Wednesday, July 17, 2013


When St. Augustine became the Bishop of Hippo in 396, he began to write On Christian Doctrine, a book on how to interpret scripture. The book, which he did not complete until 427, reveals him to be one of the most profound thinkers in the history of Western philosophy.  The cornerstone of his system of Biblical interpretation comes from Matthew 22:35-40:

Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said unto him, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  (KJV).
St. Augustine wrote that “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the divine Scriptures, or any part of them so that it does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand it at all.” On Christian Doctrine, 1:XXXVI:40 (D.W. Robertson, Jr., translator).

Building from this cornerstone, St. Augustine worked out a systematic method of reverently interpreting the scriptures which anticipates and refutes many of the jibes of the modern day atheists such as Richard Dawkins and his ilk. St. Augustine's system is not, however, a fundamentalist or literalist system. He welcomed the discoveries of heathen science as an aid in scriptural interpretation, despite the fact that he could read well enough to see that some things in scripture seemed to be contradicted by science.

He taught that these seeming contradictions were a signal to engage in deep, protracted study of the passages so as to try to discern their true meaning. He even gave a set of rules for reconciling these contradictions. If the contradictions could not be reconciled by careful exegesis, then he held that the passage in question should be interpreted figuratively rather than literally. “[W]hen the words taken literally give an absurd meaning, we ought forthwith to inquire whether they may not be used in this or that figurative sense which we are unacquainted with; and in this way many obscure passages have had light thrown upon them.”    On Christian Doctrine, 3:XXX:41 (Marcus Dods, translator).
I just finished the Teaching Company's audio course on the history of Christian theology. In the course I learned that St. Augustine engaged in a study of the book of Genesis which extended over several years and produced a theory of creation which anticipated modern science’s Big Bang theory by over 15 centuries. St. Augustine was a remarkable philosopher and theologian. I have put his study of Genesis on my list of books to read. If it is as well reasoned as On Christian Doctrine, it will be a very interesting read.
You may want to stop reading now, because I am going to say some things which most people will find dull beyond endurance. (Maybe you find what I have already said to be dull beyond endurance).
Interestingly, from my study of the trial of Galileo, it seems that Cardinal Bellarmine used St. Augustine's system of scriptural interpretation to censure Galileo. Bellarmine was quite content to have the sun at the center of the solar system if there were sufficient scientific proof of the proposition, but when Galileo wrote, Tycho's geocentric system for the solar system worked as well as Galileo's heliocentric system. Until Tycho's system could be refuted, it was to be accepted because it conformed more to scripture than Galileo's. Galileo did not live to see his system triumph. When science conclusively proved Galileo's system to be superior to Tycho's, then scripture was reinterpreted in conformity with St. Augustine's teaching in On Christian Doctrine. This is a grossly oversimplified explanation of a complex controversy, but it is far closer to the truth than the grossly oversimplified explanation given by the partisans of the "Science versus Religion" school of thought.