Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Preparing the Heart for Biblical Interpretation

I have continued to be amazed by the great insight the Lord saw fit to give to the fourth century church father, Augustine of Hippo.

In many modern Sunday school, Bible college, and seminary classes that address rules for biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), students are told the importance of studying the historical and grammatical context of the passage under study. Thus students are encouraged to stock their personal libraries with lexicons, Bible encyclopedias, atlases, Bible histories, commentaries and the like in order to increase one's chances of arriving at the original, intended meaning of the biblical author.

All of this is quite important and should not be neglected. However, I find it interesting that when Augustine addresses the topic of biblical interpretation, he begins with the spiritual condition of the interpreter before addressing the proper methods and tools of interpretation. In his On Christian Doctrine, he establishes the importance of approaching the biblical text with two key spiritual ingredients: fear and piety (Book 2, Section VII).

Augustine understood that interpreters of the biblical text are coming face to face with the very words of God Himself, not just a collection of ancient myths to be read with cold, objective, academic dis-interest, much as we might read Homer or Beowulf. As a result, the responsibility upon the biblical interpreter is quite awesome. He or she must truly desire to interpret the text as Christianly as possible, in order to be a person who is accurately handling the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). This should cause a healthy sense of fear to arise in the heart of the interpreter. Undoubtedly, this thought was in the mind of the apostle James when he wrote, "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment" (Jas 3:1).

Secondly, Augustine wrote that the reader of Scripture is to interpret the Bible with piety. By this, he meant to say that the interpreter is to come with a heart of faith, a disposition to believe what the Scripture says instead of an attitude of placing oneself in judgment over the claims of Scripture. Augustine would write elsewhere that we come to Scripture with a heart that says "I must believe in order to understand, not understand so that I can believe." This mantra would be repeated throughout most of medieval Christianity, most notably in the writings of Anselm and Thomas Aquinas.

Scripture is in a place of judgment over the thoughts of human beings, not subject to our fallen reason. Believing this captures the piety mentioned by Augustine. When we fail to recognize this and approach Scripture with another attitude or set of beliefs, we set ourselves up for theological and spiritual failure. The effects of post-Enlightenment rationalism and extreme optimism in human science and reason in modern Europe is a testimony to how an entire culture can be swayed to turn from faith in Scripture and church authority to "empty, deceitful philosophies" that are "according to human traditions" (Col 2:8). Many of the incredibly beautiful cathedrals and basilicas of that continent have been reduced to mere museums, left-over shells giving testimony to a once living organism that traded its faith in God's Word for faith in humanity's "potential."

May God give wisdom to the still remaining modern churches and the emerging post-modern churches of evangelicalism so that we will not place our highest confidence in any other source than God's written Word, which gives testimony to the Incarnate Word.


stephen e. buerger said...

this reminds me of a passage in one of my favoirte books: job.

"And to man He (God) said, 'Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; And to depart from evil is understanding.'"

i feel like this very closely follows the words of our beloved augustine. thank you for these words.

John Buerger said...


You are the man. Thank you for your comment. I think that verse goes well with what Augustine is trying to communicate here. I hope I get to see you soon.

Love ya.