Saturday, March 12, 2022

Book Summary of and Excerpts from ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE by Augustine

Book Summary of and Excerpts from ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE by Augustine



The Prologue consists of a response to those who would resist Augustine's project of providing rules for interpretation of the Scriptures. Augustine outlines three possible objections, including those who do not understand his precepts, those who fail to make effective use of his teachings, and those who believe they are already prepared to interpret the Scriptures. To the first two types of critics, Augustine states that he cannot be held responsible for their inability to understand.

He then addresses the third type of critic, those who believe they are already able to interpret the Scriptures. If their claims are true, he acknowledges that they have received a great blessing. However, they must admit that language itself was learned from a human being, not directly from God. Therefore, God has created human beings to learn from one another, and we ought to learn with humility. All good teaching from human beings derives ultimately from God. The ability to understand obscurity is therefore both the gift of God and reinforced by human teaching.


Book One

Book One discusses enjoyment, use, interpretation, and the relation of various Christian doctrines to these concepts. Augustine begins with a discussion of the steps in the interpretive process: discovery of what is to be understood, and a way of teaching what has been discovered.

He then expands upon the Platonic notion that there are things and signs. Signs are used to symbolize things, but are considered things themselves because they too represent meaning. They are given meaning through their repetition and propagation throughout society.

Some things are to be enjoyed (in Latin, frui), and others are to be used (uti). Things we enjoy are those we find good in themselves, and things we use are those that are good for the sake of something else. The only thing that is to be enjoyed is God. All other things, including other human beings, are to be used in relation to the proper end of enjoyment. To use something which is to be enjoyed or vice versa is to fail to love properly. The discussion of enjoyment and use leads to an extended reflection on motivation, word as flesh, and humanity as image of God.

Book One concludes with a discussion of love: how humans ought to love God, how God's love is expressed in his use of humanity, and how people may appreciate God's love through the Scriptures, faith, and charity. Augustine also claims that those who think they understand the Scriptures, but do not interpret them to reflect charity and love, do not really understand them.


Book Two

Book Two discusses the types of unknown signs present in the world and defines each and presents methods for understanding the Scriptures. Obscure signs include unknown literal signs and unknown figurative signs. Unknown signs are those that have meanings that are unknown. Augustine says that a feature of the Scriptures is obscurity and that obscurity is the result of sin: that is, God made the Scriptures obscure in order to motivate and challenge our fallen minds.

Augustine claims there are seven steps to wisdom in interpretation of the Scriptures: fear of God, holiness and faith, scientia (or knowledge), strength, good counsel, purity of heart, and then wisdom. He also distinguishes "truth" from "logic", and argues that logic can lead to falsehood. He declares that it is better to have truth than logic.

Augustine argues that committing the Scriptures to memory is critical to understanding. Once the reader is "familiar with the language of Scripture," it is possible for him to try to untangle sections that are obscure. He also emphasizes studying the Scriptures in their original languages to avoid the problems of imperfect and divergent translations. Throughout Book Two, Augustine stresses the importance of method as well as virtue for attaining wisdom through the Scriptures. He analyzes sources of knowledge, reason, and eloquence as well as charity and humility.

In chapter 8, Augustine discusses the canon of the Bible. In determining which books to include, he writes: "Now in regard to the canonical Scriptures, [an interpreter] must follow the judgment of the greater number of Catholic Churches; and among these, of course a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles." For the Old Testament, he lists 44 books. For the New Testament, he lists the 27 books of the contemporary canon. He writes that there are "fourteen epistles of the Apostle Paul," including the epistle to the Hebrews. Augustine's list is the same as the Canon approved by the third Synod of Carthage (397 CE), and it is possible that he might have played a role in the synod's decision on the canon.


Book Three

Book Three discusses how to interpret ambiguous literal and ambiguous figurative signs. Ambiguous signs are those whose meaning is unclear or confused. He suggests first determining things from signs. Then, once the distinction is made, understand the literal meaning of the text (things as things, nothing more). Determining if there is a deeper meaning in the text can be done by recognizing a different, more figurative, mode of writing. This may show that the things are also signs of something else. For example, an aged tree could be a literal tree or it could be a symbol of long life (as a sign or allegory).

Augustine emphasizes right motives when interpreting scripture, and claims that it is more important to build up love than to arrive at a historically or literally accurate interpretation. He also stresses that contemporary readers must be careful to understand that some actions (i.e., having multiple wives) which were acceptable among the ancients are no longer acceptable, and must therefore be interpreted figuratively. Understanding tropes such as irony and antiphrasis will also be beneficial for interpretation.

The final section of Book Three is one of Augustine's late additions to the work (with Book Four), consisting of Tyconius’s seven rules for interpreting scripture: The Lord and His Body, The Twofold Division of the Body of the Lord, The Promises and the Law (or The Spirit and the Letter), Species and Genus, Times, Recapitulation, and The Devil and His Body.


Book Four

Book Four discusses the relationship between Christian truth and rhetoric, the importance of eloquence, and the role of the preacher. This book was appended to the work a number of years after its original composition, along with the end of Book Three. Augustine again stresses the importance of both discovery and teaching for the interpretation of Scripture. He cautions the reader that he will not discuss the rules of rhetoric here; for though they are acceptable and useful for the Christian speaker, they can easily be learned elsewhere. Though eloquence is a skill which can be used for good or evil, it should be used in service to wisdom. It is not necessary, then, for the preacher to be eloquent, but only wise. Nonetheless, eloquence can enhance one's ability to teach wisdom. The proper goal of rhetoric should thus be to teach wisdom by the use of eloquence.

Augustine then analyzes the relationship between eloquence and teaching, including various stylistic points, a discussion of inspiration, and the claim that eloquence and teaching are both to be valued. Drawing on Cicero, Augustine outlines three types of style—subdued style, moderate style, and grand style—and discusses the proper context for each. The use of these styles must be determined by subject matter as well as the audience.

Finally, Augustine concludes by considering the importance of the preacher's life, which is more important than eloquence for persuading the audience. In this regard, things (the preacher's actions) are more important than signs (the preacher's words). Prayer is essential in order to receive from God the wisdom which will be passed on to the audience. The text concludes with an injunction to humility and thanks to God that Augustine has been able to discuss these topics.



There are two things on which all interpretation of scripture depends: the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt.


There are some things which are to be enjoyed, some which are to be used, and some whose function is both to enjoy and use… But if we choose to enjoy things that are to be used, our advance is impeded and sometimes even diverted, and we are held back, or even put off, from attaining things which are to be enjoyed, because we are hamstrung by our love of lower things.


The things which are to be enjoyed, then, are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity that consists of them, which is a kind of single, supreme thing… it is not easy to find a suitable name for such excellence.


Have I spoken something, have I uttered something, worthy of God? No, I feel that all I have done is to wish to speak…


Anyone who fails to see this is like a blind man in the sun, who cannot be helped by the brightness of such a clear and powerful light shining into his eyes. But someone who sees this yet runs away from it has a mind whose insight is weakened by his habit of living in the shadows cast by the flesh. Those, then, who follow what is secondary and inferior to whatever they admit to be better and more outstanding are, as it were, blown away from their homeland by the adverse winds of their own perverted characters.


When we speak, the word which we hold in our mind becomes a sound in order that what we have in our mind may pass through ears of flesh into the listener’s mind: this is called speech. Our thought, however, is not converted into the same sound, but remains intact in its own home, suffering no diminution from its change as it takes on the form of a word in order to make its way into the ears. In the same way the word of God became flesh in order to live in us but was unchanged.


A doctor treating a physical wound applies some medications that are contrary—a cold one to a hot wound, a dry one to a wet wound, and so on—and also some that are similar, such as a round bandage to a round wound…and he does not apply the same dressing to all wounds, but matches like with like. So for the treatment of human beings God’s wisdom—in itself both doctor and medicine—offered itself in a similar way. Because human beings fell through pride it used humility in healing them. We were deceived by the wisdom of the serpent; we are freed by the foolishness of God.


This reward is the supreme reward—that we may thoroughly enjoy God and that all of us who enjoy Him may enjoy one another in Him.


There is this important difference between temporal things and eternal things: something temporal is loved more before it is possessed, but will lose its appeal when attained, for it does not satisfy the soul, whose true and certain abode is eternity. The eternal, on the other hand, is loved more passionately when obtained than when desired… however high one’s expectations while on the way, one will find it even more impressive on arrival.


But casual readers are misled by problems and ambiguities of many kinds, mistaking one thing for another. In some passages they find no meaning at all that they can grasp at, even falsely, so thick is the fog created by some obscure phrases. I have no doubt that this is all divinely predetermined, so that pride may be subdued by hard work and intellects which tend to despise things that are easily discovered may be rescued from boredom and reinvigorated.


It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organized the holy scriptures so as to satisfy hunger [ward off starvation] by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom [drive away boredom] by means of its obscurer ones.


One should proceed to explore and analyse the obscure passages, by taking examples from the more obvious parts to illuminate obscure expressions and by using the evidence of indisputable passages to remove the uncertainty of ambiguous ones.


It is a miserable kind of spiritual slavery to interpret signs as things, and to be incapable of raising the mind’s eye above the physical creation so as to absorb the eternal light.


Anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative.


So all, or nearly all, of the deeds contained in the books of the Old Testament are to be interpreted not only literally but also figuratively.


Sometimes not just one meaning but two or more meanings are perceived in the same words of scripture…the person examining the divine utterances must of course do his best to arrive at the intention of the writer… he may reach that meaning or carve out from the words another meaning… perhaps the author saw that very meaning in the words which we are trying to understand. Certainly the Spirit of God who worked through the author foresaw without any doubt that it would present itself to a reader or listener, or rather planned that it should present itself, because it too is based on the truth.


There is a danger of forgetting what one has to say while working out a clever way to say it.


Eloquent speakers give pleasure, wise ones salvation.


So there is a kind of eloquence appropriate to writers who enjoy the highest authority and a full measure of divine inspiration. They spoke in their own particular style, and it would be inappropriate for them to have used any other style, or for others to have used theirs. It is appropriate to them, and the humbler it seems, the more thoroughly it transcends that of others, not in grandiloquence but in substance.


It is the nature of good minds to love truth in the form of words, not the words themselves. What use is a golden key, if it cannot unlock what we want to be unlocked, and what is wrong with a wooden one, if it can, since our sole aim is to open closed doors?


He should be in no doubt that any ability he has and however much he has derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so, by praying for himself and for those he is about to address, he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words… before he opens his thrusting lips he should lift his thirsting soul to God so that he may utter what he has drunk in and pour out what has filled him.


So the speaker who is endeavoring to give conviction to something that is good should despise none of these three aims—of instructing, delighting, and moving his hearers—and should make it his prayerful aim to be listened to with understanding, with pleasure, and with obedience.


More important than any amount of grandeur of style to those of us who seek to be listened to with obedience is the life of the speaker.




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