Augustine’s Two Steps for Interpreting Complex Texts

A graphic with multiple speaking bubbles representing the different opinions that can arise when interpreting complex Bible passages.

Exegetical ambiguity occurs when a word or passage from Scripture can support more than one interpretation. Exegetical ambiguity can spur a deeper engagement with the text, but it can also frustrate or even cause despair. But it may relieve us to know the problem is nothing new. It is a constituent element of language as God has given it to us. And when it comes to problems of such a universal nature, the ancients can speak as our contemporaries. Though Augustine was a stranger to many modern exegetical methods, he was nonetheless one of the most formidable exegetes of the early period, and, as will be seen, his pastoral approach has ageless appeal.

Who was Augustine of Hippo?

Augustine was a North African bishop who died in the early fifth century. Excepting the apostle Paul, perhaps no theologian has left a greater mark on Western theology. Augustine was many things—a philosopher, a bishop, an apologist—but what he longed most to be was an exegete. For Augustine, exegesis was not, as we tend to think, merely a scholarly skillset. Exegesis was a way of life. Augustine said that an exegete lived in Scripture the way a deer lived in an expansive forest:

Not in vain have you [God] willed so many pages to be written … , not in vain do harts and hinds seek shelter in those woods, to hide and venture forth, roam and browse, lie down and ruminate. (Conf. XI.2, 3)

Being an exegete was like being a lover: it involved the whole of one’s life and identity.

Understanding Scripture was an enterprise worthy of one’s entire existence, education, and energy. Augustine lamented that his ecclesial duties diverted him from enjoying the exegetical life to the fullest. Shortly after his (forced) ordination to the priesthood in 391, he asked his bishop for a temporary leave just to study the Scriptures to fortify himself for his new vocation (Ep. 21). Four years later, he was made bishop, and he complained that time for exegetical work became even more difficult to find (Conf. XI.2, 2; many a modern minister can relate). Despite the demands placed on him, Augustine spent every spare moment “exercising myself in the Holy Scriptures” (Ep. 213, I) and managed to produce an abundance of commentaries, homilies, and treatises that put his prodigious acumen on display. For Augustine, exegesis was neither a scholarly enterprise nor a mere resourcing for next Sunday’s sermon, but the reward of his labors.

Augustine was well acquainted with the problem of scriptural ambiguity. The church in Hippo was diverse and intellectually active. Interpretations abounded, and not all of them were put forward by heretics or simpletons. In fact, it was the variety of valid interpretations that most interested Augustine, for these would appear the most difficult to resolve exclusively along the lines of Scripture and reason.1

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The two stages of Augustine’s exegesis

Our interest here is how Augustine handles an ambiguity in Scripture, and what recommendations he gives to other exegetes. He does this in two stages.

In stage 1, the exegete is to limit in a two-step process the number of viable interpretations by dispensing with those that are heretical or don’t follow from the wider literary context. This first stage is described in Book II of Teaching Christianity.

In stage 2, the exegete is to confirm the validity of the (likely) multiple interpretations remaining, and then to find a pastoral application for each. It considers the authorial intent of a text and seeks a pastoral application for all the remaining interpretations. This second stage is demonstrated in Book XII of The Confessions.

Stage 1: Eliminate as many interpretations as possible

The first stage is described in Augustine’s introduction to exegesis, Teaching Christianity (De Doctrina Christiana). As a handbook, Teaching Christianity lays out a number of rules for discerning the best possible interpretation when an ambiguity arises. We will focus on only the first two.

Step 1. Consult the rule of faith (regula fidei)

A principle of exegesis observed by all church fathers was using what was clear in Scripture to interpret what was unclear: Scripture speaks openly in some places, and in others places expresses the same idea but with obscure similitudes. In these instances, writes Augustine, “we may take examples from those things that are manifest to illuminate those things which are obscure, bringing principles which are certain to bear on our doubts concerning those things which are uncertain” (Teaching Christianity 2.9, 14).

For Augustine, this principle was associated with the rule of faith. In fact, his first recommendation for exegetes facing an ambiguity was to consult the rule of faith “which he has received from the more obvious passages of Scripture and the authority of the church” (Teaching Christianity 3.2.2; emphasis mine). The second statement—“the authority of the church”—identifies the rule of faith as the normative teaching of the church: a summary of what was believed to be the apostolic preaching originating from Christ and passed down (literally, “traditioned”) by the apostles to the leaders of the church of the present day. The rule of faith is thus not an alternative source of revelation alongside Scripture, but it is simultaneous and identical with Scripture: the regula fidei contains holy words that are “scattered throughout the divine Scripture” (De Symbolo ad Catechumenos 1.1) assembled in one place for easy study, memorization, and accessibility. The regula fidei is Scripture distilled to its “more obvious” and most fundamental points. 

What was the content of the rule of faith? Though he often invokes it, Augustine never expressly spells out the rule, but scholars have pieced together from his various writings the following twelve articles:

  1. I believe in God the Father Almighty.
  2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord; who was
  3. Born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary;
  4. Was crucified and buried under Pontius Pilate;
  5. Resurrected from death on the third day;
  6. Ascended into heaven;
  7. Sits at the right hand of the Father;
  8. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
  9. I believe in the Holy Spirit;
  10. In the Holy Church;
  11. In the remission of sins;
  12. In the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.2

You might notice the striking resemblance between Augustine’s rule and the Nicene Creed. In fact, we could construe the creed as simply the rule in a fixed form.3 (In this way, we should understand the Nicene Creed is less a systematization of the church’s beliefs than a formulation in continuity with a pre-existing tradition of preaching.) In fact, I suggest the creed can function for us as the rule of faith did for Augustine: as a hermeneutical tool.4 

The surest way to know that we are reading Scripture rightly—as it were, according to its own mind—was to do so in conformity to the rule. For this reason, Augustine believed the rule should be consulted frequently and brought to bear on whatever difficulty presented itself to the exegete, including ambiguity.5

The rule of faith was the ultimate criterion for judging the viability of an interpretation. In fact, it was the standard for understanding the Bible and its teachings. In this respect, the purpose of the rule of faith was to regulate interpretations (On Eighty-Three Varied Questions 69.1). The exegete should “approve what should be approved and reject what should be rejected in accordance with the rule of faith” (Nature and Origin of the Soul 2.17.23), and Augustine states repeatedly, “Whatever interpretation emerges, it must conform to the rule of faith” (Explanations of the Psalms 74.12). The rule was particularly helpful where passages appeared to contradict one another (De trin. 2.10, 7). In effect, the rule (regula) was the original regulative principle of biblical exegesis.

As an example of the rule in action, Augustine brings up John 1:1–2a. The Bibles of Augustine’s time seldom included punctuation, which opened up the text to ambiguities. Augustine would have read the line as it appears in our Bibles:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

However, Arian heretics preferred to verbally punctuate the sentence thusly:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was. This Word was in the beginning with God.

This altered the meaning to suggest that the Word—that is, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son—did not exist eternally with God nor was to be identified with God, but merely accompanied God at some point; “God was” implies that at some point the Word wasn’t. Without punctuation, either interpretation was technically possible. Augustine clarifies the Arian reading “is to be refuted according to the rule of faith which teaches us the equality of the Trinity” (Teaching Christianity 3.2.3). To use the rule as a hermeneutical device meant Scripture could not be interpreted as though it contradicted the rule, for this would make Scripture contradict itself.

Both orthodox Christians and heretics read the same Bible, so the rule was most effective at (literally) “ruling out” unorthodox conclusions. This might have made progress toward getting at the meaning of a text, but it still left it open to multiple interpretations. The rule creates orthodox boundaries, but within those boundaries there could still be a great deal of exegetical flexibility. Augustine goes on in Teaching Christianity to mention many textual ambiguities in which none of the interpretive options are contrary to the faith (3.2, 4–5). As the regulative principle of exegesis, the rule could reveal which interpretations were viable while eliminating others, but it usually does not eliminate the problem of ambiguity entirely. Acting alone, the rule could still support multiple, even contradictory interpretations.

Step 2. Evaluate the wider literary context

If after consulting the rule of faith several meanings of a word or passage remained, Augustine recommends,

Then it is necessary to examine the context of the preceding and following parts surrounding the ambiguous place, so that we may determine which of the meanings among those which suggest themselves it would allow to be consistent. (Teaching Christianity 3.2, 2)

Augustine offers an example, and again the ambiguity is a question of punctuation. In Philippians 1:22–24 of Augustine’s Latin Bible, the words of the apostle Paul could be read as either, “I am hard pressed between the two” or as “I have a desire for two things.” The former suggests that Paul is torn between what he desires (to be with Christ) and what is necessary (to remain with the brethren in the flesh); the latter suggests Paul has two equal desires and can’t choose between them. Each says something different about Paul’s internal condition. The first implies Paul lovingly delays his union with Christ for the sake of the brethren; the second implies Paul doesn’t know which is best, to be with Christ or with the Christians of Philippi. The ambiguity is easily resolved by looking at the wider literary context: “Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” Here Paul expressly states that to be with Christ “is far better” and to remain in the flesh “is more necessary.” Thus the first reading is the correct one.

While this rule encourages the exegete to read the lines immediately prior and posterior to the ambiguity, the ideal reader for Augustine knew the whole book. A “truly accomplished investigator of holy Scriptures” has first read them all (Teaching Christianity 2.8, 12). Ideally, he has memorized large chunks, but at the beginning he need not understand what he has read; the goal is simply to become more familiar with the text. This not only sets the stage for deeper study, but it lays out the wider canonical context for any given passage:

Then, having become familiar with the language of the Divine Scriptures, we should turn to those obscure things which must be opened up and explained so that we may take examples from those things that are manifest to illuminate those things which are obscure, being principles which are certain to bear on our doubts concerning those things which are uncertain. In this undertaking memory is of great value, for if it fails rules will not be of any use. (Teaching Christianity 2.9, 14)

Stage 1 Recap

Both rules provided thus far are each of a certain type; namely, ambiguous “pointing” (i.e., punctuation). Yet Augustine assures his readers that these two rules apply to virtually every kind of ambiguity in Scripture, and that, “unless the reader is weakened by too much carelessness,” all ambiguities of a lexical-grammatical sort

are to be corrected according to the rule of faith, or according to the context established by the preceding and following passages; or, if neither of these is sufficient for correction and some doubt still remains, whatever blameless interpretation the reader wishes may be used. (Teaching Christianity 3.3, 6)

Assessing the literary context and consulting the rule of faith provide helpful boundaries, but within those boundaries there is still considerable exegetical flexibility. The exegete is free then to have his choice among whatever interpretations remain (cf. Teaching Christian 3.2.5). Despite this liberality, the goal of this first stage is to limit the range of possible interpretations. In effect, Augustine’s two rules represent a process of elimination. In fact, if this were all Augustine had to say on the matter, then we might be free to characterize the work of exegesis as reductionistic.

Reductionistic exegesis assumes the goal (or bias) of the exegete is to arrive at a single interpretation of any given passage. This bias interprets the existence of multiple interpretations as fundamentally problematic, as well as an indication that exegetical work remains unfinished. Much modern exegesis is reductionistic. Against this, Augustine finds it necessary to limit the range of acceptable interpretations in observance of the rule of faith and the wider literary context of Scripture. However, the height of the exegetical process considers authorial intent, which, among other things, requires us to read Scripture not only as an abstract text, but as a product of nothing less expansive and multi-layered than a mind. This opens up the possibility that at least some ambiguities might have been placed there intentionally by the author for the benefit of the reader.

Stage 2: Pastoral application of multiple interpretations

The most extensive treatment of a biblical ambiguity in Augustine’s corpus—and perhaps in all of ancient Christian literature—is in his most famous work, The Confessions. Here, Augustine devotes the entirety of Book XII to exegeting a single line of Scripture and exploring the variety of interpretations it can support: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). This was appropriate, since how to think rightly about the created world was a key point—often the key point—of contention between Christianity and both heresies and heathens. 

A question of heaven and earth

What is Augustine’s interpretation of Genesis 1:1?

Augustine posits that “heaven” and “earth” in this passage refer to two discrete creatures, both made simultaneously and ex nihilo before the creation of time (Conf. XII.12, 15). The “heaven” is what Scripture refers to elsewhere as “heaven’s heaven” (e.g., Ps 115:16): “heaven” is a purely spiritual (or to adopt Augustine’s nomenclature, “intellectual”) creature and God’s “household” (Conf. XII.11, 12; cf. Matt 5:34). The second creation, “earth,” was the formless matter (often referred to as the “primordial waters”) from which the cosmos would be crafted during the six days of creation, including what we often refer to as “heaven,” that is, the sky over the earth, which is said to have been made on the second day (Gen 1:7–8), and so is in fact made from the same formless primordial matter as the land below it. 

Breaking it down: the second creation—earth—is material; the first creation—heaven—is immaterial. Earth was formless; heaven was “formed from the very first” (Conf. XII.13, 16). Earth was unaffected by time because time had not been created yet, because form had not been created yet; heaven was outside of time because it participated in God’s eternity, though it was not co-eternal with God since it had a beginning. Next to heaven, nothing was superior but God; next to earth, nothing was lower (Conf. XII.7, 7). Both were created before there were days. That is, they were not created on the first day or any subsequent day, but rather “in the beginning” before time existed. Or so Augustine interprets: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

We need not get into the details of Augustine’s exegetical reasoning. We need not be concerned with whether his interpretation is right or wrong, but with how he negotiates his own interpretation with its many competitors. He asserts he holds his own view “provisionally” (Conf. XII.13, 16), yet Augustine has intellectual valor: he will defend his position earnestly. But as he proceeds to compare interpretations, it becomes apparent that his “opponents” are men like himself. They are not heretics, pagans, or simpletons. Like Augustine, they respect the Scriptures and hold them as “the loftiest normative authority, but … disagree with us nevertheless on certain points” (Conf. XII.16, 23; cf. XII.15, 22). All of Augustine’s opponents in this matter affirm orthodox theology. For example, they do not dispute that God alone is eternal; he does not have a will subject to change, but “whenever he wills, he wills once only all together and eternally” (Conf. XII.15, 18). Nor do they dispute that God is the sole cause of creation. They don’t even dispute the existence of heaven’s heaven, nor that the cosmos was formed from primordial matter that was itself created ex nihilo (Conf. XII.25, 19). Rather, the disputation lies in the significance of key words and phrases. For example, one position contends that by “heaven” and “earth,” Moses meant simply “the whole visible world” comprehensively—as it were, from top to bottom—and the subsequent six days of creation simply enumerate this comprehensive creation in sequence. In a flash of historical–cultural exegetical reasoning, members of this position explain, “The people to whom he [Moses] was speaking were crude and of carnal disposition; they were the kind of people to whom he judged it impossible to convey an idea of any works of God other than visible ones” (Conf. XII.17, 24).

A second opinion argues that “heaven” and “earth” alike refer to the formless primordial matter from which the cosmos would be formed. Summarizing this opinion, Augustine explains that the formless matter “can be called by these names [heaven and earth] because from it were created and perfected our visible world” (Conf. XII.17, 25). So for this opinion, “heaven” and “earth” indicate the initial stage of the visible creation; second, the primordial matter is so named “heaven and earth” by way of anticipating what it will be fashioned into in the future; third, this primordial “heaven and earth” refer to the literal, corporeal “heaven” and “earth” made on the second and third days, respectively.

A third opinion resembles the second, in that both “heaven” and “earth” refer to the formless primordial matter, but now each indicates the invisible and visible in creation, respectively. Again, Augustine concedes that “this usage is justified” because it acknowledges creatures were made from nothing, not from God’s substance, and thus are not “Being-Itself” (Conf. XII.17, 25). This opinion from an opponent, like the others, preserves the distinction of creature and creator so essential for orthodoxy and expressed in the rule of faith.

As if for good measure, Augustine throws in a fourth opinion. This one is not being argued by a peer, but may be argued by “anyone so minded” (Conf. XII.17, 26). A proper hypothetical, it proffers that these terms signify the creative potential within the primordial matter,

the still unformed seeds of things, the matter capable of being formed and created, because in it were potentially present—though mingled confusedly, and not yet distinguished by qualities and forms—all those things which are now distributed in their various ranks, the spiritual and the corporeal creation which we now call heaven and earth, respectively. (Conf. XII.17, 26)

Other positions are considered. Augustine spends much of Book XII evaluating them. The viability of more than one interpretation might frustrate modern exegetes, but Augustine is unfazed.

If I confess this with burning love, O my God, O secret light of my eyes, what does it matter to me that various interpretations of those words are proffered, as long as they are true? (Conf. XII.18, 27).

This results in a grand demonstration of exegetical flexibility, as Augustine reiterates, “Confronted by all the true interpretations I have listed, each of us chooses differently how to explain the … verse” (Conf. XII.21, 30). Once convinced of their truth, Augustine is not interested in narrowing the list of interpretations any further. He even goes so far as to anticipate objections to a few of his opponent’s interpretations and defends each briefly on their behalf (cf. Conf. XII.22, 31). In the process, he shows that a variety of interpretations on the meaning of a text is not necessarily a symptom of infidelity to orthodoxy or to Scripture. Much the opposite, exegetes can be united on these fronts and still arrive at different interpretations. Augustine determines that these positions, while varied, are free from falsehood.

In the end, Augustine is left with five different possible interpretations. They all pass his first two tests: all five account for the wider literary context and none contradict the rule of faith. So what now?

What did Moses mean by Genesis 1:1?

For Augustine, to understand the original intent of the author of a book of Scripture is the proper goal of exegesis. Augustine is aware that a text may have an effect on the reader that wasn’t necessarily intended by the author, and sometimes this could be the Holy Spirit speaking through the text (Conf. XII.32, 43), but direct revelation of Scripture from the Holy Spirit, while it happens, is not something the exegete should rely on. Augustine expresses that “to expound the sense intended by the writer who served you [God]” would be the “correct and the best course I could take” (Conf. XII.32, 43). For Augustine, an exegete’s principle concern is understanding the authorial intent.6 

In the final third of Book XII, Augustine makes a transition. Having exhausted the standard exegetical procedures, he takes up an interest in the person and mind of the author, Moses. The question is no longer which interpretations are exegetically viable; now the question is which of the five interpretations Moses intended to communicate. Augustine expresses frustration that Moses was no longer available to explain what he meant by Genesis 1:1:

Moses wrote that statement. … He wrote it and went away, and made his passover, his passing from you to you [i.e., he died]; and so he is not here face to face with me now. If he were, I would take hold of him and ask him and in your name implore him to open these mysteries to me. (Conf. XI.3, 5)

Augustine seriously doubts that any exegete can conclude definitively that Moses intended any one interpretation.

Since, then, so rich a variety of highly plausible interpretations can be culled from those words, consider how foolish it is rashly to assert that Moses intended one particular meaning rather than any of the others. (Conf. XII.25, 35)

Those who insist “Moses did not mean what you say; he meant what I say” are less interested in a writer like Moses than in themselves, “and without having grasped Moses’ idea they are infatuated with their own, not because it is true but because it is theirs” (Conf. XII.25, 34). Augustine asks again:

A great variety of interpretations, many of them legitimate, confronts our exploring minds as we search among these words to discover your will. Is there any one of us who is so sure of having found it that he can declare with as much confidence that Moses meant that or something different? (Conf. XII.24, 33)

Augustine denies that any exegete can say Moses meant only one of the five possible interpretations but none of the others. Moses cannot have written what is untrue, but this only means he could have had any five of the interpretations in mind:

I see indeed that, whichever of these [opinions] was being stated, it could have been stated truly; but I do not see which of them was in [Moses’] mind when he wrote the words. I have no doubt, however, that whether his mental gaze was directed to one of these meanings, or to some other which I have not recorded, a man of such stature will have seen what was true and expressed it fittingly. (Conf. XII.24, 33)

For this reason, Augustine has no patience for those who declare that Moses meant what they say and could have meant nothing else: this is failure to apprehend the range of exegetical possibilities.

As though acknowledging the break into a new line of thought, he prays that, on the precept that God commands him to love his neighbor as himself, he could not imagine that he, Augustine, would have “received a meaner gift” had he been charged to write the book of Genesis than what Moses, “your devotedly faithful servant,” had received. He goes on:

If I had been in his place then, and the task of writing the Book of Genesis had been laid upon me, I would have wished that such a gift of eloquence should be given me, and such skill in weaving words, that readers unable to understand how God creates would not reject what I said as too difficult for them, while those who could already understand it, whatever might be the true idea they had arrived at by their own reasoning, should not find that their idea had been overlooked in your servant’s few words. Finally, I would hope to have written in such a way that if anyone else had in the light of truth seen some other valid meaning, that too should not be excluded, but present itself as a possible way of understanding in what I had said. (Conf. XII.26, 36)

Many views have passed through the gauntlet of rules; five have survived. But why should we think Moses didn’t intend all five? This, at least, is just as viable as saying he meant one or the other:

Why not both, if both are true? And if there is a third possibility, and a fourth, and if someone else sees an entirely different meaning in these words, why should we not think that [Moses] was not aware of all of them, since it was through him that the one God carefully tempered his sacred writings to meet the minds of many people, who would see different things in them, and all true? (Conf. XII.31, 42)  

In short, Augustine presses us to ask ourselves whether a diversity of interpretations was, in fact, the authorial intent. And why not? Again, Augustine’s insistent appeals to the authoritative person of the inspired author compels us to imbue into the text the characteristics of mind which a reductionistic exegesis inevitably obscures. For example, when we come across an ambiguous line in T. S. Eliot’s poetry, we assume he intended it. This ambiguity stretches and enriches the text and gives the mind something to grapple with. We celebrate Eliot for this feature in his writing; why not celebrate it in Moses? It makes Eliot more valuable; why wouldn’t it make Moses more valuable? Augustine thought it did.

Critically, when examining this scriptural ambiguity, Augustine does not conclude here merely that multiple meanings are possible, but that it is possible that multiple meanings were intended.

The pastoral purpose of multiple interpretations of Scripture

By this standard, Augustine must admit that all five remaining interpretations are equally true—but this does not mean they are equally beneficial. Some interpretations, while just as true, are “meatier” than others, and assist the mind to a greater extent with the premier religious question, which is “how to think about God in a godly way” (Gn. adu. Man. 2.29.43). Some interpretations are easier for the simpleminded to understand, whereas others are more difficult but offer edification for the more mature. An array of interpretations is thus a boon because it ensures every Christian, no matter their stage of spiritual maturity, has at least something from Scripture he is able to hear and ingest.

So too the steward [Moses] you entrusted with the telling of your story confined his message within a small compass [i.e., in few words], yet this narrative, destined to supply a theme for many messengers of the word, is a spring whence rivers of limpid truth gush forth. Everyone draws for himself whatever truth he can from it about these questions, each a different point, and then hauls his discovery through the meandering channels of his own discourse. (Conf. XII.27, 37)

An abundance of interpretations, then, serves a pastoral purpose: each reader can receive the interpretation they have the capacity and maturity to receive at that moment. This guarantees that none go without being nourished by the word and affirms that, indeed, Scripture is for everyone. These are writings destined to “benefit all nations” (Conf. XII.26, 36), to “supply a theme for many messengers of the world,” gushing forth waters of life so that “everyone draws for himself whatever truth he can from it” (Conf. XII.27, 37). A reductionist approach that will only accept one interpretation could not possibly nourish every member of the body of Christ.

Augustine is clearly going further here in Book XII of Confessions than he did in Teaching Christianity. He is not merely establishing methodological boundaries around the rule of faith and the wider literary context of a passage, and then conceding the variety of interpretations which can survive within those borders. He is not saying Moses could have meant any one of a plurality of valid interpretations; he is saying Moses could have meant them all. He is not saying all have an equal probability of being true; he is saying all are true—relative to the reader’s aptitude or spiritual needs. He is not saying, as he did when remarking on the exegetical flexibility afforded by consulting the regula fidei, that “the will of the reader” may choose from among “distinctions of interpretation” as he sees fit (Christian Teaching, 3.2.5); he is saying the reader must acknowledge the truth in all of these distinctions of interpretation.

Augustine begins his conclusion to Book XII with a prayer:

Amid this profusion of true opinions let Truth itself engender concord; may our God have mercy upon us and grant us to make lawful use of the law for the purpose envisaged by his commandment, pure charity. In that perspective, if anyone asks me which of them is what Moses, your servant, intended, these writings are no true confession of mine unless I confess to you I do not know. Yet I do know that these opinions are valid. … But let all of us who, as I acknowledge, discern rightly and speak truly on these texts, love one another and likewise love you, our God, the fount of truth, if truth is really what we thirst for, and not illusions. Let us also honor this same servant of yours whom you filled with your Spirit and entrusted with the promulgation of your scripture, by believing that when he wrote these things he had in mind what you revealed to him to be the best of all meanings in the light of truth, and with respect to the profit it would yield. (Conf. XII.30, 41)

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  1. For Augustine, these two, reason and Scripture, must be held together. Error results by losing one or the other. Heretics, for example, argue “not from the divine books, but from their own reasons” (De Trin. IV.21, 31). The “carnal” do the opposite: reverencing Scripture, but abandoning reason for fleshly, convenient, or stupid notions (Conf. XII.27, 37). Even so, saving truth cannot be found by pure reason alone, which is why we need the authority of the sacred Scriptures (Conf. VI.5, 8).
  2. This is based on a reconstruction of Augustine’s regula fidei by the German scholar Caelestis Eichenseer, who drew primarily on Augustine’s Sermons 212–15 and De Symbolo ad Catechunemos. This is my own translation from the Latin, which can be found in Caelestis Eichenseer, Das Symbolum apostolicum beim heiligen Augustinus: mit Berücksichtigung des dogmengeschichtlichen Zusammenhangs (Germany: St. Ottilien, 1960), 146–54ff.
  3. For an introduction to the rule of faith, including a survey of scholarship on the subject and many examples of the rule in pre-Nicene Christian writers, see Everett Ferguson, The Rule of Faith: A Guide (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015).
  4. Many modern theologians, like Joseph T. Lienhard, have argued that the hermeneutical application of the rule of faith is among the early Christian practices most worth retrieving for the church today. See Joseph T. Lienhard, The Bible, the Church, and Authority: The Canon of the Christian Bible in History and Theology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995).
  5. For a fuller treatment of Augustine’s use of the rule of faith, see Bryan M. Liftin, “The Rule of Faith in Augustine,” Pro Ecclesia 14:1 (February 2005): 85–101.
  6. No doubt Augustine’s time as a Manichaean made him sensitive to assertions of Scripture’s meaning which could not be demonstrated exegetically. The Manichees relied more on claims of direct revelation by the Holy Spirit than on exegetical demonstration. Augustine once witnessed a public debate between some Manichees and a certain Elipidius, an Arian bishop. While also belonging to a heretical sect, the Arian at least had superior exegetical integrity and impressed Augustine with his ability to meet his opponents’ points with scriptural arguments. “The Manichees’ replies seemed feeble to me,” recalled Augustine. The Manichees later confided in Augustine that they merely appeared less exegetically astute, because “the New Testament writings had been falsified by some unknown persons bent on interpolating the Christian faith with elements of the Jewish law” (Conf. V.11, 21). Not only could they not identify these interpolators, but they could not prove this rather convenient conspiracy by presenting the authentic, incorrupt New Testament manuscripts. At any rate, Augustine’s departure from Manichaeism was simultaneous with his growing respect for Scripture and its authority (Conf. V.14, 24), and for the rest of his life he seemed to discern a contradiction between reliance on mystical revelations of Scripture’s meaning and a high respect for Scripture. So when Augustine says that his fellow exegetes consider the Scriptures “the loftiest normative authority” (Conf. XII.16, 23), he more or less means that they have a high regard for the author and seek to know his intent as their main objective.
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Blake Adams

Blake Adams (MA, Wheaton College) is an editor, writer, and trained historian. His research interests include early Christian history, ascetical theology, and exegesis. He serves as Lead Sacristan at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois. Follow him on Substack:

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Written by Blake Adams
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