By Robert Goff
The Church Fathers formulated many of our most prized theological tenants, from the doctrine of the Incarnation to that of the Trinity. And yet, moderns often use theological methods that are incongruent with those used by the Fathers themselves. This post looks at how the Church Fathers read Scripture, and also highlights some differences between modern and Patristic biblical interpretation.
The Rule of Faith
The modern Evangelical exegete is trained to first come to a particular text in Scripture with as clean a slate as possible, and to allow that text to speak for itself. Secondarily, the reader is then to consider how the rest of Scripture informs that text.
This method of exegesis differs greatly from the traditional method used by the Church Fathers, and subsequently by the modern Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The Church Fathers approached the text through the lens of accepted Church theology and doctrine, often referred to as the “rule of faith.”
The Patristic approach to reading Scripture recognizes that the exegete’s insights are formed by the totality of Christian tradition (the same tradition that was in turn largely sourced in Scripture). This method is seen in Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and Augustine’s On the Trinity, where it becomes evident that their exegesis of Scripture assumes and is informed by orthodox theology.
What About Allegory?
The classic argument leveled against Patristic exegesis is its use of the allegorical method of interpretation, which draws moral implications from the text, seemingly outside of the original author’s intent. For example, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria allegorized the Old Testament to demonstrate its philosophical meaning.
Too often, modern readers assume that because philosophers like Philo used allegory in this manner, then the Church Fathers’ use of it must be the same. Rather, the Fathers used allegory to explore the theological meaning of Scripture, in light of the historical reality of the salvific work of Christ in space and time. Their use of allegory in this sense has direct ties to the New Testament writers, who engaged in a similar application of the allegorical method when they compared type and antitype: Christ as the new Adam, the second Moses, and the new Melchizedek.
As Henri de Lubac points out, for the Fathers allegory did not merely denote the method, but the deeper theological truths revealed through its use:
“It is because allegory is used as a technique specifically for the interpretation of the history recorded in the text of Scripture, thus yielding a content which is specifically theological, that the term eventually became a synonym, especially in the Western Fathers, for “spiritual understanding” and for mysterium, sacramentum, the mystery itself, the mystery of God in Christ.”
Allegory, for the Fathers, was not seen to be in conflict with good exegesis. At the time of Athanasius’ writing, the Greek Fathers began using the term theōria (“to behold”) to describe their exegesis. The idea was that the exegete’s task was to first behold the text and understand the writer’s intent, which would then lead to a deeper understanding of God.
Still, in order to understand the writer’s intent, something more was needed than merely using the grammatical-historical approach. The Fathers’ exegesis recognized a deep continuity between the various eras of redemptive history, and thus between both the Old and New Testaments. Further, they viewed Jesus Christ as the perfect and complete revelation of God in human history. In His very person, Jesus is the exegete of the Old Testament, who gives definitive meaning not only to Scripture, but also to all of human history. Because of these convictions, Christological readings of the Old Testament were not seen as impositions on the text, but rather represented the text’s truest intended meaning.
The Place of Scripture
While the exegetical and theological practices of the Church Fathers differ in many ways from that of moderns, it must be remembered that the inspired word of God was still the core of their teaching. Their writings and preaching evidence a desire to both explain the text in the context of the Church, and to demonstrate how the theology of the Church informs how one reads Scripture.
For Fathers such as Athanasius and Augustine, theology and the Christian life were essentially exegetical enterprises. They held that Scripture contained various levels of meaning and that the spiritual applications they drew from the sacred pages were not merely the products of their own imagination. However, they also held that their own writings had value only so far as they served to illuminate the infinite mysteries contained in Holy Scripture, in light of the Incarnation.
In summary, there are important differences between Patristic and modern approaches to reading Scripture. The modern approach begins with the text of Scripture in its historical context, and looks for what the author sought to communicate about the mystery of God. On the other hand, the Patristic approach begins with what the Church holds to be theologically true about the mystery of God about which the text is speaking. The modern method begins with the text that speaks of mystery; the Patristic method begins with the mystery spoken of in the text.
At the same time, while acknowledging the real differences between modern and Patristic interpretation, it is also important not to allow our modern use of certain terms distort our understanding of the Fathers’ use of these same terms. For examples, when the Fathers use terms such as “literal” and “spiritual” (in regard to types of interpretation) they do not necessarily use these terms in the same way we would today. As we read the Fathers, the terms they use must be defined within their historical context. It is improper to force a modern definition on the Patristic era, and vice versa.
Rob Goff is a Th.M. student at Western Seminary, and the Western Regional Missionary for Fathers in the Field, a Christian equipping ministry that helps churches reach out to fatherless boys in the community. Rob currently lives in Vancouver, WA with his wife Amanda.
 Robert A Di Vito, “Interpretive Disagreements and the Ontology of a Text” (in From Judaism to Christianity: Tradition and Transition, edited by Patricia Walters, 3-30, Boston, 2010), 7.
 Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. CO, 2009), 396.
 Charles Kannengiesser, Handbook of Patristic Exegesis: The Bible in Ancient Christianity, (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 39.