For the Early Church Fathers the interpretation of Scripture was not merely an intellectual activity. Biblical interpretation for the Fathers was a physical discipline accomplished by the whole person. To be sure there were extremes and misinterpretations present in their works to be avoided, but I believe there are a few principles that we would do well to learn from them. Here are three applications that I believe are important for the days in which we live.
First, the interpreter of Scripture must be a Christian. The Fathers were not content to relinquish the words of Christ and His Apostles to the many heretics that desired to twist their words.
Unless, therefore, a man by God’s great grace receives the power to understand what has been said and done by the prophets, the appearance of being able to repeat the words or the deeds will not profit him, if he cannot explain the argument of them. And will they not assuredly appear contemptible to many, since they are related by those who understood them not?-Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho.
Irenaeus also in various sections of Against Heresies, condemns those heretics who would subvert passages from the Gospels. The very fact that the Fathers believed one must be a Christian first to interpret the Scriptures properly, and their work in preserving the the truth of the Gospel contained in the writings of the Apostles probably are the very reason that these heretics began to write their own pseudo-gospels, commonly referred to now as the ‘gnostic gospels’.
Paul himself in his first letter to the Corinthians tells us,
For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1Co 2:11-16 ESV)
To understand and properly interpret Scripture one must be a Christian who is indwelt by the Spirit of God.
Second, Scripture must be interpreted in the context of a Christian community. There are no ‘lone ranger’ Christians for the Church Fathers. If someone who claims the name of Christ is not involved in the community of believers, he cannot properly interpret Scripture. Further, the aim of interpretation is the edification of the whole community of believers and not the sport of idle speculation.
“But since they neglect every path of righteousness, and look only to this one point, namely, which of the propositions submitted to them they shall bind or loose, (like those persons who in the theatres perform wrestling matches in public, but not that kind of wrestling in which the victory is won according to the rules of the sport, but a kind to deceive the eyes of those who are ignorant in such matters, and to catch applause), and every marketplace must buzz with their talking; and every dinner party be worried to death with silly talk and boredom; and every festival be made unfestive and full of dejection, and every occasion of mourning be consoled by a greater calamity—their questions—and all the women’s apartments accustomed to simplicity be thrown into confusion and be robbed of its flower of modesty by the torrent of their words…since, I say this is so, the evil is intolerable and not to be borne, and our Great Mystery is in danger of being made a thing of little moment. Well then, let these spies bear with us, moved as we are with fatherly compassion, and as holy Jeremiah says, torn in our hearts; let them bear with us so far as not to give a savage reception to our discourse upon this subject; and let them, if indeed they can, restrain their tongues for a short while and lend us their ears. However that may be, you shall at any rate suffer no loss. For either we shall have spoken in the ears of them that will hear, and our words will bear some fruit, namely an advantage to you (since the Sower soweth the Word upon every kind of mind; and the good and fertile bears fruit), or else you will depart despising this discourse of ours as you have despised others, and having drawn from it further material for gainsaying and railing at us, upon which to feast yourselves yet more…
Not to every one, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God; not to every one; the Subject is not so cheap and low; and I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits.” -Gregory of Nazianzus, First Theological Oration.
While Scripture is personally edifying, the attempt to divorce the Scriptures from the people of the Scriptures is disastrous to one’s spiritual life.
A final point, though not the final point, of application of the Fathers interpretation of Scripture is this…Scripture is to be interpreted as God’s Words. There is a tendency today to read Scripture as man’s interpretation of God. The truth is that Scripture is God’s revelation of Himself to man.
…and that we might receive the teaching concerning the transcendent nature of the Deity which is given to us, as it were, “through a glass darkly” from the older Scriptures,—from the Law, and the Prophets, and the Sapiential Books, as an evidence of the truth fully revealed to us, reverently accepting the meaning of the things which have been spoken, so as to accord in the faith set forth by the Lord of the whole Scripture, which faith we guard as we received it, word for word, in purity, without falsification, judging even a slight divergence from the words delivered to us an extreme blasphemy and impiety.-Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius.
Moreover, concerning the righteousness which the law enjoined, confirmatory utterances are found both with the prophets and in the Gospels, because they all spoke inspired by one Spirit of God.-Theophilus, To Autolycus, Book Three.
We have learned the plan of our salvation from no one else other than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us. For they did at one time proclaim the gospel in public. And, at a later period, by the will of God, they handed the gospel down to us in the Scriptures-to be the ‘ground and pillar of our faith.’-Irenaus, Against Heresies.
For the Fathers, the Bible is authoritative because it is the Word of God. To interpret it otherwise causes us to lose it’s meaning and authority.
So now that we are on our way to interpreting Scripture, remember to carry with you your faith in Christ, your place in the Church, and your dependence upon the God who reveals Himself.