Saturday, September 12, 2009

Review: On Christian Doctrine

On Christian Doctrine by St. Augustine of Hippo

On Christian Doctrine is the first work of Augustine’s I’ve ever finished. The reading group I’m in read the first two sections as a launching point for our discussion of myth and symbol, and I decided to finish the whole thing. The book is essentially a primer on how to read the Bible and then, in the fourth section, how to present the knowledge attained therein.

All in all, On Christian Doctrine is a very solid, though basic, examination of symbol, hermeneutics and eloquence. I like Augustine’s principle exegetical rule (partially, I must confess, because I’ve thought of a similar thing myself) which states that the interpretation of scripture should always be one that leads to the love of God and/or others since Jesus said “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Mathew 22: 37-40).

However, I found myself occasionally annoyed and distracted when Augustine chose to voice his opinions on sexuality (it is only for procreation in his mind) and am indeed not a fan of his general asceticism. Mind you, I do believe there is a place for ascetic practices (I’m a fan of Dallas Willard after all) but I think they are always for training. It seems to me that Augustine believes in asceticism because of some platonic aversion to creation, but I could be wrong.

I also found the last section difficult at times because it relied very heavily on Greco-Roman theory about rhetoric, and thus frequently used terms with which I am not familiar. Of course, were I wanting to do a more in depth study of that section, I could easily do some reading on that theory, and it’s certainly not a fault of the book itself. In essence though, Augustine says that eloquence is good, but wisdom is better. If you can have both, than do, but if you have to choose, choose wisdom.

All in all, this book is a good introduction to the reading of scripture and those interested in the thoughts of the church fathers should pick it up.