Patristics and the Bible

Patristics and the Bible April 5, 2014

A review by Bryan Litfin (information at bottom of this review).

Michael Graves. The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. 201 pp. $24.00.

Over the past several years, a noteworthy patristic upswing has swept Evangelicalism (“patristic” is the traditional descriptor for things having to do with the ancient church). This return to the sources, or the Evangelical ressourcement as it has been called, began in academic circles but quickly made its way to the pews. These days it isn’t uncommon to hear preachers quote the opinions of an early Christian to back up a point or illumine a key idea in a sermon. Evangelicals have realized the church fathers belong to them, not just to Catholics.

One of the most common refrains you’ll hear among advocates of ressourcement is that the church fathers help us interpret the Bible. Whole commentary series have been published with the goal of getting the noses of pastors into actual patristic exegesis. Everyone agrees we need the wisdom of the ancients to help us interpret. Yet it’s one thing to say we should do it, and quite another to tell us exactly how. That is the task Wheaton College professor Michael Graves undertakes in The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us.

A Vital Message

Graves’s book is one of those heavyweight studies that will certainly please the academician. Nevertheless, it has a vital message for the church as well. This twofold appeal actually works against itself at times. The average pastor’s hectic schedule doesn’t leave much time for perusing the latest scholarly tome. Relatively few pastors are going to work their way through Graves’s dense, methodical paragraphs. Though his writing style is lucid and logical, it’s not exactly what you’d call entertaining. He’s building a case with a scholar’s erudition, and he does a masterful job of it. But unless the reader is already interested in patristic hermeneutics, the effort might turn into something of a slog. And that would be a shame, for Graves’s message needs to be heard—not just by theorists in the ivory tower, but by the practitioners of biblical exposition who serve the people of God.

Where Does Meaning Lie?

In the introduction, Graves takes a familiar question and turns it on its head. Instead of asking, “What qualities must belong to Scripture because it is inspired?”—which causes us to read back onto the sacred page whatever we determine those qualities must be—a better question is, “What do we actually find in Scripture?” When we investigate how the biblical writers interpreted the sacred texts that preceded them, we discover a much different method than the historical-critical approach taught in our modern seminaries. The New Testament writers found rich Christological meanings in Old Testament texts—meanings that probably weren’t intended by the original Jewish authors. The ancient church fathers used exactly this approach as well. Graves wants to reveal how the early Christians were doing their exegesis, and by their example, to restore a level of comfort with interpretive meanings that aren’t entirely circumscribed by what could have been in the original author’s head. Better, Graves believes, to bring the modern reader’s mind into contact with the mind of God himself.

The core of the book introduces us to the shape and intent of the ancient church’s hermeneutical methods. Graves organizes the study around five key themes: Scripture is always useful for edification; God’s illumination helps us see multiple layers of Christ-centered meaning in the text; the divine voice is often cloaked in the riddles, mysteries, and wordplays of ordinary speech; the Bible’s revelation is generally accurate in matters of fact and history; and the Bible is theologically true, providing reliable Christian doctrine and a worthy view of God. Graves is entirely correct that these themes represent the ancient church’s view of sacred scripture. What he really wants us to consider is: How can we recover and apply these insights today?

The Big Idea

Despite Graves’s mastery of a vast array of sources and his detailed scholarship that piles on evidence from the fathers, at no point is his overarching thesis unclear. To make sure it isn’t, a meticulously-argued conclusion tells us exactly what the author wants to say. Of course, his fundamental thesis may unsettle those who hold to what has been called the “literal-grammatical-historical” method. That term can mean a lot of things, but it usually designates an inductive method by which the objective meaning that resides in the text is drawn out by a dispassionate observer using scientific techniques. Graves argues just the opposite: “I believe we should nuance our conception of Scripture’s authority by affirming that the final locus of interpretive authority rests in the relationship between God and the individual Christian.” (141)

If you are hearing rampant “postmodern relativism” here—not so fast. Graves isn’t advocating an interpretive free-for-all in which every reader does what is right in his own eyes. The point of examining all that patristic biblical interpretation was to bring it to bear on the modern task of exegesis. And to his credit, Graves doesn’t valorize the church fathers. He realizes many things the ancients said simply won’t work anymore. However, a lot of gold still remains among the dross. Borrowing especially from the Antiochene “literal” approach, Graves advocates a hermeneutic of multiple senses that allows subjective new meanings to emerge from the interplay between God and the exegete when they meet in the text of Scripture. At the same time, the four walls of Christ-centeredness, the church as the interpretive community, the worthiness of God, and his ongoing ministry of illumination provide boundaries to the text’s possible range of meaning.

Michael Graves has written an extremely important work of pastoral technique disguised as a scholarly history. Like other professors at Wheaton, he offers an apologetic for theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS) that drinks deeply from the church’s ancient tradition. Whether today’s pastors have the desire—or perhaps the courage—to stray from the perceived safety of an objective methodology remains to be seen. Yet if they do attempt this bold endeavor, Graves has proven they’ll be in good company.


Bryan Litfin is Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. He is the author of Getting to Know the Church Fathers (Brazos, 2007) and Early Christian Martyr Stories (Baker Academic, forthcoming). He resides in Wheaton, IL.

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  • A delightful and educational review of Graves’s work–thank you for this. I often feel a bit schizophrenic when it comes to reading the Scriptures, at times doing so as a “proper” biblical scholar and at times doing so as someone who knows God intimately and loves hearing His voice ring through the pages. Narrative theology has provided me much greater levels of freedom in interpreting Scripture, but what you have written here about patristic hermeneutics adds a new dimension to that.

  • Chris

    One of the problems evangelicals face when reading the Fathers is coming to terms with their Church. They have a longing to embrace the ancient but can’t quite embrace the ancient church. According to one popular evangelical patristics scholar one has to disregard the Fathers emphasis on a synergistic view of salvation, sacramentalism and Mariology. Well, what’s left? Not much.

    When one does read their work they will be amazed that most Reformational doctrines are totally absent. They will also find a more allegorical hermeneutic than they are comfortable with.

    So who got it right? Modern children of the enlightenment or the Fathers? My money’s on the Fathers.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I generally concur, but I’m not sure I’d call Luther and Calvin “children of the Enlightenment”

  • danaames

    “Graves argues just the opposite: ‘I believe we should nuance our
    conception of Scripture’s authority by affirming that the final locus of
    interpretive authority rests in the relationship between God and the
    individual Christian.'”

    It’s fine if he wants to argue that, but that’s not how the fathers saw it. They believed that “the final locus of interpretive authority” rested in the experience of Christ by and in his Body, the Church, with the Cross and Resurrection as the lens or prism through which one viewed scripture (which for the Apostolic Fathers, anyhow, was still largely the OT). That specific “Christ-centeredness” and “the church as the interpretive community” led to the proclamation in worship of “the worthiness of God, through communal prayer as well as “readings from the memoirs of the Apostles” (Justin Martyr). The “ongoing ministry of illumination” had less to do with grappling with the text than with the communal praxis of Christians in the Church that was meant to lead to greater union with Christ concomitant with growth in virtue. The patristic consensus is transmitted within the community of faith. That’s not the same thing as the relationship between God and the individual Christian. At least from your summary, Scot, this author does not seem to have understood very well what the fathers were about. I wonder if he interacted with any contemporary Orthodox theologians, or even well-read Orthodox priests – of whom there are quite a few.


  • Chris

    No, bet we are definitely products of enlightenment rationalism. This is manifested in the way we do hermeneutics & view the church. How so you ask?
    1. Scientific method applied to hermeneutics. We view that if we have the right hermeneutical method, that will lead us to the true meaning of Scripture. We can mine the hidden gems of the Scripture by applying a historical and grammatical hermeneutic. The early Fathers understood that true understanding of the Scripture was impossible without illumination (e.g. Disciples on the Emmaus Road). While methods are helpful they are not primary.
    2. An emphasis on the individual. Don’t think I need to elaborate on this. Church revolves around “me” and what programs it can offer “me” and “my” family. The result is an eroding of the authority of the church and the rise of the individual as the seat of authority. Each person then is his own pope, interpreting & applying the Scriptures as he sees fit detached from the Tradition of the church.
    3. Emphasis on innovation rather than preservation and handing down of Holy Tradition. A big one! The modern church has become full of a bunch of Steve Jobs types looking for the “next big thing” to grow the church or reach people rather than preserving what was given to us and handing it down.
    4. Knowledge rather than experience as a gateway to spiritual progress. Evangelicals think that if we can pump enough of the Bible into people this will lead to spiritual maturity. They fail to recognize that people sitting around in a living room giving their opinions on Scripture is a VERY recent invention. Traditionally, if one wanted to hear the Scripture they had to go to church. The early church valued the Scriptures but also valued doing them more and experiencing their truths personally.
    5. A dualism that pits the physical against the spiritual. In Orthodox spirituality the physical and spiritual are united by the incarnation. Matter is thus sanctified and becomes a means for reaching for God. Hence the Sacraments. Ascetic practice is seen as a major way to grow in our faith and has a definite physical aspect. Modern evangelicalism has basically thrown out any ascetic discipline or fasting and replaced it with Bible study.