One of my long-time habits is listening to books on tape/CD/iPod (depending on when in my life we are talking about and in what format it is available). In recent months I have been bouncing back and forth between Hercule Poirot mysteries and preaching lectures.
But last week I finished a terrific series of twelve lectures by Phillip Cary of Eastern University on “Augustine: Philosopher and Saint.” (Put out by The Teaching Company). Excellent, excellent, excellent lecturer. But in Lecture Nine: Signs and Sacraments, Cary discussed an aspect of Augustine’s theology (or theological interpretation) that I have not been able to let go. Cary is discussing how Augustine sees scripture, particularly how he sees it as a sign. Here is my transcript of that part of the lecture:
Scripture is part of that process of directing us toward eternal life with God. How does it do that? It does that by our act of interpretation. The Scripture is not a living thing for Augustine the way it is for some Protestants. It is an external sign and we have to interpret them [signs]. We have to understand their significance. Remember…you don’t understand the sign until you first understand the thing signified. That’s why the best interpreter of Scripture is someone like Ambrose (who Augustine met in Milan) who already knew what Scripture was about and therefore could interpret it properly. Ambrose knew that Scripture was about something intelligible and therefore interpreted the stories of scripture to lead toward this intelligible and eternal truth; as opposed to the Manichaeans who interpreted scripture in a carnal way. A spiritual interpreter of scripture will know about intelligible things and therefore interpret scripture in the light of those intelligible and eternal things. That means also that a spiritual interpreter of scripture will interpret scripture in a way that is based on charity. Because it is based on the love of divine truth; the love of that intelligible truth which is God. So we interpret scripture and we read scripture because we’re longing to get to this point where we understand the divine truth.
Charity is thus the MOTIVE of our interpretation for scripture. Likewise, charity is the RULE of interpretation. That is, whenever we interpret the Bible, for Augustine, we ought to be tying to find the truth about love. Any interpretation of scripture which helps us understand the love of God and builds us up in love is a good interpretation. Even if it is not perfectly accurate: Augustine is a great believer in the possibility that there can be many good interpretations. Even if some interpretations are historically more accurate than another, all of them are good IF they lead toward love of God. Even if it is sort of historically inaccurate or not literally true, if it leads to the Love of God…it is good enough. That is a very broad minded view of interpretation. Augustine is not interested in finding THE ONE RIGHT interpretation. Any interpretation that builds you up in love is at least OK.
Likewise, (and here is the really interesting thing) the very act of reading and interpreting scripture and seeking the ultimate truth that it signifies builds us up in love. This is the reason that Augustine says one of the most striking things about interpretation–In Augustine’s theory of interpretation, it is good if a passage of scripture is difficult and hard to understand. It is good because in the very act of trying to understand something that is difficult to understand, we are built up in longing.
Hmmm…. Part of me agrees with Augustine and part of me really struggles with that. (As I suspect many will). “Any interpretation of scripture which helps us understand the love of God and builds us up in love is a good interpretation. Even if it is not perfectly accurate.”
I understand the necessity of that. Although I am not Presbyterian (or even Calvinist, despite my name), I appreciate the Westminster Confession and Catechism. The most famous (and first) article of the Westminster Catechism is “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.” I would equate that with loving God. Correct doctrinal interpretation is not the chief end of man, nor is it a requirement for salvation.
And yet “ANY” interpretation? I am not willing to go that far. What do you think?
P.S. As I drove back from Cannon Beach today I listened to the first two lectures (out of 25) by Bryan Chapell on Preparation and Delivery of Sermons at Covenant Seminary. Oh wow. I HAVE to get his book Christ-Centered Preaching and dig into it. It is the text for those lectures and if it is as good as his lectures, it will be rich!