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Augustine Against the Fundamentalists

(Here, Mark Achtemeier borrows an illustration from Augustine of how we all sometimes use our own experience as a standard for interpreting scripture.)

Let me illustrate what I found with a little piece of humor that Saint Augustine threw into an Easter evening sermon he preached in 407 A.D. The joke comes in the course of comments on 1 John 2:6, where it says that those who abide in Christ “ought to walk in the same way he walked. ” Well what does this mean, to walk in the same way that Jesus walked, asks Augustine? Jesus walked on water! So surely walking in the same way he walked means we should walk on water, too. Doesn’t that make sense? [1]

We chuckle at this. But why do we immediately recognize this as a joke? It’s not like Augustine’s suggestion isn’t biblical, after all. Memory of Jesus walking on the water is well-attested in the Gospels. [2] The Bible even talks about Jesus’ followers trying it, when Peter gets out of the boat. It’s then of course that we discover how well-chosen was his nickname, “The Rock!”

So why don’t we fasten on these stories when we hear John telling us to walk in the same way Jesus walked? The short answer is, this particular way of interpreting the Bible contradicts our experience. People who try to walk on non-frozen bodies of water tend to fail at it pretty consistently. However pious we are, however seriously we try to take the Scripture, that is a fact of experience we can’t get around.

So when we acknowledge that walking on water like Jesus did is impossible for ordinary people, and on that basis abandon Augustine’s proposed interpretation of 1st John, does that mean we are elevating our experience above the authority of the Bible? Of course not! What it means is that we must find another interpretation of this passage that makes better sense of what we experience in the world. And so it is that Augustine finally suggests to his hearers that walking in the way Jesus walked means following the path of righteousness and charity that he pursued on his way to the cross. Is Augustine playing fast and loose with Scriptural authority by this suggestion? To the contrary, he is taking that authority seriously!

This is a hugely important point. There is a vast difference between vetoing what the Bible says on the basis of experience, and looking for understandings of the Bible that make powerful sense of our experience.

- Mark Achtemeier, "And Grace Will Lead Me Home: Inclusion and Evangelical Conscience," address delivered at the 2009 Covenant Network of Presbyterians Conference, November  30, 2009

1 Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on the First Epistle of John. Trans. Boniface Ramsey; The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century III/14. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2008), p. 31.

2 Mat. 14:22-36, Mk. 6:30-44, Jn 6:16-21