Volume 33 - Issue 1

An Augustinian Mindset

By Peter Sanlon


One of the most eminent spin doctors of the fourth century, Augustine bemoaned that he was merely a vendito verborum (a peddler of words). After he became a Christian he gave up what he perceived as arrogant rhetoric designed to impress, instead cultivating what he called sermo humilis (humble speech). The secular spin doctor became a Christian preacher.

One of the most eminent spin doctors of the fourth century, Augustine bemoaned that he was merely a vendito verborum (a peddler of words).1 After he became a Christian he gave up what he perceived as arrogant rhetoric designed to impress, instead cultivating what he called sermo humilis (humble speech).2 The secular spin doctor became a Christian preacher.

De Doctrina Christiana

De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching) is the book Augustine wrote to train preachers. He composed three chapters on how to understand the Bible, then after thirty years of regular preaching, added a final chapter on how to communicate what has been understood.

De Doctrina Christiana is a remarkable work for many reasons. It is our earliest text on the theory of preaching and drew on secular thought as well as Christian theology. Augustine was willing to utilise helpful hermeneutical principles developed by Tichonius, whom he regarded as a heretical Donatist. The fourth chapter set the agenda, to the present day, for Christian thinking on the relationship between secular and Christian learning. In 1465 De Doctrina Christiana became the first authentic writing of Augustine to be printed on a printing press.3 Peter Lombard’s Sentences began by quoting it4 and Kannengiesser thought it the theoretical foundation of Augustine’s doctrine.5 De Doctrina Christiana has been one of the main texts studied by academics after better known works such as Confessiones.6

In light of its importance and brevity, it is surprising that the significance of the first chapter goes unacknowledged. It is usually viewed as simply an introductory chapter summarising points of doctrine7 or outlining the basic content of Christian education.8

However, De Doctrina Christiana I has its own purpose of immense value to scholars, students, and preachers. This purpose fits with the structure of the work as a whole and meshes with Augustine’s theological outlook. The original contention of this article is that Augustine intended the first chapter of his book to promote a mindset conducive to understanding the Bible. The hermeneutical principles outlined in the following chapters would be worse than useless to the student who did not first foster an appropriate posture and mindset. Th e work follows a logical order—first develop the mindset appropriate to the reading of the Bible, then learn the principles of interpretation and lastly study how to communicate what has been learnt to others.

To understand the Bible today we enjoy unparalleled resources. We have computer search engines, we have linguistic guides and we have subtle hermeneutical principles. But do we have what Augustine believed was the prerequisite to use these gifts—do we have the appropriate mindset for theology?

Our Journey

The first component of the mindset Augustine encouraged as necessary for understanding the Bible is an appreciation that we are on a journey. Postmodern hermeneutical theory readily accepts that a reader is on a journey. Augustine would have us embrace something more profound: we are not merely on a journey as readers in a text, we are on a journey as creatures in the world.

The journey metaphor is introduced with an amusing anecdote of a person traveling and failing to reach home, having become captivated by the agreeable experience and familiarity of the mode of transport.9 Augustine encourages his readers to laugh at the foolishness of such a situation.

Augustine himself had been on a spiritual journey, recorded in Confessiones, written shortly after the opening books of De Doctrina Christiana. The idea of a journey was deeply embedded in Augustine’s conscious experience. Confessiones was written for “All who accompany me on this pilgrimage, whether they have gone before or are still to come or are with me as I make my way through life.”10

De Doctrina Christiana suggests that to understand the Bible one must view life as a journey travelled not by physical movement, but by, “Honest commitment and good behaviour.”11 Augustine later remarks, “We are still on the way, a way however not from place to place, but one traveled by the affections.”12

Augustine wishes all who study the Bible to appreciate that the task is moral. The reader is becoming a certain type of person. The type of person that the reader is becoming affects their ability to understand what the Bible says. The unfinished nature of the journey we are all on demands a posture of humility before the Bible. The person who reads without the mindset Augustine demands, that of being on a moral journey, will not be open to the meaning of the text. For the text itself is about a journey and has no place in its metanarrative for those who are merely academic spectators. To be a student of Scripture without joining in the journey is to foreclose the possibility of reading with understanding. Postmodernity has made us sensitive to the way we bring our assumptions to the text. Augustine wants us to accept a related insight: we bring our moral persons to the text. We are not completed self-sufficient beings who process hermeneutical principles; we are dependent creatures on a moral journey. To the extent that we appreciate the reality of the journey we are on—our direction, dangers, means of transport, and ability to travel—we are able to study the Bible with understanding.

Being Lost

Much of academic success depends upon knowing the answers. We are graded according to the knowledge we have acquired. The sensible student avoids drawing attention to his or her ignorance.

Augustine believed not only that we are on a journey, but that we are lost. Our modern emphases on success make it difficult for us to live with an appreciation of our lostness. Yet Augustine maintains that an existential awareness of our moral lostness is foundational to understanding the Bible.

We are lost because we were created by God to dwell in heaven with him. Instead we find ourselves wandering through a world which desires distance from God. We are on “a kind of voyage toward our home country.”13 The question is, as we journey, are we aware we are travelling? Are we like the foolish traveller in Augustine’s story? He forgot where he was going because he enjoyed the movement of his horse and cart so much!

We cannot afford to travel in our own strength, for there are dangers that assault us: “People are beaten back from their home country, as it were, by the contrary winds of crooked habits, going in pursuit of things that are inferior and secondary to what they admit is better and more worthwhile.”14

We are ourselves torn and divided, our own habits and desires making us wander obsessively away from our home. For some the control exerted through shiny electronic toys distracts from the journey. For some the forgetful ecstasy of sexual relationships enthrals off the path. For some the study and teaching of the Bible itself becomes an arid wind that blows us off course. Whatever the specific means by which we get lost, in every case the result is the same: spiritual, inner blindness. Our “inner eyes are weak and unclean.”15 So we find that when we try to study the Bible, it no longer makes sense. Those who fail to approach the Bible with the correct mindset—a due sense of being on a moral journey and being lost—find that their ability to understand fades.

We need to be purified and guided home. Thankfully, this too is part of a journey that can be made and ought to become part of the mindset for approaching Scripture. “We should think of this purification process as a kind of walk.”16

The Map of “Enjoyment”and “Use”

Augustine offers a map that gives us a way of orientating ourselves. It is a theological insight which sheds light on the core truth of Scripture, our experience of a journey and our lostness. The map is a pair of concepts: “enjoyment”(frui) and “use”(uti). This map was a central part of Augustine’s theology: “We may reasonably say that in the early to mid 390s the contrast of use and enjoyment has become a locus upon which many elements in Augustine’s thought converge.”17

Frui-uti introduces a hierarchy. God is to be enjoyed for his own sake and all other things are to be used as means to the end of enjoying God. This view has troubled modern readers, for it appears to violate Kant’s moral imperative that one should, “Always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end.”18 One must remember that De Doctrina Christiana is an exploratory use of the terms. Further, Augustine allowed a certain freedom in how one ought to love people: “All people are to be loved equally; but since you cannot be of service to everyone, you have to take greater care of those who are more closely joined to you by a turn, so to say, of fortune’s wheel.”19

Hence the frui-uti distinction is not intended to be the sole guide to how one should love others. Rather Augustine intended it to provide a fundamental orientation to the universe. Understanding where we are, why we are lost and where we are headed, depends to a large degree upon grasping Augustine’s insight that some things are to be used as a means and others are to be loved in themselves. In other words, God is not to be reduced to the same level as the creation, and creation is not to be enjoyed without due reference to God:

Living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things; to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.20

Thus the hierarchy introduced by frui-uti is intended to enable us to see clearly, so that we can love rightly. In De Trinitate it is argued one cannot love that which is misunderstood or unknown, in De Doctrina Christiana it is argued one cannot love rightly if one cannot see clearly.

This map of enjoyment and use can then be used to assess the reality and cause of humanity’s lostness. We are lost and have “preferred,”gone “in pursuit of,”and tried to “enjoy”the wrong things.21 Our passions, enthusiasms, and energies have become entangled in things unworthy of them and unable to bear their full weight. We enjoy the means of creation apart from the end of God. If we refuse to acknowledge the desires and longings that pull us through life and shape our decisions, we fail to avail ourselves of Augustine’s map which could begin to alert us to the reality of our position before God. Our journey through this world is one in which we wilfully and culpably lose ourselves. We are unable to find our way home. We need another to make the journey for us.

Wisdom’s Journey

Lost people need to find their way home: “Of this we would be quite incapable, unless Wisdom herself had seen fit to adapt herself to such infirmity as ours.”22

Augustine knew from his Platonic background that love of goods other than God could distract one from the love of God. After his conversion he realised, “The incarnation was necessary to empower the Christian to return.”23

Augustine presents Jesus as the figure of Wisdom. He is both the goal of our journey and the means of reaching our destination: “She herself is our home, she has also made herself for us into the way home.”24

In a bold theological move Augustine conceives both the experience of sin and salvation as a journey. Since we could not find our way home, Wisdom made a journey to us. The reason for the journey of the incarnation was to heal blindness. The map of frui-uti shows that people are blind internally; preferring the means of creation to the end of God. Augustine reasons that this explains why it was necessary for Wisdom to present herself to our external eyes in a physical human incarnation: “She is present everywhere, indeed, to inner eyes that are healthy and pure; but to those whose inner eyes are weak and unclean, she was prepared to be seen by their eyes of flesh as well.”25

The external incarnation is necessary because inner eyes are blind—the possibility of external sight appears as a concession or accommodation to the lost. This raises the question of how one’s internal eyes benefit from an externally seen incarnation. A clue to Augustine’s answer is found in his focus on love of God and neighbour as the fruit of good interpretation;26 the external incarnation heals the internal sight as it teaches us to reorder our loves. We learn from Wisdom how to frui and uti the right objects in the right proportion. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we see the journey that we could not make for ourselves. Wisdom made the journey on our behalf and invites us to follow and learn how to love God afresh.

A merely intellectual grasp of this journey is however not enough to acquire the Augustinian mindset. It is not sufficient merely to understand the Christian story of sin and salvation. Augustine takes considerable pains in De Doctrina Christiana I to foster a sense of the beauty of Wisdom’s healing journey: “Just as when doctors bind up wounds, they do not do it untidily, but neatly, so that the bandage, as well as being useful, can also to some extent have its proper beauty, in the same sort of way Wisdom adapted her healing art to our wounds by taking on a human being.”27

Augustine invites us to explore the nature of Wisdom’s beauty. He focuses on two aspects of what to him constituted beauty: likeness and dissimilarity. He sees a beauty in the likenesses and continuities of Wisdom’s healing: as humans were led astray by a woman, so they are healed by one born of a woman and the dead are healed by a death. In the area of dissimilarity, Augustine includes the issue of Wisdom appearing foolish and our bad use of immortality contrasted with Christ’s good use of mortality.28 Augustine meditated on the shape of Biblical salvation and his reflections amounted to far more than merely intellectual observations; the beauty of the shape of Wisdom’s gracious journey stirred up excitement, passion, and joy in God. Thus the work of theology becomes a re-embracing of our first love. In order to read Scripture fruitfully, we need the mindset of conscious existential appreciation of the beauty of God’s gracious journey to us in Jesus. To lose sight of Wisdom’s journey (and our journey as it is caught up in Wisdom’s) is to lose the hope of participating in worthwhile theology. Augustine hopes that those who read on to his hermeneutical principles will have the mindset to observe many more praiseworthy and useful aspects of God’s journey: “Those who are not held back by the necessity of completing a work just begun, from reflecting on many other instances of the sort, will appreciate how well furnished the Christian medicine cupboard is with both contrary and homeopathic remedies.”29


This approach to beauty is consistent with Augustine’s earlier exploration of the topic of beauty in De Musica, in which he portrayed a universe where “Every creature has a specific rhythm and seeks to ever more occupy itself as it truly is. Music is part of our temporal striving towards ever greater exactitude.”30 Augustine saw a beauty in music as it formed part of our striving and journeying. The beauty of music is surpassed by the journey of Wisdom to give us sight and bring lost people home. Augustine’s vision of Wisdom’s healing journey as a beautiful, well composed medicine cabinet forms his invitation to modern theologians. The question is, Will we approach the medicine cabinet with the appropriate mindset?

A Much Needed Mindset

Those of us who study and teach theology today have much we can learn from Augustine’s presentation of a mindset suitable for the approach to Scripture. The very idea that there is an appropriate mindset for the task of theology is not one that sits happily with the modern academy. The recovery of an appropriate mindset for the study of theology can, however, be seen in the lives of individual students who resolve to have Jesus as their teacher and accept that the student is not above that teacher. True theology is experienced when one makes the move from knowing facts about the Scriptures to wondering at the beauty of the one to whom the Scriptures testify.

The urgent need to foster an Augustinian mindset in our approach to the theological task may be emphasised by considering the horror of people attempting to live out the lessons of the other three chapters of De Doctrina Christiana without the mindset demanded by the first chapter. Imagine scholars adept in handling the Bible as a work of ancient literature, interpreting with academic precision, but lacking the mindset to do so for the reasons God gave us the text: no appreciation for the beauty of Jesus’ saving work, no thirst to know him better, no value judgement passed on intellectually weak rejections of him. A horror indeed, but it gets worse. If a person masters chapters two and three of De Doctrina Christiana without the first, then he or she has sterile principles of interpretation without the necessary mindset. If a person attempts to use the fourth chapter without the first, such a person has the power of persuasion without the healing grace of God’s wisdom. The voice of such a teacher can be persuasive, but its power may be only one of the winds that seek to blow off course and waylay those who would otherwise be homeward bound. Augustine was surely right to insist that his students develop a healthy mindset for approaching Scripture. We embrace interpretation and persuasion without it at our peril.

Such a mindset will show itself in at least two important areas: love and humility. We have seen that our lostness can be mapped as disordered loves, preferring to enjoy that which should be only used and neglecting the great goal of life: the love of God. Often as children of the enlightenment we suffer from a theological tunnel vision. We focus on details and miss the big picture. We analyse individual facts apart from the central reference point, rightly ordered love for God and our neighbour.

It is sobering for any theologian to ask the following: Am I holding back from following through on the natural trajectory of this thought? Was the idea created by God to foster love for him, yet do Ihold back from that goal, satisfied with something less? Essays, books, marks, promotions, languages, and computerised lexicons should not be enjoyed in and of themselves. God created them to be used as means for enjoying Him. If we prematurely foreclose our thoughts by resting happily on the means of academic study, we are in danger of becoming infatuated with the transport. We should be obsessed with getting home to the one we love. Such an obsession will develop a mindset that leads to fruitful theology.

There is a false humility that secular theology appreciates. Th is is the false humility of polite openness to other perspectives. A certain degree of this is healthy, but it ought not to be the constituent nature of true Christian intellectual humility. The humility that an Augustinian mindset engenders is resolutely committed to the uniqueness of Jesus—only he could journey from heaven to the cross for us. As such the Christian mind is not indefinitely open to alternative views. Rather the humility of an Augustinian mindset flows from a conscious awareness of the lostness of sin. Plunged into a fallen world through Adam’s fault, we nevertheless accept God’s charge: we wilfully plunged ourselves into loves that entranced and misled. The Christian scholar sees that the very things used for the theological task can be great temptations; the love of them as ends rather than means can easily supplant the love of God. Scripture offers the self-knowledge that such a tragedy lies all too close to our secret desires.

True humility arises not only from our awareness of fallen lostness, but also from God’s grace. Humility is the intellectual posture of a person who realises that he or she is on a journey that Jesus made for us. The grace of God overcomes our self-sufficiency and invites us to love one worthy of our love. The modern academy is unlikely to preface its hermeneutical and communication lectures with a challenge to develop an appropriate mindset. The modern academy is not overly concerned about what sort of mindset you have as you approach Scripture. Augustine was intensely concerned about his students’ mindsets; in this respect he was closer to the mindset of our Lord.

  1. Confessiones IX.v.
  2. De doct. Christ IV.xviii.35.
  3. ThÉrèse Sullivan, S. Aureli Augustini Hipponiensis Episcopi De Doctrina Christiana Liber Quartus: A Commentary, with a Revised Text, Introduction and Translation (Washington: The Catholic University of America, 1930), 1.
  4. Lombard, Sententiarum Quatuor Libri I.i.1.
  5. Charles Kannengiesser, Handbook of Patristic Exegesis: The Bible in Ancient Christianity (Leiden: Brill, 2004),2:1149.
  6. Hubertus R. Drobner, “Studying Augustine, an Overview of Recent Research,”in Augustine and His Critics, ed. Robert Dodaro and George Lawless (London: Routlege, 2000); Frederick Van Fleteren, “Comments on a Recent Edition of De Doctrina Christiana,”Augustinian Studies 34 (2003): 126-37.
  7. “The first book is divided into four parts dealing with the contents of the faith.”Augustine, Teaching Christianity, ed. John Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill, vol. 1.11, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (New York: New City Press, 1996), 12.
  8. Eugene Kevane, “The Prooemium of St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana,”Augustinian Studies 1 (1970): 153-80.
  9. De doct. Christ. I.iv.4.
  10. Confessiones X.iv.
  11. De doct. Christ. I.x.10.
  12. De doct. Christ. I.xvii.16.
  13. De doct. Christ. I.x.10.
  14. De doct. Christ. I.ix.9.
  15. De doct. Christ. I.xi.12.
  16. De doct. Christ. I.x.10.
  17. Oliver O’ Donovan, “Usus and Fruitio in Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana I,”Journal of Theological Studies 33 (1982): 383.
  18. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, 428.
  19. De doct. Christ. I.xxviii.29.
  20. De doct. Christ. I.xxvii.28.
  21. De doct. Christ. I.x.9-10.
  22. De doct. Christ. I.x.10.
  23. J. M. Rist, Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptised (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 159.
  24. De doct. Christ. I.xi.11.
  25. De doct. Christ. I.xi.12.
  26. De doct. Christ. I.xxxv.39-xxxvi.40.
  27. De doct. Christ. I.xiv.13.
  28. De doct. Christ. I.xiv.13.
  29. De doct. Christ. I.xiv.13.
  30. Catherine Pickstock, “Music: Soul, City and Cosmos after Augustine,”in John Millbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, eds., Radical Orthodoxy (London: Routledge, 1999), 249.

Peter Sanlon

Peter Sanlon is writing a systematics theology PhD at Cambridge University on Augustine’s preaching. As an Anglican ordinand, he attempts to be involved in local church ministry alongside academic research. He edits the journal Still Deeper at When possible he helps his wife restrain their pet kittens from eating their furniture.

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