John Rather and Dr. James Siebach, Philosophy
In the Confessions, St. Augustine writes that his conversion to Christianity was made possible by a prior conversion to philosophy. By the time of his Christian conversion, and for the rest of his life, Augustine’s philosophical and theological views were most deeply affected by Neoplatonism. It was by means of Neoplatonism especially, that Augustine sought to understand and defend his religious beliefs. Although these two ways of thinking seemed naturally conducive to Augustine, and did indeed enable him to defend many doctrines of the Catholic Church against philosophical attack, the combination was not without its resultant conflicts.
One such problem emerged in Augustine’s theory of knowledge and the interpretation of scripture. Augustine believed that words, as signs, were objects of the senses and merely a manifestation of something else. It is the reality that lies behind the sign, whether an object of the senses or the intellect, that is the actual object of true knowledge. As such, words merit a low place in his ontology. In my project funded by ORCA, which developed into my Honor’s Thesis, I examined the extent to which Augustine integrated his theory of language and interpretation of scripture with his ontological thought and how he dealt with the resultant conflicts. The particular problem under examination is how anything meaningful about God can be communicated in scripture.
An analysis of Augustine’s theory of signs reveals several important ideas. Augustine maintains that signs are “things,” meaning that their ontological value resides in their ability to cause one to think of something else beyond the impression they themselves make upon one’s mind. For Augustine, nothing is learned from a sign, only from the thing that it represents. The purpose of signs, therefore, cannot be to teach. One crucial distinction exists between natural and conventional signs. A natural sign is that sign which necessarily directs one’s mind to the object signified. Smoke is such a sign, in this case necessarily signifying the existence of fire. Conventional signs are subjective and unverifiable. The words of scripture are conventional signs, and their meaning can thus not be necessarily surmised. For this reason, other sources of knowledge than signs must exist for the reader of scripture.
Three such possibilities exist for Augustine. The first is the interpretation of scripture. Through the course of several texts, Augustine develops and expounds a complex theory of language. The basic idea is that one is able to come to truths of scripture through the use of interpretive skills. These skills are partially available to the reader as a result of training, but mainly as a result of character traits in the reader. The key traits are humility and charity. The second possibility is innate ideas. This idea seems a likely possibility given Augustine’s Neoplatonic sympathies. This idea is, essentially, that the truth of scripture resides in the individual, but that the words of scripture enable the reader to recollect these truths. The closest Augustine comes to embracing such a theory is in his teaching of the “Teacher within.” The third, and final of these possibilities is revelation. Basically, his idea is that revelation is divine communication in an untypical way. Much of my thesis is dedicated to Augustine’s treatment of revelation in various texts, and further explanation can be found there.
It may seem strange that although Augustine had a complex and unambiguous theory of revelation, he never treated the matter in a systematic way. Still, revelation was central to his theology from long before his conversion to the end of his life. In my paper I examined this theory in an attempt to better understand what Augustine considered to be the source, content, and nature of revelation. The result of this research in the primary and secondary texts was that revelation played an important role in many of Augustine’s theories separately, and that Augustine must have been satisfied with his treatment of the topic in other contexts and not possible or necessary to treat in its own treatise.
It was suggested above that there are essentially three possible sources of knowledge from God through the scriptures. My argument is, however, that all of these can be collapsed into the third category, revelation. Augustine’s theory of interpretation relies heavily upon the idea that the reader must be pure from sin and that certain moral standards must be met. However, Augustine strictly maintains that these are only possible as a special miracle from God through revelation. His theory of innate ideas relies basically upon the well developed ideas of the Holy Ghost and the Spirit of Christ, which qualify, even in reasonably strict terms, as revelation.
My project, funded generously by ORCA, is an examination of Augustine’s theory of scriptural interpretation and the role of revelation in this theory. The paper that resulted from this research was submitted to the Honor’s program in partial fulfillment of the requirements for graduation with University Honors and received an excellent rating at its defense. I am very grateful to ORCA and others involved in making the project possible, educational, enjoyable, and I believe, successful.