What Augustine offers us here is reminiscent of similar ladders of ascent to God which we can find elsewhere in Augustine, and in the Christian tradition both before and after him, and indeed more widely. They are ways in which the soul prepares itself for knowledge of, union with, God; they consist of purification of the soul by the practice of the virtues. In the Christian tradition such ‘ladders’ reach back to Plato and the Platonic tradition, where the virtues are seen as restoring man to harmony with himself, and thus enabling him to accomplish that for which he was made: the vision of God. We can then join together – or rather see the deeper connection between – Augustine’s emphasis on human tradition, as underlying any human enterprise of knowing and coming to understanding, and his adumbration of an approach to the Scriptures as a way of spiritual ascent to the knowledge of God; for they both spring out of an understanding of Christian paideia that is continuous with, and a development of, the understanding of paideia developed among the Greeks, and in particular given classical expression in the works of Plato.
Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery. An Essay on the Nature of Theology, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1983) 82.
In this chapter entitled “Tradition and the Tacit” Louth builds on his earlier discussion on how we come to know, and particularly on Polanyi’s emphasis on the community and tradition in which one learns to perceive and to know, and on Gadamer’s emphasis on tradition as bearing the preconditions necessary for us coming to know and on our initiation into this tradition. He points to how the Greek notion of paideia was taken up by the Fathers, so that both Irenaeus and Origen developed theological approaches that revolved around the notion of paideia. This meant taking the social nature of human beings seriously, and played a central role in their rejection of Gnosticism and their assertion of the goodness of creation. Even when rejecting paganism, they often did so by appealing to a pristine human condition.
Louth proceeds to consider Saint Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine which he sees, following Marrou, as referring to a broader “culture” rather than a narrowly defined “doctrine”. Augustine saw Christian paideia as distinct from pagan learning but not from human culture, indeed it restores a truly human culture, a culture learnt within the community of faith. To the objection that faith is a gift from God, Augustine responds that such people “should remember that they have learned at least the alphabet from men.” (78) He considers the refusal to learn as a form of pride which isolates us from the community.
Augustine distinguishes between things as they are in themselves and the signs that point us to them. Dealing with things as they are in themselves brings us to the level of love. Only God is loved for his own sake, while the love of people should lead us to him: hence “our love can only be properly ordered when we submit in humility to learn from the Incarnate Word of God.” (79) It is this love that Scripture teaches us, and it does so through signs. Augustine distinguishes between signa naturalia (such as smoke as a sign of fire), which, while important in communicating, are not a particularly developed form of communication, and signa data, which we have developed for communication and of which words are the most important example. These signa data rely on consent for their efficacy and it is such consent that makes human society possible. Louth comments:
Augustine’s whole discussion of language and signs, with the important place it gives to the notion of consent, emphasizes the way in which the whole enterprise of human understanding is something that cannot be understood in a purely individualistic manner, but on the contrary depends upon and grows out of a shared tradition, a common sense. And in fact for the most part Augustine means by this shared tradition, this common sense, a shared human tradition, a common human sense. (80)
Augustine takes us a step further, however, by showing us how we are to approach and use Scripture in order to come to knowledge of God. His ladder with seven steps takes us from fear of God, through piety which results in a receptive spirit making us willing to learn, through the knowledge that we need in order to understand the Scriptures. Here Augustine is not concerned with any sort of method “but rather a deep familiarity with the language and content of the Scriptures,” a reading that Congar referred to as sapiential. (81) As a result of this encounter with Scripture “the student discerns from Scripture that he is enmeshed in the love of this world, a love very remote from the kind of love of God and of our neighbour that the Scriptures commend.” This discovery requires fortitude so as not to fall into despair and this is followed by the counsel of mercy by which we are urged to love our neighbour and which leads to a purging of the mind. In the next step we are filled with love for the enemy and the final step is sapientia, or wisdom. Louth comments:
‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ : that sentence from Proverbs is drawn out by Augustine into a ladder by means of which we ascend through Scripture to wisdom, knowledge of God not in the sense of knowledge about God, but rather of communion with him. (82)