Revealing the Christ: Understanding Augustine’s “Allegory”

The City of God is no ordinary work of Christian theology. It is one of the most influential works of Christian theology ever written. Reading St. Augustine’s work can be difficult—the size, alone, can be off-putting and burdensome. But reading Augustine is always a treat and insightful, especially when realizing wisdom and insight that enriches one’s own spiritual life. 

Since the mid-twentieth century, it has become common to hear about the “figurative” and “allegorical” approach to Scripture employed by the Church Fathers. Augustine, due to his orthodoxy, is generally one of the most oft-cited examples of this tradition. One of the problems, however, with claiming the allegorical approach is the misleading perceptions that it might suggest for contemporary readers. 

When the Church Fathers employ their so-called allegorical hermeneutic, we might better understand their method as Christological and ecclesiological. Admittedly, in our post-ecclesiological age, this is a tough pill to swallow. “Spiritual but not religious” just didn’t cut it for the early Christians. For the Church Fathers, the highest level of hermeneutics was understanding how the Old Testament prefigured or pointed to Christ and His Church. When we speak of the allegorical or figurative hermeneutic employed by the Church Fathers, we should understand it as being Christological and ecclesiological in nature. 

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Throughout The City of God, Augustine identifies historical Old Testament realities as revealing Christ and His Church. We are probably familiar with the notion that the Old conceals the New but the New reveals the Old. This goes back to New Testament authors, especially the apostles Paul and John. But Augustine cemented this approach for us very clearly when he spoke of the two covenants as prefiguring and revealing Christ: “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?”

In describing the deeper reality of Noah’s Ark, Augustine writes, “Yet no one ought to suppose either that these things were written for no purpose, or that we should study only the historical truth, apart from any allegorical meanings; or, on the contrary, that they are only allegories, and that there were no such facts at all, or that, whether it be so or no, there is here no prophecy of the church.” In one dramatic swoop, Augustine demolishes both the historical-only and allegorical-only approaches to Scripture that have come to dominate contemporary Christianity for different reasons. 

The literalists have adopted their approach largely from being cut off from ecclesiological tradition. The allegorists have imposed their approach over the Church Fathers out of embarrassment to modern sentiments and dispositions relating to time, history, and science. Augustine, however, says very clearly that the ecclesiological, or “allegorical,” approach to Scripture is tied to historical facticity (as do all the orthodox Fathers).

It is only in the historical reality that we can ascend to those higher meanings that Augustine speaks of. When Augustine speaks of Noah’s Ark as prefiguring Christ, His Passion, and His Church he does so on the belief that the story of Noah’s Ark actually happened: “And its having a door made in the side of it certainly signified the wound which was made when the side of the Crucified was pierced with the spear: for by this those who come to Him enter; for thence flowed the sacraments by which those who believe are initiated. And the fact that it was ordered to be made of squared timbers, signifies the immovable steadiness of the life of the saints; for however you turn a cube, it still stands. And the other peculiarities of the ark’s construction are signs of features of the church.”

Furthermore, in a dazzling read of the Pentateuch, Prophets, and the Psalms, Augustine establishes one of the most remarkable insights for Christians in their engagement with Scripture. 

In Genesis 1, it is through the invisible Word (Christ) that God creates the world. Then we receive the protoevangelium when God announces to Eve that a woman shall bear a child—now we know the Savior is to be born of a woman. Christ is prefigured and prophesied of, but He is progressively being revealed to us as we approach the New Testament. 

Augustine goes on to explain how Abel was a type of Christ and slain by Cain, a representative of the city of man (therefore prefiguring the killing of Christ by the reprobate who belong to that city) and how the stories of the Patriarchs also point to and prefigure Christ. When he finally starts commenting on the Prophets and the Psalms, we subsequently begin to see more clearly the promises of the Messiah the closer we get to His incarnation.

In the Prophets (who speak in persona Christi) we witness the prefiguration of Christ among us, calling us and shepherding us to God. Hannah’s song to Nathan, Augustine goes on to argue, “prophesied, in which, indeed, the change of the ancient priesthood was then figured and is now fulfilled, since she that had many children is waxed feeble, that the barren who hath born seven might have the new priesthood in Christ.”

This reading continues when Augustine begins to reflect on the Psalms. Here we see the ultimate genius of Augustine’s hermeneutical approach shine forth. Augustine explicitly ties the Psalms, as he covers them in The City of God, to the Passion and Resurrection: “About His resurrection also the oracles of the Psalms are by no means silent.” 

When Augustine quotes David as saying, “O Lord, be merciful unto me, and raise me up, that I may requite them,” he goes on to say this is a direct prophesy of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead. In quoting the Psalms again: “Our God is the God of salvation: even of the Lord the exit was by death,” Augustine ties the elevated understanding of this historical utterance as concerning Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. “Because His blood was shed for the remission of their sins it behoved Him to have no other exit from this life than death. Therefore, when it had been said, ‘Our God is the God of salvation,’ immediately it was added, ‘Even of the Lord the exit was by death,’ in order to show that we were to be saved by His dying.”

When we tie together Augustine’s admittedly scattered Old Testament reflections spread across The City of God, we begin to see how Old Testament history prefigured New Testament revelations. There was a faithful Israel, the Israel of Grace, who represented the saints and the Church in the post-incarnational age. Then there was an unfaithful Israel, the Israel of the Law and Nature, who represented the sinners and reprobate—bad fish and tares—who are nonetheless physically members of the covenant but spiritually vacuous and impure.

We now clearly see that Augustine’s allegorical approach is not only tied to historicity but that the allegorical hermeneutic he employs always points to the eternal reality of Christ and His Church. That is the “literal” meaning of Scripture: All Scripture points to Christ, His Coming, and His Church. But it is never devoid of historical reality as contemporary allegorists say.

In this manner, we also see the slow revelation of Christ through the Old Testament leading up to the New Testament. As mentioned, Christ in Genesis is invisible and only faintly spoken of. But as history moved closer to the incarnation, the Old Testament slowly revealed more and more information about this coming Messiah. The invisible Christ through whom all was created is prophesied as the Shepherd who comes to call the wayward back to God (the Prophets) and the God who saves us by His death (the Psalms, along with Isaiah). Then, of course, all of this is fully revealed to us in His coming, ministry, Passion, death, and Resurrection revealed in the New Testament Gospels and epistles.

This is perhaps the greatest joy when reading Augustine. Through Augustine we gain a clearer understanding of the Scripture and God’s self-revealing revelation to mankind. The previously cryptic and hidden becomes clear and visible when we realize, as Augustine realized, that the very chronological progression of the Old Testament to the New Testament is also the chronological revelation of who Christ is.

Those who preach merely the historical hermeneutic miss the truer, and—ironically—more fundamental reality to Scripture in which Christ is always at the center if we know where to look and how to understand. Those who preach the merely allegorical without the courage to accept the historical do not do justice to the orthodox Church Fathers who nowhere deny the historicity of the Old Testament revelation and therefore depart very far from the “allegory” of the Patristic tradition. It is only in the unity of the historical and the allegorical, as Augustine repeatedly highlights, that the true meaning of Scripture is fully revealed to us. And the full revelation of Scripture is always Christocentric because the Church can never be separated from Christ since Christ is the very Head and Body of the Church. 

Only with this Christological hermeneutic can we go back and see Christ permeating every line of the Old Testament: “Thus Paradise is the Church, as it is called in the Canticles; the four rivers of Paradise are the four gospels; the fruit-trees the saints and the fruit their works; the tree of life is the holy of holies, Christ; the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the will’s free choice.”

[Image: St. Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne]


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