Tag Archives: history of interpretation

Augustine: Allegory and the Good Samaritan

Augustine often receives a bad rap for some of his allegorical exegesis. This is especially true of his interpretation of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10.29–37)[1], which has become the whipping boy for the supposed dangers of allegory. The Samaritan is Christ, the animal of the Samaritan is the flesh of Christ, the man coming down from Jericho is Adam, the robbers are the Satan and his minions, the inn is the church and inn keeper is the apostle. Modern day Hermeneutics 101: do not interpret the text like Augustine[2]!

But what would Augustine have to say against the charge of his “fanciful” interpretation?

In an essay by Ronald Teske[3] he gives three responses that Augustine may have given based on other writings on hermeneutics.

From The Confessions and his discussion of the creation account he argues that one may seek to determine what the author of Genesis intended but we shouldn’t stop there but we should also determine other truths that the passage shows us. Therefore, one may try to determine what Luke was saying in the parable but Luke would also want us to find other truths within the parable even if he did not have them in mind (354–55).

Second, it is true that Augustine does seek to find the sense or intent of what the author was writing but contrary to modern day exegesis he does not stop there. Some interpretations are hidden therefore we should “choose only that interpretation which sound faith prescribes” (355)[4]. We are also allowed to seek the truth that Scripture speaks of elsewhere to help us understand a passage. Also, lest we forget the divine author of Scripture, we can also see interpretations that “the Spirit of God who produced the passage through him certainly foresaw (356).” A passage of Scripture is not limited by the human author’s intent. Teske argues, “Augustine’s christological interpretation of the parable is in full accord with the Christian faith and also makes the point most effectively which John clearly taught in his Gospel (356).” Augustine’s allegorical interpretation aligns with a canonical reading of the Gospels as well.

Finally, Scriptural interpretation should ultimately lead to the love of God and love of neighbor. One may be able to get a sense of the words and exegete that authorial intention of a passage but if that has not led the reader to a greater love for God and neighbor that interpretation is in vain. Augustine’s interpretation of the parable is indeed useful for this purpose.

On the surface it may seem that Augustine produces an interpretation that is not in accord with proper hermeneutical methods. Augustine reads the parable in multiple ways: a “literal” interpretation along with a allegorical/christological interpretation. He does not limit himself to the historic sense but opens the text up to be read canonically, christologically, and ultimately in a way that builds up love of God and love of neighbor.

The image is Vincent van Gogh’s painting of the good samaritan. Image Credit: Art and the Bible

  1. David Gowler has a helpful series of posts on Augustine’s interpretation of the Good Samaritan: Pt. 1, Pt. 2, Pt. 3  ↩

  2. It should also be noted that elsewhere Augustine does interpret the parable in a similar way as modern day exegetes by explaining that the parable shows us who is truly our neighbor. See Sermo CCXCIX and Contra mendacium.  ↩

  3. Roland Teske. “The Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29–37) in Augustine’s Exegesis.” In Augustine: Biblical Exegete, edited by Frederick Van Fleteren and Joseph C. Schnaubelt, 2 edition., 347–57. New York: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2001.  ↩

  4. De Genesi ad litteram I,xxi,41: CSEL XXVIII,31  ↩

Reception History and the Grateful Dead

History of interpretation and history of reception or influence (Wirkungsgeschichte) are fascinating and often times helpful sub-categories of biblical hermeneutics. I think there is an important difference in distinguishing these related categories. History of interpretation, in my understanding, examines how texts have been exegeted throughout the church. Reception more broadly investigates how texts have been received throughout history, which can include art, movies, music, and ecclesiological contexts. As with all hermeneutical approaches, at times these are more helpful than others but personally, they are always interesting. As I was listening to one of my favorite bands, the Grateful Dead, early this morning I heard the following words from “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo”

On the day that I was born
Daddy sat down and cried
I had the mark just as plain as day
which could not be denied
They say that Cain caught Abel
rolling loaded dice,
ace of spades behind his ear
and him not thinking twice

This piqued my interest to examine exactly why they alluded to the Cain and Abel narrative. Sadly, I don’t think this garners much fruit by way of helpfulness for interpretation but it is interesting nonetheless—especially if you’re a Grateful Dead fan.

My understanding of this song chronicles the story of a man who from the beginning of his life is destined with hardship but one most overcome this difficult life and press ahead even though life is going against you. The Dead’s understanding of the Cain and Abel story is that Cain was “marked” by God, destined for destruction. “Rolling loaded dice” and “ace of spades behind his ear” references the inequality and advantage that Abel had. Cain had no chance. Even though the man in the story is identified with Cain as being marked, out he picks up his bootstraps and moves onward.

This foray into reception history probably falls into the more unhelpful side but I think it does alert us to a three helpful points. First, cultural understandings of biblical texts are often devoid of both contextual and theological aspects of the text. Second, the use of the Bible is deeply embedded in our culture. The language of the Bible appears everywhere[1] from everyday language, to movies, and yes, even to Grateful Dead lyrics. Lastly, and most importantly, it forces Christian theologians and interpreters to wrestle more closely with the text.

  1. As noted by the first observation having the language of the Bible embedded into culture does not make one necessarily influenced by it or make the culture a Christian one.  ↩

United in Christ: Augustine and the Tower of Babel

Babel 900The tower of Babel marks one of humanity’s most pride filled moments in history. Recall, the people wanted to build themselves a city “with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth (Gen. 11:4).” That is, as one commentator explains, “the tower at Babel was conceived as a stairway that would give them access to the realm of the divine[1].” This would allow them to “make a name for themselves” and “not be scattered” abroad. Indeed, they did make a name for themselves but not the way they envisioned. We then read that Yahweh came down and scattered the people over all the earth and confused their language (11:8). This immediately forshadows the call of Abraham when Yahweh makes the promise that Abraham’s name will be made great and in him all families will be blessed.

But these two stories also forshadow and point to a greater story. Turning to Augustine, we gain insights from the early Church concerning how the dispersing of the tongues at the Tower of Babel points us to Christ. He says,

If pride caused diversities of tongues, Christ’s humility has united these diversities in one. The Church is now bringing together what that tower had sundered. Of one tongue there were made many; marvel not: this was the doing of pride. Of many tongues there is made one; marvel not: this was the doing of charity. For although the sounds of tongues are various, in the heart one God is invoked, one peace preserved[2].

John Calvin uses similar language to describe God’s people being united in Christ by saying,

that the language of Canaan should be common to all under the reign of Christ, (Isaiah 19:18;) because, although their language may differ in sound, they all speak the same thing, while they cry, Abba, Father[3].

Christ humbled himself by coming down from heaven to live the life of a man. He went around healing the sick and wounded, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, and preaching the kingdom of God. But we know from the four-fold Gospel that this humility was met with anger and distrust. The pride of humanity was once again on display when Jesus was sent to the cross for his crucifixion. It is through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ that the Church is united in him.

This is one of the many reasons I enjoy reading the Church Fathers. Often times, if the Tower of Babel is spoken of today in reference to the New Testament it concerns the brief uniting of languages in Acts. I agree that this reading is a right and appropriate connection but by reading Augustine we see one more way that the tower of Babel points us to Christ. The church fathers can open our eyes to different readings that have become forgotten. So next time you are in Genesis and reading about the Tower of Babel remember that Christ has reversed this dispersion and united us in himself. And we long for a future day where the spiritual reality of this truth manifests itself in the physical reality of the new creation.

  1. K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1–11:26 (vol. 1A; The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 481.  ↩

  2. Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel According to St. John,” in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series: St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies (ed. Philip Schaff; trans. John Gibb and James Innes; vol. 7; New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 742.  ↩

  3. John Calvin and John King, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis (vol. 1; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 331–332.  ↩

Book Review: Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters

You can purchase the Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters: A Historical and Biographical Guide ed. Marion Ann Taylor here.

The study of women interpreters has regretfully been neglected in the recent interest in the history of interpretation. Often this enterprises focus on the ecclesiastical leaders whose writings have been past down. The focus on male interpreters paints an incomplete picture and is a failure to show the full voice of how Scripture has been understood throughout the ages. In the pre-modern period much of women’s influence has been lost because they did not produce formal writings but their influence should not go unnoticed.

One can think of Paula (347–404) who traveled with Jerome and set up a monastery for for women and also a hospice for travelers (400). Through the writings of Jerome we can paint a picture of her hermeneutics focusing both on the spiritual and historical meaning of Scripture. Undoubtably, Paula would have had a major influence on the women of this time in her monastery. There is also Macrina, the sister of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, who was a teacher and leader in female monasticism (338). Gregory calls her “my teacher in all these things” and her influence on him was great. Just a glimpse into the influence these women played in the history of Christianity opens our eyes to a fuller view of history.

These are just two small examples of how this handbook helps give a voice to women throughout history. It is important because many of the overviews of past interpreters of Scripture predominantly focus on male interpreters because they have had the loudest voice throughout history. This collection of entries seeks to remedy this and show the voice of women throughout history in the interpretation of Scripture.

The women included in this handbook are those whose “interpretations were influential, distinctive, or unique in terms of ideas or interpretive genre, or representative of the kind of interpretive writings done by a number of women at a certain period of time (5).” The editor notes that there is a disproportionate amount of women in the post-Reformation period because of the increase of female literacy, education, and access to the Bible. There are 180 entries covering from Faltonia Betitia Proba (ca. 320 – ca. 370) to Elizabeth Rice Achtemeier (1926–2002).

The book is setup in a way to be helpful for a variety of different purposes. If one is seeking the history of interpretation they can go to the Scriptural index or if one is looking for a certain time period they can look at the chronological lists of entries. The bibliography at the end of each entry shows additional resources that one can pursue on each specific interpreter.

The editor, Marion Ann Taylor, is to be commended for putting this volume together. It is a much needed addition to the field of biblical studies and will be especially helpful for anyone interested in the history of reception of the Scriptures. I highly recommend it.

Many thanks to Baker Academic for this free review copy.

You can purchase Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters: A Historical and Biographical Guide here.

Watch the interview with Marion Ann Taylor to hear about how this book came about.

Why You Should Study the History of Interpretation

Dale Allison[1] says…

  1. History of interpretation is intrinsically interesting and and of itself
  2. It instills humility by reminding exegetes of how much they owe to those who came before, and of the degree to which they are bearers of traditions
    1. Most of our questions – as well as most of her answers – have been around for a long, long time. Further, much that we think of as new is really old
  3. Careful attention to older commentaries sometimes allows one to recover exegetical suggestions and profitable lines of inquiry that, from a historical critical point of view should never have dropped out of commentary tradition
  4. It reveals the plasticity of texts, and how easily and thoroughly they succumb to interpretive agendas.
  5. Reception history that looks beyond theologians and commentaries… reminds one that biblical texts are not the exclusive property of clerics and exegetes. They instead belong equally to popular piety and to literature in general, and likewise to artists, poets, and musicians

I would also add that if we believe the Holy Spirit guides our interpretation today then we should similarly believe that it was guiding the interprets of the past and this will add much fruit to our exegesis. And to the Church Fathers specifically, many interpreters rely on the Church Fathers doctrinal views (Trinity, humanity/deity of Christ etc.) but reject much of their exegesis and use of texts. It was their exegesis that led to the formulation to these doctrines so we should also value their exegetical insights.

For more of my thoughts on reading the Church Fathers and the importance of history in our interpretation and spiritual lives see this post

Also see Patrick Schreiner’s post 11 Reasons to Study the History of Interpretation

For more on history of interpretation and the Church Father’s exegesis I would recommend the following:

  1. excerpted from Jr, Dale C. Allison. 2013. James (ICC): A Critical and Exegetical Commentary (International Critical Commentary). Cri Int edition. Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2–3.  ↩

Thoughts on Chrysostom’s First Sermon on Matthew

Chrysostom notes the many difficulties in the text of Matthew. He says that it may be plain at first site but when one focuses on the text many question arises. What is interesting is the amount of preparation for his sermon that he called his congregation to do. He says that they will not get anything out of his teaching if they do not thoughtfully prepare before hand.

In his first homily he asks several question. Here is a sampling:

  1. Why is the genealogy traced through Joseph if he is not Jesus’ biological father?
  2. Why can Jesus be said to come from David when the forefathers of Mary are not known?
  3. Why does Matthew pass over eminent women but focus on four that are “famed for some bad thing?”
  4. Why did he omit three kings in the genealogy?
  5. If he speaks of 14 generations why does the 3rd set not have 14 generations?
  6. Why do Matthew and Luke both trace the genealogy of Joseph but have different number of names and starting points?
  7. How was Elizabeth, who was from the Levitical tribe, kinswoman to Mary?

He tells his congregation that if they are going to learn they must prepare and seek the answers to these questions apart from his preaching. Only then, if he sees an eagerness to learn from them, will he “endeavor to add the solution” but if they are not preparing and seeking out answers on their own he will “conceal both the difficulties and their solution in obedience to the divine law.” His reason is rooted in an allusion to Matthew 7:6, “Give not the holy things to the dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet.” And who are these people that are the dogs and swine? They are the ones who do not “account these things as precious and venerable.” This is a serious offense because to Chrysostom the ones who do not prepare before hand are not taking the Scriptures seriously. He laments, “where God is speaking, they will not bear to tarry even a little time.”

This section of the homily brings up some interesting questions:

First, how many people had access to the text of Matthew at this time? From this section it seems that everyone had some type of access to at least the text for the next sermon. How big was his congregation? Did they memorize the passage for the next gathering or copy it somewhere? Did they have some type of “study groups” or was this all individual? Did Chrysostom check in and ask questions to see if they had pondered the passage?

Second, how does Chrysostom go about answers the questions he poses? Many of the questions that he poses are still questions for todays scholars.

Third, what is the history of interpretation of Matthew 7:6 up to this point and where does it go from here. For Chrysostom the holy things are the Scriptures and the interpretation of them. The only other interpretation of this passage that I know of (I would be interested to researching this more) is in Didache 9:5. This passage says, “But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for the Lord has also spoken concerning this: ”Do not give what is holy to dogs.“ For the Didachist the holy things is participation in the Eucharist and you are a ”dog" if you have not been baptized. These interpretations are similar but not quite the same. For Chrysostom, if one is uninterested in the Scriptures then this makes them the dog or swine but for the Didachist baptism is the criteria for being a dog and swine.

I love the quote that Chrysostom ends his homily with. He compares the Gospel of Matthew as entering into a holy city that is leading the reader to the royal throne where Christ sits. He concludes,

If we would order ourselves wisely, the grace itself of the Spirit will lead us in great perfection, and we shall arrive at the very royal throne, and attain to all good things, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and might, together with the Father and the Holy Ghost, now and always, even for ever and ever. Amen.

Augustine on the Ability to Control the Tongue

Throughout the letter of James he makes bold imperatives that should be true in Christians lives. These imperatives encompass all areas of life from our deeds to what we say. But does James give the Christian a basis on which these can be achieved? Augustine seems to think so.

Throughout Augustines writings on original sin a certain passage keeps appearing from an unlikely place. Writing against Pelagius he often cites from James 3:2, which says “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.” He uses this passage to show that no one is sinless. A person can not control their speech by their own will. Originally, he probably gained this usage based on Jerome’s writings. Augustine doesn’t stop there though. He notices that James says that although humans cannot control the tongue by themselves they can by the wisdom of God begin to become a whole person and tame our tongues by God changing our heart and giving us wisdom.

This excerpt is Augustine’s On Nature and Grace:

“This is the wisdom that tames the tongue; it comes down from above and does not arise from the human heart. Or will someone dare to remove it too from God’s grace and in pride and vanity locate it in the power of the human being? Why then do human beings pray that they may receive it, if having it depends upon them? Is someone going to oppose this prayer to avoid harm to free choice, because it is sufficient unto itself by its natural ability to observe all the commands pertaining to righteousness? Let them oppose the apostle James himself, who warns with the words, ’If any of you lack wisdom, let them ask it from God who gives to all abundantly without rebuking them, and it will be given to them, but let them ask with faith, without hesitation (Jas 1:5–6). This is the faith to which the commandments drive us so that the law commands and faith obtains what we ask. By the tongue, which no human being can tame but the wisdom coming down from above can tame, ‘we all offend in many ways’ (Jas 3:2a). This apostle after all, did not state this in any other sense than his words, ‘No human beings can tame their tongues.’ (Jas 3:8).”[1]

  1. Answer to the Pelagians. Vol. I/23. Introduction, translation and notes by Roland J. Teske, S.J. Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 1997, p. 232–3  ↩

Venerable Bede’s use of Luke in James 1:9-11


One of the differences between a modern reading of scripture and an ancient reading is the use of examples in sermons and commentary writing. Often times the Fathers use biblical narrative examples of truths found elsewhere in Holy Scripture, whereas most of our examples in modern day exegesis and preaching come from everyday life. This is not necessarily a negative thing but it is different. I think sometimes we have a phobia of moralizing narratives that we often neglect using them as examples altogether but the Church Fathers were not paralyzed this fear. Venerable Bede provides a good example of this in his exegesis of James 1:9–11, which says:

“Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like a flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.”

Bede uses the story from Luke 16:19–31 goes on to describe that being rich isn’t inherently destructive but it is the pride that often times accompanies being rich that cause people to lose their devotion to God. He says:

“For even Abraham, although he was a rich man on the world, nevertheless received a poor man after his death into his bosom, a rich man he left in torments. But he did not leave the rich man because he was rich, which he himself also had been, but because he had scorned being merciful and humble, which he himself had been; and on the contrary, he did not receive Lazarus because he was poor, which he himself had not been, but because he had taken care to be humble and innocent, which he himself had been. Therefore, such a rich man, that is, one who is proud and wicked and places earthly ahead of heavenly joys, will languish in his ways, that is, he will perish in his evil actions because he has neglected to enter the Lord’s straight way. But when he falls off like the hay under the sun’s heat, the righteousness on the same sun, that is, the severity of the judge, unblemished, and in addition brings forth fruits for which he will be rewarded for ever.”

Bede isn’t worried whether or not this is a parable or peek into the afterlife but instead he sees value in the Gospel narratives that sheds light on other parts of Holy Scripture. He knows from the text of Genesis that Abraham is a wealthy man so this sets up alarm bells in Bede’s mind that James cannot condemn being rich but rather it has to be something else. In this case he uses Luke’s Gospel to show that James condemning being rich but rather the pride that accompanies money.

What do you think of Bede’s use of Holy Scripture? Is this helpful or unhelpful?

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  ↩

Markus Bockmuehl and Effective History

Can we fully understand the meaning of a text without understanding how it has been received throughout history? Markus Bockmuehl[1] says we cannot:

a foundation document means cannot be determined without reference to its original intention; but nor can we discover what it means now without attention to what it has meant in the meantime. Whether we like it or not, we stand inescapably in the shadow of those who have gone before us (59).”

He argues that we should look at the effective history of a text (Wirkungsgeschichte) throughout the church and this will give a clearer picture on how modern readers should interpret the text. Without examining this then we can not fully understand the meaning of the text. So what is Wirkungsgeschichte? He gives us three basic polarities against other hermeneutical avenues to give us a picture (61–63):

  • Effective History vs. Confessional History: Confessional history examines the “formation of the traditions of credal orthodoxy” but Wirkungsgeschichte also examines the “losers of Church history.” He says that, “the effective history of a biblical text includes the impact of its use, misuse and non-use–even if our ultimate aim is to shed light on its proper use.”

    • I think this is a helpful observation. Often times we comprehend an idea best when we read/learn from others who disagree with us. By looking at the “losers” from the past we can strengthen our own interpretation by understanding its misuse.
  • Effective History versus History of Interpretation: Bockmuehl states that we must see the difference between Wirkungsgeschichte and Auslegungsgeschichte (history of interpretation). The latter is just the “mere account of its treatment in the annals of interpretation.” Ulrich Luz states that the Auslegungsgeschichte is the “exposition in commentaries and theological writings” while Wirkungsgeschichte is “other media like sermons, canon law, hymnody, art, the actions and sufferings of the church.” Bockmuehl observes that this line is often blurred (even in Luz’s writings) because these two ideas are hard to separate, which creates a false dichotomy.
    • I think in theory this is an acceptable separation but with the caveat that we must realize in our actual interpretation we are likely not able to separate them. By observing how a text has effected the culture (secular and orthodox) around it we need a starting point of how it has been interpreted in commentaries and theological writings. From there we can look at sermons, hymns, and art in order to see how these interpretations were understood by a broader people.
  • Effective History vs. Authorial Intent: We are never going to fully understand the exact authorial intent of an author, even by using the historical-critical method. He says, “the fact is that biblical texts quite often had effects which went far beyond, and sometimes even contrary to, their ‘original meaning.’” He quotes Heikki Räisänen saying, “the phenomena and developments for which the application of a text was a necessary condition.” The meaning of a text takes different paths as history unfolds.
    • Understanding that the meaning of a text for modern interpreters is often different from previous interpretations because of an interpreters context, which can give us pause today. I believe it is important to realize that the search for the original authorial intent (in a narrow definition) is a lost cause. We are never going to fully understand what all went into an author’s intent in writing a text. By examining the effective history we begin to understand what a text meant and how it effected a culture and this “can exercise a corrective function today (63).”

Hermeneutics is a broad river with many competing ideologies that continues down taking different turns as history unfolds. By looking at these different turns throughout history we can gain a richer understanding of a text today. Wirkungsgeschichte is not the only way to interpret a text but is just another tool in the interpreters toolbox.

  1. Markus N A. Bockmuehl, “A Commentator’s Approach to the ‘Effective History’ of Philippians,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 60 (D 1995): 57–88.  ↩

History of Interpretation: Aquinas on the star guiding the Magi

In his commentary on Matthew, Aquinas focuses the journey of the Magi as the “first fruits of the Gentiles, because they were the first Gentiles to come to Christ.” By recognizing that their wisdom originated in Christ they came to worship Jesus. Because they were Gentiles coming to Christ he gives two reasons why it was a star that guided them:

  1. He (Christ) was made known to the Gentiles by a star, because they came to the knowledge of God through created things; ‘The invisible things of God, by the things that are made, are clearly seen’ (Rom 1:20).
  2. It was appropriate for those to whom it was being shown, namely, the Gentiles, whose calling was promised to Abraham in the likeness of the stars; ‘Look up to the heaven and number the stars, if thou canst.’ (Gen 15:5).

For Aquinas, the story of the Magi, was the story of Gentiles being brought in to Christ because of the promises of Abraham. Since Abraham was to look to the skies and see that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars it was right for God to use a star to guide the magi. And because the Gentiles came to know God by his created things then it was also right for God to use a star to reveal Christ.

Taken from Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew