Augustine on Authorial Intention in Biblical Interpretation

A significant strand within the discipline of biblical studies within modernity has leaned towards equating the “true meaning” of Scripture with the intent of the author.  Ironically, this emphasis on “authorial intention” undermines the Christian claim that the Scriptures are superintended over by the Holy Spirit.  For if the Scriptures are a gift that the church receives from the Holy Spirit, then the meaning of the texts can not be reduced to the supposed intentions of the historical authors.  Augustine, for his part, while not dismissing the importance of authorial intention does relativize it in relation to reading with the rule of faith.  Here’s how he describes how Christian interpreters should approach obscure or difficult passages:

“Even if the writer of the passage in question perhaps had a different meaning in mind, our consideration of his obscurity has not been without its uses.  For, even if we have been unable to discover the true intentions of the author of that book, we have nonetheless not departed from the rule of faith, which is sufficiently known to the faithful from other writings of equal authority.  For even if it is of the material works of God that our author speaks, these do beyond doubt bear no small resemblance to spiritual things” (XI.33)1

  1. Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, trans. R.W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

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