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.