[Book Review] On Christian Teaching by Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine. On Christian Teaching. Translated by R.P.H. Green. NY: Oxford University Press, 2008. 208 pp. $12.98 [Paperback]

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The entire premise of On Christian Teaching is how to interpret the scripture. Augustine further states two essential things in biblical hermeneutics: “the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt” (8, 101). In a word, first is discovery, then presentation. In this four-volume work, the words appeal to logical reasoning and affection. Arguably, Augustine drinks from two cultures, Greco-Roman and African Christianity. The former values order and rationality; the latter emotions and spontaneity.[1] Augustine was born in a small town called Tagaste—today Souk-Ahras—in North Africa. His parents were able to provide his foundational studies until his further studies in rhetoric, philosophy, and theology. Augustine’s life-long journey in intellectual and spiritual life formed his firm conviction in the Christian faith. Notably, his encounter with these ideologies were the Manicheans, Donatists, Pelagianism, paganism, and subtle forms of Arianism.

After setting up the background, the initial context of the work parallels the Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes and Solomon’s advice in Proverbs. Distinguishably, Augustine has a specific audience in mind. Those students and teachers of the Bible who humbly submit to the Spirit of God for illumination and genuinely love the Trinity. In truth, he warned those critics in his preface about the failure to understand, unable to receive illumination, and inhibiting pride (3). These attitudes in Augustine’s mind come from the knowledge and observation of numerous rhetoricians who possesses eloquence in proclamation yet bear no truth. Hence, Augustine argues that a biblical preacher should be competent both in discovering spiritual truths and eloquence in proclamation or teaching (101-2).

On Christian Teaching is divided into four volumes. The first three volumes—books 1 to 3—dedicate to discovering and understanding scriptures, and the last volume focuses on the eloquence to present what has been discovered. Combined all together, Augustine perceives the importance of homiletics in hermeneutics; both fields cannot be divorced.

Book 1 appeals to identify the Trinity as the source of all knowledge and truth. Augustine calls his readers to love the Trinity wholeheartedly. From this statute, purification and the love for self and others overflow (21, 25). No person can start proper biblical interpretation and instruction apart from recognizing the orthodoxy of the Trinity—the consubstantial divine nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (10). Christians ought to enjoy the eternal, heavenly things and use the temporal matters for the glory of God.

Books 2 and 3 explain the signs qua signs. The former book emphasizes the understanding of literal signs while the latter on the ambiguous ones. Book 2 contains bottomless wisdom of the following, language and communication; the proper character formation in the study; a guide of the canon of scripture; the significance of translation; and exhaustive comprehension of contextual knowledge. Moreover, Augustine presents that natural science—like physics, medicine, astronomy, history, etc.— can be alongside this discovery of truth but with limitations and correct motivation because it can lead to superstitions. All this knowledge can be helpful but also harmful. Nevertheless, Augustine being ahead, noted the supremacy of the scripture over all these.

Book 3 shares many similar notes with the former. Still, he clarifies the importance of the foundational essence of the “rule of faith” (68) or the foundational Christian doctrine, the orthodox teaching of Trinity, Christology, and the gospel. All but under the contextual knowledge and authority of the church. After much detailed description on how to dig deep in the discovery of the truths in the scripture, it is but a failure if the teacher knows no eloquence in proclamation. Hence, Augustine turns to the next step of his two-fold process, the presentation. The thesis of book 4 is to achieve the goal that the “listener hears the truth and understands what he hears” (117). Most of his illustrations came from apostle Paul’s model and principles.

As stated above, Augustine’s method is grounded in the theology of the Trinity and the orthodox teaching and authority of the church. Moreover, the love and enjoyment of God lead to the love of others and the self. This understanding builds the motivation to discover and present the Word of God competently. As part of this evaluation, Augustine exemplified the holistic approach of being spiritual, rhetoric, and logical in this writing. At the end of book 4, he stated the significance of devoting oneself to prayer. As a student or teacher, the reader ought “that he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words,” Augustine noted (121).

A few critics can be listed from a Baptist perspective, first of the canon and translation. Then, the authority of the church tradition over individual soul competency. Understanding that the development of the scripture canon was still in process during his time, however, Augustine did not explain how he came up with this list (36). He argued that the church’s authority was passed down to all parishes. Next is the Septuagint’s authority to correct the Latin translation over the original Hebrew version. His argument was due to the competence of the seventy translators, which relates to the hovering power of the Holy Spirit (42). This thought can be readily accepted, yet the supremacy of the original language for correction is still arguable—another is his inclusion of Hebrews as one of Paul’s writings. Lastly, the radical emphasis of church authority—as magisterium—over individual soul competency reduces the power of the Holy Spirit in illumination and guidance. Overall, this four-volume work of Saint Augustine is notable for spiritual formation, methods of biblical hermeneutics, and homiletics.

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[1] See Justo Gonzalez, The Mestizo Augustine: A Theologian Between Two Cultures (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 25-26.

Image: The Triumph of Saint Augustine by Claudio Coello, c. 1664 from Philippe de Champaigne – Los Angeles County Museum of Art: online database: entry 171584

Published by JP Arceno

A Mere Christian, no other religion, but Christian church, call me a Catholic Christian ~ Richard Baxter

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