Early Church, hermeneutics, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us
Graves explains the purpose of the book:
The present book aims to describe what Christians in the first five centuries of the church believed about the inspiration of Scripture. I will do this by identifying various ideas that early Christians considered to be logical implications of biblical inspiration. In other words: What is true of Scripture as a result of its being inspired? What should divine inspiration cause us to expect from Scripture?
The most common text used to understand the doctrine of inspiration of scripture is 2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV)
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
This was also the text used by the early Church to speak of inspiration, but the early interpreters put the accent in a different place than our contemporaries:
It is interesting to note, however, that early Christian interpreters did not invest as much energy as modern Christians have in working out a precise definition of the term “God-breathed” (theopneustos). Rather, for the Church Fathers the most important term in this passage is ōphelimos, which means “profitable” or “useful.”
Using this as an organizing principle, Graves then goes through 20 means by which early Christians read the Scripture in such a way as to be profitable. There are four chapters which lay out the means by which Scripture was read so as to be profitable. The second chapter begins the detailed analysis and speaks of five ways in which the Scripture could be “useful”. For it was useful for “instruction”. Scripture is useful because it provides examples to follow.
The third chapter concert the spiritual and supernatural dimensions of Scripture. This chapter includes four aspects of the supernatural dimension, which includes the famous four-fold meaning or use of Scripture:
John Cassian used Proverbs 22:20 to identify three senses beyond the literal sense, bringing the total number of senses to four: the “literal” sense (history — things past and visible), “tropology” (moral explanation), “allegory” (prefiguring another mystery), and “anagogy” (pointing to heavenly realities). Cassian’s system was passed on to the Middle Ages and ultimately became the well-known medieval “four senses of Scripture,” which are summarized nicely in the following epigram quoted by Nicholas de Lyra (d. 1349): “The letter teaches events, allegory what you should believe, morality teaches what you should do, anagogy what mark you should be aiming for.” The Church Fathers’ belief that Scripture has more than one sense converged with numerous other beliefs that they held, such as that Scripture is useful for instruction, and that all Scripture teaches a unified message. The concept of a higher sense provided some helpful theological tools for the early church but also generated problems.
The fourth chapter concerns “modes of expression” in the Scripture; the fifth, historicity and facility of scripture; and the sixth, agreement with the truth.
Each of the 20 topics discussed begins with a clear statement of the principle. Graves then puts the interpretative principle in the context of both the Greco-Roman and Jewish history of interpretation. Having clearly stated the principle and putting it into historical context, Graves then gives multiple examples of the use of the principle by Christian interpreters, often putting the interpreters into tension with other writers (and sometimes showing development by an individual Christian interpreter).
He then ends each section with a his evaluation of the usefulness of this interpretative principle for the contemporary church. These sections are irenic, humble and quite useful.
The book does precisely what it claims to do. It provides numerous primary source references (which makes it possible to “check his work”). The writing is clear. Even though he is dealing with a technical subject (how to read a text), he never devolves into needless jargon. You don’t need a seminary education to follow his argument; however, the work is not frivolous or breezy.
All in all I found the work very useful and would recommend it to anyone wishing to learn more on this subject. For what he aims to do, I could not image that one could better execute the project.