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

Augustine and his figurative–and therefore not at all modern evangelical–view of the Bible February 1, 2014

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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Bev Mitchell

    Looks like an interesting read and I look forward to the interview. The advice, of course, boils down to a primer on how to read, not that this is a bad thing. It’s just sad that picking and choosing, looking for gotchas, failing to realize (willfully or otherwise) that what an author says on page 27 may be significantly modified by what is said on two or three other pages is so rampant. In other words, read and assimilate the whole thing. Good authors are much more complicated than a sentence or paragraph chosen from here or there.

    But all this assumes a real desire to know what the author is saying (and that the author is coherent despite shading and nuance). In a world of proof texting, single issues, and tweets coupled with a win-lose culture, fair, well reasoned reading seems difficult to come by.

    Guess I’m grumpy this morning, but it would be so good to see real signs of progress spreading more generally, and more rapidly across the population. But then, it’s hard to draw a crowd by starting your speech with “This stuff is really quite complicated.” 🙂

    I feel better now.

    • Eric

      People get so nervous about what is true. I think it is our Scientism and pseudo-Scientism today. I think we can know truth about the past, or the future, or persons – complicated things like that.

      Ideas included. But they will always be incomplete (says Godel). There will always be limits on what we can know.

      But it does not mean we have to abandon some form of Realism. We can know SOME things quite well enough, thank-you. But whether it be Science or Faith, we will always see thru a glass darkly. Such is our human lot as Knowers.

      • Klasie Kraalogies

        Please don’t use Godel out of context.

  • Chris

    Augustine has remained a big question-mark for me, because while I have heard a lot of things like what you say in the article, I know at least 2 people who did a fairly extensive amount of study of Augustine and take up more of a literalist view of things. How does that happen? Does it boil down to wishful thinking and/or projecting one’s views? When asked, these people have said that, while the figurative interpretation is important, Augustine also thought the literal interpretation was just as important; thus, both interpretations hold equal weight (for them).

    Another point, unrelated. Although study of Augustine could prove useful in spreading a figurative interpretation of the Old Testament and so forth, wouldn’t you agree that Augustine’s interpretation here sounds a lot like special pleading? “Any time the Bible is offensive, the Bible is figurative” is a very different statement from “Any time the Bible is offensive, the Bible is wrong.” If his statement were true, then we’d be jumping back and forth between figurative and literal interpretations of specific laws just in reading one passage. Such an interpretation seems clumsy and intentionally stubborn in trying to maintain a view of inspiration.

    Still, I can see his motivations. “Conversing with [the ancients]” seems to be very good advice, indeed, though many are tempted to use the ancients as a boiler plate.

    • peteenns

      Chris, Augustine is not my area, but I am hoping Graves may show up and comment here. At any rate, what I do know from experience is that Augustine is commonly used as support for inerrancy/literalism/historical primacy of the historical sense of Scripture, whatever. Again, people who actually know the literature and scholarship should comment, but the trajectory from Jesus to Paul to Augustine (to maybe a medieval theologian) to Luther/Calvin to a variety of post-reformation but not Enlightenment affected person to the founder of your own denomination or theological camp is par for the course.

      • Chris

        I definitely agree that Augustine contributes to this problematic trajectory, but I’m not sure that understanding him even in his ancient context is even that helpful in solving today’s theological problems (see my response to Graves, above).

        I have some of my own thoughts pertinent to the subject. I don’t know if you were able to read my post on Christian epistemology (I’m sure people send you a million different things), but the problem from my view is that religious people, not just Christians, tend to have their epistemology backward.

        They start by interpreting their texts to give them a model of the world. When reality kicks them in the face too many times, they qualify their interpretations or reinterpret the Bible figuratively so that they will be more accommodating to reality (as we have seen with slavery, gender equality, and also LGBT issues). The elephant in the room is that maybe the Bible is just wrong on certain issues, and no manner of reinterpretation will save it from being wrong.

        You may look into two particular posts of mine, “Christian Epistemology: You’re Doing it Wrong,” and “Icons, Idols, and Holy Scripture.” A good part of my overall project right now is to come up with epistemological restrictions for Christians, especially Protestants, which can combat the freeform nature of Protestant belief (which follows the trajectory you mentioned) while also not resorting to exertion of power to control others’ beliefs.

        Links to the posts:

        • Andrew Dowling

          “The elephant in the room is that maybe the Bible is just wrong on
          certain issues, and no manner of reinterpretation will save it from
          being wrong.”

          I made this point over at JesusCreed on a post regarding 1 Timothy’s statements about women and NT Wright’s analysis of that text. Think the points you made on your blog are fairly spot-on.

    • mwgraves

      Thank you very much for your comment. As I attempt to show in my book, the ad litteram sense of Scripture does have an important place for most patristic figures, although I’m not sure that Augustine was actually the best of the bunch in this area in practice. Augustine’s brief comments quoted here, which need to be filled out with a lot more discussion (which I do in my book), can be an artificial defense mechanism for dealing (or not dealing) with problems; but for many Church Fathers this line of thought was also a springboard that allowed them to relate one passage of Scripture with another and also to engage Scripture philosophically. These are the points where they are most helpful, I think. There are also plenty of ways that their readings also engage with the “human discourse” of the text, and that can be very helpful, too. But one important point is that we really need to learn from these important figures of the past by taking them as a whole, and not just citing this or that quotation for purposes quite different from the original setting. I definitely think that people can have different legitimate take-aways from Augustine, but they still need to be based on Augustine’s own thought world. It’s actually just a simple point, but surprisingly it seems to be necessary to say. Thank you again for your interest.

      • Chris

        “Augustine’s brief comments quoted here … can be an artificial defense mechanism for dealing (or not dealing) with problems.”

        Most definitely. If we are to believe the trivia games at Buffalo Wild Wings, “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.” (Saw that on there the other day.)

        Let me see if I get what you’re saying, though. The church fathers used seeming problems in the text to engage with the text philosophically. I can understand that to an extent, but if they take it too far, it feels a lot like modern apologetics, wherein we’re determined to maintain the inerrancy of Scripture at all costs. Make up some sort of strange philosophical qualification that is itself logically consistent yet has little bearing on reality, i.e. it is not falsifiable. It might be a step above Ken Ham-esque apologetics, but it’s still a problem.

        I know it’s not your aim with the book to try to come up with a good way of approaching the Bible, but it does seem (to me, at least) that the church fathers’ method for approaching the Bible is not so dissimilar to that of certain apologists, William Lane Craig perhaps, and it therefore is not so terribly helpful in addressing some of the issues we’re facing today wherein Christians remain stubbornly committed to a proposition, qualifying it to the ends of the earth to keep it from critique.

        • mwgraves

          Thanks for your comments. If I understand correctly where you are coming from, I can understand your skepticism. Let me just say this to express my vantage point: The whole framework of patristic biblical interpretation is genuinely quite different from today’s conversation, more so than most people realize, I think. That is why I have written a book on the topic with numerous references to patristic figures dealing with specific biblical texts, with analysis. This is the result of many years of research in this area. Moreover, my book is only one angle on this period of history that was centuries long and covered different cultures and regions. These quotations that you are seeing actually make much better sense within the context of late antiquity and the whole framework of patristic thought. The point is not to criticize one quotation with another quotation, but to understand the patristic viewpoints within their own conversations. I make my argument for the usefulness of this material in my book and in some essays mentioned in the book, and I can only point people there. This internet format is more to make people aware of the book, but not really for making an argument. I am thankful that people have seen at least something about the book. I could also recommend some other good books, including M. Simonetti, “Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church” (good, brief historical overview, but with little reflection on contemporary significance), Robert Grant, “The Spirit and the Letter” (brief and insightful), and also the articles in the large Brill “Handbook of Patristic Exegesis.” Thanks, and best wishes.

          • Chris

            I appreciate the suggestions. My wife is more the theologian where I’m the philosopher, but I will definitely look into the subject a bit more.

          • Carlos Bovell

            To Chris,

            Might I suggest seeing the Fathers as starting their reading of scripture with the experience of the risen Christ and with their experience of being “filled” with the Holy Spirit and then from there, and only from there, trying to appropriate the biblical traditions in whatever useful ways they could find that was acceptable according to the cultural and philosophical standards of their times.

            From what I understand, at least, the Fathers read the scriptures in much the same way scholars were taught to read Homer in antiquity. To us, this may look quite strange, but to them it was what everyone was doing; in fact, doing anything else would have looked strange. to them.

            Perhaps what you are suggesting is that scripture should be read in the way we read other literature(s) today.That’s the only way they can be taken seriously today. But that would not be right (would it?), at least devotionally. Here we really should follow the Fathers and read scripture through our experience of Christ and our being filled with the Holy Spirit, trying mightily and faithfully to appropriate the biblical traditions in ways that are culturally and philosophically salient for today.

            One thing that I might suggest is: instead of focusing on defending an inerrant Bible, we should commit ourselves to renewing our thoughts on how scripture continues to play a part in God’s economy of revealing Christ to people today.

            Grace and peace,

          • mwgraves

            Thank you, Carlos, for these good thoughts. And thanks again to Chris for his comments.

    • “Any time the Bible is offensive, the Bible is figurative” is a very different statement from “Any time the Bible is offensive, the Bible is wrong.”

      It all depends; New Atheists and fundamentalists both agree that figurative = wrong. Furthermore, what what means by ‘figurative’ is up for debate. For example, I am inclined to think that the ancient Israelites really believed that evil was [largely] located in the Canaanites and not themselves (scapegoating). While this was wrong, we can translate the forcefulness of this attitude (leave nobody and nothing alive) to sin within ourselves. God could have let the Israelites be wrong in a certain way, knowing that he could use that wrongness to lead to something less wrong. I think that’s how all learning works, including in science today.

      Sadly, there seems to be a strong correlation with those who take the figurative approach and those who dampen the forcefulness. The fundamentalist says that this stuff is really true, and we really need to pay attention. The figurative interpreter too often seems to lack that confidence and exuberance. How often do you see Christian liberals declaring sin herem?

  • Eric

    Thanks for drawing attention to a book I’d otherwise likely have missed. I agree with everything you and Graves have said here. A question though: you noted that Augustine’s standard for moral interpretation comes from outside the Bible, but I’m wondering what, exactly, Augustine meant by “good morals” and “the true faith” in the quote above (On Christian Teaching 3.10.14). Is Augustine saying he uses interpretive criteria from two separate categories, morality and faith?


  • mark

    Alfred North Whitehead famously (?) maintained that most of Western thought in general is little more than a series of footnotes to Plato. Given that for the better part of a millennium Plato was largely unknown to the West, how did this happen? It happened because by far the most important mediator of Platonic thought to the West was (is and will be) Augustine. This is true not only in the sense that Pete points out

    “he trajectory from Jesus to Paul to Augustine (to maybe a medieval theologian) to Luther/Calvin to a variety of post-reformation but not Enlightenment affected person to the founder of your own denomination or theological camp is par for the course.”

    but also because much of modern philosophy is firmly in the Augustinian tradition of Platonism: think, just to cite a few examples, Descartes, Kant, Husserl and even such unlikely seeming exotica as “transcendental” Thomism (what NTWright refers to as “critical realism”).

    What I’m saying is that this post and the follow up interview have the potential to be very important for the ongoing discussions on Pete’s blog.

    I see a lot of the issues raised in this post as related to the recent Marcionite post. There, Pete at one point seemed to set up a contrast between Marcion as “literalist” and his opponents as “allegorists” and concluded “I’m glad the allegorists won that skirmish.” In my comment I maintained that allegorical (or figurative or typological) interpretation is no antidote to literalism because it opens the door to total subjectivity (and Michael appears to offer an example of just that in his blog, the paragraph opposite the image of his book’s cover).

    In this post Pete appears to follow up on that issue, taking up Michael’s statement–“we need to reframe how we understand biblical inspiration to function as a whole”–and pointing out:

    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.

    It should be apparent that the “standard” that Augustine is deferring to is, essentially, the tradition of natural law thinking that CSLewis (in The Abolition of Man) refers to with the Chinese word “Tao.” Even more broadly, Augustine is appealing to the tradition that the Greeks called philosophia. IOW, since God failed to provide a key to “the Bible” (and the disciples who took part in the first post-resurrection bible study session on the road to Emmaus neglected to take notes when Jesus explained it all to them) Augustine is using reason to discern what we should take literally, what figuratively, what’s morally troubling, etc. And that, of course, leads us to ask: if human reason is used to judge “the Bible,” what do we mean when we say that “the Bible” is revealed? What is being revealed? How do we know that Augustine’s use of reason gets it right, that Gus–or any other exegete you care to name–really knew what God intended to reveal?

    In the comment that I link to (above) I provided a short excerpt to a Church document dealing with “The Interpretation of the Bible.” I get the idea that a lot of people think that the Catholic Church simply follows Aquinas or whatever some pope or other comes up with. The reality, of course, is otherwise–the reality is that the Augustinian tradition has been dominant in the Church throughout its history. In fact, the document that I cite is an illustration of the Church trying to reconcile modern “historical-critical” Biblical scholarship with “traditional” Augustinian style “figurative/allegorical/typological” exegesis. (I say “traditional,” because there were other schools of exegesis in the ancient Church and Augustine was far from the first to wrestle with some of these issues–he just happened for historical reasons to be the most influential in the West.) The Church has come down–albeit uneasily–on the side of “historical-critical” scholarship as primary. I was somewhat disappointed that that comment of mine drew no responses, as I believe it frames the relevant issues in a useful way and may point the way toward a solution–even though it fails to come to grips with the critical issue of a theory of revelation.

  • Andrew Dowling

    The irony is that ALL Reformed theology (which itself spawned the traditional Protestant contentions of inerrancy) goes back to Augustine. He was (unknowingly to him!) the Godfather of it all.

    • mark

      I think you’re right on this and would add: Catholics, in attempting to react to Protestantism, were hampered by centuries of Augustinian theology–it was, and still is in too many respects, the default theology of the Church. Anyone disposed to doubt this need only consult the humongous Catechism of the Catholic Church. Next to Scripture, the most frequently cited authority is Augustine. And this is because the reformers of Vatican II, men like Ratzinger, were big fans of Augustine–some reform! Anyway, the Catholic “Counter Reformation,” hampered as it was by centuries of Augustinian thought, ended up accepting “the traditional Protestant contentions of inerrancy” rather than contesting them, placing them in perspective and context, etc.

      As always, I can’t recommend highly enough Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism Here’s part of an Amazon review of the book–understand that when the reviewer speaks of “Scotist/Occamist Scholasticism” and “nominalism” he’s speaking of medieval Augustinian thought. Luther himself was a strong adherent of nominalism:

      The value of this book, in my estimation, is that it lays bear the philosophical underpinnings of the Reformation, rooted as it was in Scotist/Occamist Scholasticism. Bouyer shows that Reform thought resulted in a reinterpretation of the meaning of Christian doctrine and Scripture through the lens of Occamist radical dualism– ergo the Reform emphasis upon private interpretation, the appeal to Scripture and Faith alone, the doctrine of Consubstantiation and the rejection of reason as an authoritative and reliable means of interpreting revealed truth.

    • mark

      Yes, it’s ironic, but it’s also tragic. The reason Christian theology was a mess in the late middle ages was because of the Augustinian heritage. Rather than rejecting much of that heritage–which might have had a salutary effect–the “reformers” in essence doubled down on that heritage, drawing out its logical conclusions which have resulted in the conundrums of inerrancy that Pete spends his time wrestling with. So much of what has gone wrong in the West in the last several centuries can be traced to that same source, and the Church’s failure to come to grips with the Augustinian heritage.

  • Seraphim

    Even so, many and even most early Christian teachers can be said to have taken an intermediate approach. Chrysostom, for example, while seeing the Old Testament as replete with typological images of Christ, seems to take the Jepthah story fairly literally. The same is so for another Father (I think it’s St. Gregory of Nyssa) about the bears mauling those who mocked Elisha. That allegorical interpretation is neglected in modern Evangelicalism is undoubtedly true (I speak, after all, from within Eastern Orthodoxy), but one shouldn’t argue that the Fathers went all the way to the other direction.

    • Seraphim

      Grammatical error, I meant another Father…seems to take the Elisha story the same way.

  • James

    In scriptural interpretation we are products (often victims) of our own history and traditions. This is good in that we have a lot of material to compare and apply to our own time and place. Bad because of our tendency to misuse our sources to suit our own ends. No way out except continuing to read, compare and apply in all humility. Exploring together our Augustinian roots should be very productive.

  • It goes without saying that Augustine was an extraordinary man who has blessed the Church in many ways with his insights.

    But there is an enormous mistake he made, namely introducing into the Church the doctrine that God cursed us with a sinful nature making misdeeds inevitable

    Ironically enough, this gnostic teaching cannot be found in the first books of Genesis.

    It hinders moral progress and makes God ultimately responsible for sin.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Augustine, typical of Platonists, saw men as so far superior to women that the love and conversation men shared was always more greatly honored than the views of males and females in combination. Church doctrine and dogma is full of the fantasies of mama’s boys who believe that all women are whores, except their mothers, who are virgins, as was the mother of Jesus.