Saturday, February 6, 2010

St. Augustine and the Meanings of Scripture

St. Augustine believed that the Scripture has not merely a single meaning, but rather more than one meaning. Although this should not in principle be contrary to the Protestant idea of “sola scriptura,” it’s not how Protestants typically view things. For example, they tend to believe (if my own background is any measure) that if one “goes beyond” (so to speak) the single meaning intended by the human author, then anything goes and there is nothing to prevent the interpreter from making the Bible mean anything he wishes.

But this is operating in a vacuum, as we have seen in the past. As the Catechism says:

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

It’s not the case that “anything goes” for the Christian when he reads the Bible, for he must always “read the Scripture within ‘the living Tradition of the whole Church.’” He is not free to read the Bible in any silly, idiosyncratic way that he wishes, nor after the traditions of newcomers on the block. No. He must read it with the constant teaching of the Church in view, and understand it within the context of that teaching.

So there is no danger when St. Augustine says that Scripture may indeed have multiple meanings:

42. Thus, when one shall say, “He [Moses] meant as I do,” and another, “Nay, but as I do,” I suppose that I am speaking more religiously when I say, “Why not rather as both, if both be true?” And if there be a third truth, or a fourth, and if any one seek any truth altogether different in those words, why may not he be believed to have seen all these, through whom one God has tempered the Holy Scriptures to the senses of many, about to see therein things true but different? I certainly,— and I fearlessly declare it from my heart—were I to write anything to have the highest authority, should prefer so to write, that whatever of truth any one might apprehend concerning these matters, my words should re-echo, rather than that I should set down one true opinion so clearly on this as that I should exclude the rest, that which was false in which could not offend me. Therefore am I unwilling, O my God, to be so headstrong as not to believe that from You this man [Moses] has received so much. He, surely, when he wrote those words, perceived and thought whatever of truth we have been able to discover, yea, and whatever we have not been able, nor yet are able, though still it may be found in them.

43. Finally, O Lord, who art God, and not flesh and blood, if man does see anything less, can anything lie hidden from “Your good Spirit,” who shall “lead me into the land of uprightness,” which You Yourself, by those words, were about to reveal to future readers, although he through whom they were spoken, amid the many interpretations that might have been found, fixed on but one? Which, if it be so, let that which he thought on be more exalted than the rest. But to us, O Lord, either point out the same, or any other true one which may be pleasing unto You; so that whether You make known to us that which You did to that man of Yours, or some other by occasion of the same words, yet You may feed us, not error deceive us. Behold, O Lord my God, how many things we have written concerning a few words—how many, I beseech You! What strength of ours, what ages would suffice for all Your books after this manner? Permit me, therefore, in these more briefly to confess unto You, and to select some one true, certain, and good sense, that You shall inspire, although many senses offer themselves, where many, indeed, I may; this being the faith of my confession, that if I should say that which Your minister felt, rightly and profitably, this I should strive for; the which if I shall not attain, yet I may say that which Your Truth willed through Its words to say unto me, which said also unto him what It willed. [Confessions, XII.31-32; emphasis added]

Later, in Book XIII, St. Augustine insists that we must not be limited to the literal sense of Scripture in at least one place, but rather that we must seek its figurative meaning:

But if we treat those words as taken figuratively (the which I rather suppose the Scripture intended, which does not, verily, superfluously attribute this benediction to the offspring of marine animals and man only) [XIII.24]

It’s probably worth pointing out that he is not writing in reference to a psalm or a prophecy in which we might say that the figurative sense is the literal sense, so to speak; but rather, he is writing about Genesis 1—where many Protestants insist no figurative sense is rightly to be sought. But the point here isn’t to quibble about the right way to read Genesis, although the fact that Christians 1600 years ago were seeking a figurative meaning ought to give pause to those who insist that doing so is a recent novelty borne solely from an effort to harmonize Scripture and science. No, the point is that St. Augustine’s approach to the Bible is consistent with the Catholic Church’s constant teaching (§§115-119) about the multiple meanings of the Bible.


Nick said...

This actually goes against the Westminster Confession's teaching that:

"IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly."

At the very least, that comment is irrelevant, at most it's false.

p.s. I made a new post in honor of your great work on St Augustine:

Reginald de Piperno said...

That is a fabulous observation! I completely forgot about that particular error in the WCF. I certainly believed that when I was Presbyterian, but over the years since becoming Catholic I forgot that the belief was something that was consistent with the explicit teaching of the WCF.

I’m pleased that you’ve been enjoying these posts, Nick :-) Thanks for your kind words. FWIW there will be quite a few more just like them. I’m currently reading On Christian Doctrine, and it’s no friend of Protestantism, either—just like its author. :-)


Nick said...

I got through some of On Christian doctrine, the biggest thing I noticed was that he explicitly listed the Deutero-Canonical books right alongside the rest, and he called this his canon...I guess he wasn't really led by the Spirit after all.

Reginald de Piperno said...

Heh. And his argument for identifying the canon isn’t that it is “self-authenticating,” either.

But that’s going to be in another post in a few days or so :-)

Martin said...

Hi Guys, I'm cross posting this as an off topic question to DA under his post on bible references. Hard to double link from aphone but you're smart and will find it if I forget to link herem

Jeremiah Onwukaobi said...

Great one