The Inner Harmony of Scripture
The driving motive behind so much of Augustine’s exegesis of biblical texts is to establish the inner harmony or concordance of scripture. The Bible, being God’s word, can never contradict itself. It must all be teaching the same, Catholic, doctrine… Augustine shared this approach with all the Fathers. If it is combined with a narrow literalism, it will inevitably lead the interpreter to play tricks with the texts, to deny the undeniable and affirm the unaffirmable…Hardly anyone is concerned to interpret the Bible as a whole. And this was the concern of the Fathers.
Edmund Hill, footnote on Sermon 1 of Augustine.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
It is my hope that in all of my teaching of the scriptures, I communicate this simple truth that all scripture has an inner harmony or that there is a concordance with all of scripture. I think that on the one hand this is assumed in our circles, but on the other hand it is neglected. So let’s think through this a little bit.
I think on the one hand we do assume that scripture has an inner harmony. And this is a conviction of ours because we believe the scriptures are the very word of God written down for all the generations of God’s people. Just like the people in Jesus’ time knew that Jesus was going to come and quoted Old Testament scripture that wasn’t originally written to them. They saw that it was being fulfilled in Christ and in a way they’re showing us that the scriptures have this inner concordance. I like this word, concordance. It sounds all dry because we think of some dusty old book, but it’s derived from the Latin ‘with the heart’. And perhaps Augustine used the word more literally. There is a unified heart of the scriptures because they all come from the same source. Here again, I think we tend to presume this, and acknowledge that this is true. We can sometimes be tripped up though, because the singular source of scripture is God, but God speaks his word through vessels, his prophets. So the quality of the writing is quite varied. There is some high falutin’ poetry in Lamentations or some of the Psalms, and then there’s some rough Greek in say 2 Peter. And they each reflect the individual human author’s writing style, but they are communicating to us God’s message.
But Augustine warns against a strict literalism. He does two things at least. The first is that he teaches with a kind of humility. And this is because he both is aiming at that idea of concordance, of everything going together, but he’s not sure the pieces he’s suggesting are exactly the right interpretations. In our age, we have the temptation to be so hard and fast in our opinions in every interpretation, there’s no room for us to grow. Near the end of Augustine’s life, he published a book called, ‘Retractions,’ where he corrected his previous writings that he thought were wrong. He still attacked those he thought were dangerous heretics or schismatics, but he also didn’t overburden the congregation with hard lines of biblical interpretation everywhere. The second thing Augustine does, and that I don’t want to commend, is that to bring about a concordance he often jumped to a spiritual meaning. So when he’s talking about Jacob and Esau, he jumps to the spiritual meaning with Jacob and Esau (which has a strong Biblical tradition), but he also allegorizes many of the lesser items in the story including the lentils (which are of course…Egypt I think?). At some point, I’d suggest we restrain ourselves from overly spiritual meanings unless we can prove Biblical warrant. I am convinced we actually have a wonderful tradition of good Biblical Theology that engages with finding the inner harmony of the scriptures.
As to neglect, I do think that we also can be negligent of the inner harmony of scripture, and it is most often a passive thing. I think this especially arises when we neglect feeding ourselves spiritually from the word. And when we don’t feed ourselves, we’re not pursuing understanding the scriptures freshly. Instead, we rely on our past scriptural engagement. There are many people I meet, and there are some whose spiritual life has a foundation in their college small groups but never progressed beyond that. So a person might be able to quote the Romans Road, but they cannot say how God has used his word in their lives in the last year. The question is, have you studied God’s word in a deep enough way to understand how it fits in with the rest of the scriptures? If not, are we not neglecting this truth of the harmony of God’s word?
To close, one of the questions we often ask is, ‘Is there a unifying center?’ I think that we can say yes, there is one unifying center that easily governs the rest of scripture. Of course, the main unifying center is what we read in Luke 24: Jesus’ incarnational work is the center around which the rest of the Bible sings harmony. Although every verse in the Bible may not recall Christ, it in many ways was preparatory for Christ or a result of what he did. And so we can read even in Leviticus and ask, ‘How does this help me anticipate Christ?’ ‘How does this enlighten my understanding of Christ’s work?’ May we grow in our diligence in studying God’s word as it enlightens our souls and leads us to worship.