What follows is the first part of a summary and comment on this classic hermeneutical work by Augustine. If you want to read this classic Christian (and philosophical) piece, you will find it here.
In Book 2 of On Christian Doctrine, produced in AD397, Augustine set out his understanding of how words indicate meaning. Words are "signs" that point to meanings. Ludwig Wittgenstein, a twentieth century philosopher, called this the "picture theory" of language. You might think of it like a cartoon. When I read a word, a picture that is the meaning for the word appears in the bubble above my head.
This only works some of the time. Wittgenstein pointed out that the meanings of a lot of words and "signs" can't be pictured. For example, you can picture a rude gesture but you can't picture its meaning. Other examples I might give include the word "is" or the word "righteousness." I personally do not even picture a "wild goose chase" and yet understand the phrase perfectly well all the same.
Wittgenstein much more soundly proposed that the meaning of words is not in some pictured definition but rather in the way we use them in certain contexts. In certain contexts or "forms of life," as he called them, we play certain "language games" with words. If I yell "fire" in a crowded room, you know that what I have really said is to leave the room as quickly as possible if you don't want to burn to death. If I yell "fire" as the commander of a group of men with rifles pointing at a blindfolded criminal, I'm probably telling you to shoot the person to death. More examples could be provided.
By the way, it is in Book 2 of Augustine's On Christian Doctrine that he gives what was no doubt becoming the consensus of Christians at that time concerning the books of the Old and New Testament. The canon of the Old Testament, as it is called, included the so called apocryphal books that Martin Luther would later remove from the Protestant canon. The canon of the New Testament corresponds to the list of books that had first appeared only three decades previously in the 367 Easter letter of Athanasius.
Book 3 deals with the question of Scripture's ambiguity and especially when we should read the Bible literally and when we should read the Bible figuratively. Some ambiguity can come from matters of punctuation (chap. 2). Here we need to keep in mind that texts of Augustine's day (and this was true of the original biblical texts as well) largely did not use punctuation to separate words from each other, let alone one sentence from another (it's called "continuous script," or scriptio continua in Latin). All the punctuation in our Bibles is a matter of interpretation.
Augustine of course teaches that decisions about punctuation should be guided by the "rule of faith" when one cannot resolve an issue on the basis of context. For the Christians of the earliest centuries, the rule of faith was that sense of basic Christian beliefs, core Christian thinking, the "deposit" of faith left by the earliest apostles. For Augustine, it was this basic Christian theology that resolved issues of ambiguity. We might put it this way: when in doubt, go with an interpretation that results in an "orthodox" meaning.
This approach brings out a crucial issue. It seems beyond question that the original meaning a biblical text had was a function of its historical and literary context. That is to say, the meaning a biblical author or a biblical audience would have understood by the words of a biblical text is a function of how words were being used at that point in time and place and that they would have understood the words of one verse in the light of the words that had come just previously.
What we will find repeatedly in Book 3 of On Christian Doctrine is that Augustine's decisions on the meaning of a text follow context unless that meaning bumps up against the rule of faith. In that case, he will shift into a figurative meaning that fits with the rule of faith and consider that the meaning God intends the text to have. He is by no means unique in this approach. We can easily find it in other interpreters of the time (e.g., the first century Jewish writer Philo), not least the New Testament authors themselves.
Since the Protestant Reformation, there has been reluctance to interpret biblical texts figuratively unless it was clear that the biblical authors themselves were being figurative originally. For example, we can interpret the story of Sarah and Hagar allegorically in Galatians 4 because that is the way Paul takes the story there. An allegory is where someone interprets the characters or various elements of a story as representations of something else that is unrelated to the original sense.
So Sarah in Paul's interpretation becomes a symbol of the heavenly Jerusalem, while Hagar symbolizes the earthly Jerusalem. This interpretation has nothing to do with the original story of Sarah and Hagar, which was about two women who fought over their children. Paul's interpretation is allegorical.
Evangelicals of the twentieth century have arguably tended to modify Augustine's approach. Follow what seems to be the most likely contextual meaning of the biblical text unless it comes into conflict with the rule of faith (that is, the "orthodoxies" of the evangelical tradition or the particular faith community of which one is a part). If they conflict, then find other possible ways to read the text in context such that it fits with the rule of faith. In this way, evangelical hermeneutics (the study of how to interpret texts) has avoided the kinds of non-literal interpretations of pre-Reformation interpretation while still trying to read the biblical texts in context. One of the purposes of this summary is to help us wrestle with these questions of hermeneutics.
Interestingly, Augustine considers some ambiguities of punctuation to be relatively unimportant. If context is not clear, if the rule of faith does not dictate a particular interpretation, he leaves it up to the individual. Punctuate however you like if neither the context nor the rule of faith give you a clear sense of how to punctuate...
The rest tomorrow