Tichonius the Donatist – Seven Rules of Biblical Interpretation – Quoted by Augustine, Calvin, and Bede

Tichonius the Donatist set seven rules to help in interpreting figurative language in the Bible. These can be found beginning in chapter 30 of book 3 of Augustine’sOf Christian Doctrine. The rules are also quoted by Bede. I thought it might be interesting to quote them here.

1. “. . . concerning the Lord and His body, when there is a transition from the Head to the body, or from the body to the Head, and yet no recession from one and the same person . . . and yet, certainly, it must be understood how much of this belongs to the Head, how much to the body; that is, how much to Christ, how much to the Church.”

“. . . knowing as we do that the head and the body–that is, Christ and His Church–are sometimes indicated to us under one person (for it is not in vain that it is said to believers, ‘Ye then are Abraham’s seed,’ (1) when there is but one seed of Abraham, and that is Christ), we need not be in a difficulty when a transition is made from the head to the body or from the body to the head, and yet no change made in the person spoken of.”

2. “The second is concerning the twofold body of the Lord, or rather, concerning the true and simulated body of the Lord.”

“..the rule is about the true and the mixed body of the Lord, or the true and the counterfeit, or some such name; because, not to speak of eternity, hypocrites cannot even now be said to be in Him, although they seem to be in His Church. And hence this rule might be designated thus: Concerning the mixed Church. Now this rule requires the reader to be on his guard when Scripture, although it has now come to address or speak of a different set of persons, seems to be addressing or speaking of the same persons as before, just as if both sets constituted one body in consequence of their being for the time united…”

3. The third is concerning the promises and the law, which may otherwise be expressed as concerning the spirit and the letter, or concerning grace and the commandment.

“The third rule relates to the promises and the law, and may be designated in other terms as relating to the spirit and the letter . . . It may be also named, of grace and the law. This, however, seems to me to be a great question in itself, rather than a rule to be applied to the solution of other questions. It was the want of clear views on this question that originated, or at least greatly aggravated, the Pelagian heresy. And the efforts of Tichonius to clear up this point were good, but not complete. For, in discussing the question about faith and works, he said that works were given us by God as the reward of faith, but that faith itself was so far our own that it did not come to us from God; not keeping in mind the saying of the apostle: “Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,”

Calvin in his institutes further says “Augustine says, “What God promises, we ourselves do not through choice or nature, but he himself does by grace.” The same observation is made, when, in enumerating the rules of Tichonius, he states the third in effect to be–that we distinguish carefully between the Law and the promises, or between the commands and grace . . . innumerable passages testify that every degree of purity, piety, holiness, and justices which we possess, is his gift.”

Calvin also quotes further “pithy sayings” from Augustine that makes this point. “God orders what we cannot do, that we may know what we ought to ask of Him. There is a great utility in precepts, if all that is given to free will is to do greater honour to divine grace. Faith acquires what the Law requires; nay, the Law requires, in order that faith may acquire what is thus required; nay, more, God demands of us faith itself, and finds not what He thus demands, until by giving He makes it possible to find it.” Again, he says, “Let God give what He orders, and order what He wills.”


4.”The fourth is concerning species and genus. For species is a part, but genus the whole of which it is a part, as each state is a part of the whole province, and each province a part of the whole world.”

“Not only, for example, about Jerusalem, or some of the cities of the Gentiles, such as Tyre or Babylon, are things said in Scripture whose significance oversteps the limits of the city, and which are more suitable when applied to all nations; but in regard to Judea also, and Egypt, and Assyria, or any other nation you choose to take which contains numerous cities, but still is not the whole world, but only a part of it, things are said which pass over the limits of that particular country, and apply more fitly to the whole of which this is a part . . . And hence these words have come to be commonly known, so that even uneducated people understand what is laid down specially, and what generally, in any given Imperial command. The same thing occurs in the case of men: things are said of Solomon, for example, the scope of which reaches far beyond him, and which are only properly understood when applied to Christ and His Church, of which Solomon is a part.”

5.”He lays down a fifth rule, which he names concerning times, and it may, as appears to me, also be called concerning numbers.”

“The fifth rule Tichonius lays down is one he designates of times–a rule by which we can frequently discover or conjecture quantities of time which are not expressly mentioned in Scripture. And he says that this rule applies in two ways: either to the figure of speech called synecdoche, or to legitimate numbers. The figure synecdoche either puts the part for the whole, or the whole for the part . . . In the next place, our author calls those numbers legitimate which Holy Scriptures more highly favors such as seven, or ten, or twelve, or any of the other numbers which the diligent reader of Scripture soon comes to know. Now numbers of this sort are often means just the same as “His praise shall continually be in my mouth.”

6. “The sixth rule Tichonius calls the recapitulation, which, with sufficient watchfulness, is discovered in difficult parts of Scripture. For certain occurrences are so related, that the narrative appears to be following the order of time, or the continuity of events, when it really goes back without mentioning it to previous occurrences, which had been passed over in their proper place. And we make mistakes if we do not understand this, from applying the rule here spoken of. For example, in the book of Genesis we read, “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.”Now here it seems to be indicated that the events last mentioned took place after God had formed man and put him in the garden; whereas the fact is, that the two events having been briefly mentioned, viz., that God planted a garden, and there put the man whom He had formed, the narrative goes back, by way of recapitulation, to tell what had before been omitted, the way in which the garden was planted: that out of the ground God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food.”

7. “The seventh rule of Tichonius and the last, is about the devil and his body. For he is the head of the wicked, who are in a sense his body, and destined to go with him into the punishment of everlasting fire, just as Christ is the head of the Church, which is His body, destined to be with Him in His eternal kingdom and glory. Accordingly, as the first rule, which is called of the Lord and His body, directs us, when Scripture speaks of one and the same person, to take pains to understand which part of the statement applies to the head and which to the body.”

About Adrian Warnock

Adrian Warnock is a medical doctor, a writer, and a member of Jubilee Church, London since 1995, where he serves as part of the leadership team alongside Tope Koleoso. Together they have written Hope Reborn - How to Become a Christian and Live for Jesus, published by Christian Focus. Adrian is also the author of Raised With Christ - How The Resurrection Changes Everything, published by Crossway. Read more about Adrian Warnock or connect with him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+.

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