The great Canadian literary theorist Northrop Frye once counseled aspiring literary critics to apprentice themselves to some great writer as a “spiritual preceptor” because, he wrote in Spiritus Mundi: Essays on Literature (1976), “it seems to me that growing up inside of a mind so large that one has no sense of claustrophobia within it is an irreplaceable experience in humane studies.” For me, Augustine’s breadth, depth, and width makes him that mind to “grow up inside,” a lifelong inner companion to rejoice in, wrestle with, dissent from, and return to for new perspectives on old questions. Gnawing on big questions over many years, I’ve felt a bit like a dog chewing the end of an old bone. But often I look up to find Augustine chewing on the other end of that same bone.

One of those old bones is the big-picture meaning of the Bible. This wildly heterogeneous library of stories, genealogies, laws, poetry, proverbs, history, visions, and more, came together over a thousand years. Since the eighteenth century, historical-critical study of the Bible has often brought believers to an impasse over its credibility and usefulness as a guide to life. While its texts contain many sublime things, e.g., wisdom on the being of God, the mystery of the human person, and the path toward redemption, its deepest claims are cast in elusive and mythological language. Meanwhile, these large claims sit alongside texts with horrendous depictions of rape, murder, betrayal, adultery, incest, and child sacrifice, as well as tacit social acceptance of slavery, sexism, racism, and classism. A bewildered new reader might well ask, can anything good come from all this?

Nevertheless, Jewish and Christian communities through time have held that these writings, taken intertextually and interactively, radiate a central and dynamic saving truth that saves and heals. Among these witnesses stands Augustine, whom Scripture’s outpouring of grace healed and formed and taught and delighted, as he shows dramatically in Confessions.

Augustine named that center caritas, love. Not that he thought everything in the Bible literally teaches caritas—far from it. Rather his point is interpretive, or hermeneutical: in the largest perspective, everything in the biblical canon may be read on its surface (literally) or below its surface (figuratively) as preparing for love, proclaiming love, or flowing from love. Caritas, Augustine wrote, is Scripture’s sum, center, and purpose. He endlessly quotes Paul on caritas as the “fulfillment” of Torah (Rom 13:8) and the “end” of the commandments (1 Tim. 1:5). Poignantly and often he invokes the saying of Jesus (Matt. 22:40) about Scripture’s “greatest” commandments concerning love to God and neighbor: “On these two commandments hang the whole law and prophets” (On Instructing Beginners in Faith 4.8). Love hidden and revealed is the core meaning of Augustine’s famous couplet about Scripture’s unity (quoted in par. 16 of Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation): “The New concealed in the Old, the Old revealed in the New” (Questions on the Heptateuch 2.73).

On this basis, Augustine ventures a radical statement: “So if it seems to you that you have understood the divine Scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin caritas of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them” (On Christian Teaching 1.35.39). As he further explained in Expositions of the Psalms 140.2: “Whatever salvation-giving idea that anyone may think of or put into words, whatever truth may be dug out from any page of the divine Scriptures, it tends toward one end only, and that is caritas. You need look for nothing else in Scripture. Wherever you find any obscure passage in Scripture, caritas is concealed in it, and wherever the sense is plain, it is proclaiming caritas.

I like to say that in the game of biblical hermeneutics Augustine was the Babe Ruth of ancient Latin Christian theology; that is, although he strikes out a lot (alas, Augustine swings and misses on individual texts), at the crucial moment he hits the mammoth home run that wins in a walk-off. Caritas is indeed Scripture’s interpretive core, the magnet that holds together its many parts. This perspective gives hope as we confront the often barren landscape uncovered by critical biblical studies, and recalls Paul Ricoeur’s memorable sentence in The Symbolism of Evil (1967), “Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again.”

The Beatles’ last recorded album, Abbey Road, reaches a musical-philosophical crescendo with its last line: “And in the end/ the love you take/ is equal to the love/ you make.” The wisdom of this grace note, however, emerged from the turmoil and bitterness of the group’s breakup (documented in Peter Jackson’s marvelous 2021 film, Get Back). Those words and that history stand in startling, poignant, but fruitful contrast. They also capture the generative insight that my spiritual preceptor Augustine retrieved from the Bible’s maelstrom of beauty, wisdom, truth, injustice, treachery and violence: the majestic truth of caritas to be taken and made in ever new ways from Scripture’s center and summit.