In previous posts, we have looked at the allegorical interpretation of Philo and Origen. Like Origen, Augustine was also an influential Christian teacher who wrote a lot and has influenced a lot of teachers of the church, even to this day. Augustine (d. AD 430) became a Christian under the teaching of Bishop Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose exposed him to Philo, Origen, and allegorical interpretation, especially of the Old Testament. Augustine’s broad education included rhetoric and philosophy, with an emphasis on Platonism. He provides a lot of helpful guidance on how to interpret the Bible in On Christian Teaching (or De doctrina Christiana).
On the one hand, Augustine values the literal sense and encourages readers to find value in it. Even so, he believes that the love command (to love God and to love one’s neighbor) provides a central principle that is useful for biblical interpretation. One should interpret passages that are consistent with the love command literally. However, biblical texts that appear to be in conflict with the love command should be interpreted figuratively (with allegorical interpretation). As one might suspect, he finds more Old Testament texts that appear to require allegorical interpretation than New Testament texts. Even so, Augustine’s spiritual or figurative interpretations are generally related to his interpretation of the literal sense, rather than being wholly fanciful (Smalley 24). As a result, then, Augustine places some limitations on allegorical interpretation, but finds it to be useful, especially in dealing with difficult passages.
It is helpful to look first at his statement of his basic approach to finding figurative passages and then at a few examples of his approach.
1. How to find figurative passages. Augustine says, “In the first place, then, we must show the way to find out whether a phrase is literal or figurative. And the way is certainly as follows: Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative. Purity of life has reference to the love of God and one’s neighbor; soundness of doctrine to the knowledge of God and one’s neighbor” (On Christian Teaching, 3.14).
2. Figurative passage, example 1. Augustine says, “But in the saying addressed to Jeremiah, ‘See, I have this day set you over the nations, and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down’ (Jeremiah 1:10) there is no doubt the whole of the language is figurative, and to be referred to the end I have spoken of. 18Those things, again, whether only sayings or whether actual deeds, which appear to the inexperienced to be sinful, and which are ascribed to God, or to men whose holiness is put before us as an example, are wholly figurative, and the hidden kernel of meaning they contain is to be picked out as food for the nourishment of charity [or love]” (On Christian Teaching, 3.17-18).
3. Figurative passage, example 2. Augustine says, “But in what follows, ‘for in so doing you shall heap coals of fire on his head,’ one would think a deed of malevolence was enjoined (Rom. 12:20; Prov. 25:21-22). Do not doubt, then, that the expression is figurative; and, while it is possible to interpret it in two ways, one pointing to the doing of an injury, the other to a display of superiority, let charity [or love] on the contrary call you back to benevolence, and interpret the coals of fire as the burning groans of penitence by which a man’s pride is cured who bewails that he has been the enemy of one who came to his assistance in distress” (On Christian Teaching, 3.24).
Reflections on Excerpts from Augustine
Initially, Augustine’s proposal of the love command as a guide for interpreters does not sound problematic. After all, the love command sums up the two greatest commandments according to the teaching of Jesus. The examples above provide at least some idea as to the possibility of misusing the love command in one’s work of interpretation. The second example shows how useful the love command could be for dealing with difficult passages. It allows the interpreter to identify a passage as figurative and then to give it an allegorical interpretation that is coherent with the love command.
1. Excerpts from On Christian Teaching taken from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st series, vol. 2. Available online at NewAdvent.org.
2. Kannengiesser, C. “Augustine of Hippo.” In Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters, 22-28. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998.
3. Smalley, Beryl. The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Blackwell, 1952.
4. Yarchin, William. History of Biblical Interpretation: A Reader. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004.