Augustine the spiritual reader

A recent post by my friend Jeremiah Gibbs reminded me of the pleasure of reading Augustine.

One of the great surprises for me the first time I read The Confessions — recall I am a Protestant — was his use of allegorical or spiritual reading of the Bible. For Augustine, such reading was the key that made much of the Old Testament comprehensible. Hearing Ambrose preach allegorically led him to realize that he was hearing truth from texts that had formerly repulsed him.

This realization  was particularly keen when once, and again, and indeed frequently, I heard some difficult passage of the Old Testament explained figuratively;such passages had been death to me because I was taking them literally. As I listened to man such scriptural texts being interpreted in a spiritual sense I confronted my own attitude, or at least that despair which had led me to believe that no resistance whatever could be offered to people who loathed and derided the law and the prophets. (The Confessions V.14.24)

It is not clear to me whether the objectionable passages were those that conflicted with Augustine’s late Roman philosophy or those that many Western Christians in 2014 find difficult — those that depict genocide and insist on taboos we find objectionable.

But I do find it interesting how Augustine solved the problem that we still wrestle with in various ways. Adam Hamilton is the latest among us Untied Methodists to try to make the “difficult” parts of the Old Testament comprehensible to the testimony of the New Testament. Hamilton uses three buckets. Augustine used different ways of reading – literal vs. spiritual.

I don’t want to push the Augustine-Hamilton comparison too far, for a number of reasons. But it is interesting to note that these supposedly new and vexing questions that torment Christians in the 21st century are actually not even remotely new nor uniquely vexing to us. Thoughtful Christians (a phrase Hamilton likes to use) have been wrestling with these questions from the days of the Apostles and Church Fathers.

What remains the largest distinction between Hamilton’s buckets and Augustine’s spiritual reading, however, is the attitude toward Scripture that springs from each approach. Hamilton’s buckets approach discards many of the difficult and outrageous passages of Scripture as unworthy of God. Augustine finds in spiritual reading a deeper reverence for all of Scripture.

The authority of the sacred writings seemed to me all the more deserving of reverence and divine faith in the scripture was easily accessible to every reader, while yet guarding a mysterious dignity in its deeper sense. In plain words and very humble modes of speech it offered itself to everyone, yet stretched the understanding of those who were not shallow-minded. It welcomed all comers to its hospitable embrace, yet through narrow openings attracted a few to you — a few, perhaps, but far more than it would have done had it not spoken with such noble authority and drawn the crowds to its embrace by it holy humility. (VI. 5. 8)

The elitism in Augustine is undeniable, but this is hardly unique to him among those who approach scripture attempting to make it “credible” to “thoughtful” Christians, words I read quite often among many of our contemporaries.

I am aware of the problems of spiritual readings of Scripture. But if my choice is chucking whole sections of the Bible in the bucket labeled slander against God, I think it would be better to read in the way of Augustine.

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