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St. Augustine's Contribution to Biblical Hermeneutics
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.
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.
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.
© 2012 Bronwen Scott-Branagan