I would recommend this book if you are interested in how to study the bible. I did not find it easy going, as it is written in a dense and inter-linked way meaning I had to read and understand each sentence as I was going along. I typically read more quickly and skimming through passages but that approach doesn’t work here.
Augustine wrote this work as four books with a total length of approximately 150 pages in total. I have briefly summarised my understanding of each book below, hoping it will help me remember some of the many useful things Augustine has to say.
The first book is an exposition on the two great commandments: Love the Lord your God and Love thy neighbour.
In doing this, Augustine first divides the world between things (objects, people etc) and signs (e.g. words). This first book only concerns things, which he says we can either Enjoy or Use. He says the only thing we should enjoy is God in His Trinity, and all other things should be only used, and for the purpose of furthering this enjoyment of God. Enjoying these things instead of using them would mean love for this world instead of for God.
This even applies to ourselves and all other people. We should not enjoy them, which would be to love them on their own account, but use them, ie love them in relation to God. Otherwise we are diminishing the love we should have for God.
To enjoy our life here to the full we should purify our minds and progress towards Him. We can only do this as God has deigned to give us a pattern for living, in human form like us, His Son. Jesus is now both our goal and our path to the goal.
Our study of the scripture should therefore be with the purpose to build up these loves for God and our neighbour, having this perspective on them as explained. This world has been created for our salvation and should be used but not loved with a permanent love, but only a transient love and enjoyment of the journey.
If we think we understand scripture but can’t build up this double love of God and neighbour then we haven’t understood the scripture.
The second book moves on the discussion to how we should read scripture, and what we need so that we can understand unclear, ambiguous or obscure passages in scripture. This is achieved through a discussion of signs.
He starts by noting how scripture uses both plainly expressed ideas and imagery, and that with more obscure passages, the same idea is almost always expressed plainly somewhere else in scripture. He says the Holy Spirit has organised scripture to satisfy hunger by the plainer passages and boredom by the more obscure.
Augustine gives a helpful example of how imagery can be much more pleasant to read than plain text: In Song of Songs 4:2 the church is addressed as “Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes, ascending from the pool, all of which give birth to twins, and there is not a sterile animal among them”, and he says this is much more pleasant than reading the plain expression which would be something like: Holy men are the teeth of the church; shorn of their worldly burdens, ascending from the pool (baptism), giving birth to the twins of Love for God and their neighbour, and none of them failing to produce fruit.
Augustine says we should gain a good knowledge of all books of the bible, even if not a complete understanding, and we should start with the clearer passages, then once we have gained familiarity with the language of scripture, we use examples from the more obvious parts to illuminate the more obscure passages.
He next spends time discussing the ambiguous signs which result from a literal lack of understanding, and points here to a need to read the scripture in Hebrew or Greek, to get the best understanding; given that some words and idioms can not be translated into other languages.
He then moves onto metaphorical signs, saying that for understanding these we need both knowledge of language and of things. This includes knowledge of animals and plants and other things as mentioned in scripture. For example, to quote directly from him: “The well-known fact about the snake, that it offers its whole body to assailants in place of its head, marvelously illustrates the meaning of the Lord’s injunction to be as wise as serpents (Matthew 10:16)” So in place of our head, which is Christ, offer only our body to persecutors and protect our faith.
He likens our study of non-scripture knowledge to the Jews taking the Egyptian treasure when they leave Egypt in the exodus. So we should also take any statement from philosophy that is true and consistent with our faith, and use it. But having knowledge, we should remember “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1), and remember that as we leave Egypt with our knowledge we first need the Passover (body of Christ) to be saved. Also, considering how the small amount of gold and silver Israel took from Egypt became such great riches under Solomon; so we should consider the insignificance of worldly knowledge compared to scripture and not find our happiness in it. There is far more in scripture and only in scripture than all that can be learned from pagan knowledge.
During this book, he also expounds on Psalm 111:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. He then breaks this down into 7 stages (in bold):
First we should be moved by the fear of God towards learning his will, and this fear will inspire reflection about our mortality and sin. After that, through holiness we should become docile and not contradict scripture but ponder and believe it. Then comes knowledge, that we should Love God and Love our neighbour for God’s sake (as in book 1). As we realise we are entangled in love for the world and become remorseful and deplore our condition, we obtain encouragement from prayer, and so fortitude. Fortitude brings hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so we extricate ourselves from the charms of the world and turn to the love of eternal things. We then reach, compassion, purifying our mind, which is in conflict with itself because of the impurities accumulated by its desire for what is inferior, and then occupying ourself with love of our neighbour.
We then purify the eye by which God might be seen, to the extent he can be seen. The vision of the light is more steady and pleasant but still obscure (1 Cor 13:12). We then purify our heart so not even our neighbour is given a higher priority than truth. We have a single-minded heart, that he can not be deflected, and so ascend to wisdom.
The third book then covers the topic of how to resolve ambiguities in scripture, particularly those of metaphorical nature. He starts off with the important lesson that we should not try to interpret a figurative expression literally, and vice versa. To do this we need to first work out which the expression is; where he guides us by telling us that generally, if the expression is not relating to good morals or true faith then it is most likely figurative.
It is important not to judge scripture by our time. He notes it is a common mistake people make that if scripture enjoins something which is at variance to the current practice of a reader, then people think it must be figurative.
We should also note exceptions, such as what is generally wicked can be sign of greatness in a prophet. For example, consorting with a prostitute would generally be considered depraved, but this is not the case for Hosea.
So we should also pay careful attention to conduct that is appropriate at different times and places. Taking a slightly humourous example, being naked when drunk is immoral, but it doesn’t mean it’s immoral to be naked in the bath. On a more serious note, we read in the Old Testament about men taking several wives. Augustine explains this as saying they thought of God’s kingdom as earthly and so wanted to perpetuate it. He considers that if this was done without lust,then it was not wrong to do at the time, and we see that this is not condemned in scripture.
In a prescriptive passage, if it forbids something as wrong then we should take it as literal. If it appears to enjoin wickedness then we should take it as figurative. For example, John 6:54 says “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you”. So clearly it is figurative rather than enjoining the wickedness. He also notes the expression can change even within one passage, for example Romans 12:20, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty give him a drink, for by doing this you will pile coals of fire on his head”. While the first part is literal, “coals of fire” is obviously not meant here in a malicious way, so the principle of love should help us apply it as the groans of penitence he will feel as he regrets having been the enemy of someone who helped him.
If someone thinks he is at more spiritual level than the scripture is describing, then he should not start to take the lower level advice as figurative. For example, someone who has decided to be celibate and unmarried should not take all advice to married people as figurative.
We should also not transfer from the Old Testament something which was acceptable at its time as being so now. Picking up the earlier example, we see people in the Old Testament with many wives, but this does not mean it is right now. There is a difference between difference between exploiting fertility and our own lusts, and so we should bear in mind that it is possible and sinful to be lustful even with one wife, whereas those having multiple wives without lust weren’t sinning at that time.
Using the above advise, once we have worked out if a passage is literal or figurative (or both) then we should explore its meaning use the rules presented earlier in the book. But we should be aware that a word can have different meaning in different places. For example, “lion” in some places is used to describe Christ, but in others the devil is described as a lion. So having interpreted one passage be careful in applying it to others.
Tyconius had written a “Book of rules”, which were rules for interpreting. Augustine concludes this book with a summary of the things in that book that he thinks are helpful. A few of these include: “On the Lord and His body” which is the idea that Christ is the head and the church is the body, and so when a single being is presented we should be aware which is being referred to; “On species and genus”, where for example statements about Jersualem or Gentile states (Tyre, Sidon) can transcend limits of that particular place and refer more broadly; “Recapitulation” is a lesson that chronology is not always followed even in one small passage, even when presented as chronological and so we must look out for this and pick it up to get the correct meaning of the passage.
The fourth book discusses how to present what has been learned from scripture. It is the longest book of this collection as it includes many long examples and quotes from scripture and other works.
Augustine thinks that rhetoric, or eloquence, is very important in how we present the gospel, as those who have false teachings will use rhetoric, and so we should counter that and not give them the advantage. But he does not teach rhetoric in this book, and says we should learn it separately if we have time; but that anyway through reading scripture we will learn eloquence from it. Augustine thinks that scripture is elegant, and that once you understand a passage you will appreciate that it is written in the most best way given its situation.
The eloquent should speak to “instruct, delight, and move their listeners”. First, it is most important to instruct and so replace ignorance in listeners; next a hearer should be delighted by what is hearing so that he is gripped to listen; and he should be moved so that he is impelled to action. In this way the listener listens with understanding, pleasure and obedience.
We should use three styles for speaking on scripture: restrained (for small matters), mixed (for intermediate matters), grand (important matters). Discourse should be varied by using all three of these styles as appropriate. and keeping above three aims of speaking (to instruct, delight, move). So for example on important matters we would use the restrained style while teaching, the intermediate for censuring or praising something, and then the grand style when motivating the listener to respond.
He also notes it is fine to borrow from others, if it is the truth. It is better that there be more people preaching the truth, even if they are only borrowing what others have learnt, rather than restrict preaching.
He also encourages to sense from the audience on whether they are understanding a topic to decide when to move on, and warns this is the danger of simply reading out a prepared speech, as then it may go too quick in places and too slow in others, rather than being able to adjust to the audience’s understanding.
He also reminds us that while we should study and prepare the speech, near the time of the actual address, we should listen for the Holy Spirit as we know the Spirit can give us the words to say in certain cases.