St. Augustine (354–430) is commonly considered the greatest of the Church Fathers. He was certainly the most influential. He not only summed up the excellent teachers before him, but also cultivated new theological ground out of which the burgeoning medieval theology would grow. The Reformation (over 1,000 years after his death!) has been described as a battle over his theology. Both Protestants and Catholics wanted to claim him as their own (for different reasons). And to this day, his books The City of God, On the Trinity, and The Confessions are still read for their theological and devotional value. There is not a Christian alive today has not been influenced—directly or otherwise—by this North African bishop of Hippo.
Perhaps his conversion has something to do with why he left such a permanent mark on Christian history. Before his Christ called him he was a philosopher and philanderer. But one day, while sitting in his garden, he heard a voice from beyondthe hedge. It said “Tolle lege, tolle lege!” which means “Take up and read!” Was it a child playing a game? Was it an angel? He didn’t know. Regardless, he had a Bible with him in which he turned to Romans 13:13–14. Why? No one knows. That’s just where he turned and read these words: “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” In these words he perceived that moral transformation is only accomplished through the power of the risen Christ. The rest is history.
Among his many areas of influence include his impact on hermeneutics, the science and art of how we read the Bible. It makes sense that hearing the voice of God from the Scriptures that Augustine would be interested in helping others do the same. He laid down several “rules” for interpretation. I will mention only a few of them. For one, he said the historical meaning of a passage greatly matters; it is not to be neglected. The goal is to understand the meaning of the text in its original historical and social context. The reader is not to import any later or foreign meanings. Second, the literary setting of any verse or passage is crucial; verses are not to be plucked out of context. Read before and after; read large sections. Third, if the meaning of a text is unclear, it cannot be made a matter of orthodoxy. Instead, the more clearly understood passages take precedent over the obscure. Fourth, the reader should be aware that revelation is progressive, meaning God did not tell us everything at once, but over time. Thus, the reader should attend to the relationship between earlier and later parts of the Bible. Finally, the reader should not defer to the Holy Spirit as a substitute for the necessary study and hard work necessary for interpreting the Scriptures. This prevents people from using the “I was led by the Spirit” trump card. It is easy to say the Spirit laid something on your heart or that the Spirit spoke to you. The problem is this: How do you know? And how should anyone else know if you do not show them the meaning from the text? Thus the text must be carefully studied, not evaded through intuitions. Plus, it is the text that the Spirit inspired and the text through which risen Christ is pleased to speak.
The task of reading the Bible is, therefore, never simple. But it is a joyous task. It is a worthwhile task. So, I say to you “Tolle lege, Tolle lege!” Take up and read! Read carefully. Read diligently. Read thoughtfully. For in the Bible we encounter the risen Christ who can change us, and glorify himself through us.
This post was written by Dr. Nicholas Piotrowski. He is the Associate Dean of Academics and Director of Biblical and Theological Studies at Crossroads Bible College in Indianapolis and serves as Associate Pastor of Theological Development with Northside Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Note: This article was originally posted on Northside Baptist Church’s blog.
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