Some notes from St. Augustine of Hippo: De Doctrina Christiana

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is a philosophical-theological genius, dominating, like a pyramid, antiquity and the succeeding ages. Compared with the great philosophers of past centuries and modern times, he is the equal of them all; among theologians he is undeniably the first, and such has been his influence that none of the Fathers, Scholastics, or Reformers has surpassed it. In my following commentary I will reflect from one prospective how St. Augustine of Hippo, in his magnificent book De Doctrina Christiana – II book (henceforth DDC) relates theology to his contemporary culture of reason.

Now, I will reflect on St. Augustine’s theory of the interpretation of Scripture. For Augustine the first book and after that the second books of DDC are parts and parcels of his theory, because acceptance of the basic doctrines enunciated there was the foundation of all understanding of scripture. His approach to scriptural texts is very clear: God works on the individual soul through scripture, and however God works is good. Having a correct opinion about the meaning of an obscure word in scripture is a good thing, but ultimately irrelevant; but having a correct opinion about the need to love God and reform one's life is not only a good thing, but ultimately the only thing to be expected from scripture. St. Augustine is further asking: How is it to be read? First, a general knowledge of the contents should be obtained by thorough reading. Augustine himself began serious study of scripture only after his thirtieth year, yet by the time he became a bishop in his early forties he could quote from memory from virtually every book of scripture at will. The clarity and unity of Augustine's view of scripture study lets him turn from this theoretical statement of its nature and value to the most elementary of practical questions. For that reason we can see in the second book that he will deal with those signs whose meaning is natural and conventional and that can be made clear simply by the acquisition of readily available common knowledge (chiefly problems of text, language and historical context). Before treating unknown signs in detail, Augustine first plants the reader concretely in front of scripture itself and outlines some of its characteristic features that is, its obscurities. Here we can see that St. Augustine is providing in his culture one of his original, debatable, and influential hermeneutical moves: a defense of obscurity and ambiguity. The mixture of obscurity and clarity in scripture is one way scripture adapts itself to the taste and preference of every audience. “This was undoubtedly arranged, “Augustine says, “by divine providence to subdue pride with toil and to excite the understanding from the boredom it readily suffers solving similar problems.“ (DDC 6.7) The obscurity of scripture, then, is bait for the learned and the wise, which might otherwise turn away if the entire text were simple and direct.

* Bibliographical Note: Individual works of Augustine have been put into English by so many hands and under so many imprints it would be impossible to mention anything like a representative sampling here. J. J. O'Meara has made a list of available translations in his version of H. I. Marrou, Saint Augustine (London, 1958). The excellent introduction to Augustine's thought written by Portalie for Dictionnaire de théologie catholique has been brought out in English by Henry Regnery: A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine (Chicago, 1960). Of profound importance, of course, is E. Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (New York, 1960). For recent work on Augustine see Augustinus magister: Communications et actes du congrès international augustinien (Paris, 1954). For the nonspecialist the Confessions, The City of God, the philosophical dialogues, are of first importance.

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