Get Even More Visitors To Your Blog, Upgrade To A Business Listing >>

Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine

Tags: augustine

Introduction to On Christian Doctrine

In approaching this text critically, it is important to note any historical or scholastic issues that bear upon the interpretation of the work. In the latter case, many scholars such as Robert Bernard in his report, “An unnoticed excursus in Augustine of Hippo’s De doctrina Christiana” writes about the text, “It is a challenge at times to follow the thread of [Augustine’s] arguments.”[1] Bernard states the reason for this difficulty is that Augustine does not engage in a linear mode of augmentation. Instead, Augustine utilizes a special philosophical rhetorical style that is purposefully nebulous. The reader who believes they have found something must ask if they have indeed spotted a deep reflection of Augustine’s thought or a smudge upon the telescope’s lens[2]. Bernard takes the position that the difficulty in reading the text originally arises from Augustine, who on purpose, wrote a book about exegeses that must in turn be exegeted according to the exegetical ideals it contains in order to be understood.[3] This means any serious reader, time and again, must cycle back and forth between relevant sections.

However, according to the same report, Bernard concludes that the core section of Book III serves as the “exegetical key” to the document. Therefore, it is an issue of utmost importance to untie the “Gordian Knot,” as Bernard calls it, of Augustine’s ideals regarding figurative, slavery to signs, and the related issues we will be examining be resolved.

Historically, the only key issue barring on the interpretation of the document is raised Augustine himself, who in another work Retractations, wrote that On Christian Doctrine was started in c. A.D. 397 but was not completed until c. A.D. 426.[4]For the scope of this examination, the issue of having to determine which “Augustine” is talking is avoided, because we are not concerned with the latter additions as marked by Augustine in Book III. These additions include a section on Tychonius’ rules for exegesis amended to Book III and Book IV which primarily deals with preaching. Avoiding those sections which are not pertinent to our subject we need not consider the issue of time of writing. Thus, while we cannot for certain totally eliminate the redacting hand of an older Augustine, we can very easily say we are dealing primarily with the same “young Augustine” author throughout this exposition.

On “Slavery to Signs”

For Augustine, it is of paramount importance that readers of scripture especially avoid reading figurative language as literal, a mistake he calls “slavery to signs.” He writes, “he is in bondage to a sign who uses, or pays homage to, any significant object without knowing what it signifies.”[5] Augustine references an earlier observation that,

Nothing is more fittingly called the death of the soul than when that in it which raises it above the brutes, the intelligence namely, is put in subjection to the flesh by a blind adherence to the letter. For he who follows the letter takes figurative words as if they were proper, and does not carry out what is indicated by a proper word into its secondary signification.[6]

Using this sentiment, he creates an exegetical axiom. This axiom simply put is, “a sign is such because it signifies something, but that the sign itself is not what it signifies.” For example, a road sign may warn of a cliff, but the road sign itself is not a cliff. Augustine here connotes figurative language to be metaphorical. This metaphorical term to his language is underlined when he defines folly as akin to interpreting literally the road-sign to be a cliff which it only metaphorically signifies.

As he expounds on what he means by servitude to signs, Augustine provides two examples, one related to the Jews and the other to the pagans. In a faint echo of Paul in Galatians 3, he posits that the Jewish opponents of Jesus were mentally entrapped by a corporal understanding of the Law and of Israel as children under a schoolmaster. Augustine argues that it was this over attachment to the physical aspects of the Law that led the Jews to oppose Jesus, “…those who clung obstinately to such signs could not endure our Lord’s neglect of them when the time for their revelation had come.”[7] Augustine utilizes his definition of a sign pointing to something other than itself, to proclaim that Jesus was trying to teach the spiritual meaning signified by the Jewish traditions in actions such as healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). He also utilizes his definition of folly, when he faults Jesus’ Jewish audience for ‘clinging to signs as if they were realities.[8]’ He states that Jews could not see Jesus’ actions except as a breach of conduct, mainly because they could not see the metaphorical spiritual sense of it.

Having previously attacked astrology,[9] augers, and other pagan practices of divination[10] on the basis of their questionable logic or demonic nature,[11] Augustine now employees an alternative argument to explain pagan servitude to signs. Citing the example of Neptune, he holds that the pagans had created a symbol of God to embody a physical thing, the sea. Augustine takes this example as normative for pagan idolatry; it misinterprets creation which is a sign that points towards the one creator echoing Paul in Romans 1.[12] Augustine, having set the scene, then declares to instead worship the created object is to “… take the thing itself [as that] which it was designed to signify, [and] is bondage to the flesh.”[13] Augustine wants to demonstrate that pagan spirituality, which Christians generally hold to be fallacious, proves his definition of folly. Pagans take a sign, creation, which points to God, as being itself the God it was pointing to.

Having demonstrated how his metaphorical connotation of bondage to signs explains the pre-Jesus spiritual failings of Jews and Gentiles respectively, Augustine relates how Jesus corrects the “slavery to signs” of both the Jews and Gentiles. For the Jews, Augustine feels that Jesus merely interpreted the signs to which they were so “near” and set them free from service to the signs to serve that to which the Law pointed toward, God. As for Gentiles, Augustine held that Jesus simply wiped the slate clean of their polytheistic paradigm and instead of setting up new signs for them to serve, provided them with the spiritual understanding of the Jewish signs.

For Augustine, Jesus is the ultimate liberator from useless signs. Augustine had earlier speculated in Book 1 that Jesus was taken up into heaven so that we would not over focus on his physical or fleshy existence. And he stated that Jesus desires us ”instead of weakly clinging to temporal things, even though these have been put on and worn by Him for our salvation, to pass over them quickly, and to struggle to attain unto Himself, who has freed our nature from the bondage of temporal things.”[14] For Augustine then, Jesus is the keystone to understanding all signs, for he is in fact the “way,” an archetypical sign pointing Godward.

Moral Criteria for determining language is figurative

Before Augustine, the theologian Origen had proposed exegetes use the ruler “of possibility” to determine whether scriptural passages were allegorical (metaphorically) or historically true.[15] But such a view sounds superficially to be an embodiment of Augustine’s warnings that we not be enslaved to our literal or worldly understandings; moreover, such advice tends towards subjectivity in the reader.

Augustine seems to be tacitly aware of the issue of subjective drift in interpretation, for he posits his own rule for determining whether language is figurative or literal. Augustine instead bases his ruler for measuring figurative language within the sphere he holds to have an objective ground, morality.[16] Holding that God has externally established the law, Augustine contends it is an unchanging measure and that while human traditions may condone or condemn different things, God’s moral code is unchanging.

In book three, Chapter ten, Augustine declares that the decision whether to take a certain passage as metaphorical or literal hinges not on the readers’ impression of the believability of narrative content, as Origen had proposed, but instead on the moral content of the passage as compared with the scriptural moral norms. Augustine himself sums up this observation succinctly as a rule “Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative”[17] Augustine lets us come to this rule, having just established his metaphorical sense of the word figurative. But, when Augustine later works out the rule provided here, “figurative” has widened in its scope.

Having already expounded greatly in the first book of Augustine’s four book codices On Christian Doctrine that the highest moral good is to enjoy God alone, he briefly reiterates a summation of the first book to define what is moral,

I mean by [morality} that affection of the mind which aims at the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of one’s self and one’s neighbor in subordination to God; by lust I mean that affection of the mind which aims at enjoying one’s self and one’s neighbor, and other corporeal things, without reference to God[18]

Augustine, in book one, subsumed all moral quandaries under the bounds of the greatest commandment (Matt 22: 36-40), and includes the love of neighbor as subservient to the love of God.

Now Augustine launches into a long series of reflections on when negative actions or moral commandments are ascribed to God and saints. In what follows, Augustine makes an interesting move:

…only sayings or whether actual deeds, are wholly figurative… Nobody in his sober senses would believe, when our Lord’s feet were anointed by the woman with precious ointment, it was for the same purpose for which luxurious and profligate men are accustomed to have theirs anointed.[19]

Augustine calls “figurative” events that have no seemingly negative moral implications and that he seems to have held to be historical.

It is at this statement however, that Augustine’s definition of the term figurative first widens in book three. Initially in Augustine’s statements on bondage to signs, “signs,” marked out metaphors or allegories only. In this above text, however, Augustine starts developing an idea of “signs” that are events that have a “hidden” meaning. He reads to be ‘following in the footsteps of Christ is the same as anoints His feet (so to speak) with the most precious ointment.’ After this initial example, Augustine provides several statements that further broaden what Augustine means by “figurative” moving away from a strictly metaphorical sense.

As he widens this definition though, there arises a conflict within his interpretations. Augustine tries to demonstrate that his new axiom can transform the implications of actions that seem to be moral lessons against moral failures into their true reality as wholly positive lessons. Augustine wrote a chapter explaining that David was neither subject to lust when he slept with Bathsheba nor was he truly murderous when he had her husband killed to hide his shame.[20] The reader almost feels embarrassed for Augustine’s sake when he explains how the lesson is figurative, that David’s “good” intentions of having children were only misguided to the wrong source. Twisting this passage so, exonerates a horrible moral failure. On the whole his examples trend towards the extreme; such as, his use of polygamy among the patriarchs to say monogamous men who have sexual attraction towards their wives are too lustful. Augustine’s examples are being bent to fit into his ideals, and the distortion is visible. His interpretations unfortunately are unconvincing and unrelated to the texts themselves.[21]

Augustine then provides a chapter that forces the reader to ask some more questions. In Book three chapter twenty-three he states:

And when he reads of the sins of great men, although he may be able to see and to trace out in them a figure of things to come, let him yet put the literal fact to this use also, to teach him not to dare to vaunt himself in his own good deeds, and in comparison with his own righteousness, to despise others as sinners, when he sees in the case of men so eminent both the storms that are to be avoided and the shipwrecks that are to be wept over. For the sins of these men were recorded to this end, that men might everywhere and always tremble at that saying of the apostle: “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”(5) For there is hardly a page of Scripture on which it is not clearly written that God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble.

By this statement, Augustine puts back onto the table a more worldly reading of David and Bathsheba, one that allows us to see the sin of this “Great Man.” The question becomes, why did Augustine attempt to read it figuratively and shift the meaning of “figurative” to provide readings that seemed so forced and ill-advised?

Philosophic Matters

To answer this quandary, it is necessary to investigate the scholarly consensus towards what trends Augustine’s philosophical and theological thinking was developing before he wrote On Christian Doctrine. Phillip Cary sums this up succinctly in his book Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine’s Thought. According to Cary:

Augustine believes that things we can sense are signs of higher things. In his early treatise On Order, he argues that works of nature and art, including human speech, are signs of an underlying “reason” creating them. From the time of his writing On Dialectic onward, he classifies words as a type of sign and treats linguistic meaning as a form of signification. Combining these two ideals required a notion of expressive gesticulation absent from Greek semiotics but common in Latin rhetoric, where bodily gestures are said to signify the movements of the soul. In on Augustine’s treatise On Christian Doctrine it all comes together.[22]

What becomes apparent in the whole of Cary’s work is that in On Order and On Dialectic Augustine starts to explore the normal Greek constructs of forms and ideas as they relate to senses conveying information. However, Augustine also investigated how the mind transmits rational ideas and meanings into movement. Augustine makes the important realization that we use bodily language such as sign language or a vibrating throat to transmit ideas.

Throughout the first three books, he states that the baseline issue of morality is the source of the impulse towards a given action. In book one, Augustine seems to indicate that love is a neutral moral action that when turned towards God becomes positive[23] and when turned towards other things is lust. Yet, it is when Augustine more fully extrapolates “lust” that it becomes apparent he sees it as a more nefarious “spiritual” driving force. Therefore, Augustine speaks of “lust’s dominion” as a real spiritual thing, driving men towards negative actions.[24] Contrasting vice to virtue, Augustine sees God as a driving force towards moral actions.

In investigating how Augustine handles phrases like “wrath of God” we can start to piece together how this spiritually driven anthropology shows through his thinking. “Wrath” for Augustine is a negative driving force, and he cannot see it working through the divine person as an actor for moral good. Wrath then is conversely spiritually evil. He such spiritual oxymorons figurative “some words are used figuratively, as for example, ‘the wrath of God’.”[25] Conversely, when he states “charity” moves people towards righteousness he seems to be equally implying that charity is a real spiritual force driving humans towards good actions. Because he sees different “spiritual” forces driving actions, he can claim that “For it is possible that a wise man may use the daintiest food without any sin of epicurism or gluttony, while a fool will crave for the vilest food with a most disgusting eagerness of appetite.”[26] For Augustine then, the spiritual motivators are the deciding factor in whether an action is moral or not.

Figuratively literal

This anthropology though, is ultimately the key to his moral criteria for determining figurative or literal language. Augustine defines all ascriptions to negative spiritual forces driving God or the saints as allegorical. But when we really dig into his anthropology, the “good actions” are also allegorical for good spiritual forces at work inside the saints or God. So while Augustine would like us to use his moral anthropology to define figurative and literal language; he is in actuality asking that we “spiritualize” the entire Bible, and only deem ascriptions of negative spirits to God or the saints as special instances that provide a “hidden kernel of meaning they contain is to be picked out as food for the nourishment of charity.” Literal is a throw away phrase that Augustine uses only to mark something as non-figurative when it suits the flow of his argumentation. Therefore, his moral criteria do not promise to help us determine figurative or literal language. In reality it promotes figuratively interpreting the entire scripture.

In re-reading this spiritualized view of morality back into his explanation of bondage to the signs, it changes the interpretation. For in reality he is speaking not so much about signs imparting meaning, such as a sign telling you there is a cliff ahead; he is in reality saying that signs/words/actions are signs like the surface of water. All we see is the superficial tribulations of the surface, but his desire is for us to plunge into the “spiritual” depths below that are driving the visual disturbances. It is not a question of seeing if an action or story occurred or not, it is about realizing that there are active depths below the superficial surface of this world. Augustine’s ascription of both good and evil to different people who participate in similar actions is possible, because the waves we see don’t matter but the currents that drive them do.

There are some questions of how far we can agree with Augustine’s core anthropology. Augustine never provides any concise definition of it. Those who hold to Armenian, Open Theology, and similar thinkers would surely disagree with its implications for doctrines such as predestination, human free will, and moral culpability. Augustine is historically noted for his avocation of doctrines such as election and predestination, and his anthropology of humans being driven by external “spiritual” forces may strike many as denying free will. While I find Augustine’s application of his ideals to be questionable, I still think there is some truth to his ideals of “spiritual forces” driving individuals in their innermost selves; nevertheless, consigning the morality of an issue only to the spirit that moves you to it is akin to creating a morality of “the devil made me do it” and further gives us pause.

But, this does not mean Augustine’s ideas are without precedent or tied inexorably with his predestination doctrine. According to Robert Webb in his paper, The apocalyptic debate: recent discussions on apocalyptic genre, some scholars hold that there is a long tradition of apocalyptic writers that may have had similar viewpoints. While Webb seems to recommend only an eclectic case by case approach to specific entries in the genera, he was not in disagreement with scholars who held that apocalyptic writers took real world events and spiritualized their description of them. Equally so, he agreed with the consensus among scholars who claime these writers believed real world events could encompass huge apocalyptic metaphors.[27] I think it says something important in favor of Augustine’s ideas that he has such a biblical connection.

Concluding reflections

Augustine did indeed attempt to write an exegetical book that needs to be fully digested in order to be understood. And in some ways the fractures in the books layout transfer over as impurities when we try to distill Augustine’s thoughts. Many questions are raised that this document simply cannot answer. While Augustine states that God’s moral code is objective, he never delineates what is the moral code is, beyond saying it fulfills the first two commandments. Because he does not address any other ethical issues, any attempt to read him into those issues or to read those into on Christian Doctrine would be speculative.

Augustine’s use of bad examples is also unfortunate. One, it unnecessarily detracts and distracts from Augustine’s core arguments. I think this arises from his questionable attempt to try and explain all biblical events like human actions as “figurative” while using different connotations of the word figurative simultaneously. Biblically, Augustine he could say God (a good spirit) gave all commandments, but he transfers that uncritically towards human actions such as David’s with Bathsheba to try and force a lust-free reading. Philosophically, Augustine could have split the concepts of metaphor and hidden meaning by employing a second term like allegory. And in all of this Augustine loses his definition of literal by blending it with terms like corporal or worldly, and it finally disappears entirely when the spiritual aspects of his world view drive all language to figurative. Literal at times seems like it is a good symbol while figurative simply means it is a hidden good sign.

Augustine warns against taking a figurative sign or narrative literally; in determining the moral implications of all actions from spiritual motivations, Augustine makes real life figurative. Augustine also argues that figurative language should be distinguished by its possible negative moral content. Yet, when Augustine provides examples of this in action, he expands the term figurative to define a hidden meaning behind all historical actions not just the bad. Because Augustine sees all human actions “spiritually;” he uses a broad definition of the term figurative to encapsulate the whole of reality as a metaphor for a deeper spiritual reality. In so doing Augustine taps into not only his Greek philosophy, but he seems to retain the Hebraic apocalyptic Weltanschauung.

Sources used

Augustine, On Christian Doctrine in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church ed. Phillip Schaff, Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010; available from ;(accessed November 30, 2012)

Augustine, The Retractations trs. Mary Inez Bogen, Washington: Catholic University Press, 1968. available at: ;(accessed November 30, 2012)

Bernard , Robert William “An unnoticed excursus in Augustine of Hippo’s De doctrina” presented at The 162st Annual Conference of The American Society of Church History, April 24-27, 1997, Nashville, TN, available at: ;(accessed November 30, 2012)

Cary, Phillip Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine’s thought New York: Oxford Press, 2008; available from: ;(accessed November 30, 2012)

Origen, On First Principles: Book Four in Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church ed./tr. Karlfried Froehlich. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984
[1]Robert William Bernard. “An unnoticed excursus in Augustine of Hippo’s De doctrina” (presented at The 162st Annual Conference of The American Society of Church History, April 24-27, 1997, Nashville, TN), available at: ;Internet,( accessed November 30, 2012) Pg 1.

[2] My teacher dinged me for this, but a Telescope has at least 3 lenses.

[3] Ibid. Pg 15-16, 20-end

[4] Augustine. The Retractations trs. Mary Inez Bogen (Washington: Catholic University Press, 1968) available at: ; internet, (accessed November 30, 2012) Bk. II, Ch. IV.

[5] Augustine. On Christian Doctrine in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church ed. Phillip Schaff (Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010); available from; Internet. (accessed November 30, 2012) Bk. III, Ch. XII.

[6] Ibid., Bk. III, Ch. V

[7] Ibid. Bk. III, Ch. VI

[8] Ibid. loc. Cit.

[9] Ibid. Bk. II, Ch. XXI,XXII

[10] Ibid. Bk. II, Ch. XXII

[11] Ibid. Bk. II, Ch. XXIII

[12] Ibid. Bk III, Ch. XII

[13] Ibid. Loc. cit.

[14] Ibid. Bk. I, Ch. XXXIV

[15] Origen, On First Principles: Book Four in Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church ed./tr. Karlfried Froehlich (Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1984) Cf. pg. 62

[16] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Bk. III, Ch. XIV

[17] Ibid. Bk. III, Ch. X

[18] Ibid. Bk. III, Ch. X

[19] Ibid. Bk. III, Ch. XII

[20] Ibid Bk. III, Ch. XXI

[21] Ibid. Bk. III, Ch XII: “Those things, again, whether only sayings or whether actual deeds, which appear to the inexperienced to be sinful, and which are ascribed to God, or to men whose holiness is put before us as an example, are wholly figurative, and the hidden kernel of meaning they contain is to be picked out as food for the nourishment of charity” – Jacob’s love of Rebecca and dislike for Leah for me are in and of themselves enough to highly contest his conclusions

[22] Phillip Cary Outward Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine’s thought (New York: Oxford Press, 2008); ); available from: ; Internet, (accessed November 30, 2012) pg. 65, Paraphrased

[23] Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Bk. II, Ch. XXII

[24] Ibid. Bk. III, Ch. XI

[25] Ibid. Bk. III, Ch. XI

[26] Ibid. Bk. III, Ch. XI

[27] Robert Webb, “The apocalyptic debate: recent discussions on apocalyptic genre the Theological Research Exchange Network , 1987; available at: ;Internet, (accessed November 30, 2012); cf. Pgs 17/18

This post first appeared on Paul's 4x4, please read the originial post: here

Share the post

Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine


Subscribe to Paul's 4x4

Get updates delivered right to your inbox!

Thank you for your subscription