Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Hump Day History: St. Augustine’s City of God (with some Christopher Hall on hermeneutics! – can it get any more exciting?!)

I lied last time when I said we’d get back to Book XXI. It’s been long enough since I’ve read the book that Books XXI and XXII are no longer fresh so we’ll hop around as appropriate. I mentioned last Wednesday that I’m reading a book on patristic exegesis a few days ago. The book starts with a wonderful challenge on why we should read the fathers and it served as a fine rebuke for the critique of Augustine’s hermeneutics I was eventually planning. (I know; who am I to critique Augustine? I know, I know.) I thought now would be a good time to walk through the process and learn from both Augustine and Hall.

Augustine’s City of God was a challenging read so I wouldn’t say I had my critical reading spectacles on. I was mostly mining for helpful insight and get a feel for him as a thinker since he’s one of the most formative in Christian history. But there are some times where I wonder what he’s doing. He spends forever and a day wrestling with genealogies and timelines. I guess it was a major apologetic issue at the time, but he argues that time may have been measured differently in times past than it is today (XV.14). I suppose that isn’t impossible, but it seems like doing some significant gymnastics to prove a point while there may be some significant reckoning to be done later. He gets creative with his prophetic interpretations at times (XVII.8) and his desire to make biblical characters more noble than they might have been (XVI.25, 37). This, in addition to things I’d heard about his allegorical tendencies in Bible school makes me roll my eyes and be quick to dismiss some of the great saint’s intepretations. Not so fast, says, Hall.

Hall doesn’t argue (in his Introduction) that Augustine is infallible, but he does remind us of what a great tool the early church fathers are for us today. Just like they have their cultural blinders and quirks, we have our own. Given that they are so close to the source (time-wise) and they are in the stream of orthodoxy, we should give weight to their interpretations and use them as good resources to help us get out of our own cultural lenses. We are quick to point out others’ errors and remain willingly blind to our own. Reading the church fathers gives us the challenge of a broadened perspective coupled with the assurance that they bulk of their teaching is within the stream of orthodoxy.

I always thought those Ancient Christian Commentaries on Scripture were a waste of money. I haven’t bought one yet, but Hall has me thinking it might be worth snagging one for the next book I teach through.

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