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The Human Author in Augustine’s Scriptural Hermeneutics

Theodore Harwood

Cornell University

It is generally recognized by hermeneutists today that St. Augustine argues for a multiplicity of meanings in Scripture beyond what any of its human authors intended, and that he grounds these interpretations in the intention (voluntas) of the Holy Spirit, who also inspires such interpretations in readers. These ideas are particularly appealing to literary scholars who welcome the multivalence of texts. While some of these have acknowledged that Augustine ascribes multivalence only to Scripture or divine texts (Bochet 1997, Pelttari 2014), others have seen Augustine’s hermeneutics as a forerunner of modern reader-response theories more generally (Glidden 1997, Matthews 2008). Tarmo Toom (2013, 2014) is a strong but nuanced advocate of the second view. Though he acknowledges the importance of the human author’s intention in Augustine’s thought, he nevertheless argues that the intention of the Holy Spirit plays a larger role, especially because it includes prophetic and Christological meanings which the human authors of the Old Testament could not have known. In Toom’s view, the human authors of the Old Testament spoke to their contemporary audience, while the Holy Spirit conveys different meanings through the same words to people in succeeding eras, including our own.

I argue that this explanation wrongly suggests an opposition between the intentions of the human author and the Holy Spirit and contradicts Augustine’s own statement (De Doctrina Christiana III.9.13) that the writers of the Old Testament were “spiritual people” who “understood the meaning and significance” of the signs given in the texts they composed. This misunderstanding is harmful because it prevents one from seeing the peculiar but determinative role that the human author’s intention plays in Augustine’s interpretive system. In order to appreciate this aspect of Augustine’s thought, one must recognize several facts that are commonly overlooked. First, Augustine strongly distinguishes Scripture from secular texts and utterances. Both can prompt an interpretation that may be inspired by the Holy Spirit, but only in the case of Scripture is the human author’s intention also inspired by and aligned with the Spirit’s. Building on this, Augustine clearly says that finding the human author’s intended meaning is the proper goal of reading Scripture, and that anyone who misunderstands a passage in which the author’s meaning is clear should be corrected (De Doctrina Christiana I.26-27.41). As he repeatedly remarks in Confessions XII and the De Doctrina Christiana, a Scripture-reader’s proper goal is to find voluntatem tuam [Dei] per voluntatem famuli tui: “your [God’s] intention through the intention of your servant” (Confessions XII.23.32). Only in cases where the author’s intention is unclear can a reader legitimately admit a meaning which may not have been the author’s.

Finally, though Augustine does acknowledge the impossibility of the knowing the human author’s intention, since the reader cannot see into the author’s mind, he still believes that one can approximate it by observing certain external constraints. Nearly all scholars note his requirement that any interpretation of Scripture accord with the Faith, the Truth more generally, and the building up of charity (De Doctrina Christiana II.9.14, III.2.2; Confessions XII.23.32; XII.25.35), but many ignore that fact that he also says that one should believe that the human author (in Confessions loc. cit., Moses) intended that meaning which maxime et luce veritatis et fruge utilitatis excellit  (“excels most both in the light of truth and the fruit of utility,” Confessions XII.30.41).

Confessions XII is, in fact, a refutation of those who would limit the intention of Moses to that which his contemporaries could understand. Thus the human author’s intention is not so much an object of careful philological or historical study as it is an ideal meaning which the reader draws nearer to through increasing theological and philosophical knowledge. 

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Linguistic Strategies and the Hermeneutics of Reading

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