Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Church Fathers on the Intimate Relationship Between Character Formation and Biblical Exegesis

In the following passage from Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Christopher A. Hall unpacks the patristic insight regarding the "dialectic between spiritual growth, character formation and understanding Scripture."  This insight serves as an important corrective to the individualism of many Protestant approaches to reading the Bible.  And it provides a means for critically engaging an intellectualism that reduces discipleship to a thought experiment, eschewing commitment to a community grounded in Tradition for the sake of salvaging a "relevant" Christianity in ways that often end up revising or jettisoning the core content of the Church's faith.  Hall reminds us that there is a more ancient, faithful, and better way.

The [church] fathers affirmed a deep connection between the spiritual health of biblical interpreters and their ability to read the Bible well.  For the fathers, the Scripture was to be studied, pondered and exegeted within the context of worship, reverence and holiness.  The fathers considered the Bible a holy book that opened itself to those who themselves were progressing in holiness through the grace and power of the Spirit.  The character of the exegete would determine in many ways what was seen or heard in the text itself.  Character and exegesis were intimately related.

For example, in his well-known work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius adamantly insists that

the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures [demands] a good life and a pure soul. ... One cannot possibly  understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. ... Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so.  Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.  Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven.

Gregory of Nazianzus offers much the same advice in his theological orations.  Studying and speaking well about God does not belong to everyone, not "before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits."  Gregory insists that theological study "is permitted only to those who have been examined, and are past masters in meditation, and who have been previously purified in soul and body, or at the very least are being purified."

Neither Athanasius nor Gregory envisioned exegesis or theology as the academic activity of biblical scholars or theologians divorced from the life of the church or personal spiritual formation.  Rather, the fathers believed, the best exegesis occurs within the community of the church.  The Scriptures have been given to the church, are read, preached, heard and comprehended within the community of the church, and are safely interpreted only by those whose character is continually being formed by prayer, worship, meditation, self-examination, confession and other means by which Christ's grace is communicated to his body.  That is to say, the fathers argue that any divorce between personal character, Christian community and the study of Scripture will be fatal for any attempt to understand the Bible.  This holistic, communal approach is surely a methodology that warrants a close investigation in our highly individualistic, specialized, segmented world.

The fathers' insistence on spiritual health and integrity as we approach the Bible is advice we must heed.  Sadly, our words and lives too often do not fit together.  We are not of one piece.  The fathers' call to wholeness and integrity, to allow our lives to be shaped by the narratives of Scripture within the community of the church - so that we can understand and communicate that narrative in an ever more faithful manner - is a sine qua non for understanding how and why the fathers go about the business of exegesis.  The dialectic between spiritual growth, character formation and understanding Scripture is a crucial patristic insight.


Zack Guiliano said...


Many thanks for this post; this is a theme I have been reflecting on for some time. May we all become "of one piece" in "wholeness and integrity" in our reading of Scripture.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for commenting, Zack. I gather from your blog that you've been working on a book about reading the Bible. Is that still in the works?

Zack Guiliano said...

Unfortunately, I had to halt work on that particular book. I was fairly sick this past Spring for about 6 weeks. It left my health in a very poor state and my slate of work in shambles, such that I have either been resting or playing catch-up over this Summer. I still hope to return to it, and I have the chapters planned out. It was going to be a mix between a reader in patristic and medieval authors on Scripture, my own explanation of such texts, and some practical study questions, exercises, and prayers. But I'm afraid it will be on the backburner for the next couple years, as I focus on completing my PhD.

Hopefully, that means it will be a work of more lengthy and careful reflection when it does arrive. I think it is an immensely important topic.

Bryan Owen said...

I'm very sorry about the health issues and delays, Zack. And I quite agree that this is, indeed, an immensely important topic. I hope that, in good time, you can return to this project. I would love to have access to a resource like that!

Anonymous said...

There we go . . .
Thanks for the blast from the past.