How the Early Fathers Teach us to Read Scripture

D.H. Williams:

Ancient-Future Faith Network member and distinguished professor D.H. Williams  recently gave an address at Wheaton College. Dan is professor of patristics and historical theology in the Department of Religion at Baylor University and specializes in Patristic Literature and Theology; History Christianity, Religions of Late Antiquity; and Sociology of Religion.


How the Early Fathers Teach us to Read Scripture

Nowadays a fervent acknowledgement has gripped conservative Protestants and our brethren in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy who openly admit that a re-engagement with the ancient legacy within our present churches is a necessity and just as much a challenge.  New forms of ecumenism have begun to emerge characterized by a surge of books about reading the Bible theologically.[1]  Retrieval theologies  have come into the academic limelight largely because of the limitations of the historical-critical methods, which have been entirely invasive in graduate programs, has left too much of a gap between the Church and the academy by failing to unite exegesis, doctrine and the life of the non-academic Christians.[2]  For a long time we have been faced with a hegemonic pretense of this “modern” approach to the study of Scripture, along with the assumption that writing biblical commentaries is almost exclusively the province of scholarly biblical exegetes.[3]

In a quest for a more flexible and capacious hermeneutic, we look to patristic forms of Biblical exegesis as uncovered in hundreds of sermons, commentaries, and theological works.  Even the most experienced researcher of patristic exegesis will admit that ancient Christianity left us with a vast ocean of texts that can elude our best attempts to comprehend them.  It is neither easy or self-evident to grasp what the early fathers have said on many subjects, but especially when it comes to the pages and pages of Biblical interpretation.  There is also a prevalent illusion among some Evangelicals that patristic writers from different centuries or geographical contexts all spoke with one voice.  The Greek Orthodox theologian George Florovsky rightly observed that while we have seen a renewed emphasis on the authority and return to the early Fathers, it must be a “creative return.”  This implies an element of self-criticism, but also that any such retrieval will be what he called, a Neopatristic synthesis.[4] In other words, the thoughtful reader of the ancients has to reassess both the problems and the answers of the Fathers in such a way that does not violate the ancient context by grabbing bits and pieces of text that will only serves to abstract them from the total perspective in which only they are meaningful and valid. But instead of a neopatristic synthesis, John Behr prefers to speak of a patristic “symphony”for hearing the different voices of the Fathers, whether it be the second or any other century. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint Basil did not speak the same voice. These are different voices. And there are different voices through time. So, the point of reading the Fathers is not to synthesize all their knowledge into one definitive solution but it is like going back to the earlier scores of the symphony. You have to learn their parts in order that you are harmonized to the melody to sing your part today.[5]

Of course, the ancient writers were not purposely trying to be opaque; just the opposite, in fact.  When it came to explaining the Bible, those that wrote to provide elucidation were doing so to be understood by as many Christians as possible.  Our present quandary has more to do with the fact that a great majority of ancients did not explain the structure or the logic with which they are expounding the text.  However much we wish to retrieve the riches of patristic theology and exegesis, we cannot deny that a historical, cultural and philosophical gulf stands between us and them. And we are not happy that they do not make the kinds of distinctions that we think they ought to make.  We’d do well to respect this distance in our treatment of the primary sources, and avoid what Jarsolav Pelikan called a “tyranny of epistemology”[6] that has dominated especially Protestant hermeneutics since the Enlightenment. We often forget that the patristic interpreters stood much closer to the apostolic era and ought to mirror the writers of the NT much more closely than we do.

This being said, we are not faced with an impossible return to the past, as some have argued.[7]  As we consider reading ancient Biblical exegesis, it is not improper to ask what expectations should have; What marks some of the key differences between the way we read the Bible and how they read it?  And if a degree of retrieval—perhaps a high degree--of these sources is possible, what does that look like when it comes to understanding them?

Let me begin with some mechanics of what one encounters when reading the ancient Fathers and then we’ll look at certain strategies they used for reading Scripture:


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