Friday, February 19, 2010

St. Augustine and Hermeneutics - Multiple Meanings are Providential

We have seen this before. St. Augustine absolutely believed that multiple meanings in Scripture were not simply legitimate, but a provision of the divine authorship. In fact, in his view this was more important than whether we can discern the human author’s intended meaning or not.

When, again, not some one interpretation, but two or more interpretations are put upon the same words of Scripture, even though the meaning the writer intended remain undiscovered, there is no danger if it can be shown from other passages of Scripture that any of the interpretations put on the words is in harmony with the truth. And if a man in searching the Scriptures endeavors to get at the intention of the author through whom the Holy Spirit spoke, whether he succeeds in this endeavor, or whether he draws a different meaning from the words, but one that is not opposed to sound doctrine, he is free from blame so long as he is supported by the testimony of some other passage of Scripture. For the author perhaps saw that this very meaning lay in the words which we are trying to interpret; and assuredly the Holy Spirit, who through him spoke these words, foresaw that this interpretation would occur to the reader, nay, made provision that it should occur to him, seeing that it too is founded on truth. For what more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the Sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses, all of which are sanctioned by the concurring testimony of other passages equally divine? [On Christian Doctrine, III.xxvii.38; emphasis added]

It seems clear that in the opinion of St. Augustine, to limit the legitimate meanings of the Bible solely to the one intended by the human author is the same as to completely discount the divine authorship. We might suppose that this is analogous to what Joseph told his brothers: “You intended evil against me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20, CCD). In that situation, God’s purposes were certainly distinct from those of the human actors. That is, we may have our own purposes and intentions in mind, but God has his own as well, and his purposes cannot be thwarted.

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