Saturday, November 2, 2013

These Essays: Amending Augustine

If I dare to be a bit clever, and if my readers dare excuse it, then I would amend Augustinian interpretation. I do not propose to solve all the problems. But a little more complexity might help him. You see, Augustine ended up in what seems to be a lot of trouble because his only first-tier, technical consideration of Scripture was authorial intent. 

That was his one criterion, and if you missed it you had to “save the day” through loving allegory. Today we have many more technical interpretive criteria, and need not excuse anything. Some additional flexibility might mean that in every case we can still respect the Scriptures for what they say themselves.

For example, dare we say the following?  

"Whoever, then, thinks to understand the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them that tends to neither edify one’s self nor build up one’s neighbor in the wisdom of God, does not yet understand them as one ought."

This retains Augustinian understanding. Interpretation is about the transformation from ignorance to consciousness, and building up one’s neighbor in wisdom certainly accomplishes this.
But we cannot just continue with the second half of the Augustinian rule and say “though one does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express,” because we do not look for only one meaning in any case. Our first-tier criteria validate a range of interpretations which adhere to Scripture: the appropriate, the fecund, the consistent, the comprehensive, the methodologically responsible. We insist on fidelity to a text, its form and content, its grammar and its history.

Now these methods may themselves be corrupted by our own cultural and historical assumptions. But Christians should value the best of the interpretations so produced because they have been valiantly struggling to break free of our confessional assumptions. Our traditions, however justifiable from Scripture, are not Scripture themselves, under whose authority all Christians submit. So we have not listened to the Scriptures perfectly. 

But the corruptions of first-order criteria ought not discourage us from using them entirely. Technical criteria encourage us to hear past our own pre-understanding so that we can understand the Scriptures anew, in their own voice and on their own terms. Just as Augustine should not have excused us from his own criterion of authorial intent, we should not excuse ourselves from our own first-tier criteria today. 

Because if we have a greater number of possibly valid interpretations, we need not be so eager to say that misunderstanding can lead to understanding. Instead, we may say explicitly that which Augustine structurally implies: that understanding, even understanding free of error, is not sufficient. Rather, we can ask a different question: does the interpreter submit to the authority of Scripture because he or she values the transformation of all in light of the knowledge of God? 

If so, then he or she will endeavor to satisfy all the first-tier criteria of interpretive validity, and avoid as many errors as possible. Just such a recognition of authority is a proper understanding of Scripture in the first place.

Surely, our errors of misappropriating Scripture for ends that harm others and serve ourselves must exceed those technical errors that Augustinian love itself would correct but not condemn. The mistakes which interpreters must be most wary of are those moral errors that eschew Scriptural authority, rather than technical errors like those that fail to discern or convey content and context. 

This does not mean that those errors are unimportant—think of misunderstandings between lovers! Yet it does mean that we must determine which errors matter most, and rightly seeks to avoid technical error for fear of leading our neighbor into confusion, distress, or despair.

The beloved loves by listening to what the lover has to say. We love the lover’s voice because it is beautiful, and because it leads us to the lover. That is the authority of the lover over the beloved, and it is where our understanding of Scripture begins. But as the two clauses of the commandment of love and the two books of Christian Doctrine remind us, authority is not the only component of love. 

There is also empathy, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, which Augustine enfolds in rhetoric: “in this process of speaking, he should win over those who are hostile, rouse the lazy, and describe to the ignorant what is occurring now and what they should expect in the future.” 

But we will go a bit further in our understanding of empathy. For we cannot understand it to be only a component of the love the lover has for the beloved. Wide-eyed love, after all, would find it certain strange to preach only to the lazy, hostile, and ignorant. What if one was preached to? Augustine, pointed here only toward God, misses the opportunity. In Christian Doctrine no one is ever loved by their neighbor, anymore than one loves a neighbor for his or her own self. Augustine implies such things elsewhere in his work, but does not apply them here. 

So I would suggest a more mutual understanding of empathy, one more like the reciprocity of love implied by Paul, declared by John, and following from the Synoptic teachings, so that we might we might reinscribe the famous quote from Augustine thusly:

"Whoever, then, thinks to understand the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them that neither edifies oneself nor bears up one’s neighbor in the wisdom of God, does not yet understand them as one ought. If, on the other hand, one diligently draws forth a meaning from the Scriptures that mends a neighbor to one’s own self, or draws both souls together toward the mercy of our Lord, then one has begun to understand these passages by heeding the authority of God, whose Scriptures lead none astray."

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