Saint Augustine and Liberal Hermeneutics

Saint Augustine is one of the most influential theologians in history; he’s almost synonymous with western Christianity. In my opinion, all theology needs to start with biblical hermeneutics, what do the scriptures tell us? How are we to read them? What is and is not authoritative? How can they be interpreted? These are the questions that are going to have to come first in theology. Saint Augustine wrote many interpretive works, most famously “the literal meaning of Genesis.” But in his work “on Christian Doctrine” he lays out some general hermeneutical principles, given his influence, I’m going to go over two that I find interesting and pertinent to modern theology.

One principle is that scripture completely boils down to basically two concepts, in Book 1 Chapter 36 he says:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of Deception.

This hermeneutical principle has clear support in scripture where Jesus said that the laws to Love God and Neighbour are on what the whole law and prophets hang. That being said there is a problem, love of God only makes sense when we know who God is and what he wants, Love of Neighbour, according to Saint Augustine, is really just a means to the end of loving God, which means that it still depends on what God’s desire for mankind is. So how do we figure those things out? Saint Augustine says it is through Christ, he says in Book 1 Chapter 34:

For when we come to Him, we come to the Father also, because through an equal an equal is known; and the Holy Spirit binds, and as it were seals us, so that we are able to rest permanently in the supreme and unchangeable God.

The only reliable source we have for Christ is the scriptures, not only for his life, but also for what the need for a Christ is, what that term “Christ” means, how to recognize the Christ and what the interpretation of Christ’s life, death and resurrection is. Therefore, we then have to find out how to interpret the scriptures in order to understand the principle by which we interpret the scriptures.

This view of hermeneutics is very common today, people like to say, “Jesus is the word of God, not the bible” or some variation thereof. Now there is a sense in which that could be true, the bible is believed (by most small o orthodox Christians) to be inspired of God, not in the sense that many Muslims believe the Koran is inspired, i.e. the literal words of God, but rather that it contains the message of God, it is “God Breathed” (θεόπνευστος). The problem comes when this principle is taken to mean that one can disregard principles found in scripture, clearly laid out, which hold when one considers the whole Christian theology, on the basis that one would say these principles do not build up love.

Knowing the rest of Augustine’s theology, we know that Augustine did not use this principle in a loose way; Augustine was careful and did his best to be faithful to scripture. However, this principle in modern liberal Christianity has been used to completely ignore scriptural principles on sexual ethics, on the basis of “love,” without allowing the scripture to define love, and specifically love of God.

Overall, however, I think this hermeneutical principle is good, scripture has a hierarchy; certain passages and principles are more important and fundamental and can be used to interpret and understand other passages in principles. The two most important commands, as Jesus proclaimed them, are a good way to interpret the rest of scripture and two things that need to be central in one’s theology. However, those principles themselves must be defined by scripture, and they cannot be used to disregard or relativize other principles clearly found in scripture.

In Book 3 Chapter 10 Augustine says:

Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative. Purity of life has reference to the love of God and one’s neighbour; soundness of doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbour.

This is a nothing hermeneutical principle that I feel is problematic and easily abused, and is today, although generally the word “figuratively” is replaced with something like “that has to be kept within its historical context. Literal and figurative interpretation, in my opinion, should be based on the text itself, its genre, and its literary style. Therefore, when, for example we get to passages where God orders the slaughter of the Amalekites, Augustine would probably interpret it figuratively. The problem is the literary style and genre of the passage indicates that the writer and intended reader would have taken the command as literal. The problem is if we grant licence to treat that passage figuratively, due to the fact that it doesn’t coincide with the core principles, then who’s to say that the core principles are not to be taken figuratively? So I think one has to go primarily with whatever the genre and literary style demands. After that however, one has to figure out where the passage fits into ones theology, just because a passage is taken literally, doesn’t mean it’s normative, historical, good, and so on, it just means that the words mean what the writer intended, and more work needs to be done. Of course just because something is mentioned in scripture, doesn’t mean it’s something that one must imitate, scripture isn’t a list of do’s and don’ts. So for example when it comes to the slaughter of the Amalekites, one must keep in mind the purpose of the nation of Israel, the purpose of them inhabiting the land, the messianic promise, the historical context, the specificity of the command and its scope and purpose. What you’re left with is certainly not a justification for violence that would in any way apply to Christian, or even Jewish normative ethics. Adding on to that point Augustine says in Book 3 Chapter 22:

Therefore, although all, or nearly all, the transactions recorded in the Old Testament are to be taken not literally only, but figuratively as well, nevertheless even in the case of those which the reader has taken literally, and which, though the authors of them are praised, are repugnant to the habits of the good men who since our Lord’s advent are the custodians of the divine commands, let him refer the figure to its interpretation, but let him not transfer the act to his habits of life. For many things which were done as duties at that time, cannot now be done except through lust.

Saint Augustine’s hermeneutical principles are certainly not fundamentalist, nor are they liberal. It is true that the main principles of Christianity, namely love of neighbour and love of God, must play a central role in interpretation, but those commands are derived from scripture and must be defined by scripture. It is also true that one must carefully distinguish between figurative and literal, normative and descriptive, poetic and prosaic and so on, but those distinctions must come from the text itself, it is literary style and its place in the larger narrative of scripture. When these principles are abused then bad theology follows. This is especially the case when the defining factor is not scripture itself but cultural notions, Augustine points out this danger in Book 3 Chapter 10:

But as men are prone to estimate sins, not by reference to their inherent sinfulness, but rather by reference to their own customs, it frequently happens that a man will think nothing blameable except what the men of his own country and time are accustomed to condemn, and nothing worthy of praise or approval except what is sanctioned by the custom of his companions; and thus it comes to pass, that if Scripture either enjoins what is opposed to the customs of the hearers, or condemns what is not so opposed, and if at the same time the authority of the word has a hold upon their minds, they think that the expression is figurative.

This is where modern liberal hermeneutics goes wrong and has a blind spot. They will attach themselves to the principle of interpreting through the duel love commandments, when in reality they are interpreting through their own cultural understanding of love. When they come to a passage where their cultural understanding is challenged, for example when it comes to sexual ethics, they then take the liberty to interpret the passage figuratively, or to relegate it to applying only to its time and place, even when the text itself doesn’t justify that or sound theology doesn’t justify that. Hermeneutics is the beginning of all theology, if one doesn’t get that right then theology has no chance.

Saint Augustine and Liberal Hermeneutics

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