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.