Scripture, however, can be opaque and even perilous to the one who would discover its meaning. It contains “hidden secrets” and “dark depths.” These can be grasped, but only if one knows what to look for. In other words, an interpreter must know the meaning of Scripture before trying to decipher a particular passage. Thus Augustine begins his instruction by telling the interpreter what to look for, what the subject of Scripture is. Only afterward does he explain how to read the “signs” that point to that subject.
The message of Scripture is the incarnation, understood in terms of the rule of faith (roughly equivalent to what would become the Apostles’ Creed). As Augustine believed that appropriation of this message is possible only through love, he joined to his summary of the faith the summary of the law (Matt. 22.37-40), which instructs us to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves. For Augustine this ordering of our love means that we are to cling to God as our ultimate goal. God alone is to be loved or “enjoyed” to no further purpose. God is our home, our rest.
Love for the neighbor as well as for oneself must contribute to love for God. Love for the neighbor (and self) entails aiding the passage home. In that sense, neighbors rightly use and are used by each other in the movement toward God. The purpose is always to help each other attain to God.
In the incarnation we find both the neighbor who is to be loved (and used) and God who is to be enjoyed. We find both the way home and home itself. In Christ we find the ultimate example of neighborliness unfailingly joined with the goal of neighborliness. To travel the way of the humanity of Christ is to reach the deity of Christ. It is in relation to this neighbor who is also God that the meaning of the double commandment is most fully grasped. The incarnation, joined to the double commandment of love, is the message of Scripture.
That being the case, Augustine did not hesitate to argue that any interpretation of Scripture that violates the rule of faith cannot be true. Similarly, any interpretation of Scripture that violates the rule of charity cannot be true. If an interpretation of Scripture diminishes love for God or neighbor, it cannot be true. If an interpretation of Scripture enhances love for God or for neighbor, even if it is not what the author intended, it can be trusted to bring the interpreter to the truth. It is only when one knows that the meaning of Scripture is the incarnation as understood through the rule of charity that the task of interpretation can be safely undertaken.
That known, Scripture can be seen for what it is: a sign or collection of signs pointing the pilgrim home. The interpreter’s task, of course, is to interpret the signs rightly. That task is made difficult by the abundance of “obscurities and ambiguities” within the text; yet for Augustine, these difficulties are a divine gift. God uses them to break the pride and to prevent the boredom of the serious student of Scripture. Presumably Augustine was describing his own experience. Certainly he found the challenges of biblical interpretation arduous but also filled with delight.
Augustine devotes considerable attention to methods of interpreting the scriptural signs, e.g., memorization, use of biblical languages, attention to context, grammar, and punctuation. He was particularly concerned with the interpretation of ambiguous signs that might be understood either as literal or metaphorical. He instructed the interpreter that if a passage is not about morals (love of God and neighbor) or faith (incarnation and creed), then it must be figurative. According to this rule, most of Scripture is figurative. The range of possible faithful meanings is breathtaking.
To read Augustine’s rules is to be challenged by their clarity and expansiveness. Could we state the message of Scripture so succinctly? Do we have a common understanding of what that message is? Are we willing to test all our interpretative work by the rule of charity? Can we see the plethora of faithful interpretations that a passage yields as the bounty of the Holy Spirit? Can we view Scripture, church, and all creation as signs, God-given but only signs, the purpose of which is to point our restless hearts toward home?
Rebecca H. Weaver is John Q. Dickinson Professor of Church History at Union-PSCE in Richmond, Va.