Tag Archives: augustine

Henri De Lubac on the Chasm Between Current and Patristic Thought

In Henri De Lubac’s book, History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen, he makes a brief comment in passing that I think often times is overlooked when comparing hermeneutical methods. The early church is working with an entirely different worldview and thought when it comes to Holy Scripture. It isn’t necessarily a method that we can just mimic but it is a whole approach when engaging the text. This is one of the chasms that we may or may not be able to cross when it comes to the oft times odd (to us) figural/allegorical/christological approach to reading scripture. There wasn’t history versus figural reading but rather it is all wrapped into one way of thinking about the text. This doesn’t mean they didn’t care about history or the historical nature of scripture (see Augustine’s Harmony on the Gospels) but they didn’t slice and dice the exegetical process like we do today.1

But as I looked in those works for the necessary information, the subject I had at first envisioned assumed a broader scope in my eyes. It was no longer a matter of measuring, in any given exegesis, the part allotted to the “letter” or to history., It was no longer even a matter solely of exegesis. It was a whole manner of thinking, a whole world view that loomed before me.2

Also see Hans Boersma in response to de Lubac’s observations,

Both in his book on Origen and in his other writings on spiritual interpretation, it would have been good to read more about what allowed both Origen and later Christian tradition to allegorize particular details of the biblical text….What was it, for example, that allowed the church fathers to see the lamb and the sheep mentioned in Isaiah 57:7 as a reference to Christ? What was it that enabled them to see Christ in the wisdom of Proverbs 8? These questions do have some urgency if spiritual interpretation is to avoid the common charge that it renders interpretation arbitrary and subject to the whims of individual interpreters. We might wish that de Lubac had touched on these kinds of questions.3

  1. I found the quotes by de Lubac and Boersma in Lang, T.J. Mystery and the Making of Christian Historical Consciousness. BZNW 219. Berlin; Boston: de Gruyter, 2015, 1-2. ↩︎
  2. De Lubac, Henri. History and Spirit: The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007, 11. ↩︎
  3. Boersma, Hans. Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011, 147. ↩︎

Augustine: Allegory and the Good Samaritan

Augustine often receives a bad rap for some of his allegorical exegesis. This is especially true of his interpretation of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10.29–37)[1], which has become the whipping boy for the supposed dangers of allegory. The Samaritan is Christ, the animal of the Samaritan is the flesh of Christ, the man coming down from Jericho is Adam, the robbers are the Satan and his minions, the inn is the church and inn keeper is the apostle. Modern day Hermeneutics 101: do not interpret the text like Augustine[2]!

But what would Augustine have to say against the charge of his “fanciful” interpretation?

In an essay by Ronald Teske[3] he gives three responses that Augustine may have given based on other writings on hermeneutics.

From The Confessions and his discussion of the creation account he argues that one may seek to determine what the author of Genesis intended but we shouldn’t stop there but we should also determine other truths that the passage shows us. Therefore, one may try to determine what Luke was saying in the parable but Luke would also want us to find other truths within the parable even if he did not have them in mind (354–55).

Second, it is true that Augustine does seek to find the sense or intent of what the author was writing but contrary to modern day exegesis he does not stop there. Some interpretations are hidden therefore we should “choose only that interpretation which sound faith prescribes” (355)[4]. We are also allowed to seek the truth that Scripture speaks of elsewhere to help us understand a passage. Also, lest we forget the divine author of Scripture, we can also see interpretations that “the Spirit of God who produced the passage through him certainly foresaw (356).” A passage of Scripture is not limited by the human author’s intent. Teske argues, “Augustine’s christological interpretation of the parable is in full accord with the Christian faith and also makes the point most effectively which John clearly taught in his Gospel (356).” Augustine’s allegorical interpretation aligns with a canonical reading of the Gospels as well.

Finally, Scriptural interpretation should ultimately lead to the love of God and love of neighbor. One may be able to get a sense of the words and exegete that authorial intention of a passage but if that has not led the reader to a greater love for God and neighbor that interpretation is in vain. Augustine’s interpretation of the parable is indeed useful for this purpose.

On the surface it may seem that Augustine produces an interpretation that is not in accord with proper hermeneutical methods. Augustine reads the parable in multiple ways: a “literal” interpretation along with a allegorical/christological interpretation. He does not limit himself to the historic sense but opens the text up to be read canonically, christologically, and ultimately in a way that builds up love of God and love of neighbor.

The image is Vincent van Gogh’s painting of the good samaritan. Image Credit: Art and the Bible


  1. David Gowler has a helpful series of posts on Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan: Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3  ↩

  2. It should also be noted that elsewhere Augustine does interpret the parable in a similar way as modern day exegetes by explaining that the parable shows us who is truly our neighbor. See Sermo CCXCIX and Contra mendacium.  ↩

  3. Roland Teske. “The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29–37) in Augustine’s Exegesis.” In Augustine: Biblical Exegete, edited by Frederick Van Fleteren and Joseph C. Schnaubelt, 2 edition., 347–57. New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2001.  ↩

  4. De Genesi ad litteram I,xxi,41: CSEL XXVIII,31  ↩

…His single matching our double

Augustine:

“To cure these and make them well the Word through which all things were made become flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14). Our enlightenment is to participate in the Word, that is, in that life which is the light of men (Jn. 1:4). Yet we were absolutely incapable of such participation and quite unfit for it, so unclean were we through sin, so we had to be cleansed. Futhermore, the only thing to cleanse the wick and the proud is the blood of the just man and the humility of God; to contemplate God, which by nature we are not, we would have to be cleansed by him who became what by nature we are and what by sin we are not. By nature we are not God; by nature we are men; by sin we are not just. So God became a just man to intercede with God for sinful man. The sinner did not match the just, but man did match man. So he applied to us the similarity of his humanity to take away the dissimilarity of our iniquity, and becoming a partaker of our mortality he made us partakers of his divninity (2 Pt. 1:4). It was surely right that the death of the sinner issueing from the stern necessity of condemnation should be undone by the death of the just man issuing from the voluntary freedom of mercy, his single matching our double.”

– Augustine, On the Trinity, Book IV 1.4

QOTD: Augustine on Expounding the Scriptures

From Sermon 95: On the Words of the Gospel, Mark 8:1–9, Where the Miracle of the Seven Loaves is Related

When I expound the holy scriptures to you, it’s as though I were breaking bread to you. For your part, receive it hungrily, and belch out a fat praise from your hearts;[1] and those of you who are rich enough to keep excellent tables, don’t be mean and lean with your works and good deeds. So what I am dishing out to you is not mine. What you eat, I eat; what you live on, I live on. We share a common larder[2] in heaven; that, you see, is where the word of God comes from.

Augustine. Sermons 94A–147A. Edited by John E. Rotelle. Translated by Edmund Hill. Vol. III/4. The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Brooklyn: New City Press, 24.


  1. Not a vulgarity in those days…but an acceptable sign of appreciation from guests.  ↩

  2. A room or large cupboard for storing food.  ↩

QOTD: Augustine on the Scriptures

In one of Auguestine’s letters he writes to Volusianus, a young aristocrat, who had doubts about the Christian religion. Volusianus argued that the Christians philosophy challenged Roman ideals and is one of the reasons for Visigoths plundering Rome in 410. A young Augustine reaches out and argues that to attack the Christian philosophy you must first understand the Christian scriptures for they are the foundation for the Christian’s thinking. The posture one must come to the Scriptures is one of humility and submission to the wisdom and knowledge contained in them. In a letter responding to Volusianus he writes concerning the nature of the Scriptures,

The Christian writings are so astonishingly profound that even if I had more free time, more intense desire, and more talent to master them alone, from the beginning of boyhood up to my decrepit old age, I would still find myself making progress in them on a daily basis. I don’t mean to say that readers come to those matters necessary for salvation with such great difficulty. But even though each person grasps them through the fait without which no one lives a pious and upright life, many, many things remain to be understood by those making progress. These matters are cloaked in such shadows of mysteries, and such fathomless wisdom lies hidden in them—not only in the words they use to say what they say but also in the realitities that give themselves to be understood in them. So much so that those with the most years of experience, with the most intelligence, and with the most intense desire to learn are the very ones who experience what the same Scriptures say elsewhere: “When people come to the end, then they’re at the beginning” [Sirach 18:6].

Translation and background information from Cameron, Michael. Christ Meets Me Everywhere: Augustine’s Early Figurative Exegesis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

From Augustine’s writings in Ep. 137.1.3 (CCL 31B:258)

Logos Link (you must have the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers)

The Viability of Augustine’s Allegorical Interpretation of the Good Samaritan

Augustine often receives a bad rap for some of his allegorical exegesis. This is especially true of his interpretation of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10.29–37), which has become the whipping boy for the supposed dangers of allegory. The Samaritan is Christ, the animal of the Samaritan is the flesh of Christ, the man coming down from Jericho is Adam, the robbers are the Satan and his minions, the inn is the church and inn keeper is the apostle. Modern day hermeneutics 101: do not interpret the text like Augustine[1]!

But what would Augustine have to say against the charge of his “fanciful” interpretation?

In an essay by Roland Teske[2] he gives three responses that Augustine may have given based on other writings on hermeneutics.

From The Confessions and his discussion of the creation account he argues that one may seek to determine what the author of Genesis intended but we shouldn’t stop there but we should also determine other truths that the passage shows us. Therefore, one may try to determine what Luke was saying in the parable but Luke would also want us to find other truths within the parable even if he did not have them in mind (354–55).

Second, it is true that Augustine does seek to find the sense or intent of what the author was writing but contrary to modern day exegesis he does not stop there. Some interpretations are hidden therefore we should “choose only that interpretation which sound faith prescribes” (355)[3]. We are also allowed to seek the truth that Scripture speaks of elsewhere to help us understand a passage. Also, lest we forget the divine author of Scripture, we can also see interpretations that “the Spirit of God who produced the passage through him certainly foresaw (356).” A passage of Scripture is not limited by the human author’s intent. Teske argues, “Augustine’s christological interpretation of the parable is in full accord with the Christian faith and also makes the point most effectively which John clearly taught in his Gospel (356).” Augustine’s allegorical interpretation aligns with a canonical reading of the Gospels as well.

Finally, Scriptural interpretation should ultimately lead to the love of God and love of neighbor. One may be able to get a sense of the words and exegete that authorial intention of a passage but if that has not led the reader to a greater love for God and neighbor that interpretation is in vain. Augustine’s interpretation of the parable is indeed useful for this purpose.

On the surface it may seem that Augustine produces an interpretation that is not in accord with proper hermeneutical methods. Augustine reads the parable in multiple ways: a “literal” interpretation along with a allegorical/christological interpretation. He does not limit himself to the historic sense but opens the text up to be read canonically, christologically, and ultimately in a way that builds up love of God and love of neighbor.


  1. It should also be noted that elsewhere Augustine does interpret the parable in the same way as modern day exegetes by explaining the parable shows us who is truly our neighbor. See Sermo CCXCIX and Contra mendacium.  ↩

  2. Roland Teske. “The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29–37) in Augustine’s Exegesis.” In Augustine: Biblical Exegete, edited by Frederick Van Fleteren and Joseph C. Schnaubelt, 2 edition., 347–57. New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2001.  ↩

  3. De Genesi ad litteram I,xxi,41: CSEL XXVIII,31  ↩

Photo Credit: Renata Sedmakova MADRID – MARCH 10: Modern mosiac of Good Samaritan by pater Rupnik from Capilla del Santisimo in Almudena cathedral on March 10, 2013 in Spain.

Maundy Thursday – A Reflection from Augustine

In honor of Maundy Thursday here is an excerpt from one of Augustine’s sermons on the new commandment found in John 13:34, which says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

For, on the one hand, he that loves God cannot despise His commandment to love his neighbor; and on the other, he who in a holy and spiritual way loves his neighbor, what does he love in him but God? That is the love, distinguished from all earthly love, which the Lord specially characterized, when He added, “as I have loved you.” For what was it but God that He loved in us? Not because we had Him, but in order that we might have Him; and that He may lead us on, as I said a little ago, where God is all in all. It is in this way, also, that the physician is properly said to love the sick; and what is it he loves in them but their health, which at all events he desires to recall; not their sickness, which he comes to remove? Let us, then, also so love one another, that, as far as possible, we may by the solicitude of our love be winning one another to have God within us. And this love is bestowed on us by Him who said, “As I have loved you, that you also love one another.” For this very end, therefore, did He love us, that we also should love one another; bestowing this on us by His own love to us, that we should be bound to one another in mutual love, and, united together as members by so pleasant a bond, should be the body of so mighty a Head

— Augustine

United in Christ: Augustine and the Tower of Babel

Babel 900The tower of Babel marks one of humanity’s most pride filled moments in history. Recall, the people wanted to build themselves a city “with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth (Gen. 11:4).” That is, as one commentator explains, “the tower at Babel was conceived as a stairway that would give them access to the realm of the divine[1].” This would allow them to “make a name for themselves” and “not be scattered” abroad. Indeed, they did make a name for themselves but not the way they envisioned. We then read that Yahweh came down and scattered the people over all the earth and confused their language (11:8). This immediately forshadows the call of Abraham when Yahweh makes the promise that Abraham’s name will be made great and in him all families will be blessed.

But these two stories also forshadow and point to a greater story. Turning to Augustine, we gain insights from the early Church concerning how the dispersing of the tongues at the Tower of Babel points us to Christ. He says,

If pride caused diversities of tongues, Christ’s humility has united these diversities in one. The Church is now bringing together what that tower had sundered. Of one tongue there were made many; marvel not: this was the doing of pride. Of many tongues there is made one; marvel not: this was the doing of charity. For although the sounds of tongues are various, in the heart one God is invoked, one peace preserved[2].

John Calvin uses similar language to describe God’s people being united in Christ by saying,

that the language of Canaan should be common to all under the reign of Christ, (Isaiah 19:18;) because, although their language may differ in sound, they all speak the same thing, while they cry, Abba, Father[3].

Christ humbled himself by coming down from heaven to live the life of a man. He went around healing the sick and wounded, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, and preaching the kingdom of God. But we know from the four-fold Gospel that this humility was met with anger and distrust. The pride of humanity was once again on display when Jesus was sent to the cross for his crucifixion. It is through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ that the Church is united in him.

This is one of the many reasons I enjoy reading the Church Fathers. Often times, if the Tower of Babel is spoken of today in reference to the New Testament it concerns the brief uniting of languages in Acts. I agree that this reading is a right and appropriate connection but by reading Augustine we see one more way that the tower of Babel points us to Christ. The church fathers can open our eyes to different readings that have become forgotten. So next time you are in Genesis and reading about the Tower of Babel remember that Christ has reversed this dispersion and united us in himself. And we long for a future day where the spiritual reality of this truth manifests itself in the physical reality of the new creation.


  1. K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26 (vol. 1A; The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 481.  ↩

  2. Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel According to St. John,” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series: St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies (ed. Philip Schaff; trans. John Gibb and James Innes; vol. 7; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 742.  ↩

  3. John Calvin and John King, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (vol. 1; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 331–332.  ↩

QOTD: Uniting the Nations by the Humility of Christ – Augusti

If pride caused diversities of tongues (at the Tower of Babel), Christ’s humility has united these diversities in one. The Church is now bringing together what that tower had sundered. Of one tongue there were made many; marvel not: this was the doing of pride. Of many tongues there is made one; marvel not: this was the doing of charity. For although the sounds of tongues are various, in the heart one God is invoked, one peace preserved.

— Augustine, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel According to St. John” Tractate VI

Augustine and the Wisdom of God

One of the benefits of reading the Church Fathers is to immerse oneself into the rich imagery that they use to describe biblical concepts. This is not only good for the soul in reflection of deep spiritual truths but is also helpful for teachers and pastors in shaping and expanding their mind to be able to describe the truths of God more effectively. Here Augustine is describing the contrasting nature of God’s wisdom and the foolishness of the cross. Read on…

The way to help is through medical care; God’s care is taken it upon himself to heal and restore sinners by the same methods. When doctors find wounds, they do this not just any help, but in an appropriate manner, so that the effectiveness of the dressing is matched by a kind of beauty; similarly the treatment given by wisdom was adapted to our wounds by its acceptance of human nature, healing sometimes by the principle of contriariety, sometimes by that of similarity. A doctor treating a physical wound applies some medications that are contrary — a cold one to a hot wound, a dry one to a wet wound, and so on — and also some that are similar, such as a round bandage to a round wound and a rectangular bandage to a rectangular, and she does not apply the same dressing to all wounds, but matches like with like. So for the treatment of human beings God’s wisdom — in itself both doctor and medicine — offered itself in a similar way. Because human beings fell through pride it used humility in healing them. We were deceived by the wisdom of the serpent; we are freed by the foolishness of God. Just as that was called wisdom yet was foolishness to those who despise God, so this so-called foolishness is wisdom to those who overcome the devil. We made bad use of immortality, and so we died; Christ made good use of mortality, and so we live. The disease entered through a corrupted female mind; healing emerged from an intact female body. Also relevant to the principle of contrariety is the fact that our vices to are treated by the examples of his virtues. Examples of similarity in the kinds of bandages (as it were) applied to our limbs and wounds are these: it was one born of a woman that freed those deceived by a woman; it was a mortal man that freed mortals; and it was by death that he freed the dead. Careful consideration of many other such things (which can be done by those who were not hard-pressed by the need to finish a book!) reveals that the basic principle of Christian healing is one of contrariety and similarity.

  • Augustine – On Christian Teaching

Maundy Thursday – A Reflection from St. Augustine

 

In honor of Maundy Thursday here is an excerpt from one of Augustine’s sermons on the new commandment found in John 13:34, which says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”

For, on the one hand, he that loves God cannot despise His commandment to love his neighbor; and on the other, he who in a holy and spiritual way loves his neighbor, what does he love in him but God? That is the love, distinguished from all earthly love, which the Lord specially characterized, when He added, “as I have loved you.” For what was it but God that He loved in us? Not because we had Him, but in order that we might have Him; and that He may lead us on, as I said a little ago, where God is all in all. It is in this way, also, that the physician is properly said to love the sick; and what is it he loves in them but their health, which at all events he desires to recall; not their sickness, which he comes to remove? Let us, then, also so love one another, that, as far as possible, we may by the solicitude of our love be winning one another to have God within us. And this love is bestowed on us by Him who said, “As I have loved you, that you also love one another.” For this very end, therefore, did He love us, that we also should love one another; bestowing this on us by His own love to us, that we should be bound to one another in mutual love, and, united together as members by so pleasant a bond, should be the body of so mighty a Head

— Augustine

Augustine on the Ability to Control the Tongue

Throughout the letter of James he makes bold imperatives that should be true in Christians lives. These imperatives encompass all areas of life from our deeds to what we say. But does James give the Christian a basis on which these can be achieved? Augustine seems to think so.

Throughout Augustines writings on original sin a certain passage keeps appearing from an unlikely place. Writing against Pelagius he often cites from James 3:2, which says “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” He uses this passage to show that no one is sinless. A person can not control their speech by their own will. Originally, he probably gained this usage based on Jerome’s writings. Augustine doesn’t stop there though. He notices that James says that although humans cannot control the tongue by themselves they can by the wisdom of God begin to become a whole person and tame our tongues by God changing our heart and giving us wisdom.

This excerpt is Augustine’s On Nature and Grace:

“This is the wisdom that tames the tongue; it comes down from above and does not arise from the human heart. Or will someone dare to remove it too from God’s grace and in pride and vanity locate it in the power of the human being? Why then do human beings pray that they may receive it, if having it depends upon them? Is someone going to oppose this prayer to avoid harm to free choice, because it is sufficient unto itself by its natural ability to observe all the commands pertaining to righteousness? Let them oppose the apostle James himself, who warns with the words, ’If any of you lack wisdom, let them ask it from God who gives to all abundantly without rebuking them, and it will be given to them, but let them ask with faith, without hesitation (Jas 1:5–6). This is the faith to which the commandments drive us so that the law commands and faith obtains what we ask. By the tongue, which no human being can tame but the wisdom coming down from above can tame, ‘we all offend in many ways’ (Jas 3:2a). This apostle after all, did not state this in any other sense than his words, ‘No human beings can tame their tongues.’ (Jas 3:8).”[1]


  1. Answer to the Pelagians. Vol. I/23. Introduction, translation and notes by Roland J. Teske, S.J. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 1997, p. 232–3  ↩