Premodern Biblical Exegesis: Why Does It Matter for Preachers and Teachers Today?

J. Todd Billings

A gap in the theological library of preachers and teachers of the Bible has begun to be filled in the last two decades, after nearly two centuries of neglect. A peculiarity of the modern biblical commentary—in its historical-critical and pietistic forms—is that it has paid little attention to the history of biblical exegesis. In contrast, biblical interpreters before the enlightenment generally considered historic biblical exegetes to be valuable companions in discerning the meaning of Scripture. In the Reformation, both Roman Catholic and Protestant interpreters continued to engage this history. But the effects of modernity have caused our era to lose touch with this valuable practice.

But now there are numerous biblical commentary series that present episodes in this history for us afresh: the Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity) and the Church’s Bible (Eerdmans) focus upon patristic exegesis; and the Reformation Commentary Series (InterVarsity) focuses on a variety of Reformation exegetes. Many more books give summaries of the history of exegesis on particular biblical books and passages. But a preacher and teacher today is busy. Modern critical commentaries are still necessary and important. Why should today’s Bible preacher or teacher take the time to read premodern commentaries as well? In my book, The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Eerdmans, 2010), I give an extended account of why premodern exegetes are vital companions in the reading of Scripture. Here are a few summative reasons, drawn from that account.

(1) Premodern exegetes can supplement the work of critical biblical scholarship by showing us how Scripture should be received from within a theological framework that believes God is active in the world.

Christians should not assume that human history exists in an autonomous realm separated from God’s work. Rather, human history participates in God’s own providential activity, and we misunderstand history when we conceive of it as an immanent realm that is isolated from divine action. Thus, while Christians can appreciate the linear aspects of the “natural history” of textual origin provided in critical scholarship, Christians must insist that a theological framework is indispensable for understanding this history properly. Thus, the “original historical context” of a biblical text—including OT texts—is part of a history of God’s own action that culminates in Christ. Moreover, Christians should trust that God continues to be active in the world, working to restore and redeem his creation in Christ through the power of the Spirit. The very process of Christians “reading Scripture” is taken up into this divine drama of salvation, bringing death to the old self and life to those united to Jesus Christ by the Spirit’s power. Premodern exegetes often have a strong sense of these key theological realities when reading Scripture—seeing Scripture as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, forming us as disciples of Jesus Christ by the Spirit’s power.

(2) Premodern exegetes help us see how the biblical canon is a unified book because of its narrative of God’s self-revelation in creation and with Israel, culminating in Jesus Christ.

Apart from a canonical framework, the Bible may appear to be a book of disconnected writings. However, premodern exegetes remind us that there is a reason Christians read these diverse writings together, all in one book. This reason rests in the belief that the story of God’s work in creation and in covenant with Israel finds its culmination in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because of this, Israel’s scriptures are received by the church as the “Old Testament,” bearing witness to the new covenant in Christ even in places where the OT writers would have been unaware of any such witness. In this way, faith in the unique identity of Jesus Christ—the eternal Word made flesh—gives the entire Scripture its unity, for it is to Jesus Christ that Scripture points. Premodern exegetes can also help us see the ways in which the literal sense of the OT can lead to types and allegories of realities shown forth in Jesus Christ. While this should be done with care, such that the OT narrative is not annihilated but rather fulfilled in Christ, premodern exegetes show us various models and possibilities for interpreting Scripture christologically.

(3) With difficult Scripture passages, premodern exegetes show us that discerning God’s word to us in Scripture is often not easy; yet they give models of ways to struggle faithfully with Scripture and God, its mysterious author.

Premodern exegetes model the way exegetical difficulties are not simply problems to be fixed, but mysteries of God’s word to be discerned. Premodern exegetes believed that all Scripture is God’s word to the church in Christ; but they held that conviction with the awareness that it is not always easy to discern how it is true. How is a psalm that curses the psalmist’s enemies bearing witness to Christ, who teaches love of enemies? How are the passages of rape, abuse, and violence in the Bible seen as the word of the God shown forth in the self-sacrificial love of Christ? Premodern exegetes struggle greatly with questions such as these, and even where we do not agree with their reflections, they have something to teach us about approaching the Bible as Scripture.

For premodern exegetes, discerning the meaning of difficult texts requires more than a good lexicon and a “Bible-background” commentary. It requires a life of prayer and worship before a holy and mysterious God. In light of this, we can see how premodern practices such as allegory need not be seen as a strategy of “erasing textual difficulty” but of “shifting to and preserving a certain sort of difficulty: that of seeing Christ, who may be difficult to see, in a place where we believe he must be present” (Brian Daley, “Is Patristic Exegesis Still Usable?” Communio 29 [2002]: 203-04).

For example, when Origen encounters the senseless death of Jephthah’s daughter based on her father’s rash oath (Judg 11), he seeks to discern how this relates to the mystery of Christ. When he calls her a martyr, he says she presents a sacrifice that prefigures the death of Jesus as the Lamb of God. Origen’s account does not make the narrative of Jephthah’s daughter neat and tidy, however, for he insists that martyrdom is not a visible triumph—but appears to be a senseless, terrible defeat. Jephthah’s daughter’s martyrdom, like Origen’s father’s martyrdom (and later his own), does not appear to be a glorious victory. Origen’s spiritual reading of Jephthah’s daughter does not soften a difficult text, but it contextualizes the silences and conundrums of the text within the larger mystery of God in Christ.

(4) Reading premodern exegetes reminds us of the contextual location of all interpretations, as well as the sinfulness of all interpreters. Even when we disagree with premodern interpreters, they can help us become more self-aware and self-critical readers of Scripture.

All interpretation of Scripture takes place within a particular context, and reading exegetes from various contexts can provide mutual enrichment and also call into question our own idolatries. This point is particularly true for the history of interpretation and the reading of premodern exegetes. If we want to become aware of the shaping—sometimes idolatrous—force of modernity, we need to read premodern exegetes. Just as Americans who move to China for a year discover previously unrecognized ways in which they are distinctively American, reading premodern exegetes reveals to us that many of our assumptions about the world are not “just the way things are” but have a distinctively modern perspective on the world. At times, reading premodern exegetes can help to unveil our own modern idolatries.

Yet at other times the historical distance that we have from premodern interpreters can make obvious a fact that we should keep in mind as interpreters of Scripture: all exegetes are sinful, and not above a certain degree of suspicion. The historical and social location of contemporary readers of Scripture tends to highlight two sins of premodern exegetes in particular: a frequent anti-Jewish polemic and patriarchal attitudes that sometimes belittle women, reducing them to narrow, stereotypical roles. While I believe that these examples should not make us jettison premodern exegesis, they should poignantly remind us that, while we should read the Bible together with the community of faith through time, that community is also a sinful community—and we are among them, as sinners.

While we should be open about the sinfulness of premodern exegetes on these points, we should also seek to understand their positions on their own terms, not prematurely absorbing their views into totalizing categories such as “anti-Semitic” or “misogynist.” Indeed, as strange as it may sound, renewed interest in premodern Christian exegetes has actually fueled interest in Jewish interpretation among many recent scholars, and the patristics, far from being simply “patriarchal,” have been mined in profound ways by prominent Christian feminist scholars. These contemporary movements of retrieval do not simply accept anti-Jewish polemic or belittling comments about women; but they still find a great deal of value in these premodern Christian thinkers. On the issue of anti-Jewish polemic, premodern Christian authors should not be understood as advocating a racial inferiority or other deficiency based on “blood,” as recent anti-Semitism has done. On a theological level, premodern polemics are driven by an anti-Judaism that claims the inferiority of the law and the Temple as a way to be the people of God. On this particular point, premodern writers were right at least to realize that they would understand the OT differently in light of Christ. Unfortunately, this theological point was often infused with cultural stereotypes that scapegoat and demonize Jews. Contemporary Christians should openly confess the centrality of Christ, but we should recognize the depravity of our own community and mourn those times when a clear proclamation of Christ has been tarnished with the scapegoating of the Jewish community.

In contrast to this tendency, many contemporary and well as key historic exegetes find it fruitful to read Jewish as well as Christian premodern exegesis. By reading alongside another community of faith—each with its own distinct theological and practical commitments—we learn more about areas of common ground, but we also learn what it means to be a distinctly Christian interpreter of Scripture.

With the second issue: How should we evaluate the male-oriented bias of premodern exegetes? Given the prejudices of many premodern authors about the roles and capacities of women, one might expect that contemporary women readers and feminist scholars would have ignored premodern authors. But that is not the case. There has been considerable engagement and interest in premodern exegetes by women scholars.

Why have feminist scholars and other female exegetes drawn deeply from the premodern exegetes despite their patriarchal assumptions? First, though premodern male authors could certainly not be regarded as “feminists,” many of them display profoundly humanistic intuitions. They show considerable empathy for and understanding of other human beings, particularly ones who suffer injustice or maltreatment. When it comes to the history of exegesis, J.L. Thompson has shown how male premodern authors often parallel contemporary feminist critics in their empathy, concern, and admiration for women of the Bible, even women who appear to have marginalized roles, such as Hagar, Jephthah’s daughter, and other victimized women in the Old Testament (cf. Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis That You Can’t Learn from Exegesis Alone [Eerdmans, 2007], chs. 1-2).

Second, feminist theologians have found that certain premodern thinkers have theological ideas—even ideas about gender—that can call into question contemporary forms of patriarchy. Part of this involves taking a step behind the patriarchy of the Enlightenment itself—and the ideal “man of reason” that the Enlightenment promulgated. Engaging premodern exegetes makes possible the appropriation of a broad diversity of scriptural interpretation that often eludes particular aspects of contemporary patriarchy. Significant scholars such as Kathryn Tanner, Ellen Charry, Francis Young, and Sarah Coakley have all made substantial use of patristic exegesis and theology in their own theological accounts. In addition, other scholars such as Amy Oden have helped to revive interest in previously neglected premodern women voices (cf. A. Oden, ed., In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought [Abingdon, 1994]).

In the end, we should read premodern exegetes in particular not because we will always agree with their positions; indeed, they often disagree with each another. Nor should we read them because they replace or make obsolete the insights that come from critical studies of the Bible. Premodern interpreters are fallible and limited, as are we. But they also reflect the work of the Spirit in the past, and they show great insight into how to interpret all of Scripture as God’s own word in Christ. United Methodist pastor and scholar, Jason Byassee, says it well when he speaks of how his own discovery of premodern biblical interpreters grew out of “the experience of leading a congregation.”

As a preacher I spent a great deal of fruitless time seeking biblical commentaries to help me read Scripture well for the sake of the church. I have found modern commentaries helpful for certain things—in clarifying historical events or linguistic problems with greater confidence than ancient commentators could, for example. But I found ancient commentators more helpful in doing the most important thing that Christian preaching and teaching must do: drawing the church to Christ.” (Praise Seeking Understanding: Preading the Psalms with Augustine [Eerdmans, 2007], 1)

Posted Nov 01, 2011