Augustine and his figurative–and therefore not at all modern evangelical–view of the Bible
by Peter Enns
February 1, 2014
(Eerdman’s online author blog) just posted some thoughts by Michael Graves on "Augustine and the Inspiration of Scripture.” Graves, Armerding Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, just published
with Eerdmans The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. I feel this is an important book for a number of reasons, and I will post an interview with Graves on the book later in the week.
The EerdWord post tees up the book nicely. Graves focuses on Augustine’s view of Scripture, and the bottom line is this: Augustine cannot be pressed into service in support of contemporary (and I would add “typically evangelical”) views of biblical inspiration and interpretation.
Graves illustrates the point by pointing out Augustine’s default figurative interpretation of the morally troubling portions of the Old Testament:
Augustine operated with a theology of Scripture that led him to interpret the Bible differently from most Christians today. To be specific, Augustine read Scripture in a figurative way that often does not correspond to modern literalist methods of interpretation.
For example, in dealing with what appear to be harsh deeds done by God or the Israelites in the Old Testament, Augustine says, “Any harsh or even cruel word or deed attributed to God or his saints that is found in the holy scriptures applies to the destruction of the realm of lust” (On Christian Teaching 3.11.17; transl. R.P.H. Green). Later he says, “But if [a statement in Scripture] appears to enjoin wickedness or wrongdoing or to forbid self-interest or kindness, it is figurative” (On Christian Teaching 3.16.24). This is not the exegesis practiced by many who today cite Augustine for support…
It is not surprising to find all sorts of figurative readings in Augustine, since he believed that “anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative” (On Christian Teaching 3.10.14).
Graves ends with some sober observations that, in my experience in these matters, is too often ignored or simply not understood:
Christians today may share Augustine’s belief in the complete truthfulness of what Scripture teaches. But if we imagine ourselves as holding to a “traditional” view of inspiration, then we cannot simply borrow a quotation from Augustine about the truthfulness of Scripture and then ignore the very interpretive methods that made Augustine’s beliefs about Scripture work in the first place. That is historically and theologically incoherent.
Twenty-first-century readers may not share all of Augustine’s beliefs about how best to interpret Scripture. I think this is perfectly understandable. But this means we need to reframe how we understand biblical inspiration to function as a whole. In my opinion, this is the best way to maintain a “traditional” view. Instead of just taking a small piece of the tradition and using it to defend our own interpretive methods, we should look at the ancient system as a whole and then think constructively about how to capture the essential truths about Scripture for today.
As I see it, not only is Augustine deferring to figurative readings in these morally troubling instances of Scripture, but note that his “standard” for deciding what is morally troubling or upright does not come “from the Bible” but from outside of it. He seems to “judge” the Bible by a standard foreign to it, which in much of contemporary biblical apologetics is about as sure a sign of harboring a “low” view of Scripture as anything.
Anyway, as I put it in my blurb, Graves “invites readers of Scripture today neither to pillage the ancients for our own agenda, nor to ignore them to our poverty, but to converse with them along our own contemporary hermeneutical journey.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Read Graves’s post and stay tuned for the upcoming interview.
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An Interview with Michael Graves
a new book on what Christians today can learn about the Bible from people who have been dead for about 1500 years
by Peter Enns
February 3, 2014
Today’s post is an interview with Michael Graves on his recent book, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. Graves (PhD, Hebrew Union College) is Armerding Chair of Biblical Studies and Associate Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, IL. Dr. Graves is the author of Jerome’s Hebrew Philology (2007), and produced the first English translation of St. Jerome’s Commentary on Jeremiah (2012). He is also the author of numerous articles on ancient Jewish and Christian exegesis of the Bible.
Why did you write this book?
I have personally learned so much about the nature and interpretation of the Bible from studying the Church Fathers. I often appeal to ideas from the early church when I explain this or that point about the Bible. I decided that it might be helpful for others if I wrote up the major ideas that have been most illuminating for me.
The Church Fathers operated with ideas about biblical inspiration that had direct implications for how Scripture should be interpreted. Many people today are trying to figure out how best to interpret the Bible, and I think what the Church Fathers said in their context has a lot to contribute to what we should think about biblical interpretation in our context.
You mention “their context” and “our context.” How are these contexts significant?
My book focuses primarily on Christian interpreters who lived from the second century to the sixth century AD. In general, they tried to follow and systematize patterns of interpretation that they found in the New Testament. This alone makes them important for us.
Beyond this, the Church Fathers lived in a Greco-Roman cultural environment that was skeptical about Christianity, was influenced by philosophers and literary critics, and teemed with religious diversity and political turmoil.
On the one hand, I think many readers will be surprised at how many concerns we have in common with early Christian interpreters. They ask many of the same moral questions, deal with issues of biblical criticism, and wrestle with biblical texts that could be taken as teaching different things.
On the other hand, they come at these questions from their own philosophical background, using their own tools of scholarship, and drawing on their own Christian experiences. Consequently, they do not always say the same things that Christians today tend to say. Sometimes their ways of understanding the Bible are quite different from ours.
I think we have a lot to learn from them. But I also show how their views fit into their cultural world, and I try to make clear that we cannot simply repeat everything that they did with the Bible. We need to recast the essential truths into our own context.
Walk us through the book.
After briefly introducing the topic of biblical inspiration and the context of Christianity in late antiquity, I work through a number of possible “entailments” of inspiration, that is, concepts that were seen by some as logical implications of inspiration.
I discuss the views of various Church Fathers with respect to each possible entailment, showing diversity of viewpoints where appropriate, and giving numerous primary source examples where ancient Christians deal with specific biblical texts. I conclude by tying together some of the major points of relevance for today.
The table of contents below shows in a bit more details the primary entailments I address:
1. Scripture Is Useful for Instruction.
2. Every Detail of Scripture Is Meaningful.
3. Scripture Solves Every Problem That We Might Put to It.
4. Biblical Characters Are Examples for Us to Follow.
5. Scripture Is the Supreme Authority in Christian Belief and Practice.
The Spiritual and Supernatural Dimension:
6. Divine Illumination Is Required for Biblical Interpretation.
7. Scripture Has Multiple Senses.
8. Scripture Accurately Predicted the Future, Especially about Jesus
Mode of Expression:
9. Scripture Speaks in Riddles and Enigmas.
10. The Etymologies of Words in Scripture Convey Meaning.
11. God Is Directly and Timelessly the Speaker in Scripture.
12. The Scriptures Represent Stylistically Fine Literature.
Historicity and Factuality:
13. Events Narrated in the Bible Actually Happened.
14. Scripture Does Not Have Any Errors in Its Facts.
15. Scripture Is Not in Conflict with “Pagan” Learning.
16. The Original Text of Scripture Is Authoritative.
Agreement with Truth:
17. Scripture’s Teaching Is Internally Consistent.
18. Scripture Does Not Deceive.
19. Scripture’s Teaching Agrees with a Recognized External Authority.
20. Scripture’s Teaching Must Be Worthy of God.
Why is ancient thinking about biblical inspiration a vital topic for evangelical Christians?
Because understanding Scripture is vital for Christians, and I think the early church makes a significant contribution to this understanding.
To be more specific, I would point out that many Christians today wrestle with how to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture in their own contexts. In this discussion, reference is often made to the “traditional” view of Scripture, but without any explanation or basis for what this “traditional” view is.
In my book, I describe ancient thinking about inspiration with many citations from patristic sources and specific biblical texts, showing the range of available ideas and the qualifications that came from grappling with specific textual issues. I believe that ancient Christian thinking about biblical inspiration is vital for Christians today who are intent on living faithfully in accordance with Scripture’s teaching.
Yet, vague or inaccurate notions about the “traditional” view of inspiration are not helpful. We need to be as specific and concrete as possible if we are to learn the right lessons. The goal of my book is not to shut down critical thinking by appealing to tradition, but to open up paths of faithful thinking by seeing the pious, critical reflections of ancient Christians about Scripture.
What is the big idea that you would like people to take away from this book?
That is a hard question to answer, because I imagine that different readers will perceive different strengths and weaknesses in patristic thinking about inspiration, and so they will legitimately take away different big ideas.
I expect that many readers will find significant elements in these sources with which they already resonate, and perhaps other elements that may challenge their thinking in constructive ways.
One big idea that arises from these sources is that the heart and soul of inspiration is that the Bible is useful and profitable for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), and so we should ask from every biblical text what God is teaching us.
Another big idea is that the discipline of discerning what Scripture teaches is complex and involves many steps, including ad litteram (“literal”) exegesis, comparison with other biblical texts, theological reflection, and spiritual receptivity. All of this was seen as part of the nature of Scripture itself as inspired by God.
Ancient Christian approaches to Scripture can set the stage for a rich encounter with the Bible. This encounter is genuine, in that is arises from the texts and makes full use of the intellectual resources we have been given. It is rich because it incorporates the full range of Christian spiritual experience in the act of interpretation.
You suggest in the book that “the example and teachings of Jesus serve as a lens through which all interpretations of Scripture must pass” (p. 136). Could you elaborate? Is this a particularly important takeaway of your book?
Yes, it is one of the major ideas from ancient Christianity that I think remains important today. Let me briefly state here two angles on this topic.
First, I try to show how the process of reading Scripture involves willingness to listen to what biblical texts actually said and also a rich and somewhat complex process of perceiving what God is teaching through any part of Scripture in the context of Scripture as a whole.
This requires from us virtues such as humility, patience, and love, so that we have genuine encounters with Scripture that can challenge us, and Scripture does not become a tool that we use to harm others. The example and teachings of Jesus provide us a tangible model and illustration of the virtues we need to interpret this way.
Second, the ultimate takeaway for our lives in reading Scripture should be love of God and love of neighbor, as Jesus taught and demonstrated. In sum, it is precisely because biblical interpretation is no simple task that we need illumination and the example of Jesus to guide us.