Robert Louis Wilken lecture on the Church Fathers and Scripture

Wheaton College, just a bit over an hour from my home, has inaugurated the new Center for Early Christian Studies.  On October 29, Robert Louis Wilken of the University of Virginia gave the inaugural lecture, “Going Deeper into the Bible:  The Church Fathers as Interpreters.”  Although I wasn’t able to go, I listened to the lecture last week.  You can do the same by clicking on the above link for the CECS.

Wilken tried to show how the Church Fathers interpreted Scripture.  David Neff, Editor-in-Chief of the Christianity Today Media Group, attended the lecture and gave a summary of Wilken’s argument and the example that he used about the interpretation of Isaiah 6:

Evangelicals have long taught that the meaning of Scripture is open to every Spirit-led reader, and that biblical interpretation must not be held hostage by church tradition. Isn’t the Bible intelligible without the Fathers?Yes, of course, in a sense it is. But the Fathers help us go more deeply into the Bible, Wilken said. They teach us to read it more slowly and enter it more deeply. He illustrated this by looking at several passages through their eyes, showing the way in which they treated the Bible as a single, coherent book in which difficult passages are illuminated by other passages. Indeed, those other texts raise the questions that lead us deeper.

Thus Isaiah‘s report in chapter 6 that the prophet “saw God” is clearly in tension with passages (such as John 1:18) that suggest no human has seen, or even can see, God. The key, however, is found in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” By mining the notions in that passage, the Fathers were able, not only to explain in what sense some might “see God,” but also to point the way toward the ideal Christian life. Thus to see God is to be united to him through purity of life. Understand, said Wilken, that the Bible is not primarily about the head; it is about the heart.

The example of Isaiah is about halfway through the MP3 of the lecture.  I’d recommend listening to Wilken explain it too.  Neff summarizes Wilken’s points about the way that the Church Fathers read scripture as follows:

1. The New Testament authors clearly applied Old Testament texts in ways that departed seriously from the plain, surface meaning of the text. When Paul cites Psalm 19 in Romans 10 (“their voice is gone out into all the world”), he applies the Psalmist’s statement about the heavens to the preaching of the apostles. This runs against the plain meaning, said Wilken.

2. The books of Scripture do not bear their own significance. They must be united to something greater, which is Christ. Thus Paul interprets the creation of man and woman as a great mystery, which is Christ and the church; and he interprets the water-giving rock in the Sinai desert as Christ.

3. Typically, such creative renderings of the Bible are focused on the Old Testament. That is because the Old Testament text signifies Christ, but the New Testament text does not signify another Christ. It requires no allegory or analogy to reveal the Incarnate Word.

4. The Fathers also understood the interpretation of Scripture to require the reader’s participation in the spiritual reality of the text. Thus it is not enough to say that Christ was crucified. We must also say, “I am crucified with Christ,” and thus also I am raised with Christ.

It was a very worthwhile lecture, so if you’re interested in this topic but haven’t encountered the way that the Church Fathers read the Bible, I’d recommend listening to the whole thing.  There’s a conference coming up in March at the CECS which I’m very excited about.


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