Augustine on Biblical Obscurity

Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986) 257.

On…the deliberate obscurity of the scriptures, see [Augustine’s] Civ. Dei 11.19.

This quote caught my eye because of posts I’ve written and read about the “clarity” of the Scriptures. I wrote two posts on the issue, Is the Bible Esoteric? and The Clarity of the Scriptures. In the latter one, I cite a post by Polycarp that links to a sermon by John MacArthur, who affirms that the Bible is clear to anyone with a rational mind. Still, MacArthur says we need the Holy Spirit to make it clear to us. And James McGrath discussed the Bible’s obscurity in Demystifying the Bible. McGrath refers to an argument that Barack Messiah is the Antichrist on the basis of the Aramaic word “Baraq,” and he asks why so many people view the Bible as a book of codes. He states:

I’d like to suggest here that the reason for the Bible’s apparent obscurity is not some supernatural characteristic, but is simply a result of its antiquity and its being a compilation of works composed in other languages and cultural contexts. Anyone who has tried to read other literature of a similar antiquity in translation will have had the same sort of experience. It is like being dropped into the final Harry Potter novel and trying to figure out who Voldemort or Dumbledore are, or what Dementors are, only so much worse.

So MacArthur believes that God made the Bible clear, and McGrath maintains that the biblical writings probably were clear to their original audience, but they’re less clear to us because we’re removed from its languages and cultural contexts. But Lamberton cites a passage from Augustine’s City of God that says the Scriptures are deliberately obscure.

Why does Augustine think God would deliberately make the Bible obscure? As he prepares to discuss Genesis 1, Augustine states the following:

Accordingly, though the obscurity of the divine word has certainly this advantage, that it causes many opinions about the truth to be started and discussed, each reader seeing some fresh meaning in it, yet, whatever is said to be meant by an obscure passage should be either confirmed by the testimony of obvious facts, or should be asserted in other and less ambiguous texts. This obscurity is beneficial, whether the sense of the author is at last reached after the discussion of many other interpretations, or whether, though that sense remain concealed, other truths are brought out by the discussion of the obscurity. (City of God 11:19; see here)

For Augustine, God’s word is obscure in order to stimulate thought and discussion. Even if we don’t arrive at a sense of clarity about a passage, we come across other truths in the course of our search.

I’ve heard fundamentalists say this as well: that God made the Bible obscure so that we’ll spend time thinking about it. That’s one explanation I’ve heard for biblical contradictions. And I suppose it’s good to dig deeply into the Bible, since it’s better than allowing idle hands to become the devil’s workshop. Some discussions can be interesting, as when I heard an elderly preacher talk to a small Bible study group about biblical genealogies. Others can be boring, which is how I feel about certain academic treatments of the Bible. I sometimes like to get into theoretical aspects of Scripture that bear little on practical Christian living. And other times I just want my soul to be fed.

Conservative Christians would also agree with Augustine that we should seek to understand the obscure passages of the Bible in light of its clearer passages.

But would they agree that we should interpret Scripture in reference to “the testimony of obvious facts”? It varies. When the Bible says that the sun travels from one side of heaven to another (Psalm 19:5-7) or mentions “the four corners of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12; Revelation 7:1; 20:8), most fundamentalists don’t conclude that Copernicus was wrong or that the earth is flat. They maintain that the Bible uses figures of speech, the same way we say “sunrise” and “sunset,” even though we know full well that it’s the earth that’s moving, not the sun. Here, fundamentalists interpret the Bible with scientific discoveries in mind, viewing Scripture as consistent with what we know to be “fact.”

But many fundamentalists aren’t there yet with evolution. Some say that the intermediate fossils were put in the ground to test our faith. Others, however, take issue with the proposition that evolution is an “obvious fact.” So I guess there are many fundamentalists who think we should interpret the Bible as consistent with what we know to be factual, only they don’t think evolution qualifies as a “fact.” But there is also a fundamentalist current that believes we should trust the Bible over what we see or conclude scientifically, since our observation can be flawed.  

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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