Why It’s Good to Read the Bible with the Church Fathers

 | 
Share

Many years ago, I worked alongside a Sunday school teacher who insisted that he didn’t need any curriculum or study helps. He just wanted to take his group through the Bible without any guidance. “Who needs a commentary or study notes? I just pray for the Holy Spirit to lead me to the right interpretation, and then I read it for myself.”

Eventually, this teacher decided to tackle the last book of the Bible, Revelation. I wasn’t a member of his class, but from what I heard, those sessions on the Bible’s famous apocalyptic letter elicited some strange predictions. Members expressed frustration with the incoherence of the weekly study, as the teacher’s “interpret as I go” approach led him frequently to revise things he’d taught in previous weeks.

We Need the Church

The idea that Bible interpretation is only about “me and the Holy Spirit” is widespread in our time, and worrisome. It sounds super-spiritual on the surface, but it ignores the fact that Bible interpretation is never just about “me” but also about the church. Likewise, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just illuminate us today but has been at work for millennia in guiding Christians to understand and apply the biblical text. What’s more, none of us approaches the Bible as a “blank slate,” without having first been formed by various influences to read the Scriptures in a certain way. We all have our biases, our prejudices, and our interpretive approaches even if we don’t think we do. In fact, the most biased Bible readers are probably those who believe they have no biases!

Thankfully, many readers of the Bible recognize the need for guidance. For this reason, we consult study Bibles and commentaries or listen to preachers and scholars who have done extensive work in the original languages. But even here, it is possible to adopt a tunnel vision approach to the Bible, where we only consult contemporary commentators and preachers. Many of the leaders we listen to share our same cultural moment. Without intending to, we succumb to what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the idea that Bible interpretation of an earlier era is inferior simply because it is older. We unconsciously look down on ancient Christians, without realizing we stand on their shoulders.

Ancient Faith

The CSB Ancient Faith Study Bible seeks to aid contemporary Christians in avoiding these problems. This study Bible is designed to introduce today’s students of God’s Word to the legacy we inherit from the earliest centuries of the church—men and women who studied the Scriptures diligently and relied on the Spirit as they sought to faithfully follow Jesus. This resource is designed to lift us up from our current cultural moment so that we can be refreshed by the insights and wisdom of ancient believers.

Engagement with the generations that have gone before us helps us recognize that we are not alone in our struggles today. We must not fall for the false idea that we face spiritual and cultural challenges on our own. In a fallen world, we may sometimes feel like we are embattled and pressed from all sides. But Hebrews 12 would have us see the world differently, to recognize that we are indeed surrounded, but not just by cultural challenges or the gospel’s enemies. We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses. We stand in a long line of saints who have gone before us, who now are seated in the heavenly coliseum, cheering us on as we run the race before us.

The Ancient Faith Study Bible lifts our eyes from our current moment, so that we can listen to the words of the psalmist, hear the laments of the prophets, recall the stories of our ancestors, visit our church fathers, read and learn from our missionary mothers, and realize that we are not the first to struggle in our walk with Jesus. We belong to God’s people throughout the ages.

The ancient Christians quoted throughout this study Bible were brilliant thinkers, but they were not mere academics. These writers were immersed in the life of the local church. Their involvement with God’s people and their study of Scripture went hand in hand, influencing each other.

Challenge of Ancient Exegesis

The Ancient Faith Study Bible reminds us that we are not the first to encounter these biblical texts. The roots of our biblical interpretation go deep. By listening carefully to ancient church leaders, we come to understand that our faith is relevant not because it is “modern” but because it is rooted. The Holy Spirit is not stingy with spiritual insights. He has been at work for thousands of years. We see this truth clearly when we read ancient saints.

One of the aspects of the Ancient Faith Study Bible that will challenge you is the depth of biblical knowledge on display in the works of these writers. When you read a classic book like Confessions by Augustine, you are amazed to see how much it abounds in phrases and words and pictures that come from Scripture. The scriptural citations and allusions fill the bottom of most of its pages. At times, entire paragraphs are the weaving together of scriptural thoughts and analogies into new forms of expression. Augustine immersed himself in Scripture until it poured out of him in his prose. We need to be challenged by the diligence of the earliest students of Scripture. They had far fewer of the study tools that we do and yet knew the Old and New Testaments so well that biblical insights poured from their pens.

We also need to be challenged by the exegesis of the church fathers. There were several communities of biblical interpretation in the early centuries of the Christian church. Two dominant schools, the Alexandrian and Antiochian, emphasized different truths about the biblical text, with the Alexandrian steering closer to an allegorical emphasis and the Antiochian steering more toward an historical approach. Neither community was exclusively to one side or another. All the early church fathers believed the Scripture had layers of meaning, especially as it relates to seeing Jesus Christ in all the Bible, even in obscure Old Testament narratives. Irenaeus wrote, “If anyone reads the Scripture carefully, they will find some word, some hidden treasure in the field, which is Christ.”

Differing approaches to Scripture were at work back then, just like they are now. So be ready. As you read these study notes, expect to be challenged by these ancient interpreters. When Basil the Great finds application in a text that I would never see, I want to know why. It’s not that I adopt the hermeneutical approach of the fathers in every case or that I agree with all of their interpretations. (Often, I don’t.) Still, the depth of their convictions, the worshipful feel of their exposition, and the passion they bring to their preparation challenge my 21st-century narrow-mindedness.

Retrieval for the Sake of Renewal

There are times when we will disagree with the Christians in previous generations, who had their blind spots just as we have ours. The church fathers are not inspired, but they are wise. Seen in this light, church history is a treasure box, not a map. We err if we look to the past in order to chart the precise path of faithfulness for the future. We are marching to Zion, not retreating to Constantinople. But we do look to the past in order to retrieve the resources we need to fortify and renew our faith in the present as we discern with wisdom and prudence the way forward. This is how we best honor those who have gone before us: learning from both their strengths and also their sins, and praying that we will be faithful today.

Timothy George calls this “retrieval for the sake of renewal,” and that is how the Ancient Faith Study Bible seeks to aid the church today. We believe today’s church can be renewed by listening to yesterday’s saints. We are not the first to encounter these texts. So, join us as we encounter a Christianity that stretches back through the ages, where a tomb is still empty.

Share
Learn more about the relationship between TGC and the blogs we are honored to host.
LOAD MORE
Loading