God’s Word and God’s world

In On Christian Doctrine III.10.14, St. Augustine has famously told us that “Whatever there is in the word of God that cannot, when taken literally, be referred either to purity of life or soundness of doctrine, you may set down as figurative.” A bit later he continues, “Those things, again, whether only sayings or whether actual deeds, which appear to the inexperienced to be sinful, and which are ascribed to God, or to men whose holiness is put before us as an example, are wholly figurative, and the hidden kernel of meaning they contain is to be picked out as food for the nourishment of charity” (III.12.18).

Intriguingly, the Islamic philosopher Averroes, living some seven centuries after St. Augustine, thinks quite the same regarding apparent contradictions between things which philosophical reason demonstrates and things which the Qur’an teaches: “whenever demonstration leads to something differing from the apparent sense of the Law,| that apparent sense admits of interpretation according to the rule of interpretation in Arabic” – that is, figurative interpretation.:”(Averroes, The Book of the Decisive Treatise Determining the Connection Between the Law and Wisdom, trans. Charles E. Butterworth [Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2001], pg. 9.)”: By this means the absurdity of imagining that the Law of God and the things created by God to bear witness of Himself could contradict each other is staved off:

Indeed, we say that whenever the apparent sense of a pronouncement about something in the Law differs from what demonstration leads to, if the Law is considered and all of its parts scrutinized, there will invariably be found in the utterances of the Law something whose apparent sense bears witness, or comes close to bearing witness, to that interpretation.”:”(Ibid., pp. 9-10.)”:

I’m not making any point here other than to note one more feature common to the monotheistic religions when they seriously engage the thought of unbelievers. Not only do the monotheistic religions run up against many of the same problems of synthesis, but they often arrive at similar solutions which involve creative exegesis of their respective Scriptures in dialogue with what their rational inquiries into the nature and structure of the world of experience tell them.

Are they, then, playing fast and loose with their respective Scriptures, subordinating those Scriptures to “autonomous” human speculation? I don’t think so. Rather, I think they are paying the highest compliment to their Scriptures by saying that their Scriptures are not irrational fantasies that can only be believed by those willing to commit intellectual suicide. They are demonstrating their fervent confidence in the basic rationality of God’s communication to His rational creatures. They are claiming that God’s creation is good, that the gifts God gave to men remain despite man’s sin, and that it is the duty of men to search out and explain, insofar as they are able, the profoundly unified connections of God’s Word with God’s world.

In other words, revelation and reason are not to be thought of as enemies, but as friends.


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