Generosity and Biblical Interpretation

“So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. Anyone who derives from them an idea which is useful for supporting this love but fails to say what the writer demonstrably meant in the passage has not made a fatal error, and is certainly not a liar.”[1]

– St. Augustine of Hippo

What is the point of Scripture? Augustine here makes the case that Scripture serves to build up the love of God and neighbor. If the Bible is the revelation of God, God reveals himself in order that we might return the love God has shown to us. If we love God, we want to act in a fashion God endorses, which is the love of neighbor. If all of this holds, then Augustine is right. The primary point of Scripture is to build up the love of God and neighbor.

Given this, we should consider our goals in interpreting Scripture. Many would argue that we should seek out the human author’s original intent. Augustine does not disagree. However, he argues that the author’s original intent was to lead the reader into the love of God and neighbor. Therefore, if an interpretation can be shown to be outside the original author’s intent and yet encourages this double love, then the interpreter is only in need of a gentle correction. Augustine elaborates on this idea.

“Anyone with an interpretation of the scriptures that differs from that of the writer is misled, but not because the scriptures are lying. If, as I began by saying, he is misled by an idea of the kind that builds up love, which is the end of the commandment, he is misled in the same way as a walker who leaves his path by mistake but reaches the destination to which the path leads by going through a field. But he must be put right and shown how it is more useful not to leave the path, in case the habit of deviating should force him to go astray or even adrift.”[2]

The goal of interpreting Scripture is to encourage love. If the destination of any interpretation is love, then it arrives at the destination intended by the original author, even if it comes by a different path. We should take Augustine’s words to heart. We can have very bitter and contentious debates over the meaning of biblical passages. Everyone should step back and look at where the proposed interpretations lead. Do they ultimately lead to love? It may be that we debate the nature of love. Concerning ethics, some might argue that a perceived harsh truth ultimately leads to love. Others might equate love more with acceptance. However, both sides should realize that everyone is aiming for love of God and neighbor. As such, our conversations should be generous and cordial. Criticism should be constructive rather than vindictive. After all, it is a conversation between sides that share a desired destination.

I am writing this on a day when an attempt to propose immigration reforms collapsed in the U.S. Senate. It is certainly my perception that society is growing increasingly fractured and polarized in the early 21st century. Christians of all stripes could provide an example of unity. To often, we ignore the vast amount that we hold in common and choose to concentrate on the small things that are different. That commonality should encourage generosity in disagreement. Generosity can lead to understanding and possibly compromise. Generosity and love always provide a better way forward.

[1] Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 27.

[2] Ibid.

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