Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Christian Fathers and Interpretation

One debate point among theological interpreters is the role of the Christian fathers in interpretation. There has been a tsunami of interest in the early fathers as interpreters of Scripture. Here is my position on the issue.

First, the early fathers are very helpful for helping is see the consensus of faith coming together. It is a rather simple observation, but it only clicked with me last week that the strongest reason for us to use the consensus of faith that developed in the first few centuries as the proper vantage point for integrating the varied parts of Scripture is... because that is actually where the integrated Christian view of Scripture actually came from in the first place!

That is to say, the common Christian view of Scripture that most Christians have had throughout history and that evangelicals and theological interpreters in general are trying to justify in their readings of Scripture actually developed in the first five centuries of the Christian era. The fathers (I'm sorry history hasn't left us too much evidence of the mothers from this period) thus give us witness to the development of an integrated view of Scripture and are of great interest. This would be fun to write on--to explore the fathers on the path to an integrated and commonly agreed understanding of the Bible. Someone's probably writing the book as we speak.

The fathers were, however, horrible original meaning interpreters. From Clement of Rome to the Epistle of Barnabas to Irenaeus to Origin to Augustine on, they simply weren't any more wired to read the Bible in its full historical context than anyone one else at the time. The person who uses them as a guide for what the books of the Bible actually meant originally is barking up the wrong tree. Such a practice is simply a retreat into pre-modern interpretation, which is not wrong at all. It just isn't the same as the original meaning.


npmccallum said...

The writers of the NT books also do not seem to be "wired" that way. The same is true of the OT prophets, and of the writers of the OT historical books. Each of them, while sometimes giving thought to original meanings, prefers evaluating the events of today in the light of the types which came before. This is quintessentially true of people, who are viewed as "types" of previous heroes or events. A great example of this is in 2 Kings 2:13-14 where Elisha is viewed as a type of Moses via his parting of the water. The same occurs voluminously throughout the NT; probably the most popular example is Christ as "New Adam."

In fact, if we survey all the quotes of the OT by NT writers what we see is a startling lack of concern for original meaning. This is not however merely "pre-modern" interpretation. If new Paul has taught us anything it is that the concern of the "Judaisers" is not about earning salvation by works, but rather the conflict that arose was primarily a hermeneutic dispute. Those advocating circumcision have the primary concern of maintaining the law since it is God's law (to use your phrasing: "its not about getting in, its about staying in"). Paul's concern is to demonstrate that the law is a tutor of Christ. In doing this he uses the same technique seen above: the law is a type of Christ. Both agree that the law is scripture; they differ on how the law is scripture. Thus, what we see in the Pauline corpus is actually a thoughtful rejection of original meaning. If original meaning is the primary meaning, than Christians must be circumcised. If this understanding of Paul is true, the Christian Fathers were not "horrible original meaning interpreters," but skilled primary meaning interpreters, following the Pauline tradition of interpretation. For us to understand the original meaning of the NT, we must in fact go beyond the original meaning. We must learn why it made sense for the NT writers to use the OT the way they did. We must understand why this mode of interpretation inspired hundreds of years of thought.

This is, I think, the key to understanding the early consensus of biblical interpretation. As long as one understands the lack of original meaning as aberration, he/she will be unable to understand this consensus.

I should also point out that just as the Fathers seem to reject original meaning as primary meaning, they just as much reject speculative meaning as primary meaning (indeed, this is the entire premise of Against Heresies). It thus seems that there is a method to their madness. Discovering this is, I think, the secret to understanding early patristic hermeneutic consensus.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The problem I have with this is the Church (Christian) Fathers determined what people would "do" (and believe) to be right with God. This was the purpose of their "vocation". That seems to me a little presumptuous, if not abusive in some arenas.

The "establishment" of authority has also occurred in the Protestant Churches and within evanglicalism in their understanding of government and "the Bible".

Whenever institutions or movements which have become "the standard", even well-meaning ones, impinge upon another's right of choice and value, then it has mis-stepped. And this is the problem, isn't it, when another has "authority" to determine another's life? No one has that right.

James Gibson said...

Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall (IVP), a companion to the multi-volume Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, edited by Thomas Oden, et al., is a good starting point. There is also a three-volume Ancient Christian Devotional based on the lectionary cycle. I must admit, however, reading some of these commentaries is more than a little frustrating. Jerome's commentary on Matthew 24.28 is particularly bizarre, "The eagles represent those saints whose youth is renewed like the eagle's and who, according to Isaiah, shall mount up with wings to come to the passion of Christ." Not much sermon material there.

Logan Hoffman said...

Angie, I want to push back a little concerning the narrative you've alluded to. It's one that I've heard before, and is even fairly popular in what little I know of the scholarly community. This view of Church History pictures the Fathers as tyrannical oppressors, old and angry men crushing all resistance to their version of orthodoxy.

I think its important to take a closer look at the state of the Church prior to 313. The Church Fathers that lived and wrote before this period were in no position to simply squelch their opponents. No mechanism for such exclusion existed. The Fathers wrote polemically and forcefully, but their persuasive writing was the only tool they had for defending what they saw as the apostolic tradition. The idea that the Fathers squashed people left and right for disagreeing with them just doesn't seem, to me, to fit with the historical situation. It's not until much later, I would argue after Orthodoxy had already begun taking shape, that the Church was even capable of telling others what to "do and believe".

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"The apostolic tradition" was what we understand today as nation building, I believe. Why connect it to "Church", unless the "Empire" (and Church) of the United States wants to "bring about a useful and cheap way" to build another nation...the "apostle" in this sense, would be the under-dog, useful for another's ends. I just do not buy into that as being ethical, or morally imperative.

Keith Drury said...


"For us to understand the original meaning of the NT, we must in fact go beyond the original meaning"

I love it! ;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You use "polemical", why not use "apology"?