Our Fathers’ Bible
I Corinthians: Interpreted By Early Christian Commentators
reviewed by Ryan J. Jack McDermott
Christians who want to read the Bible with the Fathers of the Church are blessed with several ways to do so, ranging from complete works by individual authors to devotional and exegetical aids. The most popular and accessible of these ways is the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series from InterVarsity Press, which collates short paragraphs of commentary from the Church’s first millennium, weighted toward the Fathers’ lexical comments and glosses of the literal sense of Scripture (though it also offers plenty of spiritual exegesis).
Christians seeking to enter the mind of the early Church—and pastors doing in-depth exegesis—will want to immerse themselves in the generous excerpts of The Church’s Bible series from Eerdmans. The selections in this series are drawn from extended commentaries and sermon series dedicated to complete books of the Bible rather than from incidental remarks in sermons and treatises.
The excerpts run long enough to convey the Fathers’ complex combination of lexical and historical commentary and typological and allegorical interpretation. But the editors are also sensitive to the modern reader’s needs, keeping each entry under three pages and judiciously reining in the Fathers’ prolixity.
“Spiritual exegesis,” the term for allegorical and typological reading that goes beyond the literal sense of the text, connects small details of Scripture to the larger historical drama of redemption—often in ways the original authors probably did not intend. For example, Cyril of Alexandria interprets Paul’s remark that “it is well for them to remain single as I do,” as a fulfillment of the freewill offerings in Old Testament law.
That may not be what Paul had in mind, but, says Cyril in his Commentary on 1 Corinthians (7.8–11), “I think that divine providence intends something similar in the present text.” It takes extended exposure to this kind of interpretive dexterity before we come to see its faithfulness to the Scriptures and profound concern to weave every little thread of Old and New together.
“Scripture interprets Scripture,” the Fathers believed, and The Church’s Bible focuses exclusively on the “canon within the canon,” those books of Scripture that Christians in the first millennium turned to again and again for the strengthening of the faith and the development of doctrine. Volumes on 1 Corinthians and The Song of Songs have been published so far, and volumes on Genesis, Psalms, -Isaiah, Matthew, John, and Romans are planned, with a projected publication rate of about one per year.
These books provided the general framework of the history of redemption, and the Fathers fit their interpretation of the other parts of the canon into this framework. These books (and -several others that the series will include) are particularly important because they are the Scriptures the Church lived by before the articulation of the canon in the fourth century.
In an enlightening introduction on interpreting the New Testament, the series editor, the Catholic Church historian Robert Louis Wilken, writes, “Early in the Church’s history . . . the living Christ was identified by verbal formulas and practices, notably Baptism and the Eucharist.” Most of the commentators included in the volume on 1 Corinthians had at least a rudimentary Christian Bible available to them—the canon within the canon—“but the written Scripture never replaced the living tradition, and its interpretation was guided by the rule of faith and Christian practice.”
A Profound View
The introductions to 1 Corinthians and to Paul by Judith Kovacs, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and herself an editor of the Blackwell Bible Commentaries, provide an accessible entrance into that world. Her clear translations convey the colloquial ease that brought people flocking to famous preachers like John Chrysostom. The useful appendices include short biographies of the 27 writers excerpted and a glossary of proper names.
In the texts from the Fathers offered in this volume we get a profound view of the culture of the early Church. We hear echoes of the orally transmitted rule of faith, and we encounter explicitly stated historical, cultural, and hermeneutical assumptions that tacitly underwrite many early and contemporary practices.
For example, rarely do the early Fathers explicitly reflect on their hermeneutics, but Paul’s spiritual exegesis of the Old Testament (1 Cor. 2:10–16, 9:9–10, 10:6–11) prompts them to lay bare their basic principles of interpretation. “The apostle Paul,” Origen explains, “has taught the church . . . how she ought to interpret the books of the law.” John Chrysostom notes that “although the events [of the Old Testament] were physical, Paul presents them in a spiritual way, not as events that followed in the natural order but as gifts of grace, as events that nurtured the soul along with the body and moved it toward faith.”
The Fathers repeatedly apply Paul-ine spiritual exegesis of the Old Testament to Paul’s own letter as well.
A Different Accent
The return to early Christian exegesis can refresh not only our hermeneutics, but also our theology and ethics.
For example, while so much contemporary discussion about homosexuality focuses (rightly) on exegesis of the related texts, Clement of Alexandria reminds us that the gospel is news of commended goods. “We [Christians],” he counsels, “understand continence to mean having no [disordered] desire at all; the point is not to be steadfast under the assaults of desires, but to control the act of desiring itself.” Clement shifts the emphasis from the prohibition of actions to the cultivation of good desires.
Augustine likewise exhorts us to take “love of the good,” not “fear of the bad,” as our final motivation for obedience ( Sermon 161). The Fathers often discuss the detrimental consequences of sin in detail, but they also expend enormous rhetorical energy lauding the beauty of the good life.
Applied to public ethics today, Augustine’s view suggests that the Christian view of homosexuality is incoherent without a strong vision of rightly ordered desire. Only a clear picture of the beauty of both marriage and celibacy will make sense of how homosexual desire is disordered. Only an appreciation of that beauty will provide the deep motivation needed for individual Christians to be healed of their sexual sin.
That will not come as a surprise to most Christians. But if we return to the Fathers for theological and ethical guidance, we should not read them just to discover exegetical opinions of which we were hitherto unaware. If we read them the way they intended to be read, we will hear the gospel spoken with a different accent, with the emphasis on different syllables with new insights into Scripture’s meaning.
Extended exposure to their way of speaking will enable us, eventually, to hear the whole language anew. Then we might be able to hear and articulate truths of the gospel to which we were deaf and dumb before.
For more on “spiritual exegesis,” see Mr. McDermott’s review of R. R. Reno and John J. O’Keefe’s Sanctified Visionin the May issue.
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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“Our Fathers’ Bible” first appeared in the June 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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