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Ancient Church Hermeneutics

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“I would feel extremely uncomfortable to see our pastors, exegetes, or Bible Study leaders change, omit, or add words and phrases to make their point, even though this is what NT authors do.” Steve Moyise likewise comments, “Behind such interpretive strategies often lies the question of whether Paul’s use of Scripture offers a model for how Christians should use it today, and clearly many churches will not want their congregations changing the wording of Scripture and taking it out of context.”

All too often, discussion of patristic exegesis has created a false dichotomy between Alexandrian allegorism and Antiochene literalism. Hermeneutical textbooks present allegory as the most popular form of interpretation during the patristic era. For instance, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation defines allegorical readings as the ability to discover a text’s true hidden meaning. The only significance of the literal sense was its usefulness in exposing the spiritual connotation behind the text. The book contends that the church fathers utilized allegory merely because it was a predominant methodology at the time. It took the Reformation to rescue church practices from the excesses of allegorism.

Unfortunately, textbooks such as these fail to recognize that the Reformers greatly admired the ancient allegorists. Moreover, while “literal” interpretations were just as popular, patristic exegesis overall was far more nuanced than previously thought. Attempting to define and distinguish the various senses in Scripture, including its historical, typological, allegorical, tropological, anagogical, or metaphorical meaning, is oftentimes impossible for the patristic era. Their interpretive task was chiefly spiritual regardless of what kinds of meanings they extrapolated from the text. Thus, it is best to recognize these different senses as an expedient collection of interpretive options implemented for particular theological or polemical purposes. In other words, the defining characteristic of ancient hermeneutics was the rhetorical function of socio-religio-political agendas intending to defend different beliefs. As James Kugel remarks,

In general, the attempt to distinguish between ‘pure’ exegesis among ancient interpreters and exegesis that is ideologically or politically motivated is doomed to fail….The ancient interpreter always had an axe to grind, always had a bit of an ulterior motive: at the very least, this interpreter wished to convince listeners or readers that the text means something other than what it might seem to mean at first glance, that his clever way of explaining things reveals the text’s true significance.

The rhetorical function of interpreting Scripture allowed the patristics to bolster their doctrinal beliefs, render those beliefs in a convincing manner, and assist auditors in embracing the doctrinal stances of the rhetor. Unlike the patristic era, historical-grammatical exegesis seeks to isolate and preserve the human authorial intent in its original context.

religious-metaphysical beliefs precede the hermeneutical endeavor

the potential for readers to project their own ideologies onto literary texts

hermeneutical relativism

Throughout church history, Christian exegetes universally acknowledged the polysemic nature of Scripture, believing in multiple meanings to biblical passages

subjective, individualized, and spiritual interpretations

The most conspicuous problem with historical-grammatical exegesis is that it does not reflect a truly “Christian” approach to biblical interpretation, meaning it does not conform to the hermeneutical practices of Christ, the New Testament, or the church fathers

The conviction that the grammatical-historical meaning is the entire and exclusive meaning of the text seems to stem more from post-Enlightenment rationalistic presuppositions than from an analysis of the Bible’s understanding and interpretation of itself

The same is true for the New Testament writers, who routinely superimposed a meaning onto Israel’s Scriptures that was foreign to its historical context

The manner in which the Apostles handled the OT seems unexpected, strange, even improper by modern conventions….NT writers attribute meaning to OT texts that clearly differ from the intention of the OT author

“When later human writers of Scripture interpret earlier parts of Scripture, they typically do so without making fine scholarly distinctions concerning the basis of their knowledge. Hence we ought not to require them to confine themselves to a narrow grammatical-historical exegesis.”

The reason for the ancient church’s disregard for authorial intent is because a “scientific” approach to Scripture, which is dependent on Enlightenment ideals, commonsense realism, and deductive reason, did not exist during the time of the Bible’s composition. A literal reading of the text is itself a modern bias,

the patristic era implemented tactics that were appropriate for the ancient world.

the rhetorical aspects of many quotations in the New Testament indicate that ancient interpreters did not expect their audiences to research or know the biblical context.

presume a significant amount of literary sophistication and inventiveness among the ancients that likely did not exist.

the Apostle Paul, as well as other portions of the New Testament, purposely spiritualized Israel’s Scriptures as foreshadowing the incarnation. Patristic exegetes specifically appealed to Paul’s allegorization of the Old Testament in Galatians 4:24 as justification for their own noncontextual exegesis.

“The early church applied such texts to Jesus because of their conviction about his identity. The conviction about his identity did not derive from the Old Testament. They did not find texts and then find Jesus. They found Jesus and then saw how the Scriptures fit with him.”

Both the apostolic and patristic eras were concerned first and foremost with the kerygmatic message of Christianity, compelling them to utilize Scripture in expedient, ad hoc, and noncontextual ways in order to defend their beliefs.

modern Christians would have to admit that the plain meaning of most Old Testament passages does not foreshadow or predict the coming Messiah.

both the New Testament and the patristics had one overriding hermeneutical concern: interpreting Scripture in light of the incarnation. The primitive and ancient church had a thoroughly christocentric hermeneutic. Rather than allow an exegetical method to take precedence for all theological deductions, the patristics allowed the christological agenda of the church to dictate their interpretations, instead.

This ideology-driven hermeneutic appeared in both the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools of thought, which stressed the unity of the Bible only to accentuate God predicting the messiahship of Jesus.

The problem for an historical-grammatical hermeneutic is that the original Israelites did not intend their narratives to correspond with future antitypes about Christ, making modern practices inadequate for typology because they fail to appropriate the patristic presumption that the church is a fulfillment and eclipse of past events with Israel.

accepting only the plain sense of Scripture is not traditionally Christian:

But a Christian understanding of its Scripture can never simply end with this first reading. What makes it a Christian reading is that it proceeds—and this is precisely what the Apostles model for us—to the second reading, the eschatological, Christotelic reading.

it would be incorrect to call Old Testament passages a “prediction” of Christ in the sense that the original authors knew they related to the coming Messiah. The historical context had nothing to do with Jesus and was not intended as a long-range prediction. Instead, the New Testament writers examined the life of Jesus and found he fulfilled a deeper significance in the Old Testament passages. For the patristics, the presence of deeper meanings meant the consideration of allegories, which took persons and events as a representative of an idea or principle. According to Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard, the discovery of “hidden meanings” is technically an allegorical approach to Scripture, though today Christians may refer to it by a different name.

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