Monday, October 7, 2019

What is the Bible?: The Patristic Doctrine of Scripture [Review]

What is the Bible?: The Patristic Doctrine of Scripture.ed. Matthew Baker & Mark Mourachian.(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 224 pp.

With the contemporary shift away from modernist/Enlightenment-influenced exegetical and hermeneutical practices,1 contemporary theologians are revisiting the works of their theological forebears. Studies on the exegetical and hermeneutical practices of the church fathers are numerous, but a definitive look at patristic bibliology is lacking. What is the Bible?: The Patristic Doctrine of Scripture aims to supply substantive information in this area by carefully examining the writings of several eastern patristic authors. What is more, however, the book aims to show the effect that these writers have had on recent theologians. Thus, the book is divided into two parts. The first covers “Approaches [to Bibliology] in the Christ East” dealing with the doctrine of Scripture as it appears in the writings of Origen of Alexandria, the so-called “Desert Fathers,” Ephraim the Syrian, John Chrysostom, Saint Maximus the Confessor, and others. The second part covers “Modern Approaches [to Bibliology] Inspired by the Fathers,” detailing the work of George Florovsky, Justin Popovic, and T.F. Torrance, ending with a brief history of modern biblical criticism.

One of the things that is helpful about this book is the several needed corrections it brings to discussions about the interpretive methods of Origen and Chrysostom, men who are typically set in diametrical opposition to one another as regards their understanding of the nature of Scripture and how it is to be read. Origen is typically painted as a wild-eyed allegorist who has no regard for grammatical-historical exegesis, who sees the Scripture as putty to be made into whatever the interpreter desires. However, this is not the case. Origen did engage in fanciful exegesis, if allegorical interpretation of his kind can justly be called exegesis, but this was only part of his interpretive process. For Origen, the Scriptures were tripartite, mirroring the composition of man and, by implication, the Trinity, being comprised of a body (the grammatical-historical meaning of the text), soul (the ethical/moral meaning of the text), and spirit (the anagogical meaning of the text). Just as the body and the soul and the spirit of man are intended to be in harmony with one another, so too the body and soul and spirit of the Scriptures are to be in harmony with one another.

In contrast to Origen, Chrysostom is often painted as a forerunner to more contemporary methods of grammatical-historical exegesis. However, this is not the case, given that Chrysostom allows for typological, allegorical, and speculative interpretations of the Bible. For Chrysostom, the Scriptures employ the gamut of available literary forms and techniques, being a divinely inspired but historically-humanly written set of texts, to convey their “literal” meaning. Rather than being devoted to a woodenly literal interpretation of the Scripture, in other words, Chrysostom believed that the “literal” interpretation of a text was the meaning which a text was conveying by whatever literary devices it employed.

In addition to clarifying the thinking of such historically important figures in church history, What is the Bible? also grants us insight into how the other patristic authors viewed Scripture. Whereas Origen’s doctrine of Scripture viewed it almost as a tiered ladder from the physical realm into the heavenly throne room where God dwells in unapproachable light, and Chrysostom’s doctrine of Scripture viewed it less mystically and more practically, the desert fathers understood the Scriptures to be an immeasurably deep pool of divine wisdom only the seriously minded devotee could properly draw from. Scripture was not an object to study like any other, but an infinitely meaningful revelation from God that must be approached with ever increasing degrees of reverence.   This understanding stands in contrast to that of Ephraim the Syrian’s view which centers around the two natures of the Scripture, divine and human, which correspond to the two natures in Christ. Just as the two natures in Christ are distinct but inseparably united in the hypostatic union, so too the two natures of the Scripture are inseparably united. Scripture is to be interpreted, therefore, in light of the union and intercommunication of its two natures. For Maximus the Confessor, the Scriptures are to be understood as the transfiguration of Christ is to be understood – namely, as a simultaneous unveiling and veiling of the glory of God in Christ. And for the Philokalia, a collection of mystical reflections on Christian spirituality, the Scriptures are an ineffable Divine Mystery.

Although these various bibliological approaches differ in many respects, they all agree that Scripture is fully divine and full human and, therefore, should be interpreted in that manner. In a post-postmodern setting as our own, this strikes a loud note of discord. The Scriptures are not to be viewed as inescapably bound up with ideologies seeking to establish or demolish institutions of power. The Scriptures are the communication of God to man, whose center is the Eternal Son of God. Scripture is given a high place of reverence in all matters of human life, to the end that human life reflects the person and work of Christ. These views come as a breath of fresh air in an academic context that is stifled by years of irreverent critical scholarship intent on destroying the divinity, humanity, and the unity between the divinity and humanity of the Scriptures.

Because of the book’s valorization of Eastern orthodoxy, however, it has several problems. Firstly, it praises the mysticism of the so-called desert fathers, a mysticism that has in the past decade or so been resurrected by none other than the evangelical late-comers to postmodernism called the Emergent Church. The nascent anti-intellectualism of the desert fathers only served to exacerbate the growing trend of anti-intellectualism found among a younger generation of professing Christians. Not only this, but What is the Bible? fails to correctly assess and address Protestant bibliogies which actually have much in common with that of the early Eastern and Western fathers. The book misrepresents Protestants as rationalistic interpreters of Scripture, when this is precisely what Luther and his Reformed progeny sought to fight against. Protestantism is neither rationalistic nor mystical, it is Scriptural. Scripture is not a book like any other, but a divine and human book whose content reveals historical and theological, mundane and supernatural, and utterly transcendent and utterly concrete realities to its readers, all of which center around the person and work of the second person of the Holy Trinity.

Although the interested reader can glean a lot of good historical information from What is the Bible?, and scholarly researchers of the church’s view of Scripture over time would do well to consult its entries on Origen, Chrysostom, and Maximus the Confessor, the average reader may not find this book to be very profitable. Given its narrow range of materials (i.e. dealing only with Eastern authors), its treatment of all of the authors it deals with as if they shared an identical set of theological presuppositions and doctrinal dispositions (a problem one encounters in the works of Romanist authors as well, given as they are committed to their understanding of authoritative church “tradition”), and its valorization of Eastern orthodoxy (which teaches a false Gospel of salvation by faith and works, and denies the foundational doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement), this book is more problematic than it is useful. Beyond scholarly and purely research related reading it is not recommended by the present writer.

1 For an informative introductory look at this developing trend, see Smith, Brandon D. “Church Grammar.” Podcast audio. Craig Carter on the Church Fathers, Premodern Exegesis, and Platonism.
B&H Academic, Christian Standard Bible. June 14, 2019.