N. T. Wright on Patristic Interpretation

Currently doing a quick read-through of Bishop Tom’s insightful little book Scripture and the Authority of God, and came across this comment on patristic interpretation:

tomwright2What the use of allegory highlights, of course, is the church’s insistence on the importance of continuing to live with scripture, the whole scripture, including the bits which appeared deeply problematic–for instance, some of the more shocking stories in the Old Testament. . . Allegorization, then, represents both an insistence that the church must go on living with and under scripture and a failure, at some levels at least, to understand how scripture itself actually works. . . it looks as though at least some uses of allegory constitute a step away from the Jewish world of the first century within which Jesus and his first followers were at home.

Allegory was in one sense, as is sometimes claimed, a way of ‘saving the Bible for the church,’ in the sense that with the other reading strategies available at the time the less savory passages of the Old Testament might have been jettisoned altogether. . . but allegorical exegesis always ran the risk of conceding a great deal at a more fundamental level by encouraging people to see the Bible in a de-storied and hence de-Judaized way. At this level, allegory was one symptom of a move away from the primacy of the scriptural narrative itself, foreshadowing those attempts in our own day to live under scripture which are in fact an appeal, not to the Bible itself, but to a particular tradition within the life of the church.” (67-8)

I actually quite like this: on the one hand, it recognizes the strength of allegorical interpretation in that it attempts to read the OT in a thoroughly christocentric way for the benefit and usefulness of the church. Surely, this way of reading the OT is to be preferred to the approach of my preaching classes and so much of evangelical Christianity, in which the OT is more or less a collection of quaint ethical stories (NTW: “cozy moral tales”), thus utterly failing to recognize what Scripture really is.

On the other hand, Wright correctly identifies a possible weakness of allegorical interpretation in its tendency to “de-story” and therefore “de-Judaize” the OT. No doubt this was the result of tension between nascent Christianity and ascendant rabbinical Judaism, as early Christians more radically sought to distance themselves from their Jewish heritage. Hence you have people like Marcion, who wanted to throw out the OT altogether as an “inferior” religion, and Ps.-Barnabas, who denied Israel any real place in God’s salvation-history. Even if catholic Christianity rejected these more extreme impulses, the tendency to allegorize may at times more reflect this historical situation than a proper understanding of how the entire scriptural narrative might function as a cohesive whole.


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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5 Responses to N. T. Wright on Patristic Interpretation

  1. Tim Reichmuth says:

    Wow, I am not sure how you understood Bishop Wright to be lauding allegory at all. I will have to read this book to get a fuller sense of where he stands, but it seems clear from this snippet that you have read a different meaning into ‘saving the bible for the church’ which as Bishop Wright appears to use it as a derogatory assessment of the patristic interpreters.

    • krhughes14 says:

      If you read this quotation again carefully, you’ll see the Good Bishop is both praising and disagreeing with the patristic use of allegory. Wright is speaking to the situation in which many in the early church wanted to throw out the OT because of many of its more difficult or unsavory features (e.g., extermination of the Canaanites). The Fathers, however, insisted that the OT be part of the canon, and the way they did this was to interpret these problem passages allegorically. Thus the OT became part of the Christian canon (hence, “saving the Bible for the church”). But, Wright goes on to say (and note the “but” in the quotation), this led people to dismiss the importance of the salvation-history of the OT, thus losing the importance of the actual scriptural narrative. So he’s glad people used allegory to affirm the importance of the OT, but thinks it has lots of weaknesses.

  2. The praising and disagreeing with the patristic use of allegory here makes a lot of sense. I’m still a little confused about people saying that “The Fathers” did such and such, given the variety between them.

    It also sounds like theologians these days are talking as if there are only two options: a historical-critical approach where anything beyond the mind of the original author is ruled out, and a thorough-going allegorical approach in which later allegorizations are put on the same level as the original story. But why are these the only two options? Wright suggests that that we can have both a “fundamental” tone and also “harmonics” or overtones, without replacing the former by the latter. (the musical metaphor is here: https://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/how-can-the-bible-be-authoritative)

    It seems like maybe the calling the allegorical approach “Christological exegesis” goes back to Wilhelm Vischer’s program in the 1940s?

    • krhughes14 says:

      Yes, I think a mediating view is essential that allows for recognizing that Christ is the center of all Scripture but also recognizing the importance of the literal sense. I think my tradition (Anglicanism) does a good job of trying to balance the two, for which I’m grateful. Thanks for sharing the NTW quote!

  3. Robert says:

    It’s interesting that Wright would say that allegorical interpretation would “de-Judaize” when we have Pesher from Qumran and allegorical interpretations and embellishments of the Scriptures from Philo and Josephus.

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