Wednesday, May 4, 2016

On Christian Doctrine - St Augustine

'On Christian Doctrine' is primarily a guide on how to read the Bible.  St Augustine sets out various rules to help people understand.  More passionately, he provides several rules to fight back against the critics of the Bible.  Those seem to me to be the core of this work.
There are two main prongs that he works with.  The first is that the reader work hard to understand what is written as a metaphor.  This may mean digging deeper into translation.  It may mean letting quick understanding slide past at first.  It absolutely might mean relying on more learned scholars for interpretation.
The other rule is to read passages with the idea of the larger context in mind.  Try to make each part work together with the overall message given.  Don't take a verse on its own, if it seems to disagree with everything else.  And above all, be open to giving the reading the benefit of the doubt.
There are other discussions about things like how important eloquence is to preachers of the Bible.  Augustine thinks it is good, but not crucial.  He advises that uncertain speakers should lean as heavily as they can on the written word.  That strikes me as good advice.

I struggle a bit with the rule that Augustine has about giving the Bible the benefit of the doubt.  Lord knows, it's frustrating to deal with arguments from people who want to pluck one verse out of context and stake a whole argument on that.  I see this done rather constantly on social media and it's almost always done in bad faith.  Any large doctrine can be picked apart if you strain at gnats.
On the other hand, is it fair to argue that a contrary reader must give the writer all benefit of the doubt?  I don't know that it is.  It's akin to saying that you can only understand the Bible if you have full faith in it.  Essentially it demands that the reader swallow the camel whole.
I suppose a careful reader can try to swing back and forth between the two points, but that isn't a common skill.  Though, if it were, the world would undoubtedly be a better place.

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