In 373, the 19 year old Augustine already had his first decisive experience of conversion
The internal unity of the Church’s Bible, which comprises the Old and New Testaments, was a central theme in the theology of the Church Fathers. That it was far from being a theoretical problem only is evident from dipping, so to speak, into the spiritual journey of one of the greatest teachers of Christendom, Saint Augustine of Hippo. His reading of one of the works of Cicero – Hortensius, since lost – brought about a profound transformation which he himself described later on as follows: “Towards you, O Lord, it directed my prayers. I began to pick myself up to return to you. How ardent I was, O my God, to let go of the earthly and take wing back to you” (Conf. III, 4, 81). For the young African who, as a child, had received the salt that made him a catechumen, it was clear that conversion to God entailed attachment to Christ; apart from Christ, he could not truly find God. So he went from Cicero to the Bible and experienced a terrible disappointment: in the exacting legal prescriptions of the Old Testament, in its complex and, at times, brutal narratives, he failed to find that Wisdom towards which he wanted to travel. In the course of his search, he encountered certain people who proclaimed a new spiritual Christianity, one which understood the Old Testament as spiritually deficient and repugnant; a Christianity in which Christ had no need of the witness of the Hebrew prophets. Those people promised him a Christianity of pure and simple reason, a Christianity in which Christ was the great illuminator, leading human beings to true self-knowledge. These were the Manicheans. 1
Augustine was unable to convert to the Christianity of the Catholic Church until he had learned, through Ambrose, an interpretation of the Old Testament that made transparent the relationship of Israel’s Bible to Christ and thus revealed that Wisdom for which he searched
The great promise of the Manicheans proved illusory, but the problem remained unresolved for all that. What was overcome was not only the exterior obstacle of an unsatisfactory literary form of the Old Latin Bible, but above all the interior obstacle of a book that was no longer just a document of the religious history of a particular people, with all its strayings and mistakes. Through the transparency of Israel’s long, slow historical journey, that reading of Israel’s Bible identified Christ, the Word, eternal Wisdom. It was, therefore, of fundamental importance not only for Augustine’s decision of faith; it was and is the basis for the faith decision of the Church as a whole.
It revealed instead a Wisdom addressed to all and came from God
But is all this true? Is it also demonstrable and tenable still today? From the viewpoint of historical-critical exegesis, it seems – at first glance, in any case – that exactly the opposite is true. It was in 1920 that the well-known liberal theologian Adolf Harnack formulated the following thesis: “The rejection of the Old Testament in the second century [an allusion to Marcion] was an error which the great Church was right in resisting; holding on to it in the 16th century was a disaster from which the Reformation has not yet been able to extricate itself; but to maintain it since the 19th century in Protestantism as a canonical document equal in value to the New Testament, that is the result of religious and ecclesial paralysis”. 2
Is Harnack right? At first glance several things seem to point in that direction. The exegetical method of Ambrose did indeed open the way to the Church for Augustine, and in its basic orientation – allowing, of course, for a considerable measure of variance in the details – became the foundation of Augustine’s faith in the biblical word of God, consisting of two parts, and nevertheless composing a unity. But it is still possible to make the following objection: Ambrose had learned this exegesis from the school of Origen, who had been the first to develop its methodology. But Origen, it may be said, only applied to the Bible the allegorical method of interpretation which was practised in the Greek world, to explain the religious texts of antiquity – in particular, Homer – and not only produced a hellenization intrinsically foreign to the biblical word, but used a method that was unreliable, because, in the last analysis, it tried to preserve as something sacred what was, in fact, only a witness to a moribund culture. Yet, it is not that simple. Much more than the Greek exegesis of Homer, Origen could build on the Old Testament interpretation which was born in a Jewish milieu, especially in Alexandria, beginning with Philo who sought in a totally appropriate way to introduce the Bible to Greeks who were long in search of the one biblical God beyond polytheism. And Origen had studied at the feet of the rabbis. He eventually developed specifically Christian principles: the internal unity of the Bible as a rule of interpretation, Christ as the meeting point of all the Old Testament pathways. 3