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Introductory Essay.

St. Augustin as an Exegete.

By the Rev. David Schley Schaff


The exegetical writings of Augustin are commentaries on Genesis (first three chapters), the Psalms, the Gospel and First Epistle of John, the Sermon on the Mount, the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians, and a Harmony of the Gospels. Many of his commentaries, like those of Chrysostom, are expository homilies preached to his congregation at Hippo; all are practical rather than grammatical and critical. He only covered the first five verses of the first chapter of Romans, and found his comments so elaborate, that, from fear of the immense proportions a commentary on the whole Epistle would assume, he drew back from the task. Augustin’s other writings abound in quotations from Scripture, and pertinent expositions. His controversies with the Manichæans and Donatists were particularly adapted to render him thorough in the knowledge of the Bible, and skilled in its use.

The opinions of Augustin’s ability as an exegete, and the worth of his labors in the department of connected Biblical exposition, have greatly differed. Some not only represent him at his weakest in this capacity, but disparage his exegesis as of inferior merit. Others have given him, and some at the present time still give him, a very high rank among the chief commentators of the early Church. Père Simon, as quoted by Archbishop Trench (Sermon on the Mount, p. 65), says, “One must needs read a vast deal in the exegetical writings of Augustin to light on any thing which is good.” Reuss expresses himself thus: “The fact is, that his exegesis was the weak side of the great man” (Gesch. d. heil. Schriften N. T. p. 263). Farrar, in his History of Interpretation (p. 24), declares his comments to be “sometimes painfully beside the mark,” and in general depreciates the value of Augustin’s expository writings.

On the other hand, the student is struck with the profound esteem in which Augustin was held as an interpreter of Scripture during the Middle Ages. His exposition was looked upon as the highest authority; and a saying was current, that, if one had Augustin on his side, it was sufficient (Si Augustinus adest, sufficit ipse tibi). So powerful was his influence, that Rupert of Deutz, in the preface to his Commentary on St. John, deemed it necessary to state, in part in vindication of his own effort, that, though the eagle wings of the Bishop of Hippo overshadowed the Gospel, he did not exhaust the right of all Christians to handle the Gospel. The Reformers quote Augustin more frequently than any Father, and were greatly indebted to his writings, especially for their views on sin and grace. Among modern opinions according to him a high rank in this department may be mentioned two. The Rev. H. Browne, in the preface to the translation of Augustin’s Homilies on St. John, in the Oxford Library of the Fathers (I. vi.), is somewhat extravagant in his praise, when he says, that, “as an interpreter of the Word of God, St. Augustin is acknowledged to stand at an elevation which few have reached, none surpassed.” Archbishop Trench, in the essay on Augustin as an interpreter of Scripture, prefixed to his edition of the viiiSermon on the Mount, accords equal praise, and speaks specifically of the “tact and skill with which he unfolded to others the riches which the Word contains” (p. 133).

The truth certainly is not with those who minimize Augustin’s services in the department of exposition. Whether we compare him with ancient or modern commentators, he will fall behind the greatest in some particulars; but in profundity of insight into the meaning of the text, in comprehensive knowledge of the whole Scriptures, in simplicity of spiritual aim, he stands in the first rank. It is as a contributor to theological and religious thought that he asserts his eminence. Exposition is something more than bald textual and lexicographical comment: it aims also at a spiritual perception of the truth as it is in Christ, and requires a capacity to extract, for the spiritual nutriment of the reader, the vital forces of the Scriptures. In this sense Augustin is eminently worthy of study. Of textual details, he gives only the barest minimum of any value. His mistakes, arising out of his slender philological apparatus and his reverence for the LXX., are numerous and glaring. He often wanders far away from the plain meaning of the text, into allegorical and typical fancies, like the other Fathers, and many of the older Protestant commentators. He was not prepared for, nor did he aim at, grammatico-historical exegesis in the modern sense of the word; but he possessed extraordinary acumen and depth, spiritual insight, an uncommon knowledge of Scripture as a whole, and a pious intention to bring the truth to the convictions of men, and to extend the kingdom of Christ.

As to Augustin’s special equipment for the work of an exegete and on his exegetical principles, the following may be added:—

Exegetical Equipment.

1. Augustin had no knowledge of Hebrew (Confessions, xi. 3; in this ed. vol. i. p. 164). His knowledge of Greek was only superficial, and far inferior to that of Jerome (vol. i. p. 9). He depended almost entirely on the imperfect old Latin version before its revision by Jerome, and was at first even prejudiced against this revision, the so-called Vulgate. But it should be remembered that only two of the great expositors of the ancient Church were familiar with Hebrew,—Origen and Jerome. Augustin knew only a few Hebrew words. In the treatise on Christian Doctrine (ii. 11, 16; this ed. vol. ii. p. 540) he adduces the words Amen and Hallelujah as being left untranslated on account of the sacredness of the original forms, and the words Racha and Hosanna as being untranslatable by any single Latin equivalents. In the Sermon on the Mount (i. 9, 23) he refers again to Racha, and defends its Hebrew origin as against those who derived it from the Greek term ῥάκος (a rag).

Augustin’s linguistic attainments seem to have included familiarity with Punic (Sermon on the Mount, ii. 14, 47). The Phoenician origin of the North African people, the location of his birthplace and his episcopal diocese, furnish an explanation of this.

2. For the Old Testament, Augustin used, besides the Latin version, occasionally the Septuagint, and had at hand the versions of Symmachus, Theodotion, and Aquila (Quæst. in Num. 52). He had profound reverence for the LXX., and was inclined to give credit to the Jewish tradition that each of the translators was confined in a separate cell, and on comparing their work, which they had accomplished without communication with each other, found their several versions to agree, word for word. He held that the original was given through them in Greek by the special direction of the Holy Spirit, and in such a way as to be most suitable for the Gentiles (Christian Doctrine, ii. 15, 22; this ed. p. 542). He declared that the Latin copies were to be corrected from the LXX., which was as authoritative as the Hebrew. Such a claim for the authority of the Greek translation would make a knowledge of the Hebrew almost unnecessary.

This excessive reverence for the LXX. has led Augustin to uphold, in his exegesis of the Old Testament, all its errors of translation, which a different view, coupled with a knowledge of Hebrew, would in most cases have prevented him from accepting. Even at its plain and palpable mistakes he takes no offence. He accepts the translation, “Yet three days and Nineveh shall ixbe overthrown,” as of equal authority with the “forty days” of the original, claiming a special symbolic meaning for both.

3. For the New Testament, Augustin used some Latin translation or translations older than the Vulgate. He declares the Latin translations to be without number (Christian Doctr. ii. 11, 16; this ed. vol. ii. p. 540). There was already in his day “an endless diversity” of readings in the Latin manuscripts. He vindicated for the Greek original the claim of final authority, to which the Latin copies were to yield. As there was likewise diversity of text among the Greek copies, he laid down the rule, that those manuscripts were to be chosen for comparison by the Latin student which were preserved in the churches of greater learning and research (Christian Doctr. ii. 15, 22; in this ed. ii. p. 543). Not infrequently does Augustin cite the readings of the Greek. In some cases he makes references to passages where there is a conflict of text in the Latin authorities. He differs quite largely from Jerome’s Vulgate, to which he offered opposition, on the ground that a new translation might unsettle the faith of some. In these variations of construction and language he was sometimes nearer the original than Jerome. Sometimes he does not approximate so closely. As a matter of interest, and for the convenience of the reader, the differences of Augustin’s text and the Vulgate will be found, in all important cases, noted down in this edition of the Sermon on the Mount.

Examples of Augustin’s improvement upon the Vulgate are the omission of the clause, “and despitefully use you” (et calumniantibus vos, Matt. v. 44), the use of quotidianum panem (“daily bread”) instead of supersubstantialem, and of inferas (“bring”) instead of inducas (“lead”), in the fourth and sixth petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. vi. 11, 12). In reference to the last passage, it must be said, however, that he notes a difference in the Latin mss., some using infero, some induco; and while he adopts the former verb, he finds the terms equivalent in meaning (Serm. on the Mt. ii. 9, 30).

4. Augustin’s textual and grammatical comments are few in number, but they cannot be said to be wanting in all value. A few instances will suffice for a judgment of their merit:—

In the Harmony of the Gospels (ii. 29, 67), writing of the daughter of Jairus (Matt. ix. 29), he mentions that some codices contain the reading “woman” (mulier) for “damsel.” Commenting on Matt. v. 22, “Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause,” he includes the expression “without a cause” (εἰκῆ) without even a hint of its spuriousness (Serm. on the Mt. i. 9, 25); but in his Retractations (i. 19. 4) he makes the correction, “The Greek manuscripts do not contain sine causa.” Tischendorf, Westcott and Hort, the Vulgate and the Revised English Version, in agreement with the oldest mss., omit the clause. He refers to a conflict of the Greek and Latin text of Matt. v. 39 (“Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek”), and follows the authority of the Greek in omitting the adjective “right” (Serm. on the Mt. i. 19, 58). At Matt. vi. 4 he casts out, on the authority of the Greek, the adverb palam (“openly”), which was found in many Latin translations (as it is also found in the Textus Receptus, but not in the Vulgate, and the Sinaitic, B, D, and other mss.). Commenting on Matt. vii. 12, “Wherefore all things whatsoever ye would that men,” etc., he refers to the addition of “good” before “things” by the Latins, and insists upon its erasure on the basis of the Greek text (Serm. on the Mt. ii. 22, 74).

On occasion, though very rarely, he quotes the Greek, as in the Sermon on the Mount (νὴ τνν καύχησιν, i. 17, 51; ἱμάτιον, i. 19, 60), in confirmation of his opinions of the text.

At other times he compares Greek and Latin terms of synonymous or kindred meanings. One of the most important of these is the passage (City of God, x. 1; this ed. vol. ii. p. 181) where he draws a clear distinction between λατρεία, θρησκεία, εὐσέβεια, θεοσέβεια. Other examples of the kind under review are given by Trench (p. 20 sqq.).

It is evident that Augustin’s equipment was defective from the stand-point of the modern critical exegete. It would be wrong, however, to say that he shows no concern about textual questions. But his exegetical power shows itself in other ways than minute textual investigation,x—in comprehensive comparison of Scripture with Scripture, and penetrating spiritual vision. To these qualities he adds a purpose to be exhaustive, sparing no pains to develop the full meaning of the passage under review. More exhaustive discussions can hardly be found, to take a single example, than that on Matt. v. 25, “Agree with thine adversary quickly” (Serm. on the Mt. xi. 31, where, however, the view least reasonable is taken), or spiritually satisfactory ones than the discussion of the gradation of sin and its punishment (Matt. v. 21, 22; Serm. on the Mt. ix. 22), and “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt. vii. i), or pungently suggestive than the handling of the words of our Lord at the marriage feast at Cana: “Woman, what have I to do with thee?” (John ii. 4; Homily VIII.), or more indicative of great principles underlying the vindication to the evangelists of a true historical character and of independence of each other (at least in minor details) than discussions like that about the differences in the details of the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes, alone common of the miracles to the fourfold Gospel (a sort of prelude to works like Blunt’s Undesigned Coincidences), and the relation of this miracle to the miracle of the seven loaves (Harmony, xlvi.-1).

Exegetical Principles.

Augustin has laid down in a separate treatise a code of exegetical principles. His Christian Doctrine (vol. ii. of this series) is the earliest manual of Biblical hermeneutics. In spite of irrelevant and lengthy digressions, it contains many suggestions of value, which have not been improved upon in modern treatises on the subject.

1. He emphasizes Hebrew and Greek scholarship as an important aid to the expositor, and an essential condition of the interpretation of the figurative language of Scripture (ii. 11, 16; 16, 23, this ed., pp. 539, 543).

2. He will have his interpreter acquainted with sacred geography (ii. 29, 45, p. 549), natural history (ii. 16, 24, p. 543; 29, 45, p. 549), music (ii. 16, 26, p. 544), chronology (ii. 28, 42, p. 549) and the science of numbers (ii. 16, 25, p. 543), natural science generally (ii. 29, 45 sqq., p. 549 sqq.), history (ii. 28, 43, p. 549), dialectics (ii. 31, 48, p. 550), and the writings of the ancient philosophers (ii. 40, 60, p. 554). He was the first to suggest a work which has been realized in our dictionaries of the Bible. Pertinent to the subject he says, “What some men have done in regard to all words and names found in Scripture, in the Hebrew and Syriac and Egyptian and other tongues, taking up and interpreting separately such as were left in Scripture without interpretation; and what Eusebius has done in regard to the history of the past…I think might be done in regard to other matters.…For the advantage of his brethren a competent man might arrange in their several classes, and give an account of, the unknown places, and animals and plants, and trees and stones and metals, and other species of things mentioned in Scripture” (ii. 39, 59, p. 554). It is, in view of this sage suggestion, almost incomprehensible that Augustin pays no attention to these subjects in his commentaries. Jerome, on the other hand, is quite rich in these departments.

3. He presses the view that the Scripture is designed to have more interpretations than one (Christ. Doctr. iii. 27, 38 sq.; this ed. p. 567). Augustin constantly applies this canon (e.g., on the petition, “Thy will be done,” Sermon on the Mount, ii. 7, 21–23). He adopted the seven rules of the Donatist Tichonius as assisting to a deep understanding of the Word. These rules relate (1) to the Lord and His body, (2) to the twofold division of the Lord’s body, (3) to the promises and the Law, (4) to species and genus, (5) to times, (6) to recapitulation, (7) to the devil and his body (Christ. Doctr. iii. 30, 42, pp. 568–573). He explains and illustrates these laws at length, but denies that they exhaust the rules for discovering the hidden truth of Scripture.

4. He commends the method of interpreting obscure passages by the light of passages that are understood, and prefers it before the interpretation by reason (Christ. Doctr. iii. 29, 39, p. 567).


5. The spirit and intent of the interpreter are of more importance than verbal accuracy and critical acumen (a qualification not always too strictly insisted upon in these modern days of commentators and critical Biblical study). One must be in sympathy with the Gospel of Christ to interpret its records.11     On the principle that Davidica intelligit, qui Davidica patitur; or, as the German couplet runs,—
   “Wer den Dichter will verstehen

   Muss in Dichters Lande gehen.”
Even the mistakes of an exegete, properly disposed, may confirm religious faith and character; and so far forth are his labors to be commended, though he himself is to be corrected, that he err not again after the same manner. “If the mistaken interpretation,” he says, “tends to build up love, which is the end of the commandment, the interpreter goes astray in much the same way as a man who, by mistake, quits the highroad, but yet reaches, through the fields, the same place to which the road leads” (Christ. Doctr. i. 36, 41 sq.; ii. p. 533).

That Augustin followed his own canons of interpretation, his writings show. He does not hesitate to put more than one interpretation upon a text (as especially in the Psalms), and none has been more elaborate in comparing Scripture with Scripture than he. If he had possessed the familiarity with the Hebrew that he recommends so strongly to others, he would have been preserved from the misinterpretations with which his commentaries on the Old Testament abound.

Use of Allegory.

Augustin’s use of allegory has exposed him to much harsh criticism. What was the practice of all, ought not to be considered a mortal fault in one. None of the ancient expositors were free from it. Some of the modern expositors, except as their works are designed only as a critical arsenal for the student, are defective because of all absence of the allegorical element.

Where Scripture itself has led the way, as in the case of the allegory of Hagar and Sarah (Gal. iv.) and other cases, the uninspired penman will be pardoned if he follow. The use of the allegorical method, however, was carried to the most unreasonable excess, reaching its culmination in Gregory’s Commentary on Job. That writer finds that the patriarch of Uz represents Christ, his sons the clergy, his three daughters the three classes of the laity who are to worship the Trinity, his friends the heretics, the oxen and she-asses the heathen, etc. The frequent extravagance of Augustin, proceeding out of his intellectual and Scriptural exuberance, cannot be commended; but it will be found that his allegory is seldom commonplace, and mingled with it, where it is most vicious, are comments of rare aptness and common sense. In the Old Testament he looks upon almost every character and event as symbolic of Christ and Christian institutions. But, as Trench well says, “it is indeed far better to find Christ everywhere in the Old Testament than to find Him nowhere” (p. 54).

In his effort to display the unity and harmony of all Scripture (to which he was forced by the controversy with the Manichæans) he often strains after comparisons; and this came to be so much of a habit with him, that, where he had no special purpose to gain, he is guilty of the same excess. An instance among many is furnished in the opening chapters of the Sermon on the Mount (iv. 11), where a close comparison is instituted between the Beatitudes and the seven Spiritual operations of Isa. xi. 2, 3. The historical element is nowhere denied, but something else is constantly being superinduced upon it, especially in the Old Testament.

A single illustration of Augustin’s allegorical interpretation will suffice. Turning away from the Psalms, where his imagination is particularly fertile along this line, I extract one on the parable of the five loaves and two fishes, as found in the XXIV. Homily on John. The five loaves mean the five Books of Moses. They are not wheaten, but barley, because they belong to the Old Testament. The nature of barley is such that it is hard to be got at, as the kernel is set in a coating of husk which is tenacious and hard to be stripped off. Such is the letter of the Old Testaxiiment, enveloped in a covering of carnal sacraments. The little lad represents the people of Israel, which, in its childishness of mind, carried but did not eat. The two fishes signify the persons of the Priest and King, which therefore point to Christ. The multiplication of the loaves signifies the exposition into many volumes of the five Books of Moses. There were five thousand people fed, because they were under the Law, which is unfolded in five books. “They sat upon the grass;” that is, they were carnally minded, and rested in carnal things. The “fragments” are the truths of hidden import which the people cannot receive, and which were therefore entrusted to the twelve apostles.

The excessive taste for this style of interpretation, in which the homilists and Biblical writers of a thousand years had revelled, was sternly rebuked by the Reformers. Especially did Luther utter his protest, on the ground that the fancies into which this method was apt to lead had a tendency to shake confidence in the literal truth of the sacred volume. He remarks, “Augustin said beautifully that a figure proves nothing;” but, probably from the high regard he had for the great theologian, he did not condemn his allegorizing exegesis.22     The passage is quoted in full by Trench (p. 64). His work, St. Augustin on the Sermon on the Mount, 4th ed., London, 1881, contains an elaborate introductory essay on Augustin as an Interpreter of Scripture. His use of allegory is considered in a separate chapter (iv). An older work is by Clausen: Augustinus, Sac. Script. Interpres, pp. 267, Berol. 1828.

However much the great African bishop may have laid himself open to the rebuke of a more critical and mechanical age in this regard and others, his exegesis will continue to be admired for the diligence with which the sacred text is scanned, the reverent frame of heart with which it is approached, and the rich treasures of spiritual truth which it brings forth to the willing and devout reader.

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