Rethinking Patristic Exegesis, Part I

Generally speaking, in the last century or so, patristic exegesis has not been favourably regarded. F.W. Farrar (1831-1903), an Anglican Evangelical scholar of the Victorian era, could state in the first of his Oxford Bampton Lectures in 1885 with regard to the history of interpretation: “We shall pass in swift review many centuries of exegesis, and shall be compelled to see that they were, in the main, centuries during which the interpretation of Scripture has been dominated by unproven theories, and overladen by untenable results.” [History of Interpretation (London: Macmillan, 1886), 8]. When Farrar came to speak of patristic exegetes in particular he observed: “There are but few of them whose pages are not rife with errors—errors of method, errors of fact, errors of history, of grammar, and even of doctrine.” (History of Interpretation, 162-163). Here Farrar puts more bluntly what many twentieth-and twenty-first century exegetes have generally believed about the Fathers and their interaction with the Scriptures. Although it is conceded that so-called pre-critical exegesis may have had some insights worth listening to, it has been generally believed that the bulk of the pre-critical tradition of exegesis is largely worthless.

Central to modern criticism of the Fathers has been their tendency to allegorize and to not focus on the “plain sense” of Scripture. By the way, Enlightenment distrust of tradition has informed this criticism far more than the dethroning of tradition by the Reformation. John Calvin, for example, viewed the Fathers as allies in the exegetical task. He could be critical of Origen’s allegorization, but by and large he valued the writings of the Fathers as aids for the reading of Scripture. [John L. Thompson, “Scripture, Tradition, and the Formation of Christian Culture: The Theological and Pastoral Function of the History of Interpretation”, Ex Auditu, 19 (2003), 24-27].

Now, at the heart of this modern criticism is an hermeneutical conviction, namely, that the meaning of a biblical text is simply and no more than what the author meant. The meaning of a text is thus solely determined by its human origin.

As a result of this bias against patristic exegesis, the biblical commentaries of the Fathers, chiefly those of the fourth and fifth centuries, remain almost completely unknown to biblical scholars. The work of some of the best exegetes among the Fathers, Theodore of Mopsuestia, for instance, thus remains almost completely unknown. [Gerald Bray, “The Church Fathers and Their Use of Scripture” in Paul Helm and Carl R. Trueman, eds., The Trustworthiness of God. Perspectives on the Nature of Scripture (Grand Rapids/ Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 157-158]. This lack of interest in patristic exegesis is changing. Witness in this regard the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, edited by Thomas Oden and published by InterVarsity (2001–).

Moreover, beyond the commentaries there is an enormous wealth of exegetical comments that come in the course of other treatises written by the Fathers. These quotations must be used with care, since the Fathers’ quotations of the Scriptures were often more akin to allusion or rough paraphrases. What these allusions and citations indicate is that the minds of the Fathers were “steeped in the Bible.” (Bray, “The Church Fathers and Their Use of Scripture”, 158). As Gerald Bray has noted, this “reflects a profound knowledge of Scripture that they would not have possessed if it had not been central to their faith.” (Bray, “The Church Fathers and Their Use of Scripture”, 158). The Fathers are saturated with Scripture.

Responding to this distrust

Specifically, how are we to respond to the modern distrust of patristic exegesis? First, it needs to be noted that while the Church Fathers did resort to allegory, it was never regarded by them as the definitive hermeneutical tool or grid. (Bray, “The Church Fathers and Their Use of Scripture”, 157, 160-161). There are certain well-known biblical texts in which allegory was the prime vehicle of interpretation. One thinks of the Song of Songs, for example, or the parables of Jesus. As Bray notes: “even a cursory reading of ancient commentaries will reveal that it [i.e. allegory] was only one device among many, and that normally it was restricted to certain well-defined instances.” Also, as Bray points out, the Fathers did not consider allegory as a principle of interpretation in its own right. Any truths discovered by allegorization were already known by a literal exegesis of other biblical texts. (Bray, “The Church Fathers and Their Use of Scripture”, 161).

The importance of the actual text to the Fathers is well seen by contrasting Origen’s exegesis—often taken as the pinnacle of allegorization—with the way that Plotinus (c.204-270), the fountainhead of Neoplatonism, deals with the key influence on his thought, namely Plato. Plotinus explicitly refers to Plato about fifty times, though scholars have detected about 900 allusions to the Platonic corpus. On the other hand, Origen quotes so much of the Scriptures that large tracts of Scripture could be reconstructed from his quotes. In other words, it was not just the spiritual meaning of the Bible that mattered to Origen. He fully believed that “every syllable [of Scripture] came out of the mouth of God and enjoyed absolute authority over his mind and life.” (Bray, “The Church Fathers and Their Use of Scripture”, 161-162).

Careful study of Origen’s exegetical practice reveals, as Brian E. Daly notes, a “constant concern for the smallest details of text and narrative and often an unexpected willingness to accept biblical passages as meaning what they say.” [“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), 78).

Specifically, the Fathers resorted to allegory when a text in the Bible needed to be reconciled with clearer passages of Scripture. In other words, allegory was a way of dealing with more difficult texts of Scripture. (Bray, “The Church Fathers and Their Use of Scripture”, 163-164).

Eusebius of Emesa (died c.359) in Syria, could thus state that while the Christian commentator cannot rule out allegory it should not be used to excess. This statement occurs in a sermon on the barren fig-tree (Matthew 21:18–19 et par.). Eusebius says that he knows of an allegorical interpretation of this text which depicts Jerusalem as the fig tree. But this must be wrong, Eusebius argues, since he did not make Jerusalem fruitless for ever. Euesbius then interprets the text and Christ’s words with regard to the circumstances of that time in history. [W. Telfer, “The Fourth Century Greek Fathers as Exegetes”, The Harvard Theological Review, 50 (1957), 95].