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

The Book III of St. Augustine’s On Christian Teaching is a follow-up on his Book II. In the Platonic notion of things and signs, both Books II (see previous entry) and III are on signs: interpreting what the passages in the Scriptures signify. Both books concern the interpretation of the Scripture. Book III is more specific, as it is on distinguishing literal and metaphorical words, and the hermeneutics. And he wrote like present-day Richard Hays. There are a lot of ambiguities in the text, and St. Augustine laid out a few rules about how to interpret them.

He started with the first rule, the “Rule of Faith,” originated from the early church fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian. He did not write it out as it was known in early church and early Roman Catholicism, but it is quoted below:

“… the whole Church believes ‘In One God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and the seas and all that is therein, and in one Christ Jesus the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation, and in the Holy Spirit who through the prophets preached the dispensations and the comings and the virgin birth and the passion, and the rising from the dead and the assumption into heaven in his flesh of our beloved Lord Jesus Christ, and his coming from heaving in the glory of the Father… to raise up all flesh.’”[1]

And Tertullian wrote down the same idea as well.[2] Then St. Augustine wrote that after confirming the compatibility with the faith, the readers should consult the context.

After that, he raised the issues with punctuations, which were not found in the original texts. Then he mentioned the use of percontatio and interrogatio, citing the passages on election and predestination in Romans 8 as an example.[3]

He then discussed at length regarding the Christian liberty, which, unlike the Jewish peoples, did not see signs as things. He saw it as a kind of “spiritual slavery,”[4] which was liberated by the Christian faith. He argued that the confusion of things and signs, or a failure to distinguish literal or metaphorical usage in the Scriptures, led to this spiritual slavery.

He raised another principle: “matters which seem like wickedness to the unenlightened, whether merely spoken or actually performed, whether attributed to God or to people whose holiness is commended to us, are entirely figurative.”[5] An example that he discussed at length is the practice of polygamy. Monogamy was widely practiced in his time, but in the ancient times, polygamy had been regarded fine even for practice by righteous men. In his opinion, sex was merely for procreation, and it was a lustful sin to have sexual intercourse for gratification. He cited an example, King David, who practiced polygamy, but clearly committed sins by going into Bathsheba for sexual gratification. Christians nowadays do not generally agree with him, but most of us agree that social norms and practice were important to interpret the Scriptures figuratively. However, “if the expression is a prescriptive one, and either forbids wickedness or wrongdoing, or enjoins self-interest or kindness, it is not figurative.”[6]

He also suggested some verses are applicable to all people, but some to a certain class of people, citing Matt. 19:12 and Ecclus.[7] 7:27. He further extended that his argument that not all Old Testament standard of sins can be transferred to contemporary livings, which, to even modern evangelicals, is a bit liberal.

He then talked about the multiple meanings of a word in the text, in several text, or even within one sentence. I think this is one of the parts of his hermeneutical approach that led to inappropriate allegorical interpretations, and over-spiritualizing things.

He emphasized again the importance of learning the original languages, the grammar, the use of figures of speech. (e.g., irony and antiphrasis)

He finally listed Tyconius’ The Book of Rules, the seven rules that interpret the ambiguous text of the Scriptures. He deemed these rules are helpful, but not always necessary. I am not listing the seven rules, but what is interesting to note is that his view about Israel is similar to the modern-day one-God people view, instead of the viewpoint of premillennial dispensationalism.[8]

[1] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, rev. ed., The Penguin History of the Church, (London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 1993), 44.

[2] Tertullian, “The Rule of Faith,” in New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337, ed. James Stevenson, 165. (London, United Kingdom: SPCK, 1987.)

[3] Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. E. P. H. Green, Oxford World’s Classics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 70.

[4] Ibid., 72.

[5] Ibid., 77.

[6] Ibid., 80.

[7] Book of Ecclesiasticus or Wisdom of Sirach, one of the books in the Apocrypha.

[8] Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 94; Cornelis Venema, “The Church and Israel: The Issue,” Tabletalk Magazine, October 1st, 2012, accessed September 6, 2016, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/the-church-and-israel-the-issue/.

  • Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. Rev. Ed. The Penguin History of the Church. London, United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 1993. [Amazon]
  • Hays, Richard B. Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014. [Amazon]
  • Saint Augustine. On Christian Teaching. Translated by R. P. H. Green. Oxford World’s Classics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 1997. [Amazon]
  • Tertullian. “The Rule of Faith.” In New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to AD 337, edited by James Stevenson, 165. London, United Kingdom: SPCK, 1987. [Amazon]
  • Venema, Cornelis. “The Church and Israel: The Issue.” Tabletalk Magazine, October 1st, 2012. [Ligonier]

Feature Image adapted from: http://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/st-augustine-778.php

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