Why Can’t You Be More Like Augustine?

Thomas McDonald at God and the Machine is chiding us for being too much like the Prostestant Fundamentalists and accepting a woodenly literal interpretation of the Bible. He compares us unfavorably to the church father Augustine of Hippo.

Honestly, I think McDonald is distorting the picture. He’s simplifying the methods of interpretation that Augustine used to the point of caricature. No, we don’t accept the methods of interpretation that Augustine used, and neither do the overwhelming majority of modern American Christians. Augustine used methods that simply won’t wash with moderns, and most especially with modern atheists.

A Living Text

For example, Augustine believed that there could be multiple meanings within the text:

So when one person says “He meant what I say,” and another says “No, he meant what I say,” I think it would be more pious to say “Why not both, if both are true?” And if someone should see in his words a third truth, or a fourth, or indeed any other truth, why not believe that Moses saw all these truths? (Conf. 12.31.42.) [All Augustine quotations via The Cambridge Companion to Augustine]

Augustine also accepted allegorical interpretations. For example, his interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan has the victim symbolizing humanity, the samaritan representing Jesus, the two silver coins representing the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist, etc.

All of this explains why Augustine could be so relentless and questioning of his text. He accepted as a matter of faith that there would be an important meaning at some level of the text, and he was willing to use wildly creative methods to get at it. If the meaning of a text seemed problematic, that meant it had to be searched for another meaning. A new meaning could be created, and the text could be tamed and rendered acceptable by allegorical interpretation.

For example, the Canaanite genocides are troubling because they reflect badly on the character of God. Since this conflicts with Christian tradition, the surface meaning gets rejected. Instead, the passages can be interpreted allegorically to represent Christ’s conquest of the soul, with the Canaanites representing internal vices to be overcome.

How do you know when you’ve arrived at the true meaning of the text? Not from the author, but from an inward experience brought about by the Holy Spirit:

I would know what he was saying. But from what source would I know whether what he was saying was true? And if I were to know that, I wouldn’t know it from him, would I? No indeed: the inward Truth, within me in the dwelling-place of my thought, would say to me – not in Hebrew or Greek or Latin or any barbarous language, without any organ of mouth or tongue, without the rattling of syllables -”What he says is true.” And I with certainty and confidence would immediately say to him, “What you say is true.” (Conf. 11.3.5)

History for Everyone

All of this this is well beyond our modern notion of “literal” and “figurative” readings. This is based on the notion that the Bible was divinely inspired, which meant that God had breathed life into the dead text just as He had breathed life into the inert clay to produce mankind. Therefore the text of the Bible is categorically different from, say, the histories of Augustine’s Roman contemporaries. It is also a method driven by the Holy Spirit rather than an exercise of the scholar’s own reason.

To accept these notions, one first has to believe in a God and accept certain assumptions about His nature and the way in which He relates to His creation. Without those assumptions, Augustine’s methods make little sense.

These assumptions come down though Christian tradition and dogma. I’m a secularist. That means I’m non-sectarian. I do not accept any sect’s creed, revelation or dogma. Therefore the methods employed by Augustine are unavailable to me.

The method I accept is the historical-critical method. This method accepts that historical texts like the bible are survivals from a previous time that can be used to help us mentally reconstruct a previous era. For this method, the meaning of a text is the message intended by the author and directed at his audience. Later you can spiral out to discuss reception history and literary interpretation, but this is where you start.

Ancient Voices and Modern Ears


Ironically, this is one level of meaning that Augustine wasn’t interested in. He didn’t seem to believe that it was possible to reconstruct the intended meaning of the author. Anyway, such a meaning would be irrelevant, since the real meaning is the divine truth hidden within the text which is understood through our inward experience. Augustine believed that a text could contain such truths even if the original author was unaware that they were being written into the text.

I’m not sure McDonald is interested in the author’s original message either. Like Augustine, he seems to be working under the standard Christian assumption that the texts will always have some meaning that is relevant to us today, even if they only provide questions that spark reflection. The historical-critical method accepts that a text was written by an author in a certain time for an audience that shared that time. It does not assume that a text must contain a meaning that is relevant to our time.

To me, the idea that every passage of the Bible must contain a meaning that is relevant to our lives seems self-centered. We’re not allowing the voices of the past to really speak for themselves. We’re muzzling them and supplying our own meaning to their words. As an archivist, I find that both irrational and unethical.

It is also special pleading. This is not something we’d do with the Roman histories, nor would Christians do this with the Quran or any other tradition’s holy text. Thus McDonald’s message to atheists, boiled down: to understand the Bible, you must stop being atheists and start being Christian. That, I’m afraid, is unacceptable.

  • Nox

    Obviously some parts of the bible are meant as metaphor, but the method McDonald endorses here for determining what is metaphorical, is not to honestly seek the intent of the authors. Like Augustine he wants us to start with the assumption that everything in the bible is true, and when the bible says something which is obviously wrong, we should assume that is metaphorical.

  • Troutbane

    This kind of explains John C now. Kind of.

    • Nox

      To John C, the whole thing is metaphorical.

      All of it.

      In practice it still amounts to saying whatever you want and calling it the word of god, but in a way, John C’s approach is more consistent and honest than the approach described here.

      • Kodie

        In an important way or an unimportant way? I’m not a biblical scholar like you, but all I see between this article and John C is to place a conclusion, same. Arrive at that conclusion any way you can explain it, not necessarily the same, but the article describes that it’s up to the reader to find a way to make it fit and arrive at the conclusion, the conclusion being that it’s true and the word of god. How does consistency bear on the process?

        • Nox

          Practically speaking, mostly an unimportant way. But that depends on how important you consider the distinction between lying for Jesus, and being functionally insane and calling it Jesus.

          As I said, the result still amounts to saying whatever you want and calling it the word of god. That method has its own dangers. I wouldn’t say John C is right, or even that the things he says are coherent enough to properly categorize as right and wrong. I’m not really trying to endorse his process, and definitely not endorsing his conclusions. But the process is different, and the difference in process has to do with honesty and consistency. The difference is that one believes in a metaphorical reading, and follows that belief by reading metaphorically. And one hides behind a selectively metaphorical reading to justify a selectively literal reading.

          The core underlying dogma by which John C interprets everything (not just the bible, everything he sees) is that god is love. Anything that conflicts with this view of god is disregarded since he “knows” god is love. If it is something which matches his criterion for truth, he will call it true.

          The core underlying dogma by which Thomas McDonald interprets everything (not just the bible, everything he sees) is the authority of the catholic church. Anything which conflicts with this view of the church is disregarded since he “knows” the church is right. If it is something which lends credibility to the catholic church, he will call it true.

          John C assumes he has Truth. McDonald simply doesn’t care about truth. I wouldn’t exactly call either approach an honest one. Both are based primarily on favoring previously held belief in willful disregard of evidence. And the one which claims to be evidence based, happens to be the one which is most guilty of cherry picking and distorting evidence. I think it’s justified to say that one is at least a bit more honest than the other.

          John C and Thomas McDonald are both wrong. Both start with unsound premises. Both follow these unsound premises with unsound processes. Both end up with unsound conclusions. And one of them is a shameless liar.

          One consciously chose his words with the specific intent to slander us and misrepresent us and himself. One sometimes stumbles into doing this by not choosing his words consciously.

          One is trying to deceptively paint an aura of reason around unreasonable beliefs. One has never given the slightest f*ck about trying to make his unreasonable beliefs look reasonable.

          One eschews debate and simply (earnestly as far as I can tell) expresses his crazy*ss views. And one is actively trying to subvert the larger debate in order to keep more people enslaved to the catholic church.

          Assuming you agreed with my assessment (and I don’t assume that you do), would you consider this an important difference? I consider it a difference worth noticing.

          • John C

            Rest assured, friend. The premise that God is love, is safer than all the gold in Fort K’Nox!

      • John C

        The first and most important truth-portending ‘premise’ of all, is not that the Bible is true, but rather that God is love, loves mankind, is good. From ‘there’ one may ‘begin’ to find the Way to Life again.

        The use of metaphoric language is ‘truth-telling’ told in its truest, most fluid form possible since it essentially ‘bypasses’ our heads knowledge (of good and evil, a dualism) and targets the hearts singularity (heart being a metaphor in itself for our spirit-man where we become ‘one with Him’, 1 Cor 6:17).

        Getting close here: ‘Instead, the passages can be interpreted allegorically to represent Christ’s conquest of the soul, with the Canaanites representing internal vices to be overcome’.

        If we were playing a game of hide & seek, I would say we are getting warm here but I would not employ the word ‘vices’ but rather the idea of ‘lies we’ve believed about God and ourselves’, or ‘ingested’ and their tragic consequences is what is being ‘con-quested’ in us since ‘you are what you eat’ as the old saying goes that we’ve heard all our lives and which is ‘rooted’ in our collective subconscious for good reason after having dis-regarded (dissed) Love’s warning not to eat from ‘that tree’ and its deathly fruit which resulted in a loss of innocence and trusting child-likeness (Matt 18:3) and ‘produced’ a severely distorted image in man in contrast to His eternally true and Origin’all One in Gen 1:26&27 and which Adam abdicated/lost and subsequently begins to re-produce in the earth sons (off-spring) after his own (fallen, lie-believing, distorted) image and likeness (Gen 5:3) and is that which Christ came to ‘undo’ (con-quest) in man (1st John 3:8) which has ‘plagued’ (the word translated here as ‘grief’ is ‘choliy’ in Hebrew and actually means ‘disease/plague’ from Isaiah 53:3) mankind’s existence ever since and will continue to…UNTIL we ingest-believe-identify with our only ‘true’ Truth again (I AM y’our Truth, John 14:6, y’our life, Col 3:3&4 and y’our One True Vine, John 15:5) and that true Seed, ie Christ (Gen 3:14&15) takes Root and grows back UP in us so that we ‘produce’ good fruit again for ‘you shall know them by their fruits/deeds’.

        How’s that for one long, run-on sentence guys, ugh, ha.

        Notice the many OT references to the ‘Promised Land’ with all its over-abundance of life-giving ‘fruits’ and then see Paul reveal the very same concept in the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ in his letter to the Galatians in chapter five. But its all about what goes on INSIDE YOU, this Life coming forth.

        John 5:6 is all about UF (you guys is special ;) and reads: ‘When Jesus saw UF languishing and learned that they had been in this condition for A LONG TIME (how many years now?), He asked them, ‘do you want to get well? (would you be con-quested, con-cure’ed?). Not that there’s anything wrong with you or me in the true, eternal realm that He’s offering to march you back UP to in your awareness again, for ‘A glorious throne on high from the beginning is your sanctuary’ (Jeremiah 17:12) since we were born for greatness, for glory!

        Love, and you know its true…My love for you! :)

        • Kodie

          Your wordplay doesn’t explain the atrocities of the bible other than form a distraction about them.

          • John C

            What does the word ‘metaphor’ mean to you, Kodie?

            • TrickQuestion

              [IMG]http://img.photobucket.com/albums/1003/sarzoj/Metaphor.jpg[/IMG]

            • Kodie

              Not the same thing I think it means to you.

        • Brian K

          If the only thing we can know via our senses (versus from our presuppositions and wishful thinking) about the nature of “god” is through observation of the real world, then the premise that “God is good and loves us” is utter nonsense falsified by any observation of the world or the universe as a whole. The universe…and this earth…is a nasty place full of violence and death and hostility to life. We live in this universe and on this earth and we make our own meanings, sure. But to claim that the world and the universe shows some transcendent love for us…I cannot by that at all.

          Better to believe that the universe just “is” than to try and undertake the degree of wishful thinking and sophistry needed to believe in a god that is pure love. Because the world…and the universe…does not show any signs of purpose or love. It just doesn’t, no matter how many fairy tales we choose to believe.

  • Lester Ballard

    “For example, the Canaanite genocides are troubling because they reflect badly on the character of God. Since this conflicts with Christian tradition, the surface meaning gets rejected. Instead, the passages can be interpreted allegorically to represent Christ’s conquest of the soul, with the Canaanites representing internal vices to be overcome.”

    I’m gonna guess that the Hebrews who wrote about all that genocide were not thinking about Jesus.

  • Johan

    Isn’t it ironic that on a post titled St. Augustine Asks the Hard Questions Atheists Don’t Ask the author has to block atheists from asking him hard questions he can’t answer?

    • Norm

      Well Johan i guess it depends on what was said and how it was said.Ive been blocked from the Friendly Atheist site for what i would say is the same reason because i never recived a reply from Hemunt when i asked,which for a blog that encourages questions to be asked and challenging the stereotypes was dissapointing.

  • http://swesleymcgranor.wordpress.com S. Wesley Mcgranor

    Augustine obviously wrote The Letter and the Spirit in self-chastisement for Pelagius’s sake.


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