When the Reformation happened in the 1500’s, there were very different assumptions in place about who had the authority to interpret scripture. The Biblical “literalism” that evangelical America takes for granted today was not at all the standard. It’s important for evangelicals to recognize that “literalism” is not a claim about the authority of scripture, but about the authority of the interpreter. It concerns whether I need a priest to interpret the Bible for me (which would be a conservative position) or if I can open the Bible to any given verse and interpret it for myself (which is not a conservative but a populist claim). Both Martin Luther and John Calvin relied heavily in their treatises on the work of 4th century theologian Augustine to make their case for breaking with Roman Catholic tradition. Their argument was conservative (the present church has strayed from an apostolic orthodoxy in the past) rather than populist (screw tradition; I have the authority to read the Bible for myself). One way to describe the crisis of Biblical interpretation today is that the evangelical descendents of the Reformation have betrayed the original Reformers with the populism of Biblical “literalism”; we need to return to the heremeneutical standard of the master-theologian to whom Luther and Calvin tethered their thinking.
The most important book other than the Bible that every child of the Reformation should read before trying to interpret the Bible is the book that Augustine wrote as his guide to Biblical interpretation: De Doctrina Christiana. Book 1 of De Doctrina seems pretty clearly to me to be the original basis for the classic reformed catechism that “the chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” That is the conclusion that Augustine draws from his famous discourse on signs and things. It captures what it means to view the world sacramentally, in which all objects are signs that point the way to their Creator (who is the only real Thing in the universe). To love rightly is to love God in all things rather than to love things for their own sake (which amounts to making them your idols to worship). The problem as I see it is that we’ve played a theological game of telephone over the centuries so that people who read Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon without going back to the Augustinian text that they read have developed a deformed understanding of what “desiring God” is really about (and I don’t know here whether I’m addressing John Piper himself or his fan club). In any case, that’s not my primary focus in this piece; it’s just to point out that De Doctrina is a major root in the tree of Reformation theology which should be taken very seriously by any theological descendent thereof.
The larger problem in contemporary evangelicalism as Christian Smith has pointed out in his book on Biblical literalism has to do with our impossible presumption that the Bible is a self-interpreting document for which no standard is necessary other than “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.” This is an easy stance to take when you don’t actually interpret the Bible for yourself but take your pastor’s word for it, which is ironically why many evangelicals today are in precisely the same disavowed hermeneutical quagmire as the 16th century Roman Catholics whose priests read the Bible for them. (What matters is really not what the Bible says to me, but what my pastor says that it says in his big book on doctrine which you have to read and agree with before joining his church).
So here’s what Augustine has to say about the standard by which we must interpret the Bible, based upon Jesus’ declaration that “all the law and the prophets hang” on His Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40):
If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them. If on the other hand you have made judgments about them that are helpful for building up this love, but for all that have not said what the author you have been reading actually meant in that place, then your mistake is not pernicious, and you certainly cannot be accused of lying…
Any who understand a passage in the scriptures to mean something which the writer did not mean are mistaken… But if they are mistaken in a judgment which is intended to build up charity, which is the end of the law (1 Tm 1:5), they are mistaken in the same sort of way as people who go astray off the road, but still proceed by rough paths to the same place as the road was taking them to. [De Doctrina 1:36:40-41, emphasis mine]
“perspicuity” which says that the plainest, most literal meaning of any given scripture is always the best. Augustine is saying that we do not have the authority to claim a proper understanding of any scriptural passage unless we can demonstrate how our interpretation builds up love of God and love of neighbor. The burden of proof thus shifts under an Augustinian hermeneutic. If we take Augustine seriously, we are forced to employ whatever resources we have at our disposal for ascertaining the context of a passage if its contribution to love of God and neighbor cannot be established from its plain, disembodied meaning. Proof-texting is thus banished under an Augustinian hermeneutic.
This creates a huge problem for those Biblical interpreters who think that God’s sovereignty is best guarded by the degree to which His teachings are opaque and nihilistic, and that any measure of pragmatism in understanding God’s teachings should raise suspicions of eisegesis (which is the byproduct of Kantian modernity’s flawed logic of objectivity — if my interpretation of any observable phenomenon coincides with my self-interest/pragmatic benefit, it must be biased; therefore I have to prove disinterest/lack of pragmatic benefit in order to claim objectivity).
There is no merit in pursuing a modernity-shaped “agenda-less” interpretation of scripture, which is utterly antithetical to Augustine’s hermeneutical agenda to always interpret in a way that builds up charity (c.f. 1 Cor 8:1, by the way). When we look at how Jesus and Paul used the Old Testament, our modernist illusion of “objectivity” was never a concern for them. There is no objective reason for example to say that the purpose of Hagar and Ishmael’s existence was to demonstrate the futility of living under the law rather than by faith. In Galatians 3-4, Paul is simply using the Abraham story of Israel’s origin as a people who trust God as a counterweight to the story of Israel as the people who obey Moses’ law in order to rescue the Galatians from a heresy that was heretical because it undermined the charity within their community.
I realize that nothing compels us absolutely to follow Augustine’s interpretation of Jesus’ Great Commandment as the hermeneutical standard of the Bible. Sure, Jesus could have meant something different when He said that. But we would be hard-pressed to find another Biblical passage that presents itself as explicitly as the standard by which all others are to be interpreted. I don’t have in the forefront of my mind how many other church fathers line up with Augustine on this hermeneutic of love, but based on how strongly Calvin and Luther relied on Augustine for making their case, I don’t think they would have contradicted him on this.
In any case, it’s because of Augustine’s hermeneutical standard that I remain unswayed by the “clobber passages” on various topics by which many evangelicals today create doctrinal loyalty tests to prove that they’re “standing in the gap” for God against worldly popular opinion (which is the form of Pelagianism by which many earn their salvation). It’s not enough to prove exhaustively to me how the Greek or Hebrew establishes a “literal” meaning for a passage, because Augustine would tell you to show me how your reading is more conducive to instilling the Great Commandment than mine. Until you can show me that, I don’t care how many majority votes you win based upon populist fears; I’m still going to say that your reading is based on reading the Bible in the the wrong way. As for me, I feel comfortable saying that the needs dictated by the Great Commandment within the patriarchal tribal society of Israel or the first-century church may have called for specific, historically contextual pastoral admonitions that love of God and neighbor no longer require today.
Augustine can help us to escape the populism and clericalism of our day just like he did for Luther and Calvin. The hermeneutics of charity is more analogous to Kierkegaard’s measure of subjective truth than modernity’s default of Occam’s Razor. The legitimacy of your interpretation of any given scripture is ruled not by the simplicity of your explanation but by the degree to which it “builds charity.” This makes it “populist” in a different sense, because it cannot be about “love” in an obscure gnostic way that you have no burden to explain or else it would do nothing to “build charity.” Happy Reformation Day!