Book Review: Herbert Bateman, Interpreting the General Letters

Bateman IV.  Herbert W. Interpreting the General Letters: An Exegetical Handbook. Handbooks for New Testament Exegesis. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2013. 315 pp. Pb; $29.99. Link.

Herb Bateman’s Interpreting the General Letters joins series editor John Harvey’s Interpreting the Pauline Letters in this exegetical handbook series. When I reviewed Harvey’s volume a year ago, my main criticism was the brevity of the book. That is not a problem for Bateman’s book, since he has 100 more pages and considerably less material to cover.

The outline of the two books is similar. After a three chapter survey of the genre, background, and theology of the books, this Handbook provides an exegetical method, from translation to interpretation and finally communication. Since this book is intended as a textbook for classroom use, each chapter opens with an “at a glance” summary and a concluding review highlighting key points. Like other books in the series, the book concludes with a glossary of key terms.

Bateman, General LettersIn chapter 1, Bateman provides an overview of the genre of letter writing in the ancient world. Since this is a topic worthy of a monograph, Bateman must be brief. Nevertheless, this is a good introduction to a complex topic. He gives several examples of letters from approximately the same time as the General Epistles, to commendation letters, one conciliatory letter and two commanding letters. As is often observed, even though the canonical letters are longer than most Greco-Roman letters, the form is quite similar. Bateman briefly looks various “rules” for letter writing from Isocrates (436-338 B.C.E.), Pseudo-Demetrius (first century B.C.E.) and Pseudo-Libanius (fourth century C.E.)  The General Epistles roughly follow the patterns set in these famous manuals, although they sometimes mix genre.

The second chapter gives an overview of Greco-Roman history from Alexander the Great through the Maccabean and Roman periods. While this background is interesting and well-written, it might be too broad for a book on the General Epistles. Part of the reason for the lengthy historical narrative is Bateman’s thesis that Jude was written to Jewish Christian believers in Judea just prior to the rebellion in A.D. 66. The “godless ones” who have “secretly slipped in” are best understood in Bateman’s view in the light of the Jewish War not antinomians. This chapter also compares James to Wisdom Literature and briefly introduces Greco-Roman household codes as background to 1 Peter.

In order to introduce the theology of the General epistles, Bateman begins with an overarching biblical theology of the “strategic plan of God.” This section is a slightly slimmed version of progressive dispensationalism found in his Jesus the Messiah. Despite using the term dispensation, this presentation of God’s plan should not be dismissed out of hand. This is not the same kind of dispensationalism found in the Scofield Reference Bible or popular novels. Bateman presents a way of conceptualizing salvation history consistent with other narrative approaches to biblical theology.

His view of the kingdom is common in current discussions (the cross inaugurates the Kingdom; the second coming consummates the kingdom). He does an excellent job contextualizing this material to the General epistles, illustrating the “era of fulfillment” and “era of consummation” from these letters as much as possible. “In short,” Bateman says, “the corporate followers of Jesus have been transferred into the kingdom, live on earth as God’s redeemed community in anticipation of Jesus’ return and rule on earth, and model kingdom living for all other people so that they will be drawn to God” (118). After this overarching biblical theology, he offers a short, one page summary of the theological contributions of each book.

In chapter 4 (“Preparing to Interpret”), Bateman begins to outline his exegetical method. First the exegete must translate the text. This is a basic overview of how to approach a paragraph in Greek, identifying verbs and clauses. Second, while working through a portion of Greek text, the exegete begins to identify interpretive issues. Comparing English translations sometimes brings these issues to light. Rendering the tense of a verb may vary, as will any idiomatic Greek in the pericope. The final step at this stage is to isolate any textual issues in the pericope. Here Bateman gives a fifteen page introduction to textual criticism.

Once the sense of the Greek text is understood, the exegete moves to interpret the text, beginning with the structure of the passage. Bateman defines independent and dependent clauses and shows how these clauses function in a sentence. He works through 1 Peter 1:3-11 in order to demonstrate the usefulness of an analysis of the structure of the passage. By way of syntax and style, Bateman has in mind features like inclusio, chiasm, etc. He briefly highlights the style of the four writers in this section.

Most beginning exegetes find the syntax, grammar, and structural exercises boring and most want to rush right into word studies. Bateman states the goal in a word study is to “determine the author’s intended meaning of a symbol in his specific literary context” (199). By establishing a range of possibilities, the interpreter is in a better position to hear how the original audience might have understood the word. While he does suggest a study of the use of the word in classical, Septuagint, and Koine contexts, this may be “too much work” for the busy pastor (unless they are using Logos or Accordance!) Bateman does not instruct the student on the use of word-books or “theological dictionaries” (TDNT and the like).

Finally, chapter six deals with how to communicate exegetically, using 3 John as an example). If the exegete has done the work, then determining the “central idea” of the pericope is the next step. Ideally this is done for the larger passage by grouping summaries topically and creating an exegetical outline for the whole passage. But an exegetical outline is rarely preachable. If the goal of exegesis is “communicating homiletically,” then an additional step is necessary. Bateman gives his “homiletical outline” and a few examples of illustrations “sprinkled throughout the sermon” (237). Since this is more or less how I prepare a sermon, I feel at home in this section of the chapter. It is possible this “Haddon Robinson” style of delivery will not resonate with the more narrative style popular among preachers today.

Chapter seven offers two examples of the method outlined in the previous three chapters. Here Bateman shows how to go “from exegesis to exposition.” He selects Jude vv. 5-7 and Hebrews 10:19-25. Again, I find his method and results comforting since they are near enough to my own. But I wonder about application of the text: How can the exegete “bridge the gap”?  I am not sure Bateman does this well. For example, Jude 5-7, his final point is “do not join in the Zealot insurrection against Rome” (269). While this might be an accurate statement of Jude’s intention for writing the letter, how does that “preach” to a congregation today? That final step in the journey from exegesis to sermon seems missing in this book.

In the final section of the book, Bateman offers a list of resources for studying the General Epistles. Some of these are general works on historical and textual issues. Bateman has a very useful chart describing several commentary series (296—302). Here he gives the stated purpose of the series along with the published volumes on the General Epistles in the series with dates. There is some evaluation in this chart, describing the series as technical, critical or popular; conservative or moderate liberal, etc. The series in this list are recent and in most cases still being completed or publishing replacement volumes for older ones, such as the International Critical Commentary. The balance of the chapter is a list of other commentaries or monographs on the book without comment. Some of these monographs are in technical dissertation series and are not readily available for most pastors (WUNT, for example). There are a few unpublished dissertations in the list as well. This list might have been improved with a ranking of the best exegetical commentary or best popular expositional commentary, etc.

Conclusion. Bateman’s book is an excellent introduction to these often ignored letters. It is conservative, since he accepts the traditional views on most issues. There is very little interaction with challenges to the traditional authors of these letters. There is a brief discussion of Pseudonymity in his chapter on genre, but he does not discuss any specific the problems for the traditional view on these letters. Despite my criticism above, this is a very useful handbook, explaining and modeling the exegetical method.

In fact, the Exegetical Handbook series is ideal textbook for classroom use. Two more volumes are planned, David Turner on the Gospels and Acts and Marvin Pate on the Apocalypse. There are three volumes available in the Old Testament series (Pentateuch, Historical Books and Psalms). I look forward to the rest of the series.

Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

 

Last Call for Biblical Studies Carnival Links for May 2014

Fourth of July or Memorial Day picnicMemorial Day marks the beginning of summer for most academics, but the Biblical Studies Carnival never takes a vacation. The May 2014 Biblical Studies Carnival will be hosted by Jeff Carter at his blog, ThatJeffCarter Was Here. What are the blogs you read this month which contributed to the discussion of biblical literature theology, and culture? What posts made you think more deeply? If you are done with the cookout and sick of the Pawn Stars marathon, send a link or two to Jeff (thatjeffcarterwashere at hotmail.com) and look for his Carnival around the first of June.

I am also looking for volunteers for the 2014 Carnival Season through the end of the year. Most months are still open, so please email me (plong42 at gmail.com) and pick your month! Carnivals are a great way to attract attention to your site if you are new blogger, but more importantly it gives you a chance to highlight the best and the brightest in the world of bibliblogs.

Book Review: Matt Chandler and Michael Snetzer, Recovering Redemption

Matt Chandler and Michael Snetzer. Recovering Redemption: A Gospel Saturated Perspective on How to Change. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014.  Link

Matt Chandler is as Lead Pastor of Teaching at The Village Church in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. Co-Author Michael Snetzer is Associate Groups Pastor at The Village and Recovery and Reconciliation Pastor at Center for Christian Counseling.  This book is a very simple and straightforward presentation of the Christian way of thinking about the world. Essentially, Chandler is presenting the classic “creation/fall/redemption” although the focus on the book is on living out that redemption in daily life.

ChandlerThe first three chapters begin with what is wrong and what God does to fix that problem. God made the world good, but humans are obviously broken. As Chandler puts it, God fixes what is broken. This presentation avoids heavy theological terms like original sin or imputation of sin, especially since those are associated with a kind of religion the book hopes to avoid. There is nothing here that lays a guilt trip on the reader. Everyone knows something is wrong, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer.

The next section of the book lays out the heart of the theology of the book. People need to repent (ch. 4) and believe (ch. 5). Repentance does mean hating one’s sin from the ground floor up (67), although Chandler describes repentance as godly grief. Chandler is clear; the sinner has so believe in the Lord Jesus, citing Acts 16:31. But how that actually works is less clear. He does a fair job describing justification (“pardoned and ascribed righteousness”) and what happens when we are justified (adopted into the family of God). There is certainly nothing here about the death of Jesus, a key feature of Romans 5:12-21. How the child of God lives out a life of redemption is unpacked in chapter 6. Chandler does call this process as sanctification and he refers to both vivification (“thinking new stuff,” 102) and mortification (a “knucklebusting process” of putting sin to death, 104). (As an aside here, the opening illustration in this chapter is very good, but stolen from the Doctor Who episode Turn Left. But then every preacher who saw that episode thought the same thing!)

The second half of the book attempts to describe how one lives out a “redeemed live” as a child of God. The overriding theme of these chapters is that the person who has believed and is redeemed ought to live like they are in fact a child of God who is already redeemed. Chandler tells his readers that they will still have some guilt and shame from sins yet overcome, they will still face fears and anxieties over things that happen that are beyond their control, they must still deal with other people who hurt them deeply, people who are in need of forgiveness too. For the most part these chapters describe very practical ways of being a redeemed person. This does not mean a perfect person, but only a redeemed person.

The book is written in a very simple style popular these days. There are lots of short, emotive sentences reflecting the spoken word. The book naturally contains many stories of real people who have struggled with sin but have learned to live a life of redemption. Presumably these are real stories drawn from Snetzer’s experience as a pastor and counsellor.

As I said above, this book is intended for a small group Bible study and for people who are not familiar with classic theological ideas. Sometimes theological words appear (justification and sanctification, vivification and mortification), but others do not. I am always curious why “sin” does not appear as a description of what is wrong with humans. I find all of the synonyms (broken, futile, pain, addiction, obsession, etc.), but Chandler rarely calls the problem “sin,” nor is the solution described as the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It is remarkable to me how little Scripture appears in the book, despite the book covering biblical themes.

Still, this book is a good introduction for the “seeker” who is unfamiliar with what Christians believe and may be a bit intimidated by a “Bible Study.”  B&H offers the book along with  a DVD Bible Study Kit. The Recovering Redemption website has sample videos, book excerpts and PDF sample sections from the Leader’s Guide. In addition, a “digital guide” for the book is available through The Village Church website.

 

NB: Thanks to Broadman & Holman for kindly providing me with an electronic review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Book Review: Thom S. Rainer, Autopsy of a Deceased Church

Rainer, Thom S. Autopsy of a Deceased Church. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014.  Hb. 112 pages, $12.99   Link

Thom Rainer is a well-known Church Growth and Sunday School expert with years of experience in ministry and a number of books to his credit. This short book deals with an very important issue for American churches, why are many Churches dying? Rainer offers a series of reasons and some proposals for how to deal with seriously ill and dying churches. Each chapter concludes with a short “prayerful commitment” and a few questions for further thought. These questions frequently return to the text of the New Testament and ask how the Bible can be used to evaluate the present church.

Autopsy Thom RanierThe first two chapters make a simple point: many churches in America are dying. Rainer claims this number to be as high as 100,000. A Google search will turn up a number of similar estimates for how many churches close each year. Despite a large number of new churches planted each year, few observers of the American church landscape will dispute Rainer’s point. The main theme of this book is “Decline is not an event, it is a process.” Rarely does a church have something so traumatic happen that is suddenly shuts its doors. The process is so slow it is usually not noticed until it is too late.

The bulk of the book is a series of nine indications that something is wrong. Some of these are very obvious – churches that live in the past are usually churches in decline. Ralph Neighbour wrote a little paperback in 1979 with a similar theme: The Seven Last Words of the Church. Those words were “we never did it that way before.” When a church idolizes the past and ceases to reach out to their community, the church marginalizes itself and risks decline and death. Several of Rainer’s chapters deal with this inward focus. First, there is no evangelism, so there are no new members. Churches without active evangelism tend to remember the “good old days” when the church did have evangelistic crusades. Second, a church in decline has an inward-focused budget. Rather than investing in ministry and evangelism, the church cuts money for outreach. Often budget decisions support the church facility rather than the ministry of the church. When the church building becomes more important than the church mission, the church is most likely already dead.

Three of Rainer’s chapters concern spiritual matters. First, a church that does not pray is in grave danger. Here he has a good scriptural foundation, since there are many examples of churches fasting and praying in the New Testament. Second, a church that has no clear purpose is likely in decline but does not know it yet. A church that does not have a clear purpose has no way to know they are not meeting their objectives! A symptom of this lack of purpose is a “preference driven church.” Most people who have attended Church regularly know that any change to a program will be met with strong resistance by those who prefer things to remain the same.(Go ahead and put drums on the stage, see how people react to that!)

It is not all bad news. Rainer offers three chapters for churches that only have a few of the symptoms described in the book, for churches that are very sick, and for churches that are dying. Sadly, there are churches that are too far gone and need to die. Rainer suggests a few steps that will help the church “die with dignity.”  I realize the book is a short set of reflections on the decline of churches, but I think that each of the last three chapters deserve much more attention. Perhaps there is a need for the American church to have a manual on how to let a church die in a way that provides life for another new Church.

Conclusion. This is a short, inexpensive book. I can see church boards purchasing copies for each member and working through the chapters for a few weeks, using the discussion questions to evaluate their own church. In fact, I would highly recommend to Pastors and Church Boards to read through this little book together and honestly discuss Rainer’s points, whether their church is doing well or obviously in decline.  While it is true some churches need to die, it is not too late to begin a revival.

Thom Rainer has a very active website / blog. B&H has produced a “book trailer” for Autopsy of a Deceased Church.

NB: Thanks to Broadman & Holman for kindly providing me with an electronic review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Book Review: Richard Horsley, The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel

Horsley, Richard. The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel: Moving Beyond a Diversionary Debate.  Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2012. 161 pp. Pb; $20.00.  Link to Eerdmans 

Richard Horsley is well known for his work on Historical Jesus. In this book he summarizes two issues perennially debated by Historical Jesus Scholars. First, Horsley does not find the dichotomy between “Jesus the apocalyptic prophet” and a “Jesus the sage” particularly helpful. Second, he does not think the focus of Historical Jesus scholars on the individual sayings of Jesus is the right method and has the result of obscuring Jesus’ actual teaching by narrowing down the teaching of Jesus to a series of “one-liners” disconnected from their literary context.

Horsley, The Prophetic JesusIn the first section of the book, Horsley discusses the problem of an Apocalyptic Jesus. In the first chapter is gives a brief overview, summarizing the apocalyptic scenarios of Schweitzer and Bultmann, although his main target in this section is Dale Allison as a “reassertion of the apocalyptic Jesus.” The third chapter interacts with Allison’s Jesus of Nazareth extensively. Although his Constructing Jesus came out in 2010, Horsley apparently did not have access the extensive argument for an apocalyptic Jesus in the first chapter of that book. Horsley summarizes Allison’s argument under several headings (the eschatological judgment, resurrection from the dead, restoration of Israel, eschatological tribulation, and imminence). He then checks these categories against apocalyptic texts in Second Temple Judaism, discovering that there is very little evidence in these texts to support Allison’s categories. He blames this on the Jesus’ scholar’s “relative unfamiliarity with Judean texts” (39). Allison and others have, according to Horsley, imposed their assumptions about Jewish apocalypticism on to Jesus and therefore misunderstood his teaching.

There are several things in this first section I find problematic. His dismissal of those who read Jesus as standing in the tradition of Jewish apocalyptic as ignorant of Second Temple Judaism is simply not the case. What is at issue is the interpretation of these texts. Horsley is inclined read this literature as lacking an “apocalyptic scenario.” This is likely true if one expects to find a dispensational timeline of the tribulation period embedded in 1 Enoch or 2 Baruch. But I am not sure any Historical Jesus scholar thinks this way. The apocalyptic teaching of Jesus resonates with Second Temple Judaism, it does not conform to it. It is telling that Horsley cites Daniel extensively, but always leaves out Daniel 9, one of the texts best supporting an apocalyptic Jesus. In addition, he rarely deals with the eschatology of the Qumran Community, despite the fact that they can be fairly described as “apocalyptic.”

A second problem with this section is the idea than apocalyptic means “end of the world.” Horsley makes this explicit when he describes the eschatology of the Similitudes of 1 Enoch as “’imminent but not apocalyptic’ as the end of the world” (49). To me, this is a misunderstanding of Apocalyptic literature. This material does not describe the “end of the world as we know it” so much as the transformation of this present world into kingdom God intended from the beginning. (In fact, Horsley says something very close to this in an interview concerning the book. He would rather drop the description “apocalyptic” because it has come to mean “end of the world.”)

In the second section of the book, Horsley deals with the sources for understanding Jesus. In these chapters Horsley describes Jesus in the tradition of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. These prophets were social critics who challenged the status quo and were often in conflict with the governing authority. Rather than an apocalyptic prophet predicting the end of the world, Jesus was a revolutionary prophet who demanded social change. This led to a decisive confrontation with the authorities resulting in the execution of Jesus. Here Horsley builds on his previous work, first in describing the political volatility of first century Galilee and then by showing Jesus is consistent with several uprisings in the first century that eventually led to the first Jewish revolt.

He argues the sayings of Jesus must be taken in their literary contexts, with a heavy emphasis on the strata of Q. Horsley does not interact with recent proposals that dispense with Q, although in fairness some of these challenges have only been developed recently. In addition, this section of the book could be strengthened by some of the recent developments in memory theory and oral tradition (Dunn, Bauckham, LeDonne, etc.) I frankly found chapter 8 to be a bit dated, even though the book was published in 2012.

The last two chapters of the book are the best in my view. For Horsley, Jesus is a revolutionary prophet with the goal of reforming Israel around the Mosaic Covenant. Jesus wanted to renew Israel and call them back to covenant faithfulness in exactly the same way that the prophets of the Hebrew Bible did for Israel and Judah. Jesus and his followers were formed by “Israelite tradition, the deeply rooted memory of Moses and Joshua, the founding prophets of Israel in the events of the exodus and the coming into the land” (117). Everything Jesus did and said was designed to call to mind what Israel was meant to be in the first place; even his healings and exorcisms called to mind Elijah and Elisha.

Because he was leading a prophetic movement, Jesus naturally came into conflict with the ruling authorities, and this resulting in his execution (145). For Horsley, Jesus was a threat to the Roman Imperial order as well as the ruling Temple-state. Because he prophesied against the Temple during the Passover, the aristocratic priesthood moved against him. Jesus was “more than a raving ‘maniac’ uttering mournful laments of doom over Jerusalem,” he was understandably a threat to Rome and the ruling Temple-state, and he therefore became a “martyr to the cause of the renewal of Israel under the direct role of God” (149).

Conclusion. This short book is a good primer for reading Horsley. I have always found Horsley to be stimulating and thought provoking, and this book is exactly what I expected from him. But there is nothing particularly new in the book and there are numerous instances where he cites chapters in previous works for a more developed argument. Since the purpose of the book is in fact to highlight two problems and offer a brief solution, the book is successful. The reader is prodded towards other monographs and articles for the details.

NB: Eerdmans has a nice interview with Horsley talking about the book on YouTube. I bought this book myself, but this did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Jesus the Bridegroom Review at First Things

00_PICKWICK_TemplatePeter J. Leithart at First Things reviewed my book, Jesus the Bridegroom. Despite being a revised dissertation, he calls it a “fine monograph” despite my “failure to incorporate the temple” into the study. Leithart says “He comes close to recognizing its centrality in several places (when he notices that Isaiah 41 lists the materials for tabernacle construction [86], or when he notes the connection between the “cloud” and the nuptial chamber in Isaiah 4 [122]), but he doesn’t follow through.”  Leithart says that the Temple “is a place of festivity, of marital covenant renewal, of enthronement of the divine Bridegroom in the trysting place in the wilderness.” Perhaps, but I am not sure that language appears in the Hebrew Bible, even if it does in later rabbinic reflections on the Temple. Nevertheless, I appreciate the nudge toward other evidence to support the thesis of the book.

The full title of the book is Jesus the Bridegroom: The Origin of the Eschatological Feast as a Wedding Banquet in the Synoptic Gospels. The book is an edited version of my dissertation. As I was working on my dissertation, people would ask what I was writing on. I usually said “an intertextual study on messianic banquet imagery in the Synoptic Gospels.” After a moment of awkward silence, I clarified: “Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is like a Wedding Banquet – what’s up with that?”

The book is now available through Amazon and the Wipf & Stock website. The book retails for $33, but Amazon and Wipf & Stock have it discounted. The Kindle version is only $9.99 and claims to have real page numbers. I have not seen a Kindle version yet. If you live in the Grand Rapids area, I have a few copies in my office if you want to get one directly from me.  If you do get the book, leave a nice review on Amazon, I would appreciate that.

Obviously I would love for you to buy a copy, but that is not always possible. Here’s how you can help get the word out for me:

Of course, I would really like to hear feedback from anyone who reads the book – feel free to send me an email to continue the discussion. Thanks!

Book Review: Michael Graves, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture

Graves, Michael. The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. Grand Rapids, Mich. Eerdmans, 2014. 201 pp. Pb; $24.00.  Link

Michael Graves (Armerding Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College) is a well-qualified student of the literature of the early church. He is the author of a monograph on Jerome’s Hebrew Philology (Vigiliae Christianae Supplements, Brill, 2007) and he translated Jerome’s Commentary on Jeremiah (Ancient Christian Texts, IVP, 2012). This monograph is focused on how the early church understood Scripture as well as how they interpreted it. In general, the earliest Christians readers of the Bible regarded it as true, but they approached Scripture with methods “very much at home within the cultural context of the Greco-Roman world” (9). That Scripture was “inspired by God” is axiomatic for these interpreters, the implications of the inspiration of Scripture are in many ways different than what a modern reader of the Bible might assume to be the case.

Graves, InspirationGraves develops twenty “entailments” of the early Church doctrine of inspiration arranged into five chapters. In each chapter he defines his thesis (“Scripture is useful for instruction” or “Scripture has multiple senses,” etc.)  In most cases he illustrates how non-Christian writers had similar commitments to their sacred literature, often using Philo or rabbinic literature, and occasionally the Qu’ran. Graves then illustrates the thesis in the writings of the church fathers. Origin, Jerome and Augustine are the often cited, but he demonstrates his thesis with a wide variety of fathers. He then makes a few evaluative comments on how the early church differs from modern approaches to Scripture. For some of his entailments, there is little difference between the ancient and modern views. For some of the hermeneutical sections, however, the difference between modern approaches to Scripture and the early church is quite striking.

First, Scripture is useful. All early Christians not only accepted Scripture as useful for instruction (2 Tim 3:16), but also that every detail of scripture has meaning. Even peculiar or extraneous details could be mined for theological significance. Graves illustrates this with Ephrem the Syrian’s interpretation of the three decks of Noah’s ark in Gen 6:16 as representing the three levels of Paradise. Numbers were frequently allegorized, so that the 318 men who helped Abram in Gen 14:14 represented Jesus, since the abbreviation for Jesus in Greek adds up to 18, and the symbol for 300 is tau, which looks like a cross (24-25). Most modern readers would find little in these methods.

Second, Scripture has a spiritual dimension. Because of this spiritual dimension, divine illumination is necessary to interpret the Bible. Only a believer has the spiritual acumen to understand the various “senses” of Scripture. In fact, the spiritual sense was more important than the literal. Unlike modern readers of scripture who demand close attention to the literal sense (although rarely agreeing on what “literal sense” means), most writers in the early church cared little literal meaning of Scripture. Graves comments that “virtually all Christians in antiquity believed that the Old Testament laws should be understood as teaching spiritual truths instead of practices to be observed (51). Augustine famously said that the Old Testament was death to him when he took it literally, only the spiritual sense made it alive. One of the key ways the early church found spiritual meaning in the Old Testament was to find predictions of the life of Jesus in the stories of the Old Testament. This is of course what the writers of the New Testament did, the earliest writers simply expanded on this method.

Third, the early church recognized that Scripture often employs modes of expression that are sometimes puzzling. There are “riddles and enigmas” to solve, but this is not too different than the approach of Greek readers to their own classical documents. Allegorical interpretation of mythic literature was common, even Homer was allegorized to discover deeper, philosophical meanings. The early church writers believed God hid deeper truths in the Scripture in order to reach people at different levels of spirituality and to encourage people to seek deeper things. Like many post-modern philosophical texts, obscure and enigmatic language was thought to better communicate profound ideas. Unfortunately, many of the earliest writers took this to the extreme of finding “deeper meanings” even in the etymology of a word, especially names. While a modern scholar recognizes creative use of language by the writers of the Bible (such as wordplay), few would be convinced by this method today. Since Scripture employed enigmatic expressions, it ought to be appreciated as fine literature. This was not appreciated early, since in translation the artistry of the original Hebrew was lost, but eventually early church writers described the Bible as artistic and having “marvelous sublimity” (79).

Fourth, Graves deals with the problem of historical accuracy of Scripture. In the twentieth century, the historicity of Scripture has been far more controversial than any of the other “entailments to inspiration” in this book. Recent inerrancy debates concerning the accuracy of the Old Testament (historical Adam, etc.) would make as little sense to the ancient writers as their allegorizing numbers makes to us. Nevertheless, writes such as Augustine and Jerome sought to answer potential objections raised by the pagans. Augustine thought Scripture, “when rightly interpreted, will never contradict what we learn from the natural world, when the facts have been correctly understood” (97). Not only was Scripture factual, it will not conflict with “pagan learning.” This should not be a surprise since most of the ancient writers had typical classical educations in Greek philosophy. Commenting on Genesis 1 Basil said the findings of natural science and Scripture are fully compatible (96). This is would be a remarkable thing to say today, since science dismisses Scripture entirely and (some) conservative Christians dismiss the findings of science as a vague conspiracy against Christianity.

Fifth, Scripture agrees with truth. On the one hand, all of Scripture is consistent and self-confirming. The ancient writers often harmonized details between the testaments since they were committed to the fact that Scripture does not deceive. For someone like Augustine, this means reports in Scripture of David’s adultery (for example) are accurate even if this implies David was far from saintly.  Scripture is true, even if some of the characters in Scripture are bad people. Since the focus of Scripture is God, any teaching derived from Scripture ought to be “worthy of God” himself. For a writer like Origen, the stories of Joshua’s slaughter of the Canaanites was disturbing, but his allegorical interpretation of the events brought the teaching of Scripture into harmony with the nature of God.

Conclusion. For some modern interpreters of Scripture, the commentaries of the earliest church are so foreign that they seem of little value. I confess that I struggle to be interested in ancient commentaries and theological texts. At less than 150 pages without the end notes, this book offers a useful introduction to a complex topic for even the non-specialist.

After surveying this material, Graves says that reading the earlier writers of the church offers insight into the “rich and complex reading of Scripture” which “underscores the element of subjectivity involved in interpretation” (147). Every generation of the church has attempted to read Scripture as an authoritative revelation from God, but also to read Scripture within the culture of the day. Perhaps this is the warning of a book like this: what seems to be the proper method of interpretation today may seem strange in a hundred years. What lasts is the commitment to read and apply Scripture as God’s word.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.