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

The final aspect of Augustine’s hermeneutic that we will observe is this: Augustine believed biblical texts could have more than one meaning or interpretation. Scripture, for Augustine, was not a one-dimensional black-and-white text filled with brute facts of history and bare propositions.1 Augustine did not come to every text of Scripture searching for one doctrine or one single meaning. Brevard Childs succinctly said, “Augustine was continually occupied with the different levels of meaning within scripture.”2 We might call this interpretive plurality or multiplicity of senses. Some have called it the sensus plenior (fuller sense) of Scripture.

Sidney Greidanus explained it this way: “Although Augustine works primarily with two senses of Scripture, the literal-historical and the figurative, he officially teaches that Scripture has four senses: historical, allegorical, analogical, and etiological.”3 Historical means what happened in history. Allegorical means the figurative or spiritual sense. Etiological is the reason or cause for the event or speech. Analogical has to do with the relationship between the OT and NT.4 In Augustine’s writing, these four senses overlap. They are not opposites or contradictory.

These different senses of Scripture were not at all arbitrary for Augustine. In the first two articles of this series, we learned that Augustine’s approach to interpreting Scripture was certainly not a free-for-all. Nor was Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture evidence of Neoplatonic baggage. Along with interpreting Scripture in a Christ-centered and love-oriented way, Augustine also aimed to interpret it in a manner consistent with the overall teaching of Scripture. He also taught that Scripture interprets Scripture.5 So when Augustine did talk about various senses of Scripture, he sought to do so in a way that harmonized with the whole of Scripture. Furthermore, as seen in his Confessions, Augustine prayed for God’s help in interpreting Scripture rightly.

In this article, we will see what Augustine meant when he said that Scripture has several senses. Even if you are a bit skeptical about this, please read on. There are some excellent interpretive principles we can learn from Augustine here. Although I am still wrestling with plurality of meaning myself, I see much Christian benefit in Augustine’s approach.

Literal or Figurative?

In much of his writing,Augustine’s talks about literal and figurative interpretation. Figurative meaning was something like metaphor or symbolism for Augustine. For example, he said the woman in the Song of Songs was a figure of the church.6 It should also be noted that Augustine said the allegorical meaning of Scripture is “properly called figurative.”7 In Augustine’s mind, allegorical interpretation was the same thing as a figurative interpretation. Many great Christian theologians have interpreted Scripture figuratively, including Bernard of Clairvaux, Martin Luther, John Calvin, many Puritans, Matthew Henry, and so on.

Augustine spent much time in On Christian Doctrine discussing Scripture’s figurative and literal interpretations. In this book, he wrote that it is permissible to view a text as being both “historical and literal” and “figurative and prophetical.”8 In fact, “All, or nearly all, the transactions recorded in the Old Testament are to be taken not literally only, but figuratively as well.”9 As we learned in the last articles, the key to interpreting the text—whether figurative or literal is Christ and the love of God, neighbor, or both.10

For my own example of this literal and figurative interpretation, take the story of David killing Goliath. When David killed Goliath, it is a literal story of God using David to deliver Israel from the Philistines. But it is also figurative of how Jesus overcame Satan and delivered us from him. And the story can also lead us to love the Lord more for delivering us from great evil. None of those interpretations is incorrect.

Augustine wrote that when there are several interpretations from the same passage, they are legitimate if they agree with the rule of faith (apostolic teaching). He argued that if there are two or more interpretations of the same text, “there is no danger if it can be shown from other passages of Scripture that any of the interpretations put on the words is in harmony with the truth.”11 In fact, if the author of the text did not intend a person’s interpretation, the interpretation is not wrong as long as it is “supported by the testimony of some other passage of Scripture.”12 The reason for this is that the primary author of the text is God, who can sovereignly intend a passage to mean several things in different circumstances.13 J. N. D. Kelly explains that, “Augustine seems to have held that the same passage of Scripture may have several different meanings, all of them willed by the Holy Spirit.”14

Here is another explanation of this by Augustine in Confessions:

So, when one man has said: “He meant the same as I,” and another: “Not that but what I mean,” I think I can say in a more religious way: “Why not both, instead, if both are true? And, if there is a third, and a fourth, and any other truths that anyone sees in these words, why may it not be believed that he saw all these, and that, through him, the one God has tempered the sacred writings to the perceptions of many people, in which they will see things which are true and also different?”15

Multiple meanings are not a human fabrication since God is the ultimate author of Scripture.

Augustine did say that the allegorical interpretation of Scripture was legitimate. The concept of allegory for Augustine was quite robust, and we can only summarize it here. As mentioned above, figurative and allegory were nearly synonymous in Augustine’s mind.16 He said it does not make sense to think that we should read Scripture only with a mind for the “bare historical facts.”17 There is more meaning in Scripture than bare history. There is also an allegorical or figurative meaning, which is the spiritual meaning.

There were, as already mentioned, limits to Augustine’s allegorical interpretation. “For Augustine, allegorical interpretation is acceptable as long as it does not deny the historicity of the account, and the resultant teaching does not contradict the ‘rule of faith.’”18 Here is one example of Augustine’s utilization of allegory:

Christ appears to me in Joseph, who was persecuted and sold by his brethren, and after his troubles obtained honor in Egypt. We have seen the troubles of Christ in the world, of which Egypt was a figure, in the sufferings of the martyrs. And now we see the honor of Christ in the same world which He subdues to Himself, in exchange for the food which He bestows.19

In this example, Augustine interprets the OT stories figuratively as referring to Christ and the church. His allegorical interpretation was based on other biblical truths. Augustine even argued that this was how the NT authors sometimes interpreted Scripture. For example, Paul said the “rock” in the wilderness was Christ (1 Cor 10). Paul also wrote that Hagar and Sarah were allegories of “two covenants” (Gal 4).20

For another example, Augustine did find allegorical meaning in Christ’s transfiguration, saying it signifies “that he is the light which enlightens every person coming into this world.”21 Augustine purposely echoed John 1:9 in his interpretation because Scripture shaped his figurative interpretations. These above examples also show how Augustine’s allegorical or spiritual interpretation of Scripture was Christ-centered.22 As Craig Carter notes, Augustine realized the need “to anchor the spiritual sense in God’s historical revelation culminating in the incarnation of the Son, Jesus Christ.”23

Various theologians throughout history have strongly criticized Augustine for allegorically finding Christ in every leaf, tree, and blade mentioned in the OT. These accusations sometimes make Augustine seem like a crazy, undisciplined interpreter. Although Augustine certainly had his flaws, he was neither crazy nor uncontrollable when it came to interpreting Scripture. And concerning the accusation of finding Christ in all the places of the OT, I appreciate Richard Trench’s response: “‘It is indeed far better to find Christ everywhere in the Old Testament than to find Him nowhere.”24

Some people immediately dismiss any notion of allegory or multiple meanings in Scripture. Yes, we should avoid making Scripture say things it does not say and avoid interpreting it in unbiblical ways. At the same time, taking our cue from Augustine, I believe we should also resist interpreting Scripture in an overly modernistic way that overemphasis the brute historical facts and bare propositions. Too often in conservative evangelical circles, people are so focused on propositional truths and literal meaning that they miss the deeper nuances of Scripture. Similarly, in Reformed churches, the strong focus on doctrine often results in overlooking some of the richer meanings of the sacred text. In other words, we focus so much on one single thing in a text that we miss other aspects of it. Augustine’s insight on multiple meanings in Scripture prevents us from focusing too much on one thing in a text; it helps us see other beautiful subtleties in Scripture that we might have missed before. As I read Augustine, even if I do not agree with all his interpretations of Scripture, I am blessed by the insight and biblical depth of it all. It does, for example, build me up in love when I read Augustine interpreting Joseph in a figurative way that highlights the glory of Christ.


Three aspects of Augustine’s hermeneutic are apparent in many of his writings: the centrality of Christ in all of Scripture, love of God and neighbor, and a plurality of meaning. For Augustine, these three are related when interpreting God’s Word. When we interpret Scripture with a heart and mind to see and hear Christ there, it includes love for Him and others. And in our biblical interpretation, we need not be restricted to a single meaning. The same text can, at the same time, literally and figuratively show us Christ, lead us to love Him, and cultivate love for others.

In Augustine’s Christian view of hermeneutics, all the various proper interpretive paths of Holy Scripture lead us to Christ and to love. Augustine’s prayer about this is my prayer for Christian interpreters today: “May all of us who, as I allow, perceive and affirm that these texts contain various truths, show love to one another, and equally may we love you, our God, fount of truth if truth is what we are thirsting after and not vanity.”25


  1. For Augustine’s excellent explanation of multiple interpretations, see 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. 12.24.30–31.
  2. Childs, Brevard S. Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2011, 37.
  3. Greidanus, Sidney. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999, 103.
  4. Augustine of Hippo. “On the Profit of Believing.” St. Augustine: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, edited by Philip Schaff, translated by C. L. Cornish, vol. 3, Christian Literature Company, 1887, 349.
  5. Schaff, Philip, ed. St. 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, 557.
  6. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” 569.
  7. Ibid., 561.
  8. Ibid., 562.
  9. Ibid., 565.
  10. Ibid., 562.
  11. Ibid., 567.
  12. Ibid., 567.
  13. Augustine, Confessions, 12.24.30.
  14. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. San Fransisco: Harper, 1978, 75.
  15. Augustine, Confessions, 12.31.42.
  16. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine”, 561. In Michael Fiedrowicz’ words, “For Augustine, metaphors, similes, allegory, and typology all belong to the figurative sense of scripture.” Fiedrowicz, Michael. “General Introduction.” Expositions of the Psalms 1–32, edited by John E. Rotelle, translated by Maria Boulding, vol. 15, Hyde Park: New City Press, 2000, 26.
  17. Augustine, “The City of God,” 307.
  18. Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament, 101.
  19. Schaff, Philip, ed. St. Augustine: 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, 192.
  20. Augustine, On the Profit of Believing, 349.
  21. Saint Augustine. Sermons 51–94 on the New Testament. Edited by John E. Rotelle, Translated by Edmund Hill, vol. III. Hyde Park: New City Press, 2009, 340.
  22. See also Carter, Craig A. Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 2018, 174–175.
  23. Carter, Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition, 170.
  24. Schaff, David Schley. “Introductory Essay: St. Augustine as an Exegete.” Saint Augustine: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, edited by Philip Schaff, vol. 6, Christian Literature Company, 1888, xi.
  25. Augustine, Confessions, 12.24.30.

© Shane Lems. All Rights Reserved.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. I recently broke away from a friend because he continually disagreed with my interpretations of scripture. He fixed himself on interpretations that were either given him or he could not help but interpret literally. He claimed to want to help me, but his contrarian attitude pushed me away. I’d like to thank Agustine for giving us the option to see brilliance in the scripture others may not.

  2. I’m more than happy with allegory, I see Christ suffering and exaltation somewhat in Joseph. Or Davids deafeat of Goliath crushing the serpent.
    I think it’s all good as long as we don’t loose what God wants us to learn, the purpose for why it is in the scriptures by the Holy Spirit in the first place.
    But I’m fine to let Paul or any other apostles make allegories. But we need to be careful and know what we’re doing when we do it.

  3. Paul wad actually the one who stated that Christ was the focus of all the scriptures. He states in 2Cor.3:14 KJV “But their minds(Jews) were blinded:for until this day remaineth the same vail (text with a hidden meaning) untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ.” When Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, the Ethiopian was reading Isaiah. When Philip assisted him, he preached Christ from Isaiah. The allegorical/spiritual interpretation is more important than people realize. 2Cor.3:6b KJV “for the letter killeth(the literal rendering,taking something literal that should be only taken allegorical/metaphorical/topological),but the spirit(allegorical/metaphorical/topological)giveth life.

Comments are closed.