On Christian Doctrine

Written by St. Augustine

(New City Press, 1996)

(Oxford University Press, 1999)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr

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How do Catholics read the Bible, anyway? How did the saints? Do we do things differently today from what they did so many years ago, should we?

Mostly everything I have come to rely on about interpreting the Bible I learned from St. Augustine – his Confessions, City of God, his homilies, and this great work.

If I made a list of ‘the ten greatest books ever written’ at least half of them would be by St. Augustine. This one would make it within the top five. Sometimes the title of this work is given as ‘On Christian Teaching’ or ‘Instruction’ in English. ‘Doctrine’ conjures up a kind of formal didacticism which does not reflect what Augustine is up to in this work. That is why some editions chose not to transliterate doctrina as doctrine. The book is more about the process of discovering God’s teaching than it is about studying a predetermined set of doctrines. It is as much about a spirituality as it is about concrete facts.

For this reason, this work—that is unfortunately far too little known today—was even more important to Christian history than Confessions. We love the personal self-disclosure of Confessions, but most believers of the past (those who could read, anyway) have been far more intellectually-inclined than us today, though, and that is why Christians of the past preferred On Christian Doctrine.

If anything from Christian Antiquity is a textbook of theology, it is this. That does not mean it is boring and unspiritual. Its four books (including a brief introduction), are laid out with a kind of technical perfection. But one must grasp the rationale underlying the arrangement if one is to really grasp what the author is up to. He divides it according to some dichotomies that are not difficult to understand in themselves, but whose importance for Scripture study is sometimes difficult to keep in mind while reading—not that Augustine does not tell us exactly why he is doing what he is doing—he does—but because we do not tend to pay attention to his prompts, a second or third reading is usually required. I have probably read this work a dozen times and yet still feel like I do not have it ‘down.’

Augustine devotes the preface of the work to refuting critics who would deny that one would ever need rules for interpreting Scripture. His discussion has lost absolutely none of its relevance over the intervening sixteen hundred years. I am sure you have had a discussion about the subjects he deals with in this introduction, or at least thought about them.

It is at the beginning of the first book that most of the distinctions are introduced upon which the framework of On Christian Doctrine is set. He talks about things and signs; then, things to be used and things to be enjoyed; of signs, there are those that are known and those that are unknown (rather, ambiguous ones); finally, there is the task of learning and the task of teaching.

He begins with ‘things to be enjoyed’ and ‘things to be used.’ Unless you hear him out, you are going to assume that these are wasted words – nice to hear, but a digression nevertheless. Not at all. He starts right at the heart of our life with God. The Bible will come in once he situates us spiritually. He tells us that God alone is to be enjoyed; material things are to be used for the sake of the things—actually the thing—to be enjoyed. Man’s neighbor is somewhere in the middle between what is to be used and what is to be enjoyed: he’s neither God nor a thing. Augustine tells us that our neighbor is the one who is supposed to enjoy God with us. The reason why he begins with this distinction is not altogether obvious in a textbook on biblical interpretation, but, really, it should be: all Scripture is about love of God and neighbor, remember? That means that the Bible is simply a set of verbal clues (signs, he says) about that.

Book Two moves on to the signs, no longer the thing of Scripture, which is God Himself. Of signs he tells us there are natural ones and conventional ones. A natural sign would be smoke, which is a sign of fire. Of conventional ones, the most useful and widespread are letters. Book Two discusses both of these at length. This is all about the ‘literal sense’ of Scripture, to put it crudely. He discusses the nature of language and of writing, and he discusses all those things that you would need to know if you wanted to know the literal sense of the text: if the Bible mentions a lyre, you’d want to know what that is. How many of us realize that in the Parable of the Talents, the talent referred to is a large sum of money?

Book Three discusses what he calls ‘ambiguous signs.’ We would say he is talking about spiritual or non-literal types of meaning. By this he does not simply have metaphors in mind; more importantly he means the ‘spiritual meaning’ of Scripture, like how the crossing of the Red Sea and evading the Egyptian army is a sign of baptism that frees us from the death of sin. This is my favorite of the four books. Here he mentions various rules for determining the spiritual sense that are definitely of value for every reader of the Bible even now.

The final book discusses how to teach what one has learned. This is all about that one great shameful indulgence of Augustine’s life: eloquence – fine speech and writing. Augustine had been trained since childhood in the art of communication. He was a master, but one who—for spiritual reasons—sort of turned his back on this art. Book Four is about how rhetorical techniques are to be used to spread the Gospel. It is a fascinating discussion, but if you are reading On Christian Doctrine in order to interpret Scripture better, this is not the book for you. In my opinion, however, educators need to think more about techniques of good communication than they generally do. Rhetoric is a discipline that has fallen out of favor in recent times. In this age where poetry is practically considered an occupation of the half-mad and irresponsible, Augustine’s discussion in this book takes on an added significance for us.

I indicated that this work is a real masterpiece of order. It is one of those rare pieces where, even though it might appear he is occasionally digressing, if you understand its framework, you realize he never does. He hardly wastes a single word, which is itself a sign of how Scripture impresses him: it is a document with great power, although some might consider its arrangement confused, perhaps even shabby. Not a word of Scripture is superfluous in his mind, and in such a fashion has he constructed On Christian Doctrine. Most readers focus on the specifics of the text – and there is a lot of benefit to be had from these details to take with you into your reading of the Bible, even when disinterred from Augustine’s finely crafted context. But this work offers so very much more still. He offers us a holistic view of Revelation, of our life in God and of Scripture’s place in that. If you are the type of person who finds the strange events and language of the Bible prohibiting, your spiritual progress is being impeded! Read this work, and you will be able to carve out new trails into the mind of God.

Just a few things about the editions. The Oxford is a good, inexpensive version. It is one, however, that frustrates the serious student of Augustine, because it does not put the standard ‘chapter’ and ‘paragraph’ divisions into the text, as do most editions of Augustine’s works (it places them rather uselessly at the top of each page). Because of this, for anyone who wants to do any quoting of the work, anyway, I would recommend New City Press’ version, which it calls Teaching Christianity. It is slightly more expensive. Both editions have decent notes and introductions, however.

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