Some Tips on Reading the Bible, From Augustine

Augustine in the garden, being told to “tolle, lege.”

This summer, I’m doing some heavy-duty reading.  That’s right, it’s time for comprehensive exams, PhD-style.  So over the next couple of months I’ve got a steady diet of around 1,000 to 1,200 pages a week to keep me on track.  This week, I have been reading mostly about St. Augustine and I thought I might share a few points he makes in his classic treatise, On Christian Doctrine.

If you haven’t read any of Augustine, I’d start with the Confessions.  But On Christian Doctrine (OCD) is another of his great works, and it’s a manageable-length, especially when compared with some of his other works that can get much longer.  In any case, the basic purpose of OCD is for Augustine to elaborate a proper approach to the interpretation of the Scriptures.  His concern though is more pointed; he wants to give a strategy to approaching the more difficult passages of the Bible.  If a text is particularly difficult to interpret, how should one go about determining its meaning?  That’s the question he is answering in this book.

One of the things he suggest right at the outset is that we will have to look to the tradition, to what the Church has taught.  That might seem perfectly conventional for a saint to recommend, but he was writing, in the late 300s mind you, against the notion that all one needs to read the Bible is some personal inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Right away,  Augustine shows that while it is possible that this could be how God goes about instructing people, namely by individual inspirations, it doesn’t seem to be His normal way of doing things.  For instance, when Paul had his mystical encounter with Christ, he still had to go see a member of the Church to be baptized and brought into the Church.  When Cornelius wanted to learn about the faith, he wasn’t given miraculous knowledge, but instead had Peter to guide him.  And finally when the eunuch wanted to know what the meaning of the book of Isaiah was, Philip was sent to him.

Anyhow, in the body of the text (that’s right, all of this stuff I just mentioned is in the preface), Augustine lays out a strategy for interpreting the Bible, with a special view toward its more challenging texts.

One of the recommendations he makes is that we ought not jump, right away, into the more obscure passages. Those deserve maturity and careful study beforehand.  That’s some pretty sage advice, especially in our contemporary world where people tend to want to go right to the passages that are hotly debated.  Augustine offers more of a wax on/wax off approach to the Scriptures.

He advises that, before anyone tackles the challenging parts of the Bible, they need to read the entire Bible.  Once all of the canonical books have been read (and minimally committed to memory!), then the Christian can pursue with due humility the more obscure passages.

An interesting part of the discussion also shows how Augustine sees there to be a real utility and function to the Bible occasionally being tricky to read.  He notes that if the Bible was just plain and simple, with no work required, it would be relatively tempting for us to proudly dismiss it as being too easy.  Therefore, he argues that God gives us the more plain passages for us when we’re beginners, but he left some more complicated passages for us to savor and meditate on after we have begun to mature.

Now, once the reader is focused on the more tricky passages, or the apparent discrepancies or contradictions of the Scripture, how do we go forward?  Here are his suggestions, provided in no particular order:

  1. Consult the more plain passages first.  If a tricky idea or term comes up, Augustine suggest finding other places where that idea is discussed, and comparing it.  By this strategy, the more sure passages are utilized as a way of interpreting the more difficult passages.
  2. Compare translations.  He states that the number of Latin translations available to him at the time were almost limitless.  And while no single translation can be perfect, consulting a great variety of translations in ones primary tongue can help when looking at particularly difficult passages.  One could certainly do this today even with just English language translations.  Some will be better than others, but when a consensus begins to appear among translations, this gives us some clues.
  3. Much more important methodologically, but also very tricky for most of us today: consult the original languages.  Augustine noted that if we really want to understand the Bible, we ought to learn at least Greek and Hebrew.  Funny enough though, he recommends the Septuagint as the privileged Old Testament translation, even if one had facility in Hebrew.  Also funny: he didn’t know Greek himself!
  4. Familiarize oneself with secular forms of learning.  That is: to read the Bible well, one needs a solid historical approach that knows something about the cultures and languages of the authors.  We also need to know about the natural world, about science, music, etc.  Augustine says that while profane or secular sciences can sometimes contain error, that’s no excuse for the Christian.  We need to know as much as we can in order to interpret the Bible.

So, next time you find yourself wondering about a particularly deep question, you can either read the entire Bible and learn Greek and Hebrew (or maybe Latin), or you could at the very least consult a number of translations.  No doubt Augustine would also recommend, for our day, the use of solid commentaries.  Personally I love the Navarre commentaries and also the Ignatius commentaries, as well as the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture series.

Happy Scripture Studying!

God Love You!

Posted by Luke Arredondo

Luke Arredondo earned his B.A. in philosophy from St. Joseph Seminary and an M.A. in Theology at Notre Dame Seminary. He is currently a PhD student in the Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy track at Florida State University, where he studies Catholic sexual ethics and Catholic moral theology with Dr. Aline Kalbian. He also writes at his own blog, at Ignitum Today, and Aleteia. His most important work, though, is as a husband to his wife Elena and a father to his three daughters.