John Chrysostom on Hermeneutics

While unraveling a difficulty in the book of Galatians, John Chrysostom takes a moment to remind his readers how they ought to pursue interpretation. His advice echoes some modern practices and chastises others. For those interested, I posted the Greek text here.

It is not the right course to consider words alone, or to examine the language by itself, because this will cause many errors. Rather we must consider the intention of the writer. And unless we follow this methodology in our own discussions, and look into the mind of the speaker, we will make many enemies, and everything will be thrown into confusion. This is not only true in regard to words, but we have the same result if we do not follow this rule when considering the actions of people. For example, surgeons often cut and break certain bones, and so do robbers. But it would be sad if we were not able to distinguish one from the other. Again, consider murderers and martyrs. When they are tortured, they suffer the same pains, yet the difference between them is very great. Unless we observe this rule, we will not be able to discriminate in these kinds of matters. Instead, we will end up calling Elijah and Samuel and Phineas murderers, and Abraham a murderer of his son. This will be the result if we go around scrutinizing bare facts without taking into account the intention of the participants. Let us then look at Paul’s intentions when he writes this. Let us consider his outlook and general conduct towards the apostles so that we may arrive at his meaning here. (PG 61:629, translation here.)

Chrysostom’s advice lets us distinguish between two nineteenth-century practices that still influence conservative, evangelical Christians today. On the one hand, there is biblical theology, the practice of tracing the organic development of revelation chronologically. This indeed had roots in covenant theology, but was explicitly pioneered on the continent and imported to conservative Americans through men like Geerhardus Vos. Vos, at least, maintained that “biblical theology” was not more pure or more spiritual than systematic theology, but only a different way of organizing the material.

On the other hand, the Brethren movement relied on the “Bible reading,” an oversimplification of biblical theology. This method of study and exposition became popular among early dispensationalists, appearing at the Niagara prophecy conferences. The practitioner, usually with the help of a concordance, finds a supposed key word such as “church” or “baptism,” and proceeds to read all or a select portion of the verses containing that word. The verses are read in chronological order, with some but not much comment, so as to trace the theme through Scripture.

There are several reasons for the rise of the Bible reading approach. Many of its proponents believed that they were being more biblical, more authentic, by simply reading Bible passages. Since Brethren and Dispensationalists stressed the plain sense of Scripture, they assumed that little commentary was necessary. Hearers would simply absorb the information. Also, the Dispensationalists especially were attentive to chronological progression in Scripture. Through this method they could highlight the changes between dispensations. Bible reading as a method of exposition is uncommon today, but it lives on in Spirit in sermons based on word studies or in theological arguments backed up by Strong’s numbers.

Though they may appear similar at first, biblical theology and “Bible reading” are quite different. Biblical theology is attuned to doctrines and themes, whereas Bible reading fixates on words. In many cases, the practitioners do not even distinguish between words and concepts. They really believe that one derives the doctrine of the church by looking up all the instances of the word church (or the associated Strong’s numbers) and adding them together.

In college, I had a professor who taught us to make a “biblical theology” of a book of the Bible by highlighting all the verses with the word “God” in one color, then “Jesus” in another, then “Spirit” in another, etc. Then we would take all the verses in each color and put them under their respective head words. In essence, we were to achieve a biblical theology by fixating on words, then removing verses (arbitrary units) from their discourse contexts, and finally reordering them into something resembling a concordance. Of course, such a method makes it impossible to follow Chrysostom’s advice, and I suspect very difficult to arrive at the author’s meaning.



Published in: on June 8, 2011 at 9:26 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] to the Sacra Pagina blog for pointing me to this interesting text. Translation from Fourth Century […]

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