Sunday, February 14, 2010

St. Augustine and Difficult Passages of the Bible

The Protestant says that Scripture interprets Scripture: in other words, that the Bible is its own ultimate interpreter. While it is certainly true that consideration of context is essential in understanding any work, there are limitations to its utility. If we say that clear passages must be used to help us understand passages that are unclear, the obvious problem is that we do not all agree (and Protestants certainly do not all agree) as to what passages ought to be considered “clear” (and therefore appropriate as helps in interpretation) or “unclear” (and consequently subject to the hermeneutical “grid” of the “clear” passages). For example, if we take St. Peter’s Pentecost sermon as an example of a clear passage, we might conclude that faith is not necessary for salvation at all, but only repentance and baptism. This is certainly not a Protestant view, and it’s not Catholic either. But then one might reasonably ask how it is that St. Peter’s (of all people) argument should not be construed as a “clear” passage of the Bible.

In Book III.ii.2 of On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine addresses this sort of question.

But when proper words make Scripture ambiguous, we must see in the first place that there is nothing wrong in our punctuation or pronunciation. Accordingly, if, when attention is given to the passage, it shall appear to be uncertain in what way it ought to be punctuated or pronounced, let the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of Scripture, and from the authority of the Church, and of which I treated at sufficient length when I was speaking in the first book about things. But if both readings, or all of them (if there are more than two), give a meaning in harmony with the faith, it remains to consult the context, both what goes before and what comes after, to see which interpretation, out of many that offer themselves, it pronounces for and permits to be dovetailed into itself. [emphasis added]

St. Augustine agrees that “plainer passages” ought to help us in interpretation, but no less importantly he also insists upon the authority of the Church as a guide in hermeneutics, and that whatever meaning we find must be consistent with the Faith taught by the Church. This is consistent with what we find in the Catechism—a truth that I have emphasized repeatedly here at The Supplement (most recently in this post):

Read the Scripture within “the living Tradition of the whole Church.” [CCC §113]

The Christian goes astray if he thinks that he can interpret the Bible according to his own lights, ignoring the Faith as it has been delivered to the Church and faithfully taught by her throughout the centuries. The Bible does not and cannot contradict that Faith, and any interpretation of Scripture which proposes to do so is an interpretation gone astray. It is not true.

This is clearly the viewpoint of St. Augustine in the passage we’ve quoted above, and it is still more evidence that the great Doctor was no Protestant. He was a Catholic.

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