Part V: St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word

The Word In-Excess

Now that we have traced Augustine’s journey to his conversion, I want to spend some time discussing Augustine’s more humble orientation toward Scripture and the ways in which his hermeneutical practices have much in common with certain postmodern sympathies, and conversely, the ways in which Augustine’s approach to Scripture contrasts with modern biblical hermeneutics. As we have examined the various texts and persons to which Augustine had been providentially directed, we have seen how each experience (however circuitous it may have been) enabled Augustine to move toward his destiny. Not only lust, but perhaps more significantly, pride in its diverse manifestations, proved to be a hindrance in Augustine’s ability to ascertain truth. However, now as a mature Christian—in fact a leader of the Church—Augustine the Bishop perceives a profound depth in Scripture, which allows for multiple levels of meanings and even multiple true interpretations. For example, in book XII, Augustine, after reviewing a number of possible true interpretations for Gen 1:1 and emphasizing that charity must be keep in view in regard to our hermeneutical endeavors, writes,

“[w]hat 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?”

Interestingly, though Augustine states that he and others strive after the author’s intention, yet he also claims that it is not only possible but quite acceptable that true meanings be revealed (by God himself) that go beyond the mens auctoris. Here we might bring Augustine “into conversation” with Hans-Georg Gadamer. As David Linge explains, for Gadamer, the meaning of a text is not simply restricted to the intention of the author, nor is interpretation solely construed as an attempt to replicate the author’s original intention. This reflects in part Gadamer’s understanding of the text itself as something living and dynamic. Moreover, the text cannot be approached as if it were a math problem in which one and only one answer is correct. Nor should one attempt to come up with a method or formula that when applied produces the same result each time—such a model has more in common with scientific experiments than with a living, breathing textual dialogue. In addition, a hermeneutical theory that restricts the meaning of the text to the intention of the author is riddled with seemingly insoluble difficulties. Highlighting the tensions of such a theory, Linge writes,

“The basic difficulty with this theory is that it subjectifies both meaning and understanding, thus rendering unintelligible the development of tradition that transmits the text or art work to us and influences our reception of it in the present. When meaning is located exclusively in the mens auctoris, understanding becomes a transaction between the creative consciousness of the author and the purely reproductive consciousness of the interpreter. The inadequacy of this theory to deal positively with history is perhaps best seen in its inability to explain the host of competing interpretations of texts with which history is replete, and that in fact constitute the substance of tradition.”

Some try to explain away the multiplicity of interpretations by claiming that there is a kind “meaning-in-itself” which is univocal, yet its significance for interpreters varies over time. This, however, is unsatisfactory as it is clear that interpreters within the same tradition in different historical epochs have disagreed not merely in the significance or application of the supposed univocal meaning of a text but in what they thought they saw in the very same text. Rather, than limit the meaning of a text solely to the author’s intention, Gadamer understands the text as having an “excess of meaning” upon which tradition builds.

Elucidating his position, Gadamer writes,

“Every time will have to understand a text handed down to it in its own way, for it is subject to the whole of the tradition in which it has a material interest and in which it seeks to understand itself. The real meaning of a text as it addresses the interpreter does not just depend on the occasional factors which characterize the author and his original public. For it is also always co-determined by the historical situation of the interpreter and thus by the whole of the objective course of history … The meaning of a text surpasses its author not occasionally, but always. Thus understanding is not a reproductive procedure, but rather always also a productive one… It suffices to say that one understands differently when one understands at all.”

At this point, some might object that such a view opens itself up to charges of relativism or a kind of hermeneutical anarchy. However, these conclusions do not necessarily follow—in fact, in no way did they follow for Augustine (and the premodern interpretative tradition) who, as we have seen, accepts the idea of a surplus of meaning beyond the intention of the author. For Augustine, the fact that we have a multitude of true interpretations and levels of meaning in Scripture indicates the infinity and incomprehensibility of the Referent to which these signs point—not that truth is relative or that there is no truth.

In the next post, we shall compare and contrast various aspects of premodern and postmodern biblical hermeneutics with those of modern practices.

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