Minister's Blog

Augustine and the roots of hermeneutical maximalism

By Steve Jeffery, 25 Oct 2012

Augustine and the roots of hermeneutical maximalism

Augustine has some frankly astonishing things to say in his On Christian Dpctrine about how to understand the Bible.

Here he is explaining how we should go about the task of studying Scripture:

And in pursuing this search the first rule to be observed is, as I said, to know these books, if not yet with the understanding, still to read them so as to commit them to memory, or at least so as not to remain wholly ignorant of them.

So then: the very first thing you need to do is to learn the Bible. Don't worry if you don't understand it all yet; just make sure you know it by heart. Commit it to memory. Know it so well that it oozes from your pores and pours from your lips.

Or, failing that (quite a likely prospect, you might think), at least make sure we're not "wholly ignorant of them." But before we all breathe a huge sigh of relief at this convenient get-out clause, let's remind ourselves what he probably means by this: If memorising the Scriptures is at least conceivable, then we can be sure that this slightly lower standard of familiarity still means more than just a vague awareness that there was a guy called Isaiah and some other geezer called Moses and they wrote some stuff with laws and prophecies and stuff. More likely, Augustine is assuming that we'll have a fairly good idea of what's in every chapter of the Bible. And, probably, we'll have memorised quite a lot of the important bits - like the Psalms we sing every Sunday, for example.

Augustine's assumption of deep familiarity with the word of God has implications not just for how guilty we feel about our 7-minute three-times-a-week quiet times snatched on the Tube. Crucially, our biblical awareness (or lack of it) also affects how we are likely to interpret even those parts of Scripture which we know well.

Here's the key: If we know the Bible anything like as well as Augustine seems to encourage us to, then we are likely to spot scores of allusions and half-quotations and typological echoes and so on that will simply pass us by if our biblical knowledge is more sketchy. Moreover, even if such allusions are pointed out to us, we are likely to find them less persuasive than if we knew the Scriptures deeply and thoroughly, because literary echoes always sound more loudly in the ears of one who heard the initial chimes and therefore knows what he is listening for.

In other words, patchy biblical knowledge is likely to feel a minimalist biblical hermeneutic. By contrast, deep Scriptural familiarity will feed a maximalist, echoes-in-every-corner perspective on the text of Scripture.

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