Augustine On The Hermeneutics Of Love

While Augustine argues that ‘there are two things on which all interpretation of Scripture depends: the mode of ascertaining the proper meaning and the mode of making known the meaning when it is ascertained,’ it should be evident that the first step in this process is ethical. First, the ‘meaning’ of a word, while it may be unknown or ambiguous, is the ‘thing’ which is indicated by the word. The ‘thing’ indicated by the word must be the ‘thing’ which the author had in mind as signified by the word. One cannot ascertain the ‘thing’ truly unless one has been ‘purified’ from the corrupting effects of pride and therefore possesses an ‘unprejudiced estimate’ of things. Therefore, the only way to ‘ascertain’ the meaning of the text is to submit to the ‘thing’ intended by the author and to deny one’s own corrupting influence. One must, in other words, humbly submit to the author’s intended ‘object of love’ if one is every to have a grasp of the meaning of the author’s words.

—Warren Charles Embree, “Ethics and Interpretation,” PhD Diss. University of Nebraska, 1992, 149–50.

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One comment

  1. This reminded me of a quote of Augustine’s on how to understand difficult passages of Scripture and especially its application to verses having to do with the Lord’s Supper:

    “Seldom is any difficulty in proper words, but either the circumstances of the place, or the conferring of divers translations, or else the original tongue wherein it was written, will make the sense plain. But in words that be altered from their proper signification, there is great diligence and heed to be taken And specially we must beware, that we take not literally any thing that is spoken figuratively. For contrariwise, we must not take for a figure, any thing that is spoken properly. Therefore must be declared the manner how to discern a proper speech from a figurative; wherein must be observed this rule, that if the thing which is spoken be to the furtherance of charity, then it is a proper speech, and no figure. So that if it be a commandment that forbiddeth any evil or wicked act, or commandeth any good or beneficial thing, then it is no figure. But if it command any ill or wicked thing, or forbid anything that is good and beneficial, then it is a figurative speech.”

    [De Doctrina Christiana]

    He applies the rule:

    Now the saying of Christ, ‘Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall have no life in you’, seemeth to command an heinous and a wicked thing; therefore it is a figure, commanding us to be partakers of Christ’s passion, keeping in our minds to our great comfort and profit, that his flesh was wounded for us.

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