Augustine’s City of God, IX: Understanding Augustine’s Hermeneutic

Part of Augustine’s ecclesiological hermeneutic which is developed more fully in the City of God is already a well-established hermeneutic in the early church: The Christological, Ecclesiological, and Spiritual reading of Scripture. However, Augustine provides the first arguable systematic account of this ecclesiological-allegorical hermeneutical lens especially from within the confines of covenant theology. While there are earlier covenant expositions in the writings of St. Irenaeus and St. Cyprian in the Latin tradition, and while there are earlier “allegorical” readings throughout the church fathers, especially Origen, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa, these writings are often limited and scattered or, with Origen’s case, came under suspect.

The Old Prefigures the New and the New Reveals the Old

Therefore, it is Augustine’s systematic treatment of covenant and ecclesiology in the City of God which formally codifies this hermeneutical practice to the Church. Augustine famously states in the City of God that the Old Testament prefigures the New and the New Testament reveals the Old, “All things proclaim newness, and the new covenant is shadowed forth in the old. For what does the term old covenant imply but the concealing of the new? And what does the term new covenant imply but the revealing of the old?”[i] The proper interpretation of Scripture is from this perspective; the Old Testament is filled with “types” or prefigurations of Christ, the Sacraments, and the Church and this is fully revealed in the revealing of the hidden God through the incarnation of Christ.

The sixteenth and seventeenth books make manifest Augustine’s Christological hermeneutic just as much as the city of God through the Scripture reveals the ecclesiological hermeneutic. However, as it relates to the coming of the Messiah, Augustine articulates the view that all the promises and prophesies of the Old Testament are, obviously, about Christ and His coming and His Church. Hannah’s Song, for instance, Augustine reads as a prefiguration of Grace and Christ’s Coming and Salvation.[ii] The prophesies of the end of the House of Eli and the dissolution of the Aaronic Priesthood whose purpose will be fulfilled by Christ is about the fulfillment of the priestly duties and roles by Christ rather than carnal humans.[iii] For Christians, this also reveals how the Law, Aaronic Priesthood, and Levitical Order does not bring forth salvation.

In a dazzling reading of select Psalms, Psalm 89, 45, 110, 22, 3, 41, 15, and 68 (in that order through City of God), Augustine highlights to his reader how the Psalms are about Christ, His Passion, Atonement, and Resurrection.[iv] How is this known to Christians? Through the incarnation and life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Again, Christ reveals the Old Testament. This is why, for instance, in Catholic liturgy, a “responsorial” or “chanted” Psalm is included in the Liturgy—because it’s all about Christ.

Furthermore, as Augustine shows through the history of the promises of the Patriarchs, to the Prophets, to the coming Advent of Christ, the development of prophecy in the Old Testament gets closer and closer to revealing the Son of God in the flesh. Christ’s incarnation makes manifestly visible all that was “hidden” in the Old Testament prophecies and promises. For instance, the first promise of the coming Messiah is given unto Eve in Genesis 3:15 that from her seed will come the hero to trample over the Serpent’s Head. This is obviously a prophecy about the coming of Christ. The promise given unto Abraham that from his seed all nations will be blessed and find favor in the eyes of God is also a prophecy about the coming of Christ. The promise to David that from his line will be an eternal king and kingdom is also a prophecy about Christ. The prophets, Psalms, and wisdom books which reveal this messiah to be a suffering servant, undergo punishment and death, and will rise from the dead (sleep to wake in the Psalms) is about Christ. What do we see as the revelation of Christ comes closer? The messianic prophecies become clearer and clearer!

The seed of the woman who will crush the head of the Serpent is the same seed of Abraham whom all nations will proclaim and bow to; the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the Serpent is the same seed of David who will be a king; the seed of the woman who will crush the head of the Serpent is the suffering servant of Isaiah, the Psalms, and Wisdom (yes, Augustine and the early church have the proper canon which includes the Deuterocanonical books which make all this even clearer), etc. Thus, as the movement to the coming incarnation approaches, we see in the prophesies and promises a development that prefigures this in the very descriptions of that promised Messiah. In Genesis the promises are vague and still very mysterious. In the age of the prophets, however, it slowly becomes more visible and concrete. Finally, the incarnation of Christ, His life, death, and resurrection, consummates all the promises; Christ’s earthly life makes visible for those who have faith the realization of all the Old Testament promises.

[i] See City of God, 16.26.

[ii] Ibid., 17.4.

[iii] Ibid., 17.5.

[iv] Ibid., 17.9-18.


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