a new book on what Christians today can learn about the Bible from people who have been dead for about 1500 years

Today’s post is an interview with Michael Graves on his recent book, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. Graves (PhD, Hebrew Union College) is Armerding Chair of Biblical Studies and Associate Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, IL. Dr. Graves is the author of Jerome’s Hebrew Philology (2007), and produced the first English translation of St. Jerome’s Commentary on Jeremiah (2012). He is also the author of numerous articles on ancient Jewish and Christian exegesis of the Bible.


Why did you write this book?

I have personally learned so much about the nature and interpretation of the Bible from studying the Church Fathers. I often appeal to ideas from the early church when I explain this or that point about the Bible. I decided that it might be helpful for others if I wrote up the major ideas that have been most illuminating for me.

The Church Fathers operated with ideas about biblical inspiration that had direct implications for how Scripture should be interpreted. Many people today are trying to figure out how best to interpret the Bible, and I think what the Church Fathers said in their context has a lot to contribute to what we should think about biblical interpretation in our context.

You mention “their context” and “our context.” How are these contexts significant?

My book focuses primarily on Christian interpreters who lived from the second century to the sixth century AD. In general, they tried to follow and systematize patterns of interpretation that they found in the New Testament. This alone makes them important for us.

Beyond this, the Church Fathers lived in a Greco-Roman cultural environment that was skeptical about Christianity, was influenced by philosophers and literary critics, and teemed with religious diversity and political turmoil.

On the one hand, I think many readers will be surprised at how many concerns we have in common with early Christian interpreters. They ask many of the same moral questions, deal with issues of biblical criticism, and wrestle with biblical texts that could be taken as teaching different things.

On the other hand, they come at these questions from their own philosophical background, using their own tools of scholarship, and drawing on their own Christian experiences. Consequently, they do not always say the same things that Christians today tend to say. Sometimes their ways of understanding the Bible are quite different from ours.

I think we have a lot to learn from them. But I also show how their views fit into their cultural world, and I try to make clear that we cannot simply repeat everything that they did with the Bible. We need to recast the essential truths into our own context

Walk us through the book.

After briefly introducing the topic of biblical inspiration and the context of Christianity in late antiquity, I work through a number of possible “entailments” of inspiration, that is, concepts that were seen by some as logical implications of inspiration.

I discuss the views of various Church Fathers with respect to each possible entailment, showing diversity of viewpoints where appropriate, and giving numerous primary source examples where ancient Christians deal with specific biblical texts. I conclude by tying together some of the major points of relevance for today.

The table of contents below shows in a bit more details the primary entailments I address:


1. Scripture Is Useful for Instruction.
2. Every Detail of Scripture Is Meaningful.
3. Scripture Solves Every Problem That We Might Put to It.
4. Biblical Characters Are Examples for Us to Follow.
5. Scripture Is the Supreme Authority in Christian Belief and Practice.

The Spiritual and Supernatural Dimension:

6. Divine Illumination Is Required for Biblical Interpretation.
7. Scripture Has Multiple Senses.
8. Scripture Accurately Predicted the Future, Especially about Jesus

Mode of Expression:

9. Scripture Speaks in Riddles and Enigmas.
10. The Etymologies of Words in Scripture Convey Meaning.
11. God Is Directly and Timelessly the Speaker in Scripture.
12. The Scriptures Represent Stylistically Fine Literature.

Historicity and Factuality:

13. Events Narrated in the Bible Actually Happened.
14. Scripture Does Not Have Any Errors in Its Facts.
15. Scripture Is Not in Conflict with “Pagan” Learning.
16. The Original Text of Scripture Is Authoritative.

Agreement with Truth:

17. Scripture’s Teaching Is Internally Consistent.
18. Scripture Does Not Deceive.
19. Scripture’s Teaching Agrees with a Recognized External Authority.
20. Scripture’s Teaching Must Be Worthy of God.

Why is ancient thinking about biblical inspiration a vital topic for evangelical Christians?

Because understanding Scripture is vital for Christians, and I think the early church makes a significant contribution to this understanding.

To be more specific, I would point out that many Christians today wrestle with how to be faithful to the teaching of Scripture in their own contexts. In this discussion, reference is often made to the “traditional” view of Scripture, but without any explanation or basis for what this “traditional” view is.

In my book, I describe ancient thinking about inspiration with many citations from patristic sources and specific biblical texts, showing the range of available ideas and the qualifications that came from grappling with specific textual issues. I believe that ancient Christian thinking about biblical inspiration is vital for Christians today who are intent on living faithfully in accordance with Scripture’s teaching.

Yet, vague or inaccurate notions about the “traditional” view of inspiration are not helpful. We need to be as specific and concrete as possible if we are to learn the right lessons. The goal of my book is not to shut down critical thinking by appealing to tradition, but to open up paths of faithful thinking by seeing the pious, critical reflections of ancient Christians about Scripture.

What is the big idea that you would like people to take away from this book?

That is a hard question to answer, because I imagine that different readers will perceive different strengths and weaknesses in patristic thinking about inspiration, and so they will legitimately take away different big ideas.

I expect that many readers will find significant elements in these sources with which they already resonate, and perhaps other elements that may challenge their thinking in constructive ways.

One big idea that arises from these sources is that the heart and soul of inspiration is that the Bible is useful and profitable for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), and so we should ask from every biblical text what God is teaching us.

Another big idea is that the discipline of discerning what Scripture teaches is complex and involves many steps, including ad litteram (“literal”) exegesis, comparison with other biblical texts, theological reflection, and spiritual receptivity. All of this was seen as part of the nature of Scripture itself as inspired by God.

Ancient Christian approaches to Scripture can set the stage for a rich encounter with the Bible. This encounter is genuine, in that is arises from the texts and makes full use of the intellectual resources we have been given. It is rich because it incorporates the full range of Christian spiritual experience in the act of interpretation.

You suggest in the book that “the example and teachings of Jesus serve as a lens through which all interpretations of Scripture must pass” (p. 136). Could you elaborate? Is this a particularly important takeaway of your book?

Yes, it is one of the major ideas from ancient Christianity that I think remains important today. Let me briefly state here two angles on this topic.

First, I try to show how the process of reading Scripture involves willingness to listen to what biblical texts actually said and also a rich and somewhat complex process of perceiving what God is teaching through any part of Scripture in the context of Scripture as a whole.

This requires from us virtues such as humility, patience, and love, so that we have genuine encounters with Scripture that can challenge us, and Scripture does not become a tool that we use to harm others. The example and teachings of Jesus provide us a tangible model and illustration of the virtues we need to interpret this way.

Second, the ultimate takeaway for our lives in reading Scripture should be love of God and love of neighbor, as Jesus taught and demonstrated. In sum, it is precisely because biblical interpretation is no simple task that we need illumination and the example of Jesus to guide us.



  • mark

    Interesting. Let me just pluck a couple of points from the ToC, almost at random:

    5. Scripture Is the Supreme Authority in Christian Belief and Practice.

    And yet I get the distinct impression from reading early Christian accounts of Jesus (“gospels”) that Jesus (aka “Christ”) didn’t see “Scripture” (whatever that was, at the time) as the Supreme Authority. I get the distinct impression that Jesus saw himself as possessing supreme authority (“all authority on heaven and earth …”) as coming from the Father.

    6. Divine Illumination Is Required for Biblical Interpretation.

    Problem: different people, all claiming divine illumination, have different interpretations of “the Bible.” How do we decide who’s got it and who doesn’t? Is this one of those “I know it when I feel it” kinda things, or are there reasonable standards for discerning this–just as Pete suggested that there are reasonable standards (seemingly external to the “biblical” writings) for judging God’s bible-portrayed actions as moral or immoral?

    I’m not suggesting that Augustine and other Fathers didn’t have ideas more or less like these points, but I am interested to know where they came up with those ideas. Those ideas seem to amount to a paradigm or “model” for understanding those writings that they had come to refer to and to understand as somehow “scriptural,” “authoritative,” “revelational.” Where did that model or paradigm come from? Jesus? The apostles? Was it adopted in the context of early Christian controversies with Jews, which we get glimpses of in the “New Testament?

    It’s also interesting to me that Michael talks about “inspiration.” Pete likes to talk about “inspiration,” too. They put it in the titles of their books, they pepper their blogs and interviews with the word–I count something like 12 occurrences in this interview.

    To me it seems like it might be useful to begin by addressing the concept of “revelation.” Why is it that we say that these ancient writings are somehow “revelational” with regard to or “revelations” from God? Are other writings from other non-Israelite or non-Christian cultures that contain similar ideas also revelational? If so, or if not, why or why not? All these books were clearly written by humans, so what do we mean by these distinctions, how do we arrive at them, what standards do we use, etc.?

    It seems to me that “inspiration” is a post hoc explanation for this business of “revelation,”–how it works, the mechanism of revelation, as it were–but I never seem to see very adequate accounts of revelation itself in the light of modern social science–why do we call these books “revelational?” I can’t help thinking that the concept of revelation should be addressed first.

    • Rick

      Regarding Scripture as the supreme authority aspect, as N.T. Wright says, that is “shorthand” for God’s authority:
      “…what we are actually saying when we use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’, we must surely acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture…In the New Testament, we discover that authority is ultimately invested in Christ: ‘all authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth’. Then, perhaps to our surprise, authority is invested in the apostles: Paul wrote whole letters in order to make this point crystal clear (in a manner of speaking). This authority, we discover, has to do with the Holy Spirit. And the whole church is then, and thereby, given authority to work within God’s world as his accredited agent(s). From an exceedingly quick survey, we are forced to say: authority, according to the Bible itself, is vested in God himself, Father, Son and Spirit…Thus it is that through the spoken and written authority of anointed human beings God brings his authority to bear on his people and his world…And it includes…the delegation of his authority, in some sense, to certain writings.”

      • mark

        Interesting. So you’re “investing authority” in NTWright? Might or might not be a good investment :-) depending on the issue.

        this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture

        So, according to NTWright, God writes shorthand, or rather, we write shorthand and then attribute it to God … somehow.

        Somehow. How is that? How is “somehow?” Is the authority of “scripture” the same as God’s authority? The same as the authority God have to Jesus, and that Jesus so obviously claims for himself? Or is it different–somehow? And what is the standard by which we make these judgments? As I said, the authors all seem to be human and, while some may claim to have engaged in communication with God–how are we to judge that? My understanding is the Muhammed made a similar claim.

        At the risk of seeming to disinvest (divest?) NTWright of some of his authority, it still seems to me that Jesus himself has a different take on this business. Like, that command that you know stands written in the Torah? Eh, Moses gave it to you because of the hardness of your hearts–that’s not how God established it, and now I’m reestablishing what God really wanted–as opposed to what stands written in scripture (as it was then constituted, i.e., before there was a NT or even a single gospel).

        • Rick

          In a short answer: Jesus, being God (a member of the Trinity), is both the point of Scripture, and the inspiration of it (Holy Spirit). Since Jesus is the one with the authority, and inspired Scripture points to Him, it has authority.

          • mark

            I think you’re making a lot of assumptions. I also happen to believe that Jesus is God’s self revelation to man. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow from that that Jesus is the point of “Scripture” nor that “Scripture” is necessarily inspired by the Holy Spirit. For example, it is by no means obvious that the Israelite scriptures “point to” Jesus. The various Israelite writings would all have perfectly intelligible contexts within Israelite religion whether or not Jesus ever walked the earth. I leave it to Pete to “point to” the difficulties involved in the usual rather simplistic notions of “inspiration.” Now, the early Christian writings obviously do “point to” Jesus, but it doesn’t follow that they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. They might be what they appear to be: the record of the early Christians, followers of Jesus, grappling with the significance of Jesus in light of their experience of him.

            I think we’re not going to agree on this.

          • Rick

            Given that the guy who rose from the grave and conquered death, was the one who fulfilled the Scriptures, gave the Apostles their authority, and told them the Holy Spirit would be with them, I will go with that.
            But you are right, we probably won’t agree on that.

          • mark

            Maybe we’re making progress–I actually agree with almost everything you wrote. The sticking point is: “was the one who fulfilled the Scriptures.” Within my understanding of revelation–my theory of revelation, if you will–Jesus fulfilling scripture isn’t really important. It’s enough for me hear his words and the testimony re his life and believe (i.e., have a reasonable belief) that he did indeed rise from the dead. That makes Jesus seem pretty authoritative to me.

            You, on the other hand, sound like you, if confronted by the resurrected Messiah who urged you (like Thomas) to believe, would respond: Not so fast, buddy–there’re a few passages of scripture that we still have to reconcile with your claims!

            I do think that my position is intellectually respectable. There are a lot of informed people out there who would agree that the only valid way to understand the Israelite scriptures would be to understand them (as best we can) as they were understood by the author or his contemporaries. By that measure, many would maintain that there are NO passages that foretell a Messiah such as Jesus. If you’re interested, I wrote a review of a review on that topic. Which is to say, a professor of OT at NDU wrote a review of a book that said basically what I just did. The reviewer, while admitting the scholarly strengths of that position, attempts to get around the implications–to my mind unconvincingly. The One Who Is To Come.

          • Carlos Bovell

            To Mark:

            The earliest records we have evince a belief that Jesus “fulfilled” the OT. Luke 24 gives the gist: ““This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.””This should count for something, don’t you think?

            In my book, Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals, I argue that it makes no sense to view scripture as “supreme authority.” The way Christianity was initially pieced together, the way theology actually gets done (both in antiquity and today), the way our devotional lives are actually led, all seem to me to militate against seeing any component of a holistic religious life as being supreme. Perhaps a view like this might present itself as more agreeable to you?

            Grace and peace,

          • James

            Yes, but there is mystery here. I wonder if Scripture is largely a concession to human limitation–we have short memories, are spatially challenged, etc. But it is difficult to handle as a codex sitting on a shelf 2000 years after the words and events it records. Somehow (there’s that word again) it comes alive because the Spirit blows where it wants, through the dusty pages, revealing bits of God to weak humans.

          • Luke Breuer

            I wonder if Scripture is largely a concession to human limitation

            I’ve long been struck by the following:

            Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (Heb 6:1-2)

            I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Rom 6:19)

            The doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture claims that the what qualifies as “go on to maturity” is fully present in the Bible we have. I’m not nearly that sure. I think the Bible is a fantastic constitution, and I am extremely reluctant to allow that we would receive more canon-level revelation. But no more information about what God is like and what God wants—above and beyond what can be rigorously deduced from scripture—seems to entail a sub-personal relationship with Jesus.

          • Rick

            “The doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture claims that the what qualifies as “go on to maturity” is fully present in the Bible we have. I’m not nearly that sure…But no more information about what God is like and what God wants—above and beyond what can be rigorously deduced from scripture”
            But isn’t doing what Scripture calls us to do (such as worship God, love God, love others, etc…) is how we mature?

    • Luke Breuer

      Problem: different people, all claiming divine illumination, have different interpretations of “the Bible.” How do we decide who’s got it and who doesn’t?

      I’d suggest considering (a) judging a tree by its fruit; (b) not pulling out the tares lest wheat be mistakenly included; (c) building up and gathering instead of tearing down and scattering; (d) Christians are allowed to vary belief on significant ideas such as whether to consider one day above all the rest. These are all expressly biblical ways to judge interpretations. I would say that the Bible provides strong reason to protest metaphysical tyranny. :-)

  • mark

    I have to say, I’m surprised this post hasn’t attracted more attention–I would have thought it would be red meat for Pete’s usual commenters.

    • peteenns

      Wait. I hear them. Far off. They are coming…..

    • Rick

      I think that is because there is an ecclesiology issue involved (specifically the importance of the church universal and the early church fathers), and it is one that more and more people are paying attention to these days (especially since Webber’s Ancient-Future works). Therefore, this post/book further supports that direction. But that is just a guess.

      • mark

        could be.