Christians read the Bible to understand – as far as it is possible – God and life. But, from before the ink was even dry on the page, Christians have had to grapple with the fact that faithful readers of scripture do not always come to the same understanding of what it means. One common solution is to claim that each passage only means one thing and what I understand it to mean is the only faithful understanding. But that way leads to factions and schism.
I’ve written elsewhere about how Augustine’s focus on the double love of God and neighbor leads him to make space for the relative faithfulness of different interpretations of scripture.In an essay on Augustine’s Biblical Interpretation, The Rev. Dr. Thomas Williams shows that the great saint and theologian was willing to allow that there might be more than one true understanding and that the biblical author’s intended meaning might not be the only true one:
Suppose, then, that Augustine says Genesis 1:1 means x, and I say it means y; suppose further that upon consulting Christ as Inner Teacher we find that both x and y are true. The only question is, which did Moses mean, x or y? Augustine asks, why not both?
So when one person says “He meant what I say,” and another says “No, he meant what I say,” I think it would be more pious to say “Why not both, if both are true?” And if someone should see in his words a third truth, or a fourth, or indeed any other truth, why not believe that Moses saw all these truths? (Confessions 12.31.42)
Somewhat surprisingly, it is not pride but just good Augustinian theology (and epistemology) to suspect that we might find truths in Moses’ writings that had never crossed his mind:
Finally, Lord, you who are God and not flesh and blood, even if one who was merely a man did not see all there was to be seen, did not your good Spirit, who will lead me into the land of uprightness, know everything that you would reveal through these words to later readers, even if the one who uttered them was perhaps thinking of only one of the many true meanings? If so, let us suppose he was thinking of whichever meaning is most exalted. O Lord, show us that meaning; or if you please, show us some other true meaning. In this way, whether you show us just what you showed your servant, or something else that emerges from the same words, we will in any event be fed by you, not mocked by error (Conf. 12.32.43).6
Augustine is able to be generous in allowing more than one true interpretation because of what he understands the purpose of scripture to be. Professor Williams continues with reference to Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching):
The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is bankrupt, as far as Augustine is concerned. Such a pursuit springs from curiosity, which for him is no admirable trait but a vice; he identifies it with that “lust of the eyes” of which John wrote, “For all that is in the world—the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:16). So it is not surprising that when Augustine discusses the legitimacy of rival interpretations of Scripture, he reveals a deep concern with the morality of exegetical disputes. Undue attachment to one’s own exegesis manifests a sort of pride, the love of one’s own opinion simply because it is one’s own opinion. In Confessions 10 Augustine describes this as a form of the “pride of life,” the third of the unholy trinity of sins from 1 John 2:16. It is more grievous still when the exegete is driven by the desire for a reputation as a brilliant scholar; “this is a miserable life and revolting ostentation” (Conf. 10.36.59). Moreover, since truth is common property, one’s own opinion is not really one’s own at all if it is true; it is the common property of all right‐thinking people, and no one has any individual stake in it: “No one should regard anything as his own, except perhaps a lie, since all truth is from him who says, ‘I am the truth’” (doctr. chr. Prologue, 8). Also, only temerity and insolence could justify such confidence in something we cannot actually know. We can know what Truth itself says, but we cannot know with any degree of certainty what Moses or Paul was thinking when he wrote the biblical text we are expounding. Most important of all, charity demands that we abstain from all such “pernicious disputes.”
For charity is the ultimate aim of all worthy exegesis. “Whoever thinks he has understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them in such a way that his understanding does not build up the twin love of God and neighbor has not yet understood them at all” (doctr. chr. 1.36.40). Charity is, moreover, the unifying and animating theme of Augustine’s treatise on biblical interpretation, De doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching). Its message is this: Be always mindful of the end, and be on your guard against the pernicious tendency of means to encroach upon the ends. The end of all things, Augustine insists, is God. He alone is to be loved for his own sake—“enjoyed,” in Augustine’s terminology. Whatever else is to be loved should be “used,” that is, loved for the sake of God. Even human beings, including ourselves, should be “used” in this sense, which does not mean “exploited.” But Augustine cannot quite bring himself to talk consistently of “using” ourselves and our fellow human beings, and he defines charity as “the motion of the soul toward enjoying God for his own sake and oneself and one’s neighbor for God’s sake” (doctr. chr. 3.10.16). Its opposite, cupidity, is “the motion of the soul toward enjoying oneself, one’s neighbor, or any bodily thing for the sake of something other than God” (Ibid.). Scripture, Augustine says, “commands nothing but charity and condemns nothing but cupidity” (doctr. chr. 3.10.15).
Interest in Biblical interpretation for its own sake is one such form of cupidity; exegesis is to be used for the sake of charity, not enjoyed for its own sake. In Augustine’s metaphor, it is not the distant land where we will be happy, but merely a vehicle by which we may be conveyed there.
The fulfillment and end of the Law and of all divine Scripture is the love of a being that is to be enjoyed [i.e., God], and of a being that can share that enjoyment with us [i.e., our neighbor]. . . . That we might know this and be able to achieve it, the whole temporal dispensation was made by divine providence for our salvation. We should use it not with an abiding but with a transitory love and delight like that in a road or conveyances or any other means. . . . We should love those things by which we are carried for the sake of that towards which we are carried (doctr. chr. 1.35.39; see also 1.4.4).
So overriding is this end that even misreadings of Scripture are scarcely objectionable if they build up charity. Someone guilty of such a misreading is to be corrected only on pragmatic grounds, not in the interest of scholarly correctness (an ideal to which Augustine shows not the slightest allegiance):
He is deceived in the same way as someone who leaves a road by mistake but nonetheless goes on through a field to the same place to which the road leads. Still, he should be corrected and shown how much more useful it is not to leave the road, lest his habit of wandering off should force him to take the long way around, or the wrong way altogether (doctr. chr. 1.36.41).