St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, Book II, Ch. 40
CHAP. 40.--WHATEVER HAS BEEN RIGHTLY SAID BY THE HEATHEN, WE MUST APPROPRIATE TO OUR USES.
60. Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves were not making a good use of;(1) in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God's providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,--that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,--we must take and turn to a Christian use.
Book III, Ch. 5
CHAP. 5.--IT IS A WRETCHED SLAVERY WHICH TAKES THE FIGURATIVE EXPRESSIONS OF SCRIPTURE IN A LITERAL SENSE.
9.But the ambiguities of metaphorical words, about which I am next to speak, demand no ordinary care and diligence. In the first place, we must beware of taking a figurative expression literally. For the saying of the apostle applies in this case too: "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life."(2) For when what is said figuratively is taken as if it were said literally, it is understood in a carnal manner. And nothing is more fittingly called the death of the soul than when that in it which raises it above the brutes, the intelligence namely, is put in subjection to the flesh by a blind adherence to the letter. For he who follows the letter takes figurative words as if they were proper, and does not carry out what is indicated by a proper word into its secondary signification; but, if he hears of the Sabbath, for example, thinks of nothing but the one day out of seven which recurs in constant succession; and when he hears of a sacrifice, does not carry his thoughts beyond the customary offerings of victims from the flock, and of the fruits of the earth. Now it is surely a miserable slavery of the soul to take signs for things, and to be unable to lift the eye of the mind above what is corporeal and created, that it may drink in eternal light.
CHAP. 12.--RULE FOR INTERPRETING THOSE SAYINGS AND ACTIONS WHICH ARE ASCRIBED TO GOD AND THE SAINTS, AND WHICH YET SEEM TO THE UNSKILLFUL TO BE WICKED.
18. Those things, again, whether only sayings or whether actual deeds, which appear to the inexperienced to be sinful, and which are ascribed to God, or to men whose holiness is put before us as an example, are wholly figurative, and the hidden kernel of meaning they contain is to be picked out as food for the nourishment of charity. Now, whoever uses transitory objects less freely than is the custom of those among whom he lives, is either temperate or superstitious; whoever, on the other hand, uses them so as to transgress the bounds of the custom of the good men about him, either has a further meaning in what he does, or is sinful. In all such matters it is not the use of the objects, but the lust of the user, that is to blame. Nobody in his sober senses would believe, for example, that when our Lord's feet were anointed by the woman with precious ointment,(1) it was for the same purpose for which luxurious and profligate men are accustomed to have theirs anointed in those banquets which we abhor. For the sweet odor means the good report which is earned by a life of good works; and the man who wins this, while following in the footsteps of Christ, anoints His feet (so to speak) with the most precious ointment. And so that which in the case of other persons is often a sin, becomes, when ascribed to God or a prophet, the sign of some great truth. Keeping company with a harlot, for example, is one thing when it is the result of abandoned manners, another thing when done in the course of his prophecy by the prophet Hosea.(2) Because it is a shamefully wicked thing to strip the body naked at a banquet among the drunken and licentious, it does not follow that it is a sin to be naked in the baths.
CHAP. 25.--THE SAME WORD DOES NOT ALWAYS SIGNIFY THE SAME THING.
35. But as there are many ways in which things show a likeness to each other, we are not to suppose there is any rule that what a thing signifies by similitude in one place it is to be taken to signify in all other places. For our Lord used leaven both in a bad sense, as when He said, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,"(1) and in a good sense, as when He said, "The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened."(2)
36. Now the rule in regard to this variation has two forms. For things that signify now one thing and now another, signify either things that are contrary, or things that are only different. They signify contraries, for example, when they are used metaphorically at one time in a good sense, at another in a bad, as in the case of the leaven mentioned above. Another example of the same is that a lion stands for Christ in the place where it is said, "The lion of the tribe of Judah hath prevailed;"(3) and again, stands for the devil where it is written, "Your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour."(4) In the same way the serpent is used in a good sense, "Be wise as serpents;"(5) and again, in a bad sense, "The serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty."(6) Bread is used in a good sense, "I am the living bread which came down from heaven;"(7) in a bad, "Bread eaten in secret is pleasant."(8) And so in a great many other cases. The examples I have adduced are indeed by no means doubtful in their signification, because only plain instances ought to be used as examples. There are passages, however, in regard to which it is uncertain in what sense they ought to be taken, as for example, "In the hand of the Lord there is a cup, and the wine is red: it is full of mixture."(9) Now it is uncertain whether this denotes the wrath of God, but not to the last extremity of punishment, that is, "to the very dregs;" or whether it denotes the grace of the Scriptures passing away from the Jews and coming to the Gentiles, because "He has put down one and set up another,"--certain observances, however, which they understand in a carnal manner, still remaining among the Jews, for "the dregs hereof is not yet wrung out." The following is an example of the same object being taken, not in opposite, but only in different significations: water denotes people, as we read in the Apocalypse,(10) and also the Holy Spirit, as for example, "Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water;"(11) and many other things besides water must be interpreted according to the place in which they are found.