In this excerpt from How the Church Fathers Read the Bible, Gerald Bray introduces the origins of biblical interpretation and why studying what the church fathers wrote is important for us today.
Patristic biblical interpretation is the study of how the Bible was understood by those ancient Christian writers who are collectively known as the “fathers of the church.” That term is nowhere near as old as the men to whom it refers, and it did not come into general use until relatively modern times. The fathers were prominent men of unimpeachable orthodoxy whose literary legacy shaped and defended the theological formulations of the four great “ecumenical” councils of antiquity: Nicaea I (325), Constantinople I (381), Ephesus I (431), and Chalcedon (451). To the conciliar decrees should be added the Apostles’ Creed and the Quicunque vult, or Athanasian Creed, which were not authorized by any church council but which stand in the same tradition.
It has always been known that the fathers saw themselves as guardians and interpreters of the Bible, and for a thousand years their interpretations, often filtered through collections and extracts from their writings, were regarded as authoritative for the church. The first major break with that tradition came in a series of lectures by Martin Luther (1483–1546) on Galatians, which he delivered in 1519. In those lectures, Luther engaged with the fathers in considerable depth and dissented from their interpretations at many points. His main argument was that they had not properly grasped the apostle Paul’s theology, and in particular his doctrine of justification by faith alone. That failure had led to centuries of misunderstanding that obscured the way of salvation and concealed the truth of the gospel.
The rise of what we now call the historical-critical method in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries confirmed this negative assessment and relegated patristic biblical interpretation to the level of premodern, nonscientific guesswork that could be disregarded for practical purposes. Even scholars who specialized in the history of the early church either ignored it or mentioned it mainly to demonstrate how unacceptable it was. In their view, whatever the Bible said, it was seldom what most of the fathers imagined it to be saying, and so the fathers’ understanding, fascinating though it sometimes was, was dismissed as quaint and essentially irrelevant to any serious study of the subject.
In recent years this consensus has been challenged by a number of scholars who have wanted to go back behind the rise of historical criticism and reevaluate the methods and conclusions of earlier times. Students of the early church have come to appreciate just how central the Bible was to its concerns, and that, whether we agree with the fathers or not, the interpretive principles that guided them must be taken seriously if we are ever to understand how Christianity developed. Among this new wave of scholars are several who have sought to recover the methods (and even many of the conclusions) of the fathers. In their opinion, historical criticism has devastated the Christian world and left it defenseless against the forces of secularism, but by going back to the sources and reactivating them for modern use—a process sometimes known by the French word ressourcement—there is hope that the spirit that animated the first Christians can reinvigorate their descendants and revive the church today.
Patristic biblical interpretation is therefore not just a form of literary archaeology of interest only to specialists. It is a battleground of ideas, in which the credibility of the Christian tradition is at stake. Retreating into a kind of patristic fundamentalism, in which everything the fathers said and did must be accepted as infallible, is not an option, despite the fact that something like it is occasionally found in the Eastern Orthodox churches. On the other hand, categorical rejection of the patristic tradition can no longer be justified either. One way or another we have to come to terms with it and decide how we should appreciate (and to what extent we can appropriate) it today.
The Beginnings of Christian Biblical Interpretation
By about the year 220 at the latest, Christians had articulated and defended the following main points in their understanding of the Bible:
- The New Testament is the fulfillment of the Old.
- The Old Testament must be read as a Christian book, preparing the way for the coming of Christ.
- Pagan religions and philosophies were pale versions, and even corruptions, of God’s revelation in the Old Testament, which was their ultimate source.
These three principles were to guide all subsequent patristic biblical interpretation in the context of evangelism to Jews and pagans.
The approach of the second-century apologists was continued by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215), the first Christian writer who practiced what we would now recognize as biblical interpretation, but in his comments on the Bible (Hypotyposes) he confined himself to interpreting a few selected passages in an allegorical manner that sometimes verged on fantasy, not to say heresy.27 It was left to Origen, one of Clement’s pupils, to develop biblical interpretation in a systematic way. Origen’s literary output was so enormous and varied that, had it survived intact, it would be the largest body of literature to have come out of the early church. Unfortunately, about 150 years after his death some of his ideas became suspect and his reputation suffered. A further 150 years after that, his writings were condemned and they were either destroyed or no longer copied, though by then there were a number of Latin translations. Most of them were done around AD 400 by Jerome and his colleague Rufinus of Aquileia, who was one of Origen’s great admirers, and they have survived.
Origen’s influence on biblical interpretation, especially in the Greek-speaking world, was all-pervasive. For more than a century after his death there was nothing to compare with his work, and when later fathers started commenting on the Bible again, recycling his ideas was standard practice. Much of what they wrote can probably be traced back to Origen’s influence even if it is not directly attributable to him. As time went on, however, the inadequacies and inner contradictions of Origen’s approach could not be ignored, and a reaction set in. The history of patristic biblical interpretation can largely be written in terms of the degree to which the fathers distanced themselves from him. A few stayed close to the master, but the majority moved off in a different direction, albeit in different ways and to differing degrees. By the fifth century there were very few Origenists among the fathers and several of them were openly opposed to him, yet paradoxically they were all indebted to his work one way or another.
Without passing judgment on their overall beliefs, we must admit that the fathers were capable of making insightful remarks on particular passages of the Bible and that some of their opinions have survived the test of time, not least because they were recycled by (or under the names of) indisputably orthodox writers. Likewise, we have to accept that even the most orthodox could go wrong and that they sometimes did—not even the brilliance of Augustine or Chrysostom could preserve them from occasional error. Nor are we in a position to criticize the ancients indiscriminately. Sometimes we can say with some assurance that they were wrong about certain things, but there are other times when they may have seen matters more clearly than we do, not least because their perspective was different from ours. Evaluating their interpretations of the Bible must therefore be a cautious exercise, undertaken in humility and respect for their world-changing achievement. For when all is said and done, the fathers moved the world of antiquity away from its inherited paganism to Christianity, a shift that was to be fundamental in the construction of our own civilization. They are voices from the past to be sure, but they have not been drowned out by modernity, and for those who have ears to hear, they can still convey to us what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church.
This post was adapted from How the Church Fathers Read the Bible: A Short Introduction by Gerald Bray (Lexham Press, 2022).