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Thus we have the spiritual meaning of a text contrasted with the literal. There is no abler exponent of this distinction than Origen.' Origen insisted that many a Scripture text if taken in its literal meaning could only be misleading. When Isaiah2 foretold a time when the wolf shall dwell with the lamb' and • the lion shall eat straw like the ox ; ' or when God is represented as exclaimingit repenteth me that I have set up Saul to be King;' 3 or when the question is asked · shall there be evil in a city and the Lord hath not done it;'4 these and many similar passages must not be taken according to the letter, but according to the spirit : that is to say with a figurative meaning. Origen held that unedifying incidents in Old Testament history are to be interpreted simply as symbols of some sacred mystery.
The same symbolical interpretation was to be applied to the New Testament also.
The inner sense, the Divine meaning, is to be elicited by those who possess the mind of Christ. The literal historical interpretation might suffice for those who could advance no further, but the spiritual meaning lies - beyond. And we speak wisdom among them that are perfect.' This is the really religious and edifying use. We must go beyond the historical and literal Scripture into the very soul and Spirit of Scripture. Origen appeals to S. Paul's allegorical use of Old Testament incidents. They are shadows of heavenly things.'5 Origen further held that passages of Scripture which are incredible in their literal meaning
* Origen, De Principiis, Bk. iv, cc. 8-20. 91 Sam. xv. 11.
Amos iii. 6.
2 Isa. xi. 6. 5 Heb, viii. 5.
were providentially inserted with the express purpose of leading the readers to a spiritual interpretation.
Thus the story of the days of the Creation, and the Almighty walking in the Garden of Eden, or the high mountain where the Tempter displayed to Christ the Kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, are not literal but figurative, mystical, allegorical. We must understand them according to the spirit and not according to the letter. Thus also there are New Testament precepts (such as · Salute no man by the way,' or the order not to put on two coats) which also are to be spiritually understood. We are intended to go beyond the letter.
Origen was of course far too acute not to realize the dangerous extremes to which this distinction between the letter and the spirit might be pressed. He warned his readers not to imagine that no precept of Scripture was to be literally understood, or that Scripture was not based on solid facts, or that the Commandments of Christ were not to be taken according to the letter. But nevertheless he Taid such stress on the spirit as opposed to the letter that he encouraged a method of exegesis in which the letter tended to disappear.
This contrast between the letter and the spirit, between the external sense and the inner meaning, so profoundly characteristic of the Alexandriau School, was adopted from Origen by S. Ambrose, and was powerfully commended to Augustine in sermons preached in the Cathedral at Milan. 1
*Cf. Confessions, vi. 4.
The allegorical method of interpretation appealed strongly to Augustine, at the time when he heard Ambrose preach, because it provided him with an escape from various intellectual difficulties which the literal meaning of Scripture appeared to set in his way. Consequently he came to revel in this method. At a later period he employed it with greater caution, because he realized the enormous danger to religion caused by substituting allegory for fact. He gave emphatic warning on the subject in a passage in one of his popular sermons which stands in striking contrast with Ambrose's expositions. He told his people, above all things, in the name of the Lord, to regard the Scripture parrative as actual fact ne subtracto fundamento rei gestae quasi in aere quaeratis aedificare.'1
This then is the popular sense of the phrase ' the Letter and the Spirit. It is the contrast between the form and the substance, the transitory and the permanent, the accidental and the essential in religion. We have spent some time in explaining this because this is exactly what Augustine did not mean when he wrote the Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter'. He acknowledged indeed that the phrase is capable of being understood in this sense.
But the meaning which he intended is very widely different. And this popular use of the terms must be entirely dismissed if we are to grasp S. Augustine's teaching in the Treatise before us.
* Cf. Bindemann, i, 207n.
2 De Sp. et. lit. $ 6.
The title of Augustine's Treatise, “the Spirit and the Letter,' is derived from S. Paul's words in 2 Cor. iii. 6 ‘not that we are sufficient of ourselves, to account anything as from ourselves: but our sufficiency is from God; who also made us sufficient as ministers of a New Covenant; not of the letter but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.'
Now what S. Paul meant by the letter is, as S. John Chrysostomi explains, the Law : that is to say, the Jewish Law, the regulations of the Old Covenant. The letter is not the ceremonial law as distinguished from the moral law.
For when S. Paul selects a command of the Law as an illustration, what he selects is the command · thou shalt not covet.' This is not ceremonial law; it is moral. For the same reason, the Law which S. Paul intends is not Jewish Law as contrasted with Christian. For the command 'thou shalt not covet' belongs to the Christian Covenant as much as it does to the Jewish.
Now it is the essential nature of all law that it is a direction imposed upon the human will from without. It gives instruction as to human duty. It is intrinsically excellent. S. Paul says in Rom. vii. 14 we know that the law is spiritual.' Certainly adds Chrysostom, it is spiritual. But it by no means imparts the Spirit.' Thus the letter conveys knowledge. It gives instruction in moral and religious ideals. But it does not impart the ability to perform. And the consequence of this failure to secure achievement of what it enjoins is that the Law or letter kills". S. Paul means by this not physical death, but moral condemnation. The Law pronounces adverse judgment on the offender who has disobeyed it.
1 In loc. Gaume's Edition, x. 556.
Such is S. Paul's teaching about the Law or the letter. What then does he mean by the Spirit? By the Spirit he means the Holy Spirit, imparting grace to the human soul. When he says that the spirit 'giveth life,' what he means is that the living personal Spirit of God, acting upon the soul within, enables the human will to obey what the letter enjoins from without. And this influence of grace within the human personality creates in men the love of what is right; and accordingly induces a desire to fulfil the moral ideal which has been revealed. Thus the Spirit giveth life, life in the highest of all senses, the union of the soul with the source from whom all religious life proceeds.
This is S. Paul's contrast between the Letter and the Spirit. It is not in the least the contrast between the literal meaning of a precept and its higher sense. We are in an entirely different realm of religious conceptions. The letter is not the superficial meaning of a command. The spirit is not the highest interpretation which can be placed upon that command. For it is not true that the superficial meaning kills or