we would give a highway or the vehicles of travel. We love the things that carry us only because we love the place to which they carry us." (1.35.39)

This world, then, is not our true home. We belong with God. The world of creation is inferior to its creator and can only offer a temporary resting place. (Man is unique in the created world, for his soul, the thing that makes him special, is immortal and destined to persist even in the presence of God--that is one part of what it means to say that man is created in the image and likeness of God.) We are meant to live in this world as we would live in a foreign country. If we are truly citizens of the homeland we have left, we will pine for it, struggle to live according to its customs, and devote ourselves to making our way home. On that journey, we should not become so enamored of the inns and carriages that serve our journey that we give up the journey itself.

Human life, therefore, is transient. All that we touch passes away, and well it should; for all that we touch is good if it leads us home to God, but bad if it keeps us from him. The sweeping categorical effect of this principle cannot be minimized. As we shall see, Augustine is always aware that even the trappings and instruments of ecclesiastical office, which exist only to bring man closer to God, can themselves become instruments of damnation if he begins to love them for themselves.

The principle is universal. Though all things are potentially good (if used for the proper end), all things are potentially evil (if used for the wrong end, selfishly or idolatrously). Augustine is often suspected of an innate hostility to material creation, and this view is called (depending on the prejudice of the viewer) crypto-Manicheism or lingering Neoplatonism. The fact is that his suspicion, in the mature years after his conversion, had narrowed itself to focus upon the attitudes that people bring to material creation. If they treat it with due tentativeness, as something good for the moment but to be relinquished in a moment if love of God requires it, then both they and the things they touch are good and beautiful. But no matter how beautiful created nature is, it can become the focus for wrongful loves that lead people away from God. Then for those people, it is evil.

A more general point demands attention in this context. On the one hand, there are plenty of things that are intrinsically and objectively wrong to do; but at the same time (and the paradox of those last four words will come back to haunt us later), the intention with which men perform all acts (both those good and bad in themselves) is of everlasting importance. In making this claim, Augustine seems to render absurd the usual categories of logical analysis.

We will see time and again that such a taste for paradox is not incidental to Augustine's thought. Rather, he sees in many of the formal contradictions of human thought the persistent imperfection of the human mind. In Book 1 of Christian Doctrine, for example, he asserted the essential unity of knowledge and action by claiming that all right love (the only form of action that is morally justified) is based on and grows out of right knowledge, and at the same time claimed that right knowledge, which contains the command to love, is impossible unless united with right action in love. This theory unites faith with love, for faith is the one valid source of knowledge for fallen men, and love is the only acceptable moral response to that faith; but the combination of principles is a challenge to our usual logical categories. What Augustine is claiming is that the deepest of philosophical chasms, the distinction between subject and object, is itself an illusion born of sin and not an inherent quality of reality.

Modern physicists suspect that the observer cannot separate himself from the system he observes, but as heirs of the western philosophical tradition that goes back to Plato and Aristotle they have found it difficult to cope with the realization. The radical difference between Christian theology and that traditional western philosophy is nowhere more sharply defined than here. What Augustine says is that we cannot exist in the world simply as knower and observer. To do so is to condemn ourselves to a partial existence, imperfect and incomplete. The fullness of human life comes only when knowledge and observation are perfectly integrated with action and participation. The real Manicheism of our culture is that of the philosophical tradition that invented the distinction between mind and body--invented it because an imperfect world seems in practice to demand it, because men can in fact behave as though such a distinction were possible. Christianity turned away from that pessimistic habit of mind to claim that the semblance of division is only temporary and comes about as a result of our own actions, not of anything intrinsic in ourselves or the world.

Christian redemption is then the final healing of all the divisions that sin brings. Though spirit and flesh are at war with one another in the disorder of the fallen world, in the resurrection of the body they will be rejoined again in a harmony that Augustine insists once existed. Better still, the deepest rift of all, between the eternal and perfect creator and his mortal and sinful creations, will itself be healed in the unity of the beatific vision. Evil itself will not merely be vanquished; it will be seen never to have existed. All these doctrines defy the power of fallen reason to comprehend or accept them, for fallen reason itself is the source of the mutually contradictory categories that seem to make such ideas impossible. Christian faith, while claiming to be ultimately in complete accord with authentic reason, starts out as a scandal to reason, insisting we believe pairs of contradictory propositions simultaneously. Only faith can cross this divide; Augustine begins on the other side.

Scripture and Interpretation

Christianity is a religion of the book, but the book did not spring out of a vacuum: hence the first book of Christian Doctrine. The authority of the believing community precedes and guarantees the authority of the book. Thus the Christian student of scripture brings certain first principles along to the study of the book. The text itself, like the church, is only an instrument of divine authority. For both church and scripture the active agent of revelation is God, working through Christ, the Word.

Though we have placed his preliminary discussion under a separate heading, for Augustine the first book of Christian Doctrine was part and parcel of his theory of interpretation, because acceptance of the basic doctrines enunciated there was the foundation of all understanding of scripture. According to our way of thinking, the formally hermeneutic part of Augustine's treatise begins only with the last few chapters of Book 1, where the principles outlined are restated to show their applicability to the study of scripture.

The beginning of all exegesis is love of God and love of neighbor. "Whoever thinks he understands divine scripture or any part of it, but whose interpretation does not build up the twofold love of God and neighbor, has not really understood it. Whoever has drawn from scripture an interpretation that does fortify this love, but who is later proven not to have found the meaning intended by the author of the passage, is deceived to be sure, but not in a harmful way, and he is guilty of no untruth at all." (1.36.40)

Hence church doctrine makes it clear that all scripture will contain the praise of this double love (caritas) and the condemnation of all that is contrary to it--and nothing else. Here a special quality of a scriptural text is seen: in addition to whatever the initial writer meant to put into a text, there is also, always and everywhere, this deeper divine message. What is important, then, is that this deeper message be uncovered. This approach imputes a fundamentally instrumental quality to scriptural texts: God works on the individual soul through scripture, and however God works is good. Having a correct opinion about the meaning of an obscure word in scripture is a good thing, but ultimately irrelevant; but having a correct opinion about the need to love God and reform one's life is not only a good thing, but ultimately the only thing to be expected from scripture.

If love of God and of neighbor is the goal of interpretation, the enemy of interpretation is whatever does not allow that love to grow. The root of all lovelessness is the self-assertiveness of pride. The one who sets himself up as an authoritative interpreter of scripture in opposition to the reasonable suggestions of colleagues or the benign direction of the church goes far astray, even if he does uncover much arcane and accurate lore in the process. Not only is caritas the goal of interpretation, it is also the only reliable means of interpretation.

This is obviously a counsel of perfection. Augustine knew that all are sinners and all interpretations of scripture are imperfect, and he wanted to make sure the student of scripture knew it. All interpretation is tentative and incomplete; all the more reason why the only question that means anything is the one that asks whether the Word of God is acting in the reader's soul right now.

Charity abides, then. What passes away, for the interpreter of scripture, is the whole apparatus of interpretation, both practical and theoretical. But the purpose of Christian Doctrine is to provide all that apparatus. Augustine is at pains to make it clear that the apparatus is just that, a collection of instruments to be discarded when rendered obsolete. The reading of scripture itself, which the apparatus makes possible, is itself only a halfway measure. If text and interpretation become obstacles in the way of the goal, they are to be thrust aside and other instruments, even if less sophisticated one, are to be found.

So Augustine's humble scholar opens the Bible and begins to read. How is he to proceed? To give order to his manual, Augustine uses a rough-and-ready division of the problems the exegete faces. The categories are not in fact hard and fast, but rather represent two broad overlapping areas on a single spectrum. At any rate, the first book of Christian Doctrine enunciated Augustine's doctrine about things, so the remaining books deal with signs. In Books 2 and 3 Augustine deals with exegetical questions as such, distinguishing problems concerning signs of whose meaning one is ignorant ("unknown signs"--Book 2) from those concerning signs whose meaning is confused or unclear ("ambiguous signs"--Book 3). Both categories seem merely to deal with different degrees of ignorance, but Augustine is on to something a little more important here. In Book 2, he will deal with those signs whose meaning is conventional and uncontroversial and that can be made clear simply by the acquisition of readily available common knowledge (chiefly problems of text, language and historical context). In Book 3, however, he will approach the stickier questions of obscurity that come about when authors deliberately use signs in ways for which there are no conventional interpretations. Augustine's compartments are convenient, but not watertight.

Before treating unknown signs in detail, Augustine first plants the reader concretely in front of scripture itself and outlines some of its characteristic features--that is, its obscurities. Augustine on obscurity must be understood carefully. He sets no value on obscurity itself; rather, he sees obscurity as evidence of sin-darkened intelligence. The business of the exegete is to abolish obscurity, but Augustine does not claim to live in a perfect world. He accepts obscurity in scripture and is not unaware of the particular pleasures it brings. Just as he will say elsewhere that the fall of Adam was a felix culpa (happy fault) because it made possible the incarnation, so obscurity is the result of sin, but it provides opportunities for the redeemed intellect that would not be available otherwise.

The disentangling of obscurities is a matter of simple pleasure first of all. The mixture of obscurity and clarity in scripture is one way scripture adapts itself to the taste and preference of every audience. "This was undoubtedly arranged," Augustine says, "by divine providence to subdue pride with toil and to excite the understanding from the boredom it readily suffers solving similar problems."(2.6.7) To clarify his point, he gives an example.

"Let someone tell me of holy and saintly men: the church of Christ draws on their strength and example to strip new converts of their superstitions and proposes them as models to imitate for those it incorporates into itself. The believers, good and true servants of God, shrug off the burdens of the world and come to the holy fount of baptism, coming up to bear fruit in the spirit of the twin love of God and neighbor. --So why is it that when I hear this spoken plainly and clearly, I know nothing of the special delight that comes when I read that passage in Solomon's Song in which the church in the figure of a beautiful woman is addressed: 'Your teeth are like sheared sheep come up from the sheepdip, who all give birth to twins, and there is none barren among them.'" (2.6.7; Song of Songs, 4.2) Remarkable enough to delight in teeth compared to a flock of reeking sheep, but harder still to accept that this passage of Song of Songs is to be interpreted as Augustine indicates. Granting him his reading for a moment though (we will have much more to say about that style in a few pages), one can see that his point is intelligible. The struggle to decipher a passage like the one quoted can certainly give the intellect a taste of its most characteristic pleasures; the game only seems jejune to the outsider. The obscurity of scripture, then, is bait for the learned and the wise, who might otherwise turn away if the entire text were simple and direct..[[7]]

And so the search begins. Augustine marks out seven steps to wisdom for the study of scripture to ascend. Wisdom begins with fear of God, which in turns becomes loyal obedience (for faith precedes understanding)..[[8]] Both are passive qualities, acceptance rather than action. The turning point in the approach to wisdom is the third step: scientia, or knowledge (which, as we saw in the last section, is the basis of all right action), to which the study of scripture is an important (but not the only) contributor. Knowledge gives birth to strength, which is the source of good counsel, which leads to purity of heart, which is the final prerequisite to wisdom. Wisdom, then, is the result of both knowledge and action, faith and caritas. The opposite are all joined in unity. Wisdom can also be identified with divine wisdom, that is to say, Christ. This is in fact the ascent to Christ..[[9]]

The clarity and unity of Augustine's view of scripture study lets him turn from this theoretical statement of its nature and value to the most elementary of practical questions: what books does scripture contain? This was a pressing question in Augustine's time, because there was still no universal agreement on the exact number, division, names, and order of the books of the Bible. Manuscripts of the Bible were still in circulation that preserved orders and canons going back to early days; indeed, single complete manuscripts of the whole of the Christian scriptures were rare; when the whole was broken up in parts for convenience in handling, it obviously facilitated the loss of some parts and the mixing of versions of others. Augustine does not treat the Bible as a fixed and magical text sent down from on high: such an attitude would not match the vulnerable condition of the text as it came to him. He sees it as a document that draws its practical authority from the church. This does not mean that the church has independent authority, for the power to make such decisions is the power of the spirit. The test of the inspiration of scripture, then, is its recognition by the inspired church. This standard of selection is valid both historically (that is how in fact the canon of scriptures came to be: churches decided upon it) and theologically (the authority of both book and church is God's authority working in both).

Augustine's list is similar to that used today. The early church had gotten its Old Testament originally in the Greek Septuagint version made in Egypt before the time of Christ, and hence its canon includes the so-called apocryphal books, which do not occur in the Hebrew canon (and which were, for that reason, excluded by the early Protestant reformers). His New Testament is identical to the modern canon..[[10]]

Such is the outer form of the text. How is it to be read? First, a general knowledge of the contents should be obtained by thorough reading. What such a reading could be like is difficult now even to imagine. Augustine himself began serious study of scripture only after his thirtieth year, yet by the time he became a bishop in his early forties he could quote from memory from virtually every book of scripture at will. This is not to say that he had memorized the whole of scripture, but what struck him as significant he had little trouble committing to memory. This preliminary reading of scripture should let the reader absorb the principal ideas of the text in those passages where the message is simple and clear. With those ideas in hand the reader can proceed to face the obscurities.

The first obvious step is to learn the languages in which the scripture is written. Though Augustine himself was never more than a modestly competent Greek scholar and was completely innocent of Hebrew, he knew enough to admit his lacks and lament them. Where there are obscurities, the first step is to find out if they go back to the original text or not. (To obviate some of these problems, Jerome compiled a handbook much used in the middle ages that gave the meanings of those Hebrew words occurring even in the Latin translations of scripture, mainly proper names..[[11]]) Augustine knew full well where the problems in the existing Latin translations came from: getting them translated from Hebrew into Greek was difficult and the task was performed infrequently, but from Greek into Latin was a different story: "In the early days of the faith, whoever came upon a Greek text of scripture and had some little facility in each language seems to have set himself to translating." (2.11.16) Understandably, this abundance of often only marginally competent versions could lead to much confusion.

Augustine deserves our sympathy and respect for his handling of language problems. In an ancient society where language was mainly a spoken idiom and any knowledge of reading and writing was comparatively rare, it was difficult to find someone who knew a language you wanted to learn well enough to teach it--and who was willing to stoop to the labor of teaching, a task usually left to professionals or slaves. No bilingual grammars or dictionaries existed. The problem was more acute still when a Christian sought to find a teacher for Hebrew: few learned Jews were willing to be much help. Faced with these obstacles, the most Augustine could do was express a pious respect for such competence in the alien tongues as could be found and then resign himself to making do with an obviously deplorable situation. What is remarkable is the considerable success that attended even these crippled labors. Luck, instinct, knowledge or parallel texts, and perhaps a little inspiration combined to make Augustine a more than decently competent interpreter of scripture by any standards.

After a brief summary of some working principles by which to judge translations (2.12-14), Augustine states his own preferences: in the Latin translations, he likes the so-called Itala version, while among the Greek versions he likes the Septuagint.(2.15).[[12]] He was suspicious of the new version that his near-contemporary Jerome was producing in the desert near Bethlehem. Here, if anywhere, is where Augustine can be blamed for conservatism, but it must be remembered that people are always conservative about their versions of scripture. Throughout the middle ages, even after Jerome's revision became the basis of the so-called Vulgate, particular passages from the old translation with theological significance were remembered and quoted as authoritative, on the principle that nobody could tell for sure whether the theologically preferable (if linguistically obsolete) version could with certainty be eliminated..[[13]]

After some observations on the naturally figurative habits of language (for the remedy of which Augustine later wrote a book called Figures of Speech from the Heptateuch), he discusses at length the secular expertise that could be brought to bear on a text of scripture (2.16-39). He recognizes the utility of consulting the learned books of secular science for information to help understand a text of scripture. If scripture mentions a solar eclipse and you have never seen such a thing, a treatise on astronomy will undoubtedly be of use. But Augustine is mainly concerned here with warning his Christian readers of abuses that may arise from overhasty trust of secular authors.

History books, for example, are slippery witnesses. If they just contain a record of events, well and good; but only scripture contains a record of events from which a deeper meaning can be drawn. Natural science is useful, but astronomy particularly is to be handled with care, since in antiquity astronomy included most of what we call astrology. Augustine's concern is to make sure the reader understands that for the Christian there can be no other independent, self-verifying, non-subjective source of knowledge besides divine inspiration working through the church and its scriptures. Omen and astrology are particularly to be avoided, but all abuse of the secular sciences is to be avoided.

This is a skeptical way of looking at secular wisdom, but there is another side to it all. Even philosophers, and especially the Platonists, can be read with profit--if proper care is taken. The biblical image Augustine invokes was popular among Christians considering the uses of secular wisdom. "Remember the Egyptians not only offered idols and terrible oppression, which the Israelite people hated and fled, but they owned vessels and ornament of gold and silver, and fine clothing besides, which the Israelites took for themselves in secret as they left Egypt, claiming it all for a better use."(2.40.60) The Christian student of scripture is to rob the Egyptians of their gold, taking what is valuable from secular authors and leaving behind what is idolatrous and useless.

But none of these practical remarks penetrates to the essence of scriptural interpretation. The prudent warnings of Book 2 could be directed with little change to anyone undertaking the scholarly study of a difficult text. But for Augustine, scripture is not just a difficult text, and scriptural study not just a matter of scholarship. Book 3 of Christian Doctrine reaches the central questions.

So methodical is Augustine's mind that he is constantly impeded from getting to central issues by the need to deal with (to him) unavoidable preliminary questions. What about ambiguity that resists the application of specialized knowledge? First you must be sure you have read the passage correctly. Have you read it with the correct punctuation and deciphered its syntax correctly? (The ancient reader, confronted with a manuscript devoid of punctuation, required reading skill of a different order from what we need when we open our neatly printed books.)

Given these cautions, he is ready now to face fundamental problems of scriptural ambiguity. The most important principle is that thing and sign be adequately distinguished from each other. The literal meaning of a text (that is to say, its presentation of things as things plain and simple) should be respected, but the reader should be alert to detect any and all shifts into a more figural mode of speaking (when the things are also signs of something besides themselves). This may be technically imprecise, but it is still intelligible. Augustine is fond of these analytical distinctions (like thing/sign) that work in a variety of shifting contexts. A scriptural text is nothing but a collection of signs; but those signs are used to present things to our mind; but some of the things presented to our mind have further signifying power either in themselves or because the author has willed it so. Hence it makes sense to distinguish, within the signs of a text, between signs to be taken literally and signs to be taken figuratively.

Augustine had a scriptural basis for his undertaking. He quotes here (3.5.9) Paul to the Corinthians, "The letter kills, but the spirit gives life." (2 Cor. 3.6) In that quotation is a wealth of early Christian doctrine..[[14]] The Christian intuition is that all scripture is scriptural. If the Bible is the revealed word of God, then every word of the Bible is itself revelation. Paul naturalized the Old Testament as part of Christian scripture by insisting that the fullness of New Testament revelation could already be glimpsed, in a partial, evocative, and figurative way, through the Old Testament. The evolution of Christian biblical criticism is the working out of this principle. For the Greek world, Origen (c. 180-254) was the great master of the technique, while the chief Latin authorities (heavily dependent on Origen) were Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome..[[15]]

The name of the method is allegory, and its traditional ancient definition is "saying one thing to mean another." In strictest sense, all reading is allegorical (when I read the word "horse" I understand the thing horse), but in fact the term limits itself to the use of language to carry a second meaning beneath the obvious surface. Christianity applies this principle to the whole of scripture, with the adventurous difference that it does not matter whether the author of the particular passage intended an allegorical meaning consciously or not. At bottom, only one story is told anywhere in scripture: the redemption of mankind by Christ. The story of David is an edifying tale (read in the literal sense) of God working in the world, but (in the allegorical sense) it also foreshadows Christ. The Song of Songs is a wedding song about ordinary mortals, but allegory instructs the Christian reader that the bride and groom can be taken as the soul and Christ, as the church and Christ, or even (in a popular medieval interpretation) as the Virgin and Christ.

This technique can readily be extended to almost any text: it almost becomes a parlor game. But for the early Christian church, including Augustine, it was serious business, for it was founded in scripture itself (cf. Gal. 4.21-31). Scripture was the proper subject of this treatment and--here is the central point--the literal, original sense of the passage must not be blotted out by the elucidation of allegory. Pagans had allegorized their own great works of literature when advances in philosophy left them embarrassed with the crudity of the classics. Thus they would claim that the Odyssey, for example, was only the story of the purification of a soul and its return to a heavenly homeland. What distinguished such interpretations form the Christian treatment of scripture was that the pagans ceased altogether to claim historical value for their subject text, admitting it to be mere myth or fiction. Christianity managed, combining opposites, to insist on the literal truth of the Old Testament narrative and on the allegorical significance of the narrative..[[16]] Book 3 of Christian Doctrine is Augustine's guide to allegory. But here, it is important to note, theory is more important than practice. Augustine is concerned not so much with giving his readers tools to work with as with making sure they have the right motives and principles at the outset. Instruments will come to hand once readers are face to face with the scriptural text. But getting the one right answer does not count for much.

This may be a surprising claim to make about a Christian theologian seeking to interpret scripture, but it is true and illuminating. Augustine was not concerned with training schools of exegetes who would work independently and emerge with identical interpretations of the same passages; or who, if identical interpretations did not emerge, would work together in an atmosphere of mutual cooperation and inquiry until they had resolved their differences and agreed on a common line of reading. This would strike Augustine as a much too self-important way of going about the business of interpretation. Interpretations were not to be judged by any evanescent standard of objective accuracy in the natural order but by the absolute standard of orthodoxy and truth in the spiritual order.

In the practical order, what matters is the effect of exegesis. If an interpretation of scripture builds up caritas or (what amounts to the same thing) attacks its opposite, cupiditas (selfish desire), then it is, absolutely speaking, a good interpretation. (3.10.15) As long as it is in accord with the rule of faith (regula fidei, which is in essence what Augustine outlined in Book 1), conformity to some external, but purely human standard, of correctness is immaterial..[[17]] In the grasp of eternal and divine truth, the exegete is left free to be as subjectively independent as he can be. A multitude of divergent interpretations may exist side by side without harm, as long as all meet the basic standards of building caritas, destroying cupiditas, and following the regula fidei. Conformity to caritas is conformity to the truth of heaven. The principle of the regula fidei insists that the belief of the entire Christian community is in itself the adequate practical guide. These two standards impose a considerable amount of what Augustine would recognize as objectivity on the subjective fantasies of the exegete. What matters is not the interpretation itself. The quality of the exegesis judged according to some professional, technical standard is irrelevant. What counts above all is the life of the believer who reads the scriptural text in the light of the interpretation. If the reader profits, the method is of little importance.

The reader will surely demand that certain minimum standards of fidelity to the text and plausibility are met, and that will exercise an further influence over the exegete. But it is for the exegete to know his own audience well enough to know what line of interpretation will help them most. Augustine still insists that the aim of any discourse is its persuasive effect on the reader, not conformity to a pretended standard of excellence and order.

After Augustine had outlined these basic principles of interpretation, he put Christian Doctrine aside for what turned out to be thirty years. From a point in Book 3 (at the end of 3.25.35), the work as we have it is a continuation made in the late 420s. With the end of the theoretical part of Book 3, Augustine had said all he had to say that was original and important about scriptural interpretation. Anything beyond that point would consist of actual interpretation itself, so directly did the theoretical principles point towards the act of reading itself. As we shall see very soon, the practical hints tacked on to the work at the end are of limited applicability, and some are obvious. What are we to make of the work's main line of teaching?

First, it constitutes the Augustinian statement of what is the most revolutionary thing about Christianity. Christianity does not merely depend on faith in God, it is that faith. Christianity asserts that there is another way to knowledge besides the ones sense and fallen reason discover for themselves. Moreover, Christianity claims that this other way is inaccessible to mankind's unaided efforts. But finally, Christianity asserts that, beyond all expectation, the eternal living God--the only being not affected by sin and the fall--has intervened in human affairs to make the better way accessible. So superior is that way and so intimately related to the life we should lead that to follow it is in itself salvation. The theological description of this, however open to conflicting readings, is "justification by faith alone."

In this world, this faith is manifest, above all, in Christ. Before Christ there had been intimations, and after him reactions; but Christ himself is the Word of God itself. His incarnation is the central act of revelation. Second to Christ in the worldly order, there is the church, endowed expressly by Christ with the authority of the spirit and, in Christ's absence, designated the arbiter of Christian doctrine. Third in order comes scripture, with the New Testament holding the key for a proper reading of the Old.

But finally there is nothing the church can do to guarantee that the message will reach those to whom it expounds scripture. The church cannot of itself give life to mere words--unless, says Augustine, grace intervenes to make it happen. The most the church can do is to to try to keep the book (and itself) as transparent as possible. Hence the practical and self-effacing quality of Christian Doctrine.

Preaching and Teaching

But practical guidance is not worthless. In the conclusion Augustine added to Book 3 in 426/427, there is a list of seven rules for interpreting scripture, borrowed from a Donatist writer, Tyconius--a rare example of a patristic writer publicly acknowledging a debt to a member of a schismatic sect. Two things made it possible for Augustine to do this. First, the Donatist schism was no longer, in the late 420s, the pressing concern that it had been when Christian Doctrine was begun in the 390s. Second, Tyconius was not a typical Donatist and was, indeed, often in trouble with his own sect for ideas that brought him closer to the orthodox party.

Diffidence at naming Tyconius may have been part of the reason for deferring completion of Christian Doctrine. But my own opinion is that Augustine was daunted by the task of providing specific rules for the interpretation of scripture in practice (finding it, as I said before, easier to practice the art than lay down detailed guidelines), laid the work aside, and then came back to it and found it easier to add Tyconius's by no means useless rules than concoct new ones of his own. These rules can be taken several ways, but however read, they fall into two categories.

The simpler category is the most practical. Rules number four through six ("Of Species and Genus," "Of Times," and "Recapitulation") are the most "literary," dealing respectively with treatment of the figure of speech we would call synecdoche, with the symbolism of numbers, and with some quirks of narrative sequence.

The rest of the rules are more in step with the theological preoccupations of Christian Doctrine. The first rule, for example, "Of the Lord and His Body," incorporates a theology of the church on which Tyconius was much closer to the orthodox than to the Donatist view, drawing its inspiration from Pauline texts treating the church as the body of Christ. The second rule, "Of the Bipartite Body of the Lord," complements the first by treating two aspects of the church, that which is in the world intertwined with earthly society (and which appears as the visible church) and that which has already passed over to the afterlife.

When Augustine set out practical guidelines, even borrowed ones, he stayed close to the central theological principles of his hermeneutic, and did not involve himself in laying down narrow rules that would in fact hamper the exegete. Niggling attention to detail in a work like Christian Doctrine would only have fostered literal-mindedness and made mockery of what Augustine was trying to do. Only a deep grasp of first principles will suffice as a guide in individual cases, for the interpretation of scripture in the absence of such a grasp of fundamentals is not only imperfect but actually evil.

He is a little more specific when it comes to suggesting how to proclaim the meanings the exegete discovers in scripture. Book 4 of Christian Doctrine is a manual of Christian rhetoric for the beginning preacher..[[18]] No modern reader will intuitively appreciate the break this book made with the past--with late antiquity's past and with Augustine's personal past.

By the last centuries of the Roman empire, ancient education had become almost exclusively education in rhetoric. Lip service was paid to the artes liberales, but education was essentially a matter of mastering language. In principle this is no very bad system of general education, but no educational system works very well for very long. The unluckiest systems are the ones that work reasonably well at the outset and, when they begin to falter, are fossilized by an educational public that believes that if one can somehow just get back to doing things the way they were done in the halcyon days, all will be well. This fate had overtaken Roman education.

In the Roman republic, there was a need for the rhetorical education. Young men of the upper classes needed to be skilled orators to succeed in the rough and tumble of public life. By the time the early emperors had made their grip on Roman society unshakeable, rhetoric was useful mainly as a device for flattering the tyrant--still a socially useful skill, but less satisfying to the questioning mind. As time passed, rhetoric became routine, the canon of authors studied thoroughly dwindled to a few classics, and the classroom became ever more remote from the real world. We have only to read Augustine's pagan contemporaries to see how lifeless, stilted, and dull the Latin language could become in some people with the very best late Roman educations.

Augustine himself had been party to this conspiracy of tedium in his early life. For him of all people to write this last book of Christian Doctrine was dramatic evidence of the distance he had traveled since abandoning his career as a professor. Where Roman education had become hidebound by rules and pedantry, Augustine here sends a gust of dry, cool wind through the musty cubbyholes of the rhetoricians.

His central heresy, from an ancient point of view, was his insistence that communication is more important than elegance. To be intelligible is a greater thing than to be stylish. "What is the use of a perfect speech," he asks, "that the audience cannot follow, when there is no reason for speaking at all if the people we are talking to do not understand us?" (4.10.24) We hear the preacher rather than the teacher, a man who now had a message of pressing urgency to get across and was willing to consider seriously what was needed to make his point. This was what late Roman education had been missing: something to say. He advocated a "diligent negligence," conscious of the paradox, indeed exploiting its fruitfulness. (Though capable of the high style --as in Book 1 of City of God--Augustine as preacher preferred a simple, direct style, artful but lucid.) Augustine is short on specifics. He contents himself with naming the three levels of style (the humble, the ordinary, and the elevated), not so much to exhaust the possibilities as to suggest them and to make the point that there was more than one way to preach the Word (4.18-26)..[[19]]

Apart from the simplicity of Augustine's approach and his insistence on clarity over elegance, the role of theology in this rhetoric would have dismayed an ancient rhetorician as well. What is Augustine's last, pressing hint for the beginning preacher? To begin every proclamation with prayer (4.30.63). The preacher of the Word of God must be in touch with God in order to preach well. He should practice what he preaches (4.27.59). Rhetorical skill in antiquity could be developed entirely independent of commitment to the truth or falsehood of what one was saying; knowledge could be detached from life, but not for Augustine.

Hence the justification for the most practical of his suggestions: when in doubt, quote scripture. (4.5.8) Extensive quotation is one guarantee, however limited, that God will speak through the preacher and reach the audience. Beyond that, the preacher himself will grow accustomed to thinking of the language of scripture as a system of discourse in which he feels at home. The best preacher is the one at home with the language of God.

Augustine's exegesis, seen now in the completeness of his theory, is wholly self-effacing. Exegesis has no ultimate worth, nor is a career as exegete something to be aspired to in itself. Only if interpretation ends by removing itself from between the reader of the sacred text and his God is it successful. If it remains, it is as a barrier rather than an instrument and contributes nothing to the happiness of either interpreter or audience. The last words of the book show Augustine proclaiming his diffidence. "I give thanks to God that I have been able to expound in these four books, with whatever trivial ability, not what sort of person I myself am--for I have many failings--but what sort of person he should be who works at the business of sound instruction--Christian instruction--not just for his own benefit but for that of others." (4.31.64)

The literary work that probably took Augustine's time and energies immediately after he left Christian Doctrine uncompleted was nothing less than the Confessions. From an arid, but theologically satisfactory, statement of what the Christian interpreter of scripture (that is to say simply, the Christian) should be, he turned to an open and honest work of self-revelation that becomes, by its end, both a work of scriptural interpretation and (almost) an instrument of divine revelation itself. A connection must exist between the two works, but we are only beginning to fathom it.