Private Interpretation: Reviewing Saint Augustine
“Open the Bible and just let God speak to you.” This way of reading scripture is heard commonly in Protestant circles. Belief in private interpretation is one of the most significant differences between the wandering denominations and Catholicism. If we are to be instrumental in bringing invaluable souls back to the fold, a proper understanding of the Bible is a key place to start—for us and for them. Another key place to start is St. Augustine. Though many Catholics are unware of the fact, this sainted Doctor of the Church is actually a respected figure to many Protestants. By starting from a common ground—respect for the thoughts of St. Augustine—we may have a more effective means of bringing Protestants to a proper understanding of the true nature of Sacred Scripture.
The Peril of Private Interpretation
The reasoning behind private interpretation may go something like this: The Bible is the inspired word of God, and God’s grace is always present when we ask for it, so ought we not expect to find God and truth when we read His holy word? Saint Augustine would vehemently argue that this is a grave oversimplification of Sacred Scripture. In De Doctrina Christiana, he discusses at length the difficulties of properly understanding Scripture. “Ascertaining the proper meaning” is, in fact, one of the primary themes of Augustine’s work, and it directly confronts the practice of a merely personal interpretation.1 We are not meant to read simply for the sake of discovering our own understanding—even if that understanding helps us love God and our neighbor better—because of the grave danger that misinterpretation presents. Augustine illustrates the point with an analogy, putting before us a man who reaches his destination even though he accidentally takes a circuitous route: “He is to be corrected…[and] shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into a habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether.”2 Thus, while good can come from well-intentioned readers forming their own personal interpretations, the danger of misinterpretation leading to misdirection is all too grave. Worse yet, misinterpretation will inevitably lead to contradictions during reading, and contradictions will ultimately lead to frustration with scripture. “He begins to feel more angry with Scripture than with himself,” Augustine explains. “And if he should once permit that evil to creep in, it will utterly destroy him.”3 Thus, the importance of “ascertaining the proper meaning” is clear.
However, correctly interpreting Scripture is no easy task. As Augustine explains, difficulties abound. Chief, he notes, are the difficulties of unknown and ambiguous signs;4 that is, unknown and ambiguous words and phrases. Augustine recommends two solutions to start with.
“The first rule to be observed” is that we must gain familiar knowledge with the entirety of scripture, thereby enabling our knowledge of “the plainer expressions to throw light upon the more obscure.”5 Thus, casual reading and interpreting at random is not sufficient for proper interpretation; we must gain and maintain a comprehensive view of God’s word.
Secondly, we must overcome our ignorance “by learning the Greek and Hebrew languages, in which Scripture is written, by comparing the various translations, and by attending to the context.”
Now, from a purely practical standpoint, most people have no chance of ever learning Greek and Hebrew, yet Augustine calls this method “the great remedy.”6 Part of Augustine’s reason for this advice was because there was an “endless diversity” of Latin translations at the time that would “throw [readers] into doubt” about the real meaning of a passage.7 Might not the same be said about English translations today? They are indeed numerous—for Catholics and Protestants alike.
Even before Vatican II, new translations in English had been released and the Douay-Rheims itelf was refined with the goal of achieving a more readable and accurate English edition. Thus, Augustine’s point remains that the only real way to understand the differences still to be found in these abounding translations is by knowing how to read the originals well. Since understanding the Word of God is an important component of the Christian life, it is only logical for the common man to recognize the need of a guide to steer him clear of misinterpretations. Of course, Catholics realize that this guide is the Church and her ministers. Before bringing Protestants to this final conclusion, it makes sense to begin by showing them the necessity of guides, and the revered Augustine provides a strong case.
Overcoming Protestant Objections
However, some Evangelicals may respond that a reliance on guides to help the common man read Scripture leads to an elitist mentality. One Protestant blogger writes that the “intellectual crowd” can be “very harmful to the spreading of the Gospel.” This is, admittedly, an extreme example. However, it highlights the point that an anti-guide attitude is ultimately a revolution against all scholarship. Rarely do we hand people Milton’s Paradise Lost or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and tell them to dive in unaided. These are difficult works. Most people need help reading them—as did most teachers themselves when they too were learning from teachers of their own. If we feel this way about literature, why should we treat the Bible any differently? It is only the most revered and highly esteemed text of Christianity. In comparison, Milton’s and Chaucer’s works become Aesop’s Fables. It is inconceivable that we should treat the Bible with less scholarly attention than we treat revered literary classics. However, by encouraging blind, personal reading and interpretation, Protestants are doing just that.
Moreover, to argue that guided reading is elitist and superfluous is to miss a major mark about Scripture. Rather than lowering or degrading man, a reliance on authoritative guides actually raises man’s dignity. Augustine makes this point most beautifully, noting that God could have used “voices from heaven” or “ministration of angels” to teach men.8 However, He chose instead to reach and teach men through other men, thereby elevating men to temples of Himself. Augustine retells the famous story of Philip and the eunuch:
“[N]or was it an angel who explained to [the eunuch] what he did not understand, nor was he inwardly illumined by the grace of God without the interposition of man; on the contrary, at the suggestion of God, Philip…sat with him, and in human words, and with a human tongue, opened to him the scriptures.”9
Rather than being an unnatural or degrading practice to be educated by our fellow men, guided reading of Scripture is “love itself, which binds men together…pouring soul into soul.”10 How can this Divinely inspired “bond of unity” be undesirable?
“Open the Bible and just let God speak to you.” Such a practice has undoubtedly provided rich moments of grace to countless well-intentioned souls—as the personal experience of too many readers would attest. However, as an approach or philosophy itself to reading Scripture, Augustine makes it clear that this is inadequate and dangerous. “We must rather think and believe that whatever is there written, even though it be hidden, is better and truer than anything we could devise by our own wisdom.”11 That is, there is an objective truth in the words of God that we must uncover. Of this point, we must convince our Protestant friends.
Douglas LeBlanc currently teaches humanities classes for La Salette Boys Academy. He holds an MA in English and is working on a PhD in Humanities.
1 Augustine, On Christian Teaching (Digireads.com Publishing, 2009), p. 7.
2 Ibid., p. 22.
3 Ibid., p. 23.
4 Ibid., p. 24.
5 Ibid., p. 30.
6 Ibid., p. 31
8 Ibid., p. 4.
9 Ibid., pp. 4-5.
10 Ibid., p. 4.
11 Ibid., p. 28.