Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

Augustine on the Primacy and Manifold Unity of Scripture

At the beginning of his sermon on Psalm 46 (47), Augustine,1 alluding to the opening of the Letter to the Hebrews, affirms the primacy, multiplicity, and unity of Holy Scripture. There is one meaning in the Bible, one res no matter where one finds oneself in the canon, and yet there are various modes or manners of speaking. Why? Because we are proud and inattentive creatures: the word Augustine uses to describe the condition is fastidium, which I have translated as “snootiness.” Thus even Scripture’s manifold witness is, in part, a condescension to our debility.

But this manifold witness has a positive side as well: it allows the hearers of Scripture the opportunity to revisit the familiar res presented in a surprising or startling way. This is an experience we have all had, and is often referred to by the idiom of “seeing [something] in a new light.” Augustine grips the attention of his readers by the bovine metaphor he uses to describe this process of listening-cum-recollection-cum-new-understanding: we chew and we chew again. Hence he lays great stress on Christians both as hearers and as recollectors, as those who listen and those who meditate.

Because of the unity of Scripture and its accessibility to the faithful, then, Augustine must put himself on the same level as his hearers–a striking thing for our imagined bemitred (to use a neologism) Bishop of Hippo to do. In preaching, he is in one sense only telling his flock what they already know. But he is presenting it, he hopes, with charm (suavitas), and so is engaged in the same kind of activity as discussed above regarding Scripture itself: he is helping his people to see it in a new light. His preaching, far from a rote delivery of information or a power-play of auctoritas, is intended to facilitate the communion of God’s people with their Lord, such that, even after the sermon is over, God’s people continue to chew over and over again (ruminare) what he has to say to them in his Word.

Text and Translation

Dominus Deus noster fidem in qua vivimus, et ex qua vivimus, per Libros sanctos, Scripturas sanctas multipliciter nobis varieque diffudit; sacramenta quidem verborum varians, fidem tamen unam commendans. Una enim eademque res ideo multis modis dicitur, ut modo ipso dicendi propter fastidium varietur, sed propter concordiam una teneatur. Itaque in hoc psalmo quem cantatum audivimus, cui cantando respondimus, ea sumus dicturi quae nostis: et tamen fortassis aliquam, adiuvante et donante Domino, suavitatem allaturi sumus vobis, quando ea quae alibi et alibi noveratis, etiam commoniti ruminatis. Nam et ipsa ruminatione, in qua significat Deus munda animalia, hoc voluit insinuare, quia omnis homo quod audit sic debet in cor mittere, ut non piger sit postea inde cogitare: ut quando audit, sit similis manducanti; cum autem audita in memoriam revocat, et cogitatione dulcissima recolit, fiat similis ruminanti. Alio ergo modo eadem dicuntur, et faciunt nos dulciter cogitare quae novimus, et eadem ipsa libenter audire; quia modus dicendi variatur, et res antiqua ipso modo dicendi renovatur.

The Lord our God has poured out for us the faith in which we live, and from which we live, through the Holy Books, the Holy Scriptures, in manifold and various ways, varying, it is true, the mysteries of the words [sacramenta verborum], but commending one faith. For one and the same thing is said in many ways for the following reason, so that there may be variation in the manner of speaking itself on account of [the reader’s] snootiness, but on account of harmony one thing may be preserved. And therefore in this Psalm that we have heard sung, to which we responded by singing, I am going to say those things that you know; and nevertheless I will perhaps bring you something pleasant, with God helping and granting it, when, even reminded of those things that you knew from one place or another, you chew them over again. For even by that very “chewing over again,” in which God signifies that animals are clean, God wished to insinuate this: that every man ought to put into his heart what he hears in such a way that he be not sluggish to think on it at a later time, in order that, when he hears, he may be like one chewing, but when he recalls to memory the things he has heard, and goes over them again with the sweetest thinking, he may be like one chewing over again. Therefore the same things are said in different ways, and they make to to think sweetly about the things that we know, and gladly to hear these very same things: because the manner of speaking, and the ancient matter [res] is renewed in the very manner of speaking.2

  1. From this one brief passage, the reader already gets a sense of what an arresting preacher Augustine must have been.
  2. The translation is my own. You may see the Latin text here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.