Catholic belief, prayers and spiritual teaching
ON CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE (cont)
by St Augustine of Hippo
Introductory Note by the Editor
He speaks of it in his Retractations, Bk. 2, chap. 4, as follows: "Finding that the books on Christian Doctrine were not finished, I thought it better to complete them before passing on to the revision of others. Accordingly, I completed the third book, which had been written as far as the place where a quotation is made from the Gospel about the woman who took leaven and hid it in three measures of meal till the whole was leavened.' I added also the last book, and finished the whole work in four books [in the year 426]: the first three affording aids to the interpretation of Scripture, the last giving directions as to the mode of making known our interpretation.
In the second book, I made a mistake as to the authorship of the book commonly called the Wisdom of Solomon. For I have since learnt that it is not a well-established fact, as I said it was, that Jesus the son of Sirach, who wrote the book of Ecclesiasticus, wrote this book also: on the contrary, I have ascertained that it is altogether more probable that he was not the author of this book. Again, when I said, 'The authority of the Old Testament is contained within the limits of these forty-four books,' I used the phrase 'Old Testament' in accordance with ecclesiastical usage. But the apostle seems to restrict the application of the name 'Old Testament' to the law which was given on Mount Sinai. And in what I said as to St. Ambrose having, by his knowledge of chronology, solved a great difficulty, when he showed that Plato and Jeremiah were contemporaries, my memory betrayed me. What that great bishop really did say upon this subject may be seen in the book which he wrote, 'On Sacraments or Philosophy.'"
Book I. Containing a general view of the subjects treated in Holy
In this first book he treats of things, which he divides into three classes,--things to be enjoyed, things to be used, and things which use and enjoy. The only object which ought to be enjoyed is the Triune God, who is our highest good and our true happiness. We are prevented by our sins from enjoying God; and that our sins might be taken away, "The Word was made Flesh," our Lord suffered, and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, taking to Himself as his bride the Church, in which we receive remission of our sins. And if our sins are remitted and our souls renewed by grace, we may await with hope the resurrection of the body to eternal glory; if not, we shall be raised to everlasting punishment.
These matters relating to faith having been expounded, the author
goes on to show that all objects, except God, are for use; for,
though some of them may be loved, yet our love is not to rest in
them, but to have reference to God. And we ourselves are not
objects of enjoyment to God: he uses us, but for our own
advantage. He then goes on to show that love--the love of God for
His own sake and the love of our neighbour for God's sake--is the
fulfilment and the end of all Scripture. After adding a few words
about hope, he shows, in conclusion, that faith, hope, and love
are graces essentially necessary for him who would understand and
explain aright the Holy Scriptures.
The difficulties and obscurities of Scripture spring chiefly from two sources, unknown and ambiguous signs. The present book deals only with unknown signs, the ambiguities of language being reserved for treatment in the next book. The difficulty arising from ignorance of signs is to be removed by learning the Greek and Hebrew languages, in which Scripture is written, by comparing the various translations, and by attending to the context.
In the interpretation of figurative expressions, knowledge of things is as necessary as knowledge of words; and the various sciences and arts of the heathen, so far as they are true and useful, may be turned to account in removing our ignorance of signs, whether these be direct or figurative. Whilst exposing the folly and futility of many heathen superstitions and practices, the author points out how all that is sound and useful in their science and philosophy may be turned to a Christian use. And in conclusion, he shows the spirit in which it behoves us to address ourselves to the study and interpretation of the sacred books.
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.
All these gifts are to be sought in earnest prayer from God, though we are not to forget to be zealous and diligent in study. He shows that there are three species of style,--the subdued, the elegant, and the majestic; the first serving for instruction, the second for praise, and the third for exhortation: and of each of these he gives examples, selected both from Scripture and from early teachers of the Church, Cyprian and Ambrose. He shows that these various styles may be mingled, and when and for what purposes they are mingled; and that they all have the same end in view, to bring home the truth to the hearer, so that he may understand it, hear it with gladness, and practice it in his life.
Finally, he exhorts the Christian teacher himself, pointing out
the dignity and responsibility of the office he holds, to lead a
life in harmony with his own teaching, and to show a good example