The church needs more Hippos

April 18th, 2016

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the first time I ever heard the name Augustine of Hippo, I thought he was some sort of religious cartoon character.

Granted, I was a wee lad at the time, but it definitely took me a bit of time to come to grips with the fact that St. Augustine was, in fact, not a talking hippo created to teach Bible stories to children.

As I would eventually come to learn, St. Augustine of Hippo was (and remains) one of the towering figures in Church history. His influence on Christian theology in the West can’t be overstated as works like "City of God" and "Confessions" are still in print some sixteen centuries after his death.

But it’s a lesser-known theological contribution that I love most about St. Augustine. It appears in a work entitled "De Doctrina Christiana" (On Christian Doctrine) and is, without question, the best and most Christ-centered rule for reading and interpreting scripture that I’ve ever seen. And in the age of “religious freedom,” wherein context-less Bible verses have become a sanctified arsenal for excluding, condemning and silencing anyone and everyone who makes us uncomfortable, I can’t think of a more critically important tool for the Church to rediscover and reorient our reading of scripture around. Not just because St. Augustine was a theological giant (though he was), but also because his hermeneutical approach was derived straight from the lips of Jesus himself.

Recall, if you will, the story of the Pharisees testing Jesus in Matthew 22.

As they were so often want to do, the Pharisees were looking for yet another opportunity to have their decisive theological “gotcha” moment with Jesus and thereby expose him as the heretical rabble-rouser he obviously was. According to Matthew, the Sadducees had just missed their opportunity, but the Pharisees were confident that, unlike their ideological counterparts, they would not be “silenced” by this young upstart who held such a clear disdain for scripture.

One of them, an expert in the law, tested Jesus with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Now, this wasn’t exactly a strange question to ask. Religious leaders in Jesus’ day would often debate such matters, even though you kind of had to agree they were all important and great because they all came from God. But trick question or not, the question of which law was the greatest was still important because whatever answer was given would reveal the theological foundation of the teacher being questioned.

As I’m sure you remember, Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Other Jewish preachers also pointed out the greatness of the command to love God and neighbor, but what makes Jesus’ response so important today (and back then, too) is that last little bit at the end — “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

For Jesus (and therefore for his followers as well), the intent, meaning, interpretation and application of every single divine law and prophetic command was and is shaped and wholly dependent upon the call to love God and neighbor. Try as you might, those laws and commands couldn’t really even be followed or fulfilled if one wasn’t first fully loving God and neighbor. The early Church understood this and would go on to build its foundation on this call to total love as can be seen clearly in their willingness to share everything in common, selling their property and possessions in order to give to anyone who had need.

Anthropomorphic cartoon character or not, St. Augustine of Hippo also recognized the obvious importance of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and made it both the foundation and guide for how he believed the Church should go about reading and interpreting scripture. According to Augustine, “the fulfillment and the end of the Law, and of all Holy Scripture” is love of God and love of neighbor. Therefore, “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”

To put it in somewhat more modern language, no matter how great you think your exegesis is or how confident you are in your proof-text, if your reading, interpretation and application of a biblical passage doesn’t lead you towards loving God and neighbor, you’re wrong.


Of course, this rule for reading scripture isn’t some sort of hermeneutical OxiClean. It doesn’t make all of those difficult passages in scripture magically disappear. But in a time when so many of us are so sure that the Bible is clear that those people are sinners, that those people should be treated differently, and that those people aren’t worthy of the kingdom of God, St. Augustine’s call to read the Bible through the lens of the Greatest Commandment should challenge all of us to pause and reconsider some, if not many, of our long held conclusions about what the Bible “clearly” says.

We shouldn't reconsider these because the culture we live in is changing, but because all those verses we love to quote so confidently hang on our love for God and neighbor. And without that love incarnated in our lives, everything else we say and do in the name of Jesus falls apart no matter how many Bible verse we have to “prove it.”

Which is why, now more than ever, we desperately need more Hippos in the Church, more people who are deeply and completely committed to the way of Jesus, even if it means sometimes having to admit we were wrong about what the Bible “clearly” has to say.

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