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.