Re-reading St. Augustine of Hippo’s On Christian Teaching, I have been struck- again- at just how much the great North African saint is able to cover in a relatively small space, and within what seems like a fairly circumscribed and particular topic- the proper technique of scripture exegesis. Yet St. Augustine covers everything, it seems like, and it’s a joy to read: he works through sign-theory of language, how to confront the Zeitgeist and come out the richer, the role of art and science in the life of the Christian, the healing power of Christ- along with the expected exegetical techniques. It’s a little breathless at times, as he weaves in and out of topics while continually drawing the conversation back to exegesis and scripture. He often times manages to feel remarkably contemporary to our own concerns, while also quite clearly transcending (well, transcending is obviously anachronistic) our usual categories for thinking about scripture, exegesis, epistemology, and so on. St. Augustine is neither a ‘fundamentalist’ nor a ‘liberal’ in thinking about scripture: scripture is inspired, inspired through the writing of the human authors, who are clearly agents and not mere autodidacts. Scripture can have multiple, simultaneous senses, and St. Augustine is remarkably comfortable with conflicting translations even, on some levels (some translations are just bad, he suggests, and easily enough corrected). The ultimate rule for exegesis is a little startling: whatever encourages love of God and other people, is the best- the true- interpretation. And if an exegete arrives at an edifying meaning not intended by the original author- well, that’s good too.
Over all is the rule of love, as exemplified in the passage I present below. Love of God is the centering point for human life, and when we love God we will love ourselves and others properly, not dominating and controlling them but embracing them in kindness and knowledge of our mutual places in God’s divine economy. There is, I think, an implicit critique of pretty much all forms of human authority and domination of each other going on here, even if St. Augustine does not fully articulate it. He envisions life lived under the sign, the rule of Love, in which human relationships are properly ordered, not through the pride and lust of the powerful and dominating (or ourselves attempting to be powerful and dominating), but through a love-centered orientation towards God. Even the task of exegesis, as he argues at the beginning of this work, is a love-centered task. The very existence of exegesis forms community, as we need each other to truly understand the sacred text; we are not to boast over our special knowledge of the text nor hoard it or lord it over others. Even commentary ought to be done under the rule of love- agaparchy, we might call it- though of course there is no ‘system’ here, since love is particular, is oriented first towards the Person of God, then to those we live with, our neighbors.
But anyway- one could spend pages (and plenty of people have!) on the many things St. Augustine is doing and saying in these pages and in others. I am always amazed at the scope, and the frequent bursts of beauty and sense of love, even as in other places St. Augustine’s fallibility and limitations are equally in sight. But throughout I find that he presents possibilities and points of thinking- and doing, loving, acting- that continue to be full of potential and possibility, and, I suspect, will be for years to come.
This example comes from Book Three, and in it we see a good instance of St. Augustine’s welding of seemingly extra-exegetical concerns- here, what we might identify as ‘cultural relativism’- with explicitly exegetical and theological concerns. The exegetical concern is to explain the seemingly odd or even shocking behavior of Old Testament figures; the theological concern, so far as it is separate from the exegetical, is to reconcile the apparent relativism of cultural convention with an over-arching moral order. Obviously, St. Augustine’s words do not fully sum up the issues we might raise here- but they’re remarkably deft and penetrating, and within a quite short space. There is lots to think about, and not just to think about- the rule of Love, St. Augustine would tell us, is not a political program or an abstract problem. It is a way of life, realized in the love of Christ, and lived out day-by-day, step-by-step.
‘Whatever accords with the social practices of those with whom we have to live this present life- whether this manner of life is imposed by necessity or undertaken in the course of duty- should be related by good and serious men to the aims of self-interest and kindness, either literally, as we ourselves should do, or also figuratively, as is allowed to the prophets. When those who are unfamiliar with different social practices come up against such actions in their reading, they think them wicked unless restrained by some explicit authority. They are incapable of realizing that their own sort of behavior patterns, whether in matters of marriage, or diet, or dress, or any other aspect of human life and culture, would seem wicked to other races or other ages. Some people have been struck by the enormous diversity of social practices and in a state of drowsiness, as I would put it- for they were neither sunk in the deep sleep of stupidity nor capable of staying awake to greet the light of wisdom- have concluded that justice has no absolute existence but that each race views its own practices as just. So since the practices of all races are diverse, whereas justice ought to remain unchangeable, there clearly is no such thing as justice anywhere.
To say no more, they have not realized that the injunction “do not do to another what you would not wish to be done to yourself” can in no way by modified by racial differences. When this injunction is related to the love of God, all wickedness dies; and when it is related to the love of one’s neighbor, all wrongdoing dies. For nobody wants his own dwelling to be wrecked, and so he should not wish to wreck God’s dwelling (which is himself). Nobody wants to be harmed by anybody; so he should not do harm to anybody. So when the tyranny of lust has been overthrown love rules with laws that are utterly just: to love God on his account, and to love oneself and one’s neighbor on God’s account. Therefore in dealing with figurative expressions we will observe a rule of this kind: the passage being read should be studied with careful consideration until its interpretation can be connected with the realm of love. If this point is made literally, the no kind of figurative expression need be considered.’
St. Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching, Book Three, XII-XIV