How did the early Christians interpret the Bible? Should their mode of biblical interpretation say anything to us about how to interpret Scripture today? We have much to learn from studying the history of biblical interpretation, a field that speaks to both the unity and diversity of exegesis among Christians. One of the earliest discussions of biblical interpretation that we have comes from Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 140–ca. 200), in On the Apostolic Preaching, also known as The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.
John Behr, the editor of this volume in the Popular Patristics Series put out by St. Vladimir’s Press (which offers a good entrée into the writings of the early church fathers), details the significance of Irenaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching. It is “the earliest summary of Christian teaching” (7). It establishes the authority of the New Testament by appealing solely to the Old Testament in validating apostolic preaching (8)—while at the same time, Irenaeus is the first to appeal extensively from the New Testament as Scripture, which he does in his magnum opus, Against Heresies (15). Irenaeus is also “the first patristic writer to maintain the unity of God’s dealings with the human race throughout history” (8n1). His “uniqueness” lies in “the clear and comprehensive presentation” of his enterprise (17).
Even with all this, the “immense significance” of On the Apostolic Preaching is found in the confluence of canon, biblical authority, and biblical interpretation (26). Irenaeus certainly appeals to the authority of the Old Testament, but in doing this, he also establishes the parameters of the canon by including the apostolic writings (nearly, though not exactly, corresponding to our New Testament) as authoritative. And then he provides what Behr calls “an unparalleled example of how to approach and understand the truths revealed by Scripture” (26).
Irenaeus begins his work by describing his aim: “to demonstrate, by way of a summary, the preaching of the truth” (39). For Irenaeus, this is no abstract goal but is meant “to strengthen your faith” (39). In fact, rightly understanding apostolic preaching has both doctrinal and moral import, keeping one from either “erring” or “slacking” (40). Thus, we are to both “keep the rule of faith” and “perform the commandments of God” (41).
What exactly constitutes the rule of faith? In part one of two parts, Irenaeus outlines what constitutes “the apostolic preaching.” He divides this part into three sections, which discuss the relation between God and humanity; the preparation for salvation, which is largely a discussion of God’s covenants with humanity and with his chosen people; and the salvation wrought by the Son of God, which shows how Jesus fulfills the promises of old.
In part two, Irenaeus goes on to demonstrate that the apostolic preaching is true, and this he does by showing how the teaching from the apostles was foretold by the prophets of old. He combs the Old Testament—thoroughly though not even exhaustively (74)—for foreshadows and prophecies of the Messiah and his redemptive work, focusing on four themes: the eternal existence of Jesus Christ; the human birth of Jesus Christ; the miracles, passion, and glorification of Jesus Christ (the Psalms especially loom large here); and the calling of the Gentiles as the new people of God.
This reading of the Old Testament points to one major theme in Irenaeus’s book: his Christological and redemptive-historical reading of Scripture. Part of what drives this exegetical approach is his use of the analogy of Scripture, that is, interpreting Scripture by Scripture (see Behr’s discussion on 23–24). So for Irenaeus, Christological interpretation was not blatantly allegorical but was carefully grounded in Old Testament revelation. This approach is obvious in the way Irenaeus engages the Old Testament in support of the New, which leads him to see proofs of Jesus’s eternality, life, death, resurrection, and glorification centuries before he walked the earth. The Old Testament is clearly Christological in Irenaeus’s view.
But it is also focused on Christ’s redemptive work and thus on the people of God that he redeems. The calling of the Gentiles is treated extensively in the work (59, 66–67, 92–100). The focus on the church mixed with Irenaeus’s meticulous examination of Israel and the Old Testament covenants (i.e., the preparation and accomplishment of salvation) highlights how Irenaeus focused his interpretation on the Trinitarian work of redemption in history, a theme larger than a Christological interpretation of Scripture.
(Centuries later, Jonathan Edwards would likewise highlight the calling of the Gentiles in his reading of the Old Testament, not to mention a Christological and redemptive-historical reading of Scripture.)
A second theme from the work is the Trinity. Irenaeus begins and ends his demonstration with the Trinity. Irenaeus takes it as an article of faith that one must confess the Trinity, and the work of the Trinity is essential to God’s revelation of himself through the prophets and the apostles. The “order” and “foundation” of the faith is Trinitarian: God the Father is “uncreated, uncontainable, invisible, one God, the Creator of all”; God the Son is “revealed by the prophets” in order “to abolish death, to demonstrate life, and to effect communion between God and man”; and the Holy Spirit prophesied through the prophets and was poured out in a new way after Christ’s ascension (43–44).
Irenaeus underscores the centrality of the Trinity when he closes the book, noting,
Error, concerning the three heads of our seal, has caused much straying from the truth, for either they despise the Father, or do not accept the Son—they speak against the economy of His incarnation—or they do not accept the Holy Spirit, that is, they despise prophecy. And we must be wary of all such and flee from their thought, if we truly wish to be pleasing to God and to obtain, from Him, salvation. (101)
Already in the second century, about a hundred and fifty years before Nicaea, the Trinity not only provides a foundation of Christian thought but also shapes the way the early church interpreted Scripture.
In the end, Irenaeus links the Christian faith to a particular reading of Scripture. To reject a Christological and redemptive-historical reading of Scripture was to place the faith at risk. This signifies that for the early church fathers, how to interpret the Bible was no small matter; rather, it was of paramount importance.
For Irenaeus, this reading of Scripture gives a firm foundation for our faith, thus motivating us to live in accordance with God’s commands, which the author summarizes nicely as he nears the end of On the Apostolic Preaching:
If, then, the prophets have prophesied that the Son of God was going to appear on earth, and have prophesied also where on earth, and how, and what manner He <was going> to appear, and the Lord took upon Himself all these prophecies, firm <is> our faith in Him and true is the tradition of preaching, that is, the witness of the apostles, who, sent by the Lord, preached to the whole world the Son of God come unto [His] Passion, endured for the destruction of death and vivification of the flesh, so that, by putting aside enmity towards God, which is iniquity, we may receive peace with Him, doing that which is pleasing to Him. (92)