Biblical scholar Michael Graves sets out to retrieve the wisdom of the Church Fathers in his 2014 book The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. In this concise volume, Graves ably mines the writings of such figures as Origen (c. 185 – c. 254), Tertullian (c. 145 – c. 240), Jerome (c. 247 – 420), and Augustine (354 – 430) to expound their views on the nature and use of the Christian Bible and to recommend how Christians can adapt their approaches for contemporary use.
Graves’ project is much-needed today, when tens of thousands of Christian groups1 hold to diverse understandings of the Bible, and when many Christians struggle to understand how the ancient Scriptures are the way God speaks to us today. The Bible has apparent internal contradictions, differences between Old and New Testaments, and an unscientific account of humans’ origins, to name a few issues, and it’s common in my own Christian circles to hear questions about what should be read “figuratively” or “literally,” and about whether certain biblical commands only made sense in another context. Perhaps the Christians of the first few centuries CE, closer to the composition of the biblical books and the life of Jesus, can clear up some of the current confusion by showing how the Bible was always meant to be read.
While Graves doesn’t solve all these problems in this book, he certainly is a trustworthy and qualified guide to the thought of the Church Fathers. An Associate Professor Biblical Studies at the conservative Christian school Wheaton College, and with a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College, the largest Jewish seminary in North America, Graves is familiar with both the worlds of contemporary evangelical Christianity and mainstream biblical studies. He’s published a dozen journal articles in his twelve-year academic career and has written a book on Jerome’s philology. The robust endnotes of The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture are indicative of his level of scholarship – he engages with current biblical scholars of all stripes, with ancient Greek, Christian, and Jewish thought, and with contemporary Jewish and Muslim scholars.
I have found it difficult to identify biblical scholars who are both honest in dealing with issues related to interpreting Scripture and who are charitable and open-minded, so I was thankful to find in Graves a rare individual who fits the bill. In addition, Graves’ writing is clear and his arguments are well-supported and easy to follow. The nature of Scripture is a controversial topic, but Graves isn’t out to be polemical; he consistently presents nuanced views and charitable, knowledgeable readings of the Church Fathers.
The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture is divided into twenty sections, each of which addresses a specific belief about Scripture held, to some degree or another, by the Church Fathers. Such topics include the usefulness of Scripture, the way Scripture predicted the future about Jesus, the lack of factual errors in Scripture, and the internal consistency of Scripture. On each topic, Graves surveys Christian thinkers from the second to sixth centuries CE, highlighting trends in their approaches while also noting points of difference. Graves makes the particularly helpful choice of including the views of Greek and Jewish contemporaries of the Church Fathers, which portrays the context of sacred-text-reading from which the early Christians emerged. At the end of each section, Graves takes two or three paragraphs to compare ancient Christian approaches to modern ones and to explain his view on how the early Christians’ positions could be adapted for use by today’s Christians.
In some cases, Graves recommends that the early approaches continue to be followed today. For example, he says the Fathers’ focus on the usefulness of Scripture — exemplified by Origen’s view that since Scripture is inspired, it must be useful for teaching (20) — is “an ancient idea well worth transferring to our own context” (22). Other views Graves endorses include the idea that Scripture is not in conflict with other sources of knowledge and that some divine illumination is needed to interpret the Bible.
In other sections, Graves says that while the early Christians’ ideas can be helpful, they cannot be used today in exactly the same way. Graves shows that all the Church Fathers believed Scripture had a higher “spiritual sense” beyond the literal meaning of the words. For example, Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215) saw the colors of the Tabernacle’s curtains, as described in the Pentateuch, as symbolic of the four elements of earth: water, air, earth, and fire; he further saw the high priest’s robe as representing the seven planets known at the time (50). John Cassian (c. 360 – 435) helped systematize the idea of a spiritual sense by identifying moral explanation, allegory, and things pointing to heavenly realities as the three non-literal senses of Scripture (51). Graves believes the general idea of a higher sense should still be accepted today by Christians who believe that all Scripture can be understood through the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus Christ (54). However, Christians should not read spiritually in the same way the Fathers did, since the Fathers often neglected the literal sense of the text and provided arbitrary readings based on irrelevant details.
On some topics, the Church Fathers had views that Graves does not believe should be adopted today in any respect. The Fathers emphasized the importance of proper name etymologies in revealing the nature of characters and things; this was based on a view that Hebrew was the original language of the world and that Hebrew names were the original names given by God (69). Today, we can be certain that Hebrew was not the original language of the world, and furthermore, biblical name etymologies usually do not relate to the literal sense of the account in the text (though they do in some cases2).“Thus,” Graves concludes, “The exposition of proper name etymologies constitutes one of the aspects of ancient biblical interpretation that is least helpful for modern Christians” (70).
Another way this book is helpful is that it can help address the question of whether the church fathers were more “conservative” or more “liberal” in their understanding of Scripture. Would they have embraced the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy with many evangelical leaders, or would they, as theologian and Ichthus contributor Harvey Cox claimed in a letter to the New York Times, have preferred “symbolic interpretation”? According to Graves’ survey, the Church Fathers don’t fit neatly into either camp, and there was substantial diversity among them on this topic. On the one hand, they generally assumed that the historical-seeming stories in Scripture did, in fact, happen (81). Graves supports this claim by citing Fathers such as Jerome, who said that a Christian needed to believe in the historicity of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the ten plagues in Egypt, and the sun standing still in Joshua (82). Jerome, along with Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350 – 428) and Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 – 444), claimed the story of Jonah and the Whale was historical (82).
But not all early Bible readers took each event as historical. Philo (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE), a Jewish commentator, thought that the account of Sarah and Hagar in Genesis was non-literal and taught symbolic truth; Philo also questioned the historicity of the book of Samuel (83). Similarly, Origen didn’t think Jesus actually drove out the money changers from the Temple. Origen was quite direct about the readers’ need to discern the historical from the non-historical, saying, “The prudent reader of the narrative who wishes to guard against deception will use his own judgment as to what he will allow to be historical and what he will regard as figurative” (84). But the non-historical sections weren’t mistakes to Origen; rather, they were clues to some symbolic meaning. Origen still defended the overall historicity of the gospels – he didn’t think they were only allegorical (85).
Graves describes the Garden of Eden as one topic on which early Christians disagreed about historicity. While Origen thought Eden was merely symbolic, another group of interpreters, called the “Antiochenes” by scholars, did think Eden was a historical place (86). Many Church Fathers would often believe a passage had both a literal and a spiritual sense. As Diodore of Tarsus (died c. 390) put it, “… history is not opposed to theoria [“vision” – the spiritual or symbolic reading]. On the contrary, it proves to be the foundation and the basis of the higher senses” (86). This makes it somewhat tricky to classify the Fathers as literalists or not – sometimes they were, sometimes they were not. What seems clear, though, is defending the truthfulness of the literal sense was less important to most of the Fathers than it is to many evangelical Christians today.
Graves concludes his book by arguing that no Christian group today can claim to hold the “traditional” view of biblical inspiration or interpretation and that the presence of multiple interpretations of Scripture is good for the church. While all the Church Fathers had what could be called a “high” view of biblical inspiration, they differed on the details of what that entailed (131). Graves advocates “open discussion of inspiration grounded in faith and learning, which seeks to describe with ever greater clarity the nature of inspired Scripture” as the way for Christians to move forward (131-32). He believes Bible reading is challenging, and that, while it would be nice to have an interpreter with divine authority to explain how the Bible should be used, such an interpreter cannot be identified today. He sees diversity in interpretation of Scripture as inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing – it can promote vibrant Christian thinking and humility, amongst other benefits.
I don’t have much to critique about Graves’ work. It’s a very solid and helpful book. One weakness, though, is that Graves doesn’t sufficiently discuss why the Church Fathers should have something to say to us today, or how we should determine which of their approaches are helpful. Graves seems to select views from the Fathers that he approves of based on findings from modern biblical studies and his own assumptions about the nature and use of Scripture, but he does not seem to take the Fathers’ views as normative for us today. The subtitle of the book is “What the Early Church Can Teach Us,” but Graves doesn’t look at the Fathers as our wise teachers. He does look for guidance from the Fathers, but he simultaneously judges their methods based on his contemporary views.
Personally, I’m wary of adopting core theological opinions that were invented in recent decades (though some of my views may fit into this category), and knowing how the early Christians thought about Scripture helps me understand what views of the Bible are recent ideas and what views are ancient. Graves’ book has made it clear to me that denying the historicity of some sections of Scripture is not a recent innovation, but that believing the Scripture to be wholly truthful and without error in what it intended to say was a shared belief for the early Christians. It’s certainly concerning to find ways of reading Scripture that were commonplace among the early Christians but are completely different from what anyone does today, but Graves’ location of the Fathers’ strategies within the ancient contexts helps me see why they’d adopt these perspectives.
The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture is a wonderful book with a wealth of information about what the early Christians thought about Scripture. Each reader can come to the book with his or her own questions about Scripture and will find companions from millennia past who grappled with similar issues. I cannot highlight all of the interesting points presented by Graves in this brief review, and thus I must commend the interested reader to pick up the book.
Graves, Michael. The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. 201 pp. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. $24.00.
Peter Hickman ’16 is an Applied Math concentrator in Leverett House. He likes spending his summer days reading about Christian theology by a small pond in Bonne Terre, MO and writing book reviews at the Bonne Terre Memorial Library.
- See Barrett, David B., George Thomas Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson. World Christian Encyclopedia: Religionists, Churches, Ministries: a Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World. Oxford University Press, 2001. The estimate of 33,000 Christian denominations is discussed here. ↩
- This is generally through wordplay. For example, “Adam” is formed from the ‘adamah (ground), “Abraham” is related to the Hebrew for “father of a multitude,” and “Jesus” is related to the Hebrew for “he saves” (66) ↩