Friday, November 09, 2012

Looking For Love (In Just the Right Places)

Our attention was recently drawn to a very fine aphorism, attributed to St. Augustine:
Scripture teaches nothing but charity, and we must not leave an interpretation of Scripture until we have found a compassionate interpretation of it.
Trying to track this down was not entirely successful.  It seems that, in its present form, the remark is in fact Karen Armstrong's summary of Augustine's hermeneutical proposition, from a 2008 TED talk.  Unless we are mistaken, the first clause is a quotation, while the second is a gloss.

The quotation is from Augustine's treatise On Christian Doctrine (Book 3, chapter 10).  This chapter is a jewel, by the way.  Augustine asks how we can tell when Biblical speech is to be read literally, and when it is to be read figuratively.  His answer is that, if a passage does not show "purity of life" (meaning love of God and neighbor) or "purity of doctrine" (meaning knowledge of God and neighbor), then it must be read figuratively.  Simple enough, right?

Then comes this bit of psychological insight:
But as men are prone to estimate sins, not by reference to their inherent sinfulness, but rather by reference to their own customs, it frequently happens that a man will think nothing blameable except what the men of his own country and time are accustomed to condemn, and nothing worthy of praise or approval except what is sanctioned by the custom of his companions.
This is an idea worth bearing in mind:  that much of what is reckoned as "sin" or "virtue," both by Christians and non-Christians, is in fact cultural value, rather than divine dictate.  The application of this principle to discussion of sexual sins, which have often been subjects of far more concern in Christian churches than in Scripture, should be obvious.  Or, regarding virtues, consider that we live in a society which praises as "good business" certain practices -- such as shrewd manipulation of interest rates -- that would have appalled Jesus and his contemporaries.

And how, since the rise of capitalism in the later Middle Ages, has this difficulty been dealt with?
And thus it comes to pass, that if Scripture either enjoins what is opposed to the customs of the hearers, or condemns what is not so opposed, and if at the same time the authority of the word has a hold upon their minds, they think that the expression is figurative.
Here, then, is where Augustine announces his hermeneutic principle:
Now Scripture enjoins nothing except charity, and condemns nothing except lust, and in that way fashions the lives of men. 
Precisely:  Non autem praecipit Scriptura nisi caritatem, nec culpat nisi cupiditatem; charity and lust might be better translated as "love" and "desire."  (Hominum, of course, refers to the whole species.)  It really is a remarkably bold claim:  the Bible commands one thing, and condemns one thing, and is to be read accordingly. As in interpretive lens, this is comparable to -- and perhaps more sweeping than -- Luther's was Christum treibet.

All this "love alone" business does not make the Bible a book to be reinterpreted at will, because there are other hermeneutic principles to consider as well:
In the same way, if an erroneous opinion has taken possession of the mind, men think that whatever Scripture asserts contrary to this must be figurative. Now Scripture asserts nothing but the catholic faith, in regard to things past, future, and present. It is a narrative of the past, a prophecy of the future, and a description of the present.
In other words, please don't use contrived Biblical "exegeses" to argue for Gnosticism or Pelagianism or what have you.  An interpretation which casts aside the catholic faith is a false intepretation.  (Or so we read it; alternatively, he could be saying that the catholic faith subsists in a right reading of Scripture.  Either way, the next question must be where else to look for "the faith" or discern "right reading.")

These are just a few paragraphs from a long and very thorough book, so let's not hang too much on them.  But do let us remember, in the face of the rampant misinterpretations both by Christianity's opponents and by its supposed "defenders," that the Bible commands  nothing but love; and that this is how it seeks to shape our lives.

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