Monday, August 24, 2015

Monday Philosophy: Augustine's On Christian Teaching 1

I'm teaching two sections of "Foundations of Christian Doctrine" for the IWU Honors College this fall. Last year, Steve Lennox had his students read On Christian Teaching. This is a classic work on hermeneutics.

I'm not sure yet, but I thought I'd read through it again these next two or three Mondays to figure out how I want to use it. I know I lose points for not being a "Go ad fontes kind of guy." Don't get me wrong, the master will have read them.

But which is ultimately more central, the form or the substance? The focus on primary sources inevitably involves an intrinsic focus on form, since the most enduring elements of a text can almost always be re-presented in a more communicative form for a beginner (say, in a blog ;-). Original forms are usually a mixture of counterproductive elements mixed in with the enduring reason we are reading the source.

For example, it is counterproductive for a beginner to read Newton's Principia Mathematica when you can read the best, recent presentation of its basic truths in a physics textbook, with much improved notation, pedagogical sequencing, and updated information. I wonder if even Einstein ever read it. Enduring truths are best presented, especially for the first time, in a form best suited to communicate to the person trying to understand them, not in their original form. Leave the original sources for the more advanced student or the historian of ideas.

In the vast majority of cases, the original form of a text, written as it was in a particular setting for a particular context, simply cannot hope to communicate as well as well as a re-presented version of its most transcendent ideas.

My first thought on the Preface is that it is bound to turn a student off to Augustine. He begins by more or less suggesting that anyone who disagrees with him is wrong. Those who disagree either 1) don't understand what he's saying, 2) haven't been illuminated by the Holy Spirit, or 3) they think they receive their revelation directly from God, not from the teaching of others.

The rest of the Preface is then him explaining why those who think they have received their understanding directly from God should listen to him. He gives several examples of how God has used others in Scripture to unfold various things they did not understand (e.g., the Ethiopian eunuch). And even those who think they have this understanding still try to explain it to others.

Nope, I'm not going to require the students read the Preface.

Book 1
There are several very good quotes in Book 1:
  • "God is unspeakable. But what I have spoken would not have been spoken if it were unspeakable. For this reason God should not even be called unspeakable, because even when this word is spoken, something is spoken" (13).
  • "God gave keys to his church so that whatever it loosed on earth should also be loosed in heaven, and whatever is bound on earth should also be bound in heaven" (35).
  • "The divinely established rule of love says, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself' but God 'with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind... when it says 'all your heart, all your soul, all your mind,' it leaves no part of our life free from this obligation, no part free as it were to back out and enjoy some other thing... loving his neighbor as he would himself, he relates his love of himself and his neighbor entirely to the love of God" (42-43).
  • "Anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them" (86).
  • "Every human being qua human being should be loved on God's account... All people should be loved equally" (59, 61).
  • "Who can fail to see that there is no exception to this, nobody to whom compassion is not due" (69).
  • "The chief purpose of all that we have been saying in our discussion of things is to make it understood that the fulfillment and end of the law and all the divine scriptures is to love the thing which must be enjoyed [God] and the thing which together with us can enjoy that thing [our neighbor].
  • "There are three things which all knowledge and prophecy serve: faith, hope, and love... Therefore a person strengthened by faith, hope, and love, and who steadfastly holds on to them, has no need of the scriptures except to instruct others" (90, 93).
1. Most of these statements are quite significant, worth discussion at some point. Of course there is much in this book that probably isn't helpful. Augustine labors over the difference between intrinsic and instrumental goods. God is the only intrinsic good who is to be enjoyed. All other goods are instrumental, to be used to point toward God as the only thing to be enjoyed.

I don't find that line of argument very useful. :-) What if God, as I believe, has created many things to be enjoyed in themselves, even though enjoying them also indirectly gives glory to him?

2. I do not find his analysis of lying convincing (86-88). Nor do I find his Neoplatonist "evil is the absence of good" convincing. Clearly he did not know of people who are suicidal either, since he cannot believe that anyone would not love himself.

3. The pre-modern Augustine also does what no one with a solid historical consciousness can do today. "It often happens that by thoughtlessly asserting something that the author did not mean an interpreter runs up against other things which cannot be reconciled with that original idea. If he agrees that these things are true and certain, his original interpretation could not possibly be true" (89).

In short, if your interpretation does not fit with faith, hope, and love, it is a false interpretation. Change it to fit. Augustine could do such because he saw allegorical and figural interpretation as valid. I also do not have a problem with figural interpretation guided by Christian orthodoxy.

But it is not healthy, in the long term, to let our theology dictate our interpretations. It is best to let historical and literary context rule in interpretation and then to bring those seemingly most likely outcomes into dialog with a theological perspective.

History is history. The text meant something in its historical context. Later Christian theology cannot change the original meaning of a text. It can give another meaning that is valid in its own right. It can change the application. But it is safest to let each text mean what it seemed to mean, then to process its application in the light of faith, hope, and love.

4. So Book 1 might be worth having students read, or at least to read selections. I'll keep reading and see how my thoughts develop.


Anonymous said...

I have been reading your posts appreciatively for quite a few months now - thanks for your blogging work! Half of my doctoral thesis is dedicated to Augustine, drawing favourably on his I couldn't let this post slide without a bit of push-back.

As an overall comment: I would have really benefited from direct engagement with substantive theological texts early in my theological education and so want to argue for that experience for others. No matter how well one summarizes, there is a massive difference between reading Barth and reading a "Barth for dummies". I realize that requiring students to read a really difficult text will not yield chirpy, positive student reviews...but they will remember and appreciate the experience 10 yrs down the road, whereas they will definitely have forgotten some dumbed down summary that did nothing other than make them feel as smart as Barth or Augustine. As CS Lewis says in The Abolition of Man (another very difficult book!), old tough books can remind us that we stand not at the top of the staircase ("progress!") but at the bottom.

As for Augustine's text...
First, I don't think De doctrina is a "hermeneutics textbook". Second, I think you've completely missed the import of the preface! He's trying to embolden the church to not kowtow to those who claim God speaks only to them. Augustine is saying that rather than simply following whoever claims to be a prophet, why not inquire together as a community after the things of God in Scripture? That's what he's arguing for. He's saying that God has set it up so that our "seeking" not only leads to "finding" but also leads us into love for each other in the process. In other words, he's democratizing theological discernment, and he's addressing the various arguments that these "prophets" will offer back to him in order to secure their own privileged access to the things of God that the common people don't have.

I was surprised to read your statement in which you claimed that you can interpret Scripture apart from your theology? Augustine is much more humble about (both pre- and postlapsarian) mental accomplishment. De Doctrina, of course, argues exactly the opposite of your claim to immediate access to Scripture - he says that all our readings are essentially ways of packaging a complex of loves - and those loves are, at root, either fleshly or spiritual (i.e., from the Holy Spirit and sourced in divine love). This is the key to the whole book: correct interpretation of Scripture is, by definition, that which brings you into the love of the Triune God. And he's claiming that you can't get behind your loves, even with biblical interpretation - only grace can. Without this kind of affirmation of our inability to reform ourselves (even through arduous Scriptural work), how do we not end up as Pelagians, essentially claiming that our own increasingly pure interpretations of Scripture will save us?

I will stop there...

Ken Schenck said...

I appreciate this push-back. I'll only respond to the last paragraph. I am suggesting more of a dialectic between historical study and theological appropriation than a divorce. What I am opposing is the complete collapse of these two into each other. Even Augustine distinguishes between the literal and the figural. I am suggesting a similar distinction between history and theology.

There is also a difference between theological presuppositions and theological violence. Presuppositions are unavoidable. It's quite another thing to ignore the words that come before and after a text (literary context) or to ignore known historical background in deference to theology that emerged most clearly at a later time than the text.

Anonymous said...

That's helpful. Thanks for the response!