incomplete De Genesi ad litteram (GnI), later replaced by De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim (GnL), and culminating in De doctrina christiana (DCC).48 His understanding of the limits of literal exegesis underwent significant change over the course of these writings, as his skill in figurative exegesis matured. His terms for the distinction ranged from the 'carnal' vs. 'spiritual' interpretation (GnM 1.19.30) to the proper sense vs. the allegorical (GnL 8.2.5); the literal vs. metaphorical meaning (DDC 2.32) to the literal vs. the allegorical (Retr. 1.18). In GnM 2.2.3 Augustine speaks of understanding the text literally, 'just as the letter sounds', but in GnL the literal sense 'seems to involve a highly sophisticated interpretation that is quite metaphysical and not what we would ordinarily call the literal sense'.49 For Augustine, 'the literal sense goes beyond the letter of the text'.50
In book 1.1 of GnL, Augustine outlines his approach to the fourfold meaning of the text: the allegorical, the historical, the prophetic and the moral. A narrative can be legitimately taken in a historical or figurative sense. As Augustine puts it: 'No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense.'51 In his earliest commentary on Genesis, GnM, he ascribed this level of understanding to 'spiritual believers'. In GnL, however, he presents the spiritual interpretation as the only one possible, thereby demanding more of all readers of scripture, and taking a less elitist approach than in GnM.
In Augustine's manual on biblical exegesis, De doctrina christiana (396-426), we find the mature bishop reiterating his insistence on the reader's responsibility to make the correct distinction between the literal and metaphorical senses of scripture, a distinction which he had already emphasised in the Literal commentary on Genesis. Each verse must be treated sui generis, and he put the onus on the reader to determine if its meaning should be taken as literal 'in its plain sense', or as figurative, or both. The reader's interpretation should be based on careful study, keeping in mind the hermeneutical principles he presented in book 2, and his version ofTyconius' rules in book3. As a young convert, he had been repulsed by the lowly style of the scriptures, when he compared them with Cicero's dignified prose.52 As a mature bishop, he distinguished between wisdom and eloquence, at least in relation to scripture.53
48 This discussion is based upon my 'Exploring the limits of literal exegesis: Augustine's reading of Gen. 1:26'.
50 La Genese au sens litteral en douze livres, eds. Agaesse and Solignac, 40.
51 Augustine, The literal meaning of Genesis 1 (ACW 41:19).
52 Augustine, Confessiones 3.5.9.
53 Augustine, De doctrina christiana 4.7.21.
Was this article helpful?