A new series of biblical commentaries, The Church’s Bible, is an encouraging sign of the times. Headed up by Robert Wilken, this ambitious and handsomely produced series aims to gather portions of ancient and medieval commentaries and present them to contemporary readers in an accessible fashion. So far three volumes are out: Song of Songs, Isaiah, and 1 Corinthians. Extended sections of classical exegesis allow us see the tradition as a living voice, capable of helping us think more clearly and more deeply about the meaning of the holy Scriptures.
The symposium in a recent issue of the estimable theological journal Pro Ecclesia provides assessments by Katherine Greene-McCreight, Paul Griffiths, and Claire Mathews McGinnis. There are, of course, interesting critical observations about the specific content of the individual volumes, as well as a general appreciation of the careful selection and fluid translation of extended portions of ancient and medieval commentaries. But interspersed are also some tantalizing general suggestions about our very modern (or even postmodern) habits of biblical reading, and the positive contribution the tradition can make.
Greene-McCreight paints in the broadest strokes. By her reckoning, The Church’s Bible needs to be understood as part of a much larger trend. She notices that there is “a growing ambivalence toward historical-critical methods of the Bible, an ambivalence shared by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike.” The old confidence that rigorous historical-critical study will somehow carry us forward “has waned in parts of the academy, and many scholars are seeking different methods and readings.” One significant strand in this new, experimental moment is undoubtedly, as Greene-McCreight puts it, “the reconsideration of patristic exegesis, its postures and assumptions about the biblical text, and the results of its readings.”
Greene-McCreight is surely right. Ancient and medieval methods of reading tilt in the direction of allegory and typology. This approach presumes that the literal sense of a biblical passage also contains a rich potential to point toward spiritual truths. The account of Israel’s passage through the Red Sea offers a classic example. Their deliverance through water guides us toward reflection on baptism.
The New Testament and the Church’s liturgy are full of these sorts of readings of the Old Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Ethiopian eunuch is reading passages from Isaiah (Isa. 53:7–8), and he asks Philip, “To whom do these words refer, to the prophet himself or to someone else?” Philip takes this question as the occasion to proclaim to him “the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Paul develops an allegorical reading of the Genesis account of Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4:22–31. He treats their story as foreshadowing the relation between followers of Christ and those who remain loyal to the Mosaic covenant alone.
In spite of the pervasive role of allegorical and Christ-focused interpretation in New Testament, the almost universal scholarly consensus has been against this approach. It was not long ago that Church historians might relish the subtle doctrinal arguments of Athanasius or Augustine, but put aside their biblical interpretations as “fanciful.” When Brevard Childs published his commentary on Exodus in the 1970s, he included a section on the history of interpretation that cited ancient and medieval commentators. It seemed revolutionary at the time: a biblical scholar who even notices, much less takes seriously something other than modern historical-critical interpretation!
The situation is quite different today. Patristic exegesis is a growth industry. Take a look at the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, edited by Tom Oden. Although it adopts a somewhat different approach (presenting much shorter portions of classical interpretation), this extensive, multi-volume project also aims to renew our contemporary biblical imaginations with the rich resources of the tradition. And the marketplace has responded with enthusiasm; the series has been a smashing success.
This doesn’t surprise me. Lots of folks, Greene-McCreight writes, “are trying to break out of the stranglehold of historical criticism’s universally accepted method and assumptions about the biblical text and their rather puny theological results.” One way forward, she notes, is to ask an obvious question: whose Bible? Should we think of the Bible as a diverse textual source for historians to use in their efforts to reconstruct the religion and culture of ancient Israelites or early Christians? Or does the Bible belong to the Church as the living Word of God?
Our answers need not be exclusive. Claire Mathews McGinnis reviews the volume of ancient and medieval commentary on Isaiah, and she observes, “As the volume’s contents demonstrate, early Christian readers were simply not interestedor not primarily interestedin the kinds of questions most biblical scholars are trained to ask.” Origen and Augustine did not set out to give an account of the different layers of tradition that make up the canonical text. However, traditional, theologically saturated readings of Isaiah certainly do not rule out modern historical-critical questions.
That said, it obviously makes a difference which questions readers make primary. Will they be those of the Church or the university? Pulpit or seminar room?
Religious readers clearly need to tilt in the direction of the pulpit. Greene-McCreight observes that the academic guild of historical-critics almost always consider themselves the only people who are “serious readers of the Bible.” Others, including the Church fathers of course, don’t measure up. “This, in my opinion,” Greene-McCreight writes, “is ludicrous, for I am not familiar with many historical critics who know enough about the history of interpretation of the Bible even to make such a judgment.”
The neglect of classical modes of interpretation is unfortunate. All too often the result is a generalized allergy toward any role for faith and doctrine in biblical interpretation. The effect has been a diminution of modern biblical preaching. After some decades of listening to sermons and homilies, Paul Griffiths can remember only one treatment of the Song of Songs. This neglect stands in striking contrast to the earlier Christian tradition. For centuries, Christians gave a great deal of attention to the Song of Songs, an intensely erotic love poem that crackles with passion and desire. The working assumption was that Ephesians 5the union of a man and a woman pointing to the mystery of Christ’s marriage to the Churchprovided the key to the meaning the Song of Songs. In the medieval period, a rich monastic tradition added to the patristic reading of the bride as the Church and bridegroom as Christ, reading the bride as the individual monk who seeks to give himself entirely to Christ.
These days, the predominance of a narrow mentality among biblical scholars (and theologians as well) has, as Griffiths says, “inoculated” us against what we often assume to be “the premodern errors of allegory and typology and figurative exegesis in general.” As a result, we have difficulty making much sense out of a great deal of Scripture. Why a love poem? What could Leviticus possibly say to us? Ezra and Nehemiah? Numbers? 1 and 2 Chronicles? Without classical modes of spiritual interpretation, vast stretches of scripture can easily seem dry, dusty, and empty.
Not every strand of traditional exegesis will nourish faithful reading today. As Robert Wilken points out in the introduction to the volume on Isaiah, ancient Christian readers saw themselves engaged in an interpretive struggle against their Jewish contemporaries, who obviously read the Law and Prophets differently. In this struggle, a spirit of polemic and invective produced many exegetical passages that, as Wilken puts it, “do not make for edifying reading today.”
Yet, in the main, the Church fathers and medieval commentators offer a rich trove of spiritual insight. The historical critical tradition is losing its position as the sole arbiter of “serious” and “intellectually respectable” interpretations of the Bible. We are beginning to discern more pluralistic, more spiritually forthright modes of biblical exegesis for our age. The Church’s Bible can help us along the way.
R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is professor of theology at Creighton University.