Augustine and interpretive pluralism

I was chugging along in the part of Book XI of The City of God where Augustine is talking about the nature and status of fallen angels, when I came across this line:

“The obscurity of the divine discourse actually serves the useful purpose of giving birth to many views of the truth and bringing them into the light of knowledge, one person understanding the divine words in this way and another in that.” (civ. XI.19)

I was pretty surprised to see Augustine so openly affirming that multiple readings of scripture are allowed! There is nothing in the context of this passage that suggests he is talking about a multilayered (or what would be later called ‘fourfold’) reading either. He’s just talking about good old-fashioned interpretive pluralism.
We’re all about interpretive pluralism. It’s what undergirds our obsession with ‘multiculturalism.’ But Augustine’s interpretive pluralism is rooted in something very different than our contemporary fixation on pluralism. While our celebration of pluralism is rooted in the inherent uniqueness and value of each human person and perspective, Augustine roots his interpretive pluralism in “the obscurity of the divine discourse.” Augustine allows a diversity of interpretation because of the hiddenness of God, not because of the valorization of human individuation and autonomy. It’s not multiperspectivalism; it’s multiple frontiers along the border of the revelation of God. It’s the first step toward an eccentrically derived pluralism, what St. Paul called “the manifold wisdom of God.” (Eph. 3.10)
Augustine says later, “Let each, then, interpret this passage as he likes, for it is so profound that, to stimulate the reader’s mind, it can give rise to many different opinions which are not in conflict with the rule of faith.” (civ. XI.32)

One thought on “Augustine and interpretive pluralism

  1. Hey Steven, I’m no Augustine expert, and I share your surprise in his affirming multivalent readings. As I enjoy De Doctrina Christiana at a liesurely pace, I’ve noticed similar lines of interpretation vis-à-vis the famous “rule of faith.” Though A is after the intention of the author (intentio auctoris), he’ll settle for other readings as long as they align with the twofold rule of love – love of God and love of neighbor. These readings are mistaken, then, but not false (I.XXXVI, 27 in the Oxford ed.). The reader is passively misled, but not actively a liar. He uses the familiar path metaphor (which is actually an extended conceit in this section based on the parable of the good Samaritan and the robbed man on the path, something I’d never noticed before): the reader may accidentally leave the path and arrive at the destination (twofold love) by mistakenly going through a field. If we can arrive at the destination through the intentio auctoris, all the better,and we should teach others to stay on this path. But, if not, the reading is still valid when it comes to this end.
    This is clearly different than what is going on in City of God – there is a right and wrong here, rather than an obscured text pointing to the Deus abscondidus. But his posture is similar, and his openness to multiple readings refreshing.

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