Per Caritatem

As Michael Hanby notes, in the Confessions, Augustine teaches that there is a “plenitude of true meanings for a single text” […] The ontological warrant that underlies this insistence throughout the Augustinian corpus derives, in part, from the very nature of truth’s oneness, which defies its circumscription or possession” (Augustine and Modernity, p. 34). For example, in Confessions XII, Augustine writes:

“Having listened to all these divergent opinions and weighed them, I do not wish to bandy words, for that serves no purpose except to ruin those who listen. The law is an excellent thing for building us up provided we use it lawfully, because its object is to promote the charity which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and unfeigned faith, and I know what were the twin precepts on which our Master made the whole law and prophets depend. 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? I repeat, what does it matter to me if what I think the author thought is different from what someone else thinks he thought? All of us, his readers, are doing our utmost to search out and understand the writer’s intention, and since we believe him to be truthful, we do not presume to interpret him as making any statement that we either know or suppose to be false. Provided, therefore, that each person tries to ascertain in the holy scriptures the meaning the author intended, what harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you, the light of all truthful minds, show to be true, even though it is not what was intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that?” (Augustine’s Confess. XII.27, pp. 327-328, M. Boulding translation).

Maria Boulding (the translator) adds the following note in regard to the passage above, “Augustine’s recognition that meanings other than those intended by the writer can legitimately be discovered in the sacred text is grounded in his conviction that the God of truth who inspired the writer and guarantees the text abides in the minds of believing readers, and that though God makes use of human words, they are never adequate to fully express his mystery; there is always a ‘plus’ of meaning” (p. 323, note 71).

We definitely have something more than gramatico-historical hermeneutics in place here. (Anachronistically speaking, our apologies to Spinoza and company).


4 Responses so far

Dear Cynthia – I posted the following on my blog refWrite just now –

Pisteutics: Scripture: Emerging philosopher Cynthia Nielsen on the Augustian line of reflection today re surplus of meaning
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I don’t usually admit blog-entries explicitly philosophical-theological into the precincts of refWrite, but today I do. I do so because of the deep resonance of philosophy blogger Cynthia Nielsen’s latest on her Per Caritatem. One thing I’ve noted, is that she seems to be mining moments of truth from ancient Christian thinkers that have been repristinated in the thawt of some Christian thinkers today which have at least momentary coincidence with what are generalized as “postmodernists.”

Scholarship in a Christian line of thawt:

Now, there’s a lot of brittle denunciation of “postmodernists” these days among folk who consider themselves “conservatives” but who don’t know the tradition well enuff to judge what is more Christian and what is less Christian in what they themselves are conserving, nor from what century their particular fetishes of interpretation originate. And not just the theocons, but the theolefts as well, like Jim Wallis.

Be that as it may, I have two intellectual sources I love for their contribution to my mind in sofar as I have been able to keep on converting into a Christian mind. One is Bob Sweetman of the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, without a thoro knowledge of whose writings on Augustine and the Augustinian line traced by him in a free-flowing Vollenhovenian manner (consequent problem-historical method) any student of this particular giant of Western philosophy and theology is impoverished. The other is Paul Ricoeur whose entire top-notch book on Metaphor turns around the notion of “surplus of meaning,” especially as metaphor-phenom come to full flower in poetry (combine Ricoeur with Roman Jakobson on “Distinctive Features” of a given language’s sound-system, plus John Ciardi’s Sound and Sense, and then you understand something of what poetry is in the first instance). For Ricoeur, whose philosophical project arose out of the tradition and milieu of l’Église réformée de France, but who tawt also in anglophone countries and has been much translated, metaphor-dominated poetry when generating live metaphors and not dead ones, is a key to a language-specific aesthetic way of knowing irreducible to any other (Seerveld, Zuidervaart, Chaplin-Dengerink). This brings us to the nexus of the metaphory of Scripture, the structure of metaphor in Scripture, and Scripture as a metaphor (Northrup Frye, his two books on The Great Code of the West, the second being entitled Words of Power. Most philosophy and theology doesn’t bother to research the specificity of this layer integral to Scripture’s meaning. So Nielsen’s gem from Augustine comes indeed as a breath of fresh air. Or perhaps I’m only longing for Springtime here in the grey North, and when it comes I know I shall be turning to the great heathen poet, e.e.cummings’ Spring is a perhaps hand.

Nielsen: Christian philosopher cites Saint Augustine on interpreting Scripture:

Augustine On Interpreting Scripture: Always a “Plus” of Meaning, she headlines her following note, and I quote in full:

As Michael Hanby notes, in the Confessions, Augustine teaches that there is a “plenitude of true meanings for a single text” […] The ontological warrant that underlies this insistence throughout the Augustinian corpus derives, in part, from the very nature of truth’s oneness, which defies its circumscription or possession” (Augustine and Modernity, p. 34). For example, in Confessions XII, Augustine writes:

“Having listened to all these divergent opinions and weighed them, I do not wish to bandy words, for that serves no purpose except to ruin those who listen. The law is an excellent thing for building us up provided we use it lawfully, because its object is to promote the charity which springs from a pure heart, a good conscience and unfeigned faith, and I know what were the twin precepts on which our Master made the whole law and prophets depend. 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? I repeat, what does it matter to me if what I think the author thought is different from what someone else thinks he thought? All of us, his readers, are doing our utmost to search out and understand the writer’s intention, and since we believe him to be truthful, we do not presume to interpret him as making any statement that we either know or suppose to be false. Provided, therefore, that each person tries to ascertain in the holy scriptures the meaning the author intended, what harm is there if a reader holds an opinion which you, the light of all truthful minds, show to be true, even though it is not what was intended by the author, who himself meant something true, but not exactly that?” (Augustine’s Confess. XII.27, pp. 327-328, M. Boulding translation).

I thank all readers who are tolerant of my digressive discourse on this theme that is important to me, beyond all the dreadful news of the day that usually I try to analyze in my desultory way. Thanks, Cynthia, for sparking me today to set aside momentarily my stated main thinkfield here, and to think otherwise. – Owlb / Semaphore


Hi Owlb,

Glad that you enjoyed the post!

Kind regards,
Cynthia


Hey Cynthia,

I’m wondering if the ‘plus’ of meaning is indeed a different meaning, an inexhaustible expression of singular meaning(because God, the Author is infinite and inexhaustible), or something else? I’m recalling Prof. Poythress saying quite a bit about this in his “God-Centered Biblical Interpretation”. I may have to look that up.

In any case, as usual, a very thought provoking and stimulating post!

blessings.


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