The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us

Written by Michael Graves Reviewed By Jonathan Bailes

Imagine a student at an evangelical college picking up a copy of Origen’s Homilies on Genesis. Coming to the seventh homily, our student might feel relieved to learn that Sarah’s desire to banish Ishmael from Abraham’s household was not a result of jealousy on behalf of her son. However, she would undoubtedly be surprised to discover that this banishment was actually a symbolic enactment of Paul’s warnings against being overtaken by the flesh. For, as Origen explains, Ishmael is the flesh and Isaac is the spirit and Sarah, as virtue, sought to prevent the flesh from playing with the spirit so as to avoid corruption (Origen, In Gen. hom., 7.2–3). After this student reads this passage and many, many more like it, who could blame her for feeling frustrated at Origen’s apparent disregard for the historical context of Genesis or confused at his need to draw a spiritual lessons from seemingly insignificant details?

For a student (or non-student) such as this, I can hardly imagine a better book than Michael Graves’s Inspiration and Incarnation: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. In this book, Graves sets out to make early Christian writers more intelligible to their modern readers by explaining how many of their interpretive practices arose naturally from their belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible. To do this, he identifies twenty assumptions about the nature and use of Scripture that can be understood as logical entailments of the Christian belief in inspiration, and he divides these assumptions into five categories, devoting a chapter to each category: (1) Usefulness, (2) The Spiritual and Supernatural Dimension, (3) Mode of Expression, (4) Historicity and Factuality, and (5) Agreement with Truth.

Some of what Graves identifies as entailments of inspiration for his patristic subjects will be familiar to evangelical Christians today who also believe in an inspired Bible. For example, on the basis of 2 Tim 3:16–17, evangelicals would heartily agree that divine inspiration entails the “usefulness” of the biblical text. And yet, as Graves explains in his second chapter, it is this same belief in Scripture’s usefulness that informed the patristic practice of drawing spiritual meaning from textual details and of resorting to allegory when a literal reading of a biblical text seemed to yield no spiritual benefit, practices with which evangelicals may feel less comfortable. Other entailments will feel less natural to modern readers. For example, the patristic practice of discovering multiple “senses” or levels of meaning in the biblical text is often criticized by modern evangelicals, but Graves shows that this practice was justified by theologians such as Origen and Augustine through an appeal to divine inspiration.

When writing a book on the “patristic” perspective of anything, one always runs the risk of portraying the diverse collection of Church Fathers as if they spoke with one voice. Thankfully, Graves does not fall into this trap. While he does think that we can identify beliefs that enjoyed wide agreement among patristic writers, he does not mute the areas of disagreement. For example, he claims that the “general tendency in the early church was to see freedom from factual error as an entailment of biblical inspiration,” even while admitting that Origen did not always consider the Gospels to be historically accurate and that Tertullian appeared rather unconcerned with the factuality of their narrative arrangement (p. 91). Similarly, in discussing the general patristic assumption that “Scripture does not deceive,” Graves recounts a dispute between Jerome and Augustine regarding Paul’s dispute with Peter in Antioch. Jerome, following Origen, argued that this dispute was merely a deception on the part of the apostles, who both understood God’s welcoming of Gentiles and were simply attempting to teach the Galatians a lesson. Augustine rebuked Jerome for this interpretation, fearing that any admittance of deceit in Scripture would completely undermine its trustworthy character (pp. 113–15).

I should mention a few areas of concern I have with the book. First, despite the heuristic advantage of describing these twenty assumptions about Scripture as “entailments of inspiration,” it was not clear to me that some of them so naturally evolved from a belief in the inspired nature of the biblical text. For example, Graves argues that early Christians considered individual words themselves to be pregnant with meaning and that this could be discovered through a study of their etymologies. Yet, he also provides evidence that this assumption can be traced to a philosophy of language as divinely given that was widespread in the ancient world. While belief in the divinely inspired character of Scripture may have contributed to the validity of etymological interpretation in early Christianity, it would seem that this philosophy of language was the most basic premise of that practice. A similar argument could be made regarding the belief in the riddle-like and enigmatic nature of biblical language.

Second, Graves’s critical engagement with the practice of patristic exegesis is to be commended for taking the voices of the past seriously, but his ongoing evaluations of his sources can sometimes subject them to the measure of modern sensibilities with little justification. For example, he ends the book by arguing that the diversity of patristic interpretations should lead us to embrace a “toleration and even appreciation” for diverse interpretations today (pp. 143–47). He finds it worrisome when ecclesial bodies attempt to exercise restricting authority over the views of their members, since no human authority is infallible, and he argues that scriptural authority ultimately resides between God and the individual Christian. Many readers will find this reasonable enough, but it is a conclusion that sits at odds with many of book’s subjects, who often resisted heretical readings by insisting on a regula fidei.

These concerns notwithstanding, there is much to be praised in this book. Graves succeeds admirably in the clarity of his communication and demonstrates deep familiarity with the primary material he surveys. Above all, I think this book succeeds because of its sensitivity to the modern context of its readers. As the Armerding Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, Graves is uniquely qualified to bridge the gap between contemporary and ancient readers of the Bible and to reflect on how patristic belief and practice can inform us today. Many evangelicals would like to draw on early Christian readings of the Bible but doubtlessly feel frustrated with how foreign it can feel to read patristic texts and little has been done to rectify this problem.

Despite the proliferation of academic studies on patristic interpretation and the fresh translation of ancient commentaries in recent years, few books have been written that explain the logic and assumptions animating these interpreters in a way that will make them intelligible to contemporary Christians. The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture, along with John O’Keefe’s and R. R. Reno’s Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), goes a long way in filling the need for such an introduction. For anyone wishing to venture into the strange world of patristic biblical exegesis, I highly recommend Graves’s book.

Jonathan Bailes

Jonathan Bailes
Boston College
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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