Rethinking Patristic Exegesis, Part II

A second avenue of response to the modern distrust of patristic exegesis is to note that significant changes are afoot in the whole hermeneutical enterprise. Important questions are being raised as to how the meaning of a text is to be determined. Is it the case that the meaning of a text is determined solely by its immediate circumstances of origin? In fact, the meaning of a text, it is being increasingly argued, cannot ignore the context of the interpreter/exegete. As David C. Steinmetz puts it in a famous essay, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis”: “Meaning involves a listener as well as a speaker.” [Theology Today, 37 (1980-1981), 36]. In fact, some scholars—and we should probably designate their work as “postmodern” exegesis—argue that there is no way of knowing what an author intended by a work or text. The only meaning of a text is to be found in what an interpreter says a text means. In other words, the meaning of a text is solely found in its destination, how its readers interpret it. Some go so far as to argue that any change in the reader means a change in the meaning of the text. To paraphrase the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, “no reader reads the same work twice.” (Steinmetz, “Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis”, 37).

Embracing this perspective wholeheartedly ultimately undermines any fruitful discussion of hermeneutical options as to the meaning of a text. In this regard, see further Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 29-30.

But this position does have a point: a reader’s understanding of a text will, to some extent, be shaped by that reader’s own horizon of understanding. Thus, Brian Daly can rightly state:

“Understanding a text is precisely the event of the interpenetration of horizons: the author’s and the reader’s… It can never be a simple matter of the recovery of objective, “original” meaning through a scientific historical criticism that is free of the concerns and commitments of the later reader.” [“Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable? Some Reflections on Early Christian Interpretation of the Psalms” in Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays, The Art of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids/ Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 73].

Let me give an example from Gregory of Nyssa (died c.394). He is expositing Song of Songs 4:12-15 (ESV):

“A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed. Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices—a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.”

The phrase that especially caught Gregory’s attention in this text was “living water.” This image, a very familiar one to readers of the Bible, is capable of differing interpretations, and in its original setting within the Song of Songs it is linked with a number of other images: “a garden locked,” for example, or “a spring locked, a fountain sealed.” In the literary context of the fourth chapter of the Song of Songs it does not appear particularly important.

In his homilies on the Song of Songs, however, Gregory of Nyssa approaches “living water” as any Christian familiar with the usage of this phrase in the New Testament. Gregory takes the image of “living water” as emblematic of the divine life that is “lifegiving” and interprets it in the light of Jesus’ words in John about the living water that Christ gives. Gregory writes,

“We are familiar with these descriptions of the divine essence as a source of life from the Holy Scriptures. Thus the prophet, speaking in the person of God, says: “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living water” [Jeremiah 2:13]. And again, the Lord says to the Samaritan woman: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” [John 4:10]. And again he says, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’ [John 7:38-39].” [Homily on the Song of Songs 9 (Gregorii Nysseni Opera 6:292].

In other words, Gregory cannot divest himself of the way in which this image is later used in Jeremiah and then even later in the Gospel of John. Old Testament texts had to be read in light of the New. All of this is simply to say that Gregory approached the Old Testament as a Christian and this horizon shaped his exegesis.

See further Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003), 75-76.