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Hermeneutic of Love

Withstanding the apostles and Jesus himself, Saint Aurelius Augustine is arguably the greatest Christian theologian of the first millennium. His contributions to the understanding and development of Bible interpretation are incalculable. He was a man ahead of his time. Indeed many of the current debates on hermeneutics and postmodern literary criticism appeal to Augustine for insight on issues of meaning, role of the reader, and semiotics. Augustine’s hermeneutical reputation is often limited to his allegorical exegesis, yet his hermeneutics were much more sophisticated than merely allegorical interpretation.

Augustine’s overriding hermeneutical principle was both simple and profound. He states in Book I of On Christian Doctrine, “The fulfillment and end of scripture is the love of God and our neighbor.” [1] Augustine identifies this principle as the “sum” of all Bible interpretation. [2] For Augustine then, true understanding of scripture is not finally realized by discovering the text’s historical meaning or theological meaning or even doctrinal meaning; true understanding of scripture is finally realized when the reader submits to the authority of the text and experiences personal transformation worked out in greater love for God and fellow man.

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

True Biblical interpretation, according to Augustine, does not culminate in the mind’s ascent to a greater knowledge or the collection of facts. Instead, true Bible interpretation culminates in producing an effective change within the reader.

While this perspective on hermeneutics may seem quite simple, in reality its assumptions are often missed by some modern interpreters. Modern readers of the Bible can easily limit Bible interpretation to a strictly objective enterprise. That is, the Bible is the object and the reader is the subject. The object (Bible) is painstakingly scrutinized, examined, and studied until the subject (reader) discovers meaning that satisfies his investigation. If Augustine’s hermeneutic of love is right, then this approach in fundamentally insufficient. According to Augustine, Bible interpretation is, in a sense, an objective enterprise with a subjective outcome. No, neither Augustine nor myself would endorse postmodern relativism. Anyone who thinks they can make the bible say whatever they want it to say, or anyone who denies the reality of an objective meaning inherent in the text itself, does not understand the nature of the Bible or the nature of written communication. By “subjective outcome,” I simply mean that the Bible scrutinizes, examines, and studies the Christian reader, which results in transformation and sanctification in the life of the reader. Frances Young, commenting on Augustine’s hermeneutic, states, “We mortals no longer make judgments about truth and meaning; rather, the truth and meaning of God judges us and transforms us.” [3] Young’s comment is a bit of an overstatement. We do after all make decisions about truth and meaning and these truths applied to our hearts through the Spirit’s work are what transforms us into the image of Christ. But Young’s main point is well taken. The Bible has the last word in our personal and corporate study. In other words, the Bible stands over us beckoning us to submit to its final authority.

Such an understanding of Bible study was no doubt influenced by Augustine’s own conversion experience. As Augustine sat in despair about the circumstances of his life, he heard the refrain sung from the mouths of children, “Tolle Lege” (take and read). He picked up the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans and read chapter 13:13-14. He was immediately transformed by the power of the Spirit and believed the gospel. As Karlfried Froehlich has stated, “Rather than the teacher of rhetoric interpreting the Bible, the Bible interpreted him through the providential action of God’s Spirit.” [4]

We can glean much from Augustine’s hermeneutical method. The true student of the Bible approaches the Bible with a posture of humility, ready to humbly receive the text for what it is – the word of God. As we engage the text, our goal is always personal transformation manifested in greater love for God and neighbor. After all, you never fully understand the text until you stand under it. [5]


[1] Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana 1.35, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J.F. Shaw, under the title On Christian Doctrine, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2 (Buffalo: Christian Literature, 1887; reprint, Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 532.

[2] Ibid., 533.

[3] Young, “Augustine’s Hermeneutics and Postmodern Criticism,” 54.

[4] Karlfried Froehlich, “Take Up and Read: Basics of Augustine’s Biblical Interpreation,” Interpretation (2004): 7.

[5] This last statement is taken from a lecture I heard by Dr. Jonathan Pennington at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

#Augustine #Churchhistory #Hermeneutics #Interpretation

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