Near the bulk of St. Augustine’s On Christine Doctrine discusses the role of secular learning. This is surprising because the text promises to reveal how to understand and teach Scripture. Augustine’s approach only makes sense if reading Scripture requires us to become proficient in reading the world.
At the outset, Augustine challenges objections to sacred teaching. There have always been people who have argued that there is no human instruction that pertains to faith. Augustine argues that while God can directly instruct an individual without any human aid, he normally instructs people through people. The very role of a preacher as teacher is evidence of this fact.
An implicit corollary to this argument is that while God can directly teach us about Himself and the Scriptures, without previous knowledge of the world, its language, or its practices, the ordinary course of learning for Christians involves and requires a knowledge of created and human things.
For instance, no one reads or hears the Scriptures without a knowledge of language. No one learns about righteousness, law, grace, or history, without also having some sense of these things, or a familiarity with their principles.
While God can directly illuminate the mind, teach someone to read Scripture, or reveal Himself without the use of intervening knowledge, this is not ordinary, and there is a reason for this which I hope to make clear.
God makes use of human teachers, of created realities, and of our general experience and learning in order that using these things we might come to understand Him. God alone is the true Teacher, but he is glad to share this office with his ministers (cf. 1 Tim. 2:7). God is the true Word, but he is glad to use the words of creation and human language as pedagogues unto Him (cf. Psalm 19). It is God’s pleasure to involve the whole of creation in the act of communication. A sign of this is the existence of angels, God’s messengers, who while strictly speaking were not necessary, were yet included in the structure of God’s ordered cosmos–perhaps because He is pleased that there be beings which are incorporated into giving Him and sharing in His Glory.
That Which is First
What is first and foremost, knowledge of God, is not first to us. We do not begin with an understanding of God, but begin to progress in such knowledge through faith and study. We do not begin with the most important things, but arrive at them through secondary things.
First, this is precisely the Aristotelian dictum which states: that what is first in itself is not first to us. That is, the principle and central reality (even the cause of all other realities) is not for man what is known with clarity at first. We have humbler origins. Our knowledge develops by degrees. Our awareness and grasp of what is most true comes to be clear to us only over time.
Second, that which is truly first, though obscure to us and not first in our understanding is yet truly primary . It is both the cause of these secondary realities, and the cause of our journey, of our progress from what is first to us to what is first in itself.
Therefore it truly is grace which superintends the creation, our first beginnings, and our being lead from such beginnings unto the true Beginning of all. In this way God is the Alpha and Omega, before all, and in all, and through all.
For this reason secular learning need not and must not be seen to be inimical to sacred learning. The study of the profane, for Augustine, is the study of a creation by which, all along, God has intended to lead His people to Him. By the grace of God , it indeed does.
The creation has not an internal efficacy in itself to accomplish this, but this does not mean we can cast it aside as useless.
When Peter declared Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” “flesh and blood” (the creation) did not cause such a recognition, but the “Father” alone (Matt. 16:15-16). Yet Peter’s response concerned and was contextualized by his experience, part of which was an experience of and through flesh and blood.
Peter declared the man who stood before him to be the Christ, and declared him to be so in light of his experience (Scriptural and personal). So that while it was the Father alone who revealed the identity of Jesus to Peter, what was revealed concerned and confirmed things Peter had already come to know, if imperfectly.
It would be absurd to think of Peter making such a declaration, having never met Jesus. While it was not by the power of flesh and blood that such a declaration is ever made, it never without flesh and blood.
In this manner, Christianity reveals itself to be the religion of both/and, a Faith which preserves the grandeur, authority and sovereignty of God, even while it shows how God honors and loves His Creation.
There is no contradiction when God uses his creation as a pedagogue unto Him. Nor is it a problem that the creation prepares us to receive and understand truths which of ourselves we could never attain. Thus Augustine, that famous Platonist, can indeed be associated with Aristotle, in so far as He too accepts and recognizes the significance of the distinction between that which is better known to us versus that which is clearer and better known by nature.
On Christian Doctrine is an excellent reminder that secular learning, rightly understood, is a forerunner to sacred knowledge. Secular knowledge when humbly perused to the glory of God, is often blessed by greater understanding of God’s self-revelation. The teaching and learning of men is never a threat to faith if we recall that such is never alone sufficient in itself.
*Even when Saul became Paul, his encounter only made sense in the context of a Jew with knowledge of the Scriptures and the Christian people. The event was a direct encounter with the Word, a Word Saul had known all along, albeit insufficiently.