The Symphonic Bible
Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation
reviewed by Ryan J. Jack Mcdermott
In his Life of Moses, Gregory of Nyssa explicates Moses’ transformation of the magician’s staff into a snake as “a figure of the mystery of the Lord’s incarnation, a manifestation of deity to men which effects the death of the tyrant and sets free those under his power.” To do this, he conflates texts from Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Proverbs, John, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Revelation.
Modern readers appreciate Gregory’s rich creativity, but we balk at his freewheeling method. Historical critics will scoff at Gregory’s Christological reading of the Hebrew Bible (the “snake” was actually a young crocodile, they tell us, and the trick itself a commonplace of prestidigitation reported in Egyptian papyri). The rest of us can affirm Gregory’s theological insights, but we doubt whether they have any real grounding in the text.
Our initial problem with Gregory, according to John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, who both teach theology at Creighton University, is that he “does not push through or beyond the text to reach its ‘true meaning,’” by which we mean its historical meaning.
Gregory’s approach seems anti-historical, and modern Christians of all stripes find it difficult to accept. Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible seeks to show how the church fathers’ ways of reading the Bible are more subtle, more complete, and, ultimately, more faithful to the history of redemption than modern approaches that eschew spiritual exegesis.
Sanctified Vision ostensibly addresses an audience of hardened historical critics. But the real audience of this book is the bespectacled hobgoblin of historical criticism who inhabits the skull of most every evangelical catholic, chiding our most earnest efforts to read the Bible with the Fathers. The authors want to put that fellow in his rightful place, with his nose in the lexicon, so that we can get on with the more important task of spiritual interpretation.
This slim volume is organized like a beginners’ manual, with chapters focusing on four characteristic techniques of patristic exegesis: Christological interpretation, “intensive reading,” and typological and allegorical interpretation. An introductory chapter contrasts modern with ancient attitudes toward Scripture, and a hortatory conclusion focuses on the disciplines of prayer, memory, authority, and community that made patristic exegesis possible in the first place. Throughout, the authors quote liberally from the Fathers to give us a feel for their style.
Sequences & Formulae
O’Keefe, a scholar of patristics, and Reno, a theologian, begin our education with a finely wrought analogy honed in the undergraduate course they taught together at Creighton. The language of the Bible, they suggest, is like the sequence of numbers, 2, 4, . . . , where the sequence must be interpreted in order to discover its “meaning,” so as to extend it indefinitely.
One way to interpret the sequence is to supply some more numbers based on our research and knowledge of the field. From our math training, the numbers “6, 8, 10” seem plausible, and so we interpret the “meaning” of the sequence as the progression of even numbers.
Such is the very important work of lexical and historical research. When Origen inquires about the meaning of arche (“beginning”) in John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word”), he considers five different dictionary definitions. He carefully considers the usage in various contexts, finally concluding that here arche must mean the principle by which all things are made.
“Since the firstborn of all creation [Christ] is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), the Father is his beginning. And likewise also Christ is the beginning of those made according to the image of God.” Origen’s method would be appreciated by the most hardened historical critic.
But one can also discover the next number in the sequence 2, 4, . . . by supplying a formula. Christ’s work of redemption functions in the Fathers’ reading of the Bible just as the formula x + 2 tells the mathematician how to complete the series (2, 4, 6, 8, . . . rather than 2, 4, 8, 16). The formula can be applied anywhere in the sequence of numbers (e.g., 110, 112, . . .) and it will always discover the “meaning” of that series.
Patristic exegesis distinguishes itself by its equal attention to the sequential and the formulaic—the historical and the spiritual—methods. For example, after Origen has established the lexical meaning of arche, he returns to the other possible meanings and interprets them in light of the formula, arche = Christ. When read as “the beginning of knowledge,” arche means that Christ is the way to all truth. When read as “priority in time,” arche means that the Son was present at the creation of the world.
The point of beginning with the lexical meaning, O’Keefe and Reno write, is not to fix or limit the meaning. The lexical meaning leads to the Christological reading, which opens the way to further meaning. “Just as filling in a crucial word at the center of a crossword puzzle can initiate a chain of solutions to other difficult words, the reader can make progress toward a ‘total reading’ of scripture.”
The authors contend that it is not, ultimately, the method of formulaic or spiritual interpretation moderns balk at—scientists also import hypotheses to make sense of data—but the formula itself, the x + 2. The gospel of Christ makes moderns uncomfortable as an interpretive principle. They cannot believe that the story of redemption, expressed in the rule of faith, can possibly suffice to make sense of the text; hence, their recourse to sociological, ethical, political, or sexual formulas.
However, even Christians who do accept Christ as the x + 2 still struggle with the more ingenious flourishes of patristic exegesis. Do the breasts of the lover in the Song of Songs really represent the Old and New Testaments? It is not that we disagree, but that we are not willing to stake our most important battles on what, in the final analysis, we consider pious embroidery.
While we recognize that the Fathers’ faith never fails to refer to the concrete historical events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we raise our eyebrows when their exegesis “does not push through or beyond the text to reach its true [single, historical] meaning.” Particularly when the Fathers revel in what the authors call “intensive reading,” it is hard not to see them as unfocused ramblers.
For example, at any mention of “wood” the Fathers will immediately jump to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then link that to the wood of Noah’s ark, and then the ark of the covenant, and so on. O’Keefe and Reno show how these “random associations” are more like the music expert’s ability to hear just one bar of music and immediately recall the whole symphony it came from.
In the Fathers’ reading, seemingly superfluous words can echo off even the remotest corners of Scripture. When they hear “wood,” that word becomes like a musical theme to trace through the symphony of redemption, beginning with the Fall at the tree and culminating in the triumph of the Cross.
The Fathers’ intensive reading is implicitly governed by the logic of convenientia, usually translated as fittingness, but with connotations of appropriateness, harmony, loveliness, and sweetness. While the logic of necessity can apologetically demonstrate the justice and providential wisdom of something like the Incarnation—think of Anselm’s Why God Became Man—the logic of convenientia dwells on the beauty of the unnecessary. According to this logic, the surplus of meaning the Fathers find everywhere in the biblical text is never superfluous, but the trace of God’s infinite generosity.
Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the book’s heroes, compares exegesis to a mosaic of a handsome king. Only the artist who knows the image of the king will be able to tell where each tile of the mosaic fits. The Fathers’ exegesis—even their strangest flights of allegorical and typological fancy—participates in the infinite project of fitting each shard of Scripture back into the great mosaic of redemption. (They also protect Scripture, Irenaeus says, from heretical interpretations that would rearrange the tiles to depict a dog rather than a king.)
The pleasant results of that project of fittingness can only be appreciated cumulatively. If we had such a word as convenientia available to us today, no doubt it would be a favorite of sports broadcasters to describe that window of clarity in a soccer game when 15 minutes’ play seems in retrospect to have worked inexorably toward those five crisp passes that set up a firm strike at the corner of the goal.
Like soccer, typological and allegorical interpretation are games of complex build-up toward a revealing goal, only in light of which does each individual move, run, and pass make sense. Not only the Bible must be viewed in this way, O’Keefe and Reno stress, but also the Fathers’ own exegetical arguments. “What makes patristic exegesis so difficult to read is that for all early Christian interpreters, the exegetical arguments are cumulative. . . . [Patristic exegesis] is best understood as an ever-expanding network of patterns and associations that refer back to the apostolic witness of Jesus Christ.”
So although Gregory and his contemporaries decline to “push through or beyond” a particular text, it is not for lack of interest in its “true meaning.” They believe instead that the sooner you get beyond the text, the more superficial the meaning you will find. By dwelling in the text, by “moving across it,” they open themselves to realms of meaning unexplored by mere historical reference.
O’Keefe and Reno do not advocate a wholesale recovery of patristic exegesis. They do not think we can don a pre-critical naïveté or adopt the Fathers’ Neo-Platonic cosmology. Nor do they want us to reject the truly helpful discoveries of historical criticism.
To many Christians, including this reviewer, knowledge of historical contexts has its own way of bringing the Scriptures to life. The discoveries of archaeology, or travel in the Holy Land, or N. T. Wright’s reconstruction of first-century Judaism—all of these lead us into the world of the text in ways that are not simplistically obsessed with “the one single meaning.”
And who can dismiss two centuries of textual editing that have left us with a much better sense of the stability and complexity of the surviving biblical manuscripts, not to mention the illuminations of first-century Jewish communities that we expect from the great project of editing the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The authors’ intention is different: to show that although the Fathers reserved a special place for historical and lexical research, which modern historical criticism can now supplement, they teach us how to keep our criticism in perspective (and in check!) by their fuller, more faithful attention to Scripture in all its aspects.
Ryan J. Jack McDermott is a doctoral student in English literature at the University of Virginia. He, his wife Darrah, and their first child, Augustine (born in April) are Episcopalians.
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“The Symphonic Bible” first appeared in the May 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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