Tag Archives: church fathers

QOTD: Jerome on Studying and Teaching Holy Scripture

“Read the divine scriptures constantly; never, indeed, let the sacred volume be out of your hand. Learn what you have to teach. “Hold fast the faithful word as you have been taught that you may be able by sound doctrine to exhort and convince the gainsayers. Continue thou in the things that thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them;”[1] and “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope and faith that are in you.”[2] Do not let your deeds belie your words; lest when you speak in church someone may mentally reply “Why do you not practise what you profess? Here is a lover of dainties turned censor! his stomach is full and he reads us a homily on fasting. As well might a robber accuse others of covetousness.” In a priest of Christ mouth mind, and hand should be at one.”

Jerome Letters 52.7

  1. Titus 1:9; 2 Tim 3:14  ↩

  2. 1 Peter 3:15  ↩

Don’t Fall Asleep During the Sermon

Chysostom has no sympathy for those who begin to fall asleep and not pay attention to the sermon. Toward the end of his sermon on John 1:1 he says:

What, then, are these things[1]? I realize that many of you have become listless of the length of my sermon. This happens when the soul is sluggish because of its numerous temporal cares…When it (the soul) is pure and has no troublesome passion, it perceives exceedingly clearly whatever it ought to perceive; but when, made turbid by many passions, it utterly loses its virtue, it cannot easily be satisfied with spiritual things but quickly grows weary and falls back. Giving way to sleep and sloth, it takes no heed of the things pertaining to virtue and of the quite different life belonging to it, and does not approach it with any readiness.

Homily 2 (John 1:1) in St. Chrysostom Homilies on the Gospel of St. John

  1. In this context “these things” are the attacks from secular philosophy on questioning who God is.  ↩

Book Review: Early Christian Thinkers edited by Paul Foster (IVP)

Many thanks to IVP Press for providing this review copy

Title: Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures
Edited by: Paul Foster
Price: $23.00 (Amazon Link)

There is an ever-growing interesting into early Christian history and the Church Fathers. This interest is two pronged: Many are seeking to understand the rise of Christianity and another related group is interested in the interpretive method of these early Christian thinkers. These are not new categories but the larger interest of a younger generation is growing. It is difficult to dive into these early writings without understanding the context of the writers life situation and other writings. This book finds its niche in providing a scholarly overview of these writings and the impact it had on later Christian writings. This is why this book, Early Christian Thinkers is a needed addition to the plethora of introductory resources of the early Church.

As it is with literature, all writing builds and is related in some ways to other similar (and not so similar writings) writings. This volume seeks to show “the way in which these early Christians, while being rooted in their own cultural contexts, made innovative contributions towards developing Christian thought, theology, and piety (xi).” Many of these contributions to early Christianity are intertwined with other Christian thinkers and are responses to others outside the faith. This collection of essays successfully shows the development of the writer, the importance of his/her writings for the Christian faith, and the effects it has on later Christian writers.

The book is laid out in twelve distinct chapters covering the following early Christian thinkers:

  1. Justin Martyr (Paul Parvis)
  2. Tatian (Paul Foster)
  3. Irenaeus (Denis Minns)
  4. Theophilus of Antioch (Rick Rogers)
  5. Clement of Alexandria (Judith L. Kovacs)
  6. Tertullian (Everett Ferguson)
  7. Perpetua (Sara Parvis)
  8. Origen (Rebecca Lyman)
  9. Cyprian of Carthage (J. Patout Burns)
  10. Hippolytus of Rome (Ulrich Volp)
  11. Gregory Thaumaturgus (Michael Slusser)
  12. Eusebius of Caesarea (Timothy David Barnes)

Each chapter seeks to give a paragraph length introduction, a short biography, an overview of the writings, theology, legacy, and a concise bibliography. Overall, most of the authors successfully wrote within this context. The essays by Lyman (Origen) and Kovacs (Clement of Alexandria) were especially insightful. Lyman’s portrait of Origen was fair and even-handed in giving an overview of his life and the controversies surrounding his writings. Kovacs gives a helpful overview of Clement’s theology by summarizing it in five key ideas:

  1. What is the purpose of human life?
  2. Who is God and how can he be known?
  3. How is the revelation of scripture to be understood?
  4. What is God’s plan for human salvation?
  5. How are believers to become perfect?

I was also excited to see the inclusion of Perpetua’s writings. Often in introductions to early Christian thinkers a female presence is neglected. The essay was interesting and insightful but it did seem out of place for this volume. Each other essay shows how the persons writings and thought were unique and influenced other Christian thought. But with this essay it is more of a biographical sketch of the author and her theology. The essay concludes by saying, “If Perpetua is not the early church’s greatest theologian, what she has going for her is yet something fairly rare: we have convincing portraits of both her family and her public life, and they add up (109).” This conclusion sums up the essay, a fine biography of the life of Perpetua but lacking in the influence she had as an early Christian thinker.

There was one particular essay that did not seem to fit the purpose of the book, Tatian by Paul Foster. In this essay Foster seemed to focus an unduly amount of time on text critical issues in Tatian. This seemed out of place within the context of the rest of the essays, which rarely focused on text critical issues of the writings. When others did mention them it was concise and to the point. The essay still has redeeming qualities though. Foster provides several helpful charts showing some of the content of Tatian’s writing. His section on whether Tatian was a heretic is insightful too. He concludes that most likely Tatian’s writings were not “unorthodox” at the time and some of his followers later formed unorthodox doctrines that Tatian was linked to.

The bibliographies of most of the works are especially helpful for the student and scholar. The bibliographies were often times broken down according to each work and then a select list of monographs concerning the writer. It is difficult for beginning students to know which works/translations to consult for academics and this provides a helpful guide.

Overall, I would recommend this book to any student that has an interest in early Christian thought. The essays written found the niche needed, they were neither to short and basic or too narrow focused on singular issues. I found myself understanding the writings of each of these thinkers better and with an eye towards the context that they are writing in. The bibliographies are especially helpful for the student or scholar wishing for sources of their works. I think that students who are interested in reading the writings of any of these early Christian thinkers would do well to first consult the relevant essay to understand the life and context of the writer. For students interested in the history of interpretation this book is a valuable read in order to better understand and utilize the writings of this era for interpretation today.

Related: See Brian Leport at the Near Emmaus blog give his thoughts on each chapter here.

Jerome on the Catholic Epistles

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The apostles James, Peter, John, and Jude, have published seven epistles at once spiritual and to the point, short and long, short that is in words but length in substance so that there are few indeed who do not find themselves in the dark when they read them.-Epistula 53.9[1]

  1. Quoted in Nienhuis, David R. 2007. Not By Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and Christian Canon. Baylor University Press, 83.  ↩

The Struggle of Seminary and the Bible


There is no long-range effective teaching of the Bible that is not accompanied by long hours of ongoing study of the Bible. Effectiveness in teaching the Bible is purchased at the price of much study, some of it lonely, all of it tiring. If you are not a student of the Word, you are not called to be a teacher of the Word.

— D.A. Carson

I think one of the most difficult aspects in seminary and biblical scholarship, at least for me, is reading and studying the Bible itself. Far too often I am more interested in reading books and articles about the Scriptures rather than the Bible itself. I am always amazed at reading the Church Fathers and seeing the many connections they see in the Scriptures. I am amazed because they did not have the wealth of resources that we have today (cross-references, Bible software, literature from 1500+ years). The reason they could do this was because they lived and breathed the Scriptures. In a culture where all the information is at our fingertips it is so easy to skip the study of Scripture. I hate to admit but too often I fall into this trap. Recognizing this is the first step; action is the second step but often times the hardest.

Secondary literature is needed and definitely has its place but it can’t replace the actual study and interaction with Holy Scripture.

Sanctified Vision: Christ is the End of the Law and Prophets

The Church Fathers writing is like a beautifully crafted mosaic. The end product is a masterpiece of colorful imagery and complex design but the starting points are often disconnected and a mystery to the outsider. A mosaic artist generally begins with solid pieces of stained glass that are then broken and reassembled to create the mosaic. An artist can look at this glass and visualize the end product and carefully piece together the glass to create a masterpiece. As a person who is not an artist I can not see the end from the beginning. Sure, I can look at a finished product and trace back how they created this but given just the glass this would be impossible to recreate without instruction.

This is how the Church Father’s exegesis often seems to people. The end is a beautiful masterpiece that is theologically rich but when we begin to see the process they took to get there we are puzzled. Just at looking at broken stained glass and wondering how the artist got from here to there we study the Church Father’s writing and are confounded. We may be able to connect the dots but it is a mystery to explain the hows and why. How they got there is not the road we expected. This chasm is created by years of church history, competing philosophies, and new methods make this gap difficult to cross. This is the gap that O’Keefe and Reno wanted to cross in their book Sanctified Vision. They wanted to begin with the broken stained glass and figure out the methods of creating the end product. This will be the first of several posts tracing and summarizing some of their findings in examining the interpretive methods of the Church Fathers.

Christ is the End of the Law and Prophets

In chapter 2 of their book they begin to lay out the framework of the Church Father’s exegesis. To the early church Christ was the key to all interpretations. He is the telos of Holy Scripture and without him much of the Bible is a mystery. They point out that the Fathers and three basic guides to interpretation: hypothesis, economy, and recapitulation.

First, for the Fathers the hypothesis is the “gist of the literary work” (34), which in the case of Holy Scripture, Christ is the key. We need to understand the overall plan of the Bible and that it is all consummated in Christ. The Fathers argued that a heretical interpretation was one that did not understand the literary plan of scripture and would take various details to create their own doctrine. Iraneaus provides an example of a “clever reader” by taking portions of the Illiad and Odyssey and creating a distorted picture from the text that is not true to the hypothesis (or gist) of the literary work.

“The clever reader rearranges the verses to exploit certain names and images. The illustration Irenaeus provides, the rearrangement of the veers yields a lament about Hercules rather than an epic about Achilles and Odysseus. Homer’s raw material is used to construct a poem based upon an alien hypothesis that is false to the thrust or hypothesis of the Homeric epics from which the verses are taken.” (36)

From this hypothesis the Fathers see that the Bible has an economy or “a structure or plot that allows us to discern the flow of the narrative” (37). By having a correct hypothesis you can construct the proper economy of the text. “The divine economy is clearly taught by the church…proper interpretation of scripture must both presume and discern the sequence of events that are ordained by God” (38). The scriptures don’t need proven that they are God’s word, rather this is assumed, and it is the Christians job to put together this true story. For Iranaeus, “the coming of Jesus Christ is the decisive event that clarifies the divine economy. The scriptures anticipate future events” (38).

Finally, the recapitulation (or “final repetition, summing up, drawing to conclusion”) of scripture is Christ. He is “the Logos of the Father, the logic or purpose in and through which the whole divine economy is conceived and implemented” (39). For example:

“Adam does not fall in an abstract sense. His obedience comes from the fruit of the tree, and from that tree comes death. Jesus Christ recapitulates this scene, though now in the key of righteousness rather than sin. Christ’s obedience triumphs over sin by his death upon the tree of the ross, and the fruit of that tree is life.”(39)

Therefore, Holy Scripture was written by God, which gives it a hypothesis or purpose of the Bible and from this we can construct a good economy that recapitulates in Christ. This provides us with a starting point in understanding how the Father’s viewed the Holy Scripture when they say that all texts lead to Christ. They were less worried about human authorial intent but saw that God, the author of scripture, had the telos of the scriptures to be Christ.

Every work contained in the sacred books announces with words, reveals by the facts, and establishes by example the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ who, sent by his father, became a man, being born of a virgin by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is, therefore, he who, throughout this present age engenders, washes, sanctifies, chooses, separates out, and redeems the church in the true and manifest figures of the Patriarchs: by the sleep of Adam, by the flood of Noah, by the blessing of Melchizedek, by the justification of Abraham, by the birth of Isaac, and by the servitude of Jacob. Through the entire unfolding of time, in a word, the assembly of the prophets, serving the divine economy, gave us knowledge of his coming incarnation.

— Hilary of Poitiers cited on p. 43

History of Interpretation: Venantius Fortunatus on the Virgin Birth

Fortunatus was a poet during the 6th century in France. The following poem is an exposition on the virgin birth prophesied in Isaiah 7:14:[1]

The prophets’ tongue has sung the Virgin’s giving birth:[2]
The angel takes the tidings to earth beneath the sky.
The voice of men agrees, remembers what this girl has done,
How she, a virgin, bore a man without man’s seed.
Concordant with this gospel, Isaiah tells
What God inspires, he sounds the trumpet call,
With eloquence abounding, and truly tells the mystery,
And sings the Virgin’s gift of our Emmanuel,
Predicting from of old, that through the mother of the Lord
Would Jesse’s root produce a flower from his shoot.
The Virgin is that shoot, from which the Flower, Christ, has sprung,
Whose living fragrance causes buried limbs to rise,
As Lazarus, undone by death four days before,
Received anew his breath from Christ, the fragrant Flower.
Made holy in the womb[3], the prophet Jeremiah
Likewise foretold her in his vatic speech: Behold,
The days will come: from David will I cause a shoot
To sprout, a king will reign, and wisely will he rule[4]
The Virgin is this shoot, the king her infant son,
The arbiter of justice, heir to world rule.
The psalmist hymned the Virgin on his plectrum,
When strings and voices sang their melody:
Of Mother Zion will they say: “One man here, one born there”
In her”[5], which means: He founded her, became a man in her.
And then it says, Most High is he who founded her:[6]
For she, the Virgin Mother, she is Mother Zion.

Here, we can see some of the early stages of the emphasis on the virgin Mary. I think it is interesting that she is referred to as the shoot from Jesse and that Christ is the flower. We see this interpretation in Ambrose, who uses Isaiah 7:14, 11:1, and Song of Solomon 2:1 to interpret Christ as the flower from the root of Jesse:[7]

“The flower from the root is the work of the Spirit, that flower, I say, of which it was well prophesied: ’A rod shall go forth from the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise from his root.”The root of Jesse the patriarch is the family of the Jews, Mary is the rod, Christ the flower of Mary, Who, about to spread the good odour of faith throughout the whole world, budded forth from a virgin womb, as He Himself said: ‘I am the flower of the plain, a lily of the valley.’”

Jerome, in line with Ambrose, says:[8]

“‘There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a flower shall grow out of his roots.’ The rod is the mother of the Lord—simple, pure, unsullied; drawing no germ of life from without but fruitful in singleness like God Himself. The flower of the rod is Christ, who says of Himself: ‘I am the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys.’ In another place He is foretold to be “a stone cut out of the mountain without hands,’ a figure by which the prophet signifies that He is to be born a virgin of a virgin.”

Let this be another tool in the interpreter’s tool belt in reading Old Testament texts in light of the New.

  1. Wilken, Robert L. Isaiah: Interpreted by Early Christian Medieval Commentators. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007, 106  ↩

  2. Is 7:14  ↩

  3. Jer 1:5  ↩

  4. Jer 33:14  ↩

  5. Ps 87:5a  ↩

  6. Ps 87:5b  ↩

  7. Ambrose of Milan. (1896). Three Books of St. Ambrose on the Holy Spirit H. de Romestin, E. de Romestin & H. T. F. Duckworth, Trans.). In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume X: St. Ambrose: Select Works and Letters (P. Schaff & H. Wace, Ed.) (119). New York: Christian Literature Company.  ↩

  8. Jerome. (1893). The Letters of St. Jerome W. H. Fremantle, G. Lewis & W. G. Martley, Trans.). In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Volume VI: St. Jerome: Letters and Select Works (P. Schaff & H. Wace, Ed.) (29). New York: Christian Literature Company.  ↩

Reading the Church Fathers for the Scholar’s Soul and for Equipping the Church

The scholarly realm is filled with word studies, literary studies, systematic studies, and any other study one can think of. The multiplicity of studies can often be to the detriment to the scholar’s soul. In practice, theological studies is often divorced from the end to seek after the living God. This is where reading patristic exegesis can be fruitful for the soul. Claire McGinnis says that “Christian scholars of the Bible ought to read patristic exegesis because it offers an important antidote to the deadening effects scholarly training can have on the ability to hear in the pages of Scripture the Word of God, and a unified Word at that.”[1] The early church saw no separation between study of Holy Scripture and seeking after Christ. By reading the Church Fathers we can be awakened to the full unity of the Bible and seeking Christ at every step of the way. By seeing the way the early Church read the Bible we can “desire to recover and nurture ways of reading the Bible theologically.”[2] The Bible is not just an ancient text but rather the living Word of God (Heb 4:12).

For the Church Fathers, the purpose of rigorous study was to read and exegete the Bible in a way that lead them to Christ. Theological academics and writing for the church were one in the same. By reading the Patristics we can immerse ourselves in a different type of theological writing that can shed new light on our own exegesis. It will shed new light precisely because it is foreign to us.[3] It presents to us a new way of thinking that is different from current hermeneutical methods today. It gives us time to pause and reflect of the Christological interpretations of our Christian forefathers. Reading the four senses of scripture they often employ may make us uneasy but the four sense’s end goal was to see Christ in all the Bible.

At the recent Scripture and Hermeneutics seminar Craig Bartholomew stated that Christian scholarship is likened to the back lines of an army that is arming the front lines for war. We are arming the front lines, who are the pastors and teachers of the Church. If scholars can better read/write theologically then we can better supply the front lines in the battle. In Christian scholarship our end goal should not merely furthering of theological academics but the strengthening of the Church. Just as doctors in universities study biology, chemistry, anatomy etc. and write in journals for equipping other doctors with the knowledge and methods for fighting disease and injury for their patients, so too should Christian scholarship equip pastors with rigorous theological writing for the advancement of the Church.

An excerpt from one of St. Chrysostom’s homilies on Genesis 6:8–9 will provide a helpful example of the value for the soul in reading the Church Fathers. In this homily Chrysostom has been commenting on the virtue of Noah amidst of the wickedness of the world that he lived in. Chrysostom finds it amazing that Noah was the only righteous person in the world and God found favor in Noah. Chrysostom says[4]:

“‘Noah,’ the text says, remember, ‘found favor in the sight of the Lord God.’ Even though he was not the favorite or darling of any of the human race of the time through his refusal to follow the same route as theirs, nevertheless he found favor in the eyes of the one who haunts the heart, and to him his attitude was acceptable. What harm, after all, tell me, ensued in this case from the mockery and ridicule of his peers, considering the fact that the one who shapes our hearts and understands all our actions proclaimed the man’s deeds and rewarded him? On the other hand, what benefit would it be to a human being were he the object of admiration and praise of the whole world while being condemned on that dread day by the Creator of all and the Judge who is proof against all deceit? Understanding this, therefore, dearly beloved, let us set no store by people’s commendation nor seek praise from them in every way; instead, with him alone in mind who examines heart and entrails, let us practice the works of virtue and shun evil.”

Chrysostom exhorts us to be like Noah, living a life of virtue, not seeking the praise of men but seeking the praise of God. Noah was living amidst of wickedness but did not try to please man but to please God. As Christian scholars, we can take heed to his exhortation, not using theological study for the praise of other men but for the praise of God.

  1. Claire Mathews McGinnis, “Stumbling over the Testaments: On Reading Patristic Exegesis and the Old Testament in Light of the New,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 4, no. 1 (Spr 2010): 15–31, 18  ↩

  2. ibid, 19  ↩

  3. ibid, 16  ↩

  4. Chrysostom, Saint John. Fathers of the Church: Saint John Chrysostom : Homilies on Genesis 18–45. Catholic Univ of Amer Pr, 1990, 93  ↩

David Paul Parris – “Reading the Bible with Giants”

The exegesis of the Church Fathers has become a growing interest of mine in recent months. In our modern methods of interpretation we often dismiss the their hermeneutics because it doesn’t match ours. If we trust in early church’s creeds and doctrines then why do we ignore their exegesis by claiming we have a more trustworthy model? The historical-grammatical method has become our bread and butter to get to the “meaning” of a text to the neglect of other methods. But is this the correct way to interpret a passage or are there other viable avenues?

David Paul Parris in Reading the Bible with Giants argues that we should incorporate Reception Theory, which analyzes how a text has been received through history. He says that our exegesis should be a three-way conversation: the reader, Bible, and history. We often want to get the the “meaning” of a text but we need to realize that meaning changes over time. Parris says “to argue that the term meaning is restricted only to the original act of communication misses the fact that every generation of readers perceives meaning when they read the text…if we define meaning as something that never changes we have little or no ground to interact with or incorporate tradition when we interpret the Bible” (95). We need Reception Theory to understand the significance of the text throughout history so it can shed light on new ways of reading today.

Throughout the book Parris examines the history of reception at the level of individual words to whole passages. By incorporating the history of reception at these levels we can begin to understand that our exegesis comes from unavoidable preconceptions. Approaching the Bible with a blank slate is a myth because when we come to a text we have our life situation, training in literature, church teachings, and tradition all weighing in on our interpretation. This is not a negative reality but we do need to recognize that we come to the text with many pre-conceived notions. In this way, “knowledge is not something that is personal, but is highly interpersonal by nature. In this sense, reading is built upon and requires a community. And communities are, in a sense the present instantiation of a tradition” (82). This is where Reception Theory is useful. If we analyze how a text has been received through church history we understand that there have been a variety of interpretations and can shed light on new texts for us. We should not ignore earlier interpretations because if today we value the work of the Holy Spirit in interpretation then it seems contradictory to not value the early church’s exegesis.

The book gives helpful case studies especially on the story of Jonah and the reception history of the word “whale” and the Great Commission passage in Matthew 28:16-20. In each of these case studies he shows that the interpretation we have today varies greatly from earlier interpretations. For example, Matthew 28:16-20 was first read as a formula for the Doctrine of the Trinity and that the commission to “go to the nations” ceased with the original apostles. It wasn’t until William Carey that this passage was understood as a command to all Christians to teach and baptize. By looking at the history of reception we can gain new insights into passages and realize that we are indebted to the church for our understanding of the Bible.

We need to incorporate the history of reception in our exegesis. This shouldn’t be the only method but should be one of the many tools in our toolbox. We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants when we interpret the Bible. Let us humble ourselves and learn from our forefathers when we interpret Holy Scripture.