Augustine: Allegory and the Good Samaritan

Augustine often receives a bad rap for some of his allegorical exegesis. This is especially true of his interpretation of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10.29–37)[1], which has become the whipping boy for the supposed dangers of allegory. The Samaritan is Christ, the animal of the Samaritan is the flesh of Christ, the man coming down from Jericho is Adam, the robbers are the Satan and his minions, the inn is the church and inn keeper is the apostle. Modern day Hermeneutics 101: do not interpret the text like Augustine[2]!

But what would Augustine have to say against the charge of his “fanciful” interpretation?

In an essay by Ronald Teske[3] he gives three responses that Augustine may have given based on other writings on hermeneutics.

From The Confessions and his discussion of the creation account he argues that one may seek to determine what the author of Genesis intended but we shouldn’t stop there but we should also determine other truths that the passage shows us. Therefore, one may try to determine what Luke was saying in the parable but Luke would also want us to find other truths within the parable even if he did not have them in mind (354–55).

Second, it is true that Augustine does seek to find the sense or intent of what the author was writing but contrary to modern day exegesis he does not stop there. Some interpretations are hidden therefore we should “choose only that interpretation which sound faith prescribes” (355)[4]. We are also allowed to seek the truth that Scripture speaks of elsewhere to help us understand a passage. Also, lest we forget the divine author of Scripture, we can also see interpretations that “the Spirit of God who produced the passage through him certainly foresaw (356).” A passage of Scripture is not limited by the human author’s intent. Teske argues, “Augustine’s christological interpretation of the parable is in full accord with the Christian faith and also makes the point most effectively which John clearly taught in his Gospel (356).” Augustine’s allegorical interpretation aligns with a canonical reading of the Gospels as well.

Finally, Scriptural interpretation should ultimately lead to the love of God and love of neighbor. One may be able to get a sense of the words and exegete that authorial intention of a passage but if that has not led the reader to a greater love for God and neighbor that interpretation is in vain. Augustine’s interpretation of the parable is indeed useful for this purpose.

On the surface it may seem that Augustine produces an interpretation that is not in accord with proper hermeneutical methods. Augustine reads the parable in multiple ways: a “literal” interpretation along with a allegorical/christological interpretation. He does not limit himself to the historic sense but opens the text up to be read canonically, christologically, and ultimately in a way that builds up love of God and love of neighbor.

The image is Vincent van Gogh’s painting of the good samaritan. Image Credit: Art and the Bible

  1. David Gowler has a helpful series of posts on Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan: Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3  ↩

  2. It should also be noted that elsewhere Augustine does interpret the parable in a similar way as modern day exegetes by explaining that the parable shows us who is truly our neighbor. See Sermo CCXCIX and Contra mendacium.  ↩

  3. Roland Teske. “The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29–37) in Augustine’s Exegesis.” In Augustine: Biblical Exegete, edited by Frederick Van Fleteren and Joseph C. Schnaubelt, 2 edition., 347–57. New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2001.  ↩

  4. De Genesi ad litteram I,xxi,41: CSEL XXVIII,31  ↩