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Standing on Giants’ Shoulders (6): The Ancient Church and a Figural Reading of Scripture

After a hiatus we are back to our reading through and engaging with the text of Lewis Ayres’ Nicaea and its Legacy. We come now to the third point of departure that Ayres’ discusses in the opening chapter of the book: theology and the reading of Scripture (31-40). As Reformed Protestants we should be keen to see what the author has to say about the standard Scriptural reading strategies of the early church fathers leading up to the time of the Trinitarian controversy in the fourth century.

Ayres begins the section by noting that the latest scholarship on the early church has cast Adolf von Harnack’s charge of the inappropriate “Hellenization” of the church’s theology in more negative light

Recent scholarship has argued that characterizing the fourth century as the culmination of Christianity’s “Hellenization” is misleading. This is especially so if Hellenization is understood as resulting in a philosophically articulated doctrinal system only distantly related to the words of Scripture. The revisionary scholarship to which this book is indebted has tried to demonstrate the ways in which exegetical concerns shaped the theologies with which we are concerned here (31).

The author goes on to note why early church exegesis is so harshly judged.

These negative judgements have usually resulted from comparisons between early Christian and modern academic exegetical practice, comparisons that assume the former is a deficient form of the latter. An implied comparison between fourth-century exegesis and modern historical-critical modes is also frequently embedded in reference, for instance, to post-Reformation divisions between allegory and typology, or to some ways of distinguishing Alexandrian from Antiochene exegesis (particularly those which assume that Antiochenes were more interested in the historical, that they were somehow more modern).

We need to assess the early church hermeneutical and exegetical practices on their own terms rather than subjecting them to the standards of other eras. I would be in general agreement with the author in terms of getting at just what the practices were. At other times I have noted we need to recognize the distinction between the historical question (what was said and done?) and the normative question (is it right or is it Scriptural?). Was the early church guilty of importing pagan notions uncorrected into Christian theology? Was the Reformation and post-Reformation distinction between allegory and typology a distinction without a difference? Did Antioch and Alexandria really embody totally distinct exegetical approaches? These are all interesting and important questions.

Was the early church guilty of importing pagan notions uncorrected into Christian theology?

The first question has to do with the use of pagan thought in Christian theology. Is that what the church fathers as a whole thought they were doing or actually did? Is it wise to do that? This is another way of wrestling with the relationship and priority of natural revelation and special revelation. It is also another way of relating philosophy to theology, faith to reason, and the antithesis to common grace. We must note with all seriousness that the antithesis came before common grace in the scheme of things. The fall created the antithesis between belief and unbelief. Yes, it is true that the reality of common grace means that unbelievers do know things after a fashion and that we Christians can learn things from unbelievers. But insofar as they deny the connection of everything in creation to the triune God of Scripture and refuse to accept that God determines the meaning and significance of every last thing in the cosmos, to that extent, their knowledge will be corrupted and truncated and distorted. This is why Augustine in his On Christian Teaching talks about plundering the Egyptians and baptizing the truth that we gain from pagan thought. That is why Cornelius Van Til said that while the king of Lebanon could provide timber for the Jerusalem temple, only God could provide Solomon with the blueprints. The question remains, what did the early church fathers think they were doing? It would be best to treat each father on his own terms as I imagine there were a variety of opinions and practices. Von Harnack shared the anti-metaphysical bias of his age and so created a procrustean bed and whatever was too small he stretched and whatever was too big he hacked off according to his Ritschlian (Kantian) standards. In reality I suspect the best of the fathers thought they were using the terminology of Greek philosophy while cleansing the said terminology of its pagan roots much as the New Testament uses the word theos for God, a word used with regard to Zeus and no doubt other gods in the divine pantheon. We have to look at each instance and each theologian carefully. It can be the case that we fail to untwist the twisted truth found in pagan thought.

Was the Reformation and post-Reformation distinction between allegory and typology a distinction without a difference?

The second question has to do with the Protestant rejection of the so-called quadriga or fourfold sense of Scripture. While the schematization is of later development, our forebears in the Reformed faith no doubt recognized that it had its seeds in earlier hermeneutical practices. Ayres says that the fathers understood the idea of the plain sense or sensus literalis or literary sense of the text of Scripture or what he describes as knowing the “way the words run” (32) but that they also assumed that the text could “have a variety of functions in the education of the Christian mind” (33). Ayres challenges the distinction made between allegory and typology. In our setting we would say that typology is divinely intended and implanted meaning that resides in the text connecting an earlier OT text involving persons, places, events, and institutions to later OT texts or NT texts, especially culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Typology as properly conceived is grounded in redemptive history as well as the literary sense of the text whereas it seems that allegory cuts itself loose from the historical referential moorings of the text. I concede that in practice it is not always easy to see the difference between allegory and typology. And it is likely that various fathers of the church did both intentionally and unintentionally.

Did Antioch and Alexandria really embody totally distinct exegetical approaches?

On the related question of whether there was a hard and fast distinction between the hermeneutical practices of the schools of Alexandria and Antioch, the current scholarship appears to be calling the clear cut distinction between the two schools overwrought. Alexandria was not committed to unalloyed allegory and Antioch was not tied to only historical concerns. Do we see these tendencies at work in the work of the fathers? Yes. But as Ayres points out, these characteristics were shared by both schools. Sometime back there was a two-part article in the Westminster Theological Journal that argued the same thing. Alexandria and Antioch do not represent two diametrically opposite schools of biblical interpretation. This is where reliance only on secondary literature can be problematic. We can’t be experts in everything so we do rely on the expertise of others to keep us up to date on scholarly developments insofar as they assist us in understanding what were in fact the conditions on the ground in the ancient church.

Ayres argues for the figural reading of Scripture which at its best is a trained sensitivity to the theological, historical, literary, philosophical, linguistic, and cultural features of the text. Figural readings are dependent on the historical foundation of the biblical text (37). Ayres is correct to point out that the bifurcation between exegesis and theology, which is so common in biblical studies these days, was not a working assumption of the fathers (38). Pre-critical exegesis has much to commend it and I for one am happy to recover as much of the theological mindset of pre-critical exegetical practice as we can. Related to this are the guides that arose in the early church: the analogy of Scripture, the analogy of faith, and the scope of Scripture. The analogy of Scripture has to do with comparing Scripture with Scripture and allowing clearer passages to shed light on less clear passages. The analogy of faith was a more synthetic idea where one gains a sense of the whole so that we never fall into the trap of not allowing one part of Scripture to enlighten another. And the scope of Scripture has to do with the telos or goal of the Bible, which is Jesus Christ himself (see Ayres’s discussion on 39-40).

We have now come to the end of the author’s bird’s eye summary of the book and with the next segment we will delve into the deep structure of the book and the history and theology of the fourth century Trinitarian controversy.


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