Few observers would contest that the exegesis of the Bible has now fully entered a postcritical moment. The rules of the venerable historical-critical method no longer reign supreme, even in the academy. Readers lay and scholarly recognize that the text of the Scriptures is polyvalent and multicontextual, and that communities of readers to some extent determine its meaning.
Several factors have led to this development, including at least the following: the wide availability of varying, sometimes disagreeing (and even disagreeable) translations of the Bible and the consequent sense that the meaning of Scripture is (somewhat) elastic; the manifest futility of much professional biblical interpretation; the collapse of classical Christian theology, which in Protestantism depended upon a largely fixed (and non-allegorical) biblical interpretation; the slow-burning fuse of ressourcement theology among Catholics and a similar patristic revival among Orthodox Christians; and a renewed interest in the Bible-if only as a hall of mirrors-among many post-Christians and a-or anti-religious literary theorists. To this list should be added the constant, but again fashionable, study of ancient Jewish interpretation, and a general interest in spirituality and mysticism, much of it anchored in Scripture.
The perennial needs of Christian churches, combined with postcritical thought, have produced a new appreciation of early Christian biblical interpretation. Scholars of early Christian theology, or patristic literature for those who acknowledge the authority or cogency of the fathers of the Church, have for centuries been translating biblical exegesis as part of their effort to understand the development of doctrine. Theirs was a work of historical-theological scholarship traditionally carried out in the service of the Church and its academies. Although until recently there was no organized effort to translate exegetical works as such, it has long been recognized that biblical interpretation is the foundation of early Christian theology, and that ancient doctrinal formulations depended heavily upon the results of that interpretation. As long as Christian theology is anchored in its normative tradition-i.e., seeks a continuity with credal and magisterial orthodoxy-it needs the study of early Christian thought in order to apprehend the origins of its understanding of God, Christ, humankind, the cosmic telos , and so forth.
The translations of early exegetical texts have become the basis of several new attempts to provide patristic interpretation to a wide audience. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (hereafter, ACCS ) is one such. There are others in print already, and more are on the way. As participant in one such series of volumes, a series that could be regarded as a rival to ACCS , I am obligated to disclose, worse than partisanship alone, significant doubts about the absolute value of any of them. ACCS has begun ambitiously. Its general editor, Thomas C. Oden, professor of systematic theology at Drew University Divinity School, plans to compile a commentary on the entire Bible in twenty-five volumes. In 1998 Oden oversaw the publication of two volumes-one on Romans and one on Mark which he himself coedited-and a general introduction to the series, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers . The latter volume, written by Christopher A. Hall, is worth some attention because it sketches the series’ general purpose and gives an indication of its intended audience.
Hall begins by asking why anyone should bother to read the church fathers. The answer he offers is twofold: 1) because these ancient Christians show us how to read the Bible well and to apply its riches to a variety of needs, issues, and circumstances; and 2) all the fathers insist that the study of the Bible is not an esoteric, intellectual exercise practiced by the isolated academic.
Such an approach indicates that Hall is writing for an evangelical audience, one for whom the fathers do not have an authority based on their formation of the continuous tradition of magisterial teaching. It also shows that the interest of the series is practical or pastoral: it emphasizes the application of Scripture to particular Christian situations. It holds that patristic exegesis does not fall prey to the ills of contemporary biblical scholarship, but is a communal act rather than a private, individualistic endeavor.
This portrait is wrongheaded on two counts. First, it is combative, as demonstrated by the subsequent chapters of Hall’s book, which attack modern biblical criticism and modern Western thought generally. But worse, it manifests the intellectual and spiritual vice of nostalgia. This is unfortunately a besetting sin among many (including non-evangelical) Christians, and it is based on the delusion that a former age, usually the age of primitive Christianity, was far superior to all subsequent ones, perhaps most especially the one now experienced. From such a vice, fantasy, not history-and certainly not prudent exegesis-is born.
Ironically, this vice is not to be found in the originator of ressourcement , Henri de Lubac. That Jesuit scholar and theologian, trained in the Thomism of the early twentieth century, realized that attention to the exegesis and theology of the early church would serve to ready Catholic theology-and by extension all Christian theology-to encounter honestly the problems posed by contemporary thought and life. Another adherent of ressourcement , the ex-Jesuit Hans Urs von Balthasar, likewise recognized certain themes in the thought of the patristic period that aided in the reconstruction of a Catholic theology engaged in the intellectual projects of the twentieth century, including its new but inevitable encounter with other religions and with religious pluralism. Both of these great intellectuals, creative geniuses in their own right, had enormous respect for the learning and studious reflection that formed the foundation of the ecclesiastical exegesis of the fathers. But they were not nostalgic, and they did not approach the work of the fathers looking for shelter or refuge. Nor did they succumb to the illusion that the fathers of the Church spoke with one voice or that they should have the last word-a nostalgic delusion that the fathers themselves would vehemently have rejected.
The old temptation to concoct a single mind of the fathers, who are then made to speak in a convenient chorus, is implausible on historical grounds-as any straightforward reading will show-and it is also unhelpful in the practice of Christian life and learning. The legitimate authority of the fathers is based on other grounds: their witness to the early apostolic tradition and their proximity, therefore, to the person of Jesus; the continuity between their exegesis and that of the New Testament authors; their understanding of the requirements of a Christian politeia inherently restless until the establishment of the kingdom of God; their participation in the formation of ecumenical conciliar decisions and hence their continuous presence in the ongoing ecclesiastical tradition. In addition, some of the fathers deserve attention sheerly for their stature as thinkers within the Christian tradition; these are the ones, like Augustine, who attract attention from outside the Christian community. Finally, many are saints, and have the authority intrinsic to great holiness.
The vox patrum (voice of the fathers) was surely a theological and magisterial category already at the end of the fourth century; but with the development of the tradition since then, its status has changed. The attempt by de Lubac and others to recover the insights of the fathers has been based on the armory of modern critical scholarship developed since the Renaissance, though some in this movement were motivated as well by the nostalgia fostered by the Reformers. The modern discipline of patristics has thus tilted either toward the critical or toward the authoritative; but the patristic scholarship most useful for the honest life of the Church has been firmly based in critical text-scholarship, i.e., in reading of sources by means of the exercise of reason under the aegis of Christian faith.
Hall’s book tries to bridge our distance from the exegesis of the fathers by examining modern interpretation and then surveying early Christian interpretation. In such a short volume it would have been impossible to manage a significant survey of the causes and methods of either kind of interpretation. Hall’s approach gives us black hats-the faithless modern interpreters-and white hats-those patristic authors of East and West whom the Catholic Church considers doctores ecclesiae , and whom he likes because they are united in their insistence that the text of Scripture opens itself to those who approach it reverently and receptively.
The final chapter, Making Sense of Patristic Exegesis, lays out Hall’s program, and presumably that of the ACCS , for the reform of modern Protestantism by attention to patristic interpretation. After a prelimary apology for tradition as such, Hall says that Protestant appropriation of patristic exegesis will cause Scripture to be read holistically, Christologically, and within the practice of prayer, worship, and spiritual formation. This list is worthy enough, but surely cannot stand alone; in fact, it lands interpretation right back in the arms of the demon of individualistic interpretation unless the reading community is linked with communal authority of some kind. Furthermore, reading Scripture Christologically was one of Schleiermacher’s successes; it must be read in a Trinitarian manner as well. ACCS attempts to form a community by creating a Christian Talmud (in the words of Hall) out of the various writings of early Christianity. This is a dubious aim, and possibly a misunderstanding of the Talmud. The Talmud is a Jewish instrument to perpetuate the teachings of the Amoraim of the Palestinian and Babylonian Jewish communities down to the fifth century a.d. It represents a kind of scholastic commentary on a summary of the Torah according to six divisions, and its primary object is to create a normative law code for Jews in the Diaspora after the fall of Jerusalem, although it includes a great deal of aggadic (i.e., narrative and theological) material as well.
In fact, there was no Christian Talmud, and how contemporary Christian communities-Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic-would make use of one is an inscrutable question. Rather, what Oden and Hall give us in the commentary on Mark which they co-edited, or what Gerald Bray yields in his commentary on Romans, is an assemblage of short snippets of writing from the wide array of early Christian thought (Gnostics excepted) that relates, as almost all of it does, to the biblical text.
The problem with such a collection is that it creates a document that never existed. There was no patristic Talmud, for reasons internal to the differences between ancient Judaism and Christianity. The closest parallel to the ACCS by genre, the catena , was a chain or compilation of biblical interpretations taken from different authors and organized by subject from specifically exegetical works, either homilies or formal commentaries. The catenae of early and medieval Christianity differed from the project of the ACCS in important ways. First, they had a principle of organization not evident in the ACCS ; in addition, they served a primarily scholarly and secondarily homiletic purpose, not the meliorative purpose that the ACCS has. Their aim was more like that of the reference or mnemonic aid, the florilegium (or, later, the footnote).
An additional problem with the organization of ACCS is that it begins with the Gospel of Mark, a book on which there was only one full commentary in the early Church. Presumably the theoretically historical priority of Mark had some bearing upon its choice to lead the series. To assemble a patristic commentary on this Gospel, the editors had to find references in commentaries on other works, precisely because early Christian authors, almost without exception, read the entire gospel story harmonistically or at least synoptically. With this method, Mark, not distinguished for its theological insight, usually fell by the wayside.
The overarching problem with the ACCS , a problem probably not solely attaching to that series, is that it seeks a univocal patristic interpretation of the Bible that never existed. According to Hall’s introduction, the editors of the series seek to represent an interpretation which the early church consensually concluded about one or another text. This is idealism with a vengeance: any student of early Christianity knows that while consensus was what the emperor Constantine wanted, what he actually got was continuous argumentation.
If the principle of organization is flawed, and the goal is a chimera, what can be said in favor of this series? First, it is attractively presented. The volumes are nicely printed, and their aim is not too subtle for the average reader to comprehend. There are adequate bibliographies, so that those interested in a wider sampling of patristic interpretation can work backwards to find the entire text, for which existing translations were used in most cases. Furthermore, the ACCS introduces patristic thought to an audience, evangelical Protestants, generally unfamiliar with it.
The devotion of the general editor, and the amount of work that he and his assistants undertook to produce just these first three volumes of the series, is impressive. Readers may find this work and its method detailed in the general introduction and in the appendix to Mark . Those who have no other access to patristic interpretation will thank the contributors for their labors. Those who are engaged in the endeavor for other series will want to think about how best to provide an honest and sober presentation of patristic thought in its irascible variety as well as in its moments of occasional concord. All will want to remember that the great architects of patristic interpretation-Origen of Alexandria and Theodore of Mopsuestia, respectively symbolic interpreter and narrative interpreter par excellence-were condemned by the consensus-seeking emperor Justinian in a council of 553.
The same authors who seem to uphold the tradition best by their biblical interpretation, in other words, also call into question that very consensus which seems so comforting in a postmodern moment, but which in actuality never existed. The confirmation of that fact can be found in the plurality of churches which in antiquity and in the late Middle Ages split off from each other, in part due to their contrary ways of interpreting Scripture.
In the face of this situation, what purpose can be served by a revival of interest in patristic exegesis? Particular Christian communities may contrast the approach of the ancients to their own, and learn from the encounter, acquiring the healthy relativizing of one’s self-understanding that benefits any human community. And since the fathers of the Church were unafraid to speculate about the religious meaning of the Scriptures, they may help contemporary Christians feel the courage to do the same. In an age where unbelief always knocks at the church door, the fathers’ awareness that texts have consequences can be salutary in many ways.
Robin Darling Young is Associate Professor of Theology at the Catholic University of America, where she teaches early Christian history.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?