Totus Christus and Augustine’s Hermeneutical Center

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The following was a college essay written by Joseph Tuttle. It has been edited and approved by Ariel Hobbs. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Joseph Tuttle, Benedictine College

When St. Augustine was made a bishop, he was assigned to instruct the catechumens in Hippo for baptism; while doing this, “it helped to hone his skills in studying and preaching scripture for the simple” (Cameron 207). One of St. Augustine’s themes in writing and teaching, which is usually never expounded upon by scholars, is that of totus Christus. The idea of totus Christus, the whole Christ speaks of Christ, the head, and the Church, the body, as one single being. The writings of St. Paul had “interpreted and extended the metaphor to include the glorified Jesus Christ as head for the body of the universal Church…” (Cameron 207).

St. Augustine took this idea of Christ and the Church being one singular entity, and applied it to his analysis of the Psalms. The Psalms are deeply Christological, and therefore, “…the Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body” (CCC 103). “The whole Christ was the very means of salvation for readers, for the Church saw itself  and heard its own voice in the praises and prayers of the ancient text” (Cameron 206). St. Augustine used a couple of different interpretive methods to help his catechumens, and to help us to better see and understand the idea of totus Christus.

The first method St. Augustine used was Prosopological exegesis. It “refers to the work of literary analysis that identifies the various speaking voices in a poetic text” (Cameron 208). This method was used by grammarians of the time to help their students see the “distinctive features emerging from each prosopon (literally, “face”, which Latin writers often translated as persona, “person”) while building up a distinct profile for each character in the story and shaping the reader’s overall comprehension of the text” (Cameron 208.) St. Augustine used this method to show that the psalm not only spoke about Christ, but was spoken by Christ; Christ is the speaker of the psalm. St Augustine “identified the voices of Christ the Son, God the Father, and the church, along with a number of individuals…” (Cameron 209).

The second method St. Augustine used was Prosopopoeia. It is “a rhetorical device” which “an author of a text, or a character in the text, or even the interpreter of a text” uses to “[impersonate] the voice of [another] character” (Cameron 210). Grammarians used this method to emit more emotion and variety in a story. A great biblical example of this is in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in which he “takes up the voice of a Gentile Christian convert trapped in trying to obey the Law of Moses” (Cameron 211). Thus St. Augustine used this method to show, for example, that Psalm 3 has different interpretations, because of the different speakers: Christ, the Church and a Christian. St. Augustine himself used the method of Prosopopoeia when he read the Psalms for he “read the Psalms as Christ, that is, as a member of Christ’s body who participated in the self-understanding head” (Cameron 220).

For St. Augustine, these two methods are brought together and clearly seen in Psalm 22 (sometimes numbered as Psalm 21).

“It intersected Israel, Christ, and the Christian, and the lightning in the night illuminated the whole Old and New Testament landscape” (Cameron 217).

 In fact, there are many layers of impersonation in Psalm 22. The first is the psalmist, speaking prophetically, which was an impersonation of Adam. Christ then spoke it as a mortal man. Finally Christ took the voice of Adam, and used it as his own, this “very act of embracing human death displayed the exchange of life for death, that was the essence of redemption” (Cameron 215). For St. Augustine, Psalm 22 was the foundation for his idea of totus Christus.

“From then on totus Christus assumed a central place in Augustine’s biblical work” (Cameron 217).

St. Augustine’s methodology can help us read the psalms more fruitfully. One of these ways is to do as St. Augustine did. When reading the Psalms, we can make them our own, not merely read them, but put our voice to them, using Prosopopoeia. This is especially useful, in our own life, when we experience desolation, thanksgiving, and repentance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, when talking about the Old Testament says: “…these writings “are a storehouse of sublime teaching on God and of sound wisdom on human life, as well as a wonderful treasury of prayers…” (CCC 122). Therefore, we can take our emotions, and express them through the devout recitation of the Psalms.

We can also use the method of Prosopological exegesis. This will help us to have a better understanding of the context of the psalm, by knowing who is speaking. Thus, the psalm may have multiple interpretations because of the different speakers. For instance, the words of the psalm could be spoken literally by David, and have a greater understanding of the historical context, or it could be fulfilled allegorically later by Jesus in the New Testament. An example of this is Psalm 5. Historically Psalm 5 is about how the nations are unhappy with the monarchy in Israel. The allegorical interpretation, however, applies in different ways to Christ.

Using the methods of Prosopopoeia and Prosopological exegesis, we will be better equipped to read the Psalms as an organic whole. The Catechism says: “To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words” (CCC 109). Therefore, by using St. Augustine’s methods, we will be able to better and more integratively interpret and understand the Psalms.


Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012. Print.

“The Emergence of Totus Christus in Augustine’s Enarrationes in Psalmos.” In The Harp of Prophecy: Early Christian Interpretation of the Psalms, eds. Brian E. Daley, S.J., and Paul R. Kolbet. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015: 205-226.

Edited By: Ariel Hobbs

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