Previously, I discussed how patristic authors believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the interpretive key for understanding all of Scripture. Now, turning to chapter 3 of O’Keefe & Reno’s Sanctified Vision, we consider the first of three major methods of reading utilized within this overarching hypothesis: intensive reading.
The central thrust of this chapter is that a christocentric reading of Scripture does not diminish but in fact heightens the need for careful study and exegesis of the Scriptures. “Exploring countless scriptural details with an eye toward assembling a full and complete picture marks the most basic ‘method’ of patristic exegesis” (45). In other words, “The overall reading was not developed in broad strokes or with large abstractions; it was carefully constructed verse by verse. In this sense, for all the ambition of patristic biblical interpretation, the church fathers were intensive readers ever on the lookout for hints and signs amid the tiniest details of the text” (46).
O’Keefe and Reno identify three strategies of reading that fall under this “intensive” method of interpretation. The (1) lexical strategy analyzed the different meanings a single word could have in hopes of providing a reliable interpretation, while the (2) dialectical strategy focused on two apparently contradictory texts with an eye towards providing an interpretation that could harmonize the two. Neither of these should strike us today as particularly unusual; forms of them are still practiced today.
More interesting, though, is the (3) associative strategy, which “involves the countless ways in which particular words, images, or phrases are joined together in our minds” (48). An interpreter might jump from a verse about “wood” to one about “trees” and from there to several on “fruit-bearing” and so on and so forth. Part of our difficulty in grasping this method comes from modernity’s flattening out of language. For many of those who limit themselves to the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, the fear is that if words or texts are allowed to have more than one meaning, there is no end to the amount of subjective meanings they might have. I take it that this is the fear that drives many conservative Christians to embrace this hermeneutic. But postmodernism is helping us to recapture the intrinsic multivalency of language, such that we could agree with the Fathers, who “thought the scriptures infinitely rich, and, for them, interpretive adventure beckoned in every word and image” (67).
One other noteworthy point from this chapter: the authors make the remarkable claim that careful exegesis drove the development of doctrine, and not vice versa, as is normally claimed. In their discussion of dialectical interpretation, the authors write, “We tend to read figures such as Athanasius with the retrospective knowledge of the development and communal endorsement of his approach. This encourages us to think of the exegesis in treatises such as the Orations against the Arians as attempts to resolve unfortunate textual difficulties that stand in the way of ‘orthodox doctrine.’ … (but this) fails to see how a technical distinction in Christian theology, in this case the distinction between essence and economy, function within the exegesis rather than operating upon it from the outside, either as something to be defended or applied” (60). In other words, the exegetical results stemming from attempts to harmonize apparently contradictory passages of Scripture (e.g., the created or uncreated nature of the Son; cf. John 1:1 and Heb 3:2) were what produced what would become orthodox doctrine (as opposed to saying that these doctrines developed in an independent, theological sense and were then “back-proven” with reference to proof-texts). If this is true, this makes for a very, very different way of thinking about how early Christian theology developed!
Interesting! I’ve since purchased a copy of ‘Sanctified Vision’. Thanks for alerting me to it.
The reason so many current Christians disdain some exegesis of the fathers is not because we do not appreciate their intensive reading or their CHRISTOCENTRIC view of the OT but because of their penchant for associative strategy and particularly their allegorical interpertation which rather than being a result of ‘flattening out’ of language, is a direct result of the often wild results of these methods. The infatuation that post-moderns have with multivalency, not only with language but even what words mean (i.e. original, as it applies to the text of the NT) certainly lends itself to an unwarranted acceptance of the above mentioned methods. We, those you deride as Conservative Christians, view the exegesis of the fathers as both important and helpful when they rely on firmer exegetical grounds.
Fair enough; I would hardly “deride” such a reading of the Fathers as you have proposed here. As you’re suggesting, it does indeed get back to the deeper question of the meaning of human language. I might just add, though, that the Fathers’ “penchant for associative strategy and […] allegorical interpretation” does have NT precedent. The associative strategy seems to be part and parcel of the “testimonia” collections which form something of the sub-structure of various NT writings and appears to be often employed by Paul (see Martin C. Albl, “And Scripture Cannot Be Broken”: The Form and Function of the Early Christian Testimonia Collections). As for allegory, we have precedent in, e.g., Gal 4. So while I agree that we never want “an unwarranted acceptance” of these methods, it does raise the interesting question of what distinguishes good from bad when it comes to these interpretive techniques in light of parallel NT usages. I’m open to ideas!
I will check out this resource on “testimonia”. Also, while maybe my world view impacts my understanding, I have always been able to distinguish the allegory in Gal 4 from attempts by the Fathers or modern preachers as the former being inspired and the latter not. Thanks for the opportunity to grow in Christ!