Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Augustine on the Aims of Preaching

In his famous book, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine writes the following about the proper aims of preaching: 

“Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour [sic], does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. For there is involved in deception the intention to say what is false; and we find plenty of people who intend to deceive, but nobody who wishes to be deceived…Nevertheless, as I was going to say, if his mistaken interpretation tends to build up in love, which is the end of the commandment, he goes astray in much the same way as a man who by mistake quits the high road, but yet reaches through the fields the same place to which the road leads. He is to be corrected, however, and to be shown how much better it is not to quit the straight road, lest, if he get into the habit of going astray, he may sometimes take cross roads, or even go in the wrong direction altogether” (Book 1, Chapter 36). 

It's not the Augustine underestimates the dangers of error in interpretation. Indeed, he goes on to argue that if a preacher of the Word allows error and then “evil to creep in, it will utterly destroy him. ‘For we walk by faith, not by sight.’ Now faith will totter if the authority of Scripture begin [sic] to shake. And then, if faith totter, love itself will grow cold. For if a man has fallen from faith, he must necessarily also fall from love; for he cannot love what he does not believe to exist. But if he both believes and loves, then through good works, and through diligent attention to the precepts of morality, he comes to hope also that he shall attain the object of his love. And so these are the three things to which all knowledge and all prophecy are subservient: faith, hope, and love. But sight shall displace faith; and hope shall be swallowed up in that perfect bliss to which we shall come” (Book 1, Chapter 37). 

Augustine believes so strongly that love is the end of teaching, and of Scripture itself, that he writes, “And thus a man who is resting upon faith, hope and love, and who keeps a firm hold upon these, does not need the Scriptures except for the purpose of instructing others” (Book 1, Chapter 39). I understand what he’s saying and concur that in the age to come, there will be no copies of Scripture because the Word of God will fully be written upon our hearts. However, I must add that while we sojourn here, we are more desperate of the written Word of God than Augustine implies. 

Still I take his admonition to heart: the aim of our teaching and preaching must be love or it is not true preaching; it is not honoring to God; it is not edifying to the people; it is not a blessing to the world. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Augustine: Temporal Joy Diminishes but Eternal Joy Increases

Here's an interesting and moving thought from Augustine for the week: 

"For there is this great difference between things temporal and things eternal, that a temporal object is valued more before we possess it, and begins to prove worthless the moment we attain it, because it does not satisfy the soul, which has its only true and sure resting-place is eternity: an eternal object, on the other hand, is loved with greater ardour when it is in possession than while it is still an object of desire, for no one in his longing for it can set a higher value on it than really belongs to it, so as to think it comparatively worthless when he finds it of less value than he thought; on the contrary, however high the value any man may set upon it when he is on his way to possess it, he will find it, when it comes into his possession, of higher value still" (On Christian Doctrine, Book 1, Chapter  38).