By Joey Royal
Augustine of Hippo, teacher of rhetoric, admirer of Cicero, initially found the Bible crude and unsophisticated. He found both the form and the content of the Bible to be a stumbling block, and initially refused to believe something so unrefined could be divinely inspired. Although people nowadays are less bothered by the Bible’s literary style (we are, after all, heirs of the Authorized Version) many of us often don’t know what to make of the Bible’s bewildering content.
How many people, with the best intentions, resolve to read the Bible entirely, only to arrive at Leviticus and run aground? How often do we open our Bibles looking for encouragement only to find passages that leave us perplexed, disturbed, or unsettled? Preachers especially are all too aware of the Bible’s stubborn resistance to say what we want it to say. I remember my old pastor once commenting that people expect the Bible to be relevant but the trouble is most of the Bible is not relevant, if by relevant we mean helpful for the purpose of meeting our immediate needs.
Here I think Augustine can help us, and the way he resolved this in his own life is instructive. Despite his initial rejection of the Bible, Augustine came to realize his first impressions were mistaken. The problem, he came to see, was not with the Bible but with him, and specifically with his own pride. Here is Augustine describing this important shift in his life, which turned out to be the beginning of his conversion to Christ:
I turned my attention to the Holy Scriptures to find out what they were really like. What I see in them today is something not accessible to the scrutiny of the proud nor exposed to the gaze of the immature, something lowly as one enters but lofty as one advances further, something veiled in mystery. At that time, though, I was in no state to enter, nor prepared to bow my head and accommodate myself to its ways…. My swollen pride recoiled from its style and my intelligence failed to penetrate to its inner meaning. Scripture is a reality that grows along with little children, but I disdained to be a little child… (The Confession)
For Augustine, the Bible’s “crudeness” has a pedagogical function; God inspired and shaped it deliberately in just this way so as to teach us the virtue of humility. For those who think they know better, the Scriptures remain aloof and inaccessible, but for those willing to “bow their heads” the Scriptures reveal their meaning, and draw us into a world far deeper and subtler and richer than we could perceive initially. That, in any case, is how Augustine reconciled himself to the Bible’s form and content, by first turning his attention to the moral character of the interpreter.
But this goes beyond mere moral instruction, because for Augustine, as for St. Paul, the virtue of humility is inseparable from the gospel. After all, Scripture tells us of Christ’s incarnational descent into death before telling us of his ascent into glory. Humility, then glory; that’s the logical sequence of the gospel. To miss that, or to see it as peripheral, is to lose sight of the gospel entirely. That is what Paul is getting at when he contrasts the gospel’s “foolishness” with the world’s “wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:25). Both the form and content of Scripture push us to the same end — proper creaturely humility before the glory of God.
This is a lesson we all must continue to learn as we struggle with Scripture in the church, both in the mode of joyous proclamation and in the mode of strenuous deliberation and debate. But the way this is incorporated in one’s life varies from person to person, and from culture to culture. Because virtues are so interesting and dynamic, no two virtuous people will embody humility in quite the same way; by contrast, all vices are boring and predictable (an adulterer is an adulterer is an adulterer). That’s because humility arises from true self-knowledge; it involves knowing oneself as a creature, miraculously made from the dust of the earth, animated by the divine breath, and utterly dependent on a holy, gift-giving God. For Augustine, true self-knowledge began when he opened himself to the truth of Scripture, and allowed God’s Word to do its work of uprooting and tearing down, destroying and overthrowing, building and planting (Jer. 1:10).
All of this is to say that the Scriptures — divine ideas, figures, signs — are living things. Robert Jenson once said the difference between a living thing and a dead thing is the capacity to surprise. Dead things don’t surprise us because they do exactly what we expect them to do, which is nothing. To describe the Scriptures as alive is to say that they have the capacity to surprise us. The author of Hebrews puts it this way: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12).
But not only is God’s Word lively, it’s also enlivening. Divine speech brought the world into being, shaped form into formlessness and shone light into darkness. It builds hope, judges unrighteousness, topples idols and raises the dead. It accomplishes what it sets out to do: “My word that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” (Is. 5:11). We might accept God’s Word or reject it, love it or hate it; regardless it does its work, with our cooperation or without it.
Does the church need to recover a higher view of Scripture? Undoubtedly! But even more urgently we need to recover a chastened view of ourselves; not a lower view necessarily, because self-loathing is but another manifestation of pride. No, we need a more realistic view of ourselves as creatures, as limited and embedded in networks of kinship and affinity and culture, blinded and bent in certain ways, historically contingent but reaching for what lies beyond time, made of dust but destined for glory, always seeing “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12) but striving for divine illumination, “a little lower than the angels” (Psalm 8:5; Heb. 2:7). After all, all we are and do — all our wisdom, insights, ideas, deeds — all of it will be subject to the judgment of God: “Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is” (1 Cor. 3:13). And that eschatological reality, which is the far horizon of our life, should, more than anything, engender a true self-knowledge which bears its fruit in humility.
The Rt. Rev. Joey Royal is a suffragan bishop for the Diocese of the Arctic in the Anglican Church of Canada.