Shelf Life: Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine)

“The things of the Spirit do not come naturally to us like our mother tongue.  We are fallen, and the things of God are therefore strange to us.  Of course, interest, joy, and delight will help me learn, but behind them there needs to be the divine compulsion, the pressure of the Holy Spirit’s firm but loving discipline.” Augustine of Hippo in "Confessions"

Most celebrities are probably a lot less important than they (or we) think they are.  Every time some politician or actor or author or artist does something big, every time some nation convulses in revolt or some continent suffers through bizarre storms, we suppose that it is unprecedented.  It’s not just advertisers who talk in terms of “bigger-and-better, new-and-improved, never-before, never-again, historic, record-breaking.”

And most of the time, it’s really no big deal at all.  Most of the time all the headline-making events and people and places turn out to be far less significant than we thought.

Even our history books tend to exaggerate things.  We over-state that case for our favorite people or issues or time periods.  And as a result, we can wind up majoring on the minors and minoring on the majors.

That is why we have to be particularly careful when it comes to the great heroes of the faith.  We want to make sure we see them in the right light—not making too much out of them, but not making too little out of them.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) is one of those very rare historical figures that we are more likely to under-estimate than over-estimate.  Unlike most modern celebrities, he was far, far more important than he (or we) could have ever imagined.

In fact, it would be almost impossible to over-estimate the influence of the work of Augustine on the shaping of our culture and our world over the course of the past fifteen centuries.  There is little hyperbole in the assertion that this man is the virtual founder of Western Civilization and thus one of the most remarkable figures in the whole history of the world.

 

What: The Importance of De Doctrina Christiana

“All teaching is teaching of either things or signs; but things are learnt through signs.” Augustine of Hippo in “On Christian Doctrine”

According to Martin Luther, the pioneering work of Augustine “set the very course of Western Civilization.”  According to John Knox, his was the very essence of “incisive Christian thought applied to the circumstances of theis poor fallen world.”  When Peter Lombard compiled his Sentences, providing the Medieval world with its basic handbook of theology, he acknowledged his “supreme debt” to the “masterful work” of Augustine. 

When Gratian compiled the principle handbook of canon law, he too recognized the “vital import” of the “seminal foundations” laid by Augustine.  Cassiodorus and Boethius both relied heavily on Augustine’s worldview paradigm as well as hermeneutical methodology in establishing the Western pattern of covenantal and classical education.  Anselm, Aquinas, Petrarch, Pascal, Bellarmine, Calvin, Kierkegaard, and Kuyper all counted the work of Augustine as their first and primary intellectual influence.

According to Augustine cultures are not reflections of a people's race, ethnicity, folklore, politics, language, or heritage.  Rather they are out-workings of creeds and confessions.  In other words, cultures are the practical manifestations of the faith of the people.  If a culture begins to change, it is not because of fads, fashions, or the passing of time, it is because of a shift in worldview—it is because of a change of faith.  Thus, race, ethnicity, folklore, politics, language, or heritage are all simply expressions of a deeper reality rooted in spiritual convictions.

Thus, unlike Tertullian who decried the cultural applicability of the Christian Church asking, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?”  Augustine recognized that a people’s dominant worldview inevitably shapes the world they have in view.

That is why he was so concerned that Christians should approach the Bible, the sole source of true spiritual knowledge, in a healthy, consistent, and principled fashion.  In his little book De Doctrina Christiana or On Christian Doctrine he lays out just how to do that: read and understand and teach the Bible rightly.

Some have seen the book as little more than a manual for preachers and teachers.  And to be sure, it is that.  But others have rightly seen it as a manifesto for a distinctly Christian culture, a foundation for Classical Christian Education, and a clarion call for the application of the Bible to the whole of life.  Indeed, some have seen in it Augustine’s personal credo—and thus, as significant as Confessions or City of God.

 

Who: The Author of De Doctrina Christiana

“Even the world of Islam recognizes his sublime eminence, calling him Rumi Kabir—the great Christian.” Michael Marshall

One of the most remarkable men Africa ever produced—standing shoulder to shoulder with such giants as Athanasius, Origen, and Tertullian—was Augustine of Hippo.  He was born in 354 at Tagaste—in present-day Algeria—of a pagan father and a Christian mother.  He was brought up as a Christian but not baptized. 

He studied rhetoric at the great University of Carthage in order to become a lawyer, but later gave up his plan to for a career in teaching.  His study of rhetorical philosophy—with an emphasis on Platonism and Manichaenism—resulted in a complete renunciation of Christianity.  He lived a self-confessedly debauched life—including keeping a mistress for fifteen years by whom he had a son.

In pursuit of opportunities to improve his academic standing he took teaching posts—first in Rome and later in Milan.  It was in this latter city that he fell under the sway of the eloquent bishop and rhetorician Ambrose.  After a long and tortured battle of the soul—described in his classic work Confessions—Augustine was converted under Ambrose's ministry and was baptized in 386

After two years of intensive discipling and catechizing, he returned to Africa and established a scholastic community in Hippo.  There he founded a Classicum Academae, a kind of prototype for the modern university devoted to study, writing, and the work of cultural transformation.  The school was famed for its emphasis on logic, rhetoric, art, music, politics, theology, and philosophy.  But it was equally recognized for the brilliance of its founder.

In 391 the steadfastness, holiness, and giftedness of Augustine was recognized and he was ordained, as a presbyter or elder—though very much against his own objections.  In 394 he was asked to serve as a co-pastor to the aging local bishop.  And in 396 he was himself elevated to the bishopric of the city.

During his career he wrote more than a thousand works, including 242 books.  Most of these quite brilliant writings have endured the test of time—I have eight thick anthology compilations that sit on a shelf right next my desk.  His autobiography, Confessions, actually created the genre and remains a devotional and inspirational classic.  His commentaries, on Genesis and Psalms particularly, are of inestimable value.  His apologetic works Contra Manichae or Contra Pelagae continue to set the standard for orthodoxy.  His didactae like Sanctus Dei or De Trinitate formed the first, and arguably among the best, systematic theologies the Church has ever produced.  And his pastoral works such as the Enchiridion—served generations as a practical handbook for daily Christian living.  He is probably best known for his analysis of culture and history, The City of God, a combative book that both summarizes his other works and crowns them with the full achievement of maturity.

 

How: Reading De Doctrina Christiana

“Reading most classics requires a sturdy constitution and a carefully wrought plan; not so with… Augustine.  His work is so well organized that it can be read with ease by even the most novice of theological readers.”  Alan Tate

De Doctrina Christiana was simultaneously one of Augustine’s earliest works and one of his latest.  It was shortly after he was pressed into service as a presbyter in 391 that he asked an extended period of study and meditation—in order to immerse himself in the Scriptures.  Apparently, this book began as a series of exercises that grew out of that intensive time of study.  

By about 394, he had already begun extensive expositions of Genesis, Romans, and Galatians.  And he would soon begin work on his magisterial study of the Psalms.  So, it seemed like a good opportunity to expand his notes on Bible interpretation and teaching into a fuller, more permanent discourse.  In short order, he composed the first three parts of De Doctrina Christiana.

But then, sometime around 397 he stopped writing.  Whether it was because of the pressing concerns of the pastorate, the urgency of several other writing projects, or some other matter, Augustine never completed that early work—and it remained in manuscript form in his study.  There it would stay until the last decade of his life when Augustine would take up the old, dusty manuscript, editing slightly what he had written so many years before, and then adding a final section.

In the book, Augustine sets out the “rules for interpreting the Scriptures.”  His aim is to help Christians “discover what we need to learn” and then to be able to properly “present to others what we have learnt.”  In the process, he lays out basic Biblical hermeneutics: how to understand basic literary, grammatical, and allegorical forms.

As a theoretician Augustine was supremely qualified for this task.  Drawing on his vast classical learning as well as his rich spiritual insights, he systematically worked through the difficulties an ordinary reader might have in properly understanding the Bible.

Although the title of this book, De Doctrina Christiana, easily renders itself in English as, “On Christian Doctrine,” the more proper sense might be “On Christian Teaching.”  The book really is not so much about doctrine as about how to read, understand, and teach the Bible.  It is a kind of hermeneutical handbook. 

Augustine had essentially three goals. He wanted Christian teachers and preachers

  1.  to be able to discover the truth of the Gospel in the text of the Scriptures,
  2. to be able to then teach the truth of the Gospel from the Scriptures, and finally,
  3. to be able to defend truth of the Gospel whenever and wherever it is attacked. 

Augustine wrote De Doctrina Christiana as a series of progressive exercises in four books.  Like all great authors, he took great pains to make his arguments as clear and concise as possible—though the full text runs to nearly two hundred pages.  He was not writing for intellectuals and academics but for a popular audience.  Thus, he told his readers what he was going to tell them, then he told them, and finally, he told them what he’d just told them.  

So, besides its core argument, each book has a succinct introduction and a concluding summary.  Thus, a reader is able to systematically survey the essence of the book’s argument before going on to study its heart and soul.  Augustine often defines his terms and offers familiar illustrations along the way.

 

An overview

In Book One, Augustine works through the old Greek categories of “things and signs.”  In a sense, he lays the groundwork for the Christian craft of Semiotics.  Signs, he asserts, are used to symbolize things.  But they are themselves things.  So, he argues that any given symbol can have multiple meanings. It is therefore important to have an understanding of intent, context, and common usage.  Departing from the Platonic tradition, he offers readers very practical guidelines for knowing and understanding the literary tropes and patterns used throughout the Bible.

In Book Two, Augustine discusses the various types of common signs by both defining and describing them.  Dealing with literal and figurative signs, he argues that much of the difficulty in interpreting the Bible is due to the sinfulness of men and cultures and not to mystery or obscurity in the text itself.  Indeed, he says, the whole purpose of the Bible is to give revelation.  So, what we have to do is to get past our own obstacles to understanding.  This is best undertaken, he argues, by walking the “pathway of wisdom.”  This path involves: fearing God, obeying Him in faith, seeking out His truth, exercising courage, attending to good counsel, protecting the purity of the heart, and finally, resting in wisdom from above.  Interestingly, he makes a clear distinction between "truth" and "logic,” arguing that logic can sometimes lead to falsehood.  To provoke the heart to walk this pathway of wisdom, Augustine encourages both Scripture memory and language study.

In Book Three, Augustine deals with interpretive difficulties.  He outlines a basic approach to discerning both literal and literary meanings in any given text of Scripture. Allegory and metaphor can be rich, but dangerous, he warns.  Thus, Augustine emphasizes character, obedience, and accountability—which he says are as important for the student of Scripture as insights into formal grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  He offers a series of essential rules for interpreting difficult passages—beginning first and foremost with the exhortation to read the Bible Christo-centrically, in the context of the Gospel, and in light of all the rest of Scripture.

In Book Four, Augustine applies his most mature thinking to the application of Christian truth to oratory and eloquence. This section of the book is enormously practical—not only for the teacher and preacher but also for the ordinary believer attempting to apply the Gospel to the everyday details of life.  Here Augustine argues for the application of the Bible to the whole of life and learning—essentially providing a whole new paradigm for nation-building and culture-reforming.

 

Life and learning

Perhaps it was precisely because Augustine was not an ivory tower academic that he was able to make such a practical connection between Biblical orthodoxy and Biblical orthopraxy—right belief and right practice.  He lived his entire life in the midst of a vibrant community and among enduring friends and disciples.  Augustine was a social being.  He loved the company of others.  They not only sharpened his thinking, they softened his heart.  Thus influenced by his godly mother, Monica, and by his dear friends, De Doctrina Christiana reflects the expression of a joyously vibrant, eminently practical, and deeply personal worldview.  His pastoral concerns and his love of life is evident on every page.  The result is a book that is substantive as well as accessible—much like the man himself.

Thus, the good news is that however much time you devote to the task will be amply rewarded.  Augustine is not only a well-organized writer, he is a very entertaining writer.  He maintains a brisk pace salted with unparalleled wit and wisdom.

By the time he died on August 28, 430, De Doctrina Christiana was already recognized as a book of vital importance.  In fact, over the next two centuries there was a popular movement throughout his native Africa, much of Frankish Gaul, and portions of Burgundy and Lombardy to have portions of it recognized in the canon of Scripture.

 

Augustine Bibliography

“I think there is nothing quite so rewarding for anyone’s personal spiritual growth in grace than to read Augustine.”  Cornelius Van Til

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo (Dorset) This volume is widely recognized as one of the best biographies currently available.

David Bentley-Taylor, The Apostle From Africa: The Life and Thought of Augustine Hippo (Christian Focus) This helpful introduction by a veteran missionary describes the impact of Augustine on the Reformation and the doctrines of grace.

Henry Chadwick, Augustine: Past Masters (Oxford) This short study of Augustine’s thought is an excellent introductory volume.

Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford) This is an even shorter introduction and reading guide.

Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Life (Oxford) This biography from one of our best modern translators, is a thoroughgoing and balanced academic analysis.

Allan Fitzgerald, ed., Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (IVP) This is a massive single volume reference guide to all things related to Augustine, his theology, and his legacy.

Michael Marshall, The Restless Heart (Eerdman’s) This amply illustrated book profiles Augustine’s life, times, and work.

Quenlin Possidius, Life of Augustine (Sheed and Ward) This biography was written by one of Augustine’s closest friends and disciples.

Gary Wills, St. Augustine (Penguin) This brief biography by a modern, liberal, Catholic writer provides a helpful survey of the impact of Augustine on Western Civilization.

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