Summer 2022

Augustine and the Catholic “Form” of Scripture

Colin Miller


St. Augustine’s hermeneutics, semiotics, and epistemology in general have enjoyed no lack of attention in recent years, due not least to the frequently noted modern and postmodern preoccupation with method and technique in securing definitions of knowledge. In this regard, De doctrina Christiana, Augustine’s famous work on biblical interpretation, has been treated from nearly every conceivable angle.1 Notably absent from this literature, however, is any treatment of Augustine’s own theological account of what Scripture is as an object in its own right—his doctrine of Scripture.2 This is surprising, given that it is hard to find a page of his work in which divina scriptura, divinus sermo, divina eloquia, or some such locution, is not invoked. The purpose of this essay is to begin to fill this lacuna in a limited but crucial way by arguing that, for Augustine, Scripture has a Catholic nature as part of its substantial form, species, or essence—as its “what-ness.” This is so not least because it is part of the sign-system that the Catholic Church is, and thus it participates in the metaphysical form “Catholic.” When the mind perceives Scripture, it encounters not a fluid and unordered mass of signs that must be given some definite meaning by the reader but the truth of the Catholic faith. This, I suggest, is what makes it possible for Augustine to make the striking statement that “Scriptura non asserit nisi Catholicam fidem” (Scripture asserts nothing but the Catholic faith) (De doctrina 3.10.14).


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1. To note just a few of the recent contributions with which I will interact below: R. A. Marcus, “St. Augustine on Signs,” Phronesis 2 (1957): 60–83; Rowan Williams, “Language, Reality and Desire in Augustine’s De doctrina,” Journal of Literature and Theology 3, no. 2 (1989): 138–50; Duane Arnold and Pamela Bright, eds., De doctrina Christiana: A Classic of Western Culture (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1995); John Deeley, Augustine and Poinsot: The Protosemiotic Development (Scranton, PA: Scranton University Press, 2009); Phillip Cary, External Signs: The Powerlessness of External Things in Augustine’s Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Edward Morgan, The Incarnation of the Word: The Theology of Language of Saint Augustine of Hippo (New York: T&T Clark, 2010); Susannah Ticciati, A New Apophaticism: Augustine and the Redemption of Signs (Boston: Brill, 2015).

2. The distinction between a “doctrine of Scripture” or a “theory of inspiration,” on the one hand, and “hermeneutics,” on the other hand, is of course largely a recent, post-Reformation phenomenon (though no less useful for that reason). For some of the history, see Francis Watson, “Hermeneutics and Doctrine of Scripture: Why They Need Each Other,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no. 2 (2010); and Denis Farkasfalvy, O.Cist., Inspiration and Interpretation: A Theological Introduction to Sacred Scripture (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010). Regarding Augustine, there are a few older studies that treat his understanding of “inspiration,” by which they mean the relationship between the divine inspiration of the biblical authors and their own free will. See A. D. Polman, The Word of God According to St. Augustine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955); C. Douais, Saint Augustin et la Bible (Paris: Revue Biblique, 1893); Charles Joseph Costello, St. Augustine’s Doctrine on the Inspiration and Canonicity of Scripture (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1930).