One of the Best Teachers of the Church

THE YEAR AFTER AUGUSTINE DIED, Pope Celestine I pronounced him “one of the best teachers of the church.” That assessment, Pope John Paul II said recently, “has been present ever since in the life of the church and in the mind and culture of the whole Western world.” Evidence that Augustine deserves such plaudits is abundantly present throughout his works, as well as through all the works he engendered by other authors. He was a teacher’s teacher; his life was permeated with education; he drastically influenced much of subsequent education structures.

His life-long vocation was that of a teacher. Before his conversion he was a teacher of rhetoric, and after it he became a teaching bishop. Comments on education appear everywhere in his writings, but are most fully set out in his work On Christian Doctrine. However, to better appreciate this work, one should also read some of his other philosophical and theological works, especially On the Teacher.

He began On Christian Doctrine in 396, around the time he became bishop of Hippo, some 10 years after his conversion. He completed it in 427, more than 30 years later. Yet the work, even though composed over such an extended period, is remarkably coherent and flowing—indicating the extraordinary discipline of Augustine’s educational thought and practice.

In it, Augustine outlines the preparations that will equip the would-be interpreter of scriptural truth to properly understand and communicate the message of the Christian church. The purpose of the work is to discuss “the kind of man he ought to be who seeks to labor in sound doctrine, which is Christian doctrine, not only for himself, but also for others.” The work defines a methodology for scriptural exposition and catechetical instruction, and establishes the curricular foundation that stood beneath virtually all theological education for centuries to come.

The treatise is in four books, but has two main divisions. The first three books deal with the discovery of the meaning of Scripture; the fourth treats the teaching of what has been discovered. For Augustine, the communication of Christian truth was based on analysis of the meaning of the written records of Scripture.

The Interpreter’s Preparation

For Martin Luther (an Augustinian monk), the principle sola scriptura led to an emphasis on the clarity of Scripture. But Augustine’ s approach focused more on the educational and spiritual preparation that enables the interpreter to deal with the obscurities of Scripture, to discover the meanings hidden within its ambiguity.

The Christian message, says Augustine, was originally set forth in a language that encouraged it to spread throughout the world. But biblical language is sometimes figurative and ambiguous, he says, and this places special demands on the learning and imagination of the reader. “Against unknown literal signs the sovereign remedy is a knowledge of languages,” he writes. And against the obscurity of artfully ambiguous or figurative language, he says, a “knowledge of things” is also required.

According to Augustine, students of Scripture must have knowledge of the natural world, of mathematics, and of music. They must have scientific educations in order to defend against superstitious or magical interpretations of scriptural narratives. A knowledge of history is particularly useful in helping them understand the biblical books, and mastery of the “science of disputation” (dialectics) is indispensable for following scriptural and theological arguments.

But no less important than these “liberal-arts” disciplines, he says, are the students’ spiritual preparations. He reports that when he approached the reading of Scripture in a spirit of rationalism, he was repelled by “mysteries” that would have been welcomed by a spirit of faith. He says that students who approach the Scriptures, no matter how complete their educational and technical preparation, should always bear in mind the apostolic warning that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Humility before the Word of God is the key to understanding the truth of Scripture, he indicates. The Bible interpreter must love not controversy, but piety.

Augustine’s respect for the Bible is well known. This is the feature of his thought that most attracted Luther. He declared both the inspiration of Scripture and its total reliability (though his concept of the canonical writings—listed in On Christian Doctrine—includes the five apocryphal books of Judith, the two books of Esdras, and two books of Maccabees). The most expert investigator of scriptural truth, Augustine maintained, must be familiar with the entire body of canonical Scripture.

The Scripture’s Meaning

However, it was the cumulative meaning of this set of writings that was of greatest interest to him. The “heart” of Scripture, its coherent and fully harmonized meaning, should be the essential concern of biblical scholarship, he says.

His method of biblical exegesis allows the interpreter considerable liberty in reading a “scriptural interpretation” into a text. The interpreter may choose to accept any meaning that is “congruous with the truth taught in other passages of the Holy Scriptures,” even if that particular meaning was not clearly intended by the one who wrote the passage. Indeed, a variety of interpretations only contributes to the richness of the meaning of a biblical passage, so long as each is an interpretation “which other no less divine witnesses approve.”

The meaning of Scripture may be inferred from its intended use, he says, which is to inspire the love of God and the enjoyment of him. Love, he says, is the “heart” of Scripture:

“Whoever thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build up the double love of God and of our neighbor does not understand it at all . . . Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived, nor is he lying in any way.”

Most of the first book of On Christian Doctrine is devoted to expositing love as the central Christian doctrine, and thus as the basic law of biblical interpretation. Love is also central to Augustine’s understanding of the spiritual preparation for Bible study. Also, he closely associates love as the desire for truth with faith and hope, the three virtues he places at the foundation of all knowledge.

The Intellect’s Believing

To understand scriptural truth, Augustine says, you must have faith. “You are not required to understand in order to believe, but to believe in order to understand.” He rejects both the fideism that despises reason and the rationalism that excludes faith. For Augustine there can be no separation of faith from reason, of purification of the heart from illumination of the mind, of humble adherence to truth from total surrender to the peace of Christ.

The meaning of Scripture does not become clear without the intellectual effort of interpretation, he indicates, nor does it allow for superstitious constructions that presumptuously fly in the face of reason. Only reason is capable of belief, he says; and when it becomes aware of its limitations, true reason then asks for divine help to do what it cannot do alone.

In On Christian Doctrine Augustine comments on two alternative readings (the ancient and the Vulgate) of one of his favorite passages, Isaiah 7:9: “If you will not believe you shall not understand,” and “If you will not believe you shall not continue.” Either reading, he says, contains something of value for the discerning reader. “Unless we walk by faith, we shall not be able to come to that sight that does not fail, but continues through a cleansed understanding, uniting us with truth.”

The context in which faith seeks understanding is unavoidably limited by historical conditions. For Augustine it was Platonism that provided the framework for the intellectual synthesis to which his faith aspired. The Platonists, he declared, have said some things “which are indeed true and well accommodated to our faith.” Hence they should not be feared or rejected; “rather, what they have said should be taken from them” and put to the use of Christian interpretations, in the same way the Israelites took vases and ornaments of gold and silver from the Egyptians when then fled, in order to put them to better use.

The Teacher’s Function

The teacher of Scripture, says Augustine, must be the master not only of its meaning, but also of the method of communication. The wisdom and eloquence of the biblical authors were the primary bases of their persuasiveness, he suggests. The words of the interpreter, however, must exhibit an eloquence suited to the function of interpretation—without ostentation or display. Expositors of Scripture ought not speak in a manner that presumes the same authority as Scripture itself, he says; they should not offer themselves for interpretation.

The interpreter should be primarily concerned not with the eloquence of his teaching, Augustine writes, but with the clarity of it. He should take away all ornamentation without becoming merely vulgar. Augustine cites Cicero’s dictum that “he who is eloquent should speak in such a way that he teaches, delights and moves.” Of these three, comments Augustine, “that which is given first place, i.e. the necessity of teaching, resides in the things we have to say; the other two in the manner in which we say them.”

For Augustine, instruction came before persuasion. When the essential matter has been learned, knowledge may so move the learner that the power of eloquent expression is not required to bring delight and persuasion. May the Lord deliver his church, Augustine prays, from the eloquence that prophesies falsehood, yet inspires the priests to clap their hands and the people to love their words (Jeremiah 5:30, 31). “May this madness never happen to us . . . Let those things which are said be said less clearly, less pleasingly, less persuasively, but let them be said nevertheless; and may the just rather than the wicked be heard.”

The Christian orator ought to speak truly of the just and the holy and the good, says the saint, and to “so act when he speaks that he may be willingly and obediently heard.” The teacher’s success in performing his function will be affected more by the piety of his prayers than by the proficiency of his oratory, says Augustine. The life of the speaker, furthermore, carries greater weight than his eloquence in determining whether or not he will be heard.

Augustine takes a strictly limited view of the role of the teacher. His thought here is dominated by Plato’s view that truth is latent within every individual, and that no teacher can be the decisive agent in its acquisition. If knowledge is to be sought, Plato suggests, the inquirer must already know what he is seeking. Similarly, Augustine argues, if linguistic signs are to convey any meaning, the recognition of that meaning must already be present in the one who interprets the signs.

We learn, Augustine suggests, not through words sounding in the ear, but through truth teaching us from within. “By means of words we learn nothing but words.” To get beyond words to their meaning we must depend on a “knowledge of realities” that we already possess.

In matters discernible by the mind, if we cannot discern these for ourselves we will listen in vain to the words of someone who can, he says. On the other hand, anyone who can interpret the meaning and judge the truth of what some speaker says is already inwardly a disciple of truth. If anyone learns anything from the words of a teacher, he must already have possessed within himself the criterion of truth that enables him to judge the truth of what the teacher says.

“Who is so foolishly curious,” asks Augustine, “as to send his son to school to learn what the teacher thinks?” When teachers have expounded, by their most eloquent words, all the scholarly disciplines they profess, the student is still left with the problem of judging, in the light of his own inward truth, the merit of what they say.

The true teacher, says the bishop, is the teacher within, not the external teacher—who is, after all, in the same position, in relation to the possession of the truth, as the pupil. The interior teacher, of course, is God, and the process of his teaching is illumination. The divine illumination, however, treats the mind not as merely passive, but as active. Augustine’s view of education is thus based on profound respect for the capacity, latent within every human mind, of apprehending the truth. Truth is always within our grasp, he says, if we only pay attention to the master within.

The Saint’s Impact

Despite the length of his discourses on education, Augustine’s educational philosophy displays a tantalizing incompleteness—stemming from his understanding of the limits of all educational discourse.

Nevertheless, Augustinianism has had a profound impact on Western thought, and it retains a remarkable vitality after 15 centuries. But it has never been a metaphysics—it is only a method. This is why, as Gilson remarks, that every introduction to the study of Augustine creates an intense consciousness of futility, for such an introduction “has done nothing more than to enable others to understand him, but to have others follow him does not rest with man.”

Albert the Great, the teacher of Thomas Aquinas, used to advise his disciples to follow Augustine in theology and Aristotle in philosophy. Aquinas, remarks Maritain, obtained the “scientific” equipment for his own intellectual synthesis from Aristotle, but received the substance of his “wisdom” from Augustine. Aquinas, says Maritain, showed greater fidelity to the wisdom of Augustine than to the logic of Aristotle. “He corrected Aristotle; he honored Augustine as a son honors his father.”

Luther was more comfortable with the Augustinian temper than with the Thomistic. The Pauline influence on Augustine and the emphasis on the doctrine of divine grace held a powerful appeal for Luther. The other side of Augustinianism—the acceptance of the classical philosophical tradition—evoked from Luther the same hostility he directed toward all scholasticism.

In Luther, theocentric religion reasserted itself. Augustinian piety seemed to him a form of self-love that essentially changed the meaning of faith. Our fellowship with God, said Luther, rests not on the purification of our love, but on the sinfulness of our hearts.

Augustine’s influence on medieval thought and education was enormous. His concept of education, combined with his personal reputation and administrative energies, produced a system of schools that was a powerful force in both church and culture for centuries. “More than a single writer,” says Armand Mauer, “St. Augustine molded the medieval mind.”

On Christian Doctrine was studied with particular care in medieval circles of education. Cassiodorus, in the 6th century, used it as the basis of his Institutes of Divine and Secular Letters. He adapted Augustine’s list of studies needed by well-prepared Bible interpreters into his classic formula of the seven liberal arts—the Trivium: grammar, rhetoric, dialectics; and the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy. Rabanus Maurus, in the 9th century, incorporated whole sections of On Christian Doctrine in his three-volume plan of education, De institutions clericorum. In the 12th century the work provided the inspiration for the Didascalion of Hugo of St. Victor, whose theological work as a whole has caused him to be known to history as a second Augustine. Finally, On Christian Doctrineprovided the dominant themes and organizing principle of the Book of Sentences by Peter Lombard.

The curriculum of medieval education thus drew its inspiration from Augustine’s outline of the studies essential to the preparation of the teacher of biblical truth. When the great European universities were founded in the 12th century, the program of studies was essentially the same as the curriculum outlined in On Christian Doctrine.

The scope of such influence, as Battenhouse observes, was due to the breadth of Augustine’s own outlook and the extraordinary discipline that he maintained over his thought: “He saw Christianity as a whole, with a completeness beyond anything any of his predecessors had known.” His own education left him at home in all the liberal arts, and his own quest for spiritual wholeness give him a unique perspective on the dialectical and developmental aspects of Christian education. “By Christian inspiration he gradually forged from the salvaged resources of Hellenism a new philosophy, in which old problems were redefined and old concepts reshaped.”

Augustine worked, as T.S.K. Scott-Craig says, as a representative of a new religion inside an old culture. He created a way to synthesize the new religious energy with the classical tradition of learning and culture, and thus assured the continued vitality of this religious perspective for centuries. CH

By Robert T. Sandin

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #15 in 1987]

Robert T. Sandin is provost and professor of philosophy at Mercer University, Atlanta, and author of The Search for Excellence: The Christian College in an Age of Educational Competition.
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