Interpreting Scripture For Love: Augustine’s Threefold Hermeneutic (Part Two)

“Thou has pierced my heart with Thy Word, and I have loved Thee.”1

In the last article, we examined Augustine’s vigorous Christ-centered interpretation of Scripture. Another significant aspect of his biblical interpretation is love. For Augustine, the proper interpretation of Scripture leads us to love God and others. To be sure, love was one of the major themes in much of Augustine’s writing. His deep longing “to love and to be loved” was satisfied when he discovered the God of love and the love of God revealed in Scripture.2

As is evident in various parts of his Confessions, Augustine understood that rightly ordered love is love for God first and neighbor second. In his youth, Augustine pursued other loves—vain loves which left him empty and restless. But once he experienced the love of God in his heart, he realized it was the best and greatest love. He prayed for a more fervent love: “Behold, I do love Thee, and, if it is a weak love, let me love more strongly.”3

I believe that Augustine approached the interpretation of Scripture with that same desire and goal: to love God more and, in doing so, love his neighbors better. As Brevard Childs wrote, for Augustine, “the goal of all of Scripture is to engender the love of God and of one’s neighbor.”4 Biblical interpretation, in Augustine’s view, was not simply an intellectual endeavor to accumulate information. It also very much involves the will, the heart, and the virtue of love. Augustine taught that the proper end of biblical interpretation is not simply to know doctrinal propositions; it is to love.

The End or Goal of Interpretation

Augustine followed Scripture to emphasize love’s centrality when discussing God’s law: “We should clearly understand that the fulfillment and the end of the law… is love” (Gal 5:14)5. The right use of the law has to do with “pure charity.”6 If someone interprets the law in an unloving way or in a way that does not lead to love, that person has erred. The fact that love is the fulfillment of the law is not just a Scripture text about ethics. It was also a statement about hermeneutics for Augustine. The proper way to obey the law is to do it with love. Likewise, the appropriate way to interpret the law is to do it with love. Augustine might have said that if an interpretation of Scripture does not promote love, that interpretation is like a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal (1 Cor 13:1).

But it goes deeper. From Augustine’s perspective, the fulfillment and end of all Scripture is “the love of an object which is to be enjoyed and the love of an object which can enjoy that other in fellowship with ourselves.”7 This means that interpreting Scripture with the goal of love helps us better enjoy God and others in true fellowship.

Augustine wrote that the earnest student “exercises himself” to find in Scripture that 1) God is to be loved for his own sake, 2) our neighbor is to be loved for God’s sake, and 3) that God is to be loved above all.8 Interpreting Scripture this way is not easy as Augustine said it is an exercise. It takes some effort to interpret Scripture with the goal of love. But the endeavor is more than worth the effort because the goal is incredibly fulfilling and virtuous: to love God and others.

From Augustine’s perspective, if someone interprets Scripture in a way that builds up love, even if that might not be the precise meaning of the author, it is a good interpretation. The interpreter “is wholly clear from the charge of deception.”9 This does not mean that when we interpret Scripture, we should err on the side of love. It means that when we interpret Scripture, we will not err if it is on the side of love. Conversely, if someone’s interpretation does not build up love for God or neighbor, that person errs and does not yet understand Scripture.

Here is a related illustration Augustine used to explain what he means by interpreting Scripture with the goal of love:

…If his [the interpreter’s] mistaken interpretation tends to build up love, which is the end

of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits

the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads.10

In other words, since the proper end of interpreting Scripture is love, no matter which interpretive route the Christian takes, it is the right road if it builds up love. Hans Boersma points out, “For Augustine, as long as the aim of love guides biblical interpretation, we will reach our destination, simply because love itself is the destination.”11

This does not mean, however, that it is always okay to take just any interpretive road. Augustine cautioned against this:

He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the

straight road, lest, if he gets into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take crossroads

or even go in the wrong direction altogether.12

Although some interpretive roads less traveled lead to a goal of love, one should seek to avoid taking those roads. Doing so repeatedly might result in a person getting far off the correct interpretive path. Interpreting Scripture is not a free-for-all. Although it is a slightly different topic, for Augustine, the “high road” or “straight road” of interpretation is one that aligns with the rest of Scripture’s doctrine and teaching.

Figurative, Literal, and Love

What does an interpreter do when he sees something in Scripture that cannot be taken literally? Think about love: “In regard to figurative expressions, a rule such as the following will be observed, to carefully turn over in our minds and meditate upon what we read till an interpretation be found that tends to establish the reign of love.”13 If you want to interpret figurative parts of Scripture rightly, you will do so if your interpretation leads people to love God more and their neighbor as themselves. John N. D. Kelly points out in his introduction to the text that, “In a general way, [Augustine] thought that no interpretation could be true which did not promote the love of God or the love of man.”14

Concerning various stories in the OT, Augustine said we should take them historically and literally. But we should also take them in their “figurative and prophetical sense, and… interpret [them] as bearing ultimately upon the end of love towards God or our neighbor, or both.”15 For example, we could think about when David played music to calm Saul when an evil spirit came upon him. It is a literal and historical story. Yet figuratively or prophetically, we might say that David’s love for God led him to love his neighbor, Saul, by helping ease his affliction. This is a proper interpretation because it shines the light on love.

Don Collett remarked that Augustine, following the Apostle Paul, taught that “love is the Christian virtue that resides at the heart of Scripture’s theological witness and its literal sense.”16 When Augustine was exegeting Scripture, he found love everywhere, leading him to interpret Scripture in a love-centered way. For Augustine, the goal of biblical interpretation is not simply being right. Instead, the goal is love.

Related Remarks

One might think that emphasizing love in this way is moralistic: “The moral of the story is to love God and neighbor.” But that is not exactly what Augustine was getting at. To build a person up in the love of God and others is not always a bare moral command. Instead, when you proclaim the excellencies of God, for example, you encourage and motivate people to love him as One supremely lovable. And when you encourage people to love God, you are encouraging them to love God in loving their neighbors. This is how Augustine wrote and preached. Although he did exhort people to love God and their neighbors, Augustine did not typically do so in a moralistic manner. Instead, his love-centered interpretation of Scripture was meant to increase people’s affection for God and neighbor.

 Richard Muller noted that Augustine’s emphasis on love in biblical interpretation from On Christian Doctrine was influential in “Protestant exegesis throughout the era of [Reformed] orthodoxy.”17 It seems that modern Protestant exegesis has largely drifted away from this love-oriented hermeneutic. Even in Reformed churches, sometimes it seems the two-fold goal of hermeneutics is to 1) have the right interpretation, and 2) critique the wrong one. Augustine would rightly critique us: “You have erred in your interpretation because you have failed to love!” A more biblical two-fold goal of hermeneutics is to 1) love God, and 2) love neighbor. Indeed, I believe it would be a significant blessing for Reformed and Protestant churches to recover this Augustinian and Reformation interpretive goal of love. Paul’s exhortation can be applied to biblical interpretation: “All you do must be done in love.” (1 Cor 16:14 NASB)


So far, we have seen that Augustine interpreted Scripture in a Christ-centered way with the goal of kindling love for God and neighbor. And these two are not mutually exclusive. When a person interprets Scripture in a way that points to Christ, that interpretation will generate love for the Lord and a desire to obey him by loving our neighbor. A Christ-centered and love-oriented interpretation of Scripture goes hand in hand.

This is a short sample showing several ways Augustine emphasized a love-centered hermeneutic. It is a beautiful manner of interpreting Scripture that genuinely warms the heart. It is wise and sensible to interpret Scripture in line with the greatest command in Scripture: to love. Even thinking and talking about love so much often increases the desire to love more. Perhaps Augustine knew this. And perhaps he emphasized love so much because he wanted others to delight in the supremely lovable One: “Happy is he who loves Thee, and his friend in Thee, and his enemy because of Thee.”18


  1. Augustine, Confessions, 10.6.8.
  2. Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Edited by Roy Joseph Deferrari. Translated by Vernon J. Bourke. Vol. 21. The Fathers of the Church. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1953. 3.1.1
  3. Augustine, Confessions, 13.8.9.
  4. Childs, Brevard S. Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011, 38.
  5. Schaff, Philip, ed. Augustine’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, 533.
  6. Augustine, Confessions, 12.30.41.
  7. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” 533.
  8. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” 537–538.
  9. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” 533.
  10. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” ibid.
  11. Hans Boersma, Scripture a Real Presence. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2017, 51.
  12. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” ibid.
  13. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” 563.
  14. Kelly, John N. D. Early Christian Doctrines. San Francisco, Harper & Row. 1990, 75.
  15. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” 562.
  16. Collett, Don C. Figural Reading and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Baker Academic. 2020, 33.
  17. Muller, Richard A. Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 2: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003, 503.

© Shane Lems. All Rights Reserved.


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