Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine: Part 2

Book III: The Interpreter’s Approach to Metaphorical Language

(Chpts. 1-4) Besides textual issues, the passage may be ambiguous because of incorrect punctuation or pronunciation. To determine which punctuation or pronunciation is correct, the interpreter must consult the rule of faith and the church. But if the passage is still ambiguous, he should consult the context in which the passage occurs. If after these things the passage remains ambiguous, it is up to the interpreter to decide the correct meaning. This method of clarifying ambiguities can be used in many other circumstances as well.

(Chpts. 5-9) The interpreter should give special attention to metaphorical language in Scripture so that he is not always interpreting things literally. This person is enslaved to the signs as if they are things. The Jews were enslaved to the signs, although they knew that it pointed to a greater reality. The Gentiles were also enslaved to signs, which were their idols and gods. Both groups are freed by Christ at salvation to understand the greater meaning behind the Scriptural signs.

(Chpts. 10-24) The opposite error is to take literal passages as if they are figurative. The literalness of a passage is discovered by determining if it has reverenced to a pure life or sound doctrine. If it refers to either, it is to be taken literally. If not, then it is figurative. Further, severe passages are intended to destroy lust and are generally taken literally, though sometimes they may be figurative. A passage which presents the sin of a saint or something that God that seems wrong should be taken figuratively. If a command seems to enjoin vice or sin, then that command is figurative. Another thing to consider is the time when somethings were allowed to be practiced, such as polygamy in the Old Testament. The patriarchs had multiple wives not for lust’s sake, but for procreation. For example, David did not exhibit lust in his marriages, but only in the case of Bathsheba. But since polygamy and the like are repugnant to good men, these actions should be taken figuratively because they are no longer applicable to men today. Finally, a passage maybe taken literally if it describes the sin of a man. This can be used to correct the lifestyle of a believer.

(Chpts. 25-29) Another rule to keep in mind is that sometimes words have multiple meanings. This use of multiple meanings in a given context can signify things that are contrary or things that are different. Sometimes the meaning is hard to determine in a narrow context, so the interpreter must go outside that context to determine meaning. It is safer to interpret a passage by other Scripture than by using reason.

(Chpts. 30-37) Tichonius the Donatist proposed seven rules that are helpful for interpreting the Scriptures. First, some passages refer to Christ and the church as one body, moving back and forth between the two without explanation. Second, some passages refer to the mixed church, that is, the church as it exists on the earth with both believers and unbelievers. Third, other passages refer to grace and law, contrasting the two for believers. Fourth, one must be careful to distinguish between genus and species, because the text may use terms relating to the species (e.g. carnal Israel) but actually refer to the genus (spiritual Israel). Fifth, some passages express designated times which can be metaphorical or literal. Sixth, sometimes the passage will jump back to another part of revelation without warning—this is called recapitulation. Seventh, some passages refer to the devil and his body, shifting from his wicked servants to the devil himself without much transition.

Book IV: The Interpreter’s Use of Rhetoric

(Chpts. 1-5) While this book is not about rules of rhetoric, Christian teachers should find those rules and make use of them. He should not, however, concern himself too much to go to school for rhetoric, as many of these skills can be acquired through much listening and reading. It is his duty, though, to learn how to teach truth and motivate men to obey it. To do this, wisdom is more important than eloquence for him because without wisdom, eloquence is empty.

(Chpts. 6-18) The authors of Scripture also used eloquence in the delivery of their message, as Paul and Amos illustrate. While some of Scriptures may be obscure, the teacher should endeavor to be clear in his teaching. Clarity necessitates that he may not discuss in difficult passages in front of crowds, but he saves them for private discussions. But above all, clarity must be sought over the mastery of eloquence. Further, it is incumbent on the teacher to move the listener as well as instruct him. Therefore, he employs eloquence to sway his audience. However, the subject matter determines the type of eloquence used. A most importantly, the teacher must pray for guidance so that his words are most effective on the audience.  And he is to learn how to better teach so that he can communicate the Scriptures better.  These three things, to teach, to give pleasure, and to move are used to communicate matters of far more importance than how they are used elsewhere in rhetoric.

(Chpt. 19-22) Even though everything is of great importance, the teacher should not always use the same style. Rather, his style should fit the message. One should vary his style as the authors of Scripture did. Sometimes they were subdued, other times temperate, or majestic, and sometimes emotionally fervent. More examples of eloquence are found in the teachers of the church, especially Ambrose and Cyprian. These styles should be varied even within the context of a sermon.

(Chpt. 23-26) The teacher should use all these stiles properly in his sermon. The majestic style can be used not to get applause, but to drive men to tears and thus to affect a change in their lives. The quiet style should be used to convince mean of truth, and not to motivate unwilling persons. A temperate style uses beautiful language not to convince or motivate, but to solidify the person’s resolve to live as instructed. In whatever style the teacher is using, he must strive for three things: perspicuity, beauty, and persuasiveness.

(Chpt. 27-31) The teacher’s life, though, must back up his teaching to achieve the maximum effect. Also, if he is having to choose between speaking truth and eloquence, he should always choose truth because it is more valuable. It is also allowable for a teacher to borrow another man’s words in order to share the truth of God effectively. Finally, every discourse should begin with prayer, asking God’s help to deliver the discourse appropriately.



Augustine’s work is one of the earliest contributions to homiletics and contributes many key thoughts to the subject. First, it lays the foundation for the interpreter’s life: the love and enjoyment of God. He chooses to spend a whole book on this theme. In contrast, this aspect is only briefly covered in modern works on the same subject. But far from being a speculative tangent of Augustine, this aspect (the love of God) is foundational for all Christian of life, especially when he is trying to love his fellow man through his teaching. Thus, as Augustine develops this idea, he orientates the mind of his pupil properly so that he is ready to communicate God’s word.

Second, Augustine’s demand for the teacher to know the entire Scripture is crucial. So often, preachers will misapply or misinterpret parts of Scripture simply because they are not as familiar with some of the harder portions of it. This circumstance can be avoided if the preacher has a rudimentary knowledge of every part of Scripture and a deeper understand of the necessary sections. Thus, his admonition here is well founded and can keep many preachers from error.

Third, he argues extensively that the interpreter of Scripture should use “heathen” knowledge; that is, he must use what sciences are available to him in order to understand what God said. He illustrates this with the idea of spoiling the Egyptians: as Christians leave the world, they should take all that is good from it. There is a word of caution to Augustine’s idea, however. While Christian’s plunder the Egyptians, they must avoid two errors: first, they must not make the idols of the Egyptians their own; and second, they must not return to Egypt. As to the first, often Christian scholars will use the tools of unbelieving scholarship, but they fail to recognize how deeply the heart of unbelief corrupts even those tools. Thus, when they are appropriated, they are not thoroughly purged from unbelief and so truth is mixed with error. As to the second, in some cases Christian scholars have abandoned faith altogether and have crossed over to unbelieving scholarship, agreeing with most of their unbelieving presuppositions. In such cases, the scholarship is filled with error while the scholar himself may still be a Christian.

Fourth, his discussion of figurative verses literal meaning is not very accurate. Augustine would take nearly everything figuratively which does not directly influence piety toward God. This, however, is a bit of an over simplification of the use of the Bible. There are somethings that may not be connected to piety at all and should not be stretched to do so. For example, genealogies have little to do with piety, but have everything to do with history. And God may have given this historical claim in order to validate the truthfulness of the Scriptures. If the Scriptures can be found faithful in tangible matters of history, how much more in the intangible matters of theology?

Fifth, his discussion of rhetoric was particularly helpful. The best point he made was on the matter of perspicuity in delivery. More often than not, homiletic teachers focus on elements of delivery and style, such stories, emotional appeals, alliteration, parallel structure, etc. Perspicuity is acknowledged, but then abandoned to develop these other things. It should be the other way around. Perspicuity should be prominent as the overwhelming feature of any sermon. Clarity is key. If clarity does not exist, the sermon, though it may have emotion, is dead. All the other aspects of homiletics should come after perspicuity.

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