The Bible in the Ancient Church: Humility and Christ

Greek Majuscule Bible, ‘Codex Vaticanus’ (aka ‘B’); probably from Egypt during Athanasius’ lifetime (4th c)

My final talk on Ancient Christianity in Cyprus was ‘The Bible in the Ancient Church.’ Most of what I had to say I have said here before. I discussed allegory and typology, bringing up Melito of Sardis and Ephraim the Syrian. I also discussed the literal meaning of Scripture, and read out a passage from John Chrysostom’s commentary on Romans.

But what was new territory for me, really, was to discuss humility before Scripture and Christocentric interpretation.

What do the ancients say about humility?

The general attitude is embodied in a few sayings as follows:

Antony of Egypt once said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”’[1]

Abba Poemen said, “As the breath which comes out of his nostrils, so does a man need humility and the fear of God.”

Isaac the Syrian, although a bit later than we are looking this week, once said, ‘No one has understanding if he is not humble, and he who lacks humility lacks understanding.’

Another story out of Egypt tells of a group of believers discussing a passage of Scripture. Everyone gave his own interpretation, speaking his opinion and mind as it came to him. The eldest believer there remained silent, however. One of the others said to him, ‘What about you? What do you think?’ He replied that he did not know, for he was not wise enough to discern the meanings of the Holy Scriptures.

I do not know that we should be so humble as that, but I do think the idea of approaching the Bible with humility is important. When we look at our many fractured denominations, not just between Protestant, Catholic, and various Eastern churches, but within evangelical Protestantism, each claiming that it has the one, true interpretation of Scripture, we should realise that perhaps some humility is in order.

Christocentric interpretation is probably even more important than humility in the face of Scripture. In his book On the Incarnation of the Word of God, Athanasios of Alexandria, Egypt, writes:

And so following the guidance of the sacred word we may now say fearlessly and unhesitatingly that the Son of man came down from heaven, and that the Lord of Glory was crucified: because in virtue of the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God became Son of man, and the Lord of Glory was crucified in (the nature of) the Son of man. What more is there need of? It would take too long to go into details: for time would fail me, were I to try to examine and explain everything which could be brought to bear on this subject. For one who wished to do this would have to study and read the whole Bible. For what is there which does not bear on this, when all Scripture was written with reference to this? (ch. 8)

As far as Athanasios is concerned, the whole point of Scripture is to point towards Christ, either as shadow, type, prophecy in the Old Testament or as fulfilment, proclamation, expectation in the New. This is the general paradigm for reading Scripture.

So we read Irenaios of Lyons, a man born in Izmir, writing in the late 100s about Christ as the second Adam and then going so far as to make parallels between Eve and Mary; he argues that just as sin entered through the disobedience of one woman, so did redemption begin through the obedience of another. When we read this, we don’t have to agree with him. But I, for one, applaud his desire to apply the Old Testament to the Gospel.

If the Bible does not have supernatural significance, if the events of the Old Testament, the bloody, violent purging of the Promised Land and the bloody, violent worship in the Tabernacle, hold only historical value about the beliefs of the people of Israel, I have no business with the Old Testament; I would rather read Homer or Vergil. But if they are part of something bigger, part of the grand narrative of God’s cosmic outworking of redemption and salvation for all of humankind, from Adam to Christ’s Second Coming, and if I can see Christ’s fulfilment of all things in the Old Testament—that’s a Scripture worth knowing.

Furthermore, it’s an approach to the Old Testament that is approved by the New: Christ is the Passover Lamb, Matthew references Christ fulfilling OT prophecies, Christ refers to himself fulfilling statements in the Psalms, Paul refers to an allegorical or typological meaning of Hagar and Sarah, Hebrews sees the Tabernacle and Temple worship as shadows and figures of what has come in Christ, 1 Peter sees Noah’s Ark as a prefigurement of baptism.

These are the ones that sprang to mind immediately while writing my first draft. There are no doubt more. With this attitude and this nexus of thinking in hand, I think we can come up with better exegesis and better preaching and deeper ethics than we often do. And maybe we’ll even smooth over some disputes.


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. B. Ward. Kalamazoo: 1975, Antony 7. See also Abraham of Nathpar, On Prayer 3, in Brock, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer. Kalamazoo: 1987, 193; Martyrius (Sahdona), The Book of Perfection, ‘On the Office,’ 10, in Brock 1987, 206.

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