Saint Augustine, The Student of Holy Scripture, by Father Hugh Pope

the painting 'Saint Augustin', by Philippe de Champaigne, c.1647, oil on canvas, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CaliforniaThe story of Saint Augustine‘s life is, at least, in its outlines, familiar to all. Briefly: he was born at Tagaste in Numidia, A. D. 354; in early life he fell into the prevailing heresy of the Manichees; but when he had reached his twenty-eighth year he saw the futility of their views and passed over to Neo-Platonism. In 385 he went to Milan as professor of rhetoric in that city. There he came under the influence of Saint Ambrose, and to his mother’s, Saint Monica’s, joy, he, in 387, abjured his errors and was baptized, being then in his thirty-third year. His mother died almost immediately, when they were on their way to Africa. Augustine returned home alone, and for a few years lived at Tagaste. In 391 he went to Hippo on a visit, and there the Bishop, Valerius, induced him to accept the priesthood. Four years later he associated Augustine with himself in the episcopate.

Augustine’s life as a Christian may be divided into three periods, according to the three great heresies which he combated. His first antagonists were his former friends the Manichees; the battle with them concerned the origin of evil. His next foes were the Donatists of Africa; this dispute turned wholly upon the nature of the Church. His last combat – it endured till the day of his death – was against the Pelagians, as to the true meaning of grace.

The weapon with which the Saint fought was always the Bible. This was the arsenal from which he drew, and in its study for the purpose of arriving at truth his life was spent. The attainment of truth was the absorbing passion of Augustine’s soul. This truth he sought and found in the Scriptures: “Lo the Scriptures are in the hands of all! There we learn Christ; there we learn the Church. If you hold to Christ why do you not hold to the Church herself? If you believe in the Christ Whom you read of but cannot see, and if you believe in Him because the Scriptures are true, then why do you deny the Church which you can both see and read of?” Shortly after ordination, when Valerius insisted on making him preach, Augustine writes to him in piteous terms: “I ought to study carefully the remedies God has provided in His Scriptures; I need by prayer and reading to gain fit strength for my soul, that so it may be prepared for this perilous task. I did not do this before because I had not the time. For I was ordained just at the vacations when we were planning how best we could learn the Sacred Scriptures, and were arranging for some leisure for this purpose. Indeed, to tell the truth, I knew not at the time how ill prepared I was for this present task, which now fills me with anxiety and threatens to crush me.” He then begs the Bishop to grant him a little time, “perhaps even till Easter,” that so he may study Holy Scripture for the profit of those committed to his care.

When in earlier days Saint Ambrose had proposed to him to study the Bible, Augustine made the attempt but found it distasteful. But now in his Catholic life the Bible became his absorbing passion. It is wonderful to think of a man of Augustine’s philosophical and literary tastes – he tells us he had been accustomed to read half a book of Virgil a day – giving himself up wholly to the study of those Scriptures which he had once reputed as barbarous! Nor was the study of them an easy task for him, even with his prodigious learning. He knew little Greek, so he says, though he shows repeatedly that he had an excellent working knowledge of it; he knew no Hebrew. Nothing daunted by these deficiencies, he gradually gained by assiduous study and meditation a knowledge of the letter and the spirit of Holy Scripture which is absolutely unrivalled. He endeavored, too, to supply for his deficiencies by wide reading, and by repeated appeals for assistance from those who were skilled in Biblical lore. Thus it seems certain that he had read Origen’s works. He corresponded frequently with Saint Jerome, for whose learning he expresses the profoundest admiration. He even proposed to send students to work under his direction.

But this assiduous study of Holy Scripture was not an end in itself. It was but a means. The end in view was the salvation of souls. For the Bible was the Word of God, and was entrusted to the Church as containing God’s revelation of Himself; the Church was to expound it; false interpretations of it only served to beget heresies. Still the Bible was not necessary. It was necessitated by sin, he says; its real object is to feed our faith, our hope, our charity; “A man who is built up upon faith, hope, and charity, and who holds firmly to these, needs not the Scriptures save to instruct others.” The Scriptures are lamps lit in the world for our guidance to the next world, but “lamps will not be necessary when that Last Day comes. Then the Prophets will hot be read to us, we shall not open the Apostle, we shall need no testimony of John’s. Then will all the Scriptures be taken away, lit for us as they were in the night of this world to serve us as lamps.”

But since the Scriptures are thus the Church’s instrument, committed to her as the means for instructing mankind, and so bringing them to eternal life, it behooves God’s minister to know them thoroughly. And first of all he must know what is and what is not Holy Scripture; he must, in other words, make sure that he has the complete Canon of Scripture. Thus in his treatise De Doctrina Christiana, which is little else than a manual of Scripture study, Saint Augustine is careful to give the entire canon of Scripture. He prefaces his list with the warning: “He, then, will be a careful student of the Divine Scriptures who shall have first of all read them in their entirety and obtained a knowledge of them all, at least by reading them, if not as yet by understanding them. I refer, of course, to those only which are canonical. For the other Books will be more securely read by a person who is already instructed in the faith. As regards, however, the canonical Scriptures, let a man follow the authority of the many Catholic churches, among which are rightly reckoned those which merited to be Apostolic Sees, and to be the recipients of the Epistles. A student, then, will observe this rule touching the Scriptures which are canonical, namely, that he prefers those which are received by all the Catholic churches to those which some of these latter do not receive. And as concerns those Books which are not received by all the churches, he will prefer those which are received by the greater number, and by the more important of the churches, to those which are received by the fewer and less important churches. The canon he proceeds to give is identical with that laid down in the Council held at Carthage in 419, at which Saint Augustine was present, and also with the Florentine and Tridentine Canon. How often this question touching the true contents of the canon came up for discussion in those days may be gathered from the fact that the same canon was laid down in the Council of Hippo in 398, also in that of Carthage, 397. So, too, at the close of the year 401, Saint Augustine had occasion to write to Quintianus: “Do not cause scandal in the church by reading to your people Scriptures which the ecclesiastical canons do not admit; for it is by means of such books that heretics – and particularly the Manichseans – are wont to disturb inexperienced minds…. You fail to remember that the Council decided which were the canonical Scriptures to be read to God’s people. Read again, then, the Acts of the Council, and commit to memory what you there read.”

Moreover, a student must know the languages of Scripture. His own deficiency in this respect was a perpetual source of grief to Saint Augustine, and he was often sorely perplexed by the divergent testimonies of the versions. Unfortunately he held that the Septuagint version was inspired; and its disagreement with the Hebrew, as witnessed to by Saint Jerome’s translations, was a further source of perplexity to him. The Latin text, too, was a maze of contradictions. Hence the anxiety he expresses in the De Doctrina Christiana, that students should get a first-hand acquaintance with Biblical languages.

But the great principle with Saint Augustine was that of the plenary inspiration of the Scriptures. They are written by God’s pen: “I seized with eagerness the venerable pen of Thy Spirit, and especially the Apostle Paul…” By the Scriptures God speaks to us: “O Man! what My Scripture saith, I say!” “The Mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus, first of all by His Prophets, then by Himself, afterwards by His Apostles, spoke as much as seemed good to Him, and also fashioned the Scriptures which are termed canonical, and which are of the highest authority. In them we put our faith touching those things of which we cannot afford to be ignorant, and yet which we are not of ourselves sufficient to learn.” Once more: “Letters have come to us from our Fatherland: we will read them to you ,” and he proceeds to quote various passages from Holy Writ. Or again: “We could have believed when He simply spoke. But He did not desire to be believed at His mere word; He wished His Scriptures to be held to; much as though you were to say to a man when you promised him something: Do not believe my word, I will write it to you. For since generations come and generations go, and the centuries pass while we mortal men give place to and succeed one another, God’s writings had to remain; it was, as it were, God’s handwriting which all who pass by might read.” And since inspired – nay penned by God – Scripture cannot err. “I have learned,” he writes to Saint Jerome, in words which are now classical: “to treat only those Books of Scripture which are termed canonical, with such awe and respect as most firmly to believe that none of the authors of these Books have committed any error in writing. And if I stumble upon anything in their writings which appears opposed to the truth, I hesitate not to say that either my copy is defective, or that the translator has not understood what was said, or that I myself have altogether failed to grasp it. But other books I so read that – no matter what the holiness or learning of their authors – I do not believe what they say, simply because those authors so thought, but only in so far as they are able to convince me – either through the above-mentioned Canonical Books or by valid reasoning – that what they say is not alien from the truth.” And on another occasion he writes to Saint Jerome: “If we once admit in high-placed authorities any officious lie, there will remain no single thing in these Books which – according as to one person it seems hard to practise, to another difficult to believe – may not, according to the same pernicious rule, be referred to the officious intention of the author who intends to deceive us.” His reason for demanding such absolute veracity from the Sacred Authors is that “the Spirit Who was in the writer so judged.” Again, when preaching to his people on the apparent discrepancies of the narratives of the Resurrection, he says: “Such is the authority of the Holy Gospels that, since it was One Spirit that spoke in them, that must be true which each one said.” Yet with all this Augustine holds no mechanical view of inspiration: “I dare to say it, brethren, perhaps not even John himself told us things as they were, but as he was able to tell them. For it is a man who is speaking of God; an inspired man indeed, but still a man. Because he was inspired, he said somewhat; had he not been inspired, he would have said naught. But because he was an inspired man he told us not all that was to be told, though he told us what a man could.” A little further on he puts his finger on what the later scholastics were to point to as the very essence of inspiration: “When we lift up our eyes to the Scriptures, let us – since these Scriptures were delivered to us through the ministry of men – lift up our eyes to the mountains whence help shall come to us. Since they were men who wrote the Scriptures, they were, therefore, not light of themselves; but He was the True Light that enlighteneth every man that cometh into this world.”

Principles like these gave him great breadth of view. Thus when Saint John says, “they had rowed therefore about twenty-five or thirty furlongs,” Saint Augustine remarks: “We must not pass over this number of furlongs. Not for nothing did he say: ‘When they had rowed twenty-five or thirty furlongs, then Jesus came to them.’ Twenty-five would have done, thirty would have done, more especially since his words are those of one who estimates, not of one who affirms.”

From all this follows that irrefragable authority of Holy Scripture, on which he is never weary of insisting. But at the same time it is an authority which depends on that of the Church. Thus he says to Faustus the Manichaean: “The excellence of the Books of the Old and New Testaments which are of canonical authority, is quite different from that of the works of later writers; for from the time of the Apostles it has been confirmed by the succession of bishops and by the churches which have sprung from the Apostles, thus these Books are placed, as it were, on a throne on high, for the use of every faithful and pious mind.”

The difficulties of the Bible compelled him to formulate certain rules for his own guidance. These rules are to be found in the treatise De Doctrina Christiana. And since he added the Fourth Book, and also chapters twenty-five to thirty-seven of the Third Book, in 426, these rules are of the greater value, in that they represent his mature mind on the subject. Of this work he says: “The first three Books help us to understand Holy Scripture; the Fourth Book tells us how we are to set forth what we have learned from it.” It would take us beyond our allotted space were we to attempt to give here all the rules laid down by the Saint in his various writings. But briefly we may say that his first rule was that we must believe what the Bible says. Thus in preaching on The Trial of Abraham he says: “The first thing is to believe that what you read so happened, lest, by removing the historical foundation, you be trying to build in the air.” Again, preaching on the words: “He came to it (the fig-tree) and found nothing on it,” he says: “What the Evangelist wrote, let us say; and when we have said it, let us understand it. But that we may understand it, let us first believe. ‘For unless ye believe ye shall not understand,’ as the Prophet says.” And his second principle is: to make sure that we have the true text. Thus in addition to the two Epistles to Saint Jerome already referred to,50 where he speaks so strongly on the subject of textual discrepancies, note how he regards the text of Scripture as sacrosanct: “In the Greek copies we read right cheek,61 and greater trust is to be reposed in these copies. Bui many Latin copies have check only, and omit the word right.” And again: “If the word good is wanting in the Greek copies (from the phrase ‘all good things therefore, whatsoever you would that men should do to you,’ where Saint Augustine’s Latin translations had the word good inserted),53 they must be corrected. But who would dare do this?”

And the third principle is: the multiplicity of meanings which rightly belong to many passages of Holy Scripture: “From one and the same passage of Scripture, not one but two or more meanings can be deduced – even though we perceive not what he meant who penned it; and there is no danger in this, provided such interpretations can be shown to harmonize with the truth set forth in other passages of Holy Writ.” He endeavored to classify these various meanings by dividing them into four groups: “The whole of the Scripture which is termed the Old Testament is delivered in a fourfold manner, viz., according to history, aetiology, analogy, and allegory. Deride me not because I make use of Greek terms! ‘According to history,’ then, is Scripture delivered to us when we are taught what is written or what was done; also what was not done but is only written as though it were done. ‘According to aetiology,’ when we are shown for what cause a thing is said or done. ‘According to analogy,’ when we are shown that the two Testaments, the Old and the New, are not opposed to each other. And ‘according to allegory,’ when we are taught that what is written is not to be taken according to the letter, but to be understood figuratively.” He proceeds to show that ” our Lord Jesus Christ and His Apostles made use of all these methods.”57

Another great principle was the unity of Holy Scripture; thus he says: “One and the same Scripture, then – and one and the same Commandment, too – when repressing slaves who yearn for the good things of earth, is called the Old Testament; when it raises on high the minds of men who are burning with desire of the good things of eternity, is called the New Testament.” And the reason ever insisted on in proof of this oneness of the two Testaments is: “Read all the Books of the Prophets, and if you fail to understand Christ therein, what could you find more insipid or foolish? But if throughout their pages you understand Christ, then not only does what you read appeal to your taste, it inebriates you!” And a little further on: “From the Lord indeed comes the Scripture, but it has no savor save you understand Christ therein!”

Saint Augustine’s main principles in the interpretation of Scripture may be found summarized in the Seven Rules of Tychonius, a Donatist. These rules are given and analyzed in the treatise De Doctrina Christiana, III., xxii.-xxxvii. The first is: Of Christ and His Body, namely, that Christ and His Church form one Person. The second: Of Christ and His divided Body, namely, that good and bad are to be found in the Church. The third: Of the Promises and the Law, or, as Saint Augustine points out, more correctly: Of the Spirit and the Letter. How completely destructive of the principles of the Donatists themselves these rules are, is sarcastically remarked by Saint Augustine. The fourth: Of Species and Genus, or Of the Part and the Whole; by this rule is meant that in Scripture many things are said of an individual, a person, a town, a country, etc., which can only rightly be understood of a much wider whole, e.g., things are said of Solomon which are rightly to be understood of Christ or His Church. The fifth: Of the Times, viz., of the mystic numbers. occurring in Scripture; thus the Transfiguration is referred to by Saint Luke eight days after the preceding event, whereas Saint Matthew and Saint Mark assign it to the sixth day after the preceding event. Under this rule will fall the mystic numbers, three, seven, ten, twelve, etc., which are so frequently used in the Sacred Narrative. The sixth rule is entitled Recapitulations, under which heading are embraced those places where the chronological order of events is disregarded, apparently of set purpose, or where the past is used for the future, as in the Prophets. The seventh: Of the Devil and his Body, i. e., of the kingdom of evil as presented in Holy Scripture.

These rules are amplified by Saint Augustine. He is never weary, for instance, of insisting on the principle that many things in Scripture have to be taken in an allegorical sense; that things are figuratively expressed, and above all, that Revelation is set forth in progressive fashion in the pages of the Bible. “If all novelty were profane,” he says, “it would not have been the Lord Who said: ‘A new commandment I give you;’ nor would the Testament have been termed the New Testament; nor would we sing throughout the world the New Song!”

Yet with all his study of the Bible Saint Augustine ever felt that he but “skimmed the surface” of the Scriptures. Thus he writes in 408 or 409 to Paulinus and Therasia: “After all, we do not touch upon these Divine Words; we do not treat of them!” The very difficulties of the Bible fascinated him. “Heresies come and go,” he writes to Volusianus about the year 412, “they pass like the empires of old; but as for Christ and His Scriptures: What mind that yearns for eternity and that feels the shortness of this present life, can contend against the light, against the overwhelming evidence (admen) of this Divine Authority?” And a little further on: “But Holy Scripture, while accessible to everybody, can only be penetrated by exceeding few. What it clearly contains, that it says to us; it talks with us like a familiar friend, and it speaks without disguise to the heart – whether of the learned or the unlearned. And even those things which it hides under the veil of mystery, it does not set them forth in lofty eloquence, so that the slow and unskilled mind dare not approach – like a poor man fearing to come nigh to a rich man – but, in simple speech, it invites all alike; and when they come Holy Scripture not only feeds them with her manifest teachings, but even exercises them with her hidden truths, for she is true, alike in what is clear as in what is hidden.”

In his early days as a priest Augustine had, as we have seen, begged of his bishop a little time in which to study Holy Scripture. The years of anxious toil slipped away one by one, and still he pored over the Sacred Page. Not long after his consecration, the bishops assembled at the two Councils of Numidia and Carthage desired him to devote himself to Biblical study. He had, therefore, bargained with his flock that they should leave him free from temporal cares for five days in the week, but the compact had not been observed.

In 426 he reminded his people of this when endeavoring to persuade them to accept his nomination of a coadjutor. “Let me now at length,” he said to them, “if God shall grant me a little longer time of life, devote that little space, not to sloth nor idleness, but to His Holy Scriptures, wherein, as far as He allows and gives me strength, I may exercise myself.”

And so the long life of study, of preaching, teaching, and writing drew to a close. Truly a man of the Bible! The Bible is God’s revelation to man: we must then study it. But it is replete with difficulties: we must then have a guide. And that divinelyinstituted guide is Holy Church. If we close our eyes to those two principles we can never understand Saint Augustine’s passionate love of Holy Scripture, neither can we enter into the spirit in which he interpreted it.

– from the article Saint Augustine, The Student of Holy Scripture, by Father Hugh Pope, OP which appeared in Catholic World magazine, 1914