Reviewed by Patrick Schreiner
The popularity of the Patristics continues to be propelled forward, although questions and concerns about their hermeneutics linger in the shadows. Michael Graves, professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, has produced a much needed book on the topic of the early church and the interpretation of Scripture. His previous works dealt with Jerome so he seems familiar and suited for the task. This is clear throughout the book as he uses primary resources for the Fathers reflections on Scripture rather than relying on secondary sources. Although it is an academic book, it has a vital message for the church and for all those dealing closely with the text of Scripture.
The aim of the book as Graves defines it is to describe what Christians in the first five centuries of the church believed about the inspiration of Scripture (2 Pet 1:21). Not so much questioning if they believed in it, but rather identifying the entailments of inspiration. “What is true of Scripture as a result of its being inspired? What should divine inspiration cause us to expect from Scripture?”(p.2) Graves asserts that the Church Fathers have much to teach us about how to understand the Scripture.
Rather than plowing through different Fathers in succession, he helpfully identifies five categories (and sub-categories beneath these general headings) for entailments of inspiration for the Fathers:
- the spiritual and supernatural dimension
- mode of expression
- historicity and factuality
- agreement with the truth
Graves asserts that it seems like the Fathers assumed they were to interpret the Scripture as the New Testament authors did. Although there is the view that we should not interpret Scripture as the New Testament did because of inspiration, Graves says that one could argue “precisely because the New Testament authors were inspired we should interpret the Old Testament exactly as they did, because through inspiration they showed us the proper way to interpret.”(p.9) Foreshadowing his conclusion, he acknowledges early in the book that adopting this view may leave modern interpreters with the feeling that the results might be more subjective than many interpreters wish to allow.
Graves begins by explaining that the Fathers believed all Scripture is profitable or useful and therefore they were more willing to step outside the historical sense and glean theological or practical truths from the narratives. Augustine says, “anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or the true faith should be taken as figurative of some higher truth.” There was a strong connection for the Fathers between the inspiration of Scripture and its usefulness for God’s purposes. Inspiration is also a reason to see every detail of Scripture as meaningful. This includes details in numbers, syntax, vocabulary etc… Biblical scholars often discuss details from a human perspective, but the Fathers first turn the Holy Spirit as the author of these details. Although some of these views may be troubling to modern readers Graves encourages readers these ancient ideas are well worth transferring to our own context, but the biggest weakness of these approaches is straying from the literal sense. The other topics Graves covers in this section is how most of the church Fathers did not agree that Scripture solves every problem we might put to it, and how biblical characters are examples for us to follow.
The Spiritual and Supernatural Dimension
If Scripture is inspired then the Fathers assumed that divine illumination is required for biblical interpretation. This is a contested topic, but it comes down to how one defines the goal of interpretation. The Fathers thought Scripture has multiple senses. There must be a higher sense since the Holy Spirit is involved. Although Graves asserts the general point is helpful, there are also dangers. Without sufficient attention to the literal sense, readers can lose contact with the actual content and message of biblical texts. It can also cause an illegitimate feeling of ownership over the text’s meaning. Graves closes with one other possible entailment, that Scripture accurately predicted the future. He nuances this point saying it unwise to argue that OT texts “prove” Christianity.
Mode of Expression
If God is the author of Scripture then one possible entailment is that Scripture speaks in riddles and enigmas. Although Graves again warns against misuse, he says modern interpreters do assume Scripture is generally straightforward when there are many texts in Scripture that are genuinely unclear. Another possible entailment is the etymologies of words in Scripture convey meaning. The Fathers were prone to this, but Graves says this is now in the modern times not as helpful. The final two possible entailments are that God is directly and timelessly the speaker in the Scripture and that the Scriptures represent stylistically fine literature. For the former Graves says this is a helpful corrective, while most Patristics did not believe the latter.
Historicity and Factuality
Early church interpreters generally assumed the stories narrated in Scripture actually took place. They also believed that the Scripture was not deceptive in purpose or written out of ignorance. They appealed to the allegorical level when the “literal” details did not line up. There was some debate about whether Scripture was in conflict with “pagan” learning but on the whole, it was common for Christian to grant some measure of credibility to the “pagan” philosophical tradition. They also had a high view of the original text of the Scripture, although for them the Septuagint held this position for the most part before Jerome.
Agreement with Truth
Finally, the church Fathers believed Scripture’s teaching is internally consistent, that it does not deceive, and that Scripture’s message must agree with a recognized external authority. Additionally, anything that was genuinely taught about God in Scripture must be worthy of God.
Evaluation and Conclusion
Graves closes by asserting his overall thesis. Graves says, “I believe we should nuance our conception of Scripture’s authority by affirming that the final locus of interpretive authority rests in the relationship between God and the individual Christian.” (p.141) This may come in contrast to the “grammatical-historical” method where an inductive method of scientific techniques are used. Some may question the subjectivity and individuality of the assertion, but he is clear that he is not advocating an interpretive free-for-all. A measure of subjectivity is only a problem if the goal of biblical interpretation is to eliminate all subjectivity. Despite his qualifications, I was left feeling that this is a good word to “literalists” and a dangerous word to others. The value of Graves thesis depends on who is reading the book and what their bent is hermeneutically. This may partially prove his thesis, for I myself am arguing that the value of his statement is somewhat subjective.
Graves is careful in the book to not valorize the church Fathers, regularly critiquing them. He knows that they cared about the ad litteram sense, but also thinks they may have strayed too far from it at times. On the other hand he encourages modern interpreters to loosen a few fingers on the rope of the ad litteram and learn a few things from those who came before us.
I tweeted after reading this book that this may turn out to be one of the most important books of the year. After some reflection, I still think that is true. However, those opposed to what is now called Theological Interpretation of Scripture will doubtless not agree, and there may be some who think his conclusion is too subjective. However even if one asserts there are problems, examining entailments of the Fathers view of Scripture is a task one never regrets revisiting.
Patrick Schreiner is instructor of New Testament language and literature at Western Seminary.
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The Inspiration And Interpretation Of Scripture