Augustine: De Doctrina Christiana, Book 2

Hey there! As per last week, we’re currently doing a book-by-book run-through of Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine, where he talks about his method of Biblical interpretation. We’ve only really just started: this week, we’re looking at Book 2, which explores dealing with unknown signs.

Augustine draws a distinction between two types of signs: conventional and natural. Natural signs are things that just naturally refer to something else – when you see a footprint, you know there was a foot. There’s no human artifice in there, it’s just the physical world doing its thing. Conventional signs are things that humans made up – they only hold their meaning through human convention (so words, basically). Augustine’s going to focus on words throughout this book, because, well, by and large that’s what you find in the Bible.

Augustine notes that there’s a whole bunch of different languages out there, and puts that down to the “sin of discord among men”, citing the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament. That’s interesting, because there’s a great deal of more contemporary theology (I’m talking hella-recent) that describes the pluralism of language as a blessing, rather than a curse. For example, Trevor Hart writes that “the vision of Pentecost… is not one of linguistic otherness finally erased but of the redemption of otherness, a baptism of fire in which mutual understanding and enrichment are to be had in and through, and not despite, linguistic difference” (Making Good). We’ll ignore Augustine on that point.

So Augustine’s looking at two types of difficulty in interpretation: when meaning is obscure, and when meaning is ambiguous. Obscure meaning is the topic of Book 2, and ambiguous meaning Book 3 (so we’ll deal with that next week). Augustine proposes that the first step is to be well acquainted with the Bible, and then approach the more obscure passages with the knowledge that’s plainly laid out. He notes that meaning can be either figurative or literal, and suggests that the more we know about the world, the easier figurative interpretation will be. He picks up this example: “Be as wise as serpents”, and thinks about the biological function of serpents to try and figure out what might be figuratively wise about them. He reasons that serpents shed their skins, and that this is a figurative parallel to the Biblical instruction to cast off the old person and take on new life in Christ.

Augustine’s also got similar discussions of the meaning behind numbers, and I think this is a good example of why I’m sort of uncomfortable with this general practice he’s espousing. He explores the number forty, noting that Christ fasted for forty days in the desert. Apparently, “the number contains ten four times, indicating the knowledge of all things, and that knowledge interwoven with time”. For the sake of word-count, let’s leave aside the ‘knowledge of all things’ part, and just focus on why four represents time. Augustine basically argues that there’s four seasons, and four parts of the day (morning, noon, evening, and night), and so the number four represents time. It’s interesting enough, but it seems a bit arbitrary for my liking. I wouldn’t say that there’s no significance behind the concept of ‘forty days’, but I’m suspicious of this method of understanding what that significance might be.

Moving on, we come to some pretty interesting stuff. Augustine basically says that all true knowledge is useful knowledge, regardless of where it comes from: “we ought not to refuse to learn letters because they say that Mercury discovered them… Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master” (II, 18). He accepts that there’s a distinction between heathen superstition and actual knowledge, but basically is straight-up about the fact that people don’t have to be Christian in order to have actual true knowledge to contribute to the human race. This is a pretty common theme throughout Christian history: Justin Martyr, in his defence of Christianity, even claimed Plato and Socrates as unknowing Christians (The First Apology). The rationale is very simple – people can discover medicine and stuff without being Christian, so clearly being Christian isn’t the only way to know things. It’s the sort of thing that’s blindingly obvious to most people, but that you have to laboriously set about explaining to some Christians. There’s a more interesting (read: controversial) argument about whether or not people can know things about God without being Christian (I would argue yes, because the Jews clearly weren’t Christian), but that’s by the by.

Augustine goes on to talk about rhetoric and other dialectic tools, basically arguing that there’s nothing wrong with being an orator and drawing on technical skills of presentation, as long as we realise that they’re just tools that can also be used to talk up bullshit. That’s a pretty common understanding today – I would even say we’ve taken this attitude further, to the point where many people instinctively distrust politicians on the grounds that they are skilled public speakers, so you can never really tell if they’re telling the truth or if they’re just full of shit. Augustine finishes with a classic theological argument: just as the Israelites took gold and silver from the Egyptians as they left Egypt, so too should we appropriate any truth that is to be found in pagan knowledge. Augustine describes this process as a ‘reclamation’ of truth, taking it back from those who have ‘unlawful possession’ of it. Although that might sound like an aggressively exclusive attitude, it makes sense from a Christian perspective: if God is true and real, then all knowledge does truly stem from Him, and if knowledge is being used by non-Christians without reference to Him, then it is reasonable for us to reattach that knowledge to its true root in God.

However, this does beg an interesting question: if non-Christians obtained this knowledge without knowing God (at least not as the Christian knows God), then how did they get their hands on it? We have to be careful here – it’s not that the knowledge exists without reference to God, because all true knowledge is rooted in God. Rather, it’s that non-Christians got their hands on knowledge without a Christian perspective or a Christian understanding of who God is – which is actually pretty fascinating. When we talk about the prerequisites for knowledge, being Christian is clearly not one of them – which, again, is not to say that there’s such a thing as knowledge without God. Rather, it’s that non-Christians clearly have their thinking and understanding illuminated by the light of God, in the same way as their existence and health is supported by God’s will. That means, theoretically, that non-Christians could be more correct in their understanding of a particular piece of knowledge than Christians. It doesn’t undercut the primacy of the Bible, because I’m not saying that they’re right about everything – I’m just pointing out the obvious fact that they do have a great deal to offer.

Next week, Book Three!


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