This year’s Lent book: Scripture As Real Presence

As you may recall, I made a poll for 2018’s Lent book. Two books were nominated, but I had a year-long rule of only reading books I own in my spare time. Well, now it’s 2019, and that rule is up. So I have chosen one of those two books, Hans Boersma, Scripture As Real Presence, on the grounds that I live a 15/20-min walk from Regent College where he teaches.

Also, I need to get better at reading the Bible. This book should hopefully do that; it is a study of patristic exegesis.

There is always the general desire to read the Bible more consistently. But I think that I am bad at reading the Bible. Either I don’t invest enough attention or I don’t really get it. I’ve already read Vaughn Roberts’ God’s Big Picture, a book that laicises the work of Graeme Goldsworthy. But somehow, situating a passage from the Old Testament in salvation history doesn’t always help.

So this Lent, I want to read the Bible more.

And it strikes me that being equipped to read the Bible better will help. It will also help to re-learn discipline and humility, of course.

I’m hoping Boersma will be part of that better reading. I mean, I already know a lot about the topic, but what I really want isn’t just information about how the Fathers read the Bible but how I can follow in their footsteps. This book will hopefully help with that. I’m on chapter 4, about Melito of Sardis and Origen’s allegorical reading of Exodus. The introductory sections of the book were inspiring and meaty, and the chapter on Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine’s literal reading of Genesis was thought-provoking. In chapter 3, about Origen and Chrysostom on Abraham’s theophany at the Oak of Mamre, we encounter two different styles that are to be held in tension with each other but not necessarily strictly harmonised.

The underlying conviction of this book, and one that the ancient and medieval exegetes also held, is that Scripture itself needs to be theologically and holistically, and Jesus Christ is at the centre of all true exegesis. God makes Himself manifest to us through Scripture, and we need to prayerfully apply ourselves to it. What I want to know is how Boersma now interacts with his former influences, such as the Reformed tradition and N T Wright.

But I do hope his trajectory through the Fathers into Anglicanism will not end with him Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, as happens to so many.

This is a readable book, and so far I can heartily recommend it for Protestants who want a taste of the riches of Scripture beyond the sort of historical exegesis touted almost everywhere else.

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Some thoughts on McGuckin, The Path of Christianity

I’ve recently perused John Anthony McGuckin, The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years (IVP Academic 2017). I’ve not read the whole thing — frankly, I don’t have time, since it’s 1145 pages long and much of it is not pertinent to my current research, whether patristic or medieval, nor to my upcoming teaching in the Autumn (Latin epic and Latin verse epistolography in Autumn, and Theocritus and Greek Mythology in January).

My first thought is: What on earth students could use this as a textbook for a one-semester course on first millennium Christianity? Its 1145 pages are large with a typeface that, while not minuscule, is not large itself. Maybe students at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia are of a higher calibre than what I’ve experienced. Maybe McGuckin doesn’t actually intend you to use the whole book as a textbook; but he does intend it to be useable as a textbook.

That said, a certain amount of text is taken up by readings. So maybe it would work if you didn’t assign a separate book of readings.

In terms of coverage, it is geographically broad, but most interested in patristic and Byzantine things. Nonetheless, it does reach as far East as China and as far South as Ethiopia. There is a whole section devoted to churches outside the Latin-Greek spectrum that takes up most of the attention in church history books. The volume is divided into two sections, one that is a diachronic study of the story of the church and doctrine, whilst the other is an investigation of particular themes. McGuckin’s advice is to read part one in order but to intersperse the chapters from part two along the way, in whatever order you please.

I read a good chunk of Chapter 13 (pp. 763-789), and this chapter I recommend heartily: ‘The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Early Church’. He takes to task the modern approach to biblical studies, arguing that the ecclesial way of reading Scripture was prevalent amongst all Christians prior to the nineteenth century. I always like this kind of thing, because is the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, then there are legitimate ways of reading it other than ‘how I read any other ancient text’, and it will also legitimately speak to us in different ways.

It seems patently obvious to me.

That’s why I do Latin and Patristics, not Biblical Studies.

The first chapter is also very good. He gives good coverage of the early movements within the Christian movement, and I would feel comfortable giving it to my students to read. His central thrust here is that the second century is one of the most important for everything that follows, and I agree.

I did not agree with every chapter I dipped into, I must admit. I think there’s more to Leo the Great’s Tome than McGuckin acknowledges, but I think most people miss what’s going on because the issue is not whether Leo is in step with the times or any of that, but, rather, cross-linguistic theology done by a Latin and the actual semantics of natura vs. physis. But most people don’t think about Latin Christology this way, seeing, as here, it as simply a re-statement of Hilarius of Poitiers and Augustine full stop. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading what McGuckin has to say here.

Likewise, I wasn’t sold on his interpretation of the Pelagian debate as manufactured by Augustinians and not actually a thing. My own position in this debate tends more towards the East, but given how much energy was expended in the initial Pelagius-Caelestius end, and then against Julian of Aeclanum, and later amongst so-called ‘Semi-Pelagians’ and ‘Augustinians’, I think something was happening here. Why is it confined to the Latin West? I’m not going to be reductive about every East-West difference, but I do suspect that gratia is not charis.

My final similar lament is simply a matter of a different reading of evidence for the Acacian Schism. McGuckin takes the standard line that it was over the Henotikon, but it is evident to me, at least, that from Gelasius’ standpoint, visible in his letters at length, it was Acacius entering into communion with Peter Mongus that was at least as important, if not more so.

Some of the translations of primary texts in the readers accompanying each chapter were a bit stilted.

In all, if you have some time, read the bits that interest you. If you have more time, read all 1145 pages. If have a lot more time, add the appendices on top.

Blood: Allegory & Agony 1: Herbert

Masaccio, Christ in Gethsemane (1424/5)

Having just finished Malcolm Guite’s excellent book Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, I am full of thoughts about poetry, theology, imagination, art. In his chapter on George Herbert, Guite writes about the poem ‘The Agony’, and how the line ‘His garments bloody be’ draws the reader to Isaiah 63:3:

I have trodden the wine-press alone … for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments and I will stain all my raiment.

Writes Guite:

But this image, of a wrathful God coming covered in the blood of those upon whom he has taken just vengeance, was daringly and paradoxically applied to Christ by the Church Fathers, both to suggest that, in making atonement, it is his own blood which Christ spills instead of ours, and to make a symbolically profound reversal of the Old Testament metaphor. In Isaiah, the wine grushed from the grapes symbolises blood; in the radical Chrsitian reading of that passage, the garments dipped in blood presage Christ’s gift of his own blood as wine. (123)

This, of course, makes me thirst to read what the Fathers have to say about Isaiah 63. But in looking at them, at allegory and typology and the fulfilment of all things in Christ, some discussion of method is, I think, necessary. So, allow me to write a few posts on these topics — at least the following two topics:

  1. Christological exegesis
  2. Isaiah 63

In the meantime, George Herbert (from this website):

THE AGONY

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

‘Let … a two-edged sword be in their hands’ (Ps. 149:6)

Every day at Lauds in the Benedictine tradition, you pray Psalms 148-150; these Psalms, in fact, give this office its name of Laudes. These Psalms begin ‘Alleluia!’ and are filled with exhortations to praise the Lord — Laudate dominum in Latin.

In the midst of the praise, at Psalm 149:6, we meet this:

Let the praises of God be in their mouth, / and a two-edged sword in their hands;

For some reason, this image always sticks in me. Maybe it’s the rhythm of Coverdale’s verse. Arresting as it is, it’s not exactly the sort of thing Christians today are comfortable with, especially when we read that the sword is for vengeance. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the mainline liberal Psalters have quietly expunged it along with the end of Psalm 137 (like Canada’s BCP).

Now, I haven’t checked any of the Fathers or medieval exegetes on this, but — what do we think that two-edged sword is?

The patristic and, therefore, medieval principles of interpreting the Bible are that the Bible is always right. The Bible interprets itself. The Bible is always about Christ and/or His mystical body, the Church. The literal sense is never to be ignored, but we are called to dig deeper through allegory, typology, etc. And, which should be common to all Christian reading of Scripture: Jesus trumps all.

Attempting, then, to think like the Fathers, we should admit that executing vengeance is something many of them would be uncomfortable with. Are there clues in the verse as to what it means for Christians today? Unlike a modern(ist) reading, this verse cannot be left as a historical relic. It speaks today, to our situation.

Well, where else do we see a two-edged sword in Scripture? Hebrews 4:12:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

This immediately draws us to Ephesians 6:17, in the discussion of the full armour of God, where the Sword of Spirit is the Word of God. What we don’t always think on is Ephesians 6:18, which is what we are to do whilst wearing this armour:

Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints

We’ll come back to this.

Revelation has a few relevant sword references:

And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. (Rev. 1:16)

Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (Rev. 2:16)

And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations (Rev. 19:15)

And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:21)

The Revelation verses are all about the two-edged sword coming out of the mouth of the visionary Christ, the Rider on the White Horse. It is not insignificant that the sword comes from his mouth — Christ is God the Word, after all. And our Ephesians and Hebrews verses refer to the word of God — in this case presumably Scripture — as being a sword.

What, then, is the two-edged sword of Psalm 149:6? It is the Word of God, being wielded by God’s people in battle against the Enemy — not men, but the world, the flesh, and the devil.

St Antony at prayer

And when do we take up this two-edged sword? According to Ephesians 6:18, in prayer. The battle for man’s soul (the Psychomachia) occurs on our knees. Do not forget Saint Antony (fourth-century) when he was confronted with all the denizens of Hell. He proclaimed Psalm 27:3:

Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear

John Cassian (d. c. 435) recommends saying over and over again Psalm 70:1:

O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me.

Let us, then, take up this two-edged sword in our hands, and get on our knees and fight.

Evangelicals read the Fathers for ‘fresh’ readings of Scripture

The word fresh is in quotation marks above because the freshness of the Fathers is relative to the reader. They themselves are not fresh, for they have mostly been around for 1500 years of more. But to many of us, their ideas can be a breath of fresh air.

When I queried Why Should Evangelicals Read the Fathers?, the third response, from a friend doing a PhD in New Testament who was once a pastor, was ‘To learn how not to do exegesis.’ (The other two were ”Cause they’re awesome‘ and ‘Because they are relevant‘.)

When we first meet patristic exegesis, it can often seem quite unfamiliar to us. And some of it is probably bogus. So why should we even try Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers? (To name a book that addresses this very issue.)

To answer this, I think I’ll use a different approach, one that will hopefully highlight those other reasons to read the Fathers — their awesomeness and relevance. I’ll talk about myself (something bloggers like to do).

My very, very first encounter with patristic exegesis was, thankfully, not the beautiful, lyrical, typological poems of St. Ephraim the Syrian. If it had been, I would have been left very puzzled and very nonplussed. No, it was with level-headed, ‘down-to-earth’, ‘Antiochene’ St. John Chrysostom.

I knew of the efforts of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and I wished to make use of such things those few moments when people foolishly gave their pulpits to me. I also knew of the Christian Classics Ethereal Library and its digital version of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) & Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF). Not overfond of reading lengthy text online, especially if Victorian, I got my hands on St. John Chrysostom from NPNF and used him in preparing for homilies.

What I found was not merely attention to detail or the exegesis of the passage in terms of what it meant in its original, historical context. Chrysostom looked at the passage and exegeted it to bring its full weight to bear upon his congregation. He drew forth from the words of Holy Writ spiritual and ethical lessons for his congregation. He called them to lead holy lives.

When Chrysostom talks of St. Paul’s conversion, he also calls his congregation to read their Bibles for themselves. Commenting upon Philippians, he berates fathers who are angry about their sons taking up the religious life — if they are Christians, how is this a bad choice? Better than the pitfalls at the imperial court with its many opportunities for sin and worldliness! Then he says that one could be a light in the darkness at the imperial court, and it’s not a place Christians should avoid.

The Scriptures for Chrysostom and many, if not all, of the Fathers are alive. They speak here and now. They call us to holiness. They call us to contemplation (theoria) of God.* They drive us to worship. They are not objects of study — rather, they turn us into the objects of study. Patristic exegesis was not scary but exciting and invigorating with Chrysostom.

If you are cautious about patristic exegesis, start with St. John Chrysostom.

If you are curious about things less familiar, less like a Sunday-morning evangelical sermon, curious about things that will take you into the land of mystical union with the Divine and the world of the luminous eye (to cite the title of a book by Sebastian Brock), check out my second major helping of Patristic exegesis: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses.

The Life of Moses starts out with Chrysostom’s familiar territory — ad litteram — the literal, historical meaning of the text. St. Gregory (Saint of the Week here) tells us the life of Moses as found in the Pentateuch. There are lessons to be found here about life, ethics, and God. Even that (in)famous allegorist Origen believes in the power and importance of the literal meaning of Scripture.

But Gregory takes us beyond the literal into the mystical world of allegory. Moses’ life is an allegory for our own spiritual world. As the Israelites were saved by crossing the Red Sea, we are saved in the waters of baptism. As Moses ascended the mountain of God into the cloud of unknowing (to borrow the title of a piece of Middle English mysticism), so too is the Christian called to ascend the mountain of God and find God in His incomprehensibility through mystical contemplation.

That’s probably more than enough to make most people uneasy about Patristic exegesis. What has Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to do with me, alone, in a dark room engaged in the ‘useless’ pursuit of omphaloskepsis (‘navel-gazing’, used as a perjorative in the Byzantine Hesychastic Controversy)?

We, as Protestants, shy away from this sort of allegorical, mystical reading, fearing that it will turn the Scriptures into a wax nose that can be twisted in any direction.

When I read The Life of Moses, I found it invigorating, in fact. Who knows if St. Gregory’s mystical allegory is true or ‘right’? What I know is that it contained truth and rightness. I mean to say that it found in all of Scripture a spiritual sense and sought to encourage Christians through the use of Scripture for understanding their special call as followers of Jesus. St. Gregory sees the events of the history of the people of Israel as more than simply the account of God’s dealing with the human race — he sees in them a vision of God’s dealings with each, individual human. God can save you and me, and draw us to Him, if we have the eyes to see and a deep faith rooted in Him and His word.

You may not like allegory. You may think it dangerous. You may confuse it with typology (if that’s the case, read my post about the usefulness of typology in Scripture-reading, as well as on the fourfold sense of Scripture). Nonetheless, I hope that encountering uncomfortable writings such as St. Gregory of Nyssa will jar you into trying to see that there is spiritual benefit in all of Scripture, that the Scriptures are not a self-help book, that the Scriptures are not there as a perfect roadmap to life, but, most importantly, that the Scriptures exist primarily as the revelation of God and as a means for us to be drawn into him.

This leaves us even with a place for the mind-bending typologies of St. Ephraim the Syrian (see this hymn on the Incarnation of his), well worth a read. And then, perhaps we can shed any vestiges that we have the perfect, historically accurate, airtight, ‘useful’ interpretation of Scripture and allow our souls to breathe.

Further Explorations

If you are curious about looking into Patristic exegesis and hermeneutics more, here are two places to start:

Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. IVP. This book was my introduction to Patristic ways of reading the Bible. Worth a read.

Oden, Thomas, General Editor. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. IVP. Hall’s book is meant to be an accompaniment to this 26-volume commentary on the whole of Scripture, including the Deuterocanonical Books, giving brief selections from the Patristic witness ranging from Origen and Athanasius to Cassian and Augustine. A fantastic resource.

*For a good article about Chrysostom and the Antiochene understanding and use of theoria in interpreting Scripture, see Bradley Nassif, “Antiochene theoria [actually in Greek] in John Chrysostom’s Exegesis,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall. IVP.