Augustine and the Pleasure of Discovery in Bible Study

BSM Barshinger Augustine Bible Study

It is not uncommon when reading the Bible to run into language or imagery that we don’t readily understand. Just spend some time in the Prophets or Revelation. We may view the difficulties in Scripture as deterrents to engaging it (even if we don’t say so aloud). Why did God make some parts of the Bible so hard to understand? Shouldn’t it be easy for even a child to grasp?

While the gospel is something that even a child can grasp, the Bible is full of content that challenges all readers, no matter what age. But the early church father Augustine (354–430), far from viewing these hurdles as negative, saw them as something that God intentionally placed in Scripture for our good.

Augustine is a key figure in the history of biblical interpretation because he was so influential on the way people read the Bible in the Middle Ages, in the Reformation, and even down to our day. His book De Doctrina Christiana (or, On Christian Teaching) is perhaps the most important writing on biblical interpretation in the early Western church because it helps us understand the foundations of Western engagement with Scripture.

Wrestling with Scripture

Wrestling with difficult imagery or language in the Bible is only one of the many things Augustine discusses in his book, but we’ll focus just on that principle here. As Augustine understood it, God has ordained Scripture so that not everything is readily apparent. This demonstrates both God’s grace and God’s discipline.

On the one hand, biblical interpretation is not meant to be stale and dry but enlivening and dynamic, and God has made the process pleasurable for his people by leading them to discover hidden treasures. On the other hand, God has placed hard passages in Scripture to keep us humble and to nurture discipline, slowing us down so we study Scripture carefully to unearth the text’s fullness.

Sometimes for Augustine, this fullness allowed him to interpret passages allegorically, and some of the liberties he took would raise more than a few eyebrows today. Still, his basic principle is sound and insightful.

Augustine states his principle as follows: “No-one disputes that it is much more pleasant to learn lessons presented through imagery, and much more rewarding to discover meanings that are won only with difficulty.” While interpreters suffer from hunger or boredom, God has given an antidote:

It is a wonderful and beneficial thing that the Holy Spirit organized the holy scripture so as to satisfy hunger by means of its plainer passages and remove boredom by means of its obscurer ones.1

Practice and perfection

Most of us have had experiences like what Augustine describes. Someone doesn’t simply sit down at a piano and know how to play; it takes years of practice. One begins with plain melodies, but through discipline one comes to discover hidden beauties to be enjoyed in the intricacies of music.

Compare the different experiences you have in reading Scripture. If you quickly read through a chapter one morning because you’re in a hurry, you can certainly glean something for the moment. But if you pore over a passage for hours, discovering parallels, thematic developments, and connections to other parts of the Bible, you will find richer satisfaction and pleasure. Difficult passages can nudge us into deeper engagement.

Next time you run into a hard passage, perhaps think of Augustine, and thank God for crafting the Bible in such a way that it helps us discipline ourselves and discover deep treasures in God’s gracious revelation.

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This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.

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  1. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, trans. and ed. R. P. H. Green (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 63.
Written by
David P. Barshinger

David P. Barshinger is the author of Jonathan Edwards and the Psalms (Oxford University Press, 2014), and he blogs at He currently serves as a book editor at Crossway.

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