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March 06, 2005

Augustine on Knowledge and Multiple Biblical Meanings

I came across a good passage on Knowledge in Augustine's Confessions, Book 11, chapter 25. He is using the example of interpreting the Book of Genesis.

Let no man fret me now by saying, "Moses did not mean what you say, but what I say." Now if he asks me, "How do you know that Moses meant what you deduce from his words?", I ought to respond calmly and reply as I have already done, or even more fully if he happens to be untrained.

But when he says, "Moses did not mean what you say, but what I say," and then does not deny what either of us says but allows that both are true--then, O my God, life of the poor, in whose breast there is no contradiction, pour thy soothing balm into my heart that I may patiently bear with people who talk like this! It is not because they are godly men and have seen in the heart of thy servant what they say, but rather they are proud men and have not considered Moses' meaning, but only love their own--not because it is true but because it is their own. Otherwise they could equally love another true opinion, as I love what they say when what they speak is true--not because it is theirs but because it is true, and therefore not theirs but true. And if they love an opinion because it is true, it becomes both theirs and mine, since it is the common property of all lovers of the truth. But I neither accept nor approve of it when they contend that Moses did not mean what I say but what they say--and this because, even if it were so, such rashness is born not of knowledge, but of impudence. It comes not from vision but from vanity.

And therefore, O Lord, thy judgments should be held in awe, because thy truth is neither mine nor his nor anyone else's; but it belongs to all of us whom thou hast openly called to have it in common; and thou hast warned us not to hold on to it as our own special property, for if we do we lose it. For if anyone arrogates to himself what thou hast bestowed on all to enjoy, and if he desires something for his own that belongs to all, he is forced away from what is common to all to what is, indeed, his very own--that is, from truth to falsehood. For he who tells a lie speaks of his own thought.

I read this to say that some passages admit of more than one equally valid interpretation. Both may be true (as Augustine says), or it might be that one is true and one is false but we cannot say which is which with reasoning and available evidence. If so, we should not puff our own opinions as the only valid ones.

In fact, to do so would be folly as well as sin. For if my opinion is the only true one, then it is also not special to myself, but is true for everybody else too, and is a discovery of mine, not an invention. I can lay claim to it only if I invented it-- but in that case, it is false. The scientist cannot be as proud as the artist, because he only discovers what already existed and what somebody else would discover at some point if he did not. At most, the truth can be his sole possession only temporarily.

Creativity is bad in science. The idea is not to be create the truth, but to discover it.

A little later Augustine says more:

Let us not, then, " go beyond what is written and be puffed up for the one against the other." Let us, instead, "love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and our neighbor as ourself." Unless we believe that whatever Moses meant in these books he meant to be ordered by these two precepts of love, we shall make God a liar, if we judge of the soul of his servant in any other way than as he has taught us. See now, how foolish it is, in the face of so great an abundance of true opinions which can be elicited from these words, rashly to affirm that Moses especially intended only one of these interpretations; and then, with destructive contention, to violate love itself, on behalf of which he had said all the things we are endeavoring to explain!

This gives some Biblical authority for not pushing the text further than it can yield truth. Also, it makes the good observation that God's Word is carefully written, and if it seems to have two meanings, it probably does have two meanings. One might go even further, and say that if it misleads a lot of people, it is intended to do so. Jesus says more than once that his parables are not meant to be understood properly by everyone, and we know that many prophecies were rightly understood only after they were fulfilled, not before.

Posted by erasmuse at March 6, 2005 09:52 PM

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