If we wish to return to our Father’s home, this world must be used, not enjoyed, that so the invisible things of God may be clearly seen, being understood by […]
If we wish to return to our Father’s home, this world must be used, not enjoyed, that so the invisible things of God may be clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made—that is, that by means of what is material and temporary we may lay hold upon that which is spiritual and eternal. (On Christian Teaching Book 1, ch. 4)
So wrote St Augustine in the opening chapters of On Christian Teaching, his short guide to understanding and expositing Scripture. A first-time reader might be surprised to discover that it isn’t until halfway through the text that Augustine gets into any interpretative or rhetorical principles. First, he needs to ensure that we don’t miss the point.
According to Augustine, there are two distinctions that the Christian must bear in mind in approaching God’s word, which are therefore the ground zero of Christian education: the distinction between things and signs, and between enjoyment and use.
Let’s start with the difference between things and signs. A sign is something that points beyond itself, like these words you’re reading now. When you read, you’re not focusing on the squiggles on the screen, but on the meaning they convey. But then suppose you start paying attention to the squiggles themselves, and ignoring their meaning: now you’re thinking about them as things.
A sign has a direction built into it. If you focus on the thing that does the pointing and miss what it is pointing to, you are, well, missing the point. And if you make a mistake about which direction the sign is pointing, and misinterpret it, you are also missing the point. Hopefully the relevance for understanding Scripture is becoming apparent. Augustine is setting out a standard for correct interpretation: getting the direction right.
But it turns out that it isn’t only signs that have this in-built directionality. So do things—whether the thing be a squiggle, a hammer, a horse or a human being. This brings us to the distinction between enjoyment and use:
To enjoy a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake. To use, on the other hand, is to employ whatever means are at one’s disposal to obtain what one desires, if it is a proper object of desire; for an unlawful use ought rather to be called an abuse. (Ibid.)
Every thing has a purpose. It is to be enjoyed for itself, or used for the sake of enjoying something else. If we enjoy something we ought to use, or bend it away from its proper use, we miss the point.
Surrounded by things bent by human hands, in a world that tells us that things are whatever we make of them, it is easy for Christians to miss the point of it all: Every thing in the world, including we ourselves, exists for the sake of the triune God. Which means that to properly receive all the things God has placed in our lives we must learn to use them in worship. And it means that to know the true natures of things is to learn to recognise them as signs which point our hearts to God in love.
The vision Augustine provides of Christian learning is expansive, demanding and thoroughly compelling—which is why it was the first text I taught for Emmanuel College’s philosophy course this year. It is expansive because nothing falls outside its scope—all things are things! Demanding, because it is not enough just to grasp the general principle; we must also learn how it bears on each and every thing. And it is a compelling response to the chest-less credential-hunting of modern educational institutions—case studies in missing the point—through the unity of heart and mind in worship of the triune God.
– Jemimah Wilson