Augustine on the Use of History

“Whatever the subject called history reveals about the sequence of past events is of the greatest assistance in interpreting the holy books, even if learnt outside the church as part of primary education.” Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching II. XXVll., trans. R.P.H. Green (Oxford 1999), p. 55.

In his famous work on Christian teaching Augustine examines the use various subjects to support a proper understanding of the Bible.  History serves a significant role in that it examines God’s providential work in time.  This subject explains what has happened already and provides examples and guides for the teachers and students of holy Scripture.  In order to understand Augustine’s use of pagan and sacred history, then simply read his monumental work, The City of God.

“Historical narrative also describes human institutions of the past, but it should not for that reason be counted among human institutions.  For what has already gone into the past and cannot be undone must be considered part of the history of time, whose creator and controller is God.  There is a difference between describing what has been done and describing what must be done.  History relates past events in a faithful and useful way, whereas the books of haruspices and similar literature set out to teach things to be performed or observed, and offer impertinent advice, not reliable information.” Ibid., p. 56.

Haruspices were diviners in ancient Rome who read the entrails of animals to predict future events.  Augustine contrasts their unreliable predictions and teachings with the reliable information provided by divine providence through the examination of historical events.  According to Augustine, God controls history, not diviners, and the historical narrative reflects his handiwork.

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