Augustine and his figurative–and therefore not at all modern evangelical–view of the Bible

EerdWord (Eerdman’s online author blog) just posted some thoughts by Michael Graves on “Augustine and the Inspiration of Scripture.” Graves, Armerding Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, just published with Eerdmans The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. I feel this is an important book for a number of reasons, and I will post an interview with Graves on the book later in the week.

The EerdWord post tees up the book nicely. Graves focuses on Augustine’s view of Scripture, and the bottom line is this: Augustine cannot be pressed into service in support of contemporary (and I would add “typically evangelical”) views of biblical inspiration and interpretation.

Graves illustrates the point by pointing out Augustine’s default figurative interpretation of the morally troubling portions of the Old Testament:

Augustine operated with a theology of Scripture that led him to interpret the Bible differently from most Christians today. To be specific, Augustine read Scripture in a figurative way that often does not correspond to modern literalist methods of interpretation.

For example, in dealing with what appear to be harsh deeds done by God or the Israelites in the Old Testament, Augustine says, “Any harsh or even cruel word or deed attributed to God or his saints that is found in the holy scriptures applies to the destruction of the realm of lust” (On Christian Teaching 3.11.17; transl. R.P.H. Green). Later he says, “But if [a statement in Scripture] appears to enjoin wickedness or wrongdoing or to forbid self-interest or kindness, it is figurative” (On Christian Teaching 3.16.24). This is not the exegesis practiced by many who today cite Augustine for support…

It is not surprising to find all sorts of figurative readings in Augustine, since he believed that “anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative” (On Christian Teaching 3.10.14).

Graves ends with some sober observations that, in my experience in these matters, is too often ignored or simply not understood:

Christians today may share Augustine’s belief in the complete truthfulness of what Scripture teaches. But if we imagine ourselves as holding to a “traditional” view of inspiration, then we cannot simply borrow a quotation from Augustine about the truthfulness of Scripture and then ignore the very interpretive methods that made Augustine’s beliefs about Scripture work in the first place. That is historically and theologically incoherent.

Twenty-first-century readers may not share all of Augustine’s beliefs about how best to interpret Scripture. I think this is perfectly understandable. But this means we need to reframe how we understand biblical inspiration to function as a whole. In my opinion, this is the best way to maintain a “traditional” view. Instead of just taking a small piece of the tradition and using it to defend our own interpretive methods, we should look at the ancient system as a whole and then think constructively about how to capture the essential truths about Scripture for today.

As I see it, not only is Augustine deferring to figurative readings in these morally troubling instances of Scripture, but note that his “standard” for deciding what is morally troubling or upright does not come “from the Bible” but from outside of it. He seems to “judge” the Bible by a standard foreign to it, which in much of contemporary biblical apologetics is about as sure a sign of  harboring a “low” view of Scripture as anything.

Anyway, as I put it in my blurb, Graves “invites readers of Scripture today neither to pillage the ancients for our own agenda, nor to ignore them to our poverty, but to converse with them along our own contemporary hermeneutical journey.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Read Graves’s post and stay tuned for the upcoming interview.

"aha" moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (1): me
What does God without retribution look like? Ask Jesus (Michael Hardin part 3)
"Scripture is like a cracked jar"--the glory of an imperfect Bible (Michael Hardin part 4)
get to know me: my approach to interpreting the Bible, in 5 words

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