Thursday, July 07, 2005

Augustine of Hippo and Metaphor

One can witness this emphasis on metaphorical terminology in Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE). For instance, the ancient North African bishop openly suggests that rhetorical tropes are fundamental to Christian discourse or speech. One way he demonstrates the indispensability of metasememic terminology with respect to the Christian church is by favorably citing the ancient Hebrew prophets as examples of those who obscured celestial truths under the guise of figurative speech.[1] If one assumes that the prophets employed metaphor in the manner that Augustine indicates, one might still wonder why they utilized this particular rhetorical trope to shroud divine veritas.

<>There are two primary rationales for the prophetic use of metaphoricity to conceal truth, according to De doctrina Christiana. (1) Augustine contends that the holy prophets intentionally obscured divine verities by means of metasememes in order that the minds of the godly might be exercised and the mental faculties of the impious might be “converted to piety or shut out from a knowledge” of the divine mysteries.[2] (2) He further maintains that the Bible writers expressed themselves tropically so that God might grant his church an opportunity to partake in the supernal esteem vouchsafed to the sacred prophets of antiquity. While the dignity of the Christian church evidently does not equal that of the ancient Hebrew prophets, it nonetheless approaches the God-given glory of these mantic spokespersons, Augustine writes.[3] The inclusion of metaphor in Holy Writ, the ancient bishop insists, is what makes it possible for the ecclesia to partake of the prophets’ divinely imparted grandeur.[4]

Augustine further contends that there is yet another significant reason why metaphoricity features prominently in Scripture. Metaphor is one way that humans communicate theistic notions. He ultimately believes that there are three basic ways to articulate concepts about God. The threefold distinction that the bishop posits is substantial, relative and metaphorical predication. One cannot mentally grasp Augustine’s metaphorology unless he or she sorts out these three vital distinctions.[5]

[1] See Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana 4.7.15. Compare Divinae institutiones 1.11.24, 30.

[2] De doctrina Christiana 4.8.22.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Another reason that the Bible supposedly uses tropes to delineate the divine reality is highlighted by Augustine in De Trinitate 7.4.7: “The super-eminence of the Godhead surpasses the power of customary speech.” See Frye in Kimel, Speaking the Christian God, 33.

[5] On the Trinity, page xxxiii by Gareth B. Matthews.

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