I received an e-mail the other day from a seminarian who requested some follow-up on what I had discussed earlier as neo-patristic biblical interpretation for the church. He’s quite right – this is a topic I have wanted to talk about, but have neglected for far too long. In particular, he asks what sort of resources or authors he should be reading in order to gain a sense of this approach.
Let me start by saying that the first step is to get the purpose right. Entirely apart from other modes of reading, the church has one particular question that should drive and focus all of our interactions with Scripture: how does this passage reveal God’s desire for the church to be built up in love for service and reconciliation? There are other approaches to Scripture. There are other questions that interpreters ask Scripture. Academic and theological study will suggest different concerns and focuses. But at the heart of the Christian community remains this question: how does this passage help the Body of Christ grow into the mind of Christ? (I see these not as two different questions, but as two ways of framing the same intention.)
Once this seeking for God’s desire concerning our maturity and edification has been centrally seated, then other tools and resources can be allied in sympathy with it.
A book that I am returning to right now as I prepare my presentation for the Society of Catholic Priests is The Future of Catholic Biblical Scholarship: A Constructive Conversation by Johnson and Kurz. The first section, written by Luke Johnson, speaks specifically to rejoining the long conversation of the church about the Scriptures and offers as a dominant practice imagining the world that Scripture imagines. Johnson compares the historical critical paradigm to excavating a city whereas the church’s paradigm is living within the city. This sense of reading Scripture in order to learn how to live is thoroughly patristic: as Cassian’s Abba Nesteros reminds us, “receive the institutes and words of all the elders, preserve them carefully in your breast, and strive to fulfill them rather than to teach them.” Too often we skip the fulfilling part…
In terms of other works, I think Christopher Hall’s Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers is helpful especially for those who have not read widely in the Fathers. Looking to the fathers themselves, Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine is essential, particularly books 2 and3, and the whole of Cassian’s 14th conference. The one resource above all others to which Augustine and Cassian will both direct you, however, is Scripture itself. I cannot over emphasize what Augustine says, the best way to learn to interpret Scripture is to read more Scripture.
The difference between the perspective that I’m driving at and what is commonly taught in academic and seminary circles is less a matter of content and more a matter of purpose and direction. The Spirit guides our reading of the inspired word for the sake of building up our communities in love. Other tools and techniques are useful for our spiritual lives and the spiritual lives of the people we touch to the degree that they enable us to understand and embody how God’s action in Christ frees us for love and service. Sometimes we may find this at the basic literal level of the text. Sometimes we may find this in one of Gregory’s allegorical explanations. Sometimes we may find this in one of Aquinas’s doctrinal points. Or we might find it in a historical critical nuancing of what a particular phrase meant in its ancient near Eastern context. We can and should learn from all of these, attending most particularly to those that we find aiding us in our central goal.
We do need to be reading more of the fathers. But we also need to be reading them in the right way. I put Paul and the fathers in the same category in terms of how they need to be read. Sometimes they teach us by what they say in the decisions they come to. But other times they teach us because of the ways that they show us to think. Paul has given us a treasure in First Corinthians; while it may not wrestle with justification like Romans or present a grand vision of the church like Ephesians, First Corinthians shows us a master edifier working through the practical problems of the local church in light of the resurrection and the Scriptures. We need to learn from his example, not just his conclusions. The same is true of the fathers – we need to learn from their examples, not just their conclusions.
So—reading in a neo-patristic fashion is about reading from a particular perspective for a particular purpose. Another piece of this is that our reading context also directs what we read and what we find because our reading occurs within the context of our fundamental practices: the Mass and the Office. These practices themselves give us texts and sensibilities and experiences that further guide our interpretation. Constant repetition of the Creeds, the Gloria, the Magnificat, the psalms direct what we see and find. The experience of encountering Christ in the Eucharist gives us a fuller understanding of the person and personality seen within the text.
Much more remains to be said about this, but I hope this at least gives some further pointers down the path.