What I’ve Learned about Reading the Bible from Reading the Church Fathers: One Pilgrim’s Perspective (guest post)

Today’s guest post is by David W. Opderbeck, professor of law at Seton Hall University Law School, and Ph.D. Candidate, Systematic and Philosophical Theology, University of Nottingham.

One of Opderbeck’s area’s of interest is science and faith, and he likes to bring into the evangelical discussion the often neglected work of the Church Fathers. While studying at an evangelical seminary, Opderbeck was introduced to the notion of the “theological interpretation” and did some basic reading in the Church Fathers. He then began to study the Fathers more closely. 

He came to appreciate how the practices of biblical interpretation from the early Church can help Protestants recover a more robust understanding of the scriptures, which can absorb new challenges and insights from the natural sciences without becoming defensive, and which also can help build bridges between diverse church traditions.

Opderbeck writes on complex matters in an accessible manner at his blog Through a Glass Darkly, and has also blogged on theology, law, and scripture at Jesus Creed (for example, here).

Over the past few years, I’ve had an opportunity to read some of the writings of the Church Fathers. I was particularly blessed to audit an introductory Patristics course at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (Yonker, N.Y.) with one of the world’s leading authorities on their writings, Rev. John Behr, which covered Patristic writings prior to Augustine.  I still consider myself very much a student and not an expert on Patristic writings, but here are some key things I’ve learned about theology and scripture from reading the Fathers.

The Fathers read the scriptures and constructed their theologies through the lens of the Church’s living experience of Christ.  They did not use the scriptures to prove Christ.  They used their experience of Christ to authenticate the scriptures and then used the scriptures to clarify their experience of Christ.

In fact, the Fathers began to define the canon of scripture from among a wide variety of early Christian writings based in large part on what they understood to be the central “story” of the universe (referred to by some of them as the “Rule of Faith”):  the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

The Fathers knew that the scriptures are confusing, messy, and even self-contradictory.  They did not impose upon the scriptures an expectation of rigorous systematic analytic logic.  They understood very well that there is a finality to truth that inheres in the simplicity, unity and rationality of God’s own person as Father, Son, and Spirit, so that the scriptures ought to be interpreted to speak with a kind of polyphonic harmony.

The doctrines of the Trinity and Christology that were developing – and much debated – leading up to (and after!) the First Council of Nicea (AD 325) and the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) also dealt with this same theme of unity-in-plurality.

The fulcrum for the Fathers concerning the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology was the same as for their interpretation of scripture: the Church’s living experience of and witness to Christ.

The Fathers knew that the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology they were attempting to articulate finally are mysteries.  Nevertheless, they were rigorously philosophical in their efforts to articulate those doctrines.  These were erudite, highly educated and sophisticated men (yes, the writers I’m referencing today were all men – but that is a subject for another day).

In fact, without some background in Greek philosophy, it’s impossible to understand much of what they were saying.  Theologians today continue to debate the Greek thought categories the Fathers employed in the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition.

Yet even with all their philosophical rigor, the Fathers themselves knew that their linguistic and philosophical categories were approximations or analogies for truths that finally lay beyond human comprehension.  Their efforts to define these doctrines carefully were not so much attempts to state final truths as efforts to avoid idolatry and blasphemy – to avoid saying too much, and to avoid inaccuracy as much as is humanly possible.  They knew this was necessary not only for formal doctrinal creeds and definitions, but also for the scriptures.

Just as the Trinity and the divine-human natures of Christ are mystical truths that defy the bounds of human capabilities, so the scriptures, for them, were mystical texts that point to something beyond the words on the page – that is, to the mystery of Christ.

Given their approach to theology and scripture, the Fathers were not univocal concerning how to read many of the Biblical narratives, including the creation texts.  Many of them thought the Genesis 1 and 2 narratives were in some sense mystical rather than “literal.”  Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395 AD), for example, puzzled over the mention of two trees in the middle of the Garden of Eden:

There was only one paradise.  How, then, does that text say that each tree is to be considered separately while both are in the middle?  And the text, which reveals that all of God’s works are exceedingly beautiful, implies the deadly tree is different from God’s.  How is this so?  Unless a person contemplates that truth through philosophy, what the text says here will be either inconsistent or a fable.” (Gregory of Nyssa, Sixth Homily on the Song of Songs).

It was common for the Fathers to take this sort of approach based on the nature of the text itself.  As theologian Michael Hanby notes in his difficult but fascinating book No God, No Science: Theology, Cosmology, Biology,  although we often think of John 1 – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” – as a commentary on Genesis 1, “we must recognize that in the theological mindset of the early church and the Fathers, it is more appropriate to regard the opening verses of Genesis as a kind of commentary on the Prologue to John’s Gospel….”

That is, for them, the interpretive principle for scripture, theology, and indeed all of history and creation, was the living Christ.

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  • Bev Mitchell


    Thank you for a great article and a much needed perspective. Also thank you for the reference to Michael Hanby’s “No God, no Science: Theology, Cosmology Biology”. I’ve only had the chance to read a bit of what Amazon allows us to read, but that bit is intriguing. Several parts should be quoted, but, as a biologist, it seems to me that Hanby may well have grasped the important ferment that is currently underway in the life sciences. Regarding the new eco-evo-devo thinking (see Pete’s post of June 3 “A Possible Paradigm Shift in Evolutionary Biology?”), Hanby sees it as “a salutary development with metaphysical implications unrealized by its protagonists, an indication that the ‘Catholicity’ of reality propels science beyond the debilitating confines of its own ontology.”

    It is true that theology and biology both study life. Since life is from the creator as part of the great light, life, truth, Word package, both inquiries share an ontological basis. Usually we see theology and biology as coming at the study if life from entirely different starting points, but, argues Hanby, this is illusory and at best these are two different metaphysical/theological starting points. Ultimately, these should be the same, if truth is to be properly apprehended.

    Would you say that Hanby is doing for biology and Christian theology what Polkinghorne and others are doing for physics and Christian theology?

    • copyrightman

      Bev — interesting question. I would put Hanby and Polkinghorne in the same general sphere of trying to take theology, philosophy and natural science seriously together. There are some important methodological differences between them, though. Where Polkinghorne tends to want to work with the categories of the modern philosophy of science and then to employ those categories in critical interaction with the traditional categories of theology, Hanby is more inclined to argue that the traditional categories of theology reflect an ontology that modern / Enlightenment philosophy of science has lost to its detriment. But unlike creationists and ID folks, Hanby (and my doctorvater, Conor Cunningham), recognize the need to take the empirical work of natural science at face value. On my blog, which Pete links, I have some in depth posts on these questions of method.

      • Bev Mitchell


        Thanks. I plan to check out your blog. In the meantime I can’t resist another quote from Hanby that seems to illustrate your point – this quote would probably not be mistaken for something Polkinghorne wrote, though he may well endorse it.

        “….not only (is) science compatible with creation but also … science needs creation in order to finally be science and to avoid falsifying itself and its objects. This is because theology performs for the sciences a service which they cannot perform for themselves. Theology ‘saves the appearances’ for science by saving the being that is the condition of possibility for the truth of appearance.”

        The faith/science conversation will yield very interesting differences of expression and emphasis when viewed from biology compared to physics. The biology side is just getting under way and is still way too much encumbered by ID arguments and worse. But new light is shining.

        I wish Hanby’s book did not cost $CDN 120.95. Wiley-Blackwell can do better than this!

        • copyrightman

          Right — I think “critical realists” such as Polkinghorne tend to see “science” and “theology” as autonomous domains at lower levels of thought and as integrating on essentially equal terms at higher levels. Theologians such as Hanby who tend towards “Radical Orthodoxy” will see theology as the integrative thread that then gives to “science” its functional domain.

          The price of that book is ridiculous. I got a review copy. The only other option is an interlibrary loan.

  • Susan Gerard

    I wish the Fathers had written all this in an introduction to the Bible, fixed to in through the centuries, unchanged, like the text itself.

    • copyrightman

      Susan — in a way they did. You can pick up inexpensive and well translated versions of many of their writings from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: http://www.svspress.com/categories/Popular-Patristics-Series/

      One thing I found very interesting is that there wasn’t really a clear distinction between “scripture” (at least as we apply that term to the New Testament) and the writings of the intellectual leaders of the Church in the first few centuries after Christ. There was rather a body of narrative, epistolary, and other early Christian literature, and those documents that were thought to have apostolic authorship or direct apostolic connections and that were thought to be consistent with the Rule of Faith were only gradually segregated into the canon of what we have come to call the New Testament.

      • Susan Gerard

        Thank you!

      • Rick

        However, per scholar Michael Kruger:
        “It is important to note that while Christians often cited and used non-canonical literature, they only rarely cited them as Scripture. For the most part, Christians were simply using these books as helpful, illuminating, or edifying writings. This is not all that different than practices in our modern day. A preacher may quote from CS Lewis in a sermon, but that does not mean he puts Lewis’s authority on par with Scripture itself. A good example of this phenomenon is the use of the Gospel of Peter by the church at Rhossus at the end of the second century. Scholars often appeal to this story as evidence that early Christians had no established gospel canon. However, there is no evidence that the church there used the book as Scripture. When we ask the question about which books early Christians cited most often as Scripture, then the answer is overwhelmingly in favor of the books that eventually made it into the New Testament canon.”

        • copyrightman

          Rick — to be clear, I’m not a revisionist who wants to challenge the New Testament canon. In particular, I think the Dan Brown-esqe notion that Gnostic texts were elided from the canon only as some kind of “political” move is bunk. I would agree that, from early on, the Gnostic texts were broadly suspect.

          Nevertheless, there are things we believe are true about some of the NT texts today that very much complicate our understanding of canonization (particularly, for example, that some of the Pauline and Petrine epistles almost certainly weren’t authored by Paul or Peter). Still, I would argue that, messy as the process was, the Holy Spirit has guided the Church in recognizing these texts as unique and canonical.

          That said, I would push back against some of the statements in the quote you offer above, though I haven’t read Kruger’s work for context. Here’s some push back on the quote:

          — To use the term “non-canonical literature” in connection with the use of texts by early Christians is anachronistic. The point is that there _was_ no settled “canon” in the first few centuries of the Church.

          — To use the term “as scripture” in this context also is an anachronism. Again, the point is that there _was_ no canon “of scripture” during those centuries for what we now call the New Testament. The fact that they referred _any_ texts “as scripture” outside the Old Testament _at all_ was pretty revolutionary, and its not surprising that those references may have been sparing.

          — I’m not sure about the “only rarely” and “overwhelmingly” claims. Those are empirical claims, and I haven’t seen any actual empirical studies of early Christian literature on this. Perhaps there are such studies, but I haven’t seen them. I can imagine that it would be extraordinarily difficult to design such a study. You’d have to decide which time periods to cover, which geographical regions to include, which writings count as “early Christian,” which of the books later canonized as scripture to include, whether some influential writers carry more weight than others, and so on. It would be a vexingly difficult study to design using any meaningful social science research method. Having said that, I wouldn’t doubt that in terms of word count, the “majority” of references to texts “as scripture” relate to the Gospels we now consider canonical. Clearly, those texts held great weight for the Fathers.

          — The analogy to C.S. Lewis, I think, is mostly wrong — again, because its an anachronism. It was common, for example, for the early Church to assume that epistles from contemporary Bishops carried the weight of infallibility. Did they use the term “scripture” for these letters? Probably not very often. But did they think of them merely as we might think of C.S. Lewis — no, they accorded them far more weight precisely because they came from ecclesiastical authorities. A better analogy might be to how Catholics today think of Papal Encyclicals.

          At the end of the day, I think how you treat this sometimes thorny questions about the NT canon will refer back to your presuppositions about ecclesiology. Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Reformed, Pietistic, and other current streams of Christianity will each have their own spin on how “scripture” relates to “tradition” and therefore on what the canonization process signifies.

          • Rick

            I don’t totally disagree with you, although I don’t think it was as wide open as some indicate, and I think that is the point Kruger is trying to make: not that there was a clear canon right off the bat, but that it wasn’t all over the place either.
            I do think the Rule of Faith, the theological content (the gospel), and apostolic origins has a huge role here (I think you would agree w/ Scot McKnight on that). Very early they were already determining what fit that criteria.

          • copyrightman

            Rick — yes I agree. The criteria you mention — Rule of Faith, content, (presumed) apostolic origins — were the criteria used ultimately to determine the canon, and there was such filtering from early on.

            Really my main point for Susan was just that we have wonderful access today to excellent translations of many Patristic writings that are not part of the canon of scripture.

            BTW I also forgot to mention the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. This is a great resource, which collects Patristic commentary on the Biblical texts. I have some issues with how they do this — it pulls various quotes out of context and lists them under the Biblical texts. Often to understand what the commentator is really doing, you would need to read the whole document — was it a sermon, an “academic” comment, a polemic, etc? But, in any event, this series is a good resource.

        • Jim

          Revelation is presumably an exception relying on supposed apostolic authorship to squeak by in my opinion.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “Yet even with all their philosophical rigor, the Fathers themselves knew that
    their linguistic and philosophical categories were approximations or
    analogies for truths that finally lay beyond human comprehension.”

    I couldn’t agree with this more, although the tone of their writings don’t often quite convey this level of humility/uncertainty! 🙂

    The Church Fathers were by and large in a tough spot the first 3 centuries; wide variety of interpretations of the Gospel message, bouts of persecution leading many to renounce and then rejoin, trying to balance Jesus’s Jewish faith with the Greek philosophy they were raised and educated in etc. I do think the majority of them did their best to remain true to what they thought was essential, and thus we have the base of standard orthodox doctrine. So while I think we have to respect their contribution and use it as our base, we also have to remember that they were MEN trying their best to hammer out the essentials of Christian faith. Not Gods, or humans temporarily “possessed” by God (Holy Spirit) which ensured all of their proclamations would be 100% correct.

    I think the Nicene Creed can be the house we all start from, but like all good houses, renovations and moving some things around every once and awhile is beneficial. Ideas like the concept of Jesus having been “eternally begotten”, the virgin birth, or even the Trinity itself should not be viewed as items on which Christianity stands or falls. The Church Fathers did their best at sorting it out, but ultimately, these were and are “approximations of mysteries.” As long as one seeks to follow the ‘Way’ of Jesus/seek the Kingdom and grasp the power and renewal inherent in the Resurrection story, let’s not make the rest of it arbitrary lines of those who are ‘out’ and ‘in’. It’s no longer 180 AD and we don’t have to worry about the Roman authorities stomping us out of existence, no matter what you hear from Mike Huckabee and his ilk,

    • Rick

      I disagree. Who we say God is, Jesus is, the One we do not just follow, but worship, does matter. Issues such as the Trinity flow from that discussion.

      • Andrew Dowling

        I don’t think you can detach one from the other; Jesus never said “worship me” he said “follow me.” Worshiping God fully entails following the path of Jesus; I think whether one wants to follow a Trinitarian view in following or not is beside the point.

        And that’s the thing; you talk about theology as criteria for the Fathers developing a canon, but the exact theology was not clear from the get-go. For example, the Gospel of the Hebrews and Shepherd of Hermas were both quoted authoritatively by the Fathers and read open in Church (which really put in on par with any other post-OT ‘Scripture’ in the 1st and 2nd centuries) but were eventually not included because of their potentially interpreted ‘lower’ Christologies (it also helped that the Gospel of the Hebrews was read primarily by minority Jewish Christians whereas the Christian Church by the end of the 2nd century was by and large a predominantly Gentile institution). And John, the only NT Gospel which puts Jesus even near the same level as God (and even that is debatable) was certainly not universally accepted by the orthodox Church in the faith’s first century and a half.
        Yes it wasn’t the free for all that Brown likes to suggest (and Ehrman make as a selling point for his books) with the corrupt, evil Church leaders stamping out the other sects because they were power-hungry and mean, but the reactionary alternative hypothesized by guys like Daniel Wallace is equally as preposterous.

        • Rick

          “I don’t think you can detach one from the other; Jesus never said “worship me” he said “follow me.” Worshiping God fully entails following the path of Jesus; I think whether one wants to follow a Trinitarian view in following or not is beside the point”

          But if it reflects on who Jesus is, then it is the point.

          In regards to the Sheperd of Hermas, Kruger states:
          “…no book could be canonical that was written outside of the time period in which the apostles could have presided over the transmission of their tradition. Indeed, this is the very reason the Shepherd of Hermas was rejected by the Muratorian fragment, our earliest canonical list.”

          In regards to Jesus as God, Ben Witherington writes:
          “Jesus is clearly called God seven times in the NT, and is indeed the object of prayer and worship…”

          But as Larry Hurtado points out: “Jesus is not typically worshipped in NT texts *unto himself* as if he were a 2nd god, but always with reference to the one God. I.e., Jesus’ divine status is always articulated with reference to the one God (“the Father”). And the striking devotion to him (including cultic devotion) forms part of their devotion and worship of the one God.
          –I.e., Jesus is reverenced (1) in ways that collectively form the core of Christian worship, and (2) as obedience to and worship of the one God, of whom Jesus is referred to as the unique image and Son. “

          • Andrew Dowling

            -I know that the reason given in the MC for not including Hermas was that it’d be written more recently, but whether that is true is debatable. I do think it was written sometime in the first half of the 2nd century, but I think the evidence for eventual canonical writings like the Pastorals and II Peter being early 2nd century works (and thus clearly post-apostolic documents) is also very strong.

            -Are those 7 times Witherington talks about all in John? I’m very confident the Synoptics never refer to Jesus as God (“Son of God” does not confer divine status). In any case, one can worship Jesus as Lord and still not follow the Trinitarian formula.

          • Rick

            Hurtado on the Synpotics, in regards to divine status:

            “the authors of the Synoptic Gospels (as true generally of NT texts) project a view of Jesus as sharing in divine glory and status, a view that emerged in early Christian circles after Jesus’ earthly ministry and that is attributed by them to God’s resurrection and exaltation of Jesus to heavenly glory. References to Jesus as “Son” of God carry varying connotations, some drawn from biblical/Jewish (Old Testament) uses of this term to designate figures (e.g., Israel, the Davidic king, or the devout person) as having a special favor with God. In GJohn, however, it seems to me that the term also takes on a connotation of divine status, a theme more explicitly put forth in GJohn.”

          • copyrightman

            Interesting thread. I lean more towards Rick’s views here. I didn’t mean to imply that the basic framework adopted in Nicea and Chalcedon was somehow fundamentally flawed. (By basic framework I mean that God is Triune and that the incarnate Christ is fully God and fully man). Given my inclinations towards Radical Orthodoxy (I study at Nottingham), I even am inclined to think that the Fathers’ adoption of Greek concepts of essence and substance is important. And I’m also not convinced by arguments that Jesus’ divinity isn’t expressed in the Gospels.

            What I meant to say is just that the Fathers’ method for affirmative theological speech (cataphatic) was analogical, and that their basic orientation was apophatic. They knew that concepts like “Trinity” and “incarnate Christ” can’t be captured by human speech. They employed their Greek philosophical categories analogically, as ways of saying that “we can talk about God in such-and-such a way without venturing into idolatry or blasphemy — but really what we’re identifying is what _can’t_ be said: Jesus is _not_ merely human, Jesus is _not_ merely a created being, but Jesus’ humanity is _not_ only an illusion,” and so on.

            I would agree, then, that our ways of speaking about the Trinity and the Incarnation are not _exhausted_ by Nicea or Chalcedon. Given that I have Barthian leanings as well, I would agree even that Nicea and Chalcedon are finally themselves accountable to scripture and thus _in principle_ could be substantively revised. But at the same time I would say that revision of the basic framework of Nicea and Chalcedon ought to be just about inconceivable. (For a good summary of how I might approach this in terms of method, see Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology — http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/1597520187).

            Obviously my friends who are Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic, as well as many of my Nottingham friends, will envision an even stronger role for Nicea and Chalcedon than I’m suggesting here, but in principle I think I’m on the same page with them that was has come to be broadly understood as “orthodoxy” (again, Trinity and Incarnation) is properly basic to Christian thought.

          • Rick

            “What I meant to say is just that the Fathers’ method for affirmative theological speech (cataphatic) was analogical, and that their basic orientation was apophatic.”
            Interesting way to phrase that.
            “They knew that concepts like “Trinity” and “incarnate Christ” can’t be captured by human speech.”
            Alister McGrath is big on that point as well.