St Augustine’s key work, On Christian Doctrine, or alternately On Christian Teaching, teaches us how to read Scriptures and teach and spread our faith to our neighbors. What is the core of this work? We should Love God with all of our heart and with all of our soul and with all of our mind and with all of our strength, and we should love our neighbor as ourselves. If we do not love our neighbor, we cannot Love God, and if we do not Love God and our neighbor, we cannot fathom Scripture, let alone deign to teach and preach the Scriptures.
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How quickly we forget, how slow we remember, lost in the cares of this world, God’s Love for us, our Love for God, our love for our neighbor, how in the busy-ness of life we neglect to examine our soul, to repent before our God, to forgive our neighbor, too busy to find fault in ourselves, never too busy to find the faults of our neighbor, yea, to find fault in Scriptures we see as judgmental, to find fault in Scriptures that exhort us to find fault in our souls rather than our neighbors.
St Augustine teaches, “Whoever thinks he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but interprets them in a way that does not build up this two-fold Love of God and love of neighbor, does not truly understand the Scriptures. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from Scriptures that builds up the two-fold Love of God and love of his neighbor, although he does not precisely understand the exact meaning of the author, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception.”
St Augustine further teaches that if someone with a good heart and pure motives has a mistaken interpretation of Scripture, that “if his mistaken interpretation of Scripture tends to build up love, . . . he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads.”
Judging from the postings I often see in Facebook religious pages many supposed Christians, particularly the shrill Christians, are ignorant of this concept. But if we take St Augustine’s advice we MUST discuss religion without being shrill and disrespectful. Take for example, the doctrine of once saved, always saved. Catholic and Orthodox believers in particular are uncomfortable with this doctrine because they view living the Christian life as a daily discipline, and indeed doubt is part of their fear, their Fear of God. They could argue with their evangelical friends on why once saved, always saved is not theologically accurate, but will such discussion build up Love of God and love of neighbor? To build up love, one approach would be to suggest that perhaps someone is not really saved if they view their day of choice as the end of their Christian walk rather than the beginning, that rather they are truly saved if they view their choice for the Lord as the beginning of a long walk with Jesus, the beginning of life of daily discipline, where every day you grow ever closer to the Lord.
St Augustine continues his observations on the Christian who, though with a good heart, has a mistaken interpretation of Scripture, that “he is to be corrected and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest he gets into a habit of going astray, taking cross roads, or even heading in the wrong direction altogether.” If we feel we must correct our brother, we should follow the protocol in Matthew, first tactfully and respectfully discussing the interpretation with them in private, or in a private email if a discussion is not possible, and being reluctant to attack their position publicly. Our reluctance should increase with our theological ignorance.
St Augustine would not be fond of the modern tendency to read the Holy Scriptures only as literature so we do not offend those who do not believe. St Augustine teaches us that in order to “see God, our soul must be purified.” We can only come nearer to God by “the cultivation of pure desires and virtuous habits,” cultivated by daily prayer and reflection.
ST AUGUSTINE’S CONCEPT OF THE TRINITY
St Augustine teaches us that to properly interpret Holy Scripture, we must properly understand the Trinity. He has a classical seven-fold explanation of the Trinity:
- “The Father is not the Son nor the Holy Spirit.
- The Son is not the Father nor the Holy Spirit.
- The Holy Spirit is not the Father nor the Son.
- The Father is only the Father.
- The Son is only the Son.
- The Holy Spirit is only the Holy Spirit.”
- There is only one God, as Deuteronomy exhorts us. As St Augustine teaches us, “To all three belong the same eternity, the same unchangeableness, the same majesty, the same power.”
St Augustine continues, “In the Father is unity, in the Son equality, in the Holy Spirit the harmony of unity and equality; and these three attributes are all one because of the Father, all equal because of the Son, and all harmonious because of the Holy Spirit.” Translating these concepts from the original Greek is problematic, and indeed expressing these concepts in human language is also deeply problematic, but many theologians prefer to explain the three persons of the Trinity as three personalities, although this has its problems also.
Common catholic and orthodox belief affirmed by St Augustine condemned the Arian heresy which held that Christ was a creature created by God, that as Arius false claimed, “There was a time when Christ was not.” Instead, the Church Fathers affirmed that Christ was eternally begotten of the Father for all time.
CONFIRMATION OF IMPORTANT DOCTRINES
St Augustine discusses the freedom of the Christian, “Seeing that man fell through pride, God restored man through humility. We were ensnared by the false wisdom of the Serpent, we are set free by the ‘foolishness’ of God.” This wisdom of God appears to be foolishness to those who are not saved.
St Augustine reaffirms that Christians are bound to believe in the physical resurrection of the body: “The (perfect) body, no longer feeling uneasiness because it no longer feels want, shall be animated by a spirit perfectly pure and happy, and shall enjoy unbroken peace.”
St Augustine list as canonical the 44 books of the wider canon of the Old Testament that include the Greek deutero-canonical books, aka the Apocrypha.
IS THE BIBLE LITERALLY TRUE?
St Augustine distinguishes between things and signs. Ordinary items like table and chairs are things, and conventional signs express “the feelings of our minds, perceptions, and thoughts.” Some physical objects are both things and signs, for example, water and fire are both physical objects and also point to baptism and the Holy Spirit.
St Augustine teaches, “It is a wretched slavery which takes the figurative expressions of Scripture in a literal sense,” for the Bible exhorts, “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” What does St Augustine mean by figurative? When the Word of God in Scripture does not, “when taken literally, refer either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, it can be seen as figurative.” St Augustine continues, “Purity of life refers to the Love of God and our love for our neighbor, whereas soundness of doctrine refers to the knowledge of God and our neighbor.”
St Augustine also teaches, “Scripture exhorts nothing except charity (or agape love), and condemns nothing except lust, so fashioning the lives of men. But if an erroneous opinion takes hold of a man’s mind, he thinks that whatever Scripture asserts contrary to his mistaken delusion must be figurative.”
Using examples from his life, in his Confessions St Augustine teaches that we should not have unhealthy love for our friends and family and neighbor, he teaches that our love for our neighbor should always be through God. We should never love our friend or lover as if they were the center of our lives, the reason why we live, for our friends will often be taken away from us. In this work, On Christian Doctrine, St Augustine teaches that when he speaks of charity, or agape love, he speaks of the Love “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.”
Regarding lust, St Augustine teaches that lust “aims at enjoying one’s self and one’s neighbor, and other corporeal things of this earth, without reference to God.” Lust turned inward into our own body and soul is vice, but when we lust and use and injure another, that is a crime. So, our thoughts bleed into our words, and our thoughts and words bleed into our actions, as St Augustine teaches, “the vices come first, and when they have exhausted the soul, reducing it to poverty, we easily slide into crimes,” feeding our vices.
But charity or agape love turned inward builds up prudence, and love for our neighbor builds up benevolence. As we crush our lusts, we build up love for our neighbor, Love for our God.
St Augustine cannot disentangle the question of how we should interpret Scripture from the question of how we should Love God with all of our heart and with all of our soul and with all of our mind and with all of our strength, and how we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Indeed, we should never disentangle them, for whenever we close our eyes to the Love of God, we can never read His Scriptures with a right heart, we can never delve into the mysteries of the knowledge, unknowable knowledge we must always strive to know. 
We accuse other Christians of proof texting Scripture, reading Scripture to justify their distorted beliefs and base desires. Like the words the country song,
Jesus is really quite alright by me,
Except in matters of love and money.
But how can we ever be sure we are not proof texting Scripture ourselves, reading Scripture to justify the important decisions we have already made in our lives, justifying the hardness of our hearts towards our neighbors, justifying the cruelty we show to others? St Augustine teaches we should pray before we preach, we should pray before we read the word of God, indeed we should pray our morning prayers each morning, and our evening prayers each evening. By your fruits you shall know them, if we are using Scripture to justify unkindness to our neighbor, perhaps we do not really know the true meaning of the Scriptures, meaning that is often hidden from our sinful nature because we shrink from the light of the truth, we shrink from the light by light of our dark sinful hidden habits.
How can we ever be sure we truly Love God, that we truly love our neighbor, that we eagerly seek to forgive our neighbor his faults and sins? How can we be sure we love our neighbor for their own sake? How can we be sure we do not use our neighbor for our own benefit, for our own enjoyment?
One simple step is to read the moral teachings of the early Church Fathers. In the monastic moral teachings the Philokalia the early Church Fathers quote Scripture extensively, and help us to understand the true meaning of Scripture our sinful nature has hidden from our souls all our lives.
St Augustine discusses those people who reject the need for procedures to interpret Scriptures, instead arguing that the Holy Spirit provides the inspiration that validates their interpretation of Holy Scriptures. He simply argues that such people have no grounds to expect others to value their inspired interpretation, since they cannot claim to be the only people whom the Holy Spirit has inspired. St Augustine provides the example in Acts of Phillip who interpreted the Scriptures for the travelling Egyptian he converted. His second example is Moses: “Did not God talk with Moses, and yet Moses, with great wisdom and lacking jealous pride, accepted the advice of his father-in-law Jethro, a foreigner, for ruling and administering the affairs of the great nation entrusted to him?”
COMMANDS TO LOVE AND NOT TO LUST CAN NEVER BE FIGURATIVE
St Augustine warns us to be wary of the spiritual trap of considering the passages of Scripture that conflict with their own beliefs and customs as figurative. “Men are prone to judge their own actions not by their sinfulness but by their own cultural standards.” Furthermore, St Augustine teaches us that “Scripture only commands us to love, and condemns nothing except for lust, thus fashioning the lives of men.” “Scripture nourishes and strengthens charity, and overcomes and roots out lust.” Then St Augustine clarifies the definition of charity and lust.
READING DIFFICULT PASSAGES OF SCRIPTURE
How are we to read the many difficult passages of Scripture, particularly the many difficult passages in the Old Testament? We may imagine that modern scholars were the first to notice these problems, that the ancient Christians were gullible and naive and unscientific. But St Augustine had many of these same questions, and did not convert back to the Christian faith of his youth until persuaded by the sophisticated sermons of St Ambrose in Milan.
The method of interpretation he learned from St Ambrose and earlier Church Fathers such as Origen is that Scriptures have many levels of meaning, and if the literal meaning of a passage appears to contradict the commands to Love God and love our neighbor, that passage should only be understood figuratively and allegorically.
St Augustine teaches, “Every severity and apparent cruelty, either in word or deed, that is ascribed in Holy Scriptures to God or His saints, should be interpreted as the pulling down of lusts.” Those sayings or deeds in Scripture “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.” Every word of Scripture, whether historical and literal, or figurative and prophetical, should be interpreted to deepen “our love towards God or our neighbor, or both.”
Is the psalmist serious when he exhorts us to break the heads of the Babylonian infants against the rocks? Does this mean that all good Christians should find and break the heads of some evil infants? How ludicrous! This passage is favorite of the Eastern Church Fathers of the Philokalia, they teach us to purge all sins and passions from our souls, the mortal sins and the little sins, the little sins whose heads we should dash upon the rocks. St Augustine reiterates, “every severity and apparent cruelty, either in word or deed, that is ascribed in Holy Scripture to God or His saints, represents the pulling down of the dominion of lust.” Furthermore, St Augustine emphasizes the “error of those who think there is no absolute right and wrong.”
St Augustine would certainly agree from this quote from To Kill a Mockingbird, “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for,” and he would add that people generally read in the Scriptures what they imagine they say. St Augustine observed that men typically only condemn what people in their time and country condemn, and condones only what his companions condone, and any Scriptures that appear to be contrary to common wisdom are seen as figurative. But St Augustine teaches us that “Scriptures celebrates nothing except for charity, and condemns nothing except lust, so fashioning the lives of men.”
What does he mean by charity and lust in these verses? St Augustine defines charity, another word for agape love, as the affection of the mind which aims are the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of one’s self and one’s neighbor in subordination to God.” And he defines lust as the “affection of the mind which aims at enjoying one’s self and neighbor, and other corporeal things, without reference to God.” Love lifts us up to the heavens, lust is the slippery slope down to the muddy ditch. Love builds us up, loves encourages prudence in our own lives and benevolence and kindness to our neighbor; whereas lust drags us down into the vice that “corrupts our own body and soul,” the vice that turns into crime when directed toward our neighbor.
Only praying to God when we have a list of demands, pouting when God does not eradicate the evil in our lives, shouting to all who pass by that a God that tolerates such evils as we often bring upon ourselves is no sort of God at all, that sort of prayer is a pathetic whining sort of prayer that only believes that God is here to serve us, and is not the prayer of one who seeks to enjoy God for his sake, or his neighbor for their sake, for those who are deluded to believe that God exists to serve them no doubt feels the same about their neighbor, and live like eternally spoiled children.
The best example is famous verse from 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” The tempting interpretation is this verse condones stinginess, but most people do not bother to read it in its context. Most commentators, modern and ancient, Protestant and Catholic, agree this verse refers to those who have quit their jobs and are laying about waiting for the Lord to return in glory, our Lord who will return like a thief in the night, when we least expect him. This verse does not condone stinginess towards beggars; indeed, St Paul later in verse 13 exhorts us to “never tire of doing what is good.” There are some Proverbs that contrast industry with laziness, but there are no verses that counsel against giving to beggars; indeed, both the Old and New Testaments are full of verses that bid us to be generous to the poor, such generosity is one of the underlying themes of the minor prophets. The Torah includes an exhortation for the farmer when harvesting to leave gleanings, the harvest leftovers that the poor can glean for their sustenance. Jesus reminds of Lazarus, the crippled beggar who laid in the bosom of Abraham while the rich young man cried out in thirst from the warmer side of the abyss. We are reminded of Cornelius in Acts, whose alms giving was noticed by the Lord in Heaven and who was commended to St Peter in a dream. And Proverbs exhorts us many times to be generous to the poor:
One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, And He will repay him for his good deed.
He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor Will also cry himself and not be answered.
He who is generous will be blessed, For he gives some of his food to the poor.
He who gives to the poor will never want, But he who shuts his eyes will have many curses.
Open your mouth, judge righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy. righteously, And defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.
How many people are eager to quote these verses?
A similar verse is “God helps those who helps themselves.” Dr Wikipedia confirms that most people think it is right up there next to the Ten Commandments, but it does not appear anywhere in the Bible, and is contrary to Christian Scriptures and teaching.
St Augustine clarifies that those Bible verses that forbid crime or vice or encourage prudence or benevolence should be interpreted literally, but should be interpreted figuratively when they appear to forbid prudence or benevolence, or when they appear to encourage vice or crime. His example is a verse from Ecclesiastes 7:4, “’Give to the godly man, and help not the sinner.’ This appears to forbid benevolence, for it says, ‘help not the sinner.’ Understand, therefore, that here ‘sinner’ should be interpreted figuratively as sin, so that it is his sin you are not to help.”
St Augustine offers other suggestions for profitably interpreting Scripture, which you can read at length:
- The same word sometimes can have different meaning in different verses, he gives examples where the words leaven and serpent are used in both a good sense and an evil sense.
- Obscure biblical passages can be interpreted by clearer biblical passages.
- Many biblical passages have multiple meanings.
- It is safer to interpret a difficult passage using another biblical passage than by reason.
Definitely, St Augustine would condemn the modern tendency to consult the Merriam Webster dictionary for the definitions of words in Scripture, it would be far better to consult Strong’s Concordance, which not only provides the Greek and Hebrew definitions of the words, but also cross-references where these words are mentioned in the Scriptures. Christianity and the secular world are engaged in a perpetual spiritual battle of whom is going to influence whom. We should seek to have the Holy Scriptures to define the words we use in our daily life, and the Bible should influence the definitions in Merriam Webster rather than the other way around.
Above all, we should always remember the words of St Augustine, when he teaches that when anyone “thinks he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, and puts such an interpretation upon them that does not build up the two-fold love of God and our neighbor, does not truly understand the Holy Scriptures.”
SEVEN STEPS TO WISDOM
What are the steps to Wisdom? St Augustine teaches us there are seven steps to wisdom. Fear of God, the beginning of wisdom, is the first step. “We should be led by the fear of God to seek the knowledge of His will, what He commands us to desire, what we should avoid.” Fear of God should make us mindful of our mortality, so we will always remember our death before us, so we can crucify our pride “as if our flesh were nailed to the tree.”
The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom is the seventh and last step and goal of our quest, true wisdom, wisdom we seek for its own sake, not sought to please others, not sought for our own gain, but sought so we can truly learn what it means to Love God, to seek God, to seek to Love God with all of our hearts and with all of our minds and with all of our strength and with every ounce of our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Standing in Fear of God is standing in awe of the Almighty God, respecting the Creator of all, respect that is too often lacking in a modern world that can scientifically explain thunder and lightning. If we lack respect, we cannot love.
Piety is the second step to wisdom, the humility of piety, the contrition of piety, the piety that subdues our hearts, the piety that opens our hearts to the admonitions of Holy Scripture, the admonitions that exposes the hidden sins and deepest secrets of our hearts. St Augustine teaches us that we should “that whatever is written in Scripture, though it be hidden, is better and truer than anything we could devise by our own wisdom.”
The Fear of God and piety prepares us for the third step of wisdom, knowledge, precious knowledge that the ardent student of Scriptures earnestly seeks, the knowledge that every verse of the Holy Scriptures teaches us,
“That God is to be Loved for His own sake,
And our neighbor is to be loved for God’s sake,
And that God is beloved with all of our hearts and all of our souls and with all of our minds,
And that we should love our neighbor as ourselves,
And that our love for our neighbor, like our love for ourselves, should have reference to God.”
Love God with all of our heart and with all of our soul and with all of our mind and with all of our strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, all else is commentary!
Love of God is inseparable from love of neighbor. In his Confessions St. Augustine teaches us that as blessed as friendship can be, when our love of our friend or spouse consumes our life, when we love our friend as if they would never die, then the love in our friend may not be a healthy love, for a healthy love is when we love our friend in God. As St John of the Cross teaches us, our love for our friend should deepen our Love for God.
The knowledge we seek as Christians is what it means to truly Love God completely, to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, the knowledge that is more sought than acquired, and St Augustine assists us in our search for this wisdom, for much of his work On Christian Doctrine and Teaching explores what it means to Love God and to love our neighbor.
We are drawn from the Love of God and our neighbor by the entangling love of this world. St Augustine teaches us that the we gain of the divine love by studying Scriptures is knowledge that makes us not boastful, but sorrowful; not despairing, but hopeful; as we pray with unceasing prayers for Divine help in our distress. This permits us to progress to the fourth step, strength and resolution, in which “we hunger and thirst after righteousness,” turning away from the things of this world, gazing on the face of Jesus, “fixing our affections on things eternal, the unchangeable Trinity in unity.”
By mounting these steps the pilgrim prepares his soul in the fifth step, the counsel of compassion. “At this stage he exercises himself diligently in the love of his neighbor; and when he has reached the point of loving his enemy, full of hopes and unbroken in strength, he mounts to the sixth step, in which he purifies the eye itself which can see God, so far as God can be seen by those who as far as possible die to this world.”
The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom is the seventh and last step and goal of our quest, true wisdom, wisdom we seek for its own sake, not sought to please others, not sought for our own gain, but sought so we can truly learn what it means to Love God, to seek God, to seek to Love God with all of our hearts and with all of our minds and with all of our strength and with every ounce of our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
PRAYING BEFORE PREACHING
Later in his career as bishop, St Augustine added a book to this work that discusses many principles of rhetoric and preaching. He quotes Cicero that the aim of the orator and preacher is “to teach, to delight, and to persuade and move. Of these, teaching is most essential.” St Augustine warns that “wisdom is more important than eloquence.” He quotes Cicero that though “wisdom without eloquence is of little use, but eloquence without wisdom” never helps and can only harm the listener.
St Augustine teaches us that the “Christian teacher should pray before preaching.” “When the hour for speech arrives, let him reflect upon that saying of our Lord’s aimed at the wants of the pious mind, ‘Take no thought how or what ye shall speak; for it shall be given you in that same hour what you shall speak. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaks in you.’” Before the preaching begins, the preacher should “pray to God that he puts in his mouth a suitable message” and “deliver the message well,” and the listeners should “pray for those who are preparing to speak” and that they “give ear to the message” so that it may move their heart, and afterwards all should “praise God from whom such blessings flow.”
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” In the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 2, translated by Rev JF Shaw (Boston: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994, first published 1887), Volume 1, Chapter 22-36, p. 527-533.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 1, Chapter 36, p. 533.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 1, Chapter 36, p. 533.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 1, Chapter 10, p. 525.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 1, Chapter 5, p. 524.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 1, Chapter 14, p. 526.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 1, Chapter 19, p. 527.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 2, Chapter 8, pp. 538-539.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 2, Chapters 1-3, pp. 535-536.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 2, Chapter 6, pp. 537.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Preface, Chapter 5, pp. 519-521.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 3, Chapter 10, p. 561, this translation I have edited.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 3, Chapters 10-14, pp. 561-563.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 3, Chapter 10, p. 561.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 3, Chapters 25-28, pp. 566-567.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 1, Chapter 36, pp. 533-534.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 2, Chapter 7, pp. 537-538.
 Excellent discussions of this concept of love are found in professor Philip Carey’s lectures on St Augustine, History of Christian Theology, and Platonism with the teaching company, www.thegreatcourses.com
 St John of the Cross, “Dark Night of the Soul”, translated by Silverio De Santa Teresa, updated by Allison Peers (New York: Image Books, 1959, 1990) Book 1, Chapter 4, pp. 51-52.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 2, Chapter 7, p. 537-538.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 4, Chapter 12, p. 583.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 4, Chapter 4, p. 576.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 4, Chapter 15, pp. 584-585, quoting Matthew 10:19-20.
 St Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” Book 4, Chapter 4, p. 597.