I want to continue our series on St. Augustine today by discussing a passage from his work, On Christian Teaching (De doctrina Christiana). It’s a small book (especially compared with the City of God), and is one that covers many topics about Christian living. I wanted to open this blog by sharing something a professor of mine told me in class once: one thing that many Protestants overlook and/or need to keep in mind when reading Augustine is that he was a pastoral theologian, not a systematic theologian. The difference being that Augustine is serving a particular church context and develops theological constructs which speak particularly to those situations (this would account for supposed inconsistencies between some of his earlier and later works). It is also helpful to keep that in mind whenever reading anything by Augustine; i.e. that he is addressing a church context. With that said, let’s launch into today’s post.
The following quotation comes from Book III of On Christian Teaching (I am using the Oxford World Classics version). Augustine writes:
“It often happens that someone who is, or thinks he/she is, at a higher stage of the spiritual life regards as figurative instructions which are given to those at a lower stage. So, for example, a man who has embraced a life of celibacy and castrated himself for the sake of the kingdom of heaven might maintain that any instructions given in the sacred books about loving or governing one’s wife should be taken not literally but figuratively.” (On Christian Teaching III.58; OWC p.81).
Now, while this might appear slightly comical at first glance, it is a real problem in Augustine’s church context. In the fourth and fifth centuries, monasticism was growing rapidly and people often would go to extreme lengths to prove that they were masters over the urges and lusts of the flesh. Castration being one such mode of asceticism. Origen, living in the third century, did so as well.
Augustine’s point is less about castration/ asceticism than it is about reading scripture. I have actually seen and heard Christians today employ these interpretation strategies when reading the Bible. Often they will read a passage that they feel does not apply to them, but instead of being content with that, they will fabricate an interpretation which uses a very fluid reading of that text in order to speak to some context in their own life. Is it okay to come across passages in the Bible that we feel don’t apply to us and to leave it at that? Why or why not?
Augustine furthers his point: “Likewise we must take care not to regard something in the Old Testament that is by the standards of its own time not wickedness or wrongdoing, even when understood literally and not figuratively, as capable of being transferred to the present time and applied to our own lives.” (On Christian Teaching, III.60; OCW p. 81)
Context suggests that Augustine refers here to reading about heroes in the Old Testament such as David and their many wives. Augustine warns that it is possible that David was more chaste in having several wives than a man who only has one wife but pursues lustful passions with her. The opposite can be true today: people look at passages in the Old Testament and say, “I want nothing to do with your Bible because of the polygamy, violence, presence of slavery, etc.”
What should we say in response to such statements? Can we read passages like those in the Old Testament literally? Do we have to read them figuratively?
I think that this is one of the dangers of biblical interpretation. I have seen people question their entire faith over studying one particular passage in depth. However, I think there is a sort of beauty in the Bible when you look back through and see passages that make us uncomfortable; or worse, downright upset and angry. I think that the people in the Bible are supposed to bother us on some levels.
I think it’s okay that Abraham bothers people when he sends Hagar away. I think it’s good that people seriously dislike the Book of Joshua for its “genocidal” type narratives. I think it’s also great that people really struggle with the Book of Philemon because it never actually condemns slavery and even sends a slave back to his master. The history of the Bible is supposed to do that. It is filled with people that sometimes acted less than honorably. It is filled with troubling passages like those from Joshua. We need a Bible that is hard to read, that pushes our faith further. An easy Bible would not foster deep, meaningful faith.
Trying to make the Bible work for us today isn’t always the best plan. Augustine’s words suggest that we need to be careful to avoid making the Bible do things it wasn’t meant to do. Many people try to make the Bible apply to situations that it just does not address. We have seen this today in several forums, particularly social media and politics. Sometimes passages should just be read on their own with their own context in mind.
Side note: Augustine’s own conversion happened because he “took up and read” the first passage he flipped open to. He felt that it was speaking directly to him. Just some further food for thought.
I want to close with a quote from Augustine on this matter: “We must understand that some instructions are given to all people alike, but others to particular classes of people, so that the medicine may confront not only the general pathology of the disease but also the particular weakness of each part of the body. What cannot be raised to a higher level must be healed at its own level.” (III.59)