Augustine’s use of signs regarding the Incarnation and the Church in De Doctrina Christiana I-II

The discussion of signs in the first two books of De Doctrina Christiana is only possible because of two events in human history: The Incarnation and the foundation of the Church[1] (Mt 16:18). From them, Augustine derives the ability to talk about signification of things and events in scripture, not devoid of inherent meaning, but full of it through human cooperation. And by his discussion of signs as the “grammar of theology,”[2] the doctor of Hippo is able to craft a distinctly humanistic hermeneutic for untangling the wisdom abiding in the Holy Scriptures. By a strong clinging to The Incarnation, Augustine is able to be a highly experiential-based theologian, referring to the reality of mutable things (i.e. the created order) in order to assist in contributing to knowledge of God. By clinging strongly to the Church, Augustine is able to absorb into Christian tradition the wisdom within the seven pagan categories of learning (2.16). Combining these two approaches, Augustine avoids the modern bifurcation between experiential and analytic theology. He is seeking knowledge of the Trinity through his own erudite and rational investigation of scripture, assisted by grace.

The Incarnation is the key to unlocking the force behind Augustine’s signum-res distinction in De Doctrina Christiana. It is as though Augustine received a Rosetta Stone at baptism, which allowed him to understand the immutability of God and the world “in flux” without arriving at the metaphysical mistakes of his neo-platonic predecessors. He begins De Doctrina Christiana with an exposition of God as Wisdom (thus making the strongest possible link between God’s wisdom and Christian doctrine), though a wisdom intimately joined to human signification. The signification that God provides in the life of Christ and in scripture is first and foremost an adaption (1.23) to human beings, just as Christ adapted his call to love in John 21:15-19, and then transformed the meaning of that love from within the framework of human understanding. At the juncture of wisdom and human signification stands what might be an arbitrary process or ultimately meaningless endeavor[3], except for The Incarnation. Augustine writes,

All these meanings, then, derive their effects on the mind from each individual’s agreement with a particular convention. As this agreement varies in extent, so do their effects. People did not agree to use them because they were already meaningful; rather they became meaningful because people agreed to use them. (2.31)

Rather than focusing on the inherently empty nature of human convention in naming things, Augustine seeks to show how The Incarnate God accomplishes what man attempts in vain. It is not the process of naming which is broken; it is we who are terminally ill through our inclination to evil; we are remedied by Christ the Word. The context of the aforementioned excerpt is vituperation against divinations, though what follows is an invective against the empty meaning of auguries, and not against the giving of meaning itself.

Augustine’s genius is not just that he explains how human signification can be full of authentic meaning, but applies this principle to scripture in an interweaving and onion-layered way. A cursory reading of De Doctrina Christiana might appear as an unconnected patristic exegesis with no bearing on essential doctrine at all. His genius in that as he works through the seven pagan subjects of learning[4], the reader (and especially the modern reader) can test Augustine’s hermeneutic against each exegetical claim. Also at first glance, one might be tempted to value one exegetical remark over others. For example, his explanation of Mt 10:16 through the natural knowledge of snakes (2.59) seems more convincing than his explanation of the 40 days of fasting in Ex. 24:18 / Mt. 4:2. One involves the more “concrete” use of animal nature to explain the use of “snake” to signify, while the other exegetical remark engages in a more conjectural division of 40 into discernible and significant parts due to the communicative property of mathematics. Yet what is important is not that one of these exegetical remarks is more or less believable, but rather that Augustine is demonstrating the same skill of exegesis through the right use of human institution, convention and language. Just as the splintering of languages at Babel is demonstrative of the bad (proud) use of human institutions to give meaning, Pentecost represents the transformative power of the Holy spirit to infuse objective and clear meaning into words which the Apostles use well (that is, in a spirit of humility). What is important for us is just that we give meaning with an undivided focus on the love of God and neighbor.  What is important for God is that God gives the gift of the res, desiring us to discover the ineffable knowledge of the Father. He then gives mankind the natural ability to “unpack” or “unwrap” the gift using our own faculties, and Grace in order to discern and illuminate the use of those faculties in exegetical work.[5] That this exegesis is a “purely” human endeavor does not detract from the value of meaning; rather, The Incarnation makes it possible for this human endeavor to be salvific. By relieving himself of the task of finding the hidden singular meaning of any given scriptural excerpt, Augustine navigates the straight between two perilous approaches to exegesis:


  1. The willy-nilly reading of scripture by someone spiritually and academically unprepared for exegesis, and
  2. The gnostic reading of scripture by someone who deigns some truth to be too profound and esoteric to be made for public digest.


The middle way between these two poles is the path of the “purified” theologian (2.23), one with faith seeking understanding, who’s ultimate instrument of scrutiny is the test of Charity. Augustine is a brilliant writer for demonstrating this method of illuminating signs; he is a brilliant theologian for giving examples of how this is accomplished; he is a brilliant rhetorician by making the case for a study of signs which weaves method and practice seamlessly in one piece of writing. That he should also be doing so as a bishop and caretaker of the Christian community is what makes him a Holy Saint.


Whereas The Incarnation provides the means by which God disseminates knowledge of Himself through human institutions, the Church provides the means by which man returns to God in worship through the institutions of Christ. The great return of mankind to God is through the institutions of sacramental signs.[6] What is so important to sacraments in Augustine is not only that have been crafted within the created order and by intelligible species, but that even given this they are still essentially mysterious, as the meaning of signs falls short of total understanding (2.6). The mediator which can give some meaning to these signs (the most important of these signs being the Blessed Trinity) while still pointing to a mystical source is the Church, which separates heresy from orthodoxy and paves the way for the future faithful. Augustine’s discussion of the canonical books in 2.28-29 may seem like a forgone conclusion, but his criterion for their selection remains important to us today. First and foremost, it seems that canonical scripture is decided on a mix of ecclesial authority and a democratic process[7], both among Churches and among the individual. Additionally, Augustine gives full sanction to human institutions setting global conditions for what are inspired signs and writings, and which are not. However, in a spirit of “believing and loving,” it seems that the well-intentioned theologian sees the truth of scripture and of doctrine not by supernatural revelation sans roots in the created world, but rather something much more mundane –that is, internal coherence:

It often happens that by thoughtlessly asserting something that the author did not mean, an interpreter runs up against other things which cannot be reconciled with that original idea. If he agrees that these things are true and certain, his original interpretation could not possibly be true, and by cherishing his own idea he becomes in some strange way to be more displeased with scripture than with himself.

 The approach of the Church and the creation of sacraments through signs occurs contrariwise: by the thoughtful and humble pilgrimage to truth in a spirit of Charity to all men, the Church approaches what the author did mean, an arrives at a state of internal coherence. In the excerpt above, Augustine probably has on his mind the various Trinitarian heresies, which are untenable positions because they are crafted outside the one narrated theological history of the Church, the bride of Christ for whom the Paraclete intervenes. But it is easy to understand that Trinitarian errors rapidly manifest themselves in the form of sacramental error (the Manichaean rejection of marriage; the muted efficacy of an Arian baptism, etc.). The meaning of the sign of Holy Eucharist was instituted by God the Father throughout all creation and especially manifest in the Jewish Passover; the power of the sacrament is communicated to the faithful through the intercession of the Holy Spirit, but the very standard by which the sacrament is to signify things was done by the Lord Jesus Christ, a man who would shortly thereafter die on a cross. In other words, the infinite came into the finite world, fashioning finite things that lead back to infinity. While The Incarnation illuminates why the Last Supper was not manna falling from Heaven but a hasty sacrificial meal in an attic, the institution of the Church illuminates God’s desire to work within the perceptible created world to draw us back up to Heaven. Augustine’s theory of signs begins with God’s gift of wisdom, but the bulk of De Doctrina Christiana is a study of the reception of that gift this side of Heaven.


Modern language theorists with a penchant for rhetoric will never exhaust themselves of fodder for consideration within De Doctrina Christiana. Yet for the clarity and precision provided by the signumres distinction, there is at least one point of tension in Augustine’s work which gives me pause. In The Cathechism of the Catholic Church it says that:

…the one name that contains everything is the one that the Son of God received in his Incarnation: JESUS. The divine name may not be spoken by human lips, but by assuming our humanity The Word of God hands it over to us and we can invoke it: “Jesus,” “YHWH saves.” The name “Jesus” contains all: God and man and the whole economy of creation and salvation. To pray “Jesus” is to invoke him and to call him within us. His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies. Jesus is the Risen One, and whoever invokes the name of Jesus is welcoming the Son of God who loved him and who gave himself up for him. (CCC 2666) [emphasis mine]

The name of Jesus is unique in that it signifies what it means, and vice versa. If I say “horse,” I signify the animal but do not invoke its existence (that is, I can’t make a horse appear out of thin air no matter how many times I say the word “horse”). Very nearly all words imply the chasm between signum and res in this regard, “for a sign is a thing which of itself makes some other thing come to mind, besides the impression that it represents to the senses.” (2.1) However, there is one word which does not have this chasm. Jesus’ name, which means God Saves, is special. When I invoke the name of Jesus, as the Catechism implies, I at the same time and without that chasm beseech God to save me—and He responds with love, instantly, through the New Covenant. This is done by the unity of Jesus The Word and Jesus in The Flesh as explained in the prologue to John, which Augustine uses as a springboard to the discussion of signs and meaning in 1.26.

I believe Augustine completely overlooks the very uniqueness of The Word Jesus, and I am not convinced his signum—res distinction holds in the case of the invocation of Jesus’ name. What is different with the name of Jesus is not the signum nor the res but the hyphen denoting separation at all. The humble invocation of Jesus in prayer is the foundation of all the sacraments, the surest route to a greater, simpler, purer and wiser love of the Holy Trinity. For it is in this invocation that Augustine’s signum—res distinction collapses into a single infinite point.


[1] Specifically, the implicit ecclesiology that posits the Church as the vehicle for the dissemination of wisdom of God.

[2] A term borrowed from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, par. 371-3

[3] i.e. an essentially feckless version of Adam’s naming of things in Gen 2:19-20

[4] Augustine is surely paralleling the Christian ascent towards wisdom in Book I with the ascent to ethics through abstraction in the greek framing of the liberal arts in Book II.

[5] All we read in De Doctrina Christiana is, afterall, “what the Lord has deigned” to give Augustine (2.152)

[6] This is a narrow topic taken up specifically by many today; the earliest modern discussion of it is by H.-M. Féret, O.P. in his article Res dans la langue theologique de saint Augustin, in Rev. des scienccs phil. et theol.,

29.1940. pp. 2I8-243.

[7] Augustine’s panegyric to the King Ptolemy II and the Alexandrian Jews raises an interesting question about to what degree he believed the Holy Spirit to be involved in their work as a council.

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