Augustine on Literal and Figurative Interpretation (1)

Saint_Augustine_PortraitIn light of my previous post (here), one very reasonable question might have come to mind: how did the Fathers determine what in Scripture was to be taken literally, versus what is to be understood figuratively? This is hardly an abstract debate: Origen’s decision to castrate himself (to “become a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom”) serves as a classic example in which it’s probably safe to say that he made the wrong choice (something which he himself concluded later in his life).

While different early Christian writers used different criteria in deciding what was to be understood literally as opposed to figuratively, Augustine’s stands out as particularly memorable, even poignant. In his words (On Christian Doctrine, 3.10.14; trans. Robertson):

And generally this method [for distinguishing literal from figurative] consists in this: that whatever appears in the divine Word that does not literally pertain to virtuous behavior or to the truth of faith you must take to be figurative. Virtuous behavior pertains to the love of God and of one’s neighbor; the truth of faith pertains to a knowledge of God and of one’s neighbor. For the hope of everyone lies in his own conscience in so far as he knows himself to be becoming more proficient in the love of God and of his neighbor.

What, though, is virtuous behavior? Augustine recognizes the existence of ethical relativism from culture to culture, and thus shifts the emphasis back to Scripture, which, in his mind, “teaches nothing but charity” (3.10.15); by “charity” he means nothing less than the soul’s increase in its twofold love toward God and neighbor, both for God’s sake (3.10.16, here drawing on arguments from Book I). Thus, in summary (3.15.23):

In the consideration of figurative expressions a rule such as this will serve, that what is read should be subjected to diligent scrutiny until an interpretation contributing to the reign of charity is produced. If this result appears literally in the text, the expression being considered is not figurative.

Augustine then turns to some examples (3.16.24):

If a locution is admonitory, condemning either vice or crime or commending either utility or beneficence, it is not figurative. But if it seems to commend either vice or crime or to condemn either utility or beneficence, it is figurative. “Except you eat,” He says, “the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you” (John 12.25). He seems to commend a crime or a vice. It is therefore a figure, admonishing communion in the Passion of Our Lord, and sweetly and usefully concealing a memorial of the fact that His flesh was crucified and wounded for us.

The Scripture says, “If thy enemy be hungry, give him to eat; if he thirst, give him to drink” (Rom 12.20). This undoubtedly commands a beneficence, but what follows might be taken to command a crime of malevolence: “For, doing this, though shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.” Therefore do not doubt that this is said figuratively. And since it can be interpreted in two ways, one admonishing harm, another admonishing benefit, charity should call you to beneficence so that you understand the coals of fire to be the burning sighs of penitence which heal the pride of the one who sorrows that he was an enemy of the man from whom he had received assistance for his misery.

This all seems straightforward enough, but, as Augustine himself admits, some matters are more complex, and we’ll turn to these next time.


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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