March 16, 2012
Why should evangelicals care about the early church, about the first several centuries after the end of the New Testament? Another reason why we should take that period seriously is that the church fathers had a very different way of reading the Bible from the way we are taught to read it, and we may have something to learn from their interpretation.
Modern Bible study methods focus on “reading out” the message of each passage by focusing on the context to that passage—the history, the culture, the language. Such study methods implore us to avoid “reading in” any pre-conceived ideas that might corrupt the message of that text. In contrast, the church fathers read every passage of Scripture in light of the major thrust of Scripture, the single story they believe the Bible is telling. And that story, according to the vast majority of the church fathers, is the story of Christ. So they see the whole Bible—down to every last passage of the Old Testament—as a story about Christ. To state the contrast simply, we read from the narrow to the broad—from the meaning of each individual passage to the whole message of the Bible. They read from the broad to the narrow—reading each passage in light of what they think the whole Bible is about.
In light of this difference, we might accuse the church fathers of reading their own ideas into the texts—and we would be right in this accusation (at least in some cases). But before we are too quick to criticize, we should recognize that our narrow-to-broad method of Bible study emerged among modern scholars who did not believe the Bible was a unified book. They saw—and still do see—the Bible as a series of rather disparate stories that are not necessarily consistent with each other. So those scholars do not consider the big story of the Bible to be relevant to the question of what each individual passage means. Only the historical, cultural, and literary context of that passage is relevant to that passage’s interpretation.
When we look at the matter this way, we recognize that we evangelicals share the early church’s assumption and disagree with the modern liberal assumption. Unlike our colleagues in the liberal academy, we believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible, that it tells a single story, that it is a unity. It is thus ironic that we sometimes use a method of biblical interpretation unwittingly borrowed from scholars who do not believe the Bible is a unity, a method that focuses narrowly on the background to each passage, without as much attention to the broader context of the whole Bible.
If we do in fact share the church fathers’ assumption about the unity of Scripture, should we not take another look at the fathers’ interpretation of the Bible? When we read their interpretation, much of it seems very far-fetched, like finding Christ in minute details of the Old Testament, and I do not for a moment want to condone such exegetical excess. What I do want to commend, though, is the fathers’ attitude toward the Bible. It is a single book, given by God, telling a single story, and that story is ultimately about Christ. They believed that, and so do we. Because they believed that, they proceeded from the big picture to the details, from Christ to the individual passages, in their interpretation of Scripture. We usually do not do that. But should we?
Whether we adopt very many of the fathers’ specific interpretations of Old Testament passages or not, their focus on Christ can remind us that we too can and should make Christ the center of all our biblical interpretation. And the church fathers can also open our eyes to the possibility that there are more connections between the Old Testament and Christ than we typically see, even if there are not as many legitimate connections as they find. Thus, early church biblical interpretation has some important lessons to teach us about the Bible, lessons we might not learn without paying attention to the church fathers.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.
March 13, 2012
I never imagined that I’d call New England home, and yet this morning I am here. The sun greets me by melting the frost gathered like crystals in the corners of my windowpane and casts shadows from the birch trees onto my bed. A few weeks ago, the scene was different—I had a job and friends and a loft situated in the heart of a concrete jungle. Now I am living on the campus of a seminary, which is as foreign to me as taking up residence at a convent.
I remember the day my husband told me he wanted to quit his career as a motion graphic designer and go to seminary. We were on an afternoon stroll through the park behind our street. The heat lingering over the sidewalk rivaled the stagnancy of our marriage. Not seeing eye to eye was new to us, and the summer had felt like a disaster. Seminary, I said, us? I fumbled over the words strung together, but I sensed that my husband was right.
We were both frustrated with detaching our Sundays from the workweek—Christian one day and ordinary members of society another. Sure, we read our Bibles, a lot in fact. We engaged in ministry and attended small groups. We prayed together and occasionally brought food to the homeless and jobless on our street. Still, something was missing, and its gaping hole was growing wider.
We had assembled our lives like giant puzzle pieces, arranging the God-piece where we thought it fit. Our foundation was in Christ, yes, but the rest of our puzzle created a picture of us. How do I want to follow Jesus? What does God want me to do? These questions were legitimate, but through trying to serve God on our terms, we were only serving ourselves.
In his book Radical, writer David Platt says that if you ask the average American Christian to summarize the message of his or her faith, the response will go something like this: God loves me enough to send His Son Jesus to die for me. Sounds good, right? But that’s not all, Platt argues. “The message of biblical Christianity is not ‘God loves me, period,’ as if we were the object of our own faith,” he writes. That account of the Christian narrative stops short of the full story. Instead, the message of Christianity is “God loves me so that I might make Him—His ways, His salvation, His glory, and His greatness—known among all nations.”
God loves me so that I can make His name known. How simple of a truth. I am not the end of the gospel, God is. And yet how often do I need to be reminded that all of my puzzle pieces should reflect the glory of Christ Jesus.
My husband and I are not the first people to have uprooted our life to attend seminary. We are not special in that sense. Nearly every family in our new home has experienced some sort of reckoning, either by leaving a job or church or simply abandoning their plans at the feet of Jesus. I pray, though, that as my husband and I enter into community and classes and begin to reshape our life around God’s word, that we would do so in the crux of the gospel truth. Every circumstance in my life up until this very moment has occurred to make His name known. That is my story. It is my husband’s story, and it is yours.
Sometimes I’m prone to think that the writers of scripture wrestled with different questions than I. Surely the fathers of our faith weren’t surrounded with uncertainty about their direction or purpose! And then I page through their words and discover that they were often just as lost. Though there are many stories of encouragement in the scriptures, I find Isaiah’s particularly pertinent to my current season of life. In Isaiah 6, God is holding court with His angels. They are in intense discussion. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah overhears God (6:8).
Notice that God did not single out Isaiah and beg—His will illuminated in flashing lights—or even charge Isaiah with the call to go. Isaiah is privy to God’s heavenly conversation because he is still and quiet and found in prayer. “Whether or not [we] hear God’s call depends on the state of [our] ears,” Oswald Chambers says.
Lend an attentive ear to the throne. What plans does God have in the works? Are you willing to say, here I am Lord, send me? The gospel, after all, does not end with you or me. It ends with Christ, His name glorified.
Are you listening?
—The Seminary Wife
Jessica Haberkern is a creative writer and violinist once local to Atlanta. She teaches writing for Ashford University’s online program and writes for The Oxford American, In Touch, and Scoutmob, among other publications. She chronicles her and [her uber cool] husband’s eats + beats on their blog, thehaberkerns.tumblr.com.
March 01, 2012
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