Augustine on Truth and Interpretation

I’ve been slowly making my way through Augustine’s Confessions over the last few months.  I’ve been surprised by how contemporary many of his concerns are!  Here’s an interesting passage from book 12, where Augustine spends an entire book musing on Genesis 1:1.  (Note: Augustine addresses his entire Confessions to God.)

 “So what difficulty is it for me when these words [of Genesis] can be interpreted in various ways, provided only that the interpretations are true?  What difficulty is it for me, I say, if I understand the text in a way different from someone else, who understands the scriptural author in another sense?  In Bible study all of us are trying to find and grasp the meaning of the author we are reading, and when we believe him to be revealing truth, we do not dare to think he said anything which we either know or think to be incorrect.  As long as each interpreter is endeavouring to find in the holy scriptures the meaning of the author who wrote it, what evil is it if an exegesis he gives is one shown to be true by you, light of all sincere souls, even if the author whom he is reading did not have that idea and, though he had grasped a truth, had not discerned that seen by the interpreter?”  – Augustine’s Confessions, XII. xviii.

Things I thought were interesting:

  1. It doesn’t matter if the original author had in mind a certain understanding when he wrote the passage.  Your understanding can be true or false independent of the human author’s intent.  (For example, if I understand Genesis 1 to have somehow included the dinosaurs, the truth or falsehood of the dinosaurs is independent of if Moses knew about them when he was writing or not.)
  2. It’s okay if you and I have different interpretations of the text, as long as both are true.

Being a Christian in a biology-related field, I have heard thoughts on the meaning of Genesis 1-3 ad nauseam.  While the issue is settled in my own mind and I’m tired of hearing about it, I recognize that the supposed conflict between creation and evolution is a stumbling block for many people.  I like Augustine’s statement that we don’t need to argue about what Moses thought when he wrote the words of Genesis, nor do we need to argue that my view is right and yours is wrong: we need to focus on finding the truth.  Additionally, for a passage like Genesis 1-3, we can acknowledge that multiple truths (perhaps one symbolic and one scientific and one narrative and …) might come out of the text.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Augustine on Truth and Interpretation

  1. Greg

    I think you meant “ad nauseam” instead. 🙂

    Maybe “it’s okay” instead of “it doesn’t matter”? I understand “it doesn’t matter” to communicate unimportance or triviality (a negative statement) rather than acknowledging a good (i.e. multiple true interpretations). Might just be me, though.

    I don’t understand what you mean by #1. In my first few readings, I understood you to be saying that the original author’s understanding of the meaning of what he wrote doesn’t matter, because his understanding might be true or false. This does not seem to be Augustine’s argument. But after more consideration, I think you might be saying that it’s OK if an interpreter understands a passage do be saying something (so long as it’s true) that the original author did not intend. That does seem to be Augustine’s argument. Can you clarify?

  2. Meaghan

    Thanks, dear! I’ve fixed my Latin spelling and clarified some thoughts.

  3. Pingback: Read in 2013, Part 1 | χορος χαριτος: A Danse of Grace

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