Thus a reading that results in greater love for God and for neighbor, no matter how poor the exegesis, is in some real sense good. Those who read in this way—maybe our mothers-in-law—are mistaken, Augustine says, “in the same sort of way as people who go astray off the road, but still proceed by rough paths to the same place as the road was taking them to. Still, they must be put right, and shown how much more useful is it not to leave the road, in case they get into the habit of deviating from it, and are eventually driven to take the wrong direction altogether.” Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana 1.36.41, from the translation, Teaching Christianity, trans. Edmund Hill (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1996), 124.
Good exegetical skills, reading for the authorial/Authorial intent, are important guidelines for our reading now and in the future, and thus they should be learned and taught to others. But we must never mistake these means for the real end—developing a posture and practice of love for God and neighbor. And to the question of how we speak to our mother-in-law about her reading, Augustine would be the third person, I’m sure (after Jesus and Paul), to remind us to speak in such a way that we too promote the twin love.
Jonathan T. Pennington is an associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary.
Adapted from Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction (Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2012), used by permission. pp. 139-141