The Habits of Highly Effective Bible Readers

In recent years, more and more evangelical Protestants have been looking at the early church fathers—that group of Christian teachers stretching from just after the apostles through approximately the first five centuries of the church—to see how they read their Bibles and did their theology.

"Exhibit A” in this resurgence is the Ancient Christian Commentary series edited by Thomas C. Oden and published by InterVarsity Press—a 28—volume set that places side by side with the text of each Bible book the key exegetical writings of the early church.

In what might be seen as a book—length preface to that series, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Christopher Hall of Eastern University guides readers into the “far country” of those early interpreters. Who better, we thought, to provide orientation for CH readers?

Why should Christians today care what the church fathers—Athanasius, Irenaeus, Augustine, and others—had to say about the Bible? Shouldn’t we just interpret the Bible for our own times?

The phrase Tom Oden taught me is “The Holy Spirit has a history.” The church does not thrive in the first century, fail in the second, then revive in the sixteenth. The Spirit never deserts the church as it reads the Bible.

He is present in every century, guiding bishops and pastors of the church, particularly as they encountered readings of the Scripture that at first glance might have seemed plausible, but in light of the larger tradition—the Rule of Faith, the liturgical tradition, and so on—didn’t make sense. It is the Fathers who provided the framework to protect that apostolic tradition down through the years.

So, since God has always been present with his church, our education as Christians will be stunted if we don’t expose ourselves to how he guided the church in its foundational years.

Tom and I sometimes think of church history as a triangle sitting on an edge, where you have the apostolic period, then the time of the early fathers—then building on that, the medieval, Reformation, Enlightenment, and finally the modern. The weight we want to give to each period decreases as we move up the triangle.

Part of Tom Oden’s project is to push people into the early patristic period; it’s the most formative time for exegesis (biblical interpretation), theology, and many other facets of the church. Today it is as if the triangle has been inverted. The tendency has been to spend all one’s time on modern sources and commentators.

What do we miss when we do that?

The Fathers worked only a few generations after the apostles. They read their Bibles in light of the Rule of Faith, an outline statement of Christian belief that circulated in the second century, stating the essential contents of the faith. This Rule, thought to have originated in the time of the apostles, was established to guide exegesis and ward off heretical readings.

They also knew how the Bible had been used in worship since the apostles, and they grew up reading, chanting, hearing these texts themselves.

Their minds were like Origen’s: he had absorbed every word from Genesis through Revelation. The Scripture was like his own mental Rolodex, wrapped around certain key themes: especially Christ’s incarnation. So when he read, for example, an obscure text in Numbers, the Rolodex started spinning, because he was expecting to find Christ there.

The Fathers are important because they’re much nearer than we are to the apostolic world, in which Scripture had shaped the church.

Modern scholars tend to analyze the text in detail, exhaustively studying its language and context.

But the Fathers were immersed in the ecclesial practice of the text—they insisted that you can’t understand what the text is about if you are divorced from the life of the church.

What are the competing schools of Bible interpretation in the first centuries of the church? And are some of these more useful than others as models for us today?

The “schools"—Alexandrian, Antiochian, and so forth—are not so much wholly separate camps as interpretive communities that emphasize certain things more thoroughly than others.

The Alexandrian school emphasized the role of allegory. The Antiochians, though they did emphasize the historical referent of the literal reading and occasionally got angry with the Alexandrians, also shared the Alexandrians’ assumption that biblical meanings are multi-layered.

The Antiochians certainly are helpful, reminding us to credit the literal sense. But even at Antioch they practiced both literal and contemplative ways of reading the text. They expected to find Christ there just as the Alexandrians did! They had their own understanding of theoria—a contemplative reading of the text grounded in its historia.

What is theoria?

It’s a spiritual meaning, inherent in the literal framework of the text, which takes the reader to higher plane of contemplation. Eastern Orthodox folks are very familiar with this way of reading the Bible.

In Antioch, the higher theoria of the text remains subject to the text’s history in a way that Alexandrians did not feel constrained by. For example, as an Alexandrian reads a text about the construction of the temple, he asks, What spiritual principle might this symbolize? and might not be deeply concerned about the history of the temple itself. The Antiochian takes seriously the history, language, and culture of the text—but then would expect that as he studies along these lines the Spirit of God would lead him to a higher contemplation of deeper spiritual realities.

I can’t think of a single Father who would say the Bible is not a multi-leveled or —tiered text. Augustine and Origen and the others would all say that certain texts just don’t make sense literally. There are some dangers in this assumption, of course, but also some rewards—and most evangelicals are not used to thinking this way.

Say you hear a sermon on something out of Judges—say Ehud kills a wicked king in Israel. An evangelical would study that text, getting all the historical background, what kings were like, what weapons were like, what the words meant—and the first 10—15 minutes of the sermon would deal with that context. But sooner or later even evangelicals need to ask: What does this text mean for me as a Christian?

That’s what an Antiochian exegete would mean by the spiritual side of the text: putting our gospel glasses on—where is Jesus in this text? How does Christ speak to us here? What can we learn about Christ, the church, this present evil age from that historical narrative? This is what evangelicals do, too, in sermon application.

Summarize the qualities that marked the Bible study of these Fathers. How did they read Scripture?

  • Through the tradition or the Rule of Faith. 

  • In response to different heretical positions that were threatening the church. 

  • Holistically—seeing the narrative of the Bible as one continuous story from Genesis to Revelation. So words like Jesus, Israel, and church are part of that larger story. 

  • Christologically. Irenaeus said: “If anyone reads the Scripture carefully, they will find some word, some hidden treasure in the field, which is Christ.” 
  • Communally, within Christ’s body, the church. So Irenaeus in response to Gnostics rejects their claim to knowledge revealed by secret interpretation—this is the church’s book. The church knows the plot in a way the Gnostics don’t. 
  • In the context of prayer, worship, and spiritual formation. Most interpreters were pastors and bishops—few were simply academics. The Fathers participated in an active, living rhythm between the life of the church and Scripture, each informing and cultivating the other. 

Okay, what would this look like for us, if we wanted to apply this to our own study of Scripture?

Well, if we want to be effective Bible readers, we will immerse ourselves in the life of the church—we will be in church Sunday and in contact with our church community outside of Sundays as well.

We will immerse ourselves, too, in the history of the church, because the Holy Spirit has a history. We will be willing to develop listening skills—to push on through the dissonance that we all experience when we first step outside our linguistic, cultural, and historical boundaries.

The Fathers would also tell us that we must know the whole story from beginning to end. Maybe allowing the end of the story to penetrate earlier aspects of the story.

We will be developing specific virtues that will enable us to interpret Scripture well—not just a finely tuned mind but also a finely tuned heart. For example, the Fathers set great store in maintaining an attitude of humility as one read the text.

Finally, we will surround our reading with prayer. Prayer was the sine qua non of the Fathers in understanding Scripture.

You cannot know what the Bible is saying, they tell us, unless you are conversing with its Author. CH

By Christopher A. Hall

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #80 in 2003]

A conversation with Christopher A. Hall of Eastern University, author of Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers.
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