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“We Are Your Books”: Augustine, the Bible, and the Practice of Authority
by Michael C. McCarthy
“We Are Your Books”: Augustine, the Bible, and the Practice of Authority
Michael C. McCarthy
Journal of the American Academy of Religion
Updated: August 30th, 2012
“We Are Your Books”: Augustine, the Bible, and the Practice of Authority
Michael C. McCarthy
Although Augustine’s posthumous influence on Christianity is immense and wide ranging, the authority he exercises among his contemporaries is far more modest and contextual. Subsequent generations overestimate Augustine’s actual authority largely because we approach him as readers of a written, monological corpus that has consolidated his power. In his own context, however, Augustine’s authority as preacher and bishop lay in complex social dynamics that are dialogical, mutually responsive, and limiting. Although we can no longer hear Augustine as those in his congregation did, we can work to develop hermeneutical practices that retrieve differences in the way written and spoken words generate distinct patterns of authority. Not only is Augustine aware of such differences, but in his practice of exegesis and preaching, the authority of scripture itself functions variously within a range of written and verbal registers. His treatment of the psalms especially emphasizes their status as a living voice inviting the hearer into dialogue with the divine other. An amplified sense of how authority operates in Augustine’s work: (1) contributes to historical studies that argue the exercise of episcopal power in the late fourth, early fifth
Department of Religious Studies and Department of Classics, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA 95053, USA.
The author is grateful to the Arthur Vining Davis Grant at Santa Clara University and to the
endowment for a visiting chair in the Department of Theology at Loyola University Chicago, for
support in the completion of this article.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2007, Vol. 75, No. 2, pp. 324–352 doi:10.1093/jaarel/lfm003 © The Author 2007. Published by Oxford University Press, on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: email@example.com Advance Access publication on May 17, 2007
centuries was in fact quite restricted; (2) coheres with theoretical studies that insist the nature of religious power is constituted by multidirectional social and symbolic relations; and (3) comports with theological studies that regard divine revelation as lying not solely in the biblical text but also in the very communicative processes where that text comes to life.
ASSESSING AUGUSTINE’S AUTHORITY
SHORTLY AFTER THE PUBLICATION of James J. O’Donnell’s provocative new biography of Augustine (2005), an anonymous review appeared in the weekly journal, The Economist. To the extent that this review reflects certain biases among some educated readers, it is telling not only for its attitude toward Augustine but also toward religion. Entitled “Warrior of the Word,” the article includes a picture of Augustine as a Renaissance episcopal prince rather than an early fifth-century bishop. Under the image is the witty caption “Right and writer,” and the review begins with the lines: “Lord, how right those early Christians were. And how wrong everyone else, not least their fellow Christians. And didn’t they just know it.” Comparing North African controversies between Catholics and Donatists to Trotskyite factions, the author reduces the tension simply to subtle differences between respective theologies of baptism: “Over this pinhead, not just Christian ink but blood was spilt; not as much or cruelly as in the ‘crusade’ set afoot by Pope Innocent III against the Albigensian heretics, or in Europe’s ghastly wars of religion. But enough, surely, that Jesus wept.”1 Although it is surely appropriate, if not morally imperative, for students of religion to consider how historical events contribute to a trajectory that victimizes and elicits violence, we must also be vigilant not to apply blunt instruments to intricate processes, lest we reapply rather than discipline the very tactics we ought to disavow.2 As in the case of any comparison, associating Augustine with the Inquisition or the Crusades obscures as much as it reveals. Because his influence on Christianity in the West is so great, a richer picture of Augustine’s authority has historical, theoretical, and theological consequences.
To the eyes of many twenty-first century scholars, the fifth-century bishop Augustine towers over the West as a commanding figure of religious authority. We approach him, often enough, braced against his
1 The Economist (14 May 2005: 87). 2 See Skerrett (2004: 503) on the need for “finer tactics of intervention.”
overbearing force. Augustine’s “extraordinary power and influence in the Roman world,” for instance, has been linked to his unsurpassed impact on the next millennium-and-a-half of Western Christendom, in which “church and state had become inextricably interdependent” (Pagels 1988: 125–126). At the end of the nineteenth century, he was dubbed “the first dogmatist of the Inquisition” (Reuter 1887: 501 n.3).3 More recently, Augustine has been identified as an authority often cited in medieval sources to legitimate coercion (Gregory 1999: 75), and in O’Donnell’s new biography he is compared to an unquestioning Spanish churchman under Franco (2005: 225).
I do not, in this article, deny the extensive reach of Augustine’sinfluence—forgoodand forill—on later generations of Christians, nor even his own capacity to be severe or doctrinaire. Rather, I suggest that the discussion of his authority is too frequently hyperbolic, simplistic, and ahistorical.4 In the epilogue to a new edition of Augustine of Hippo, Brown (2000) reaches a similar conclusion. Brown (2000: 492) admits that his earlier fascination with Augustine’s allegedly fearsome command “tragically rigidified” the man and obscured what limited power a fifth-century bishop actually possessed. Leyser (2000) has shown how the far more important bishop of Constantinople ignored Augustine’s correspondence or treated him as if dead. As Leyser (2000: 3) puts it, when dealing with his contemporaries Augustine “knew the slightness of his own authority, in ways which invite his twenty-first century readers to reconsider their assumptions about him.” Viewed in context, then, not only do we find serious limits to Augustine’s power but we even find him working to share it and undermine it. The implications are far-reaching for history, for theories on the nature of authority, and for theology.
If the renown North African bishop of the early fifth century did not enjoy unqualified influence in his own day, why have subsequent generations so overestimated Augustine’s authority? A major reason, I argue, is that we approach him as readers of a stable corpus of texts rather than as hearers of his spoken words. It is precisely his writings as writings that have established the monological potency attached to him. By contrast, for all the oral firepower they exhibited, his sermons reveal to us a practice of authority more modest and dialogical than we frequently imagine. His books, like the solemn figure of Augustine himself, are enclosed within a canon revered by some, reviled by others,
3 Lamirande (1974: 52–53) argues that Augustine himself would never condone the “tyranny and intolerance enacted in his name.”
4 For a fine example of complicating William Connolly’s picture of Augustine, see Skerrett (2004).
and reified by many. When we attempt to hear Augustine speaking in his own network of microrelations, however, we encounter a give-and-take that speaks of a very different kind of authority: diffuse, relational, responsive, and dependent on multiple contextual factors. Failure to observe important differences between written and verbal communication patterns yields a view of Augustine’s authority as univocally magisterial rather than reflecting an “intricately interrelated world of social power” (Schuld 2003: 16).5
The theological significance of these distinct operations within textual and oral frameworks is immense. Like other Christians, Augustine regards scripture’s authority as supreme: “overrid[ing] anything that human ingenuity is capable of thinking up” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis, 2.5.9, see Augustine 2002: 196) and distinct from “all production subsequent to apostolic times” (Reply to Faustus, 11.5, see Augustine 1995: 180). Even here, though, Augustine surprises. On the one hand, he appears to find scripture’s authority in its givenness as a sacred object for the Christian community and focuses on the “book” as enjoying the place of “lofty supremacy” (Reply to Faustus, 11.5, see Augustine 1995: 180). On the other hand, as one who spends his daily energies as bishop preaching on scripture, he also suggests that its efficacy derives from its quality as a living voice, calling the hearer into capacious dialogue. Because of this dialogical quality, the authority of scripture lies in its power as a personal appeal, as an opening to the divine other, and as an invitation to engage the reality thus revealed.6 Although Augustine sometimes reifies this open invitation by fixating on its instantiation as a written, stable “book,” his sermons especially reveal dialogical possibilities that are far more central to his theology and his understanding of how scripture operates.
In what follows, therefore, I will argue that movement beyond the written word yields a far richer and more variegated picture of how Augustine wielded power and authority. He himself is aware of key differences in the dynamics of the written and spoken word. The former is stable and requires a learned expert to teach others its steadfast meaning across time; the latter is fluid, demands an active community to make it a living voice of present, personal appeal. Attention to such differences will challenge scholars not only to amplify accounts of
5 Schuld presents a very interesting conversation between Augustine and Foucault precisely on the issue of the diffusion of power. For a wide overview of the way authority operates in Augustine, see Eno (1981), and on the relation of scripture to authority, see Camelot (1967) and Loewen (1981).
6 For a very helpful discussion of ways to conceive biblical “authority”, see Schneiders (1999: 55– 57).
Augustine’s authority but also to resist the temptation, which Augustine himself faces, to reify scripture, to treat it as a fixed text to be decoded rather than as the context of a live encounter.
THE AUTHORITY OF THE WRITTEN WORD AND ITS LEARNED EXPOSITORS
When Augustine is ordained a priest in 391, he immediately asked his elderly bishop Valerius for time to study Christian scripture. As one possessed of a literary education in the Roman classics, the request is natural. Communities, after all, are formed by reading and interpreting authoritative sets of texts, and literate Catholic teachers of scripture like Ambrose and Jerome are becoming increasingly important to a church on the rise.7 Now, charged with the duties of his new office, Augustine would have to know these texts as well as he had learned Vergil, Cicero, and Terence. Furthermore, the power and authority of any given community is tied to those texts: “all claimed to have the right texts for their authority as well as the correct codes and interpretive discourse needed to disclose the meaning of those writings” (Irvine 1994: 169). At this point in his life, Augustine looks very much like the ancient grammarian and prototype of the medieval monk studying his text in the scriptorium. This image, popularized by Renaissance paintings, conveys two principle values.8 First, the scriptural codex remains the central, permanent, stable authority governing all thought and discourse. Although in the Confessions Augustine will celebrate the generosity of a God who ensures that the same scriptural words can be understood in many different ways (12.18.27, see Augustine 1997: 261), implicit in that conception is the fixity of these words even in their potential for almost unlimited interpretation. Unlike the philosophical books Augustine had read, the biblical books were provided by the “one real and most truthful God” and are thus invulnerable to the errors of human reason (Confessions 6.5.7, see Augustine 1997: 100). The book as given is distinct from subsequent acts of commentary or exegesis. Therein lies not only much of scripture’s authority but also its liability to reification.9 Second, although Augustine understands scripture as
7 See Markus (1996: 41) “Traditions of interpretation generate communities, and interpretation is a social construction of meaning related to text.” On the “literary pragmatics” of reading within a community, see Vessey (1993).
8 See, for instance, the reproduction of the painting of Augustine in his study by Vittore Carpaccio (d. 1525) on the cover of Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Fitzgerald 1999).
9 See Reply to Faustus 11.5. “In the little works of those who come after, which are contained in innumerable books (but in no way equal the sacred excellence of the canonical scriptures) even
clearly distinct from the work of its expositors, those same expositors derive their authority from their status as expert readers, who communicate the truth of scripture’s written signs into other words. In On the Usefulness of Belief, a work composed shortly after his ordination, Augustine notes that if no one would approach the Latin poet Terence without a learned preceptor, “Will you blunder without a guide into those books [that are]… holy and full of divine substance? Will you dare to offer an opinion on these books without a teacher?” A soul who discovers a teacher with a reputation for his learning and piety may be made “better by his precepts and more learned by his teaching,” and one should sail even across the sea to find him (7.17, see Augustine 1891: 21, trans. mine).
A dozen years later, Augustine still highlights the stability of the book and the importance of the learned expositor. One of the more ornate examples of the privilege Augustine gives to the fixed written word occurs in his commentary on Psalm 44, delivered before a congregation in the fall of 403.10 The second verse says: “My heart has erupted with a good word. I speak of my works to the king. My tongue is the pen of a scribe writing swiftly.”11 Like commentators before him, Augustine attributes this verse to God the Father, who speaks here of the generation of the divine Word.12 Augustine is at pains to avoid any suggestion of materiality in that generation, and the task is a hard one because the predicates of this particular psalm verse are nothing if not physical. The first verb (“erupted [eructauit],” which in its classical usage suggests “to disgorge”) may have struck Augustine as a particularly vulgar way to describe the eternal begetting of the Word of God. Furthermore, if this verse is attributed to God the Father, reference to “my tongue” has obvious problems of its own. As a Manichee, Augustine had been scandalized at the attribution of bodily form to God, and only understood how to read scripture after he met the learned Ambrose across the sea.
though in some of them the same truth is found, it is nonetheless most unlike in authority” (Augustine 1995: 180).
10 The consensus of most scholars, though the dating of Augustine’s sermons is always problematic. See Fiedrowicz (1997: 430–439).
11 Psalm 44:2. Here and throughout this paper, I will adopt Augustine’s numbering of the Psalms. For an explanation of the system, see Cameron (1999b: 290). Unless noted, all translation of Augustine’s commentary on the Psalms are those of the author, based on Augustine (1990). An excellent new translation of the whole of Augustine’s Psalm exegesis may be found in the translation of Maria Boulding (Augustine 2000–2005).
12 For example, in the Latin tradition, Tertullian, Aduersus Praxeas 11, Novatian, De Trinitate 15, Marius Victorinus, De generatione diuini uerbi 26, Ambrose, De uirginitate 11.63.
Augustine here adopts his master’s strategy by explaining the “spirit of the letter.” The begetting of the Word (unlike human begetting) is ineffable, conceived in the most interior space of the Father’s heart. Augustine explains that the verb [dico] in “I speak of my works to the king” means to “put forth a word [profero],” but that God does not put forth words the way humans do. God’s speech is without beginning or end and so constitutes only one Word. In precisely this respect, Augustine argues, God’s Word is more like the script on a page than like sounds issuing forth from the human tongue, and so Augustine explains the line “My tongue is the pen of a scribe writing swiftly”:
What the tongue says, makes sound and passes away. What is written, though, remains. When therefore God speaks the Word, and the Word spoken does not make a sound and pass away but is spoken and remains, God prefers to compare this to written words [scriptis] than to sounds [sonis](En. in ps. 44.5).
Of course, the process of human writing also entails temporality, and so the psalmist adds the image of a scribe writing swiftly. We are not meant to think of manuscript copyists, says Augustine, or nimble secretaries who must write letter after letter, syllable after syllable. (We may imagine that Augustine nods at this point to the stenographers in the congregation busily scribbling his own swift words.) Since all things are comprised in God’s single, instantaneous, silent Word, nothing could be swifter. God writes that fast.
What is of interest here is the way Augustine assesses the difference between two “technologies” of the human word, spoken and written, such that the analogy of divine generation with the spoken word is less appropriate than analogy with the written word. Although Augustine does not deny the temporal, material quality of the script on a page, written words seem closer to the “real thing” than the words that sound in our ears. Brian Stock (1996: 11) adverts to this contrast when he notes that for Augustine, “the word in the text reappears in the mind of the faithful as a changeless Word, an immaterial vehicle of communication that is unlike the utterances with which we normally express ourselves.” I suggest that the privilege he gives to written words, to scripta, as permanent things, as unmoving and unchanging objects, as comprehensible within one’s field of vision reflects both a privileging of literacy and an idealization of the written biblical text that we see throughout Augustine’s own work, but especially in his early exegetical theory. Particularly for the early Augustine, the ideal interpreter of Scripture is the lone reader of the written word, not a hearer of the spoken word.
The ideal reader is the ancient grammarian, who with great diligence and power of memory grasps, as it were, the single, silent text that does not go away. And the learned reading by the expert of that apparently fixed text remains an influential model for biblical exegesis thereafter.
In their respective discussions of Augustine’s education, both Henri Marrou and Peter Brown offer images that stress the silence and sight-dominance of the grammatical tradition in which he was formed. The ancient grammarian, says Marrou, reads Vergil as one admires a string of pearls (Marrou 1956: 25), and Brown notes that the teacher explained texts as an art connoisseur pores over a painting with a magnifying glass: objects that we need to see more clearly (Brown 2000: 36). In his own study of the grammarian in Late Antiquity, Robert Kaster identifies the literary virtue of diligentia as a kind of humble scrupulosity toward a text and its author, and one index of an ideal reader is how much his diligence matches that of a text’s writer (Kaster 1988: 61–62). The fifth-century grammarian Macrobius, for instance, suggests that Vergil’s exacting research as a poet is meant to strike and inspire a corresponding diligentia in the reader, who labors to understand the poem’s hidden riches (Saturnalia 5.18.15, see Macrobius 1969: 365). This same diligentia toward the biblical text and its divine author is a virtue espoused throughout Augustine’s early treatise on hermeneutics, De Doctrina Christiana (see Augustine 1996). There Augustine begins his discussion on ambiguous scriptural signs with the image of the reader who “diligently seeks the will of God” in Scriptures (3.1.1). Such diligence, however, is closely tied to the textual proficiency of the grammarian. Augustine’s ideal reader is well trained in languages and has accurate copies of text procured by “learned diligence of correction” (3.1.1), particularly those found in the “more learned and diligent churches” (2.15.22). The acquisition of grammatical skills distinguishes the “sharp-eyed reader”(2.13.20) from the lazy, slow-witted one, who pays less careful attention to the text or context and is therefore easily deceived (2.31.48). It is precisely the lack of this diligent reading of scriptural texts that leads to heresy (3.33.46).
Above all, the ideal reader for Augustine knows the whole book. A “truly accomplished investigator of holy scriptures” (2.8.12) has read and become familiar with them all, even if she/he does not yet understand them. In one of his early written commentaries on the psalms, Augustine often refers to the learned reader as the one who is able to relate psalm verses to other narrative details from Scripture. In explaining the inscription of Psalm 3, for instance, “A psalm of David when he was in flight from the face of Abessalon, his son,” Augustine makes a sophisticated etymological move. “Abessalon,” means “a father’s peace” (En. in ps. 3.1). To some it may seem strange that “Abessalon” would mean “a father’s peace” when the same son wages war against his father. But those “who read diligently” see that David did make peace with his son, “for he mourned his death with intense grief, saying Abessalon, my son, if only I could have died in place of you!” (En. in ps. 3.1). Knowledge of the whole text, in other words, enables the reader to employ multiple exegetical strategies that reinforce the impression of a coherent, single book. Augustine begins a homily on Psalm 113 by saying that “for those who look at them diligently” there is obvious continuity between one psalm and the one that follows it (En. in ps. 113 s.2.1). This recognition of continuity suggests the ordering presence of the codex, a bound object that remains before one’s critical vision, determines the nature of exegesis, and invests the learned expositor with authority.
“WE ARE YOUR BOOKS”: DECONSTRUCTING TYPOGRAPHICAL PARADIGMS
Augustine’s authority, like that of scripture itself, is often linked to practices of reading that treat the written text as a given object. We have to work hard, therefore, to remember that in context the efficacy of the word, and thus also its authority, lies within a verbal and dialogical encounter. At the height of his career as bishop, for instance, Augustine addresses an Easter Sunday homily to a group of newly baptized “infants” about the sacraments they had received the previous night. In the course of his sermon, Augustine urges them to put aside the “silly stories” of their pagan past and to concentrate rather on scripture. Since they cannot read the Bible themselves, Augustine tells them: “We here are your books. So pay attention” (Sermon 227, see Augustine 1993: 254). Although the bishop ostensibly refers here to his own duty to read and explain letters to the illiterate, his self-identification with scripture as the one who voices it underscores a different kind of authority, which calls for a hermeneutics attending more closely to the more interactive context of the Bible’s oral exposition.13
13 In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine draws the distinction between the mode of understanding (modus inueniendi) and the mode of communicating (modus proferendi) scripture. In Book 4, he turns to the latter. When the practice of biblical transmission and interpretation is so pervasively oral, however, it is less clear that a crisp detachment of the modus inueniendi from the modus proferendi can in practice be maintained. At least for those listening to Augustine the way of discovering scripture lay deeply imbedded in the way it was put forth to them. Thus, “we are your books.”
If especially early on Augustine stresses the grammatical virtues of the educated elite of late antiquity, over his episcopacy he increasingly insists that those who are not initiated into literary culture are no less capable of understanding the Bible. The “uneducated” still engage in biblical exegesis, but not that of a lone grammarian sitting before a text in the study. The value of “exegesis” extends beyond the specialized work of a literary professional to the activity of one who intentionally participates in the prayer, worship, and reflection of the whole community and is challenged to live out one’s life within that “school” (Cavadini 2004: 73). Over time, Augustine not only lays aside the tastes and aims of ancient grammarians but he comes to adopt a skepticism toward all forms of human authority. “His logic, as it emerged with increasing conviction, was to argue against a virtuoso understanding of ascetic achievement or exegetical prowess” (Leyser 2000: 13). Not just a stylistic turn to a more simple speech, Augustine’s popularizing tendency represented his avowed theological and hermeneutical principle of charity: what matters is not the excellence of the ascetical or literate few but the well-being and mutual care of the many bound in fellowship. Scripture became a site of common, perhaps even vulgar, belonging. To an educated person of the early fifth century, for instance, the Latin of the North African Bible sounded as strange as a Rastafarian’s English would fall on the ears of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Williams 1989: 138), and yet Augustine was committed to its use in the local tradition. While discussing Psalm verses with his congregation, he would sometimes prefer a “barbarism” if it would help his fellows: “Better that the grammarians reprove us than that the people don’t understand” (En. in ps. 138.20). Augustine places himself with the community in which he persuades laterally rather than from on high (Spence 1988: 76).
Even more importantly, Augustine’s understanding of scripture and its authority evolves. In the context of his preaching, the Bible is much less apt to be conceived as an object of formal study. Rather, scripture is inhabited, and Augustine’s comment that “we are your books” suggests precisely the dynamism he thought scripture ought to have within his congregation as well. With the proliferation of the printed Bible in recent centuries, we easily forget that, for the vast majority of Augustine’s contemporaries, the scriptural text was heard, not encountered in silence, and such a fact may challenge our presumptions (O’Donnell 1999). In an essay on the presumptions behind the formal study of hermeneutics, for instance, Walter Ong argues that the very idea of interpretation as an activity distinct from other kinds of statement itself depends on the prominence of writing. In a typographical context, there is often a presumed gap between the text and the expression of its meaning—a gap crucial to Augustine’s own understanding of the distinction between the fixed authority of the biblical “text” from that of its interpreters. In an oral culture, on the other hand, there is no great functional distinction between a spoken statement and the interpretation of a statement (Ong 1995: 216). Although all words require further explanation and are thus “invitations for more words,” spoken words derive much of their meaning from the nonverbal elements not recorded in texts, such as the relationship between the speaker and hearer, the occasion, tone of voice, accompanying gestures, etc. When the medium is the text alone, something needs to be supplied for its meaning to be achieved, and the science of exegesis appears to be born of such a need (217).
Augustine’s early understanding of the diligent reader confirms this typographical view of exegesis and implies a sense of text as a manageable and fixed entity to be explained through various methods. The risks of such a conception should be obvious to a generation attuned to literary theory. To the extent that Augustine tends to reify or objectify or even idealize the text, he remains deeply vulnerable to the destabilizing challenges of deconstruction. Elizabeth Clark, for instance, has applied Derrida’s notion of supplementarity to argue convincingly that, through commentary, patristic exegetes produce significance that had been absent in the “original text” of biblical books (Clark 1999: 6–8). “By expanding the meaning of a text, commentary creates, in effect, a ‘new text’” (372). The destablization of the idea of the “original text,” the recognition that only through re-contextualization does a text yield meaning, and the growing sensitivity to intertextuality as a source of a text’s productivity might make us suspicious of any attempt, such as we seem to find in Augustine’s early exegetical theory, to uncover an authorial res.14
As pastor, though, Augustine engages scripture in a community that carries “massive oral residue” (Ong 1982: 36; Lienhard 1996: 21–22). Both in practice and in his fundamental theology, meaning is not exclusively tied to the written word. If Augustine does at times value permanent scripta over fleeting sona, in practice the sound of words does matter as the material context of communication, as what draws the community together. Precisely because spoken words pass in and out of existence through time, they constitute events that cannot easily be
14 For comparisons of Derrida and Augustine, see Chin (2002: 176–180), Schildgen (1994), and Clark (1981).
reified but find their meaning in the “sensorium … the entire sensory apparatus as an operational complex” (Ong 1967: 6). Whatever privilege he gives to silent, stable scripta, scripture is most frequently performed for late ancient Christians in contexts where Augustine sweats before a crowded basilica, where the smell issuing from the people reminds him that he’s talked too long, where he pleads with people to be quiet because his voice is about to crack or where he notes just how difficult it is for members of his community to put up with each other.15
Such contexts of active interchange between preacher and audience not only circumscribe much of Augustine’s interpretive work but also highlight his conception of scripture as fundamentally dialogical. Derrida’s deconstruction underlines the limits of a traditional view of text as a sign where meaning is immediately present, and in doing so he argues for the absence of logos or “voice” of the text (Derrida 1976: 70). In the case of Augustine’s activity, however, where his own “voice” carries the text and where he urges the congregation to find their own voice in the text (often because they sang portions of “the text” together), the “deconstruction of presence” is far less total. Without claiming a phonocentrism that insists on the spoken word as more original than the written word, attention to the actual dynamics of Augustine’s spoken sermons retrieve a sense of meaning as indeed negotiated or produced without conceding that such negotiation entails the complete absence of the Word (Ong 1995: 224). The Word for Augustine is the Word-Made-Flesh, and the biblical revelation of that Word occurs in highly interactive, interpersonal space inhabited by creatures of flesh and blood in a communal setting. There the “voice” is heard. What later literary theory will call “intertextuality” reflects the processes both of Augustine’s homiletic practice and his fundamental theology. If both biblical texts and the exegetical writings of patristic and rabbinical exegetes absorb into themselves tissues of quotations that challenge the idea of any text’s singular “originality” and monologic unity, the decisively communal contexts from which such writings frequently emerged may help us explain why. Because oral patterns of thought are “essentially interweavings” manifested in repetitive and formulaic expressions common to a culture that is not principally literate, they will naturally bear marks of dialogical consciousness (Ong 1995: 222). Thus, the highly somatic, situational, and interactive context of the basilica in Hippo or Carthage informs Augustine’s practice of
15 On “embodied exegesis,” see McCarthy (2005: 27–30). The “performative” context of Augustine’s exegesis is well discussed in Young (1997: 265–284).
biblical interpretation, which over the course of his episcopal career becomes less and less an exercise in reading signs in the text, and more and more a mode of action resisting closure. It is not just that textual exegesis and homiletics involve different processes; more concretely, Augustine’s very understanding of scripture was effectively reconfigured by his preaching to his congregation.
THE PSALMS AS A PLACE OF ENCOUNTER
Scholars have long noted the centrality of the psalms in the mind of Augustine. Not only do they provide him with images and expressions that he appropriates everywhere in his prayer and preaching, but his engagement with the psalms shapes, at a fundamental level, his theology. From the first lines of the Confessions, words of the psalms provide Augustine with his true voice, and the whole narrative can be read as if it were an “amplified Psalter” (Fiedrowicz 1997: 47). Throughout his work, the psalms offer a paradigm for a kind of mutual disclosure of God to humanity and humanity to God. Not only do they embody the “total mystery of all scriptures” (En. in ps. 79.1), but very much in contrast to the literature of the educational elite, Augustine notes how the psalms themselves meet all levels of society. So, in a sermon on Psalm
103:11 (“All beasts of the wood shall drink”), Augustine comments that, unlike the powerful torrents of Cicero or Plato or any great writer whose words might frighten away timid creatures, the psalms are such that both great and little animals, ascetics and non-ascetics, the learned and the illiterate can drink. “Who hears the sound of a psalm and says, ‘This is too much for me?’ Take the present psalm, for instance: it surely conceals mysteries … but so sweet are they that even children love to listen. The unskilled approach to drink, and thus satisfied burst into psalmody” (En. in ps. 103 (3).4).16
Throughout his sermons on the psalms, Augustine’s early understanding of the ideal reader, who through learned diligence inquires into the signs confronted in a text, increasingly yields to the congregant who simply recognizes his or her own voice in the psalms that he or she heard and spoke. Although Augustine will interpret those signs, he conceives a psalm not as a distinct object but as a reflection of the community: “Listen to it as if you were listening to yourselves. Listen as if you were watching your own reflection in the mirror of scriptures” (En. in ps. 123.3). Most of Augustine’s effort in his preaching on the psalms
16 On the cultural registers of Augustine’s preaching, see Harrison (2000) and Cavadini (2004).
goes into forging an identity between the verses and members of his congregation in a way that emerges from their common prayer. His introduction to his commentary on Psalm 41 is characteristic. He asks his congregants: “Who is speaking this psalm? If we wish, we are” (En. in ps. 41.1). “Let us see ourselves here,” he says as he begins to expound Psalm 45. “Look if the things that follow, that is, what the context of this psalm contains, applies to us” (En. in ps. 45.1). The “meaning” of the psalms is located, not in the conceptual values of its words, but in the interpersonal negotiation they embody and the psychic healing they effect. “Every malady of the soul finds its medicine in the scriptures. Any of us who suffers … does well to drink a potion from this psalm … the Lord himself has mixed the dose for you” (En. in ps. 36 s.1.3). As the desert fathers conveyed the meaning of scriptures through conversation that would transform their interlocutors (Burton-Christie 1993: 108–111), so by his sermons Augustine draws his hearers into the rhythms of the psalms. Within this context, not only does his own authority function very differently but so does that of scripture itself.
The Enarrationes in psalmos
Augustine’s Enarrationes in psalmos are unique in late ancient Christianity in many respects. In this great opus, perhaps the richest expression of his spirituality, Augustine has included commentaries on all 150 psalms. These commentaries fall into three types. The first type, represented by what we know as En. in ps. 1–32, is generally regarded by scholars as having been written between 392 and 395, shortly after he was ordained as a presbyter of Hippo.17 Written by himself or dictated to a secretary, these commentaries go quickly through psalms line by line and establish the “meaning” of each verse. The second type, comprising the vast majority of the Enarrationes, are transcriptions of homilies given roughly during the first half of his episcopal career, ca. 395–415. They clearly bear the marks of a live performance, and in eight cases, Augustine went back to preach on psalms about which he had previously written (i.e. on Psalms 18, 21, 25, 26, 29, 30, 31, and 32). The third type includes fifteen expansive commentaries dictated from 415 and culminates in the vast commentary on Psalm 118. These final Enarrationes not only reflect certain pressure from his fellow bishops to offer explanations of all the psalms but also suggest Augustine’s own desire to do so. Moreover, in the prologue to En. in ps.
17 The dating of the Enarrationes is highly problematic, though most scholars concede Psalm 1–32 are early. See Fiedrowicz (1997: 430–439).
118 Augustine shows that he understands his set of commentaries, so disparate and extending over such an expanse of time, as forming one, unified work on the “book [codex]” known in church custom as the “Psalter.”18
If Augustine suggests that he is commenting on a “book,” however, few in the church would ever have “read” it as such, and it has recently been suggested that if someone now wants to get a sense of what it was like to see and hear Augustine preaching in church week after week, the Enarrationes in psalmos present themselves as the “best place to listen” (O’Donnell 2005: 128–129). Because of the rise of monasticism, commentaries on the psalms proliferated in the fourth and fifth centuries, but most frequently they were written for ascetic communities, not delivered as popular sermons. Unlike Athanasius, for instance, who found in the psalms an occasion for the transformation of the individual, ascetic self (Kolbet 2006), for Augustine the meaning of the psalms emerges from the community as a whole. What is even more “fundamentally new” about Augustine’s treatment of the psalms, however, is his theological understanding of them (Rondeau 1982–1985: 1.369). For Augustine, the psalms are the “voice of the whole Christ,” which actualize the open exchange between God and the church. The dynamics implicit in such a theology quickly lead us far beyond an understanding of exegesis as uncovering the discrete reference behind the biblical signs. As Augustine’s own understanding of the Incarnation deepens, the biblical sign itself does not so much point to as it embodies the signifying reality (Cameron 1999a: 80). Those who perform the “text,” in other words, become its living subject. Yet, the subject is reconstituted in the communal inquiry reflected in his sermons. Augustine never renounces his position as bishop, of course, but he minimizes it as biblical inquiry becomes a collaborative venture. “Although we are teachers to you from this elevated position, we are also your fellow students with you under that one teacher” (En. in ps. 126.3). “We all listen to that one from whom we can equally learn. In his school all of us are fellow students” (En. in ps. 34.1). This joint search in common is not just an effect of the sermonic context but reflects what he understands to be the very dynamic of the psalms themselves.
18 En. in ps. 118, prologue. See Letter 169.1 to Evodius (415): “I have also dictated the explanation of three psalms in volumes of no small size, Psalms Sixty-Seven, Seventy-One, and Seventy-Seven. The others, which I have not yet dictated or commented on, are urgently awaited and demanded of us” (Augustine 2005: 107).
Opening the Scope of Reference: Written and Spoken Words
For eight psalms, we have one commentary written during his first years as a priest, while Augustine was establishing a monastic community, and one commentary preached later in his episcopal career. A brief comparison reveals how “the fixing of the holy word in writing always carries with it potential threats to the original spontaneity and living quality of the scriptural text” (Graham 1987: 59–60). Augustine’s written commentaries on the first 32 psalms suggest that discovering the secret of the psalms is largely a matter of securing the proper reference for each verse. Although some references may be harder to secure than others, the semantic horizon for Augustine appears to be determined by a rather straightforward correspondence between the word as biblical sign [signum] and the thing [res] to which it points. So, for instance, Augustine’s first (written) exposition of Psalm 18 begins with the standard explanation of the title, “To the end, a psalm of David himself,” as referring to Christ, the “end of the law.” Then, line by line, Augustine explains what each verse means. “The heavens proclaim God’s glory” (Ps. 18 : 2) refers to the evangelists’ preaching. “Day speaks the message to day” (Ps. 18 : 2a) refers to spiritual persons capable of receiving the full unchangeable wisdom of God, but “night imparts knowledge to night” (Ps. 18 : 2b) refers to those who are carnal and only come to knowledge of God through faith. “No speech, no utterance goes unheard” (Ps. 18 : 4) shows the gospel is spoken in every language. By employing intertextual strategies, Augustine explains psalm verses by reference to other passages, both from the Hebrew Bible and from the New Testament. Thus, the law in verse 8 (“The Lord’s law is undefiled, and converts the soul”) is explained as the “Lord himself” who came to fulfill the law not to dismantle it (Matt.
5 : 17), and the law is undefiled because “he committed no sin, nor was deceit found on his lips” (Isa. 53:9; 1 Pet. 2:22).
The technique we see in En. in ps. 18(1) is very typical of Augustine’s early, written commentaries, and in many respects Augustine’s second exposition of Psalm 18, preached some fifteen to twenty years later, shows continuity with his first. In the case of En. in ps. 18(2), the heavens still refer to the apostles, the day speaking the message to day still refers to saints telling saints. But the ecclesial context radically alters the semantic horizon of his exposition and stresses the relational underpinning of the psalm. Augustine immediately emphasizes how crucial it is that his congregation has just voiced the lines themselves, and such “voicing” frames its meaning. Augustine begins by noting that his congregation has just been singing, not the first verse but a verse well into the psalm (Ps. 18 : 13–14). “Having begged the Lord to cleanse us from our secret sins and to spare his servants from the sins of others, we should understand what this means” (En. in ps. 18(2).1). Such a prayer on the lips of those who sing it reconfigures the act of exegesis by making the congregation in worship the psalm’s point of reference. Augustine still stresses what each verse signifies, but he insists that its significance is crucially circumscribed by their singing together consona voce. “What [people] sing is all a piece with their minds and hearts” (En. in ps. 18(2).1). Whereas his earlier exegesis secured the proper references of the biblical signs, the purpose of Augustine’ssermonis to effecta harmony between the voice and mind that goes far beyond discovering the hidden meaning of the text. “For blackbirds and parrots and crows and magpies and other species are sometimes taught by people to give voice to words they do not understand; but God has willed to grant human beings the ability to sing with understanding [cantare scientier]” (En. in ps. 18(2).1, trans. Boulding).
For Augustine’s congregation to sing with scientia, however, is not a matter of comprehending the arcane knowledge of the learned bishop. Rather, it is to cultivate with him an ethos of inquiry into scriptural words that open out into a variety of interpretations. “Day speaks to day” may refer to Jesus’ teaching being passed from one generation to the next, and if that interpretation satisfies anyone, well and good. But Augustine indicates “you will hear a lot more,” as he offers other possibilities of meaning and finally stops “because our time is limited.” Augustine thus embodies scripture’s resistance to closure. The verse, “their words go forth to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 18 : 4) again points to the present congregation as implicated in the word, “for this reason we ourselves are speaking about it here.” (En. in ps. 18(2).5).19
The Healing of Emotions and Spiritual Profit
The understanding of scripture not only enlightens but also heals. Central to Augustine’s preaching on the psalm is a concern to assist his congregation to find psychic therapy by making the words of the psalms their own. Expressing the whole range of human emotions (fear, anger, sadness, and joy), the psalms intend to heal their listener. At the beginning of his sermon on Psalm 93, for instance, Augustine notes that the psalm offers a remedy both for silent thoughts and those that burst out into words and deeds, provided only that those who sing
19 What earns Augustine’s condemnation is the Donatists’ imposition of limits on the proliferating word and the implicit lack of charity and will to exclude: “Do you wish contentiously to hang on to a part, when you are able to hold the whole harmoniously?” (En. in ps. 18 (2).5).
them wish to be cured: “Let them pay attention, then, and find healing.” Even if there are no wounds to be found in his congregation, though, those who listen to the instruction of the psalms “may be trained to heal others” (En. in ps. 93.2). Toward the end of the lengthy sermon, he stresses the shift from early verses expressing despair to later verses expressing hope.
Look how the psalms corrects itself now, and allow yourself to be corrected with it. It was to that end that the psalm adopted your complaint. What did you say? How long will sinners gloat, O Lord, how long? (vs. 3). The psalm took on your words, so now you take on the words of the psalm. And what does the psalm say? The Lord has become a refuge for me (vs. 22) (En. in ps. 93.27, trans. Boulding).
Augustine uses his own authority as the preacher to align his congregation to the therapeutic efficacy of the psalms.
Such concern for healing trumps his erudition. Although early in his career, for instance, he notes the importance of knowing some natural history for the purpose of understanding obscure figures of the Bible, later he disavows the consequence of such science. In De Doctrina Christiana he writes that “Just as a knowledge of the nature of serpents illuminates the many similitudes which Scripture frequently makes with that animal, an ignorance of many other animals which are also used for comparisons is a great impediment to understanding” (2.16.23). When he comes to explanations in his sermons, however, he treats such learning very lightly. Two examples will suffice.
First, on Psalm 57 : 5–6(“Their indignation is like that of a serpent. Like that of a deaf asp which, closing its ears, will not hearken to the voice of charmers and to the medicine medicated by the wise man”). Augustine explains that the verse refers to those who simply refuse to listen to the truth. The simile, he notes, is not made in vain. “We hear from those who have done research,” that when an asp is called forth by a Marsian snake-charmer from its dark cavern into the light, it presses one ear against the ground and stops up the other with its tail. What is the significance of this, you ask? The asp’s tail signifies past things which are better to leave behind, as the fleshpots of Egypt; the asp’s pressing its ear to the ground signifies its pleasure in present affairs. Salvation comes, Augustine avers, by looking to what lies ahead, in opening up one’s ears to the Word of God, in being charmed by Christ, our wise medicine man (En. in ps. 57.7). Second, on Psalm
102:5 (“Your youth shall be renewed like an eagle’s”) Augustine argues that the verse intimates a sort of resurrection. Experts say that when old age overpowers an eagle its beak grows so long that the eagle cannot open its mouth to take food. So to restore its former ability to eat, the eagle dashes the upper lip of its beak against a rock. Thus “it comes to its food and everything is restored.” As a young eagle again, a sort of resurrection takes place. We too, for our own part, will rise again when we break off the old man in us (Adam) against the Rock, who is Christ (En. in ps. 102.9).
There is good evidence that both explanations of these similes were great crowd pleasers. In spite of his earlier argument in De Doctrina Christiana for the usefulness of natural history, Augustine suggests that he does not take this information very seriously. In another sermon, delivered at roughly the same time and place, Augustine recalls these two similes, together with their explanation, and adverts to the praise he receives for his preaching. He warns, however, that he cannot be sure whether what is said of the serpent and eagle is true. Nevertheless, “let us do whatever it signifies and not toil to discover how far that is true.”
If any comparisons have been made for you, if you have found them in Scriptures, believe, but if you have not found them spoken of except by report, do not believe them very much. The thing may be so, it may not. But do profit from it; let the comparison strengthen you for your salvation. You don’t want to profit through this comparison? Fine, then draw profit from another one, just so long as you profit (En. in ps. 66.10).
Thus Augustine, by this point in his career, places little stock in the grammarian’s specialized techniques but seeks his people’s spiritual profit as the end of both scripture’s authority and, consequently, his own.
Liturgical Setting: The Place of Enacting Scripture
Although few of the sermons in the Enarrationes were given at a Eucharistic celebration (Fiedrowicz 1997: 30), Augustine’s repeated reminder that the words of the psalms were first on the mouth of the congregation during the service highlights the ritual setting of his biblical exposition. “Here the rhythms of education moved to the rhythms of the liturgy itself” (Harmless 1995: 235).20 In many of his preached
20 For the importance of the liturgy as the place of scripture’s enactment, especially in a catechetical and Eucharistic context, see Harmless (1995: 316–324) (“Be what you see; Receive what you are”).
commentaries, Augustine makes some reference to the psalm’s liturgical enactment, either because the congregation has taken part in responsorial singing or because they have heard other readings in conjunction with the psalm or because they have gathered for the Feast of a martyr (perhaps with a reading of the acts of martyrs) or because it is Holy Week.21 Augustine presents the liturgy, though, truly as the “work of the people,” and he repeatedly emphasizes their joint task: “Proclaiming the word of truth is hard work, and so is listening to it” (En. in ps. 32
(2) s.2.9). Noting that the word of God is the bread of life, Augustine urges his congregation to “sweat away at listening to it, rather than die of fasting from it” (En. in ps. 32(2) s.2.9). Augustine’s constant consciousness of time, in addition to the physical and mental demands of paying attention, underline the concrete, interpersonal situation wherein the Bible is received and exposed.22 But it is particularly in the liturgy that Augustine believes the word of scripture is fulfilled, because the ancient prophecies are enacted in the lives, habits, dispositions, and beliefs of the hearers.
In the sermon he delivers on Psalm 21 during Holy Week, for instance, Augustine notes how large the crowd is, “and those who don’t usually come have come” (En. in ps. 21(2).5). As the words Jesus recited from the cross, this psalm has special significance. “The Lord’s passion happened only once. Yet to ensure that we do not forget what was done once, it is re-enacted every year in our liturgical commemoration of it.” Christ does not die every Good Friday, but “the yearly remembrance in a sense makes present what took place in time past.” Accordingly, Augustine’s congregation is to lament with the psalm, for “it is a time for groaning, a time for weeping” (En. in ps. 21(2).1, trans. Boulding). Even more, though, the participation of the assembly in the psalm verse that Jesus himself voiced underscores how deeply God participates in the life of humanity. It makes no sense, Augustine avers, for the Word of God per se to say My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Rather, on the cross the incarnate Word was speaking for the body of believers within the church. “Why did he say My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? unless he was somehow trying to catch our attention, to make us understand, ‘This psalm is written about me?’” (En. in ps. 21(2).3, trans. Boulding).
21 On references to responsorial singing in the preached counterparts, see En. in ps. 18(2).13; 25 (2).5; 29(2).1; 32(2) s.1.4; on the other readings, 21(2).2; 25(2).1-4; on martyrs’ feasts, 32(2) s.2.9; on Holy Week 21(2).1.
22 On consciousness of time and other concrete reflections of place, see En. in ps. 18(2).1, 25 (2).5, 19, 30(2) s. 1.16; 30(2) s. 2.14, 31(2).8, 12, 13; 32(2) s. 2.1, 16, 29.
Augustine preaches this sermon, however, at the height of his anti-Donatist polemic, and perhaps even at the same time as a rival service was being held in the Donatist basilica (“It is amazing, brothers and sisters, to think that this psalm is also being sung today by the Donatists”). The psalm’s meaning becomes clear only in light of what is happening at that very moment in the dueling churches. A Catholic should weep through this psalm because Christ is again being mocked openly by those who “merely offer him Africa,” who deny that “the fragrance of Christ [is] in every place” but insist that “Africa alone smells good, the rest of the world stinks” (En. in ps. 21(2).2). Later in his sermon Augustine imagines a contest between himself and a Donatist. So, on verse 26 (“My praise is for you. In the great assembly I will confess you”), Augustine challenges an imaginary Donatist interlocutor to explain how such a verse does not prophesy the wider church. “You a Donatist, say that he has confined himself to one remote region. And they still have the audacity to pretend ‘Our church is the great assembly too.’ What, Bagai and Thamugadi?” (En. in ps. 21(2).26, trans. Boulding). We can imagine his congregation chuckling at the reference to this bumpkin backcountry stronghold of the Donatists.
In an interesting section of Augustine’s sermon, where the authority of the text appears both as a fixed object and as an appeal to regard the church as extending beyond the ritually pure North Africans, he urges his interlocutor, “Concentrate on the psalm; read the psalm.” Someone will reply: “You idiot, why are you asking. You are holding the text.” Thus Augustine looks down at his book: “See, there you have it: all the ends of the earth will be reminded and bought.” If the Donatists have not struck out certain verses from their text, they seem either to be deaf or just not hear the words about “all the ends of the world” (En. in ps. 21(2).29). To the presumed boast of the Donatists that they saved scriptures from being burnt, Augustine plays on the Latin verb trado [“hand over”] to suggest that they saved the text but handed over the message by refusing to hear and obey it. The text itself is worthless: what counts is the obligation one has when it is heard: “Whose hand cast it into flame—that of the person who believes, and observes it, or that of one who deplores the fact that there is something to be read? I am not interested in who kept it safe.” The Bible is like a will left by God, an object whose efficacy lies in a people’s gathering to hear and enact it. Augustine stresses the dramatic reading of the will:
Once [the will] is brought out in public everyone falls silent, so that
the document may be opened and read aloud. The judge listens
intently, the advocates are silent, the criers keep order, the whole group is on tenterhooks waiting for the words of the deceased to be
read, the words of someone lifeless in the grave (21(2).30, trans.
Augustine asserts that in the case of the psalms, the divine author still lives. Yet the will remains a dead letter until it is read and people recognize that it refers to them. “Open the will, and read on the first page of the same psalter.”There everyone will hear the verse, The Lord said to me, You are my Son, today I have begotten you. Augustine asks who is speaking. “It is …the Father addressing his Son. And what does he say to his Son? Ask of me, and I will give you the nations as your heritage, and the ends of the earth for all your possession”(Ps. 2:7–8). The proclamation of such a word in the context of Augustine’s church, conceived theologically as the universal ecclesia, not limited to Africa, is for Augustine an enactment of its truth.
Much of what we hear in Augustine’s preached expositions of the psalms reflects the often tedious, often polemical, often undignified work of Christian worship. Yet Augustine increasingly understands that give-and-take as part of the mutual labor of inquiry among believers. Central to his understanding of Christian worship is a reciprocal relationship between God, who addresses his people in the Bible, and the community of faith, who speaks in return. In one of his longest sermons on a psalm, Augustine comments on the verse: “You, O Lord, are kind and patient.”“I think I can see,”he says, “that he described God as patient because he puts up with all this from us, and still waits hopefully for a prayer from us so that he may make us perfect”(En. in ps. 85.5). In Augustine’s conception of the psalms, the divine word constitutes a kind of ongoing conversation that ennobles and transforms the partner over time. The real effect of the exegesis, as well as the authority of scripture itself, should be reflected in the lives of those who sing.
Historically, the power later generations attribute to Augustine differs considerably from that wielded among those who first heard him in his North African basilica. For us Augustine’s authority derives principally from the status granted to his extensive writings; for those in his congregation it largely came through the very local practice of his preaching. Shortly after Augustine’s episcopal ordination in 395, for instance, Paulinus of Nola in Southern Italy congratulates the North African churches that they will now be able to hear “heavenly words” from the mouth of the newly consecrated bishop. His voice is the “trumpet of the Lord” striking the ear so forcefully that the Word of God will surely break through the hardened soil of the hearer and take root (Paulinus of Nola 1951: 118–119). After his death in 430, Augustine’s ancient biographer Possidius wistfully remarks that those who actually heard him speak in church and were familiar with his manner of conversation could draw greater profit than those who merely read his words (Possidius 1952: 31.9). Well into the twentieth century his major biographers have lamented that the bare text of Augustine’s sermons, reconstructed from the notes of stenographers in his congregation, do not give us even “an approximate idea of the reality” (Van der Meer 1961: 412).23 In this article I have extended that claim and argued that, among the casualties of our inability to hear his voice, we have lost access to a more limited yet far more typical exercise of authority by Augustine, tied to his actual practice as a preacher and early fifth-century bishop rather than to his posthumous influence as writer and venerable “Church Father.”
Theoretically, an amplified picture of Augustine’s practice affirms and reinforces more differentiated analyses of religious power. Rather than fixating solely on Augustine’s charisma or ability to coerce others with the wide arsenal available to dominant classes, greater attention to context reveals more clearly how power inheres within social relationships and symbolic practices.24 Sitting on the episcopal cathedra with a holy book on his knees, Augustine’s preaching to his congregation clearly invested him with significant clout, but it was a power arising within a network of intricate relations extremely difficult for us to reconstitute and imagine. We can more easily assess, by contrast, Augustine’s posthumous influence, which depends almost entirely on the promulgation of his writings within the rising textual culture of late antiquity and the early middle ages (O’Donnell 1991: 20).25 As Augustine’s authority as a writer increases, the voices of people with
23 For other biographers’ references to Augustine’s oratorical stardom, see O’Donnell (2005: 5), Lancel (2002: 250), Brown (2000: 248–249), and Bonner (1986: 46, 119). On the power of rhetoric in late antiquity, Brown (1992).
24 For a particularly helpful application of various theories of power to the “power of ritualization,” see Bell (1992: 197–204).
25 By the twelfth century, for instance, Augustine’s Enarrationes in psalmos had been copied for monasteries throughout Western Europe, and today we possess well over 350 manuscripts of the whole work or parts of the work (Wilmart 1931). Ironically, what had made Augustine’s work so unique among patristic commentaries on the Psalms—that the vast majority had been delivered to large congregations rather than written for ascetic elites—was lost in the return to monastic enclosure. Rebillard (2000) suggests that Augustine himself, somewhat late in his career, starts to cite texts of previous patristic writers as authorities.
whom he spoke grew faint, and his own texts invited less dialogue the more eminent they became. Yet relations of power do not arrive exclusively from the top down but from the bottom up as well (Bell 1992: 200). A heightened awareness of context urges religious scholars to listen more carefully to how such movements may operate in Augustine’s own environment even as it invites us to consider, self-critically, how our own practices shape our acceptance or revilement of his authority.
A more complicated picture of how authority operates in Augustine, finally, may have far-reaching theological consequences. I have argued that, for Augustine, both his own and (more importantly) biblical authority were grounded in dialectical processes that emphasized a shared condition, not just between himself and his hearers, but between God and humanity. Revelation lay somewhere between the fixity of the written word and its quality as appeal, as a site of dialogue with the congregation that voiced the word. How a sacred text and its expositors function within a religious tradition is a question that extends well past controversies of the Reformation and into other communities besides Christian ones.26 It even touches, most pointedly, anguished debates of our own time, such as the nature of marriage and the origins of the world. Study of Augustine’s biblical interpretation and practice of authority will hardly yield direct answers to these problems. His own complexity may, however, invite deeper engagement and resistance to multiple—and quite deadly—forms of reification.
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