Thursday, June 17, 2010

Philosophy For The Theologian, Part II: Augustine's Encounter With Biblical Interpretation

In my last post, I discussed Rodney Petersen’s chapter on the history of hermeneutics, how the two approaches to theology (Alexandrian and Antiochene) is what started the debate of how the Old and New Testaments work together. The Alexandrian school, as you’ll remember in my last post, focused on allegory and spiritual interpretation (Origen), while the Antiochene school emphasized typology---this interpretive device placed the historical event or person itself side-by-side with the spiritual implications (or events). In the Antiochene school, the historical was not sidelined for the spiritual; rather, the spiritual built upon the foundation that the historical figure provided.

In this post, however, I intend to do what Rodney Petersen does: zoom in on Augustine. Aurelius Augustine (354-430) was one of the most influential (if not the most) of his time. According to Petersen, many factors influenced Augustine’s hermeneutic:

“Several stages marked Augustine’s passage to faith in Christ. Each left its mark upon his interpretation of the text. At first, put off by the archaisms and infelicities of the text, Augustine was driven toward MANICHAEAN DUALISM WITH ITS DENIGRATION OF THE OT” (Petersen, from John S. Feinberg, “Continuity and Discontinuity,” page 23).

Manichaean dualism believed that there were two “forces” in the world: one good, and the other evil. Manichaeism was rather like Gnosticism in that it postulated that the material world was bad, the immaterial world good. To build the soul (immaterial), the individual had to “discipline” the flesh (the material), and rebel against the flesh’s lusts. This involved things like beating oneself with whips or starving oneself for as long as possible. If this doesn’t sound bad enough, add to this the fact that Manichaeans also made distinction between the literal and spiritual interpretations: the literal being material (which was bad), the spiritual being immaterial (which was good). As a result, the spiritual interpretation (what Manichaeans considered to be the NT) was accepted, while the literal interpretation of the OT (“shadows of the things to come”) was outright rejected.

As I mentioned earlier, in case you don’t believe that philosophy has anything to do with theology, check out the Manichaean belief: because of their underlying philosophy of material (bad) and immaterial (good), they viewed the Old and New Testaments through their belief system and decided the Old Testament was bad and should be rejected. I fear that covenantal theologians do the same today when they argue that the New Testament “replaces” the Old Testament in biblical interpretation.

In 386, Augustine was converted to Christ through the preaching of Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397). Ambrose, a Neo-Platonist who freely used allegorical interpretation,

“helped Augustine to accept the Scriptures more readily. In his own work, Augustine would often make free use of allegorism. This accent upon THE SPIRITUAL VALUE of the text (2 Cor. 3:6) emphasized the underlying truth behind the symbols of expression. THAT TRUTH COULD BE UNPACKED THROUGH MULTIPLE MEANINGS IN THE TEXT GIVEN BY THE SPIRIT AND DISCERNED BY THE SPIRITUAL EXEGETE” (Petersen, from John S. Feinberg, “Continuity and Discontinuity,” page 23).

There is a connection here that I don’t want you to miss: first, Augustine was won to Christ through the preaching of Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose was a Neo-Platonist; therefore, Augustine, upon studying under Ambrose, embraced the teachings of NEO-PLATONISM. And Neo-Platonism, according to Petersen, involves great emphasis on “allegorism” and “spiritual interpretation.”

Augustine’s philosophical embrace (Neo-Platonism) can best be seen regarding his struggle in his interpretation of the millennial kingdom of Revelation 20:

“As Augustine wrestled with traditional understandings of the millennium (Rev. 20:3), a time in which the promises to Israel would be realized, he rejected what he felt to be THE CRASS LITERALISM of many of his predecessors. Instead, HE FOLLOWED ORIGEN, offering a spiritual interpretation. IT [the millennium] WAS THE TIME SYMBOLIZED BY THE PRESENT LIFE OF THE CHURCH, experienced by those who, having accepted Christ, live under his general sway” (Petersen, from John S. Feinberg, “Continuity and Discontinuity,” page 23).

Augustine interpreted the Millennium of Revelation 20 to be that which is being experienced currently (that being, Christ ruling in the hearts of those who make up His church). While I respect Augustine as a great theologian to the early church, I disagree with his interpretation of Revelation 20 for the simple fact that his spiritual interpretation does not make sense in light of Revelation 2, for example, with the church at Sardis (as well as the other wayward churches of Asia Minor). If Christ was ruling and reigning in the hearts of those churches, then why was there so much decline in godliness that even the Lord threaten to return against His own believers in eschatological judgment? And these churches (most of the 7) were not even “generally godly” in practice.

However, what is most striking about Augustine’s spiritual interpretation is that, in so doing, “he followed Origen”---which means that he took up the theology of the Alexandrian school. Remember what I said about Alexandrian theology?

“Origen was inspired by the Jewish exegete Philo, who ‘argued for the importance of a DEEPER SPIRITUAL or ALLEGORICAL INTERPRETATION BEHIND THE HISTORY OR LETTER OF THE TEXT’ (“Continuity and Discontinuity,” page 20). Further, ‘the OT...was filled with enigma. It was an allegory or spiritual symbol. MEANING---and in a way THE NEW DISPENSATION---WAS CONCEALED IN THE OLD WITH DEBATABLE REGARD FOR HISTORY. IT WAS THE WORK OF THE SPIRITUAL EXEGETE TO FIND THE SPIRITUAL MEANING’” (21).

There was “little regard for the history” of the OT; instead, every word of the OT “pointed beyond” itself to the NT.

This is the Alexandrian School’s theology; but if “philosophy is the handmaiden of theology,” and the theology is “allegorical and spiritual,” then what is the driving philosophy? Platonism. Augustine, as I mentioned above was a “Neo-Platonist,” being tutored under the great preacher Ambrose. Since Neo-Platonism was Augustine’s philosophy, it had just as much a role to play in Augustine’s writing as did his theology. His theology then, reveals that he holds to some sort of “spiritual, mystical” philosophy. Just what is “Neo-Platonism,” anyway? You’ll find out in my next post.

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