When I became a Christian as a sophomore in high school, it was clear that, as a Christian, reading the Bible was going to be a big part of my life. Every week my Sunday School teacher would ask us how many times we had read the Bible in the previous seven days. At youth group, my pastor encouraged me to memorize Scripture to counteract the worldly information I consumed through movie quotes and pop music lyrics. I recall often hearing other Christians talk about the importance of “getting into the Word,” and how essential a daily quiet time reading the Bible is for Christian spiritual development. In those early days of my faith I also remember finding myself unable to participate in some discussions with other Christians as they talked about obscure Bible stories and passages of which I had not yet learned.
Yet, my relationship to Scripture also quickly became complicated. Frustratingly, even though I knew it was important, I found reading the Bible quite difficult. The first couple chapters of Genesis were easy to read, and enjoyable for the most part. However, as I read along I found most of the Old Testament confusing, difficult to make sense of, and even boring. I always felt like I was missing something. Once I learned some important differences between the Old and New Testaments, I would usually just skip around the Gospels and the Epistles because they were the easiest to read. Making matters worse, I would also overhear older Christians talk about reading the Bible using technical terms like, hermeneutics, contextual analysis, literary-criticism, and apologetics. Simply, early on in my faith the topic of Bible reading often made me feel like a failure because I was not reading it enough and/or I was not reading it correctly. At that time, I wish I had known about St Augustine’s 1500-year-old approach to reading the Bible.
A Main Point of Scripture is to Enjoy God
Augustine of Hippo was a 5th century Roman teacher of rhetoric, which made him an expert in the art of argumentation. He became a Christian well into his adulthood, and immediately began writing about theology and philosophy. His writings, the most famous of which is the book City of God, have influenced Christian theology and Western philosophy for the past 1500 years. His thoughts on reading the Bible are meticulously laid out in his book De doctrina Christiana. He begins his how-to-read-the-Bible book with an odd distinction, the difference between enjoying something and using something. He believed the only thing humans should enjoy for its own sake is the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Everything else, including our family, friends, vocation, and service, are actually a means to an end. Everything we do should be done for the ultimate enjoyment of God. For instance, our enjoyment of a loving relationship with our spouse is a reflection of our relationship with God, and is therefore something God uses in order for us to better understand his love and how we can love him better.
This entails that God has given us the Bible as a means to an end. The point of reading the Bible is to come to enjoy God better and more fully. It might seem odd, or even a little sacrilege to think of the Bible as a means to an end. This is because we rightly think of the Bible as holy or sacred. But, it is not God. It is holy and sacred insofar as it is the word of God, given to us so we can better understand who God is. By reading Scripture we learn more about God, his work in the world, his plan for us, and his expectations for us. This is one of the means God has provided for us to enjoy him more. In fact, Augustine believed that if a Christian could hypothetically enjoy God perfectly in this life, that they would no longer need to read the Bible. Of course because we will not come to love God perfectly in this life, reading, meditating on, and yes, memorizing scripture, will regularly be a source of knowledge that help us to love God more. However, Augustine wants his readers to remember, that knowledge is not the goal for reading the Bible.
Reading scripture is Purifying
This pursuit of knowledge was one of the things that tripped me up early in my faith. I intuitively believed that knowing more facts about God and theology would make me a better Christian. Augustine, was a very smart person, and he knew a great deal about the Bible, and most likely had large portions of it memorized, as was the custom in his time. Yet, he also knew there was more to the Christian faith than knowing facts. He argued that the process of reading the Bible, while it involved learning new information, was not just about gaining knowledge, it was about transformation, or more precisely, purification.
When a Christian reads the Bible, they are entering into a process God uses to purify them from their sin. It is sin which keeps us from knowing and truly enjoying God. As we Christians undergo this purification we will become wiser, and for Augustine, the best marker for Christian wisdom is the imposition to love. What we learn when we read the Bible should always support Jesus’ two pronged Greatest Commandment: to love God and love others. If this lesson is affirmed in our reading, then we can have confidence that what we have received from our reading is what God has intended. Augustine explains this idea using a lively metaphor. He writes:
If [the reader] is deceived in an interpretation which builds up charity… he is deceived in the same way as a man who leaves a road by mistake but passes through a field to the same place toward which the road itself leads. (Doctrina, 1.37)
This type of freedom in reading the Bible can seem odd to modern readers. When we read the Bible, or any text for that matter, we want to make sure that we are reading it accurately. Elsewhere in De Doctrina Christiana also Augustine makes it clear that the when we error in our reading we ought to figure why we have made the mistake in order to keep from making similar mistakes in the future. However, this does not take away from the freedom God has given us in the Bible. If the purpose of the Bible was only to obtain knowledge of ancient Jewish culture or the history of the early church, the complete accuracy would be the most important part of reading. However the purpose of the Bible is to help us enjoy God. Therefore, God uses the Bible, and the knowledge we gain from reading it, to sanctify us, that is, to make is us purer and more like him. The best way to make sure that we are using the Bible correctly is to check that what we are reading is teaching us to better love God and to love our neighbor.
Why We Make Mistakes
Yet, because there is a very real potential for reading the Bible incorrectly, Augustine also wants to help equip us to avoid common pitfalls. He identifies two main ways readers can misread the Bible. The first way is forgetting or incorrectly using the rules for proper interpretation, and the second is the sin of pride. Rules for proper interpretation are simply a matter of language and reason. This involves understanding differences in genres (like the difference between a history book and a psalm), recognizing tones like sarcasm (like when Jesus says, “have you not read?”), and some knowledge of original Biblical languages (like the difference between God’s names Elohim and Adonai). I would add knowledge of era-specific customs and cultures are also necessary for better understanding of the different books and passages of the Bible. While rules such as these can seem daunting or even burdensome, Augustine believes this is the easiest part of reading the Bible because the technical rules are actually easy to learn. Also, Bible readers need not learn everything all at once. Most of his book De doctrina Christiana is actually on these rules, and the book reads a bit like an instruction manual. In fact, I would encourage all Christians to read this short book themselves. We can also rely on our Christian community of elder Christians to teach us these technical rules. This involves mentorship, small groups, regularly receiving expositional teaching at church, consulting Christian commentaries, and reading books on interpretation from throughout the history of the church. In our day, we are fortunate to also have resources like websites, blogs, YouTube videos, and podcasts which provide a wealth of technical information that is helpful for better understanding of difficult passages, doctrine, and the Bible as a whole. Of course navigating this surfeit of information can also be a daunting task itself. Augustine reminds us we do not have to get everything right all the time, and that our knowledge of the Bible is a journey, which will involve ups and downs and mistakes along the way. Again, the goal is not to be the smartest or the most adept. The goal is to enjoy God truly and more fully. Consistent engagement in our faith community, humility in our approach, and strong mentorship will help us grow more knowledgeable about the contents of the Bible and more adept at reading it on our own.
The second reason for making mistakes in reading the Bible is much more serious for Augustine and cannot be avoided by learning more technical skills or knowledge. He warns us that when we rely too much on our own knowledge of scripture, or if our purpose for reading scripture is simply to learn more facts, then we are approaching the task of reading the Bible in a state of pride. If we attempt to read scripture with a prideful heart, or an over focus on ourselves, then we are essentially attempting to read scripture without the help of God. When this happens, Augustine says we have become, “ensnared by the wisdom of the serpent.” (Doctrina, I.12) By reading scripture with a prideful heart we are falling into the same trap as Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit. In eating from the tree of the knowledge of good of evil, they attempted to learn things about God without his help. Knowledge is a good thing, but it is not the ultimate good. Knowledge is only good insofar as it helps us enjoy God by loving him and loving our neighbors. If we think we are clever enough, educated enough, or just happen to have a secret method of reading the Bible on our own, we are reading the Bible with a sinful heart.
Augustine warns that this kind of prideful approach to the Bible is what leads to skepticism and moral relativism. When the Bible reader is overly reliant on their own abilities in their quest to acquire knowledge about God, they will inevitably come to unsatisfactory or contradictory conclusions. Augustine believes that as a fallen people in a fallen world, we cannot actually come to true knowledge all on our own. We always need God’s merciful intervention. People who attempt the task on their own will either come to believe that it is impossible to acquire true wisdom at all, which is skepticism, or at best, that we can only have subjective opinions about the text, which is relativism. This is why some people believe the Bible is chock full of errors and contradictions, and why others believe the Bible is open to any interpretation. This is one of the issues I struggled with early in my faith as well. The reason why so much of the Bible was confusing, and some passages seemed to contradict others was because I approached the Bible in a singular and individualistic fashion. That is, these original struggles largely stemmed from my original motivation for reading the Bible. I rushed passed all the grace and love stuff, focusing on trying to figure out all the complicated ins and outs of the Bible so I could feel knowledgeable and smart.
The Necessity of Humility
If we are going to read the Bible in a correct fashion, we need God to cleanse us from such selfish pride. The Bible is not intended to make us feel knowledgeable and smart. In many ways, God uses the Bible to make us pure. In fact, in the same way that we must learn the technical skills and know-how for interpreting the Bible properly, we must also undergo purification. Augustine uses a helpful medical analogy to describe this process. He writes:
Just as he who ministers to a bodily hurt in some cases applies contraries, as cold to hot, moist to dry, etc… in the same way the Wisdom of God in healing man has applied Himself to his cure, being Himself healer and medicine both in one. Seeing, then, that man fell through pride, He restored him through humility. (Doctrina, II. 13)
For Augustine, the humility modeled by Christ is not only a necessary part of reading the Bible, he also believes we need humility before we even open our Bible. Furthermore, humility must also be an ongoing task for every Christian who wants to read and understand scripture as a process of purification. Our humility not only opens us up to receive guidance from the Holy Spirit as we read scripture, it is also necessary in order for us to learn from others.
In his book Contra Academicos, Augustine provides a vivid analogy for this practice of humble openness compared to the limitations of pride. In the analogy he imagines two travelers. One traveler is willing to humble himself and ask for directions. The other traveler is overly careful, relying solely upon his own reason and ability, to the extent that, in his prideful self-reliance, he despises his companion as he, “laughs and ridicules the [humble traveler] for having assented too rapidly.” (Academicos 3.15) Yet, it is the humble traveler, the one open to listening to the wisdom of others, who is able to find their destination. The prideful traveler, however, becomes lost.
When I first became a Christian, while I had accepted God’s gift of grace, I sadly began my reading of the Bible as a prideful traveler. I believed I was smart enough to figure everything out on my own, and that through diligent study I could make myself a better Christian. The source of my shame when it came to the Bible reader was not that I was a bad Christian, as I had thought, but my shame was actually the exposure of my own selfish pride. I hope you will read De doctrina Christiana to learn more about Augustine’s great practical advice for understanding difficult passages and how purifying reading the Bible can be. However, above all, as we Christians read the Bible, I pray we approach it like the humble traveler, with the expectation that Christ is there with us along the path, and by the power of the Holy Spirit may our reading of the Bible cause us to love others more deeply and to enjoy God more fully.