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.
If you have not yet come across Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries (Baker Academic, 2017; source: publisher), I strongly recommend that you take a look. Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes have done a wonderful job of addressing a lacuna in patristic studies. Through a series of separate chapters, the authors examine the lives of Christian women in the period immediately after the apostolic age through the Post-Nicene period.
As one would expect, discussions of motherhood features throughout the Christian Women in the Patristic World. Motherhood is examined through the lives of Helena and Monica. As mothers to Constantine and Augustine, their critical role in the lives of their respectively sons are important case studies. However, just as significant is Pulcheria’s decision to pursue life as a virgin, rather than produce a possible heir to the Byzantine Empire. An ascetic life of prayer and holiness superseded not only motherhood, but also the giving birth to one within the imperial household.
The history of the church is long. Unfortunately, our modern reception often goes through a Marcionian filter that weeds out vast portions of our heritage. Particularly, the church fathers are neglected due to their unfamiliarity or refusal to fit nicely into our evangelical box.
Bryan M. Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Baker Academic, 2016, 2nd ed.; source: publisher) attempts to reverse this trend. The focus of the work is to introduce the church fathers to a wide evangelical audience. For Litfin, the key to understanding the church fathers is to look beyond just a doctrinal treatment of the fathers, but also to learn of their context and how they lived out their theology.
Have you ever wanted to know what people really think of you? What are they saying when you leave the room? What words are whispered when they think no one is listening? Well, if you are Paul, here is your chance.
Patrick Gray provides us with an interesting take on an important issue. Paul as a Problem in History and Culture (Baker Academic, 2016; source: publisher) reads like a behind-the-scenes look at everyone who ever said something bad about Paul. The work is a thorough analysis of the who’s who of Paul’s critics.
Last semester I taught a course on the historical and theological development of the church. Beginning with the resurrection, the course mapped out how the church grew out of Pentecost and the activity of the apostles, went through periodic persecutions until Constantine, and progressed into numerous traditions and denominations.
On the first day of class, students were split into groups and tasked with writing out a definition of the church. Many of the definitions addressed the various functions of the church, the universal and the local church, and Christ as the head of the church. As the course went along, these definitions were developed through an exegetical, historical, and theological study of the church. I enjoyed using various primary and secondary readings for the course, but if I were to do it all over again, I would definitely have Gerald Bray’s The Church as a required text.
Augustine is a common source for any discussion of the Trinity. It helps that he wrote a book called On the Trinity. For good or bad, the consensus understands Augustine as a pivotal figure in early Trinitarianism, especially in a post-Nicene context.
The Donatist controversy is not discussed at quite the same level as Augustine and the Trinity, but is a common area of Augustine studies. Geoffrey G. Willis wrote on the issue, and the matter is addressed in any of the standard biographies. What we do not see often is a study that combines the two.
Adam Ployd’s Augustine, Trinity, and the Church (Oxford, 2015; source: publisher) falls in line with works on the relationship between the Trinity and the church. Examples of such studies are Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity and Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom. Ployd’s study is not a progression of Volf or Moltmann, for to do so would be anachronistic. Rather, Ployd takes a look at Augustine within his post-Nicene context.
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?