Augustine – The Interpreter’s Toolbox

Francis Watson has provided a summary list of the requirements for interpretation found in Augustine’s De doctrina christiana. This list presents an ideal, for even Augustine doesn’t live up to all the points (#5). Cognizant of his own shortcomings, he nevertheless proclaimed a daunting standard. Seminaries today hardly have such high aims.

  1. A firm grasp of the telos of Holy Scripture and its interpretation, which is to engender the love of the Triune God and of the neighbor and nothing else.
  1. A personal orientation toward holiness and the fear of God.
  1. An ability to reach an informed decision about the precise scope of the scriptural canon.
  1. An intimate familiarity with the entire Bible.
  1. A knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, to facilitate clearer understanding of authorial intention.
  1. An expertise in textual criticism, so as to eliminate corruptions of the text.
  2. A broad acquaintance with secular sciences, especially history and logic.
  3. An ability to identify and decide between competing exegetical possibilities.
  1. An awareness of the differences between current social conventions and those of the biblical past.
  2. An understanding of scriptural tropes and rhetoric.
  1. A sense of the manifold interpretive possibilities of the biblical text—possibilities intended by the author and/or Holy Spirit, in token of the divine abundance.” (“Authors, Readers, Hermeneutics” in Reading Scripture with the Church, 122)
No, I don’t know why the formatting did that.
Published in: on June 15, 2011 at 1:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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Review – Nicaea and its Legacy by Lewis Ayres

Over the last few decades,  revisionary accounts of fourth-century trinitarian theology have been forming gradually. According to new readings, the “Arian” controversy was not a well-defined struggle between Nicene defenders of inherited orthodoxy and a cabal of insurgents grouped around Arius. Rather, Arius’ and Alexander’s conflict ignited a battle between existing theological trajectories. The standard packaging of this period as “Arian” was a clever rhetorical move by Athanasius. “We should avoid thinking of these controversies as focusing on the status of Christ as ‘divine’ or ‘not divine’. They focus, first, on debates about the generation of the Word or Son from the Father. Second, the controversies involve debates about the ‘grammar’ of human speech about the divine” (3).

Furthermore, the revisionists insist that the defenders of Nicaea were not uniform in their theology, nor did those present at Nicaea hold the developed theology that would characterize pro-Nicene faith half a century later. Trinitarian theology cannot be divided into Eastern and Western, nor can the “pluralist” Cappadocians be set against against an Augustinian preference for “unity.” Another area of revision calls for an understanding of the Fathers as scriptural exegetes whose concerns about the status of the Word intertwine with their articulation of redemption. They were not captured by Hellenistic philosophy, nor do their differences stem primarily from adopting different philosophical starting points. Rather, almost all the participants employed philosophical ideas piecemeal in the service of a larger Christian consciousness.

Nicaea and its Legacy by Lewis Ayres is the first work to gather these revisionary accounts and advance them in a holistic narrative. Here we have the single-volume revisionary text for fourth-century trinitarian theology. Ayres does not claim to be exhaustive in this book. He refers to the existing comprehensive studies by Richard Hanson and Manlio Simonetti. Using those as a substratum, he constructs a leaner account that emphasizes the novel features of his approach. Nicaea and its Legacy serves well enough as a stand-alone text, but readers familiar with Hanson and Simonetti will appreciate its distinctiveness the most.

Ayres identifies four theological trajectories around the time of Nicaea, whose permutations formed the shifting alliances of the fourth century:

1) Alexander, Athanasius, and Friends: Theologians of true wisdom

2) The “Eusebians”: Theologians of the “One Unbegotten”

3) “Marcellan Theology”: Theologians of the undivided monad

4) Western Anti-Adoptionism: A Son born without division

Regarding Nicaea and its aftermath, Ayres argues that Nicaea was not at first intended to be “a precise marker of Christian faith” (85). In fact, the creed was capable of several interpretations, since the terminology it employed had not yet come to technical definition. Homoousios was not nearly as important as it would be later. The trinitarian controversies did not end at Nicaea, or even at Constantinople in 381. They continue into the fifth century, although pro-Nicene theology (Ayres’ term for the theology of those who defended Nicaea) by then gained the upper hand.

In explicating pro-Nicene theology, Ayres calls on Athanasius, Hilary, Basil of Caesarea, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. Though pro-Nicenes vary in their articulations of theology, they share a common “culture.” Each understands the Trinity as a mystery. God, as perfectly simple, is incomprehensible to our finite minds. Meditation on the inseparability of operations as evidenced in the Incarnation draws us into the paradox of the one divine power and three irreducible persons. Further, all creation participates in the mystery inasmuch as it exists “in” the Word, whom it reflects in a finite way. The Word as a purifying fire cleanses the mind and affections of Christians, so that they can gaze ever more perceptively into the divine mystery. Close readings of Nyssa and Augustine illustrate his arguments.

In the last chapter, Ayres undertakes a bold task. Having given an account of pro-Nicene theology, he asks what it means for contemporary theologians to appropriate or seek continuity with this creedal faith. He highlights the inconsistency of receiving creedal formulations while rejecting the exegetical and theological methods used to reach them. Modern trinitarian theology, with its post-Enlightenment and Hegelian assumptions, with its disdain for theological and mystical readings of Scripture, receives quite the tongue-lashing. Whether Ayres has found a legitimate way forward, though, is unclear.

Nicaea and its Legacy is a scholarly masterpiece, the best book I’ve read on the Trinity, the best book I’ve read so far this year. Ayres writes with an energy that radiates even in the densest portions. The narrative moments provide just enough air to dive back into the dense documents. He employs prodigious secondary literature to clarify, not obscure. His close readings of primary sources are indispensable. He is interdisciplinary in the best way. For those intimidated by the complexity of the subject matter, the epilogue summarizes the narrative in six pages. No church historian or theologian has any excuse not to read this book.

To Reading and Reviews

Published in: on March 8, 2011 at 9:23 am  Comments (5)  
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Book Review – Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church by Manlio Simonetti

Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church by Manlio Simonetti presents an introduction to patristic exegesis. At only ix+154 pages, it is an exemplar of concise scholarship. Bypassing minutiae and picayune tangents, Simonetti excels at sketching the main currents of exegetical development.

The first chapter examines Jewish and Greek hermeneutical traditions that influenced early Christians. Simonetti avoids a simplistic Jew/Greek dichotomy, noting that both groups embraced various approaches to sacred literature. Issues regarding “literal” and “allegorical” readings, though not as sharply defined as in modern hermeneutics, occupied the attention of interpreters even before Christianity. Thus, the Christians inherited eclectic and sometimes contradictory attitudes toward the text.

The rest of the book details chronologically the development of exegesis. Often, the urgency of polemics drove hermeneutical creativity. Catholic exegesis was shaped by the Scriptural claims of rival groups, particularly Gnostics, Manichaeans, and Arians. Here Simonetti is especially helpful, for he demonstrates that the Catholics were not always hermeneutically distinguishable from their opponents. Neither the Nicene/Arian nor the Alexandrian/Antiochene controversies can be reduced simply to allegorical vs. literal exegesis. At several points, Simonetti exposes inconsistencies between an author’s stated hermeneutical positions and his actual practice. Even where distinct schools are visible, patristic exegesis tended to be eclectic and messy. Early church interpreters were working their way toward hermeneutical rules, not from them.

A relevant but stand-alone appendix offers “Some Observations on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture in the Patristic Period.” In it, Simonetti calls attention to the role of external forces in shaping exegesis. Certain passages called upon to buttress one doctrine in the Trinitarian controversies suddenly find their meaning shifting as the Christological controversies or other opponents come to the fore. The specific examples are enlightening, the larger point vital.

Biblical Interpretation is exceptionally useful for a student seeking an entry point into deeper study. Simonetti provides copious primary source references and a select bibliography of the best works in English, French, German, and Italian. The only negative aspect of the book comes from its brevity. Simonetti uses few lengthy examples, preferring instead to cite references. Of course, readers can always look them up, but they may not always be easily accessible. In any case, doing so detracts from the narrative and blunts the argumentative punch a bit. That notwithstanding, Biblical Interpretation has secured a permanent spot in my library. I expect to return to it frequently.

To Reading and Reviews


Published in: on March 1, 2011 at 6:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On Christian Teaching – Tyconius’ Rules

Back to On Christian Teaching

Were it not for Augustine, we might take little or no notice of an exceedingly thoughtful Donatist theologian named Tyconius. He wrote a book called Regularum (Of Rules), promising that these techniques could elucidate almost any passage in the law. Augustine demurs from so high an assessment, but it is worth noting that he features no interpretive method drawn from any other church figure. One thing to keep in mind is that the rules displayed in OCT are the rules as Augustine has interpreted and appropriated them. They are not necessarily entirely accurate to Tyconius’ intentions.

“The first one is ‘On the Lord and his body’ (De domino et eius corpore)” (98). This rule states that since Christ is the head of the church, Scripture may speak of both in the same image. For example, “You are the seed of Abraham” is said to the faithful, but about Christ. Intentionally or not, the rule resonates with Irenaean ideas of recapitulation. Also, it has long survived in theologies that emphasize union with Christ and in covenant theology.

“The second rule is ‘On the Lord’s twofold body’ (De domini corpore bipertito)” (100). However, Augustine thinks it should have been named perhaps “On the mixed church” (De permixta ecclesia). This rule states that, although the Scripture appears to be speaking to one group, it may be speaking to two groups who are temporarily joined together. For example, when passages addressing Israel promise comfort and others threaten destruction, we must understand that the comfort is to the faithful, the true people of God, whereas the judgment is for the bad part temporarily mixed with the rest. The same distinction applies to the New Testament writings, which contain promises for the faithful and warnings to the hypocrites. This rule too features heavily in subsequent theology, except among Baptists, whose doctrine of regenerate church membership minimizes or denies this distinction.

“The third rule is ‘On the promises and the law’ (De promissis et lege)” (103). Augustine edits this rule heavily. Tyconius said that “works were given to us by God according to the merit of our faith,” a statement that seems to have been intended to place works on a more gracious footing than some alternative theologies. Tyconius brought the issues of grace and faith to Augustine’s attention, allowing Augustine to move beyond Tyconius by asserting that faith too is a gift of God. Augustine claims that Tyconius did not make this discovery because he died before the Pelagian crisis, which clarified these issues. Augustine gives no example passages with this rule, so it’s tempting to view this more as an a priori theological principle used to safeguard exegesis than as an interpretive technique.

“The fourth of Tyconius’ rules is ‘on species and genus’ (De specie et genere)” (106). Sometimes Scripture speaks to a particular person, group, or place, but the meaning transcends that particular recipient, applying to the broader class. Something may be said to Egypt that applies to the whole Gentile world, or to Solomon that applies to Christ and the church. This is particularly important regarding Israel: “So ‘spiritual Israel’ becomes not a matter of a single race, but of all the races promised to the fathers in their seed, which is Christ” (113). This fourth rule works together with the first to identify the New Testament church as the recipient of the prophecies of the Old Testament. This understanding has been the majority report in theology, though contemporary Dispensationalism contests it.

The fifth rule, “On measurements of time” (De temporibus) (117), explains discrepancies about numbers. Tyconius realized Jewish synecdoche, counting parts of a day (or other unit) as a full day (full unit). Some biblical authors count days inclusively, other exclusively, thus dispelling contradiction. Also, certain numbers may have special meanings, and when multiplied or added combine those meanings.

The sixth rule, “Recapitulation” (Recapitulationem) (122), states that a narrative that seems to progress chronologically in fact “covertly switches back to earlier matters which had been passed over” (122). Genesis 2 evidences recapitulation, as do some genealogies and prophetic passages.

The final rule is “On the devil and his body” (De diabolo et eius corpore), a mirror of the first rule. Some things spoken of the devil may in fact refer to the wicked on earth. The reverse is also true, as in the Lucifer passage in Isaiah 14.

Augustine emphasizes that these rules are incomplete. They are specific applications of a broader principle, that “one thing is to be understood by another” (133). This is the general principle of metaphorical interpretation from which Tyconius’ rules and all others are derived. Upon completing this discussion of metaphorical interpretation, Augustine closes book three and finishes his discussion of how Scripture should be understood. Book four will explain how Scripture ought to be set forth in preaching.

Published in: on February 14, 2011 at 9:31 am  Comments (1)  

On Christian Teaching – Book Three

[Back to On Christian Teaching]

Once the student of Scripture has progressed in holiness and possesses a knowledge of biblical languages and accurate texts, he is ready to tackle the ambiguities of Scripture. “Ambiguity in Scripture resides either in literal or in metaphorical usages” (2). If the ambiguity appears in the literal sense, the interpreter should check the punctuation, choosing the option that conforms most closely to the rule of faith. If the ambiguity persists, he should consult the context. Latin contains particular problems, such as the length of vowels, that must be resolved either by grammar, context, or recourse to the original language.

The ambiguities of metaphorical words are less easily resolved.  “The letter kills but the spirit gives life” warns interpreters not to interpret figurative expressions in carnal ways. “It is, then, a miserable kind of spiritual slavery to interpret signs as things, and to be incapable of raising the mind’s eye above the physical creation so as to absorb the eternal light” (21).

The Old Testament Jews were enslaved in this way, yet their slavery was not entirely evil. It was a special sort of bondage, “like the protection of children by a pedagogue” (22). “Those who did believe … clearly showed what an advantage it was to have had the protection of a pedagogue in this way; for the result was that the signs temporarily imposed on them in their slavery drew the thoughts of those who observed them to the worship of the one God who created heaven and earth.” (23) The Gentiles, whose slavery was entirely of their own imagination, were in a far worse predicament.

New Testament realities constitute the “things” to which the Old Testament “signs” pointed. A spiritual person, then, is one who worships a divinely instituted sign, recognizing its significance. A slightly lower stage is “the person who does not understand what a sign means, but at least understands that it is a sign” (32). Only the person who worships the sign as the thing is a slave.

Since it is an error to interpret literal as figurative and vice versa, there must be a way to make this distinction. “Anything in the divine discourse that cannot be related either to good morals or to the true faith should be taken as figurative” (33). Since interpretation finds its end in the twofold love of God and neighbor, it is crucial to distinguish between scriptural morality and the customs of a particular culture:

“Scripture enjoins nothing but love, and censures nothing but lust, and molds men’s minds accordingly…. What unbridled lust does to corrupt the mind and body is called wickedness (flagitium); what it does to harm another person is called wrongdoing (facinus). All sins can be divided into these two kinds, but wickedness comes first. Once it has depleted the mind and as it were bankrupted it, it rushes on to commit wrongdoing in order to remove the obstacles to wickedness or to find assistance for it. Similarly, what love does to benefit itself is self-interest (utilitas), and what it does to benefit a neighbour is known as kindness (beneficientia). And here self-interest comes first, because nobody can do good to another out of resources which he does not possess. The more the realm of lust is destroyed, the more the realm of love is increased.” (36-38)

Harsh and cruel words and deeds in Scripture are meant to destroy the realm of lust. Even in the midst of this discussion of scriptural vs. cultural morality, Augustine finds biblical heroes doing things he thinks are wrong. Thus, these episodes must be interpreted figuratively. “No person in his right mind should ever think that the Lord’s feet were anointed by a woman with precious ointment…. A good perfume signifies a good reputation: anyone who enjoys this through the deeds of an upright life anoints Christ’s feet in a figurative sense” (43). He defends the polygamy of the patriarchs by saying that they did not take carnal pleasure in their many wives, but thought only of producing offspring. “I approve the man who exploits the fertility of many women for a purpose other than sex more highly than one who enjoys one woman’s flesh for its own sake” (61).

Once the exegete is certain that an expression should be taken figuratively, he must discover the precise figure. “But since there are many ways in which things may resemble other things, we should not imagine that there is a hard and fast rule that a word will always have the meaning that it has in a particular place” (78). The same term might bear multiple different, or even entirely opposite, figurative meanings. Sometimes the interpreter may arrive at several meanings, all consistent with the rule of faith. If so, all of them are acceptable, though he should strive to match the intentions of the author as closely as possible. Augustine imagines, though, that perhaps the Holy Spirit, while inspiring the Scriptures, did in fact reveal multiple meanings of passages to the authors. A major difference between Augustinian and modern hermeneutics is Augustine’s greater willingness to subsume multiple levels of meaning under the author’s intent (84-86).

All of the literary devices found in pagan literature occur in the Bible, and understanding them can help the reader unpack many passages. The best help in interpreting Scripture, however, comes not from the pagans, but from a Donatist theologian named Tyconius. It’s possible that the heat of the Donatist controversy kept Augustine from finishing On Christian Teaching in the 390’s. He had to wait until a time when his readers would be willing to receive assistance from a Donatist. Since Tyconius’ rules are so influential for Augustine’s hermeneutic, I will treat them in a separate article later.

Published in: on February 10, 2011 at 3:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On Christian Teaching: Book 1

[For other articles on OCT, click here.]

Note: The translation is by R. P. H. Green, and the numbering follows the CSEL edition.

Having discussed the background and preface of On Christian Teaching, I move to an analysis of book 1. OCT is one of the more readable of Augustine’s works, because his common practice is to outline the forthcoming section and define his terms at the beginning. We see this immediately: “There are two things on which all interpretation of scripture depends: the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learnt” (1). The first three books deal with discovering, the last with presenting.

Soon we come to another distinction. “All teaching is teaching of either things or signs, but things are learnt through signs” (4). Now, the word “thing” (res) technically encompasses everything that exists. However, Augustine is using it to mean things that are things only, that do not also serve as signs. “Signs” (signa) is a broad category as well; it encompasses any thing that serves to signify something else. Words are the preeminent signs; they serve no purpose other than to signify things. (Thus, Augustine would be skeptical of some modern linguistic theories that make words merely signs of other signs.)

Some things can, at certain times, also be used as signs. Augustine gives a log as an example. Now, normally, a log is just a log. However, the log Moses threw into the bitter waters was a sign. Throughout Scripture, ordinary things often become signs. Though Augustine does not say so here in OCT, I think it is accurate to say that his views of mystical ascent from created things to eternal things render the whole creation a sign, at least for those who have the spiritual eyes to envision it so.

But Augustine treats of things first, and again we encounter a division. “There are some things which are to be enjoyed (frui), some which are to be used (uti), and some whose function is both to enjoy and use” (7). “To enjoy something is to hold fast to it in love for its own sake. To use something is to apply whatever it may be to the purpose of obtaining what you love” (8). This distinction serves not only as an introduction to Augustine’s method of interpretation, but also as a description of the Christian life. Augustine often uses the metaphor of a journey to explain this distinction. A group of travellers, seeking their homeland, become enthralled with travelling and forget their purpose. Likewise, the great danger Christians face is becoming enmeshed with things that ought to be used, so that they captivate us and draw us from our true source of blessedness.

“The things which are to be enjoyed, then, are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity comprised by them” (10). The Trinity is the highest, the greatest, the most desirable of all things. Yet, people do not recognize him as such. They cling to lesser things. What is reason for this? Sin is a pollutant to our souls. “Our minds must be purified so that they are able to perceive that light and then hold fast to it” (22). Since we are humans, our purification consists of wisdom (Christ) adapting itself to our human condition, to repair it and lead it back to God. “So although it is actually  our homeland, it has also made itself the road to our homeland” (23). The incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ furnishes believers with not only faith, but also hope, and he now binds his church “in a bond of unity and love like a healing bandage” (33).

Augustine encounters a particular thorny problem, the status of human beings in the scheme of use and enjoyment. “We have been commanded to love one another, but the question is whether one person should be loved by another on his own account or for some other reason. If on his own account, we enjoy him; if for another reason, we use him” (40). Stipulating that what we enjoy constitutes our blessedness, Augustine concludes we cannot enjoy others, or even ourselves. Rather, we love all people for God’s sake.

Of all the things to be used, “there are four things that are to be loved—one, that which is above us; two, that which we are, three, that which is close to us; four, that which is beneath us” (33). The four are God, ourselves, our neighbors, and our bodies. We all naturally love ourselves and our own bodies, so Scripture’s great commandments concern “a double love of God and of one’s neighbor” (37).

A perhaps even more sensitive question arises. “God loves us … but in what way does he love us—so as to use us or to enjoy us” (73)? Something we enjoy is something we need to be happy. God needs nothing, so he uses rather than enjoys us. But, since we use things to get what makes us happy, he cannot use us in the way that we use things. (One wonders if Augustine’s options are really useful in speaking about God’s love.) “So the kind of use attributed to God, that by which he uses us, is related not to his own advantage, but solely to his goodness” (76). He, having everything he needs and wants, is free to “use” us unto our own happiness.

The purpose of this discussion is to establish that the “just and holy life” (59) is one of ordered loves. He loves what ought to be loved, and prioritizes his loves appropriately. God is loved most, then souls, then bodies. Angels too count as our neighbors (71). Only God is loved for his own sake. All other loves flow like a river toward God; sin is the diverting of some love from its proper end. God arranged “the whole temporal dispensation … for our salvation” (85), but we must use it as a road rather than a destination.

The one who understands the scriptures understands that their chief goal is “to build up this double love of God and neighbour” (86). If someone accomplishes this,  he is not a liar, even if his interpretation diverges from the author’s intent. Yet, he ought to be better instructed so that he does not swerve from the truth permanently. “So there are three things which all knowledge and prophecy serve: faith, hope, and love” (90). Right interpretation relates the scripture to these three.

Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 9:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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Irony in Irenaeus

Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is one of the treasures of the early Church, but there are some things in it which will strike the modern reader as a bit odd or even ironic. One of Irenaeus’ major lines of argumentation is that the heretics slink around in obscurity, playing word games with parables or employing bizarre numerology to prove their Aeons and Pleroma and such, or simply wresting Scripture out of context. Irenaeus, however, takes his stand upon the plain and well-known Apostolic Tradition, derived from the clear meaning of Scripture. In fact, according  to Irenaeus, it is obvious that the four Gospels are authoritative and in line with the rest of the teaching of Scripture. He proceeds to defend them thus:

“For it is impossible that the Gospels should be in number either more or fewer than these. For since there are four regions of the world wherein we are, and four principal winds, and the Church is as seed sown in the whole earth, and the Gospel is the Church’s pillar and ground, and the breath of life: it is natural that it should have four pillars, from all quarters breathing incorruption, and kindling men into life. Whereby it is evident, that the Artificer of all things, the Word, Who sitteth upon the Cherubims, and keepeth all together, when He was made manifest unto men, gave us His Gospel in four forms, kept together by one SPIRIT. As David, imploring His Presence, saith, Thou that sittest upon the Cherubims, shew Thyself. For indeed the Cherubim had four faces, and their faces are images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it saith, was like a Lion, denoting His real efficiency, His guiding power, His royalty: and the second like a Calf, signifying His station as a Sacrificer and Priest: and the third having the face of a man, most evidently depicting His Presence as Man: and the fourth like an eagle in flight, declaring the gift of the Spirit flying down upon the Church.

Now then the Gospels are in unison with these, upon which Christ sitteth. For first, that according to John relates His princely and efficacious, and glorious birth from the Father…. On this account this Gospel is also full of all confidence; for that is his Character.

But the Gospel of Luke, as being of a priestly stamp, began from Zacharias the priest burning incense unto God. For now the fatted Calf was a preparing, about to be sacrificed for the finding of the younger Son.

Matthew, for his part proclaims His Birth as a Man, saying, The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ…as it is written in the Prophet Esaias: implying the winged image of the Gospel. And for this cause he hath also made his narrative concise and rapid: for this is the stamp of Prophecy….

Such, then, as were the dealings of the Son of God, such also is the form of the Living Creatures; and such as is the form of the Living creatures, such also is the stamp of the Gospel. For the living creatures are of four forms, of four forms also is the Gospel, and the dealing of the Lord. And therefore four general covenants were given unto mankind: the first, of Noe’s deluge, on occasion of the Bow: and the second, Abraham’s, with the sign of Circumcision: and the third, the giving of the Law under Moses: and the fourth that of the Gospels, by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now such being the case, they are all vain and ignorant, and daring withal, who set at nought the true notion of the Gospel, and privily bring in either more or fewer individual Gospels, than have been mentioned.”

If only Gleason Archer had thought of that argument, how much shorter would have been his NTI! It’s interesting to see how long some of this sticks around. I remember in high school hearing about how the Gospels corresponded to certain animals and perhaps even the four faces of the cherubim. The details were a little different, though.

Well, I don’t want to throw stones at Irenaeus. He did Christianity a great service by refuting the heretics. It’s worth considering, though, whether our beliefs are the clear teaching of Scripture, or whether we think something is the clear teaching of Scripture because that’s what we believe. Also, our methods may not always be so far removed from those we seek to refute.

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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