BMCR 2006.01.18

Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible

, , Sanctified vision : an introduction to early Christian interpretation of the Bible. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005. xii, 156 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0801880874 $16.95.

For many modern readers, the works of the earliest Christian exegetes are an impenetrable thicket of densely-packed Biblical quotation and allegorical sawgrass. Many who have attempted the marsh have retreated in frustration (or distaste) convinced that there was no plausible methodology controlling the exegetical fancies of the fathers. For those who have been repelled by the swamp, and for those who seek explication of a lost way of interpreting the Bible, O’Keefe and Reno (hereafter O and R) have produced a lively and thought-provoking introduction to the world of patristic thought. Their study is confined to the writers of the first to fifth centuries, and, whether by accident or design, the majority of these writers are from the eastern Greek tradition (Augustine and Hilary of Potiers represent the West). In the main, these writers were also regarded as `orthodox’ by subsequent generations (Origen an obvious exception). Extremely readable and jargon-free, Sanctified Vision describes the tools and methodologies underlying patristic exegesis. It argues for an intellectual coherence underpinning the interpretation of the fathers, despite the difficulties these texts offer to readers trained in post-Enlightenment critical methods. Although the presentation has been pitched to meet the needs of undergraduate students and non-specialists, this book has much to offer anyone interested in early Christian approaches to the Bible.

Sanctified Vision begins with a chapter that establishes just why modern readers find the fathers such a hard slog. Current approaches to this material tend to focus on historical context and the development of theological ideas. While this is a vital and valid approach to the work of the fathers, it does little to illuminate the inner logic of their writings. O and R personalize their discussion by relating their own struggle to both read the fathers and explain them to university students. They locate the crux of the difficulty in modern scholarship’s focus on referential meaning, an approach that is incompatible with the father’s search for the meaning of the text within the text.

The key to appreciating patristic exegesis, argue O and R, is to realize that the fathers read the Bible as a unified whole. Where modern scholars see the Bible as a diverse collection of documents — the work of many hands, collected and reshaped over centuries — the fathers believed that the Bible was a unified whole: every word pointed to the deeper reality of Jesus. Underlying all patristic exegesis was a view that the Biblical text expressed God’s economy; proper exegesis strove toward a proper hypothesis, one that saw Jesus as the recapitulation, the summing up of the Bible.

Chapter three turns to an examination of the tools the fathers used to tease out patterns and interpretations from the Bible. Intensive reading was the basis for all patristic exegesis. O and R discuss three forms of intensive reading: lexical, dialectical, and associative. Origen and his Hexapla is used to exemplify the close lexical work still employed by scholars today. The dialectical strategy assumes that contradictions and difficulties in the text are present for a purpose. Since the Bible was a coherent unity, these difficulties were probed for deeper truths. Finally, associative strategies, sought to link text and ideas based on verbal and thematic associations.

In chapter four, O and R move up the chain of interpretive strategies to typology, focusing on three ways typology was employed. In the first, typology was used to demonstrate that Christ was prefigured in the Old Testament. A common typology drew a connection between Jesus and Joshua, the Old Testament hero who led the Israelites into the promised land. Significantly, typology could be made to flow backwards as well as forward: Joshua’s actions not only prefiguring Christ’s redemptive acts, but the life of Christ illuminating the deeds of Joshua. A second use of typology was to provide justification for Christian praxis, linking the Exodus story with baptism, for instance. The fathers also used typology to explain contemporary Christian experience, reading their own trials and suffering back into the greater archetype of Christ.

The key difference between typology and allegory, suggest O and R, is that a good typology does not need to be explained: the association between the linked signifiers is readily obvious. Allegory, on the other hand, requires a greater amount of work on the reader’s part to discern the connections. The difficulty and fanciful nature of these connections make allegory unpalatable for modern readers. O and R offer the useful analogy of a road map to make sense of allegory: the map is a two-dimensional representation of a rich three-dimensional surface. The Bible can also be read as a map of a multidimensional reality. Allegory was an important tool to move beyond the text in search of a greater reality. Once again, three principal sub-categories are examined: allegory was used to explain texts that made no sense on a literal level, to develop further meaning in texts that did make sense, and to protect the authority of Scripture by denying the literal sense of a problematic passage. O and R conclude this chapter by noting that despite the fact that the allegorical method does not appeal to modern historico-critical scholarship, it is coherent if one presupposes that a divine economy undergirds and unifies the Biblical text. In itself, this presupposition of the fathers is no different than the presupposition that post-Enlightenment interpretive strategies (like feminist theory) have something useful to say about the text.

Chapter six builds on the conclusion of its predecessor by arguing that patristic exegesis, although different than modern approaches, was itself a disciplined and coherent methodology. The key difference between modern scholars and the fathers is that the fathers did not share our modern referential meaning of history. The fathers read the Bible as a subject, rather than a source book for the study of other subjects. O and R illustrate their argument through an analogy with modern science, demonstrating how communal and personal disciplines provide a structure for intellectual inquiry. The fathers read the Bible with preconceived ideas of what they would find in the text, but this, argue the authors, is true of most intellectual endeavours. One of this chapter’s most useful contributions is to stress the connections between ancient and modern intellectual inquiry. Like the fathers, evolutionary biologists attempt to assemble and discern patterns in isolated bits of data, and from this painstaking analysis, larger hypotheses are formed. New hypotheses are governed by a communal body of beliefs about the structure of the natural world, as well as a shared understanding of how these ideas are to be tested and adopted. Where modern scientists attempt to discern the laws that undergird the natural world, patristic exegetes employed a similar approach to find the Christ they believed was integral to the Bible.

Sanctified Vision is an excellent contribution to our understanding of a much-denigrated branch of the history of thought. O and R illuminate the mystery of patristic exegesis in a clear, readable presentation and convincingly demonstrate the inner logic employed by the fathers. I would have liked to see how the authors might have connected their discussion to the non-Christian exegesis of texts in the classical world, but this wider contextualization was not one of the goals of this book. While not a book for specialists, Sanctified Vision is to be highly recommended to anyone looking for a clear and concise guide to the world of pre-critical Biblical exegesis.