Augustine of Hippo. Teaching Christianity. Translated by Edmund Hill. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1996. 259 pp. $22.95.
The teaching and preaching of Scripture is a serious task. James writes in his epistle that those who teach will be held to a higher standard. Those who endeavor, then, to instruct others in the faith, ought to consider how they can best accomplish that task. Throughout the centuries of Christianity, Teaching Christianity by Saint Augustine of Hippo continues to be one of the most important works on the subject of Christian instruction.
Augustine structures his work into two parts by means of four books. The first three books make up part one, the purpose of which is to lay out what it is that needs to be understood. These things that need to be understood include the contents of faith (book one), studies having to do with the Bible (book two), and interpretation of Scripture (book three). The second part, the ways to convey these truths, consists of a discussion on how a teacher can expound upon the truths that he has learned (book four).
The focus of book one, the contents of faith, deals with several key theological beliefs, as well as principles of ethics and exegesis. In book two, Augustine explains the nature of signs, how they point to truths, and also gives extended discussion on how the biblical languages, natural sciences, and philosophy can aid in interpretation of Scripture. In book three, Augustine then discusses ambiguities that are found in Scripture that result from grammatical and metaphorical misappropriations, concluding with the seven rules of Tychonius’ interpretive model. Finally, book four begins with an explanation of why Augustine, though trained in rhetoric, does not intend to give instruction in that area. However, he does explain some of these principles, highlights some rules for Christian oratory, emphasizes prayer, and gives some additional information regarding different styles.
The strengths in Augustine’s work abound, as one might expect given its ability to transcend time and culture and still remain relevant in this time and place. One significant strength is the clear progression of his structure. Augustine states that he has “undertaken to pass these rules on to those who are both willing and well qualified to learn” (101). He then achieves this end by beginning with doctrine, moving on to studies of the Bible, then to interpretation of the Bible, and finally to exposition and instruction. By establishing a strong foundation in the first three books, his practical applications in book four are not only valid, but also serve as the context and content for the instruction itself.
Another strength is Augustine’s emphasis on form in book two. Earlier in book one, Augustine summarizes the teaching of the whole of Scripture in the two-fold command to love God and love one’s neighbor (124). He argues that anyone who claims to have understanding of the Scriptures, but does not build on these two foundational commands, has no understanding (124). It would be easy, given his strong emphasis here on the central teaching of Scripture, to focus on the kernel of truth to the exclusion of the husk, the form in which this truth is conveyed. He even admits that most truths that are drawn from obscure or difficult texts can easily be found plainly said in another text (132). However, Augustine recognizes the beauty of the different forms present in the Scriptures. He writes, “magnificent and salutary, therefore, is the way the Holy Spirit has so adjusted the holy scriptures, that they ward off starvation with the clearer passages, while driving away boredom with the obscurer ones” (132). He writes, likewise, that “discovering things is much more gratifying if there has been some difficulty in searching for them” (132). What Augustine so insightfully notes is that the various forms and genres of Scripture, the mix between clear didactic teaching and narratives and poetic or prophetic texts with symbolism, are part of the design of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit leads believers to a deeper faith because of the time and effort one exerts in understanding the Scriptures.
A third strength is Augustine’s emphasis on prayer in the teaching process. In the task of instruction, one cannot neglect prayer, for it is foundational for everything else that follows. Although Augustine was a proponent and practitioner of rhetoric, he elevates prayer far above any skills of oration. He writes, “it is more the piety of prayer than the ready facility of orators that enables him to do so; by praying then both for himself and for those he is about to address, let him be a pray-er before being a speaker” (218). Augustine’s plea for prayerful contemplation prior to instruction could not be clearer, nor more refreshing to hear for many who have endured prayerless ministries.
Despite Augustine’s numerous strengths, one glaring weakness threatens to destroy much of what he has laboriously built up. Augustine, seeing in the Scriptures the model for developing faith, hope, and charity, makes the statement that “people supported by faith, hope and charity, and retaining a firm grip on them, have no need of the scriptures except for instructing others” (125). He comes to this conclusion by suggesting that “the text has already been fulfilled in them” (125). To treat Augustine fairly, it does not seem as though he sees this as a common occurrence; but neither does it seem improbable. Rather, he seems to purport that this is a common enough occurrence that it be worthy of example of the Scriptures’ role in fostering these virtues that can then work independently of Scripture. At this point, I think we should disagree with Augustine. While granting that some may achieve a greater level of faith, hope, and charity in this life than others, no one reaches a point where he is so filled with these virtues that he has no need of the Scriptures.
Despite this weakness, Augustine’s Teaching Christianity abounds with practical application and theological insight. Augustine presents compelling arguments for the necessity of training in instruction and how one might go about the process. Moreover, Augustine’s emphasis on prayer and doctrine set the teaching ministry of the pastor and teacher squarely under the guidance and supervision of the Holy Spirit.
Metaphor from Peter Leithart, Deep Exegesis: The Mystery of Reading Scripture, (Waco: Baylor, 2009).