Augustine’s Key

FEW PEOPLE TODAY would doubt that Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was the greatest writer of the early Christian church. Certainly, he has left us more books than anyone else. For centuries, most of the Western Church took its understanding of Christian doctrine from him, and his influence lingers even today.

From the moment he heeded the voice in the garden to “Take and read,” Augustine had a close relationship with the Bible. But he was never a biblical scholar as such. Even in his own time, he was outclassed by his great contemporary Jerome, who made the classic Latin translation of Scripture that we call the Vulgate.

Augustine knew that Jerome was doing this, but he did not altogether approve of his methods. Jerome took the trouble to learn Hebrew, which Augustine thought was unnecessary, since he believed that God had inspired the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. That made the Hebrew original obsolete, in Augustine’s eyes, and most of the church at that time agreed with him.

A critical error

Unfortunately, Augustine’s Greek was not very good either, and he struggled with the biblical text. Sometimes he even got it wrong, as in Romans 5:12, which he translated to say that the human race sinned in Adam, and not merely because of Adam. Augustine took the verse to mean that every human being was spiritually present in Adam himself, and therefore directly responsible for Adam’s sin, whereas the apostle Paul was merely saying that, as a result of Adam’s sin, death came into the world and we have all suffered as a result.

The mistranslation had an unfortunate effect on Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, making it harsher than it should have been and leading some modern critics to reject it altogether. It just goes to show how important a correct understanding of the text can be!

Perhaps because of his linguistic shortcomings, Augustine was not a great commentary writer, though he did leave a penetrating discussion of the first chapters of his favorite book—Genesis. His main interest was not in the fall of Adam, but in the nature of the creation itself. His treatment of this theme in his magnum opus, The City of God, shows Augustine’s real genius: his ability to systematize and explain the principles underlying biblical interpretation.

The Bible as history book


In Augustine’s day, most people who had tried to forge rules for biblical interpretation ended up promoting some form of allegory—a literary technique that treats a text as a riddle concealing a mystery that the average reader cannot understand without guidance.

Augustine inherited this allegorizing tradition, and he often went along with it. But the remarkable thing about his writings is that he offered a vision of the Bible that treated the text not as allegory but as history. Thus in The City of God, he rewrote the whole history of the human race, basing it on biblical evidence.

He rejected the common pagan belief that matter was both eternal and evil, because it was not spiritual. On the contrary, declared Augustine, the Bible tells us that matter was created by God, which means it must be naturally good, because God would not create anything that was evil in itself.

This explains why he was so preoccupied with Genesis: it was there that God revealed these important truths. In exploring the mechanics of creation, Augustine discovered that there were other parts of Scripture that explained how God had acted. He had created the world by his Word, and the Word was the Son of God, Jesus Christ himself.

Augustine therefore saw the creation as the first of Christ’s works, which enabled him to understand it as part of a divine plan embracing redemption and the final salvation of God’s people.

The Bible was the history of that salvation, the record of how God had acted in and through real people in particular situations in order to reveal his great purpose to them.

The creation story in Genesis also teaches us that evil is not something inherent in the divine order, but a corruption or deformation of it. We cannot blame our sins on our heredity or environment, since there is nothing intrinsically wrong with either of these. If we are sinners, it is because we have done something wrong and are responsible to God for our disobedience. Even a newborn baby is a sinner in need of God’s saving grace, and the Bible has been given to us so that we can find out how to get hold of it and put right what has gone wrong in our lives.

The master key

Augustine often used the techniques of the allegorizing tradition in ways that seem foreign to us today. His real contribution is that he offered a key to interpreting Scripture that unlocked the Bible’s riches for even the unlearned reader. That key is love.

Augustine believed that it was because God loves us as a Father that he has spoken to us, his children, in a way we can understand, explaining what we have to do in order to be saved. This, Augustine said, was why Scripture often seems to be too simple for intellectual minds.

There are hidden depths in the Bible, of course, but in order to understand them, we have to start with the simple things. Once we have grasped the basics, we can move on to the more complicated details. If there is something that seems difficult, then we must ask ourselves what the principle of love teaches us to think.

Thus, it is clear that when the Bible says we should be kind to our enemies, we ought to take it literally and give them the food and drink that they need to survive. But when it goes on to say that in doing this, we shall “heap coals of fire on their head” (Rom. 12:20), we have to understand that figuratively, since it would hardly be an act of love to pour burning coals over someone.

Augustine believed that this principle of love could be applied to every part of Scripture, and that it would invariably give the reader the right answer. It had the added advantage that the reader did not have to be a learned person in order to figure out what the text actually meant.

Love is a gift of God that does not depend on great learning. By making it the key, Augustine was opening up the Bible to ordinary church members, many of whom could not read or write. With love in our hearts, we shall not go wrong in applying the commands of Scripture-and far from being confused by the Bible, we shall be led into an understanding of its deepest mysteries.

The Book of fellowship

Christian love is the fruit of a living relationship with God, and the main purpose of the Bible is to enable that relationship to develop. For Augustine, the Bible is never an end in itself. It is a means to the end, which is fellowship with God.

This does not mean, however, that we can do without the Bible, because in this life it is the only sure guide to the nature of that fellowship. Without the Bible we would be groping in the dark, and although we might occasionally stumble on God’s truth, we would not be in a position to appreciate it or make the most of it.

That is the fate of the heathen, whose knowledge of divine things is so partial and confused that it is practically useless. Christians have been rescued from that sad condition by God’s revelation of himself in Scripture, which is the light to guide us along the pathway of love until the day when we are at last taken up into his eternal presence.

For us today, appreciating Augustine really means understanding this above all else. We cannot always follow his interpretations of particular texts, and we have to recognize (as he himself did) that he was not always consistent in what he wrote. From our vantage point, centuries later, it is easy to find fault with particular details of his writings and dismiss them as irrelevant.

It is here that the great underlying principle of love applies. Augustine does not tell us that we have to agree with him in every detail—he changed his mind himself on many occasions, and recorded the fact so that nobody would think he was infallible. Rather, he points us along the way that he expects us to follow for ourselves. This is the way of fellowship with God, which is the way of love, the only principle of true and lasting understanding. CH

By Gerald Bray

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #80 in 2003]

Gerald Bray is Anglican Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.
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