Reviewing St. Augustine’s “On Christian Teaching”, Book II

In Book I of his On Christian Teaching (Latin title: De doctrina christiana), St. Augustine focused his discussion on things, narrated in my previous entry; and in this Book II, he did on signs. By signs, he meant something that “signifies,” which he elaborated: “for a sign is a thing which of itself makes some other thing come to mind, besides the impression that it presents to the senses.”[1] He then further divided it into natural signs and given signs, where the latter is what he focused on, particularly on the divinely given signs, i.e., the Scriptures. This book discussed the approach to read the Scriptures, to interpret it, and the interaction with other human institutions and knowledge, especially pagan knowledge. In other words, it is the doctrine of the knowledge of God, overlapping with a lot of contents in John Frame’s work.[2]

Unlike pagan religions, Christianity is a religion of the books, in which the Words weigh. The Words are divinely given signs that signify, requiring our interpretation. He pointed out because of human sins, “these signs cannot be shared by all nations.”[3] Therefore, the Words were written down. He proposed a seven-stage process to learn God’s will from the Words, namely in the following sequences, fear of God, holiness, knowledge (requiring love to avoid boastful attitude), fortitude (a hunger for righteousness), compassion (purification of one’s mind), purification of the eyes, and wisdom. He concluded this with a proverb, functioning as inclusio: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”[4] (Ps. 111:10)

He then elaborated on the third stage, knowledge, where he defined the canon of the Scriptures. He deemed that one “should follow the authority of the great majority of catholic churches.”[5] He listed all books in the Old and New Testament, and roughly the Apocrypha of the Roman Catholic Church nowadays. These books have “all things that concern faith and moral life,”[6] echoing the sufficiency of the Scriptures.[7] All people should be familiar with them, and then proceeded to understand and analyze the obscurity. He resorted the obscurity and ambiguities to the signs that are “metaphorical.”[8] Scriptures were authored in Hebrew and Greek, but people of his times read Latin. The need of translations contributed to an additional layer of interpretative challenges. Some words were not translated for the sake of “solemn authority,”[9] while others found no counterpart in Latin. He suggested investigating various translations for clarification, understanding the surrounding context, acquiring the knowledge of the original language, or using a more literal translation. In addition, he thought among the Greek translation of the Old Testament, “the authority of the Septuagint is supreme.”[10]

He then went on to the metaphorical signs. He believed certain numbers in the Scriptures had figurative meaning, such as three, four, seven, ten, and forty. Some of them are still widely accepted by Protestant churches nowadays. Some Hebrew names also bear figurative meaning that require understanding. Understanding of animals and plants, music, and other human institutions helped, according to him.

He then went on to human institutions, which were either superstitious or not. He defined something as superstitious if “it concerns the making and worshipping of idols, or the worshipping of the created order or part of it as if it were God, or if it involves certain kinds of consultations or contracts about meaning arranged and ratified with demons.”[11] He condemned fortune telling according to Deut. 13:2-3, and Wisd. 13:9, and because it involved “selling uneducated people into a wretched form of slavery.”[12] He condemned the use of the data of birth dates (i.e., constellations) to predict one’s character and future actions, saying it is great folly, by citing the different personalities of Esau and Jacob. He even condemned those who were into these things, subjected by “the decree of divine providence,”[13] contrasting their behavior of their eagerness to predict people’s fate. He also condemned the specialists in these superstitious institutions.

Institutions that were not superstitious can either be superfluous and self-indulgent, or necessary and useful.[14] The necessary and useful ones include social norms, cultures, measurement systems, currencies, alphabets etc., which are vital to human society. He deemed that Christians, with good reasons, should be good at them. There are also human traditions that were not invented, but discovered. A lot of them were useful in interpreting the Scriptures, including history,[15] topography, and zoology. He suggested not to study astronomy because it did not help much in interpreting the Scriptures.

He strongly supported the use of logic. He thought that logical syllogisms were not something instituted by humans, but by God. He was not opposed the use of the proof by contradictions. He also discussed “eloquence,” which I believe to be rhetoric. It can be used to commend both the truth and falsehood. He pointed it out rightly that “it has to be used in communicating what has already been understood rather than in the actual process of understanding.”[16]

He suggested people to stay away from human institutions found in pagan societies that were self-indulgent. He endorsed the study, with a liberated mind, of branches of pagan knowledge, with the service of the truth and some useful moral suggestions, but abandoning the pagan worship. He suggested more time to study the Scriptures than the useful knowledge outside the book. As he concluded:

“The insignificance of the amount of gold, silver, and clothing which that people took away with it from Egypt, in comparison with the wealth that it later attained in Jerusalem, as shown particularly in the reign of Solomon, is the measure of the insignificance of all knowledge… that is collected from pagan books, when compared with the knowledge contained in divine scriptures.”[17]

And a nice reminder from Apostle Paul, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”[18] (1 Cor. 8:1)

[1] Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. E. P. H. Green, Oxford World’s Classics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 31.

[2] John Frame discussed the use of language, logic, history, science, and philosophy as the situational perspective of the doctrine of knowledge of God in his book; see John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: a Theology of Lordship, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1987), 213-318.

[3] Saint. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 32.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Ibid., 37.

[7] Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 106-115; Westminster Confession of Faith, BOC, 1.006; see: Doctrinal Outline of the Doctrine of Scripture: Attributes of the Scripture.

[8] Saint. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 37.

[9] Ibid., 38.

[10] Ibid., 42.

[11] Ibid., 48.

[12] Ibid., 49.

[13] Ibid., 51; see: what is divine providence?

[14] Saint. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 53.

[15] St. Augustine quoted an example of Plato traveling to Egypt, reading Jeremiah’s literature, which led to his philosophies that were fairly compatible with Judeo-Christian thoughts; Saint. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 55-56.

[16] Ibid., 61-62.

[17] Ibid., 67.

[18] Ibid., 66.

  • Frame, John M. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: a Theology of Lordship. Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing. 1987. [Amazon]
  • Ho, Kwan-Yuet. “Reviewing St. Augustine’s ‘On Christian Teaching’, Book I.” In reformator: living perspectivally, WordPress (2016). [WordPress]
  • Ho, Kwan-Yuet. “What is Divine Providence?” In reformator: living perspectivally, WordPress (2016). [WordPress]
  • Ho, Kwan-Yuet. “Doctrinal Outline of the Doctrine of Scripture: Attributes of the Scripture.” In reformator: living perspectivally, WordPress (2016). [WordPress]
  • Saint Augustine. On Christian Teaching. Translated by R. P. H. Green. Oxford World’s Classics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 1997. [Amazon]
  • Ward, Timothy. Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009. [Amazon]
  • Westminster Confession of Faith. [link]
  • Feature image adapted from: http://staugustinecatholicparish.org/
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