The Prophet Amos and the Resurrection, Part Two

Do Apostolic and patristic exegesis ignore of the historical meaning of Scripture? That is, are they ignorant of such, and if not, do they simply dispense with it? A great many historical-critical interpreters, together with fundamentalist literalists of all stripes, seem to assume one thing or the other, often regarding interpretations like that of St Ireneaus (grounded though it is in that of St Luke) as fanciful flights of the allegorical imagination. To seek a basic answer to this question, let us consider another instance of patristic exegesis of Amos 9:11-12, this time from the pen of St Cyril of Alexandria:

The tabernacle of David means the race of the Jews. It must be known that after Cyrus has freed Israel from captivity, they returned to Judea and built the temple of God. Then, after they had again fortified the cities that had been destroyed before, the lived in security day by day for a long time, that is, for many days and long periods. They became and example and an assurance for all the other nations that it was necessary thereafter to turn to God. . . . This is an explanation of the history of these things, but a more hidden and truer interpretation would be in Christ [ὁ δὲ ἐσωτέρω καὶ αληθέστερος εἴη ἂν ἐν Χριστῷ]. Indeed after he came back to life from the dead in his tabernacle that had fallen into death, that is, after God has raised his earthly flesh, then at that very moment he brought all human things back to their original ordering and all our things that had been overthrown have been brought to a new dignity. For, if as Scripture states, anyone in Christ is a new creation, we have then been raised together with him. So whereas death demolished the tabernacles of all, God the Father rebuilt them in Christ1.

Evidently, St Cyril intends to take full account here of the literal meaning of the text as best he understands it, and does not neglect its exposition. He doesn’t stop there, however, but rather proceeds to explain that a “more hidden and truer meaning [than the historical] would be in Christ.” That such a meaning is “more hidden” (ἐσωτέρω) is hardly disputable, but the suggestion that it is “truer” (αληθέστερος) might give us pause. Let us not imagine, however, that the implication is that the historical meaning is less true than the meaning “in Christ” (and therefore specious); if this were the case, St Cyril would not have occupied himself in its exposition. What he does here is point us in the direction of the Christotelic hermeneutics reflected in the Apostolic use of the Old Testament.

The point that the Fathers, whose interpretation of Scripture was shaped by Apostolic exegesis and stands in continuity with it, would regard the mere historical reading of the text as a puzzling endeavor has been made often. Frances Young, however, goes a step further and forcefully brings this point to bear on the contemporary crisis of historical criticism:

The results of the Fathers’ exegetical methods have often been dismissed because of their so-called disregard of history.  Indeed, the standard English account of Origen’s exegesis virtually organises the material around the view that Origen never really understood the Bible because he sat too loosely to history.  Since that book was written, the shift in biblical studies has helped us to recognise that concern about ‘history’ has a very modern ring.  The Fathers would condemn much modern exegesis for its exclusive focus on the ‘earthly’, and its lack of concern with the ‘heavenly’ dimension of the text.  A reassessment of their assumption that the Bible has a ‘spiritual meaning’ is necessary, as is a review of the procedures whereby they unravelled the symbols discerned in the text.  Debate is needed about potential criteria for distinguishing justifiable and unjustifiable ‘allegory’.  This is important not only for patristic interpretation but also for modern hermeneutics.  Without a form of allegory that at least allows for analogy, the biblical text can can only be an object of archaeological interest.  Recent trends suggest that there is considerable dissatisfaction with the limitations of historico-critical research precisely because it yields no hermeneutic2.

Apostolic and patristic exegesis point the way out of this modernist impasse because they yield the Christotelic hermeneutics which have so often occupied us here. It is crucially important, of course, to learn that St Luke, and both St Irenaeus and St Cyril after him, understand Amos 9:11-12 to be a prophecy of the Resurrection. Those of us who regard Apostolic and patristic exegesis as normative might even be tempted to stop there, since we have already learned the “more hidden, truer meaning” of the passage. I’m afraid that this easy (and frankly, lazy) solution will not do.  We must strive to grasp not only the “what,” but also the “why” and “how” of such an interpretation if we truly wish to honor our commitment. Otherwise, we are ultimately dispensing with our normative exegesis because it will end up having no practical bearing on our reading of Scripture, and as the infallible Moisés Silva reminds us,

If we refuse to pattern our exegesis after that of the apostles, we are in practice denying the authoritative character of their scriptural interpretationand to do so is to strike at the very heart of the Christian faith3.

Of course, the Apostolic exegesis that shaped that of the Fathers did not arise in a vacuum. In the next installment, we will consider another instance of the interpretation of Amos 9:11-12, but this time outside the New Testament.

Notes:

1 Catenæ græcorum patrum in novum testamentum 3:249-50, quoted in Francis Martin (ed.), Acts, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament, vol. 5 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), p. 187.

2 Frances M. Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002), pp. 3-4.

3 Moisés Silva, “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Text and Form,” in D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (eds.), Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 164.

20 responses to “The Prophet Amos and the Resurrection, Part Two

  1. Oh, I almost forgot–this reminded me of a passage I particularly enjoyed in one of the Papadiamandis stories I read yesterday, ‘A Pilgrimage to the Kastro’. This village priest, Papa-Frangoulis, is teasing his simple-minded chanter Alexandris with double entendres taken from the Church’s hymnography. Thus:

    ‘And what does “Babylon despoiled Zion the Queen” [Nativity Matins, 9th ode, 4th troparion] mean?’ the priest inquired again.

    ‘Well, that means that Babylon let Queen Zion have whatever she wanted,’ replied Alexandris, grasping neither the words’ literal nor symbolic meanings.

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  2. Around two months ago I preached on a text from Amos. I wish these two posts had been available at the time I was preparing it. With the commentaries I used, I acutely felt the problem of Protestant sermonising and moralising about “social justice” from the historical-critical readings they provided. An article by David Clines alerted me to fact that these readings are both NOT evangelical preaching or good economics. I wasn’t completely statisfied with the way I resolved this problem in my preparation.

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  3. “Insightful” “Delghtful!” “Two Thumbs Up!”

    I think the problem with modernist (as good a label as any) interpretation comes down to an issue of pride. The modernist intertpreter is taught to see himself as free, unbound from any ecclesiastic-related traditions in every respect (most importantly including the core approaches to the basis of reality). There is no way that a modernist interpretation of fully secular mold can be reconciled with the faith expressed in the writings of the Bible. The two are not only irreconcilable but are diametrically opposed.

    Various prerequisite concepts are tied up in apostolic (as good a label as any) interpretation:
    –The belief in the inspiration of Scripture, not just in general, but in the very choice of wording and word order, as St Jerome explicitly states: “For I myself not only admit but freely proclaim that in translating from the Greek (except in the case of the Holy Scriptures where even the order of the words is a mystery!) I render sense for sense and not word for word” (Letter 57.5).
    –This inspiration was a particular work of God the Holy Spirit that extends the value of Scripture from the time of its original context into the time of the interpreter, by investing the wording with the capability of bearing more than the original context itself required.
    –The reading of the text, like the life of the Church itself, revolves around the central figure of our Lord Jesus Christ; all else is secondary or even more distant, including the original context, which is no longer directly relevant.
    –The original context is no longer directly relevant, but it is indirectly relevant: the setting, the parties involved, and the events, as much as these are properly understood, inform the extended/contemporary interpretation. (And this is a chance in particular for our modern learning about history to be applicable within a framework of apostolic interpretation, a learning that otherwise lies flat and dead on the page.)
    –Just as God Himself and the Faith itself cannot be systematized and fully, exlcusively described, neither can the Scriptures. They are as infinitely ever-relevant as their Creator and Inspirer is.

    All of these steps are elements of a considerately more humble worldview than any professed in modernist interpretation. This is a worldview with God at center, both above in heaven and below on earth, and with humanity on the periphery. Where the academy would “bracket” matters of faith (especially God!), God is central to apostoloic interpretation. Modernist interpretation is generally, therefore, worthless in the context of apostolic interpretation. The two approaches are not just oil and water, but oil and blue: so distinctly different as to belong to separate orders of existence, with little or nothing in common.

    I recommend the perceptive encyclical of the late Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, which was quite an exposé of modernist theology and Biblical studies in 1907. The strictures in this encyclical were unfortunately understood to be rescinded by the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revalation Dei Verbum promulgated by the Vatican II council under Paul VI in 1965. There is much of value in both of these documents, particularly in Pascendi Dominici Gregis (“…pasturing the flock of the Lord…”), that is relevant to those interested in apostolic interpretation in contradistinction to modernist interpretation.

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  6. Dear Esteban,
    I was very happy when I found your article about prophet Amos (not only because I was born on June 15) also because I was looking for some materials regarding Resurrection in Prophets teachings in order to realize a project fot my master admission. Please contact me in private!
    Congrats for your blog!
    Best wishes,
    Adrian

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  7. Adrian> I am very glad to hear that you have found my comments to be of some use. I will send you an email sometime this weekend — sorry I can’t get to you earlier! I’m very much looking forward to learning about your research, which apparently overlaps with aspects of mine. All the best with your plans to enroll in a master’s program, and thanks for your kind words about my blog!

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  8. Pingback: The Prophet Amos and the Resurrection, Part Two | The Church of Jesus Christ

  9. Hi Esteban
    How you’ve been. Hope you’re doing great! Where did u get all these books? Is there a way to acces them online? Thanks… Are you going to write a third part of it?

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  10. Adrian> I’ve found my way to these books the same way anyone else does: through good, old-fashioned bibliographical research. There are, after all, no shortcuts to learning. That I own most of these title is due to the fact that I’ve put quite a bit of time and effort over the past 15 years or so into building my library to adequately support my research interests. I’m afraid there is no shortcut to that, either!

    As for the online availability of these books, I know many of them are at least partially available through Google Books — but then, access to that resource varies from country to country, and I don’t know which sorts of access restrictions are in place for Romania. As is always the case with research, this is something you’d have to work on yourself.

    Anyway, I may yet write the third part of this. We shall see!

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