Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers

I have already shared HERE, in the context of introducing Margaret Barker's work, the fact that as a young man when friends - both conservative and liberal - were pursuing debates about the Old Testament from a purely historical/critical angle, I embraced essentially a typological approach. I wrote:

"Among my guidebooks back then were the works of Anglican writers Austin Farrer and Gabriel Herbert. Although typology can give rise to unrestrained and subjective allegorisation, I have always thought that a failure to embrace a balanced typological hermeneutic results at best in a sidelining of the Old Testament except as 'historical background', and at worst (as Aidan Nichols pointed out in his book 'Lovely Like Jerusalem') in our becoming modern Marcionites.

"The connection of typology with the development of Christian worship seemed obvious to me as a young man formed by both highly liturgical Anglo-catholicism and those parts of the charismatic renewal emphasizing the worship of the community as somehow part of our 'offering' to the Father through Jesus our great High Priest."

The other consideration for me at the time was the way Scripture was used by the Church Fathers. This is not to say that the period was free of exegetical eccentricity, or that they all agreed with each other! Far from it. But the strong continuities between the Apostolic Age and the early Patristic Age must mean that we ignore the broad approach of the Fathers to our peril, especially when taking into account the interplay of patristic exegesis and the gradual fixing of the limits to the canon of Scripture during the first four centuries of the Christian era.

So, it pleases me to be living at a time when there is a revival of interest in the Fathers' understandings of both the Old and New Testaments, not least among evangelicals and others, including some "post-liberals". One sign of this is the series of "entry level" biblical commentaries which began to be produced in the late 1990s, the ANCIENT CHRISTIAN COMMENTARY ON SCRIPTURE, edited by Thomas Oden and published by InterVarsity Press. Contributing scholars are drawn from right across the Christian spectrum. The IVP website says that "The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture seeks not to replace those excellent commentaries that have been produced in the twentieth century. It supplements them, framing them with interpretive voices that have long sustained the church and only recently have fallen silent. It invites us to listen with appreciative ears and sympathetic minds as our ancient ancestors in the faith describe and interpret the scriptural vistas as they see them."

As a taster, various articles from the series can be read online (go HERE). I share with you today part of the essay The Introduction to Mark, one of the real gems of the series, and I have highlighted what I think is a most important paragraph:

The purpose of exegesis in the patristic period was to seek the truth the Scriptures convey. It was not offered to those who were as yet unready to put it into practice. In these respects modern exegesis is different: It does not always assume the truth of Scripture as divine revelation, and it does not require that readers intend to practice it as a premise of truly hearing it.

Today’s readers should not impose on ancient Christian exegesis modern assumptions about valid reading of Scripture. The ancient writers offer a constant challenge to these silent modern assumptions. If one begins by assuming modern critical methods as normative and judges the ancient writers uncritically by these standards alone, they are always going to come off looking witless or weak, or in some instances comic or quaint or even atrocious, unjust and oppressive.

With few exceptions, the patristic models of exegesis do not conform to common modern assumptions about what a commentary should be. Our contemporary assumptions tend to resist or rule out chains of scriptural reference, which are often demeaned as appalling proof-texting. But in the view of the ancient Christian writers such chains of biblical reference were crucial in thinking about the text in relation to the whole testimony of sacred Scripture. Utilizing the analogy of faith they constantly compared sacred text with sacred text. This ancient procedure is neither fundamentalism nor biblical literalism. It is analogical textual reasoning.

We ought not to force the assumptions of twentieth-century fundamentalism or of nineteenth-century naturalistic reductionism, historicism or egalitarianism on the ancient Christian writers. They knew nothing of these assumptions. Their method was not “fundamentalist,” because they were not reacting against modern naturalistic reductionism. They were constantly protesting a mere literal or plain-sense view of the text, almost always searching for its spiritual and moral meaning. Modern fundamentalism is a defensive movement understandable only within modernity, a movement which indeed often looks far more like modern historicism than ancient typological reasoning. This makes liberal and fundamentalist exegesis much more like each other than either is like that of the ancient Christian writers, because they both appeal to historicist assumptions invented in the Enlightenment, over a thousand years after the last of the ancient commentators had passed away.

Ancient Christian exegetes characteristically weaved many sacred texts together. They seldom limited themselves to comment on a single text, as some modern exegetes insist, but constantly related one text to another by analogy, using typological reasoning, as was so characteristic of the rabbinic midrashim of the same period. While modern exegesis advocates allowing the Hebrew Bible to speak for itself without the intrusion of New Testament assumptions, ancient exegesis constantly delights in viewing Old Testament events and characters as anticipating fulfillment in the New. Hebraic figures and events are often seen from the point of view of their having been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

The despairing modern attempt to read the New Testament while ruling out the liturgical, evangelical and missional assumptions that prevailed in the ancient community of faith would have seemed a very thin enterprise indeed to those who early shared those assumptions and were willing to die for them. When we today try to make sense of the New Testament while ruling out the plausibility of the Incarnation and resurrection which was held firm by those who wrote it, the effort is too hard and senseless not to be found discouraging. The ancient exegetes proceeded by allowing the texts their own premises.


Alice C. Linsley said...

The Ancient Christian Commentary of Scripture volumes are an excellent resource. The richness of the Church Fathers is too often neglected.

Post a Comment