Biblical interpretation

During a recent interview with Economist Russ Roberts, Emily Oster was recounting a debate she had with a doctor on the relative harms of various activities for pregnant ladies. She insisted that the data should lead us to the conclusions of what activities are safe and what activities are harmful. The doctor tried to dismiss the data. Her response:

Are you kidding? You HAVE to make these decisions with data. What is your other system? What? I don’t even… this is the only system we have. There is not some secret “other” system.

Russ Roberts added by saying there is superstition and folklore.

This parallels nicely to Biblical interpretation. The one legitimate way to read the Bible is to ask “what is the writer trying to communicate to his audience”. There is not some “secret other system” of interpreting the Bible, although Christians throughout history have tried to do so. These “secret other systems” are the equivalent of superstition and folklore (and if they turn out to be correct, it is only through coincidence).

Augustine, in his Confessions, complains about those who take the Bible on face value. Augustine explains his “secret other system”:

11. Already have You told me, O Lord, with a strong voice, in my inner ear, that You are eternal, having alone immortality. Since You are not changed by any shape or motion, nor is Your will altered by times, because no will which changes is immortal. This in Your sight is clear to me, and let it become more and more clear, I beseech You; and in that manifestation let me abide more soberly under Your wings. Likewise have You said to me, O Lord, with a strong voice, in my inner ear, that You have made all natures and substances, which are not what You Yourself art, and yet they are; and that only is not from You which is not, and the motion of the will from You who art, to that which in a less degree is, because such motion is guilt and sin; and that no one’s sin does either hurt You, or disturb the order of Your rule, either first or last.

Augustine relied on his inward contemplation to discern things about God. He used meditation to gain his knowledge. Later on Augustine talks about using his inward eye to read the Bible in light of his knowledge gained through introspection:

29. From all these truths, of which they doubt not whose inner eye You have granted to see such things, and who immoveably believe Moses, Your servant, to have spoken in the spirit of truth;

Augustine then lists off a handful of spiritual ways to interpret “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”. Augustine then criticizes those who just take the words on face value:

For some, when they read or hear these words, think that God as a man or some mass gifted with immense power, by some new and sudden resolve, had, outside itself, as if at distant places, created heaven and earth, two great bodies above and below, wherein all things were to be contained. And when they hear, God said, Let it be made, and it was made, they think of words begun and ended, sounding in times and passing away, after the departure of which that came into being which was commanded to be; and whatever else of the kind their familiarity with the world would suggest. In whom, being as yet little ones, while their weakness by this humble kind of speech is carried on as if in a mother’s bosom, their faith is healthfully built up, by which they have and hold as certain that God made all natures, which in wondrous variety their senses perceive on every side.

Notice the ad hominem attacks. Augustine’s one response to those who took the Bible literally was “well, you are stupid and don’t understand.” This is not an actual argument. Augustine really didn’t have an argument, and previously revealed he had turned away from Christianity when he took the Bible on face value. To Augustine, if the Bible was true, Christianity was false.

To summarize, Augustine endorses various and innumerable ways to interpret the clear text of the Bible in a spiritual and Platonistic fashion. He endorses all views except those who read the words and then take them on face value. To Augustine, the one actually legitimate way to read the Bible is incorrect, and the numerous and varying ways to spiritualize the text are true. Augustine endorsed superstition and folklore.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Augustine, Bible, Church Fathers, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Biblical interpretation

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