Paul Blowers on Interpreting Scripture in the 4th–6th Centuries

Cambridge HistoryAs fashioned after Patristic and Medieval collections, I offer a catena of quotations from Paul M. Blowers’s article entitled, “Interpreting Scripture.” This article appears in vol. 2 of The Cambridge History of Christianity, pages 618–36.

This is a very insightful article and useful to those consulting a brief introduction to Patristic interpretation. I find there to be some misunderstanding when talking of Patristic readings of Scripture, of which Blowers does well to enlighten and clarify.

Blowers also provides the “Patristic Interpretation” in the OUP Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation (My friend, Matthew Emerson reviews the OUP text here: Winter 2014)

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  • Well into the fourth century, the Christian biblical canon was still being finalised, as betrayed by Cyril of Jerusalem’s admonition that believers were never privately to read sacred texts that were not bing read publicly in the liturgy. (p.618)
  • From 300 to 600, as before, virtually every function of the life of Christian communities intersected with biblical interpretation. (p.618)
  • ‘Interpretation’ in this period was a project at once ‘contemplative’, spring to a comprehensive vision (theoria) of God’s revelation to and in the world, and ‘performative’, embodying itself in ritual actions and in moral praxis. (p.619)
  • The Bible was not just a treasure of ‘senses’ (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical, etc.) awaiting exposition by erudite commentators. It was prophecy still being fulfilled. Beneath its textual veil lay a glorious mystery bursting the bonds human write, a redemptive drama that had climaxed in Jesus Christ and now had its denouement in the foreground of the church’s life and mission. (p.619)
  • Even the pre-eminent exegetes associated with the school of Antiochene hermeneutics — Diode of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chyrsostom and Theodore of Cyrrus — all of whom disparaged unwarranted allegory and privileged the ‘plain reading’ (lexis) of scriptural texts, conceded that the sacred historia provided the groundwork of a higher vision (theoria) of the economy of salvation. Allegory having been properly restricted, ‘we are not hindered’, writes Diode, ‘from reverently envisioning (epitheorein) things and elevating the spiritual substance [of scripture] into higher anagogy’. (p.622)
  • Theoria, even allegoria, were nurtured on sophisticated forms of figural interpretation that fused the biblical narratives ‘intertextually’ with the narratives or testimonies of the church’s contemporary experience. (p.622)
  • The more sophisticated the ‘intertextual’ interpretation, the richer the patterns of mimesis. The church’s initiatory rituals, for example, constituted an intensive saturation in biblical typology, collapsing themes and interweaving images from Old and New Testaments so as to frame the Christian’s baptism as an epitome of the whole antecedent drama of sacred history. (p.623)
  • A significant aspect of biblical interpretation from 300 to 600 was the continuing development of ‘spiritual’ exegesis, the search for the sublime, the alluring mystery behind and beyond the letter. (p.627)
  • By now it is clear that, unlike their counterparts in modern higher criticism, patristic interpreters were scarcely preoccupied with reconstructing the original meaning of biblical texts as frozen in a particular historical or cultural location. Their Bible divulged a new world, a new horizon, and even its ‘literal’ sense had more to do with its divine authorship and ultimate intention (skopos) for the church than with the human authors’ constrained, albeit inspired, frame of reference. (p.630)
  • The ‘literal’ sense, historically speaking, has hardly been monolithic. (p.630)
  • The ‘literal meaning’ here [Augustine’s On the literal meaning of Genesis] is actually patient of a variety of approaches to the text, including typology and allegory. Since figures, metaphors and anthropmorphisms are thoroughly interwoven with straightforward historical description, sophisticated navigation is necessary to do justice to the ‘thickness’ of a narrative. (p.631–32)
  • The Bible provided the narrative framework in which Christians of late antiquity interpreted their world, and was the ‘script’ by which they carried forward their own performance, or continuation, of the salvation story. (p.633)
  • Theological interpretation, meanwhile, serviced worship and other Christian practices by explicating the Trinitarian and Chriwstocentric oikonomia underlying the biblical narrative, an economy embracing Christians here and now as those created, baptized, redeemed and prospectively deified by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (p.634)
  • In the final analysis we must return to theoria — ‘contemplation’, an embracing spiritual vision of divine revelation — as the principle key to understanding scriptural interpretation in late antiquity. (p.634)
  • Theoria was the cultivated intuition of the church, at once shaping and shaped by exegesis, developing in constant tandem with the lived ‘performance’ of the scriptures. Fed by varying approaches to the biblical text yet transcending any particular one as exhaustive, and thriving on the diverse media through which scripture infused Christian faith and thought, theoria represented the early church’s aspiration to discern the fullness of the power (dynamis) and purpose (skopos) of the ever-contemporary word of God. (p.634)

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