"Try to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God. "

Thomas á Kempis

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"This is the greatest wisdom -- to seek the kingdom of heaven through contempt of the world. "

Thomas á Kempis

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"Every man naturally desires knowledge; but what good is knowledge without fear of God? Indeed a humble rustic who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars."

Thomas á Kempis

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Life of St Augustine (354 - 430) Father and Doctor of the Church




by St Augustine of Hippo

BOOK 3. The method of dealing with ambiguous signs


The author, having discussed in the preceding book the method of dealing with unknown signs, goes on in this third book to treat of ambiguous signs. Such signs may be either direct or figurative. In the case of direct signs ambiguity may arise from the punctuation, the pronunciation, or the doubtful signification of the words, and is to be resolved by attention to the context, a comparison of translations, or a reference to the original tongue.

In the case of figurative signs we need to guard against two mistakes:--1. the interpreting literal expressions figuratively; 2. the interpreting figurative expressions literally. The author lays down rules by which we may decide whether an expression is literal or figurative; the general rule being, that whatever can be shown to be in its literal sense inconsistent either with purity of life or correctness of doctrine must be taken figuratively. He then goes on to lay down rules for the interpretation of expressions which have been proved to be figurative; the general principle being, that no interpretation can be true which does not promote the love of God and the love of man. The author then proceeds to expound and illustrate the seven rules of Tichonius the Donatist, which he commends to the attention of the student of Holy Scripture.

Ch 1. Summary of the foregoing books, and scope of that which follows

1. The man who fears God seeks diligently in Holy Scripture for a knowledge of His will. And when he has become meek through piety, so as to have no love of strife; when furnished also with a knowledge of languages, so as not to be stopped by unknown words and forms of speech, and with the knowledge of certain necessary objects, so as not to be ignorant of the force and nature of those which are used figuratively; and assisted, besides, by accuracy in the texts, which has been secured by skill and care in the matter of correction;--when thus prepared, let him proceed to the examination and solution of the ambiguities of Scripture. And that he may not be led astray by ambiguous signs, I so far as I can give him instruction (it may happen however, that either from the greatness of his intellect, or the greater clearness of the light he enjoys, he shall laugh at the methods I am going to point out as childish),--but yet, as I was going to say, so far as I can give instruction, let him who is in such a state of mind that he can be instructed by me know, that the ambiguity of Scripture lies either in proper words or in metaphorical, classes which I have already described in the second book.

Ch 2. The science of numbers not created, but only discovered, by man

2. But when proper words make Scripture ambiguous, we must see in the first place that there is nothing wrong in our punctuation or pronunciation. Accordingly, if, when attention is given to the passage, it shall appear to be uncertain in what way it ought to be punctuated or pronounced, let the reader consult the rule of faith which he has gathered from the plainer passages of Scripture, and from the authority of the Church, and of which I treated at sufficient length when I was speaking in the first book about things. But if both readings, or all of them (if there are more than two), give a meaning in harmony with the faith, it remains to consult the context, both what goes before and what comes after, to see which interpretation, out of many that offer themselves, it pronounces for and permits to be dovetailed into itself.

3. Now look at some examples. The heretical pointing, "In principio erat verbum, et verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat" (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,and God was), so as to make the next sentence run, "Verbum hoc erat in principio apud Deum" (This word was in the beginning with God), arises out of unwillingness to confess that the Word was God. But this must be rejected by the rule of faith, which, in reference to the equality of the Trinity, directs us to say: "et Deus erat verbum" (and the Word was God); and then to add: "hoc erat in principio apud Deum" (the same was in the beginning with God).

4. But the following ambiguity of punctuation does not go against the faith in either way you take it, and therefore must be decided from the context. It is where the apostle says: "What I shall choose I wet not: for I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better: nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you." Now it is uncertain whether we should read, "ex duobus concupiscentiam habens " [having a desire for two things], or  "compellor autem ex duobus " [I am in a strait betwixt two]; and so to add: "concupiscentiam habens dissolvi, et esse cum Christo" [having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ]. But since there follows "multo enim magis optimum" [for it is far better], it is evident that he says he has a desire for that which is better; so that, while he is in a strait betwixt two, yet he has a desire for one and sees a necessity for the other; a desire, viz., to be with Christ, and a necessity to remain in the flesh. Now this ambiguity is resolved by one word that follows, which is translated denim [for]; and the translators who have omitted this particle have preferred the interpretation which makes the apostle seem not only in a strait betwixt two, but also to have a desire for two. We must therefore punctuate the sentence thus: "et quid eligam ignoro: compellor autem ex duobus" [what I shall choose I wet not: for I am in a strait betwixt two]; and after this point follows: "concupiscentiam habens dissolvi, et esse cum Christo" [having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ]. And, as if he were asked why he has a desire for this in preference to the other, he adds: "multo enim magis optimum" [for it is far better]. Why, then, is he in a strait betwixt the two? Because there is a need for his remaining, which he adds in these terms: "manere in carne necessarium propter vos" [nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you].

5. Where, however, the ambiguity cannot be cleared up, either by the rule of faith or by the context, there is nothing to hinder us to point the sentence according to any method we choose of those that suggest themselves. As is the case in that passage to the Corinthians: "Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. Receive us; we have wronged no man." It is doubtful whether we should read, mundemus nos ab omni coinquinatione carnis et spiritus" [let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit], in accordance with the passage, "that she may be holy both in body and in spirit," or, "mundemus nos ab omni coinquintione carnis" [let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh], so as to make the next sentence, "et spiritus perficientes sanctificationem in timore Dei capite nos" [and perfecting holiness of spirit in the fear of God, receive us]. Such ambiguities of punctuation, therefore, are left to the reader's discretion.

Ch 3. To which of the above-mentioned studies attention should be given, and in what spirit

6. And all the directions that I have given about ambiguous  punctuations are to be observed likewise in the case of doubtful pronunciations. For these too, unless the fault lies in the carelessness of the reader, are corrected either by the rule of faith, or by a reference to the preceding or succeeding context; or if neither of these methods is applied with success, they will remain doubtful, but so that the reader will not be in fault in whatever way he may pronounce them. For example, if our faith that God will not bring any charges against His elect, and that Christ will not condemn His elect, did not stand in the way, this passage, "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?" might be pronounced in such a way as to make what follows an answer to this question, "God who justifieth," and to make a second question, "Who is he that condemneth?" with the answer, "Christ Jesus who died." But as it would be the height of madness to believe this, the passage will be pronounced in such a way as to make the first part a question of inquiry, and the second a rhetorical interrogative. Now the ancients said that the difference between an inquiry and an interrogative was this, that an inquiry admits of many answers, but to an interrogative the answer must be either "No" or "Yes." The passage will be pronounced, then, in such a way that after the inquiry, "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect?" what follows will be put as an interrogative: "Shall God who justifieth?" the answer "No" being understood. And in the same way we shall have the inquiry, "Who is he that condemneth?" and the answer here again in the form of an interrogative, "Is it Christ who died? yea, rather, who is risen again? who is even at the right hand of God? who also maketh intercession for us?" the answer "No" being understood to every one of these questions. On the other hand, in that passage where the apostle says, "What shall we say then? That the Gentiles which followed not after righteousness have attained to righteousness;" unless after the inquiry, "What shall we say then?" what follows were given as the answer to this question: "That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness;" it would not be in harmony with the succeeding context. But with whatever tone of voice one may choose to pronounce that saying of Nathanael's, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?"--whether with that of a man who gives an affirmative answer, so that "out of Nazareth" is the only part that belongs to the interrogation, or with that of a man who asks the whole question with doubt and hesitation,--I do not see how a difference can be made. But neither sense is opposed to faith.

7. There is, again, an ambiguity arising out of the doubtful sound of syllables; and this of course has relation to pronunciation. For example, in the passage, "My bone [os meum] was not hid from Thee, which Thou didst make in secret," it is not clear to the reader whether he should take the word "os" as short or long. If he make it short, it is the singular of ossa [bones]; if he make it long, it is the singular of ora [mouths]. Now difficulties such as this are cleared up by looking into the original tongue, for in the Greek we find not "stome" [mouth], but "osteon" [bone]. And for this reason the vulgar idiom is frequently more useful in conveying the sense than the pure speech of the educated. For I would rather have the barbarism, "non est absconditum a te ossum meum", than have the passage in better Latin but the sense less clear. But sometimes when the sound of a syllable is doubtful, it is decided by a word near it belonging to the same sentence. As, for example, that saying of the apostle, "Of the which I tell you before [praedico], as I have also told you in time past [praedixi], that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God." Now if he had only said, "Of the which I tell you before [quae praedico vobis]", and had not added, "as I have also told you in time past [sicut proedixi]," we could not know without going back to the original whether in the word praedico the middle syllable should be pronounced long or short. But as it is, it is clear that it should be pronounced long; for he does not say, sicut praedicavi, but sicut praedixi.

Ch 4. Whatever has been rightly said by the heathen, we must appropriate to our usesid

8. And not only these, but also those ambiguities that do not relate either to punctuation or pronunciation, are to be examined in the same way. For example, that one in the Epistle to the Thessalonians: "Propterea consolati sumus fratres in vobis". Now it is doubtful whether "fratres" [brethren] is in the vocative or accusative case, and it is not contrary to faith to take it either way. But in the Greek language the two cases are not the same in form; and accordingly, when we look into the original, the case is shown to be vocative. Now if the translator had chosen to say, "propterea consolationem habuimus fratres in vobis", he would have followed the words less literally, but there would have been less doubt about the meaning; or,  indeed, if he had added "nostri", hardly any one would have doubted that the vocative case was meant when he heard "propterea consolationem habuimus fratres in vobis", But this is a rather dangerous liberty to take. It has been taken, however in that passage to the Corinthians, where the apostle says, "I protest by your rejoicing [per vestram gloriam] which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily." For one translator has it, "per vestram" juro "gloriam", the form of adjuration appearing in the Greek without any ambiguity. It is therefore very rare and very difficult to find any ambiguity in the case of proper words, as far at least as Holy Scripture is concerned, which neither the context, showing the design of the writer, nor a comparison of translations, nor a reference to the original tongue, will suffice to explain.

Ch 5. What kind of spirit is required for the study of Holy Scripture

9. But the ambiguities of metaphorical words, about which I am next to speak, demand no ordinary care and diligence. In the first place, we must beware of taking a figurative expression literally. For the saying of the apostle applies in this case too: "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." For when what is said figuratively is taken as if it were said literally, it is understood in a carnal manner. And nothing is more fittingly called the death of the soul than when that in it which raises it above the brutes, the intelligence namely, is put in subjection to the flesh by a blind adherence to the letter. For he who follows the letter takes figurative words as if they were proper, and does not carry out what is indicated by a proper word into its secondary signification; but, if he hears of the Sabbath, for example, thinks of nothing but the one day out of seven which recurs in constant succession; and when he hears of a sacrifice, does not carry his thoughts beyond the customary offerings of victims from the flock, and of the fruits of the earth. Now it is surely a miserable slavery of the soul to take signs for things, and to be unable to lift the eye of the mind above what is corporeal and created, that it may drink in eternal light.
  Ch 6. Sacred Scripture compared with profane authors
10. This bondage, however, in the case of the Jewish people, differed widely from what it was in the case of the other nations; because, though the former were in bondage to temporal things, it was in such a way that in all these the One God was put before their minds. And although they paid attention to the signs of spiritual realities in place of the realities themselves, not knowing to what the signs referred, still they had this conviction rooted in their minds, that in subjecting themselves to such a bondage they were doing the pleasure of the one invisible God of all. And the apostle describes this bondage as being like to that of boys under the guidance of a schoolmaster. And those who clung obstinately to such signs could not endure our Lord's neglect of them when the time for their revelation had come. And hence their leaders brought it as a charge against Him that He healed on the Sabbath, and the people, clinging to these signs as it they were realities, could not believe that one who refused to observe them in the way the Jews did was God, or came from God. But those who did believe, from among whom the first Church at Jerusalem was formed, showed clearly how great an advantage it had been to be so guided by the schoolmaster that signs, which had been for a season imposed on the obedient, fixed the thoughts of those who observed them on the worship of the One God who made heaven and earth. These men, because they had been very near to spiritual things (for even in the temporal and carnal offerings and types, though they did not clearly apprehend their spiritual meaning, they had learnt to adore the One Eternal God,) were filled with such a measure of the Holy Spirit that they sold all their goods, and laid their price at the apostles' feet to be distributed among the needy, and consecrated themselves wholly to God as a new temple, of which the old temple they were serving was but the earthly type.

11. Now it is not recorded that any of the Gentile churches did this, because men who had for their gods idols made with hands had not been so near to spiritual things.