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LESSON 5: THE PATRISTIC APPROACH TO SACRED SCRIPTURE
by John F. McCarthy
27. Who are the Fathers of the Church?
The true Fathers of the Church are "those Catholic teachers who have persevered in her communion, and whose teaching has been recognized as orthodox."1 The Fathers of the Church, therefore, are the great teachers of the Faith in the early Church. "In a narrower and stricter sense, the name `Fathers of the Church' is reserved for a small number of eminent ancient Christian writers who qualify for the title on the fourfold basis of orthodoxy of doctrine, holiness of life, ecclesiastical approval, and antiquity."2 Roughly speaking, the time of the Fathers extends in the West up to St. Gregory the Great (died 604) and in the East up to St. John Damascene (d. 754). "St. Isidore of Seville (d. 636) and Venerable Bede (d. 735) are to be classed among the Fathers, but they may be said to have been born out of due time, as St. Theodore the Studite [died 826] was in the East."3 In determining what is the "teaching of the Fathers," the formula of St. Vincent of Lérins (d. 434) has been found very helpful: "quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus," that is, "what (has been taught) everywhere, always, by all." The most universally honored Fathers of the Church as such are Saints Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom in the East and Saints Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great in the West. A wider list of approved Fathers of the Church would include such names as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Theophilus of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory the Wonder Worker, Cyprian, Gregory of Nyssa, Ephraem, Hilary, Cyril of Alexandria, Theodoret, Leo the Great, Isidore, Bede, Maximus the Confessor, John Damascene, Theodore the Studite, and others. In addition to the Fathers of the Church there are many early "ecclesiastical writers," some of whose writings have been approved as belonging to the Patristic tradition. As a general rule, only the unanimous agreement of all of the great Fathers of the Church constitutes a solid basis for the existence of a dogma of faith.
28. The works of the Fathers.
Jacques-Paul Migne (pronounced like ming), a French diocesan priest who lived from 1800 to 1875, amongst his prodigious publishing activities, "put the works of all the Greek and Latin Fathers within easy reach"4 with his Patrologia Latina, containing the works of 261 Latin authors in 222 volumes (including 4 volumes of indexes), running from the end of the second century to the death of Pope Innocent III in 1216; and with his Patrologia Graeca, containing, on facing Greek and Latin pages, the works of Greek authors running from St. Barnabas in the first century up to the Council of Florence in 1439. In the twentieth century, many of the works contained in Migne's collections have been republished in critical editions, that is in editions in which painstaking effort has been made to reconstruct as precisely as possible the original text of these works. In English translation, in addition to the separate publication of individual works, various partial collections have been published, and new additions continue to come out.5
29. The Patristic approach.
What is of direct interest in this study is the approach and method used by the Fathers of the Church and by certain early ecclesiastical writers in the interpretation of Sacred Scripture. By their "approach" we mean the particular point of view from which they undertook their interpretation," and by their "method" we mean the set of principles and procedures according to which they arrived at their conclusions.6 There is a basic underlying unity in their approach in that they all believe in the supernaturally revealed realities that constitute the object of Christian faith and in the inspired character of the sacred text. But they differ in this that the school of Antioch, represented above all by John Chrysostom and Theodoret, stressed the literal sense, whereas the school of Alexandria, molded by Origen and Clement of Alexandria and carried forward by most of the Fathers of the West, labored to bring out the spiritual senses.7 Origen saw little value in the literal sense of the Old Testament, and thus he saw no need to defend its inerrancy or moral correctness. But the Western Fathers built their understanding of the spiritual senses upon the at least assumed truth and inerrancy of the literal sense.
30. The school of Alexandria.
The Apostolic Fathers of the first century and the apologists of the second century made some references to typical and other allegorical meanings of the sacred text, but their main interest was in the defense of the literal meaning. Around 180 A.D. Panteus founded the school of Alexandria. Soon afterwards, Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) postulated a pervasive spiritual sense behind the literal sense of Sacred Scripture. Origen (d. around 254) produced the first sustained commentary on the Scriptures, and in this he followed the rule that every passage has a spiritual, or mystical, meaning, but not every passage, especially of the Old Testament, is materially and historically true. Athanasius (d. 375), a great defender of the faith, stressed the literal and historical meaning of the inspired text in his dogmatic and polemic works, and allegorical meanings in his commentaries. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444) brings out the literal sense in his commentaries on some the inspired books and the allegorical sense in his commentaries on others.
31. The school of Antioch.
The school of Antioch was founded by the priest Lucian, who was subsequently martyred in 312. This school stressed the literal and historical meaning of the sacred text, and, while accepting some figurative meanings in the Old Testament, opposed allegorical interpretations on the ground that the Alexandrian commentators were ignoring or denying the historical reality of the events. Thus, John Chrysostom (d. 407) rejected in general the search for allegorical meanings, but he accepted some typological meanings. Nevertheless, Theodoret (d. 458), the most prominent exponent of the later Antiochian school, took an intermediate position between the literal and the allegorical interpretation of the inspired word. The Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great (d. 379), Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395), and Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 389), avoided allegorical interpretations for the most part and brought out especially the literal and tropological meanings of the text.
32. The Latin Fathers.
Among the Latin Fathers, Hippolytus (d. 236), the Latin commentators of the fourth century, Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367), and Ambrose (d. 397) preferred, also for dogmatic reasons, the allegory-centered approach of the Alexandrian school, while Tertullian (d. about 240) and Cyprian (d. 258) stressed the literal meaning. Jerome (d. 420) in his earlier works "preferred the allegorical meaning of Origen whenever the proper literal sense seemed to him to render a text unbecoming or ridiculous," but in his later works "he insisted more upon the literal meaning."8 Augustine (d. 430) in his homilies "indulged in allegories, the mystical interpretation of numbers, and moral applications," while "in his theological works he adhered to the literal sense."9
33. The neo-Patristic approach.
The neo-Patristic approach proceeds from the viewpoint of the Fathers as continued and developed by medieval commentators and modern Patristic exegetes up to the present time.10 Its framework of thought is founded on Church teaching and on all of the tools now available to scholars, while it pays special attention to the new questions that have arisen in our own time. Of particular interest is the defense of the divine inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures against attacks devised by scholars working from the presuppositions of rationalism. The neo-Patristic approach upholds the simultaneous presence of the literal and the spiritual senses in the same verse or passage of Sacred Scripture. This was also the view of the Fathers of the Church inasmuch as they, for the most part, explained the literal sense in defending the Faith and in theological argumentation and they explained the spiritual senses in their homilies. The neo-Patristic approach sees the literal sense as the fundament, not only of the historical truth of the Scriptures, but also of the spiritual senses themselves. The neo-Patristic approach undertakes the study also of the Alexandrian commentators, seeking to absorb their deep insights, but centering the allegorical meanings, not around pagan philosophical ideas, but around the Christian realities of Christ and his Church, of the Four Last Things, and of the Most Holy Trinity. Similarly, the neo-Patristic approach centers its explanation of the tropological sense around the virtues of the soul as explained by writers like St. Thomas Aquinas. The neo-Patristic approach does not presume that there are spiritual senses behind every verse and passage of Sacred Scripture, but neither does it presume their absence. And it does occur in some places that the allegorical, tropological, or anagogical meaning of a verse is also the literal meaning, unless, in these cases, the literal sense is restricted to the bare material meaning of the words.
The neo-Patristic approach is based upon the tradition of the Fathers of the Church as continued and developed by the Scholastic commentators and by modern Catholic exegetes. It favors the situating of the Scriptural commentaries and homilies of the Fathers within the framework of the Four Senses as explained by St. Thomas Aquinas. Where early writers like Origen may have disparaged the historical truth of certain passages of Scripture, the neo-Patristic interpreter defends the historical truth; where some early writers exaggerated or misused the spiritual senses, the neo-Patristic exegete restricts his explanations to patterns rooted in Sacred Scripture itself. Thus, the neo-Patristic interpreter stands on the middle ground of reconciliation of the literal with the spiritual senses and of the whole truth of the inspired word.
- John Chapman, O.S.B., "Fathers of the Church," in The Catholic Encyclopedia (pub. 1909), vol. 6, 2A.
- Martin R. H. McGuire, "Fathers of the Church," in The Encyclopedia Americana, internat. edition, vol. 11, 55A.
- Chapman, op. cit., 1A.
- Chapman, op. cit., 16B.
- Among partial collections of the works of the Fathers that have appeared in English translation, might be noted the following: E. Pusey et al., Library of the Fathers; A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, Ante-Nicene Library; P. Schaff and H. Wace, Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers; J. Quasten and J.C. Plumpel, Ancient Christian Writers; L. Schopp, R.J. Deferrari, et al., Fathers of the Church.
- Cf. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church, footnote 1.
- A brief and informative summary of the use of these two methods by the Fathers of the Church and other early ecclesiastical writers is given in Steinmueller, A Companion to Scripture Studies, vol. 1, pp. 312-328.
- Steinmueller, Companion, vol. 1, p. 324.
- For a brief history of Scholastic and modern exegesis from the viewpoint of Catholic exegetical tradition, see Steinmueller, op. cit., vol. 1, pp. 329-343.
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