St. Augustine on Theological Modesty



I’ve been reading “The Literal Meaning of Genesis” by St. Augustine. Here are a couple of timely quotes from a 5th Century author. (page, chapter and paragraph numbers are added.)


“In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received.  In such as case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side, that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.  That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to with ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.” P. 41 (18.37)

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycle of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.  Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame in not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts when they themselves have learnt from the experience and the light of reason?  Reckless and incompetent expounders of the Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one if their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.  For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statement, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.”  P. 42 (19.39)

St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J., Newman Press, NY, 1982


Key Words – Jesus and Scripture in Matthew 5


17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

21 You have heard that it was said …. But I say to you {repeated in 6 examples}

48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I was intrigues by six words in Jesus teaching on the Law.  First “Law” here refers to the whole Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), not just to regulations such as the Ten Commandments.  Jesus relationship to the scripture can be characterized by these highlighted words

Fulfill – to bring to completion in a variety of senses. Not just to fulfill predictions (such as being born in Bethlehem) but also to complete all aspects of the scripture.  For example, his death fulfills the system of sacrifices – see the book of Hebrews in the New Testament.

Accomplish – this is to say, to do all of it.  No part (jot or tittle; iota or dot) will be left incomplete.

Do and Teach – Those who leave out any part of the commands of God diminish themselves – they become “least in the kingdom of  heaven.”  Those who do and who teach all of the word, will be great.  This is quite a statement for pastors and teachers to consider if they feel a challenge between the text and the desire of the audience.

Exceed – the scribes and Pharisees were the A students who took the advanced classes.  To exceed them in law keeping is not really possible.  It seems that we need to exceed by 1. seeing that life in God is in relationship first of all to our Heavenly Father {repeated many times in this sermon} and not merely to a rule book.  And by 2. receiving a gift of righteousness from Christ.  To those who say this is importing Paul into Jesus’ teaching, I point to this verse:

“blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”  5:6.

Notice that you do not fill yourself with righteousness, but that those who hunger will BE FILLED {passive voice}. So who is doing the filling?  The correct answer in the Sermon on the Mount is usually “your Father in Heaven.”

Perfect – in v. 48 Jesus sets a standard of perfection.  Yet he speaks of being “poor in spirit”, “meek” and to “hunger and thirst…”.  This passage is instruction for disciples (5:1),. who presumably have already heard his message: “Repent and believe…” {4:17}

These are the words that frame Jesus restating, clarifying and expanding the meaning of the “Law and the prophets” in the six examples found in this chapter.