Reading the Bible Like the Early Church

by Matthew Y. Emerson

At Oklahoma Baptist University, I teach a class called Theological Method. During the first third of the class, we survey different approaches to the task of theology, moving from the early church through the modern period into our own day. One of my goals in walking students through this historical material is to show them the theological assumptions that lie behind the early church’s approach to biblical interpretation and theology. Here I want to briefly summarize those.

 1. Canonical Unity

The early church assumed that the Bible was one book, centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ both in terms of content and in terms of its overall shape, or narrative. It also assumed that the Bible had textual connective tissue; Scripture quotes Scripture, all the time. These two theological assumptions about the nature of the Bible led to the twin interpretive commitments that we call the regula fidei and analogia fidei, the rule of faith and analogy of faith.

2. Creedal Unity

In addition to the unity of the Scriptures, the early church also believed that the doctrine derived from God’s Word was unified. Because theology is a whole cloth, or fabric, care must be taken when theologizing about any one topic to understand its implications for other topics. For instance, when the early church talked about whether or not Christ has one will (the divine will of the Son) or two wills (one according to each nature, human and divine), they were concerned about how their answer would affect both the doctrine of God and the doctrine of salvation.

3. Christological Unity

This is closely related to the first, but it also gives grounds to it. The Bible centers on Jesus because God’s revelation of himself and all of God’s creation and providence over it center on Jesus. In terms of creation, the early church (and specifically Maximus the Confessor) talked about the Son, who is God’s Word and Wisdom, as the metaphysical center of the universe. That is, everything that exists is patterned after Wisdom. And with respect to providence, all things are ordered toward God’s revelation of himself in the person and work of Jesus Christ. That brings us to the ultimate reason that creation, providential care, and Spirit-inspired canon are Christological –- “he who has seen the Son has seen the Father.” The Trinitarian shape of God’s revelation -– from the Father through the Son by the Spirit -– dictates the terms of creation, providential care, and inspired canon.

These theological assumptions guided the way the early church read the Bible and formulated doctrine. If we want to understand their exegetical and theological conclusions, and if we want to learn to read like them, we have to grasp why they read the way they did.

In the next post, I will show this in practice by briefly outlining Proverbs 8.