First, a bit of context about this document. A deacon in Carthage named — get this — Deogratis had asked St. Augustine to "send [him] in writing something which might be of service to [him] in the matter of catechising the uninstructed." Deogratias had "the reputation of possessing a rich gift in catechising, due at once to an intimate acquaintance with the faith, and to an attractive method of discourse." But he expressed some reservations to Augustine "regarding the point at which our statement of [some Christian doctrine] ought to commence, and the limit to which it should be allowed to proceed" and whether catechists "ought to make use of any kind of exhortation, or simply specify those precepts in the observance of which the person to whom [they] are discoursing may know the Christian life and profession to be maintained." Deogratias was also doubtful how he can be profitable to his audience if, during a long address, he seems "profitless and distasteful" even to himself! (DCR 1)
So Augustine gladly takes up the task of responding to Deogratias. (DCR 2) First, he lets Deogratias know that it is possible for a speech to be profitable to an audience and yet seem distasteful to the one speaking it. (DCR 3-4) Then Augustine tells him about the manner of "narration" to use in catechesis:
5. The narration is full when each person is catechised in the first instance from what is written in the text, In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, on to the present times of the Church. This does not imply, however, either that we ought to repeat by memory the entire Pentateuch, and the entire Books of Judges, and Kings, and Esdras, and the entire Gospel and Acts of the Apostles, if we have learned all these word for word; or that we should put all the matters which are contained in these volumes into our own words, and in that manner unfold and expound them as a whole. For neither does the time admit of that, nor does any necessity demand it.This sounds a bit like the Great Adventure Bible Timeline, which follows fourteen books of the Bible that provide a constant narrative, dwelling on major events (especially the establishing of covenants) in those books, while letting you know where the other books fit into the big picture.
But what we ought to do is to give a comprehensive statement of all things, summarily and generally, so that certain of the more wonderful facts may be selected which are listened to with superior gratification, and which have been ranked so remarkably among the exact turning-points (of the history); that, instead of exhibiting them to view only in their wrappings, if we may so speak, and then instantly snatching them from our sight, we ought to dwell on them for a certain space, and thus, as it were, unfold them and open them out to vision, and present them to the minds of the hearers as things to be examined and admired. But as for all other details, these should be passed over rapidly, and thus far introduced and woven into the narrative. The effect of pursuing this plan is, that the particular facts which we wish to see specially commended to attention obtain greater prominence in consequence of the others being made to yield to them; while, at the same time, neither does the learner, whose interest we are anxious to stimulate by our statement, come to these subjects with a mind already exhausted, nor is confusion induced upon the memory of the person whom we ought to be instructing by our teaching.
Augustine then goes to talk about the attitude of the catechist, which should be one of charity, and how the charity of God — expressed in the preparation for the advent of His Son and its realization in the Incarnation — is the necessary lens through which all the Scriptures must be read:
6. In all things, indeed, not only ought our own eye to be kept fixed upon the end of the commandment, which is charity, out of a pure heart, and a good conscience, and faith unfeigned, to which we should make all that we utter refer; but in like manner ought the gaze of the person whom we are instructing by our utterance to be moved toward the same, and guided in that direction.Now Augustine interprets the birth of Jacob as a type of salvation history! This is an amazing exercise in biblical typology:
And, in truth, for no other reason were all those things which we read in the Holy Scriptures written, previous to the Lord's advent, but for this—namely, that His advent might be pressed upon the attention, and that the Church which was to be, should be intimated beforehand, that is to say, the people of God throughout all nations; which Church is His body, wherewith also are united and numbered all the saints who lived in this world, even before His advent, and who believed then in His future coming, just as we believe in His past coming.
For (to use an illustration) Jacob, at the time when he was being born, first put forth from the womb a hand, with which also he held the foot of the brother who was taking priority of him in the act of birth; and next indeed the head followed, and thereafter, at last, and as matter of course, the rest of the members: while, nevertheless the head in point of dignity and power has precedence, not only of those members which followed it then, but also of the very hand which anticipated it in the process of the birth, and is really the first, although not in the matter of the time of appearing, at least in the order of nature.Brilliant! Of course, it's not the only interpretation of Jacob's birth, but it's an interpretation which treats of all Scripture and salvation history as a whole, and which serves to illustrate Augustine's point that all that is written in the Bible about the time before Christ's advent is meant to point to it and prepare us for it.
And in an analogous manner, the Lord Jesus Christ, previous to His appearing in the flesh, and coming forth in a certain manner out of the womb of His secrecy, before the eyes of men as Man, the Mediator between God and men, who is over all, God blessed for ever, sent before Him, in the person of the holy patriarchs and prophets, a certain portion of His body, wherewith, as by a hand, He gave token beforetime of His own approaching birth, and also supplanted the people who were prior to Him in their pride, using for that purpose the bonds of the law, as if they were His five fingers. For through five epochs of times there was no cessation in the foretelling and prophesying of His own destined coming; and in a manner consonant with this, he through whom the law was given wrote five books; and proud men, who were carnally minded, and sought to establish their own righteousness, were not filled with blessing by the open hand of Christ, but were debarred from such good by the hand compressed and closed; and therefore their feet were tied, and they fell, while we are risen, and stand upright.
But although, as I have said, the Lord Christ did thus send before Him a certain portion of His body, in the person of those holy men who came before Him as regards the time of birth, nevertheless He is Himself the Head of the body, the Church, and all these have been attached to that same body of which He is the head, in virtue of their believing in Him whom they announced prophetically. For they were not sundered (from that body) in consequence of fulfilling their course before Him, but rather were they made one with the same by reason of their obedience. For although the hand may be put forward away before the head, still it has its connection beneath the head.
Wherefore all things which were written aforetime were written in order that we might be taught thereby, and were our figures, and happened in a figure in the case of these men. Moreover they were written for our sakes, upon whom the end of the ages has come.