For evangelical Christians, reading the Bible represents one of the most basic aspects of the Christian life. As heirs of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, evangelicals elevate Scripture above all other authorities.
Yet even Martin Luther never intended that Christians should read the Bible alone. Luther owed much in his biblical interpretation to Augustine, and he cast the Reformation movement as standing in continuity with the early church.
Michael Graves, Armerding Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, echoes Luther’s sentiment that Christians can gain much by interpreting Scripture in the light of earlier biblical interpreters in The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Eerdmans, 2014). In this volume, Graves guides readers into the ancient world of early Christianity by exploring the intersection of biblical inspiration and biblical interpretation. For the early church fathers, what are the “entailments” of affirming the doctrine of inspiration, as they all did?
Graves engages this question by describing their varied approaches to twenty entailments of the doctrine of inspiration. These twenty statements address five broad areas of the Bible, including its usefulness, spiritual dimension, mode of expression, relation to history and fact, and relation to the truthfulness of its spiritual subject. For example, Graves considers the entailment “Scripture Has Multiple Senses” in the spiritual dimension category and “Scripture Is Not in Conflict with ‘Pagan’ Learning” in the historicity and factuality category.
In treating each of these entailments, Graves shows both the broad thrust of the fathers on specific issues while also holding in tension the minor—and sometimes major—differences among the interpreters. While the early church fathers were univocal in their belief in biblical inspiration, they were multi-vocal in the way they applied that belief to interpreting Scripture, thus the intersection of inspiration and interpretation. Without minimizing the significant degree of unity we find in the early church, Graves helpfully highlights where and why they differed.
Graves has clearly immersed himself in primary sources of early church interpreters, and this aspect of the book constitutes one of its key contributions. Graves offers a well-written, accessible volume that allows readers to see much of how the church fathers interpreted Scripture. Exposure to the early church fathers’ interpretive practices underscores just how devoted they were to the text—the inspiration of Scripture drove them to take it very seriously.
But Graves is not content merely to introduce readers to patristic interpretation of the Bible. As his title implies, he aims to engage with the exegesis of the early church in order to reflect on what Christians can learn about reading their Bibles today. And this represents the other major benefit of this book; it gives readers an opportunity to interact with his ideas for how we can make good on early church interpretation today.
The organization of the book helps here. The introductory and closing chapters give a clear window into Graves’ own views, providing key points for engagement. Also, in each of his twenty entailments, he first describes how early interpreters read the Bible in relation to the particular statement and then closes with a paragraph or two on how we may or may not appropriate their thinking today.
These sections will work best not if readers blindly accept Graves’ recommendations, but if they engage them on their own. The reader does not need to embrace all his suggestions to benefit from the book. Rather, great benefit comes simply by thinking through what early interpreters said and by sifting through the merits of Graves’ attendant recommendations. In this way, the book can function very well in classrooms and even in small-group church settings.
For example, Graves commends the early church belief that interpreters need divine aid in understanding the Bible, something just as valuable today as in the third century (48). At the same time, he argues that the early church penchant for forcing meanings on proper names via etymological exploration is one of the “least helpful” practices for modern Christians (70). Thus he is both appreciative and critical of his early church subjects.
Readers will find fascinating observations, such as Origen’s belief that God placed stumbling blocks in the biblical text in order to force them to look for a deeper meaning that was worthy of God (51–52, 125). Interestingly, as I discuss in my forthcoming book, Jonathan Edwards similarly held that God intentionally placed difficulties in Scripture and the world to drive the reader to seek understanding, yet he added that part of God’s intention in making his ways “hard to be understood” was for readers to derive pleasure in the search and discovery, a point he made from Ps 111:2, “The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein” [“Profitable Hearers of the Word” (Matt 13:23), in Sermons and Discourses 1723–1729, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema, vol. 14 of WJE (1997), 247].
In drawing together his observations on the early church, Graves seeks to make some broader claims about how we should approach their interpretation. One of his key contentions is that because the early church was multi-vocal, we don’t need to follow them in every detail. Since they were in a context, just as we are, we ought to have freedom to articulate a view of Scripture that fits our context (16).
In making this claim, Graves rightly charges us to sift through the ideas and practices of the early church for what aspects we might adopt or pass over. Sometimes Christians fall into the error of embracing some aspect of the past without critically considering why the church later moved away from it. The call to critical reflection and honest discussion of our similarities and differences comes as a welcome note (131–133).
Interestingly, Graves moves from this concept to relativize the authority of the early church in favor of the authority of the individual. While valuing interpretation with the Christian community, he argues that “the final point of discernment as to the significance of Scripture for today must lie with the individual Christian. Seeking to be receptive to God, the individual Christian must be at liberty to make the ultimate decisions as to how Scripture relates to her or him” (142).
An individualistic thrust in biblical interpretation also leads to a diversity of interpretations in the church, and Graves views this diversity as valuable for the church today. Graves convincingly articulates some benefits of such an approach, such as an intellectual humility about having all the right interpretations and a willingness to learn from other believers who are engaging Scripture.
At the same time, this appreciation for the individual and diverse interpretation leads him to downplay the role of creeds and confessions. In light of the difficulties with the rule of faith as it developed, namely that people sometimes used it to support their own views against others, Graves finds it unwise to appeal to creeds or confessions as “the final arbiter in scriptural interpretation” (123). They are valuable “conversation partners,” but not authoritative.
I’m glad Graves raises this issue, but am uncertain that he solves the problems raised by the tension of biblical interpretation and confessional commitment. On the one hand, few evangelical Christians would admit to allowing anything to serve as the “final arbiter” in biblical interpretation except the Bible (though in practice they may not live out this conviction consistently). Yet confessional believers will place more value in confessions than Graves wants to allow. Thus, I suspect Graves’ argument will appeal particularly to non-confessional evangelicals.
But what role should creeds and confessions play? Taking Graves’ individualistic emphasis leads one away from creeds and confessions in a way that seems to minimize their value rather significantly. Perhaps we can’t expect anything other than individualistic approaches to the Bible in this postmodern context. But should we settle for that?
One wonders if this postmodern view of interpretation that embraces individualism, diversity, and subjectivity actually leads to a place of complete relativity. While Graves denies this (144), he nonetheless states that “interpretive pluralism” is “a fruitful product of the democratization of Christian life embodied in the principle of sola scriptura” (147).
Such democratization leaves the meaning of the biblical text up for grabs in a way that seems to remove all boundaries on interpretation. I doubt very much that the early church fathers would have followed Graves in this path, and I think Graves would agree with me. That’s why he starts his whole discussion by saying that we don’t need to follow them in every way. Nonetheless, I wonder if we are wiser to temper the individual’s freedom by echoing the early church’s strong affirmation of the authority of Scripture connected with the authority of traditional formulations such as the early ecumenical creeds and the Apostles’ Creed. These creeds, at least, have greater stability than the more flexible rule of faith.
Bearing these thoughts in mind, I think a discussion like this is just the kind of conversation Graves’ book can stimulate, which is why I recommend this volume—especially for classes on early Christian history and the history of biblical interpretation, but even for classes on the theology of the Bible and the nature and practice of exegesis and for some small group settings.
Graves’ Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture makes a valuable contribution to both historical and biblical studies, and his summary recommendation warrants repeating in this context:
“I suggest that Christians can and should continue to read Scripture with Christ as the focus, in thoughtful conversation with their Christian community, informed by Christian tradition and scholarship, and guided by moral reason and prayer, seeking to meet God and develop spiritually by reading and hearing the sacred text. As many Christians past and present testify, an approach to Scripture such as this is the best way to receive what God has to teach us through Scripture” (141).
Books like Graves’ are healthy for the church because they force us to consider people who are part of the family of Christianity who think both very similarly to us in some respects and very differently from us in others. Their similarity begs that we attend to their difference. This book helps us sift through these differences to our benefit and renewal, challenging us to read Scripture from a fresh, if old, vantage point.