Augustine on the many truths in scripture

Above all, I heard first one, then another, then many difficult passages in the Old Testament scriptures figuratively interpreted, where I, by taking them literally, had found them to kill. So after several passages in the Old Testament had been expounded spiritually, I now found fault with that despair of mine, caused by my belief that the law and the prophets could not be defended at all against the mockery of hostile critics.

The first time I read Augustine’s Confessions, I was reading for the spiritual biography. I was interested in the pear stealing and the sex and the word that came to him in the garden and his eventual baptism. It was a story I read as a type of conversion narrative.

In re-reading the book this month, I’ve been struck by the depth of engagement with the meaning, interpretation, and reception of the Bible. His concerns and struggles sound very contemporary, and his solutions do as well.

In his engagement with Genesis at the end of the book – a part I skimmed through without much attention the first time I read it – I find myself fascinated with the non-dogmatic nature of his conclusions about how to read the scripture. I hear the Wesleyan “think and let think” now as at least a partial echo of Augustine.

Here, for instance, is Augustine on how to reconcile that fact that different people read the opening lines of Genesis in different ways, some of them incompatible with each other, but none of them incompatible with a high view of God.

So when one person has said ‘Moses thought what I say,’ and another, ‘No, what I say,’ I think it more religious in spirit to say ‘Why not both if both are true?’ And if anyone sees a third or fourth or a further truth in these words, why not believe that Moses discerned all these things? For through him the one God has tempered the sacred books to the interpretation of many, who could come to see a diversity of truths.

I don’t want to either misrepresent what Augustine was really getting at here or oversimplify the point, but I do hear in this a basic impulse against a tendency we I often have – and I often feel – that if we can’t all read the Bible in fairly similar ways, then something is wrong.

Augustine opens up the possibility that there may be many truths within the text. I find this a fascinating thing to discover reading this book by this great church father.

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