In 387, Augustine, the man who would become the greatest theologian of the early Christian church, was baptized by Bishop Ambrose in Milan, giving up a glittering career in the emperor’s court and renown as a celebrated teacher of rhetoric. A year later he and several equally distinguished friends returned to North Africa and Thagaste, where he was born. Settling there on his family’s estate, Augustine began a life of writing and contemplation. But by 391 he was ordained to the priesthood and had moved to Hippo Regius, on the coast of Algeria, to found a monastery. Legend has it that one Sunday as he was attending services in the cathedral, the presiding bishop, Valerius, looked out in the congregation and cried out, ‘Stop that man! Do not let him escape. He is to be my successor when I die.’
Four years later, in 395, Augustine was consecrated as Bishop of Hippo Regius and remained its bishop until his death in 430. But in 397, a decade after his baptism and only two years into his bishopric, Augustine was 43, approaching middle age. In the midst of a busy life of teaching, pastoring, and defending the faith, he wrote his Confessions, a remarkable work of intellectual and spiritual therapy set as a literary prayer to God which we are allowed to overhear.
Were we not already numbed by countless current memoirs that revel in self-defecatory ‘honesty’ we might find his Confessions startling. Unlike so many ancient and medieval biographies, for instance, which depict their subjects as heroically exhibiting ideal qualities, Augustine reveals himself as a man whose past still resonates in his present. He is a bishop whose youthful sexual adventures still haunt him and whose memories are still painful. He underscores the force of desires that result in habits which become engrained and lock a person into paths not easily reversed. Long before Freud, Augustine understood that childhood experiences shape the adult. But unlike Freud he knew that change could only come from processes beyond one’s control. His prayer is suffused with wonder and gratitude at God’s intervention in his life.
The Confessions is comprised of thirteen books, what we would call chapters. In Book 12 Augustine takes up a dispute over the meaning of the phrase “heaven and earth,” in the Genesis Creation story. It’s an argument on whether God created ex nihilo,’ out of nothing,’ or whether He used pre-existing material on hand in order to bring a new world to life. Within the intellectual and theological community of which Augustine was a member, this was, apparently, a matter worth coming to blows over.
He poses a number of interpretations of what the phrase could mean and assesses their relative merits. Some make more sense than others, but Augustine asserts that any of them could be true, since we don’t know exactly what Moses was thinking. What we do know is that what comes from God is truth.
Augustine believes that the interpretation he has arrived at is that which God prompted him to understand, but he holds that others may have arrived at different truths. His principle is to settle for one truth, “so long as it is firm and helpful, however many other truths may suggest themselves.”
When there are so many possibilities for interpreting scripture Augustine confesses that “I make my testimony on the understanding that if I have identified what your servant Moses meant, that is the best and highest truth, the one I was bound to strive for.”
That would be the ideal, as difficult as that would be to reach. In humility, though, Augustine concludes that if he didn’t reach that truth, “let me at least express what your truth willed me to take from the author’s words, just as your truth willed what the author himself said.”
Apply your understanding through love, says Augustine: “So when one man says Moses meant what he means, and another says Moses meant what he means, I think it is more in the spirit of our love to say: Why cannot both be true?” After all, why shouldn’t we think that Moses intended all these various meanings?
God, states Augustine, “has suited his Scripture to readers who will find various truths when different minds interpret it.”
Augustine had come to realize that his earlier difficulties with understanding the Bible were because of spiritual pride; the scriptures were only accessible to those who had rid themselves of conceit and self-importance. God spoke through images that we could understand, but even so we could never know the whole truth in this life. Language fails us, even in our relationships with others. How impossible, then, that we should be able to fully express the mystery of God in our own words. Wrangling and bitter disputes about the meaning of scripture were futile. As Karen Armstrong puts it in her The Bible: A Biography, “Instead of engaging in uncharitable controversies, in which everybody insisted that he alone was right, a humble acknowledgment of our lack of insight should draw us together.”
Augustine had arrived at the insight of the renowned Rabbi Hillel and others: “Charity was the central principle of Torah and everything else was commentary (Armstrong).” For him, the rule of faith was not lodged in a doctrine, but in the spirit of love.
This would not be easy—Augustine rather ruefully begs for divine help in disputations:
“O my God . . . rain down gentleness into my heart, that I may patiently put up with such people, who say this to me not because they are godlike and have seen what they assert in the heart of your servant, but because they are proud, and without having grasped Moses’ idea they are infatuated with their own, not because it is true but because it is theirs.”
If we can each see some truth in what the other says, observes Augustine, where do we see it? “I certainly do not see it in you, nor do you see it in me; we both see it in the immutable truth itself which towers above our minds.”
Thus, we can arrive at a principle of Bible study: trust that if we open our hearts in humility to God’s teaching through scripture, and if we do not claim to have the sole authoritative interpretation, then we can trust that we have been led into a truth which God has for us.
In Armstrong’s felicitous phrase this is “a compassionate hermeneutic.”
What would such a hermeneutic look like in practice? We might, with charity toward all, apply it to our current controversies. We have nothing to lose but our fear.
Translations of The Confessions used are those by Garry Wills (2006) and Sister Maria Boulding (2017). Image is by Anna vander Stel (Unsplash.com)