Sunday, October 19, 2008

Some Interpretive Wisdom from Augustine

Augustine made this comment in Book V, Chapter 5, of his Confessions:

"...whenever I come across any Christian brother, whoever he may be, who is ignorant of...sciences and has mistaken views on them, I can listen to him patiently enough as he delivers his opinions. ... But it does do him harm if he imagines that this scientific knowledge is an integral part of the structure of the doctrine of piety, and then has the audacity to make overconfident assertions on subjects of which he knows nothing." (The Confessions of St. Augustine, tr. Rex Warner (The New American Library, Inc., New York, 1963) p. 95.)

In context Augustine had just explained that he had given up his Manichaean faith precisely because the Manichaeans claimed knowledge that did not square with the best "scientific" thinking of his day. It's a pregnant point for Christians today. But it is not the important one.

The really important point is that something that is not "science" must be the real subject of Scripture. Augustine calls this real subject "the way, which is thy word." (p. 93) He encapsulates it in this wonderful aphorism: "They do not know this way, the way to descend from themselves to Him, and by him to ascend to Him." (p. 93)

Avoiding the error of ascribing scientific readings to Scripture should not be much of a challenge. But giving substance to the point of Christian revelation, "the way," can be. I will not elaborate here on the way, since doing so is my ongoing goal in Into the World.

Another comment on interpretation from Augustine, this time on the "narrow measure of speech" (p. 309) found in much Scripture, by which he means this. By humble language Scripture protects against foolish interpretations, even by those who are foolish enough to think of God as acting in a gross material way:

Such people are...feeble little creatures, but by this humble kind of language their weakness is protected and nourished as by a mother's breast, and so there is built up in them a healthy faith in which they have a hold for a certainty that God made all the natures which, all around them in wonderful variety, their senses look upon. (p. 309)

This is an interesting quote to juxtapose with the quote about the Manichaeans falsely ascribing scientific views to their Scripture. Apparently Augustine believed that it did no harm for unlearned people to understand Scripture literally, and that for ease of understanding "the way," Scripture's humble language was like a "mother's milk" for babes in understanding. The danger is for babes in understanding to mistake their naivete for the final word on Scriptural interpretation.

Here's a last quote to explain what Augustine sees as the best middle ground between seeing Scripture in a simplistic way and in a way that reads all of human learning into it.

...if I had been Moses [writing about God's creation of the world]...I should have wished to be granted to me such a power of expresion and such stylistic abilities that those
who cannot yet understand how God creates would...not reject my words as being beyond their capacity, and that those who already have understanding would find in the few words of your servant every true opinion which they had reached themselves in their own thinking... (p.308)

Of course, if science is not "an integral part of the structure of the doctrine of piety" as Augustine believed (quoted above), then his view just expressed would hold most directly for "the way," which is Scripture's "true" message, in his view.

I wanted to share these few thoughts since that is what I discovered in writing Into the World; that is, I discovered that Scriptures simple, even humble, narrative expressed "every true opinion which [I] had reached" myself, and that other true opinions "should be discoverable in these same words..." (p. 308) Frankly

It is sad that Christianity has become a modern Manichaeanism in the eyes of modern Augustines precisely because St. Augustine's 1,600-year-old wisdom has been ignored.

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