Continuing to read through the church fathers, in my recent reading I came across a sermon of Augustine’s where he walks his congregation through the proper way to read and interpret Scripture:
“Therefore, Brethren, I must tell you, and teach you according to my poor abilities, which the Lord giveth me for your benefit, and must convey to you what ye may hold as a rule in the interpretation of all Scripture. Everything that is said or done is to be understood either in its literal signification, or else it signifies something figuratively; or at least contains both of these at once, both its own literal interpretation, and a figurative signification also.” (Sermon XXXIX.4)
So, to repeat, when reading Scripture we see Scripture that is to be read 1) literally; 2) figuratively; or 3) both. Augustine gives multiple examples of each. So when the Paul says he went to see Peter, he actually took a trip to see Peter. By contrast, when Jesus calls himself a “stone,” he does not mean that literally. he is using a figure of speech. So we should read that figuratively. As an example of a passage that is both literal and figurative, Augustine suggests we look to Jacob’s dream of a ladder up to heaven. It was literal in that Jacob actually did have such a dream where he saw angels doing, well, whatever it is angels are doing. But it is also to be read figuratively, because the dream carries more meaning than just the narrative and action provides.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO