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St. Augustine's Contribution to Biblical Hermeneutics

Updated on January 18, 2013
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Bronwen was a teacher for over forty years. Degrees include School Librarianship, Psycholinguistics and Theology, and Applied Linguistics.

Background Information about St. Augustine

Augustine was born in 354 AD in Tagaste, North Africa. As his mother was a Christian he received a Christian education; his father remained a pagan until late in life. Augustine was not baptised as a child and soon discarded the Christian faith.

Intending to become a lawyer, Augustine studied rhetoric in Carthage, but then decided to teach rhetoric. He read widely and was influenced by the philosophies of Cicero and Plato. Later he taught in Rome and then arrived in Milan in 383. Here he had a mistress and they had a son together.

In 386, when aged thirty-one, Augustine met Ambrose and converted to Christianity. The following year he was baptised by Ambrose and then returned home to North Africa. He was ordained priest there in 391. In 396 he became Bishop of Hippo Regius (in present day Algeria) and remained in that position until his death in 430 AD.

It was an era of important decision-making in the church: the Nicene Creed was adopted in 381 by the Council of Constantinople and, over a number of years he and Jerome worked for acceptance of the Athanasian canon of Biblical Scripture. It was formally accepted by the Synod the year after his death.

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Major Works of St. Augustine

St. Augustine was a prodigious writer. His major works include the following:

Confessions: This was his most widely read work. Written shortly before 400 AD, it recounts the story of his restless youth, his struggle with the Christian faith, and his conversion.

De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine): This famous treatise became influential on the ecclesiastical system and on hermeneutics, the exposition and interpretation of the Scriptures.

De Civitate Dei (On the City of God): This masterpiece was written between 413 and 426 AD and comprised twenty-two books. It arose out of the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410 AD in response to pagans who held that the fall was due to the abolition of heathen worship. It discussed the relationship between God and Man and between Christianity and secular society. The examination of the historical development of church and state caused City of God to be regarded as the first Christian philosophy of history. It also reflected his own experience and proposed a religious philosophy of predestination.

St. Augustine's Concepts

Augustine's concepts of salvation, grace and predestination became highly influential in Latin Christianity. They also reflect the circumstance of his conversion.

  • Salvation: Augustine equated self-will with sin, stating that Natural Man is therefore threatened with disintegration unless rescued through salvation. The condition subsequent upon this rescue is 'the blessed necessity of not sinning.'
  • Grace: The rescue is effected through Grace: the knowledge and love of God. Man must love something. Augustine is seen as the first systematic Christian psychologist.
  • Predestination: Augustine's doctrine of predestination was not universally accepted.

Augustine also taught that the Church and the Kingdom of God were identical, that men and women were not equal, and that infants dying unbaptised were damned. His proposal that Matthew's Gospel was written first was accepted until the eighteen hundreds, when it was established that Mark's Gospel came first.

These concepts proposed and taught by Augustine were accepted by the Church and had great bearing on theological thinking for the next seven hundred years and then continued to influence its structure right into medieval times and beyond.

St. Augustine and Biblical Interpretation

Augustine expressed views on the goal of interpretation of the Holy Scriptures: the requirements of true interpretation embrace a rule for distinction between the literal and the figurative; he made considerable use of allegory.

  • The Goal: In Biblical interpretation the goal is determined according to the church's rule of faith, that is, the person making the study of the text must keep in view his love for God and his neighbour and be guided by faith, hope and love.
  • True Interpretation: The text should be studied carefully and the compass and content of the inspired Old and New Testament canon clearly understood. These require a process of both spiritual knowledge and an understanding of the distinctive use of language, undergirded by love.
  • Rule for Distinction: If the text cannot be understood as literally contributing either to ideas of purity of life or soundness of doctrine, then it should be considered figurative.
  • Allegory: Augustine made extensive use of allegory in his interpretation, sometimes becoming dramatic in his endeavour to emphasize the notion that the sign of a true Christian is expressed in his love for God and his neighbour.

Augustine's interpretation of the Bible had important ramifications, especially in the areas of the Sacraments and the image of God in Man.

  • The Sacraments: His view of the sacrament of Holy Communion led to its use as a powerful method of discipline by the popes of the medieval church. However, Augustine and the other African bishops strongly disagreed with the idea of the pope being the final authority in the area of discipline.
  • The Image of God in Man: Augustine defined the concept of Man being made in the image of God as intrinsically psychological. He held that if man were to reflect the image of God then it must be threefold to represent the three-fold nature of God. He related this to three characteristics of Man: memory, understanding and will; these give Man the ability to know, understand and respond to God.

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The Significance of St. Augustine's Contribution to Biblical Hermeneutics

In his own time St. Augustine was a dominant personality in the Western Church. He is regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of Christian antiquity. His exegeses reveal the influence of his reading in his early, non-Christian years, showing a fusion of the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy with the religion of the New Testament.

The Influence of Confessions: Augustine can seem like a modern figure with his wide-ranging spiritual searchings. However, to make generalizations from personal introspection can cause problems and some of his radical ideas greatly influenced the course of Western European thought.

The Influence of City of God: This masterpiece was an important influence in keeping the Western church comparatively free from state patronage. He foresaw the collapse of Roman civilization and stressed the importance of the church in sustaining moral leadership. From the fourth century the Eastern church had to accept direction from the state.

The Influence of the Writings of St. Augustine: St. Augustine's writings have been of great significance in the history of Biblical hermeneutics, the aim of which is to 'open the Scriptures' for our understanding. Although some of his ideas have influenced and even misled the direction the church has taken in some areas, his purpose to reveal the living God remains.

Some of the numerous work of St. Augustine has been re-thought as we interpret the Bible for our own time. However, what he most emphasized remains: the love of God for us as revealed in Christ, the Christian's love of God and our neighbour, and the fulfillment of God's purpose for the world.


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    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 3 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Bishop J L Hayes: Welcome! Thank you for your comments, I'm glad that you enjoyed my article. May God bless you and give you His peace, too.

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      Jerry Lynn Hayes Sr 3 years ago from Texas City, Texas

      BlossomSB, just read the article. Enjoyed it very much. I look forward to reading more of you material. Thank you for the research and insight you have demonstrated.

      Peace to your house.

    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      cynthtggt: Grace is such an important issue, as you point out. We humans are often guilty of interpreting the writing of others incorrectly because the written word does not always convey the nuances of thought that are provided in the spoken word. St. Paul had much to say about grace that is helpful. For me, I think that faith might be gifted to us from God, through His grace, but it is still up to us to grasp that gift and to grow it and to grow spiritually through using it. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments.

    • cynthtggt profile image

      cynthtggt 4 years ago from New York, NY

      Informative hub and I only partly agree where you wrote "he greatly influenced the Roman Catholic Church in several areas, including that of celibacy and the inequality of the sexes and this has continued to the present day, not just in the catholic church." The church's interpretation of what he wrote was applied that way and its application or definition of "grace" but that is because it has applied Augustine's thinking on "grace" incorrectly. Augustine believed persons evolved spiritually and it was his own lack of celibacy that, paradoxically, was his teacher. He recognized how his own sexuality was affected more by influences outside himself. He was deeply "psychological" and taught faith through grace in that to believe was not of one's own doing but from God. However, his interpretation of the covenants of the Old Testament is still debated among theologians today.

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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      teaches12345: He had so much to say that was helpful, but it's also nice to know that his thinking wasn't always perfect; he was a saint, but human like us! Thank you for your comment and God bless.

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      Dianna Mendez 4 years ago

      An interesting read on this saint. I learned much from your article on his life. I see his quotes often regarding Christianity and ethics. Well done, Blossom.

    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Faith Reaper: Yes, the basic premise of his writing was what Jesus had told us, to love God and our neighbours - the Ten Commandments in a nutshell. Thank you for your lovely comments and vote. May God bless you, too.

      IntegrityYes: Thank you and may God bless you.

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      IntegrityYes 4 years ago

      That is deep and I voted up for sure.

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      Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

      Excellent write Blossom!

      What a very insightful hub about St. Augustine. I learned a lot here. I always say "die to self" meaning maybe as St. Augustine did when speaking of "self-will." To me, when I say "die to self" I am referring to just that, not worshiping ourselves but God! Yes, love God and your neighbor as yourself. We are only able to love others, as He first loved us.

      Voted Way Up to the Heavens

      God bless. In His Love, Faith Reaper Happy Thanksgiving!

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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      SwordofManticorE and funnychap: I often wonder if Augustine himself knew what a great influence his writing would have and how its repercussions would be felt for so many centuries. Practically all writers - and philosophers, too - have read a great deal and cannot help being affected by what they have absorbed. The power of the written word is still very strong, so it's important for us to evaluate carefully what we read and examine it in the light of what is actually intended in the Bible. Thank you both for your comments.

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      Robert D'Silva 4 years ago from Mumbai

      well there was never any doubt that the quran is only a compilation of copied books from various faiths & sects. i am sure that what swordofmanticorE is saying would be true.

    • SwordofManticorE profile image

      SwordofManticorE 4 years ago from Burlington

      As a matter fact, I actually believe that he had an influence on mohammed. The quran has at least 23 verses in it about hell and how the dammed will suffer. Did he make this up on his own? I doubht it.

    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      His writings were influenced by pagan philosophers and were not always according to the Bible, but have had great impact on Christian thinking for many centuries. I'm not sure that Mohammed would have been influenced by him or have read him, but I do agree that he greatly influenced the Roman Catholic Church in several areas, including that of celibacy and the inequality of the sexes and this has continued to the present day, not just in the catholic church. However, he is still worth reading, even if it only helps to make us think about what we believe.

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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      cleaner3: That is interesting. It also makes one realize that what we write is important and we should take care in how we express ourselves.

      Faithful Daughter: There is so much that we can read, but often a limit on our time for it. Hope enjoy and get a lot from it.

      tobusiness: Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      shiningirisheyes: Thank you for reading it, my hubfriend.

      Eiddwen: Glad you found it interesting. God bless you.

    • SwordofManticorE profile image

      SwordofManticorE 4 years ago from Burlington

      There is another doctrine implemented in the catholic church created by Augustine. It is the false doctrine of a conscious eternal torment for dammed souls in a place called hell. Consequently after this was done, the know western world, plummeted into what is known as the dark ages, and 100 years after, the religion of Islam was born.

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      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      So very interesting Blossom.

      Eddy.

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      Shining Irish Eyes 4 years ago from Upstate, New York

      I commend you for another educational and interesting hub my friend. Voting up.

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 4 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      Blossom, a riveting read with so many fascinating facts I'm voting up and sharing.

    • Faithful Daughter profile image

      Evi Lopez 4 years ago from Sunny Florida

      Very true, BlossomSB, it is going to be a big read BUT I have a great thirst for God :)

    • cleaner3 profile image

      cleaner3 4 years ago from Pueblo, Colorado

      Blossom, I read Confessions and found it to be very influential in a spritual way that still influences my faith to this day . great hub about one of the great writers and thinkers of all time .

    • BlossomSB profile image
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      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 4 years ago from Victoria, Australia

      Frank Atanacio: Thank you. Your a wonderful commenter. God bless you.

      Faithful Daughter: Wow! That's going to be a big read. Hope you find it really interesting.

    • Faithful Daughter profile image

      Evi Lopez 4 years ago from Sunny Florida

      This hub is very educational. I recently purchased "The City of God" a couple of weeks ago and is next in my readings. Thank you for sharing.

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      Frank Atanacio 4 years ago from Shelton

      wow blossoms what a very informative share my friend :)