Patristic Biblical Interpretation

…is largely taught wrong to those few to whom it is taught.

Ok—so that’s kind of a bomb-throwing intro. Let me back up a little, clarify, and offer an alternative.

First, patristic biblical interpretation is largely ignored in most seminary curricula. Thanks to a variety of factors, chiefly Academia’s propensity to segment information into fields, “Biblical Studies” and “Patristics” are in two different areas—Biblical Studies and either History or Theology. There are folks who do both, but usually not. Patristics is generally presented as a subdiscipline of Systematic Theology because of the emphasis on patristic writings around the councils and issues of the Doctrine of God & Christology. If the point is what these folks said about God, few folks are interested in how they are working directly with the biblical text.

Second, when biblical people look at patristic readings, we tend to do so from a skills perspective within the frame of the history-of-ideas: what did they think and pass on to other people who thought? What is tends to get taught, then, are the same sections of Origen’s De Principiis, John Cassian’s Conference 14, and Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana. These are important texts and ought to be taught. In fact, I’d argue that they present clearly the heart of patristic biblical interpretation—but even there, most people completely miss the forest for the trees.

What gets focused upon in Origen’s anthropological model of the text: Scripture has a body soul, and spirit that correspond to the literal, moral, and allegorical meanings; all Scripture has a spiritual meaning, but not all of it has a literal meaning. John Cassian extends this to create the “quadriga” that would become standard throughout the medieval period with a helpful example of how these apply to the term Jerusalem: the literal sense, the allegorical (spiritual), the anagogical (purpose or telos), and the tropological (moral). Then Augustine talks about the difference between the literal and the figural with an emphasis on the figural.

This is skills stuff—interpretive techniques.

From there biblical classwork usually jumps directly to the Scholastics…

All of these things are true, but the shape, focus, and scoping distorts what I’m increasing seeing as the far more important and applicable piece.

I’ve just completed filming two videos for a colleague teaching the intro Biblical Studies class at St. Mary’s and they’re up on my YouTube channel: History of Interp 1 and History of Interp 2. Filming these pushed me to clarify insights and thoughts that have been percolating over the last couple of years in some helpful ways.

First, the standard approach rarely drives into why patristic readers did what they did. The assumption in the modern biblical studies field is that the literal view is to be preferred above anything else bolstered and supported primarily by the tools of historical criticism and secondarily by the tools of literary criticism. A “preferential option for the literal” comes baked in especially given the Protestant conviction on the perspecuity of the Scriptures (that they are clear and easy to read by all assuming the assistance of the Spirit).  In the usual instructional method, “allegory” is brought up to be dismissed. But why did these smart people decide that was a useful and helpful strategy?

Second, the narrow focus on a couple of interpretive techniques misses the more important aspect: the pattern, shape, and general method of how the Church Fathers taught that Scripture needs to be approached.  And this is the piece that modern students and especially present/future Episcopal clergy need to hear.

The patristic model as championed by Origen, Cassian, and Augustine—yes, even in the texts that we look at—places applying interpretive skills in the third place. The first step is reading and memorizing large portions of Scripture. This is what lectio divina is; Guigo’s fourfold method in the Ladder of Monks has been misread on this point because he doesn’t bother to state the obvious: the purpose of lectio is reading at the speed of memorization. The second step is enacting the plain directives of Scripture. It’s living life better! This is an essential pre-condition to biblical understanding as the Fathers teach it. Only then do we move to the third step: applying interpretive tools and techniques. The first two steps are all about forming and training the mind, will, and heart into Scriptural patterns. Only then do they get unleashed on the tools.

If we want to learn to read from the Fathers, steps 1 and 2 are at the center. We absorb as much Scripture as possible, and conform our wills and minds to it. That’s the true starting place.

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *