The name Enarrationes in Psalmos was not coined by Augustine, but by Erasmus about a thousand years later. (To Augustine, these sermons were probably “loose leaves,” and never bound into a series of volumes.) Enarrationes can best be translated into English as “explanations” or as “wanderings” in the sense that they used the verses of a psalm as a springboard for his written “wanderings” about practical Christian living.
This huge work by Augustine reinforces much about his great interest in preaching, his knowledge of Scripture, his application to lengthy tasks, his sense of practical Christianity and his theology. It was the product of Augustine’s achieved attention of preaching his way line-by-line through all 150 biblical psalms by way of a commentary for other preachers.
Augustine fulfilled this task between the years 392 and 418, the Enarrationes gives a view of the development of Augustine’s thought during his years as a priest and during his early and middle years as a bishop. Even though the compilation grew to be twice the length of his longest book, De civitate Dei (“City of God”), Augustine did not include it in his Retractiones (i.e., his list of his books and a clarification of the contents at the end of his life) because he considered it as part of his collection of sermons.
Possidius, the friend and biographer of Augustine, included what is now called the Enarrationes in his Augustinian catalogue, the Indiculus. Most of these homilies on sections of psalms were preached, and were transcribed by secretaries who sat in the congregation as Augustine preached them. That they have come to us verbatim is indicated by real-life comments that were included. These remarks by Augustine show much about his preaching style. These remarks range from his apologising for preaching at such length, his reference by name to a specific person in the congregation, the explanation that a homily would be brief because of a funeral service happening soon afterwards, and his response about reactions he noticed in the congregation to what he was preaching.
In the Enarrationes, Augustine’s intent was not a scholarly exegesis or explanation of the psalms as Old Testament literature, but a plan to indicate what they could illuminate about God’s Will and Christian living for Augustine himself and his listeners. He preached on the pslams in the context of the death and resurrection of Christ, and of the totus Christus (“the whole Christ”). In the Enarrationes, Augustine openly admitted his intention to explain the difficult and obscure passages rather than ones that were self-evident. Nor did he focus on the exact literal sense of the verses, but on what he sensed were the Christian implications hidden within them.
He said that he was removing the roof of the outer meaning of the psalms so as to reveal Christ hidden within it. Rather than speak in ways only accessible to spiritually sophisticated persons, Augustine intentionally instructed the “little ones” in his congregation within the Church at Hippo; these were the ones of any age who were new to the Faith.
The Enarrationes in Psalmos, together with Augustine’s In Iohannis evangelium (“On the Gospel of John”) and In epistolam Iohannis (“On the Epsitle of John”) form a special category within Augustine’s writings, that of being homiletic commentaries. AN2120