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from issue no. 09 - 2008

“The main and most necessary thing is to pray for understanding”

Prayer and an interpretation in the light of the Apostles’ Creed were for Saint Augustine, the two major criteria for understanding Holy Scripture. An interview with Nello Cipriani

Interview with Nello Cipriani by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Some details of the sections of the marble tomb of Saint Augustine, built in the fourteenth century on the altar under which the relics of the saint are housed, Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d’oro, Pavia; Augustine’s dialogue with Saint Simplicianus; right, the conversion: at the suggestion of an angel Augustine reads Saint Paul’s Epistles

Some details of the sections of the marble tomb of Saint Augustine, built in the fourteenth century on the altar under which the relics of the saint are housed, Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d’oro, Pavia; Augustine’s dialogue with Saint Simplicianus; right, the conversion: at the suggestion of an angel Augustine reads Saint Paul’s Epistles

The cue that leads us to converse with Father Cipriani, in his study at the Augustinianum beside the colonnade of Saint Peter’s, is the theme of the Synod of Bishops currently in progress beyond the colonnade: “The Word of God in the life and mission of Church”.
As always we find Father Cipriani at work, engaged in a research project, going on for some time, aimed not only at refuting the impression that Neo-Platonism remained dominant in Saint Augustine even after his conversion (as many think), but also at demonstrating that he sometimes uses precise Aristotelian terminology borrowed through Varro and other authors. In this turning to a philosophical tradition not single but eclectic, says Father Cipriani, Augustine was led precisely by the sensus fidei acquired with his conversion.
We are sorry to distract Father Cipriani from his work, but his exquisite courtesy relieves us of embarrassment.

What is Saint Augustine’s fundamental attitude towards Holy Scripture?
NELLO CIPRIANI: Saint Augustine had a lofty view of Holy Scripture, he considered it a letter from God sent to men so that they may know the way of salvation. He thought it was a real and great gift of God made to men and, as gift from God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the requisite for teaching what is necessary for salvation without a shadow of error. Precisely because of its nature as gift he believed a fitting interior disposition essential for reading and understanding Holy Scripture: in other words, he considered prayer necessary. For scholars as well as for others. He writes in De doctrina christiana: “We must exhort those who apply themselves to the Sacred Letters not only to know how to recognize the different literary genres in the Scriptures, but also – and it is the main and most necessary thing – to pray for understanding (praecipue et maxime orent ut intelligant)” (III, 37, 56). Understanding Scripture is not only the outcome of scholarly study, as with other fields of learning, but results first of all from setting oneself before the Word of God with docility, with humility and, I repeat, in an attitude of supplication, of invocation. He writes in the Confessions: “Truly we do not know other books that so well cut down pride, that so well cut down the adversary who defends himself unwilling to reconcile with You because he defends his sins. I do not know, Lord, I do not know of other expressions so pure and capable of leading me to confession, able to bend my nape to your yoke and to urge me to selfless devotion. Ensure that I understand them, good Father; grant it to me because I have submitted to You, because You have made them rock (solidasti) for those who submit to You” (XIII, 15, 17).
Did Augustine begin to know Christianity through the Scriptures or, on the contrary, did he gradually learn to know the Scriptures after his conversion?
CIPRIANI: The first time that Augustine turned to Holy Scripture was following a youthful reading of the Ciceronian dialogue Hortensius. That book questing for wisdom enthused Augustine and he immediately associated the quest for wisdom with Christ, whose name, he says in the Confessions, he had sucked as a child with his mother’s milk. But along with the name of Christ he remembered the Holy Scriptures. It’s an indication that Augustine had received from his mother not only the love of Christ’s name, but also for the Holy Scriptures. He had already received, as a child can receive it, naturally, an education with this openness to Christ and the Scriptures.
Did he also already have a presentiment of the fulfillment of the Scriptures in Christ?
CIPRIANI: Saint Augustine often says in the works of his maturity that the whole of Sacred Scripture speaks of Christ, the Old Testament just as the New. “All our concern when we hear a psalm, a prophet, the Law... is to see Christ there, to recognize Christ there” (Enarrationes in psalmos 98, 1). All of Scripture is the Word of God, Word that was made flesh in Christ. It is in his full maturity that, for Augustine, the Word of God and Christ become inseparable. This idea was not as evolved at the time of his early youth, but he was already making a close association.
What change in this evolving relationship with Holy Scripture did his priestly and then episcopal ordination introduce?
CIPRIANI: Holy Scripture already had a decisive role in his conversion. The reading of Paul especially revealed to him “that charity that builds on the foundation of humility, that is Jesus Christ” (Confessions VII, 20, 26). But for all the time he remained a layman, in all the Dialogues he wrote in the years prior to 393/394, Augustine never applied himself in a thorough and critical way to Scripture. He wanted to make a Christian philosophy that, indeed, let itself be guided and enlightened by the Christian faith, but that resolved his problems on the level of rationality. At the time he was in dialogue, always in terms of pure rationality, with the ancient philosophers especially; Holy Scripture remained completely on the sideline. Hardly ever in the Dialogues does he appeal to the authority of Scripture in order to prove a thesis. Whereas, with his priestly ordination, Augustine realized he had become dispensator Verbi et sacramenti and hence immediately felt the need to go deeply into the entire contents of Scripture in order to teach the faithful the Christian path. Precisely for that reason he asked his bishop for a short period of study in which he developed a new conception of the perfect knowledge of God. Before his priestly ordination Augustine thought he could attain that knowledge immediately through reason enlightened by faith. With his ordination he understood that critical penetration of Scripture was an irreplaceable step. He was to write in De civitate Dei, “To the Scriptures that are called canonical and have very great authority we lend trust on those things that must not be ignored and that, moreover, we cannot arrive at by ourselves” (XI, 3). From that moment Scripture is at the center of all Augustine’s thinking and study. Not only when he writes exegetical works. Also in all his other writings he takes his cue from Scripture, Scripture becomes the basis for dialogue with the Donatists, with the Pelagians, with everyone. From his priestly ordination Augustine becomes a tractator divinarum Scripturarum, a commentator on Scripture in the broad sense of the term. This knowledge, as he called it, was intended to strengthen faith among the faithful, to deepen it and defend it against all the objections that the pagans might make, or even from the errors of the heretics. It was precisely on the basis of the definition of theology as knowledge of Scripture that Saint Thomas at the beginning of his Summa was to call theology sacra doctrina, quoting words of Augustine taken from De Trinitate. Generally the distinction between philosophy and theology is attributed to Saint Thomas or ass="italic">Enarrationes in psalmos: “If you do not understand something, or understand little or do not penetrate to the bottom, honor the Scripture of God, honor the Word of God, even if it is not clear to you. With devotion postpone the understanding of it. Don’t be stubborn in accusing the Scriptures of obscurity or even falsity. There is nothing false there. If there is something obscure it is not so as to deny you it but so that you dispose yourself to accept it. So when there is something obscure, it was the Doctor who did it so that you knock: He wanted it so that you dispose yourself to knock” (146, 12). Then, precisely because Augustine is certain that Scripture is the Word of God and speaks always and only of Christ, he highlights the importance of Scripture’s being read in the light of the faith of the Church as expressed in the Symbol of faith. He speaks of the regula fidei as a hermeneutic criterion for reading both the Old and the New Testament. After this great dual criterion he offers other rules of interpretation also. But let me say immediately that, according to Augustine, in Scripture there are indeed many difficult texts (the Old Testament encapsulates more or less the whole New Testament, Christ and the Church in veiled fashion: in that sense Scripture is a difficult book to grasp), he still believed that there are many absolutely clear passages in it and they are precisely those that speak of the chief truths of the Christian faith, so much so that the Creed is simply the fruit formulated with authority by the Church on the basis of the teaching of Scripture. There is a part of it, in short, that does not need great efforts of interpretation. Of course, he stressed that Scripture must be read as a whole: one can’t take a text separating it from everything else to derive a truth in contrast with other statements contained therein. He also believed that to read Scripture fruitfully we must use the acquisitions of all scholarly enquiry, including that into the physical world, the vegetable and animal world. And more generally use all the scholarly tools that the culture of his time allowed. I think that for Augustine, open to all contributions, all the contributions of the culture of his time, it would not have been difficult to accept the historico-critical method. Even from a Donatist such as Tyconius, for example, Augustine has no difficulty in accepting some methodological guidance for the exegesis of Scripture, perhaps criticizing some of his aspects.
There are analogies with our own times. The historico-critical method did not originate in a Catholic milieu.
CIPRIANI: There’s still an aspect that I want to emphasize, because it seems to be particularly topical. In the period in which he was a Manichee, Saint Augustine had realized the absurdity of the claim in Manichaean books to explain all natural phenomena, including the astronomical ones of lunar phases, eclipses of the moon, sun and others, using the myth of the struggle between good and evil. He noticed that these alleged explanations not only did not explain everything, but they were inconsistent with the far more serious and documented explanations of the ancient scientists, the natural philosophers whom Augustine had read. That negative experience was precisely one of the reasons why he abandoned Manichaeism. He realized that Manichaeism, which had promised to lead him to the truth without submission to faith, had cheated him because it wanted him to believe so many unreasonable tales. So, when he began to read and explain the Scriptures, especially Genesis, he recalled that lesson and arrived at affirmations that were extremely useful to Galileo when he wanted to present his theories, his findings, as not contrary to the Christian faith. Augustine said in essence that Scripture does not claim to teach men how the world is made, it doesn’t aim to replace science. Scripture aims to teach us the way of salvation, what is needed to live righteously and be saved. When Scripture speaks of the sky, the earth, the creation it should not be read as if it wanted to replace science. It seems to me a very important lesson. It would have been very useful in the seventeenth century if the theologians or those who condemned Galileo had heeded that lesson. But it is also useful for us today who are still caught in this crisis between science and Scripture, between science and faith, for example in terms of the theory of evolution. I believe that Augustine would take an attitude of dialogue, not of aprioristic rejection of the theory.

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