Secondcentury interpretation

In pre-modern exegesis, doctrine and ethics appear to be deduced straight from the text, and prescribed for the reader's assent and action. By contrast, critical interpretation typically affects a tone of neutral description. In both cases, what is actually going on is much more subtle and complex.

It was by no means clear, during the course of the second century, that the documents we know as the New Testament would emerge as Christian Scripture. The early Fathers afforded higher authority to apostolic testimony passed on in the Church. Papias, quoted by Eusebius (Eccl. Hist. 3.39.4) 'considered that what was in books would not benefit me so much as what came from the living and continuing voice'. And this view had the added advantage of avoiding arguments over words with contentious Jewish Christians: hence the statement of Ignatius of Antioch (Phil. 8.2) that the true 'archives' for a Christian are not books, but the person and work of Christ and the faith that came through him. Practice reflects this principle. Clement of Rome (47.1) and Ignatius (Eph. 12.2) refer explicitly to Paul's epistles, but more because of his status as apostle to the Gentiles and as their own predecessor in letter-writing, than for anything particularly striking that he said. Allusions to the Gospels in the Apostolic Fathers are even less frequent and exact; the material is often freely rearranged (as at Didache 1:3-4; cf. Matt. 5:44, 46, 47, 39, 48, 40, 41); or even corrected and counterbalanced (as at Didache 1:6; cf. Matt. 6:3) in a way that strongly suggests the use of continuing oral tradition rather than consultation of the text. Neither the popular style nor the genres of the New Testament documents ('memoirs' of the life of Jesus or ephemeral letters from the first generation missionaries) naturally commended them for canonization as Scripture.

For the earliest Church, then, Scripture was not the New Testament but the Greek Old Testament, treated as divine prophecy of the coming of Christ, who died and rose again 'according to the Scriptures' (1 Cor. 15:3f.); the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John the Baptist (Matt. 11:13) but now a totally new, non-scriptural reality, the immediate advent of the Kingdom of God, takes their place. 'In the past, God had spoken in many and varied ways through the Prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us in his Son' (Heb. 1:1-2).

The conflict between Christianity and the Judaism of Pharisaic scribes over the Law provided another reason for the subordination of the 'letter that kills' to 'the Spirit that gives life' (2 Cor. 3:6). In order to resist the demand for the circumcision of Gentiles, Paul attempted to reinterpret that commandment as fulfilled spiritually in the heart of the believer (Rom. 2:29) or allegorically in the crucifixion of Christ (Col. 2:11), but in the end he was also obliged to oppose the plain sense of Scripture by relegating the law of circumcision to a now superseded period of salvation-history (Gal. 3:24).

Other social factors may also have played a part. For instance, Christian congregations were less well organized than the synagogue to equip their members with the basics of literacy. And above all, the bookish learning of the educated elite ran the risk of dangerous, deviant opinion. Marcion doctored the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul to produce a coherent anti-Jewish substitute for the Old Testament which would serve him as 'Scripture'. The gnostic Gospel of Thomas makes salvation depend on the 'correct'

interpretation of sayings of Jesus, ignoring altogether his death and resurrection. And Heracleon, a follower of the Gnostic Valentinus, produced the first New Testament commentary (on the Fourth Gospel). Thus, canon, interpretation, commentary—the apparatus of biblical scholarship—were the innovations of heretics. To combat them, the Church was faced with a stark choice, either populist anti-intellectualism (which some would have preferred) or to use the deviants' own methods against them.

From this strange sequence of events one enduring principle of traditional interpretation emerged, articulated most clearly by Irenaeus, namely that the text of the New Testament is not as such the final authority, until it is interpreted correctly according to the Rule of Faith or Rule of Truth, that is, the teaching of the apostles faithfully preserved in the Church (e.g. Against Heresies 4, 33, 8). The very notion of the New Testament as Scripture, though clearly established by the end of the second century, when it is quoted on a par with the Old, nevertheless retains this ambiguity, for the ultimate revelation of God is not mediated by mere words or text; it is direct and immediate, the Word of God incarnate in Christ.

It would be wrong to restrict or objectify the notion of a Rule of Faith. It is not a 'canon outside the canon', the Church's creeds and conciliar definitions imposed upon the text; nor a reduced essence, a 'canon within the canon' like justification by faith, or the love of God and neighbour. It is the whole revelation, transcendent yet immanent, faithfully transmitted through, and behind and along with the apostolic writings.

Alexandrian and Antiochene interpretation

Patristic use of typology and allegory in interpreting the Old Testament is described elsewhere in this volume. It was a neat way of coping with apparent factual and moral difficulties in texts deemed to have authority, and even more of reading the whole Old Testament in a consistently Christian manner. The range of actual quotations from the Old Testament used by the New Testament writers is surprisingly limited and hardly sufficient to justify the immense effort of copying and disseminating the Jewish Scriptures in the Church, and explaining their obscurities. In order to make this worthwhile, the Christian relevance of all of it had somehow to be demonstrated, and this was the task which the exegetical school at Alexandria set itself, with Origen as its commanding genius.

Naturally these methods of Old Testament interpretation came to influence the treatment of the New Testament. First, allegory was available to clear up oddities and conflicts, such as the date of the Cleansing of the Temple in John, or Matthew's account of the Triumphal Entry, where Jesus rides on two donkeys; these were explained as signs and pointers to deeper truths-the 'Temple' in John 2 is the sanctuary of the human intellect needing to be cleansed from philosophical arrogance; and in Matthew 21, Jesus as the Word of God is carried into Jerusalem by the two Testaments (Lindars, in Rogerson et al. 1988:265). Origen did not doubt the literal, historical occurrence of either incident, of course; that was established sufficiently by the other versions in the Gospels. But his method enables him to retain as deeply significant even minor variations in wording and order which his perceptive eye had noticed. And he is not just wriggling out of the problems by any means however arbitrary. The general drift of his comments is often extraordinarily apposite as here: that John's Gospel is the purification of reason by faith; and that Matthew's intention was to get Jesus to Jerusalem on the back of Scripture.

Sometimes Origen adopts a different tactic: he supposes for example that the variation in the words of John the Baptist about 'carrying' (Matt. 3:11) or 'untying' (the Mark, John and Luke parallels) the sandals of the One to come, show that they were spoken on two different occasions—sayings bear repetition, after all, but dramatic actions would lose their impact if repeated. But then he proceeds to allegorize both versions, since Origen had had no more success than modern commentators in tracking down precise parallels for these metaphors for humble service (Wiles in Ackroyd and Evans 1970:471, 479).

Second, and more important than such details is the use of the 'more than literal' sense to defend the unity and orthodoxy of Scripture. The New Testament as well as the Old Testament was involved here, because of the interpretations of the Gnostics. They took up with enthusiasm Jesus' injunction that the allegory of the sower was to be the model for understanding all the parables (Mark 4:13), and it is their heterodox interpretations that set the agenda for refutation by the Church Fathers. So, for instance, the astonishing treatment of the parable of the Good Samaritan, from Irenaeus through Origen to Augustine, in which the whole creed and half the catechism are squeezed into its innocent details is an answer to the very different understanding of the Fall, christology, the Church and morality proposed on the same textual basis by the Gnostics (Hanson in Ackroyd and Evans 1970:416ff). To appeal instead to a common sense and the simple moral lesson of the story was probably not a real option in the circumstances of the time.

Third, the deeper meanings of Scripture correspond to the way the Bible was being used for spiritual nurture. Most of Origen's exegetical works were delivered, we should remember, as homilies for the edification of the faithful, and this also sets a peculiar agenda, in relation to progress in the Christian life. A parallel is thus drawn between the human person, made up of body, soul and spirit, and the threefold meanings of Scripture, literal, moral and spiritual. In any passage he is on the look-out, like any preacher, for lessons to be drawn for ethics and spirituality.

Origen had immense influence, before his belated posthumous condemnation in the mid-sixth century, even more in the West, through Augustine, than in the East. But his fanciful speculations also provoked opposition, particularly in Antioch—a rival centre of biblical learning in the third century, which flowered in the work of John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia in the fourth. The Antiochenes were in close touch with Jewish scholarship and were able to offer satisfactory explanations of the literal sense of many passages which the Alexandrians could only understand allegorically. At the same time, they were determined to refute Jewish opponents on their own terms and find in the Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah which could be shown to be intended by their authors and not just hidden by some special divine inspiration unbeknown to them. The moderate, dissenting voice of Antiochene interpretation, with its genuine feel for the historical distance of the text, fell under suspicion of heresy in the aftermath of the Arian controversy. In particular, its realistic exegesis of the human life of Jesus was open to the charge, however unjustly, of Nestorianism. The Alexandrian and Antiochene approaches, despite the rhetoric of mutual condemnation, are not incompatible; for it is possible to focus at one level on the conscious intention of the author and yet at another to acknowledge that these same texts, when reapplied in Christian contemplation and worship and interpreted together in a unifying way, can take on new and deeper meanings.

Medieval interpretation

After the christological debates of the fourth and fifth centuries, the East adopted a more settled stance on biblical interpretation, repeating and amplifying the commentaries of the orthodox fathers. In the West also the patristic legacy was preserved through the writings of Augustine and the clarifications of exegetical method promoted by Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century, in particular the theory of the four senses of Scripture: the literal relating to history; the allegorical to doctrine; the tropological to moral duty; and the anagogical to future hope. With the help of this scheme, the Latin Church classified and preserved the views of earlier writers in the form of a systematic cumulative commentary, the Gloss, similar to and no doubt influenced by contemporary elaboration of the Code of Roman civil law. The intention was to provide for the training of the clergy in cathedral schools, and later in the universities. In class, quotations from the Bible were presented in topics or 'questions' to which answers, 'sentences', would be provided by the lecturer and carefully copied by the student, which is still the standard form of lecturing in higher education. The Medieval Schools are often accused of creating a separation between biblical exegesis and theology (e.g. Grant 1965:92; Smalley in Lampe 1969:198f.) with disastrous consequences for both: biblical texts were handled without regard for context and revealed theology was reduced to a series of intellectual propositions. But the charge is somewhat unsympathetic (see Evans 1984), for analytical, even mechanical procedures are a necessary stage in the process of learning. Furthermore, the Schoolmen saw the danger themselves;

Hugh of St Victor in the twelfth century, for example, set out to hold analysis and synthesis, text and context together.

The medieval period also saw the re-affirmation of the priority of the literal sense, and imposed restraint on the excesses of allegorism, especially through the work of Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. The literal (i.e. intended, including metaphorical) sense was alone admissible in theological debate. But there were also problems caused by literalism, when it became a weapon to attack the Church, from St Francis to Joachim of Fiore.

The one feature that runs through medieval interpretation, in all its varied forms, is the central place of the Bible in society; its truth is public truth, a matter of serious concern and strenuous debate, whether the topic is the poverty of Christ or the powers of the papacy. It is symbolized in the great cathedrals and abbeys, which could be described as visual commentaries on the Bible. In illustration of this point, we refer to the work of John Wycliffe, who pioneered English biblical translation in the fourteenth century. For all his concern to give the people direct access to the source of salvation in Scripture, free from the corruption and tyranny of the contemporary Church, Wycliffe did not retreat into pious individualism, but attempted to mobilize popular support for a programme of public reform, as his other largely political writings make clear. Barnabas Lindars writes: 'Wycliffe saw the New Testament as the revelation of God's Law. He took the idea of the Kingdom of God quite literally, and wanted to see all secular rulers model their statecraft on the Gospel' (Lindars, in Roger son 1988:291).

Reformation interpretation

In several respects, the interpretation of the New Testament in the sixteenth century Reformation anticipates modern critical study: its appeal to the original Greek, its search for ancient manuscripts, its sense of the distance of the past, its emphasis on authorial intention, its eye to the plausible in explaining textual problems and so forth. The Reformers confidently disposed of the great accumulation of medieval glosses and commentaries and enjoyed a sudden feeling of intellectual freedom.

It may seem doubly ironic, then, to include Reformation exegesis in a chapter on traditional interpretation since the Reformers opposed Scripture to tradition and argued from Scripture alone. But the tradition that they rejected was, as it were, recent tradition, including the claim of the Pope to be the ultimate arbiter of interpretation. Luther and Calvin regularly quote from selected earlier commentators, like Augustine and Bernard; and they share the patristic focus on christology and Trinity. They were very aware of the problem, exemplified in the radical wing of the movement, that no consensus, and therefore no real reform, was possible, if every individual Christian simply interpreted the text according to his own views. Some control was necessary and this was provided by the notion of the clarity, or perspicuity of Scripture. Scripture has clarity in two senses, according to Luther: it has a clear, verbal meaning discerned by philology and scholarship; and it has a clear, basic message: all the sacred books 'preach Christ', which for Luther means free grace and justifying faith. Calvin's answer to the problem of ensuring that religious freedom did not lapse into public anarchy was very similar. He wrote commentaries on all the books of the New Testament, attempting to provide the plain, grammatical sense of the authors' original intention. And Calvin also appeals to a hermeneutical principle to bring clarity to the text, namely the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.

The Reformers' emphasis on brevity, simplicity and clarity reflects no doubt the recovery of these aesthetic ideals from classical antiquity; but, more importantly, it answers a religious need, which is a constantly recurring motif in traditional interpretation, to find consistency and a basic unity in Scripture. Just as vernacular translations came off the printing presses in the sixteenth century to be placed in the hands of ordinary people, so also the Gospel itself had to be made religiously accessible; the profound mystery of God and the complexities of biblical science had to be counterbalanced by a simple living truth that could grasp the heart and move the will.

A detailed history of the development of New Testament exegesis up to the eighteenth century would have revealed many discontinuities and a confusion of disputes and new directions. For example, emphasis on the literal or allegorical senses appears to come in a pattern of alternating waves through the history of New Testament interpretation. But if one stands far enough back from the detail, points of family resemblance in what we are calling traditional interpretation do appear, which come to the surface at particular periods but are latent throughout. Among them are the four to which we have drawn particular attention.

First, the rule of faith as guide to correct interpretation—the principle that the ultimate revelation of God is not textual but historical, the person and work of Jesus Christ and the apostolic testimony to him. This is not to say that the meaning of the New Testament is determined by the imposition of an external standard of apostolicity, for the New Testament is itself, after the end of the second century, the sole source of knowledge of apostolic teaching. It is rather that the interpreter approaches the text and copes with any gaps or apparent contradictions on the assumptions of its unity and coherence. Implicit in these assumptions are the notions of its finality and maturity. The New Testament is not evidence for some kind of 'primitive Christianity' at the beginning of a long history of evolution; it is the witness to 'pristine Christianity'; when interpreted according to faith, it contains a full and normative form of Christian doctrine.

Second and correlatively, the New Testament no less than the Old is an inspired book. The Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets did not leave the apostles and evangelists to rely on their own unaided human faculties in recording the significance of Christ; he invested their words with a certain kind of deeper meaning. Preservation from historical or scientific error was not the main issue here; indeed, the occasional slip of that kind might be a deliberate ploy to alert the attentive reader to the deeper meaning. Rather, the activity of the Spirit in producing by means of the text repentance and faith, understanding, love and hope is the presupposition on which it is prescribed for solemn reading in the liturgy, expounded in sermons and pored over minutely in private devotion and study. Even those who most vigorously rejected the allegorical method, like the Antiochenes, St Thomas and the Reformers, did not contemplate the rejection of the spiritual sense, so defined.

Third, the New Testament rightly belongs in the domain of public truth. Its influence is to be felt and its teaching applied in every sphere of life. Its authority does not depend on the acceptance of it by any individual; it is a given. In a Christian society, most obviously the medieval West but equally the Byzantine Empire or Calvin's Geneva or Philip II's Spain, all its leaders, clerical and lay, were expected to take it into account. The breadth of traditional interpretation is apparent here. Its use in public debate makes it a contemporary authority, relevant to the present and not just a record of the past.

Finally, and again in correlation to the preceding point, the teaching of the New Testament is not just for the learned and powerful, but for the common people, and as such its basic message must be fundamentally simple and of universal application. The Reformers were not introducing a novel idea in their emphasis on the clarity of Scripture; it is a factor that keeps coming to the surface through the history of interpretation, cutting through the complexities and subtleties of exegetes, and assented to in principle even by the most eruditie.

These characteristics, the normativeness, inspiration, public relevance and basic simplicity of the New Testament are as typical of traditional interpretation as they are untypical, in each case, of modern critical interpretation.

Study Aid

Study Aid

This Book Is One Of The Most Valuable Resources In The World When It Comes To Getting A Scholarship And Financial Support For Your Studies.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment