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

In agreement with Gadamer, Augustine did not conceive of biblical hermeneutics as akin to solving a math problem—a model which assumes a univocal, “flat” understanding of meaning (and reality) and denies an analogical, “symbolic” approach to meaning (and reality). In contrast with, e.g., a strict grammatico-historical hermeneutic (as instituted by B. Spinoza), the Church Fathers and medievals understood both Scripture and reality not “flatly” but multi-layered because both correspond to and reveal an Infinite Creator. As Henri De Lubac explains, the doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture—the historical, allegorical, moral or tropological and anagogical—“provided a framework of thought for numerous generations of Christians.” Interestingly, those who adopt a strict grammatico-historical “method” of interpretation tend to embrace only the literal or historical sense of Scripture. Likewise, those following this tradition claim to interpret Scripture in an “unbiased” manner, free from all prejudices and traditions. Postmoderns, of course, are very suspicious of such a claim. In contrast, as de Lubac indicates and Augustine seems to agree, the Church Fathers and medievals openly acknowledged their dependence on tradition and the interpretations handed down to the Church by the apostles and their successors. “Right from the beginning, in the first century of the Church’s existence, at the time of the very first generation of Christians, it was a matter of Scripture being read or the word of God being heard in the Church and interpreted by Tradition.” So we see that the Church from its very inception openly acknowledged her dependence on the interpretative authority of her leaders—Christ being the chief interpreter, who in turn instructed the apostles, and they in turn faithfully taught others. Moreover, neither the Church Fathers nor the medievals approached Scripture as just another human book or piece of literature to be studied or examined scientifically, much less as something to be dissected and treated atomistically. Rather, Holy Scripture was first and foremost understood as the very word of God, which having many parts is nonetheless, one story, written ultimately by One Author, and culminating in One Person, the Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, instead of approaching Scripture as a collection of divergent and contradicting accounts, the Christian comes to Scripture as a unified whole—whose unfolding drama is permeated with Christ.

Does this mean that the apostles, as well as the Church Fathers and medievals were biased and came to the Scriptures with their interpretative goal (i.e., Christ) already in mind? Here again, perhaps Gadamer has something to add to the “conversation.” In stark contrast to a modern aversion to prejudice or bias as a hindrance to “objectivity,” Gadamer presents a positive view of prejudices in his understanding of hermeneutics. According to Gadamer, all of us come to the text with our own prejudices or “horizons” and these biases are not be understood as solely negative or as necessarily closing off understanding. Though it is the case that our prejudices or presuppositions can and do set limits on our interpretative endeavors, it is not the case that our prejudices are unalterable nor are they always active in a negative, limiting way. Rather, they can and do often have a positive or productive function and actually help to promote understanding. Addressing this positive aspect of our prejudices, Gadamer writes,

“Prejudices are not necessarily unjustified and erroneous, so that they inevitably distort the truth. In fact, the historicity of our existence entails that prejudices, in the literal sense of the word [pre-judgment], constitute the initial directedness of our whole ability to experience. Prejudices are our biases of our openness to the world. They are simply the conditions whereby we experience something—whereby what we encounter says something to us. This formulation certainly does not mean that we are enclosed within a wall of prejudices and only let through the narrow portals those things that can produce a pass saying, ‘Nothing new will be said here.’”

Until we engage a text (with an openness to being changed by that text) we are often unaware of our biases. Thus, it is through our dialogic encounter with the text that are prejudices are made evident to us—i.e., we must be open or “made open” to having our presuppositions laid bare, as well as to having our presuppositions altered or done away with completely.

Although it is the case as de Lubac observes that “Christian exegesis is an exegesis in faith,” unbelieving “systems” of thought likewise involve prejudices and (unproven) presuppositions. Yet, differing worldviews can be compared, analyzed, and tested so as to see which claims conform to reality and experience. Faith and reason for Augustine (and many postmoderns) are mutually influencing harmonies, not dichotomous dissonances. Certainly, it is the case that “an exegesis in faith” presupposes faith—faith that is a gift of God (and Augustine of course would wholeheartedly agree). Those who have been given this faith will find Christ in the Scriptures; those devoid of such faith will not. As we have seen, this was in fact Augustine’s experience. That is, prior to the gift of faith and a totus homo conversion, he was neither able to “see” Scripture aright nor to appreciate its depths. Yet, after receiving the gift of faith, his attitude toward Scripture changed dramatically. Indeed for the Church Fathers, as well as the Augustine and the medievals (and for those who see with the eyes of faith today), “Jesus Christ brings about the unity of Scripture, because He is the endpoint and fullness of Scripture. Everything in it is related to him. In the end, He is its sole object. Consequently, He is, so to speak, its whole exegesis.”

In sum, Augustine’s approach to Scripture contrasts sharply with a (strict) modern grammatico-historical biblical methodology, whereas premodern “hermeneutics” share a number of continuities with postmodern emphases. Given our current post-modern context, Christians of the 21st century should appropriate this “Egyptian gold” and continue the Augustinian tradition of “plundering.” Lastly, if Gadamer is right and “all of life is hermeneutics,” then perhaps what I have presented as a whole is not as fragmented as at first it might appear. That is, pre-judgments, interpretative traditions and a dynamic/analogical rather than a static/univocal understanding of the text (and reality) have all played decisive roles in Augustine’s various encounters with texts and individuals. Moreover, as we have seen from Augustine’s story, in his unconverted, dis-ordered state, his life was an enigma, full of instability and unrest. Even the best education—which included reading the classical authors and philosophers—was ultimately ineffective, as it lacked the power to transform Augustine’s whole person. Yet, when Augustine’s will is brought into alignment with Christ through the gift of grace, his restless heart is at last brought to a “place” of repose. Hence, for Augustine that which brings unity and purpose to all texts (sacred and profane), all relationships, and to reality itself is Christ—Caritas and Veritas Incarnate.


Augustine. Confessions. Trans., Maria Boulding. Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997.

De Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis (Vol. 1): The Four Senses of Scripture. Translated by Mark Sebanc. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Philosophical Hermeneutics. Trans. and ed., David E.
Linge. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1977.

__________________. Truth and Method. Trans. and revised, Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Continuum, 2004.

Martin, Thomas F. “Book Twelve: Exegesis and Confessio.” As found in A Reader’s Companion to Augustine’s Confessions. Eds., Kim Paffenroth and Robert P. Kennedy. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), pp. 185-206.

2 thoughts on “Part VI: St. Augustine’s Encounter with Words and the Word”

  1. Hi C – a wonderful set of posts. The last two particularly, because I just finished reading “A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible” by Robert Grant and David Tracy, and they discuss several of the issues you raise, including Gadamer’s hermeneutics.

    I have several thoughts. First, I wonder if the grammatical-historical method is as modern as we often think? One of the things that comes out in the above book is that both ancient catechetical schools – Antioch and Alexandria – acknowledged deeper meanings to Scripture. The dispute was not between an allegorical method and a non-allegorical method, but whether those deeper meanings were rooted in the literal sense. They quote Origen, for example, where he denies that Christ was actually taken to a mountaintop and shown all the kingdoms of the earth and sees the episode as some sort of spiritual symbolism. Antiochan exegesis, they said, would not deny the deeper meanings but insists that the account is historical – or, better, that the text has a referent answering to its literal sense, based on which the deeper meanings take place.

    Another thought was that I’ve heard it argued that in its Reformed expression the grammatical-historical method has traditionally allowed for this sort of multi-valence in the text, enough that it could be viewed as Antiochan and as having roots in the ancient and medieval church. The distinction between Reformation and pre-Reformation exegesis, I’ve been told, has more to do with Renaissance advances in philology and textual criticism than with overall heremeneutical strategies. If so, I wonder if Reformed exegesis would be subject to the criticisms you outline of the “strict” GH method, or whether it is better to see them as distinct?

  2. Hi Mike,

    Good to hear from you as always! Thanks for engaging this post and for bringing up some excellent questions. Your clarification of the differences between the Antiochan and Alexandrian schools is helpful, viz., that both accept deeper or multivalent levels of meaning in Scripture but only the Antiochan school claims that that these deeper meanings must be rooted in the literal/historical sense. If I recall correctly, St. Thomas also says that the other senses of Scripture must be rooted in a literal/historical sense and if that is the case, then the Reformed tradition and certain currents of the Catholic tradition are both more Antiochan than Alexandrian (which is what you seem to suggest in the second part of your comment). I guess what I am trying to stress when I distinguish a modernist GH approach to say a Reformed or Catholic approach that allows for multiple meanings is that the former seems to insist on a univocal meaning (in a mathematical kind of way), whereas the latter has room for typology, symbolism, etc.—in short the latter has a completely different understanding of “signs” –whether written signs or “signs” in the created order, all these have the potential to take on a sacramental or iconic function. And if all of them are intended to point to or refer to or intend us to God, then it seems to me that multiple layers of meaning are necessary because they attempt to give us a glimpse of an infinite God.

    To address your last question, given what I’ve said above, I don’t think that a Reformed GH approach which allows for multiple meanings, yet so to speak “privileges” the literal or historical would at all fall within what I am criticizing in what I label a “strict” GH (i.e., modernist) hermeneutic. E.g. I can think of Calvin’s GH approach which of course involves accommodation and typology (i.e., a Christocentric view of the OT) —that alone in my opinion places him outside a strict GH hermeneutic.

    I hope that what I’ve said makes sense. Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.


Comments are closed.