In the year 396 Augustine had recently been made the assistant bishop of Hippo. Enfeebled by old age, Valerius, Bishop of Hippo, obtained the authorisation of Aurelius, Primate of Africa, to make Augustine his assistant bishop so as to stop another district choosing him as their spiritual leader. Augustine was then forty-two years of age, and was to be a bishop and to occupy the See of Hippo for thirty-four years.
The new bishop understood well how to combine the exercise of his pastoral duties with the austerities of the religious life. Although he left his monastery, his residence nearby became a monastery of sorts where he lived a communal life with his clergy, who bound themselves to observe religious poverty. Shortly after assuming the episcopate, Augustine began to write De Doctrina Christiana.
Translating the Latin title, De Doctrina Christiana, into English as simply "On Christian Doctrine" is inaccurate, as the book is not a compendium of Christian doctrine, but a treatise upon how Christian doctrine might be taught. An accurate title in English would be "On the Form of Teaching Suitable for Instructing Christians."
The first version ended at Book III: 25, 35. Toward the end of his life, however, in 426-427, Augustine added the end of the third book and the concluding fourth book. A fifth-century manuscript of De Doctrina Christiana in the Russian National Library at St Petersburg may possibly have been part of Augustine’s own library.
Twentieth-century Augustinian priest and scholar, Luc Verheijen O.S.A., indicates the first book ("section") of De Doctrina Christiana shows how, for Augustine, Scriptures guide us in the search for happiness. Indeed, the whole of Book I of the De Doctrina Christiana explains that "the end ... of all Scriptures is love" -- a love that respects the right order of things. It is by that right loving which Scriptures teaches that human beings journeys to that "thing" which alone can be enjoyed -- the Triune God -- in whom true blessedness is found. Anyone, therefore, who wishes to give others a Christian formation must take this into consideration."
About De Doctrina Christiana Augustine himself wrote in his Retractationes ("Retractions") in the year 426, "The first three books help in understanding Scripture; the fourth shows how one who has understood it should express himself." This was the foundation of a Christian education and the core of the developing Christian culture of Western Europe. This book is one of the most original that Augustine ever wrote. It dealt, explicitly, with the ties that had bound educated Christians to the culture of their age. It did this with such intellectual sharpness that it cut forever, in the mind of Augustine at least, the Gordian knot that had bound him to his past education. Indeed, Augustine was very instrumental in helping to create Latin Christendom. De Doctrina Christiana seems a very modern book for this reason.
Augustine will give a large place in education to the 'natural', and will be genuinely concerned in case the 'gifted' person be smothered by excessive rules and regulations. He will play off 'talent' against 'education'. Above all, he will attempt to bypass the most conscious element in Late Roman education, the great emphasis on the rules of speech: a good ear, a knack, and the social fact of hearing good Latin spoken is what Augustine offers by way of training as a substitute for the schools of rhetoric in which he had once made his career.
Within a year of his becoming a bishop, Augustine in the year 395 began writing on the art of preaching about the words of the Bible. In this work entitled De Doctrina Christiana the first two books ("chapters" in today's terminology) dealt with the preliminary studies required for a proper reading and interpretation of Scripture. He wrote: "There are certain rules for interpreting the Scriptures which, as I am well aware, can usefully be passed on to those with an appetite for such study ...."
Augustine wrote De Doctrina Christiana at about the same time as Confessions. It was meant to enable Christian students to interpret the Bible themselves and to help them communicate clearly to others. In so doing he provided an outline of Christian theology, and a discussion of ethical problems. He also made an orderly attempt to determine what elements of traditional, "pagan" education are permissible for a Christian.
Augustine accepted the indispensability of much of secular learning to the Christian cause. He faced head-on the question that Christians more conservative than himself were asking: Of what use were the liberal arts to the Christian? (Augustine had been thoroughly educated in them before turning to Christianity.) His answer was in line with the earlier evaluation of secular studies by Christian scholars such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen in Alexandria: Christians must “invade” these secular sources and take from them what was useful for the promotion of Christianity. For Augustine, this meant using the skills and insights of the liberal arts in order to understand better the Sacred Scriptures. He also suggested ways in which the rhetorical principles of Cicero (for Augustine, a favourite classical Roman writer) might assist in communicating the Faith. He then lay aside the task of completing De Doctrina Christiana.
Only years later in 426 or 427 he added a fourth chapter, which dealt with the art of preaching to the faithful. This fourth chapter unashamedly borrowed liberally from a well-known document called the Book of Rules, which had been written by a Donatist layman named Tyconius back in 392. Both Tyconius and Augustine were of the opinion that the Old Testament was to be interpreted as referring to Christ.
This meant getting below the literal meaning, or in the terminology of Augustine, underneath the veil which covered over the Old Testament until it was removed by the coming of Christ. As Augustine said in a sermon: "The Scripture was closed, nobody understood it; the Lord was crucified, and the Scripture was melted like wax, that all the weak ones should understand it." (In Joan. ev. tr. 24,5) On the other hand, without Christ one remains a slave to signs because they cannot be understood correctly (De doc. christ. 111,9,13). Tyconius and Augustine, then, agreed that one must aim at providing a coherent view of Scripture as a whole, and Christ is the key to this. It is significant that the first four rules of Tyconius's book are concerned with the interpretation of the Old Testament in relation to Christ (De doc. christ. 111,31,44-34,49)
Augustine was well aware at the risks that this type of interpretation involved, and that was why he was at pains to adopt rules such as Tyconius had already outlined so well. In this work Augustine stated that the spiritually mature person in faith, hope, and love no longer needs the Scripture except for instructing others. To correct the Bible Augustine held that whatever in its literal sense is inconsistent with purity of life or with correct doctrine should be interpreted figuratively, carefully reflecting on it in order to find an interpretation that tends to establish the reign of love.
Cicero (106 BC - 43 BC) was the favourite Latin author of Augustine. Cicero listed three aims of rhetoric: (1) to teach, (2) to delight and (3) to persuade. In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine wrote that good teachers have - or, at least, should have - such a desire to teach that if a word in good Latin is unavoidably ambiguous or obscure in relation to the intellectual or cultural capacity of a particular audience or congregation, what he called a "vulgar manner of speech" (i.e., colloquial words, and words used by people without education) should instead to be used.
To Augustine, clarity of communication was all important. He urged that if correct words were not suitable to communicate to the hearers, the speaker "should use words less correct, provided that the thing is taught and learned without distortion when these alternate words are used." (De Doctrina Christiana 4, 10, 24) Augustine said, "The speaker should not primarily consider the quality of his teaching, but the clarity of it." (De Doctrina Christiana 4, 12, 27) It is this principle, therefore, which determines the evaluation by Augustine of the three aims of rhetoric that had been identified by Cicero: to teach, to delight and to persuade. For Augustine the purpose of teaching takes first place, and the choice of words to be used is secondary to that aim, rather than to please or to persuade. How something is to be expressed is not as important as what is to be taught: "It is the sign of good minds to love the truth within the words, rather than the words themselves." (De Doctrina Christiana 4, 11, 26) Also in the fourth book of De Doctrina Christiana Augustine tells those who preach to use whenever advantageous the skills of rhetoric learned from the earlier pagan classical era.
From his own previous experience, he knew that classical speakers attempted to persuade by means of lies and deceit. He now proposed, "While the faculty of speaking well, which can even be of great value in urging either evil or justice, is itself indifferent, why should it not be placed to the service of good and truth if those doing evil can usurp it for bolstering shallow causes in the defence of evil and error?" (De Doctrina Christiana 4, 2, 3) Why not, indeed?! Even so, he says the preacher nevertheless is not living according to the rules of rhetoric but according to Christian Faith. He speaks of "Christian speech" that is far different from the stylish (and - now to Augustine - shallow) speech that is described in classical rhetoric. Augustine held, therefore, that rhetorical speaking is gained not so much by participation in classical culture based on the former Latin and Greek writers as in a Christian culture based on the Bible.
Moreover, such speaking is not a matter of memory, intellect or rehearsal, but comes to a preacher or teacher "who looks into the heart of the Bible with the eye of his own heart." (De Doctrina Christiana 4, 5, 7) Augustine still followed the observation of Cicero that rhetoric was learned more by listening to speakers and reading speeches than by following a set of rules of rhetoric. Cicero and Augustine differ in that for Augustine the reading matter recommended was the Bible. For Augustine, the preacher who did not know the Bible well could not possess a Christian sense of speaking.