I'm working through Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana again as I teach an Honor's College class this fall called, "Foundations of Christian Tradition." I have already blogged through Book 3 on an earlier occasion. Thanks to those who gave feedback on Book I. By the way, here is an excellent version of this work online.
1. Augustine begins by giving the background to his sense that words are signs that point to things. This is what signs are--signifiers of things. Some signs are natural, like smoke that points to fire. But some signs are people made, including both non-verbal and verbal signs.
Some signs are natural--smoke points to fire. But others are "given" or "conventional." These are signs that human beings give to things. There are different ways that humans signify meanings to each other. Some are sounds. Some are picked up by the eyes. The most significant, perhaps, are words.
Scripture gives remedy to many diseases of the human will (9). Augustine believes that the human authors followed the will of God as they wrote. So by figuring out what these authors were trying to say, we can find out the will of God.
2. I don't want to get too far before I do some reflection. Augustine is often connected with what has been called a "picture theory" of language. Words are signs that point to things. The general sense is similar to Gottlob Frege's idea that words have a sense and a reference. The reference is what words point to.
It's true that things and references are often involved in language. But the notion of words as tools seems to express more closely how words work. "Words do stuff" (Wittgenstein, Austin, Searle) expresses how words work far more closely than "Words point to things."
I will have reason to consider Augustine unreflective in his sense that what he is doing in his interpretation is finding out what the human authors were saying. There's too much fiddling with the meaning to make it come out right for this sentiment to be a good description of what Augustine does. I have the same critique of some evangelical interpretation. When the text doesn't say what it needs to say, we downshift into reinterpretation.
3. Augustine speaks of men coming to the font of baptism, rising born again with the Holy Spirit, and then living with the double love of God and neighbor (11). His point is not this statement in itself but that it's much more pleasing to hear about this type of thing in the symbolic imagery of the Song of Songs. But the insight into his theology and the practice of the church in his day is interesting.
He speaks of a process toward knowing God's will. It starts with the fear of God (16), proceeds to holiness, then moves to knowledge. This is knowledge of our own need, of our own lack of love for God and neighbor. This knowledge leads to a fourth stage--fortitude or endurance, which leads to compassion. You wonder if Wesley was impacted by this section. Augustine speaks of becoming perfect in love (21). The sixth stage is a purified eye, which finally leads to wisdom.
4. Now Augustine returns to the third stage--knowledge--which leads him to think more about the Scriptures. A person seeking knowledge should have a knowledge of the content of the canonical Scriptures. And here Augustine gives us a helpful glimpse of the canon as it existed in the late 390s. There are two striking features.
The first is that the New Testament book list is exactly the same as our current one. This is striking because that precise list is no where listed until AD367 in a letter Athanasius sent out at Easter. It would be ratified in the West at the Council of Carthage in 398. But it is not yet official when Augustine was writing. Interestingly, he also says to go with what the "big churches" say on this matter, the renowned ones.
The second is the fact that he considers the Apocrypha to be part of the canon. Jerome at about the same time would put them in something like a second level canon (deuterocanonical). This speaks to my general claim that, in the Reformation, Luther downgraded the Apocrypha from their original status for Christianity, while the Council of Trent upgraded them then.
5. So the first rule of knowledge is to know these books and commit them to memory. Next, examine those matters that are clearly stated in them. You can find everything necessary for faith and the moral life in those parts that are clearly stated, and the greater a person's intellectual capacity, the more of these he or she will find.
I wonder if this paragraph is behind the notion of the perspicuity of Scripture, as well as the idea that the Scriptures contain "all things necessary for life and salvation."
Finally, from the clear passages, one should proceed to interpret the unclear ones.
Of course this is a pre-historical approach. Passages meant what they meant. Sometimes their original meaning is unclear. But Augustine as much refers to passages whose theology doesn't seem to fit, and he espouses a method of fiddling with those sorts of passages on the level of meaning, not on the level of application. This simply isn't appropriate from a historical perspective.
6. Passages can be unclear for two reasons--either the "thing" to which the sign points can be unknown or it can be ambiguous (32).
But Augustine steps back for a second as he builds a theory of language. Signs can either be literal or metaphorical. They are literal when "they signify the things for which they were invented." They are metaphorical when they are used to signify something else.
Augustine mentions some causes of ambiguity. Lack of knowledge of original languages, for example (he indicates that the first translations into Latin were pretty rough). Here's Augustine's position on proper Latin grammar, by the way: "What, then, is correctness of speech but the maintenance of the practice of others, as established by the authority of ancient speakers?" (45).
Then Augustine suggests that weak men are preoccupied with such things. "Their weakness stems from a desire to appear learned, not with a knowledge of things, by which we are edified, but with a knowledge of signs" (46). I completely agree. Shallow people are preoccupied with form rather than substance.
7. Augustine suggests we use multiple translations when we do not know the original languages of the Bible, as well as that we use multiple manuscripts--a sign of his time. Interestingly, he considers the Septuagint to be authoritative over the Hebrew Old Testament (53). This is because of a quasi-inspiration that many afforded to its translation. I believe the Greek Orthodox Church still holds to something similar. When manuscripts differ, he defers to the "more learned and diligent churches" (56).
He certainly believes in hidden, metaphorical meanings (57). He spends several paragraphs talking about such meanings in numbers and such. Ignorance of music can also be a hindrance to understanding.
I close with this quote from 72: "A person who is good and a true Christian should realize that truth belongs to the Lord, wherever it is found." So truth can be found even in pagan literature.