“Like fingernails on a chalkboard.” Sometimes that phrase captures my response to a bizarre interpretation of Scripture. For example, I recently read a modern commentary on the story in Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus heals a man with leprosy: “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I am willing. Be clean!’ The leprosy left him at once, and he was clean” (Mark 1:41–42, NET). The commentary gave the following interpretation of the healing: “. . . A cure from leprosy could scarcely be so immediate. . . . Perhaps Mark means that the power of leprosy left the man at that moment.”1 Really? I am sure you could give many more examples of poor interpretations of Scripture. To be sure, none of us interprets Scripture perfectly but all Christians should desire to interpret Scripture faithfully, in a way that pleases its Author.
Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) is a vast subject. There are scores of books and articles on the interpretation of Scripture. To learn more about interpreting Scripture, it is essential to look to the past to see how Christians before us have approached this topic. If we ignore the interpretive methods of Christians in the past, we deprive ourselves in the present of some profound and edifying ways to understand the truths of Scripture.
One ancient theologian who can help modern Christians interpret Scripture in a better way is Augustine (AD 354–430). Many people are familiar with Augustine’s books City of God and Confessions but he also preached and wrote countless sermons, letters, and treatises. When reading his writings, it is easy to see that he had a profound knowledge of the Bible and in his extensive writings, he discussed the proper ways to read, interpret, and understand Holy Scripture. He has been known as “the foremost exegete of the early church” and “one of the dominant interpretive voices of the church fathers.”2
When it comes to Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture, there are many aspects that we could investigate. There is not enough space to explore them all in a few short essays but I believe several themes stand out in his interpretation of sacred Scripture. First, he interpreted Scripture in a Christ-centered way. Second, for Augustine, biblical interpretation had everything to do with love. Finally, Augustine was not hesitant to see a fullness of meaning in the texts of Scripture. There are more themes in Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture, such as his use of the rule of faith, typology, or the fact that Scripture interprets Scripture.3 In this three-part series, we will explore just these three: Christ, love, and fullness of meaning. I believe these three interpretive themes are beneficial for understanding Scripture in a way that glorifies Christ, strengthens faith, and motivates us to obedience.
The Reply to Faustus
Augustine conscientiously interpreted Scripture, specifically the Old Testament (OT), in a very Christ-centered manner. His tracts, books, and sermons are filled with clear examples of Christ-centered expositions of Scripture. For instance, in City of God, he noted that the Old Testament Scriptures foretell “the coming salvation in Christ.”4 In his homilies on 1 John, he referred to Luke 24 and said of the OT: “All that there is of those former Scriptures tells of Christ. . . .”5
One of the greater examples of Augustine’s view of Christ in the Old Testament is in his reply to Faustus, who was in the Manichaean sect, which believed the universe consists of two equal powers: good and evil. This sect had many other beliefs that were opposed to Christianity. For example, the Manichaeans vehemently denied that the OT had any references to Christ. Augustine had been in the Manichaean sect for a brief time but when he became a Christian, he left the sect and became highly critical of it. In his reply to Faustus, Augustine criticized the Manichaeans for being blind to the reality that the OT spoke about Christ.
He first critiqued Faustus for believing the New Testament (NT) Apostles while not believing the OT Prophets. He told Faustus that the Apostles themselves believed the writings of the Prophets. Furthermore, the Apostles believed that the Prophets spoke of Christ (cf. Rom 1:1–3). To disbelieve the Prophets while believing the Apostles, as Faustus claimed to do, was frivolous and foolish.6 Because they reject the OT prophets, Augustine said the Manichaeans “preach another Christ. . . a false christ of their own contrivance.”7 In other words, Augustine said that to preach Christ while denying the OT prophecies about him is to preach a false Christ. In contrast to the Manichaeans, he wrote of the apostolic church: “We have a Christ true and truthful, foretold by the prophets, preached by the Apostles, who in innumerable places refer to the testimonies of the law and the prophets in support of their preaching.”8
He continued his critique by telling Faustus that one should believe the apostles when they repeatedly interpreted OT prophecies as referring to Christ. Since Faustus did not do this, Augustine gave him some examples of how various OT texts prophetically present Christ. He argued that it happens so frequently that it would take too much space to explain them all: “To enumerate all the passages in the Hebrew prophets referring to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, would exceed the limits of a volume, not to speak of the brief replies of which this treatise consists.”9 In Augustine’s view, “the whole contents of these [OT] Scriptures are either directly or indirectly about Christ.”10 Proper biblical interpretation is not subjective, nor does it mean whatever we feel it means. It is objectively about Christ whether or not we feel it.
Augustine further explained in the paragraphs following his claim that the Scriptures are all about Christ. He said that the whole narrative of Genesis is about Christ. Adam was a type of Christ. Abel died in the field; Christ died on Calvary. Noah’s story foretells Christ. Isaac carried the wood for his sacrifice; Christ did the same. In the judges and the kings, one sees Christ “repeatedly prefigured in many and various ways.”11 Augustine told Faustus that “Scriptures teem with such predictions” about Christ.12
He also argued that there are many obvious references to Christ in the Scriptures: “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter.” “With his stripes, we are healed.” “They divided my garments among them.” Simple and uneducated people can see that these are references to Jesus. Augustine elsewhere wrote that even the historical events in the OT always have “some foreshadowing of things to come, and are always to be interpreted with reference to Christ and his Church.”13
It would be difficult to exaggerate Augustine’s position that the OT is overflowing with references to Christ and it should be noted that he learned to read the OT in a Christ-centered manner from the Apostles and Christ himself. In his reply, he exhorted Faustus to follow the interpretive method of the Apostles and Christ by seeing Christ all over the OT.
Christ Speaking in the Scriptures
His Christ-centered view of the OT is even more profound. He believed that Christ spoke in and through the OT: “Jesus Christ speaks in the prophetic books in the character of the Lord God, and yet it is abundantly clear that Jesus Christ is speaking.”14 Bruce Waltke summarized Augustine’s hermeneutic of the Psalms:
The idea expounded by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12–27 had a major influence on Augustine’s Christology. Augustine relied extensively on this in his interpretation of the Psalms. The Psalms became no longer simply the voice of David, but the vox totius Christi, the “voice of the whole Christ.”15
In other words, Augustine said Christ speaks in the Scriptures, especially in the Psalms.
This interpretive method has been called the prosopological interpretation of Scripture. Prospological is a term that refers to who is speaking in a text. In Augustine’s interpretation of the Psalms, he noted that sometimes Christ speaks as himself in them (e.g., My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” [Ps. 54:2]). Other times, Christ speaks in the name of his people, the Church (e.g., Give ear to my words, O Lord [Ps. 5:1]). In Augustine’s words, the “whole Christ” speaks in the Psalms: the head and the body.16 Hans Boersma argues Augustine “treats the Psalms as words to Christ, about Christ, and of Christ.”17 Not only does the Psalter prophecy about Christ and foreshadow him, but it also gives us the words of Christ himself.
Augustine believed that if a person missed Christ in the Scriptures, that person did not understand them:
Whatever doubt a man hath in his mind when he heareth the Scriptures of God, let him not depart from Christ; when Christ hath been revealed to him in the words, let him then be assured that he hath understood; but before he arriveth at the understanding of Christ, let him not presume that he hath understood.18
It is not anachronistic to say that Christ is the key to understanding Scripture in Augustine’s hermeneutic. If a person reads the OT but does not find Christ there, they do not understand what they have just read. On the other hand, if one sees Christ in all of Scripture, that person truly understands it.
Today when we hear preaching that focuses on Christ in all of Scripture, it is good for us to remember that it is not a novel thing. From the early days of the church, God’s people have been following the Apostles by interpreting Scripture in a Christ-centered way. Augustine certainly left his mark on the church regarding this emphasis on biblical interpretation. We may be thankful that Reformed churches have largely followed this Augustinian, indeed apostolic, interpretive method. At the same time, there is a challenge here. Perhaps before we critique Augustine for seeing Christ in too many places and parts Scriptures, we should look harder for Christ in those parts and places and perhaps, in doing so, we will find that when we earnestly seek Christ in Scripture, we will find him there.
Seeing Christ in Scripture was not, for Augustine, a dry scientific task. Instead, reading and studying Scripture for him was refreshing and nourishing Christian labor. Scripture was the place where one who seeks Christ meets him:
In every page of these Scriptures, while I pursue my search as a son of Adam in the sweat of my brow, Christ either openly or covertly meets and refreshes me. Where the discovery is laborious, my ardor is increased, and the spoil obtained is eagerly devoured and is hidden in my heart for my nourishment.19
The same goes for Christians today. It is nourishing to labor in the study of Scripture, looking for Christ. As we do so, we meet the One who strengthens us, helps us, and refreshes us with his life-giving words on every page.
- Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to Saint Mark (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 80; John D. Barry, et al., eds. The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), s.v. “Hermeneutics, History of.”
- Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 1–32 (Vol. 1) (New City Press, 2000), xv.
- Philip Schaff, ed. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine. Vol. 2. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), 566.
- Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” xv.
- Philip Schaff, ed. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies. Vol. 7. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 469.
- Philip Schaff, ed. Augustin: The Writings Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists. Vol. 4. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), XII.2.
- Augustine, “Reply to Faustus,” XII.4.
- Augustine, Ibid., XII.5.
- Augustine, Ibid. XII.7.
- Augustine, Ibid. XII.7.
- Augustine, Ibid. XII.32.
- Augustine, Ibid. XII.24.
- Philip Schaff, ed. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine. Vol. 2. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887), XVI.2.
- Augustine, City of God, XX.30.
- Bruce K. Waltke et al., The Psalms as Christian Lament: A Historical Commentary. Grand Rapids; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 124.
- Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms 1–32, 82.
- Hans Boersma, Scripture as Real Presence (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 148. See also Craig A. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018), 201–05.
- Augustine of Hippo. Expositions on the Book of Psalms: Psalms 1–150. Vol. I–VI. A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford; London: F. and J. Rivington; John Henry Parker, 1847–57), 413–14.
- Augustine, “Reply to Faustus,” XII. 27.
© Shane Lems. All Rights Reserved.
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