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How did the early church fathers interpret Scripture? (Luke Stamps)

I recently read an excellent primer on patristic exegesis, co-written by John O’Keefe and R. R. Reno of Creighton University, titled, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (John Hopkins University Press, 2005).  The book is already eight years old, but it still speaks with remarkable relevance into contemporary theological discussions, especially those related to the theological interpretation of Scripture.

O’Keefe and Reno offer a mostly descriptive but largely sympathetic treatment of the Fathers’ main interpretative methods: 1) an intensive reading of the text’s verbal details, 2) a heightened sensitivity to the typological patterns built into the structure of the economy of salvation, and 3) the more ambitious allegorical readings that sought to decode hidden philosophical/ethical meanings below the surface of the text. The authors also show how the regula fidei (rule of faith) served both as a hermeneutical and an ethical guide, which governed the range of readings considered permissible in the patristic era.

I still have some questions and concerns about the more exotic manifestations of patristic exegesis (especially with regard to allegorical readings that seemed to impose Neoplatonic ideas onto the text of Scripture). I also have some quibbles with how the authors describe the theory of meaning undergirding patristic exegesis (tied to their postliberal tendency to overstate the intrasystematic nature of doctrine and to understate the referential function of Scripture as a testimony to what God has done–yes, indeed–outside of the text in space and time and history). But these issues aside, Sanctified Vision offers an insightful account of how the Fathers sought out a macro-reading of Scripture in the light of Christ and his gospel. I highly recommend it.

Luke Stamps is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University (OPS). He is also a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is writing his dissertation in the field of Christology. Luke is married to Josie, and they have three children, Jack, Claire, and Henry. Luke is a weekly contributor to the Credo blog.

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