Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine Literary Criticism


In Augustine’s famous treatise, On Christian Doctrine as translated by Dr. Robertson emphasis is on the interpretation of the Bible, dealing with philosophical and rhetorical principles for the Christian use of the scripture. Dr. Robertson emphasizes in his introduction the tremendous influence that this work had upon Christian doctrine. Augustine of Hippo has long been recognized as an important figure in the history of

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rhetoric. Some scholars believe that without his influence, rhetoric, the central study in the Roman educational system, might not have survived into the Christian era. His famous defense of rhetoric in On Christian Doctrine(Robertson) establishes the importance of the art of speech is central to the Christian cause. Classical rhetoric (except, possibly, in the theory of Plato) was centered upon human needs: it was concerned with morality, certainly, but it was not concerned with theology.

Hebrew, and later, Christian rhetoric, on the other hand, was centered upon the divine. The concept of interpretive charity has been invoked in the core of the scriptural message, which has been expressed with use of signs and guided by interpretation. The emphasis is on the role of the interpreter, who has the arduous task of analyzing, simplifying and recovering and reconstituting the essential unity of the text through the use of charity, signs and symbols is significant in the delivery of the message.

Main text

Augustine places great responsibility on the role of the interpreter, whose task is to recover or reconstitute the preexisting and essential unity of the biblical text.

According to Augustine, “Charity, the motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of God for His own sake of God”. In harmony with the message of Augustine, Dr. Robertson has very clearly stated “What is read should be subjected to diligent scrutiny until an interpretation contributing to the reign of charity is produced” (Robertson). The responsibility of interpretation and the power of the signs are critical to reshaping the thematic unity. This has been supported by other literary scholars.

A number of critics have shown literary scholarship commenting on such notion. The commentary by Herman Melville “The Confidence-Man” does provide a critical commentary to exemplify the scholarly desire to recover a text linked to its formal and thematic unity, which means reshaping it in the image of one’s own interpretive ideal. The critics who present the unifying “charitable” interpretation are ultimately a comfortable trap. It is an act of critical faith that leads to teaching a lesson of suspicion and distrust, with additional layers of ironies and ambiguities it sets out to clarify and resist.

According to Melvilles’s presentation, “The Confidence –man endorses neither belief nor disbelief; instead it plays on our desire to escape from the “mysterious”.” He also states that moralistic readings are nothing if not convenient escape routes, but escape they offer is finally just an appeal to another kind of charity, which is an appeal to faith in the name of skepticism. Here he merges with Augustine, as the difficult realm of interpretation; our longing for the faith is with which Augustine begins and ends his discourse on biblical text.

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Charity is the end for one and the means for other, Augustine’s biblical interpretation is like textual unity and consistency which is produced in harmony of the sign and the language of interpretation. Augustine is clear and forthright in his expression. The aim of the translation is to lead the common masses with the aid of the doctrine to participate fully in the everyday drama of life through recognition of the sign and symbols which induce to actions of charity.

His working essence is the doctrine of participation. The core essence of participation in this whole worldly drama is the fact that when man is separated from God, he has to struggle to attain that perfect knowledge. Since struggle becomes mandatory, the opacity of signs, the obscurity of symbols, the ambiguity of language, and the figurative meanings of the text are logical necessities. They are the ladders that the learner must climb to participate in the universal and divine knowledge. And, finally through the resolution of the obscurity, the learner becomes deeply involved with personal commitments in the light of divine meanings as and when they are encountered.

In his famous treatise, On Christian Doctrine, Augustine, places great emphasis on the rhetoric as the teacher and the interpreter of the doctrine. To perform these roles Augustine emphasizes the learning process. He places significant emphasis on the intense preparation, and he offers two aids for that purpose: They are the theory of signs and guide to interpretation. Augustinian Doctrine of participation is based on these two tools and methods. They are the ground from which learning and participation take place. Charity is the participation in the process for the evolution of the soul, and signs and the interpretive tools is the guide. This doctrine of Augustine rings perfect harmony with the presentation of the theory of charity by Melville as expressed in ‘The Confidence Man’ and his mysterious ways of participating in the comfortable trap and the desire to escape.

They both lead us to the winding routes of escape, with the aid of interpretive tools and the desire for unraveling the deep mystery. This is the quest for understanding.

Augustine believes that there is an ecclesiological reality in which both saints and sinners participate. Augustine calls this reality the “communion of the Church and the holiest bond of unity and the most excellent gift of charity,” this is the church in which both saints and sinners partake. For Augustine unity of charity and communion is the essential mark of the church, for the unity of mutual love is the distinctive reality of the Holy Spirit who even within the Trinity unites the Father and Son as the bond of charity. Participation, in Augustine’s conception is the bridge across the three levels of reality: the corporeal, the psychic, and the divine.

On the corporeal level, participation begins as a simple recognition of more or less veiled reality, an opaque world of natural and artificial signs; on the psychic level it is an act of ordering, judging and reading out of the signs in a coherent world text; on the divine level it rises to a sharing in God’s immutable truth. It is on the level of divine, that Augustine, edits Plato to suggest that eternal forms and ideas exist within the mind of God.

Thus, in the shared contemplation of these ideas one may participate in being itself. This participation in divine forms is the counterpart of God accepting the limitations of the human world in the incarnation of Christ. In its most fundamental meaning, participation denotes an activity of the soul. It is a sharing of someone characteristic of the perfect one and the imperfect so many. This is the platonic sense of the term limitation, that is, transcendence. Both in the Platonic and the Christian sense of the doctrine, participation involves aspiration, struggle, enlightenment, and spiritual growth.

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Another very important feature of Augustine’s doctrine is the reminder that signs are often opaque-they must be interpreted to be understood. Those who wish to seek the message of participation and charity, inherent in the doctrine present the category of the saints. They are participants in holy doctrine. Augustine’s metaphysics of Participation and persuasion is not unlike Kenneth Burke’s metaphysics of Identification and Persuasion. Burke and Melville merge with Augustine at some point. Human understanding or insight is crucial to the three conceptions as it has been to all believers of redemption. Augustine tells us that if signs were instantly intelligible, we would be divine creatures liberated from merely corporeal and psychic limitations. It would mean a complete and perfect union with God and the end of the human consciousness.

The classical rhetoricians have a philosophical stand on the doctrine of participation based on which George Kennedy distinguishes philosophical rhetoric from the technical and sophistic largely on its overriding concern for the audience. Here is what he says about it: “It tends to de-emphasize the speaker and to stress the validity of his message and the nature of its effect on an audience… its natural topic is deliberation about the best interests of the audience….The emphasis in philosophical rhetoric on what hearers should believe and do parallels the rhetoric of religious movements like Judaism and Christianity”(Kennedy ). The rhetoric is the means to communicate with the audience, to urge them to participate in the religious rites and movements.

A certain amount of commonality is a prerequisite if communication is to happen: we must share a time, a place, and a medium, such as language, or find techniques for overcoming the problems imposed by the lack of such sharing For example, writing (and today electronic technology) overcomes barriers of time and place, translation overcomes barriers of medium. But if there were complete commonality, there would be no need to

Communicate. It is because we are partially divided from one another that communication is necessary; it is because we are partially united that it is possible. He calls this situation the invitation to rhetoric; and the object, the purpose, of rhetoric is to bring about a greater degree of unity, or, as he calls it, identification. One of the features of this theory is that it typically perceives communication as taking place most effectively when the power is most evenly distributed between the source and the recipient. That Burke’s theory connects with Augustine’s is no accident: Burke was himself a student of

Augustine and his The Rhetoric of Religion draws upon Augustine’s work. The theological nature of his theory of Identification is apparent. He does not specifically attribute this theory to the influence of Augustine, but for anyone familiar with the work of both, that influence strongly suggests itself.


Thus the introduction of the transcendent element, the divinity, in Augustine’s Christian theory, equalizes the rhetorical relationship of speaker and audience, and leans towards a model of Identification. This identification ties in with “charity” which is union of participation and identification guided by “signs” and “interpretation”. In this it seems that it is consistent with the integrative nature of other parts of the Augustinian theory of rhetoric, based as it is upon the principle of charity. It might even be said that the supreme act of identification − the equalizing of the sender and the recipient − is the incarnation: here indeed the divine humility brings itself down to a level at which communication becomes possible in an entirely new way. And it is this model which seems to be at the heart of Augustine’s rhetorical theory.

Work Cited

Kennedy, George A. Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1980.

Augustine, On Chritian Doctrine, trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr. (Prentice-Hall, 1958).

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Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1950.

—. The Rhetoric of Religion: Studies in Logology. Boston: Beacon, 1961.

Melville, Herman. The Confidence-man: His Masquerade, Penguin Classics, 1991.

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"Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine Literary Criticism." StudyCorgi, 26 Aug. 2021,

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