How to Read the Old Testament

Lent 2014: Readings from Augustine

All those passages speak of Christ. The head now ascended into heaven along with the body still suffering on earth is the full development of the whole purpose of the authors of Scripture, which is well called Sacred Scripture. Every part of the narrative in the prophetical books should be viewed as having a figurative meaning, except what serves merely as a framework for the literal or figurative predictions of this king and of his people. For as in harps and other musical instruments the musical sound does not come from all parts of the instrument, but from the strings, and the rest is only for fastening and stretching the strings so as to tune them so they’ll give a pleasant sound when struck by the musician, so in these prophetical narratives the circumstances selected by the prophetic spirit either predict some future event, or if they have no voice of their own, they serve to connect together other significant utterances. (Contra Faustum, 22, 94: PL 42, 463)

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I'm always struck by the number of metaphors and similies in St. Augustine's sermons.  I assume he uses so many because he thought his audiences would understand him better with them.  Here he seems to be implying that even Sacred Scripture has to use metaphors and similes ("figurative speech") to convey theology, at least in the Old Testament.  But what about in the New Testament?  Does he think that metaphor is intrinsically more espressive of Christ's message(s) than literal speech even in the NT?  

I have problens with the great dependece on metaphors in Catholic theology generally -- it is just too easy to take them literally, thus falsifying the messages.  Granted, theologians deal with mysteries, but not all of what Christ taught was mystery.  Augustine, great philosopher of language that he was, was no doubt well aware of the perils of metaphor.  But I'm not so sure about his students.

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About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.