How to Integrate Patristic Voices In the Local Church

by Shawn J. Wilhite

Todd Billings poses the following question in The Word of God for the People of God,

If the idea of reading very old commentaries on Scripture is new to you, it may seem counterintuitive. Aren’t we supposed to interpret the Bible as God’s word for today?[1]

This question frequently enters the pastor’s study as they study God’s word so as to say something meaningful to today’s struggles, problems, social issues, and more. Why would we even dare to consider reading something a bit more antiquarian?

But this is what I, and others, dare to suggest.[2] A way to move forward and vivify the readings of Scripture is to break open the treasure trove of the past. Therefore, some groundwork needs to be cleared before an argument for exegetical retrieval can be of value. For some, the ancient authors seem weird and odd readings of Scripture. For others, why would we read ancient interpreters when they are distantly removed from our current historical situation?

Permit me, then, to offer a few comments as to what retrieval exegesis is not and what it is:

  1. First, retrieval exegesis is not a blind acceptance of all ancient readings of the Bible. I often hear an objection to reading early interpreters of the Bible as fanciful or imaginative exegesis. Sometimes this is true, but they sometimes offer more intensive readings of the Bible and make different connections between passages than modern readers—both allegorical and literary.[3]
  2. Second, retrieval exegesis is not chronological snobbery to say older is exclusively better than newer—even though it can be in some cases.
  3. Third, retrieval exegesis does not jettison modern methods of reading the bible.

Thus, retrieval exegesis hears and listens to the voices of the past for one’s current understanding of the Bible. Retrieval exegesis mines the past that permits an ancient figure to shape, influence, and contribute to the current repository of readings. Retrieval exegesis recovers the voice of the past to help shape the present.

Billings helpfully expresses a word of caution for such an endeavor.

In the end, we should read premodern exegetes in particular not because we always agree with their positions. Indeed, they often disagree with each another. We should not 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.[4]

The following seeks to provide tangible ways for retrieval exegesis. The pastor’s study or the ministry leader is already quite busy, and it makes little sense to add a few more tasks to an already busy week. However, the following has in mind a busy pastor or ministry teaching leader. These suggestions will open new ways of studying the Scriptures with the tools that are already available.
 

1. Add One Ancient Commentary to Your Exegetical Study

The first step towards retrieval exegesis is merely to add one ancient commentary to your exegetical study. You all know that single commentary that is found at the bottom of your list, it is the last one that you’ll pick up—but it’s still used nonetheless. I would recommend ditching such commentary and adding a Church Father’s commentary in its stead. In this way, you are not totally adding an extra item to your reading process.

When you are studying particular books of the Bible, be mindful of the following Patristic series’s: Fathers of the Church, Ancient Christian Writers, Ancient Christian Texts, Popular Patristics Series, Oxford Early Christian Texts, Monachos Patristic Source Texts, and IVP Ancient Christian Commentary.

When beginning a new book for your sermon preparation, scan a number of these texts to see if there is an available commentary on these books of the Bible. Also, an appendix in Reading the Bible with the Dead offers a guide to English translations of pre-1600 commentary literature.[5]

For example, the Fathers of the Church Series offers numerous commentaries on books of Bible: Oecumenius on Revelation; Origen on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Romans, and more; Augustine on the Gospel of John; or John Chrysostom on Genesis and the Gospel of John. The Popular Patristics Series has some on the following: Tertullian, Cyprian, and Origen on the Lord’s Prayer; a compilation of interpreters on the Transfiguration; and more.
 

2. Utilize the “Passage Guide” Features in Logos 6 (and updated versions)

Most students of Scripture now use Bible software in their study. Whether it is Accordance, Bible Works, or Logos, computer software is part of the student’s life.

The Logos 6 data package features an ancient texts portion. Merely provide a Scripture reference in the “Passage Guide” feature and a number of ancient texts will emerge (ancient Jewish and early Christian). These show allusions or quotations of the biblical tradition. Merely hover over the hyperlink, if you have available books, and it will give you the direct passage. If you do not have any available sources as a part of your Logos software, then copy the ancient text reference and consult free online sources.


3. Take Advantage of the Online ANF, NPNF1, and NPNF2

Another way to step towards retrieval exegesis is to take advantage of free online resources. The ANF, NPNF1, and NPNF2 is a standard series—although dated—for ancient texts. It is 38 volumes and begins with the Apostolic Fathers and extends through Post-Nicene figures.

Christianbook.com kindly lists the table of contents for the entire series (see here). A simple “search and find” will help you scroll the contents within seconds. Once you know what figure wrote on what biblical book, you will need to consult the ANF, NPNF1, and NPNF2 series.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library hosts the entire set in open access format (see here). Also, if you are looking to see who made a brief comment on individual chapters in the New Testament, they also have a catena of texts (see here).
 

4. Invest in a Retrieval Commentary Series

With other scholars catching the vision of retrieval exegesis, a number of commentary series help recover ancient voices. I would recommend consulting some of the following commentary series: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible; Blackwell Bible Commentaries; The Church’s Bible; Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar.

The Brazos commentary series is a Theological Interpretation of the Scriptures with a Nicene theological confession. It seeks to integrate theological readings of the Bible with the ancient voice.

The Blackwell Commentary Series is a history of interpretation commentary. Each author will focus on the reception of individual books of the Bible throughout the centuries.

The Church’s Bible focuses on the Patristic and Medieval readings of Scripture. It offers both a compilation of quotations as well as the integration of such thoughts for discussing the meanings of Scripture.

The Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar series is for those who have acquired and can use German literature. This is an ecumenical commentary focusing on the History of Interpretation of the Bible.
 

5. Master BiblIndex

Learn the searching capabilities of Biblindex. At the outset, this last feature requires advanced research skills and time for expanded research. It may take a few efforts to work through this database.

Biblindex is a free online database that hosts 400,000 biblical references in the Church Fathers. I recommend using Firefox as your Internet browser because it does not function well with Safari or Explorer. In this database, you are able to search for any bible verse in a number of early interpreters of the Bible.

The most difficult aspect of this database is interpreting the results. Because this is a more academic database, it will point you to primary language sources. So, basic translating skills and access to particular books is required.

These steps, and not all need to be followed, will help weary teachers move towards recovering ancient and pre-modern readings in your study. Take note of which step is more right for you as you reach into the Church’s past to help invigorate your study of Scripture. By inviting ancient voices of the past to influence your reading of Scripture, you invite yourself and others to experience the well of riches of ancient past.

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Editor's Note: This post abbreviates a previous 3-part series by Shawn Wilhite for the Center for Ancient Christian Studies: Part one; Part two; Part three.

 

[1] J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 151.

[2] Michael Allen and Scot R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).

[3] See more from John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), ch.3.

[4] Billings, Word of God for the People of God, 188.

[5] Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead, 274–301.