Studying Scripture with Augustine

Three Principles for a Healthy Start

by Caleb Harper February 8, 2018

As pastors, there is nothing more important than our ministry of the word. Because of this, interpreting the Scripture correctly is one of our greatest responsibilities in our preaching, our church, and our ministry. Before we rush to make meaning of the text, let’s approach the text with an old saint. Our study companion, Augustine of Hippo, has at times sparked debate over his creative interpretations, but he grasped three fundamental truths that give all of us a helpful start to our interpretive journey. At the heart of Augustine’s interpretative experience was an overwhelming longing to hear from God. Although preachers may not all agree with his allegorical method, I believe Augustine led the way in hermeneutical humility. In an age of polemical interpretation, his writings are a poignant reminder that interpretation is a needy business, a spiritual business, and a thirsty business.

Interpretation of Scripture is a Needy Business

First, interpretation is a needy business. The Great Swan spoke of his own limits when he wrote, “I have been burning to meditate in your law and confess to you what I know of it and what lies beyond my powers.”[1] He understood that the spiritual depth of Scripture was beyond his intellectual prowess. Furthermore, he acknowledged “many pages of Scripture are opaque and obscure.” Thus, he was honest about the difficult parts of Scripture. Likewise, when attempting to understand a text, we should also acknowledge our limitations and deep spiritual neediness. By recognizing our own neediness, we begin down a road less travelled, that of the humbled interpreter. On the other hand, we need not be driven to despair by our human limitations, but can accept Augustine’s second principle: that the interpretation of Scripture is a spiritual business.

Interpretation of Scripture is a Spiritual Business

Secondly, Augustine throws himself on the mercy of the Spirit’s illumination, recognizing interpretation is, fundamentally, a spiritual business. Augustine begged God to “reveal to me the meaning of these pages.” As we interpret Scriptures our neediness should drive us to a dependence on the Holy Spirit’s gift of illumination. In order to understand spiritual realities and teach those in our care, we must have the Spirit of God elucidate the meaning of the Scriptures for us. Augustine continues, “...grant us space for our meditations on the secret recesses of your law, and do not close the gate as we knock.” This continual spiritual knocking and begging for the Spirit’s light is crucial for our interpretive stance toward the text. If we neglect deep reflection on our need for the Spirit, we may continue to stare into Scripture’s mirror but miss our own reflection. Must we simply sit and wait for illumination to strike us? Here, Augustine provides a final exhortation that will help us to find meaning in the text.

Interpretation of Scripture is a Thirsty Business

Thirdly, interpretation’s sine qua non is that it is a thirsty business. Augustine writes, “Let me confess to you what I find in your books. Let me hear the voice of praise and drink you, and let me consider wonderful things from your law.” Moreover, he writes “do not despise your plant as it thirsts” and “see your voice is my joy,  your voice is better than a wealth of pleasures.” Therefore, interpretation is driven by our desires to take pleasure in God’s very words. Intimacy is our end-game. Our pleasure in him propels us to search the Scriptures. We delight in the interpretive journey because, in it, we find the Christ.

Practicing the Wisdom of Augustine

Saint Augustine’s approach to Scripture saw interpretation as a needy, spiritual, and a thirsty business. I confess I hold strongly to the interpretations and conclusions I draw from the biblical text. Thus, I often lack a posture of neediness, dependence, and hunger for Scripture’s meaning. Additionally, I can tend to scoff at others who diverge from orthodox faith with what I consider to be creative interpretations. Augustine’s confession of interpretative weakness can help us avoid both the ditch of interpretive one-upmanship and that of subjecting the text to our preconceived prejudices.

Augustine leads us through three fundamental principles for our interpretative journey. When we understand our own neediness in interpretation, the spiritual nature of it, and the thirsty work required, it will result in a Sprit empowered ministry of the Word. As we follow these truths, we take a humble and passionate posture as we approach the most sacred of texts. We may not follow all of Augustine’s interpretations of Scripture, but his humility before the word continues to teach us.

[1] All quotations are taken from Confessions by Saint Augustine, translated by Henry Chadwick, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991).