Sunday, September 28, 2014

Augustine and the Parables (part 1)

Botticelli, St. Augustine (fresco, ca. 1480)

Usually discussions of Augustine's parable interpretations focus on his famous allegorical reading of the Good Samaritan. Yet examinations of Augustine's parable interpretations should go much further than that, as the following posts hopefully will make clear (e.g., see his discussion, “The Knowledge of Tropes is Necessary,” that is mentioned below).

First, some context:

Augustine (354-430) was the most influential theologian of Western Christianity. Born at Thagaste (in modern Algeria), Augustine’s path to Christianity was a long, complex journey. His Confessions is the first Christian autobiography, and the narrative covers his early “muddy cravings of the flesh,” his opening a grammar school in Thagaste, teaching rhetoric in Carthage, and the birth of his son, Adeodatus (while remaining unmarried to his mother, with whom he lived for fifteen years). He writes about reading Cicero’s Hortensius, which awakened his spiritual aspiration and led to his nine years as a Manichean. Augustine also discusses his move to Rome and later Milan, where in a garden in July 386 he heard a voice to “take up and read” the New Testament (Romans 13). He documents the deep influence his mother, Monnica (a more accurate spelling than Monica), had on him, as well as Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, who baptized him. Confessions ends with a moving account of his mother’s death and burial in 387, on their way back to Africa. Augustine, delayed by a civil war, returned to Africa in 388 and organized a lay ascetic community in Thagaste with some of his friends. Augustine, against his will, was ordained a priest in the nearby town of Hippo, and later became bishop. He would never leave Africa again.

A prolific author, Augustine wrote voluminous letters, sermons, commentaries, and other books—such as The City of God, On the Trinity, and On Christian Doctrine—that have exerted a tremendous influence throughout the history of the church. He also was engaged in a number of controversies with such groups as the Donatists, Arians, Manicheans, and Pelagians, and his parable interpretations were part of his repertoire as he engaged in these debates. For example, in an approach influenced by Ambrose (e.g., see Ambrose’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan in his Treatise on the Gospel of Luke 7.71-84, which, in turn, is indebted to Origen’s interpretation), Augustine utilizes allegorical interpretations of the Bible to explain and affirm “troublesome” passages—such as some ethically questionable actions of biblical patriarchs—in opposition to the heretical views of the Manicheans who rejected the Hebrew Bible (see “The Knowledge of Tropes is Necessary,” chapter 29, The City of God). Augustine also believes that biblical interpretation should be based upon the two greatest commandments: love of God and love of neighbor: “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, does not yet understand them as he ought” (On Christian Doctrine 1.40).

Most of Augustine’s interpretations of the parables are found in his homilies on the Gospels, such as his interpretation of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Like Origen, Augustine agrees that the calling of the workers at different times in the parable may explain something “in respect even of this present life,” where those called at the first hour symbolize those “who begin to be Christians fresh from their mother’s womb,” youth are called at the third hour, and so forth, including those who are “altogether decrepit” and called at the eleventh hour. This more literal interpretation means that all people, no matter the stage of life at which they become Christians, receive “the one and the same denarius of eternal life” (37.7). People should never seek to delay conversion, however, because people never know whether they will live to see that “later hour” (37.8).

Augustine’s spiritual interpretation of the parable, however, is more complex, and it also incorporates his reading of the parable of the Tenants (Matt. 21:33-41). The vineyard was “planted,” Augustine explains, when God gave the law to the Jewish people, who killed the prophets and then Jesus, the only heir of the householder: “They killed him that they might possess the inheritance; and because they killed him, they lost it” (37.3). The householder was a “good man” who made all the workers equal by his treatment of them (37.4). As Matthew 25:34 shows, the denarius is eternal life (37.5-6), which means that workers called at the “first hour” (e.g., Adam and Noah), workers called at the “third hour” (e.g., Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), those called at the “sixth hour” (e.g., Moses and Aaron), prophets called at the “ninth hour,” and Christians called at the “eleventh hour” will be equal with respect to the gift of eternal life.

In the next post, I will talk a bit about how Augustine interprets the parables of the Sheep and Goats, Wedding Feast, Ten Virgins, and Unmerciful Servant in his sermons.

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