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 interpretation—and 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.
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.