On Christian Doctrine


On Christian Doctrine

"On Christian Doctrine" (Latin: "De Doctrina Christiana") is the primary theological text written by St. Augustine of Hippo. It consists of four books that describe how to interpret and teach the Scriptures. The first three of these books were published in 397 and the fourth added in 426. By writing this text, St. Augustine set three tasks on Christian teachers and preachers: to discover the truth in the contents of the Scriptures, to teach the truth from the Scriptures, and to defend scriptural truth when it was attacked.

Starting in 389 A.D., the powerful application of faith to politics led Emperor Theodosius to issue a series of edicts against paganism that concluded in 391 with a law making pagan worship illegal. During the Golden Age of Athens, politics and manmade laws guided human conduct, and the city state was viewed as a manifestation of the highest human values, giving rise to political philosophy. Christianity effected a reversal that changed the course of Western society. It focused on the individual and his relationship to God, reverting to a mythico-poetic world view that required a new cultural identity and a new educational curriculum. With this aim in mind, Emperor Justinian (483–565 A.D.) cut off all state funding to chairs of rhetoric, essentially bringing the classical tradition to a close.

Augustine's early study of the Bible had been unsatisfactory, but when he moved to Milan he encountered Ambrose, who used allegoresis, the use of allegory as an interpretive tool, to comprehend the Bible. Allegoresis first emerged in Greece as a way of defending poetry and myth against the new proto-scientific thinking that tended to dismiss both as nonsensical (and often immoral) stories (see B. Clarke, 1996). Something was lost, it was thought, when texts describing Zeus hurling his thunderbolts came to be understood as an allegorical representation of a natural phenomenon, not as the god's anger. Ambrose argued that the Scriptures must be understood as allegories requiring interpretation to make them comprehensible, which assuaged Augustine's discomfort regarding what he saw as the Bible's stylistic irregularities, logical flaws, and frequent lapses in morals. His rhetorical training had schooled him well in hermeneutics, so interpretation was not new to him. But Ambrose's approach relied on sheer imagination, freeing interpretation from the text.

As a student of rhetoric, Augustine no doubt had learned that allegory was related to structure, a figure of speech like metaphor and synecdoche. Donatus, writing in the fourth century, included allegory as a trope in his widely influential "Ars Grammatica" (Kennedy, 1980), classifying it as an element of style. Ambrose's use of allegory, however, whether he was aware of it or not, went beyond allegoresis; it drew on an older approach—hyponoia, the ability to find deeper levels of meaning hidden below the surface meaning.

We find a cursory treatment of allegoresis in "Confessions" XII.18, where Augustine wrote: "Provided, therefore, that each of us tries as best he can to understand in the Holy Scriptures what the writer meant by them, what harm is there if a reader believes what you, the Light of all truthful minds, show him to be the true meaning? It may not even be the meaning which the writer had in mind, and yet he too saw in them a true meaning, different though it may have been from this." His formal treatment, however, appears in "On Christian Doctrine," where Augustine noted that words are "signs," of which there are two classes, "natural" and "conventional." Signs can be approached on two levels, "what they are in themselves" and "what they signify" (II.1). Words are conventional signs, and the words of the Scriptures are obscure because they were "divinely arranged for the purpose of subduing pride by toil" (II.6). Augustine wrote that fear of God, piety, and knowledge of the Holy canon are key factors in biblical interpretation, but the central guiding principle is that interpretation must be congruent with "the judgment of the greater number of Catholic Churches" (II.8)—that is, all interpretation is free as long as it supports Church doctrine.

"On Christian Doctrine" expressed Augustine's view that the process of free interpretation was a discovery procedure that led to truth, however multifaceted it might be. With respect to Scriptures, two governing factors made this view conceivable: (1) the conviction that the Scriptures were absolutely true, thus making it impossible for a person of faith and goodwill to produce falsehood in any interpretation, and (2) the proposition that interpretations should be shared only with Christians, who were predisposed to receive the truth. On this basis, Patton (1977) and Troup (1999) argued that Augustine viewed interpretation as rhetorical invention that aimed to provide an adaptation of the biblical text to match the beliefs of the audience while simultaneously making the obscure language of the bible comprehensible. But the depth of Augustine's religious convictions enabled him to transcend conventional notions of allegoresis and thereby see the act of interpretation as a discovery procedure unbound by the dimensions of text. Thus, we find that in Confessions he extended the application of free interpretation beyond Scripture to his life, and in "City of God" he extended it further to the totality of human history.

Book One

"Book One" of "On Christian Doctrine" discusses the Platonic notion that there are things and signs. Signs are used to symbolize things, but are considered things themselves because they too represent meaning. They are given meaning through their repetition and then consequential propagation throughout society. Take this modern world example: when a stoplight turns red, drivers understand that it means they are supposed to stop (whether they do so or not is more about free will). The meaning of the red light is an agreed upon representation of a rule in modern society. So, given Plato's definition, the stop sign is a 'thing' that is also a sign.

Augustine classifies things and signs in two ways: things we enjoy and things that we use. Things we enjoy are those we find good in themselves, and things we use are those which are good for the sake of something else. Given this use of the term, Augustine comes to the conclusion that the only thing that really should be enjoyed is God.

In Book One, Augustine also claims that those who think they understand the Scriptures, but do not interpret them to reflect charity and love, do not really understand them.

Book Two

"Book Two" discusses the types of unknown signs present in the world and defines each. These signs include unknown literal signs and unknown figurative signs. Unknown signs are those that have meanings that are unknown. Augustine says that a feature of the Scriptures is obscurity and that obscurity is the result of sin. Then he tries to instruct the reader how to interpret obscure Scripture.

To do so, Augustine sets up seven steps to wisdom: fear of God, loyal obedience (or faith), scientia (or knowledge), strength, good counsel, purity of heart, and then wisdom. He also distinguishes "truth" from "logic", and argues that logic can lead to falsehood. He declares that it is better to have truth than logic.

Augustine argues that committing the Scriptures to memory is critical to understanding. Once the reader is "familiar with the language of Scripture," it is possible for him to try to untangle sections that are obscure. He also emphasizes studying the Scriptures in their original languages to avoid the problems of imperfect and divergent translations.

Book Three

"Book Three" discusses ambiguous literal and ambiguous figurative signs. Ambiguous signs are those whose meaning is unclear or confused. He suggests first determining things from signs. Then, once the distinction is made, understand the literal meaning of the text (things as things, nothing more). Determining if there is a deeper meaning in the text can be done by recognizing a different, more figurative, mode of writing. This may show that the things are also signs of something else. Such as, an aged tree could be a tree (a thing that grows, which is a home to birds and animals), or it could also be a symbol of long life (sign or allegory)

Augustine emphasizes right motives when interpreting scripture, and claims that it is more important to get the general message than to get one small answer correct.

Later, another section was added to Book Three. This was the seven rules for interpreting scripture: The Lord and His Body, The Twofold Division of the Body of the Lord, The Promises and the Law (or The Spirit and the Letter), Species and Genus, Times, Recapitulation, and The Devil and His Body.

Book Four

"Book Four" discusses the relationship between Christian truth and eloquence. It also shows how the Christian preacher can use precepts from classical rhetoric to teach the truth of the Scriptures to his congregation. Augustine uses rhetoric to try to convince the reader that rhetorical charm should not be used if it is used for falsehood.


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