Thursday, November 13, 2008

Augustine on the Hard Sayings of the Bible

Bill's comment reminded me of a great passage from Augustine's On Christian Doctrine. Since I don't have time to compose anything of my own, Augustine will have to do instead:
But many and varied obscurities and ambiguities deceive those who read casually, understanding one thing instead of another; indeed, in certain places they do not find anything to interpret erroneously, so obscurely are certain sayings covered with a most dense mist. I do not doubt that this situation was provided by God to conquer pride by work and to combat disdain in our minds, to which those things which are easily discovered seem frequently to become worthless.
Augustine illustrates his point with an allegorical reading of Song of Songs 4:2:
For example, it may be said that there are holy and perfect men with whose lives and customs as an exemplar the Church of Christ is able to destroy all sorts of superstitions.... But why is it, I ask, that if anyone says this he delights his hearers less than if he had said the same thing in expounding that place in the Canticle of Canticles where it is said of the Church, as she is being praised as a beautiful woman, 'Thy teeth are as flocks of sheep, that are shorn, which come up from the washing, all with twins, and there is none barren among them'? Does one learn anything else besides that which he learns when he hears the same thought expressed in plain words without this similitude? Nevertheless, in a strange way, I contemplate the saints more pleasantly when I envisage them as the teeth of the Church cutting off men from their errors and transferring them to her body after their hardness has been softened as if by being bitten and chewed....
And here is the point:
For the present, however, no one doubts that things are perceived more readily through similitudes and that what is sought with difficulty is discovered with more pleasure. Those who do not find what they seek directly stated labor in hunger; those who do not seek because they have what they wish at once frequently become indolent in disdain. In either of these situations indifference is an evil. Thus the Holy Spirit has magnificently and wholesomely modulated the Holy Scriptures so that the more open places present themselves to hunger and the more obscure places may deter a disdainful attitude. Hardly anything may be found in these obscure places which is not found plainly said elsewhere. - Saint Augustine: On Christian Doctrine, Book 2.6 (D.W. Robertson, trans.; New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1997), 37-38.
Whatever you make of the allegory, the pastoral point is still worth a hearing.

2 comments:

bill erlenbach said...

After my comment I had better not disagree with Augustine here :) I think he says it well.

While I have not read Augustine enough yet, and have not read "On Christian Doctrine," I must credit Augustine with helping my own journey here. It is a theme that is present in his "Confessions" although I do not recall where (currently my copy is still buried in a storage unit).

As far as the allegory...so how's the weather out in Saskatchewan ;)

d. miller said...

The de Doctrina is insightful and quite short. Well worth a quick read!