When I was a child, I lived in a house filled with books. Over 1,400 of them, to be precise—we counted them together one day.
At the spiritual center of our library dwelt that foremost book, the Bible. The one that spoke to all other experiences of reading. In a house full of books, you move through childhood with companions who speak to you from across a huge expanse of time and space and imagination and possibility. You never stop thinking or discovering.
So it happened that one day, during my early teens, I discovered a weighty tome of selections from the Church Fathers on the living room bookshelf. I had a very general idea that these were early Christians whose writings fell into the category of “church tradition,” which more or less made them Catholics. That meant Protestants were supposed to politely ignore them. But like all things Catholic, the Church Fathers radiated an aura of mystery that suggested there might be something vaguely forbidden, yet not actually sinful, about reading them. So I spirited that volume off to my room. And thus began my first acquaintance with Augustine, among other theologians of the early church.
An Unfolding Story
It wasn’t until I began my graduate studies in Old Testament, though, that I really started to comprehend the significance of these earlier interpreters. Only did then did I realize that these brothers and sisters in Christ across the centuries had a lot more in common with me in how they approached the Bible than did my modern, secular academic peers. Modern methods of reading the biblical text often seek a single meaning that the historical author could have intended. They are designed to seek a historically accurate reading of the Bible as an ancient text. But what those methods couldn’t do was guide me toward the goal that had motivated my academic study of the Bible in the first place: figuring out how to use the Bible as nourishment for the Christian life in my own time and place. A single ancient meaning embedded in the past just wasn’t going to cut it.
That was when I began to acknowledge a truth that Christian readers before the modern era had taken as a given—namely, that the Bible contains many texts that must have more than one “meaning” if they’re going to mean anything for us. As theologian David Steinmetz urges, the church today needs to join previous generations in confessing that Scripture has multiple meanings in order to “recapture the various levels of significance in the unfolding story of creation and redemption.” To put it bluntly, neither Christians in the past nor the present have any reason to be reading the Old Testament if there’s nothing in it for us! But as soon as we assert that this collection of ancient Israelite texts forms part of the plotline of a larger divine story of redemption that continues in the New Testament and into our own lives, then we’ve very much stepped outside the lines of reading the Old Testament as an “ancient text.”
Sola Scriptura and Dead Theologians
Why did it take me so long to figure this out? Well, because my Christian formation—and quite possibly yours, as well—was driven by a good Reformed impulse that you probably know best by its Latin name: sola Scriptura. By this, Protestants generally mean, as John L. Thompson asks in Reading the Bible with the Dead, “Who would want to read the uninspired opinions of dead theologians when you could go straight to the inspired word of God and figure it out for yourself?” Thompson then describes, though, how he went on to become a professor of Reformed theology who spends a lot of time and energy reading those “dead theologians.”
What changed his mind about their value? Nothing more or less than being compelled by circumstances—or Providence—to actually read them. In doing so, he discovered two things that surprised him. First, he realized that we have much more in common with these earlier readers because of our shared Christian faith than we might expect. Many present-day Christian readers of Scripture miss this important point. We assume that we “just read” the Bible, failing to appreciate fully how our beliefs about God, his Word, and the world make the church’s reading of Scripture different from any other way of reading. Our shared focus on God’s ongoing work among his people across the overarching storyline of salvation forges a powerful bond between us and Christian readers of the past.
Thompson’s second surprising discovery when he read these “dead theologians” was how relevant and illuminating their readings of Scripture turned out to be. Given their historical and cultural distance from our own situation, he had assumed that their interpretations would seem dusty and outdated. Instead, he found that their writings offer contemporary Christian readers a fresh perspective on the Scriptures with insights that can escape us as we too read within our own limits of time and place.
Reading across the expanse of church history reminds us of God’s faithfulness to the church across the ages: God has never stopped speaking to his people, and God’s Word never becomes obsolete.
Okay, you might say, but didn’t the Church Fathers read the Bible in a lot of weird, pie-in-the-sky ways? It’s true—some of the things early interpreters say about the natural world or their historical context seem outdated. That’s because like all human thought, theirs is historically conditioned. Some of the connections they draw between different texts within the Bible will seem fanciful to us.
Faithful Examples of How to Read Scripture
But that shouldn’t stop us from communing with our brothers and sisters across time. Tremendous spiritual benefits await us if we listen patiently and thoughtfully to their words, just as we benefit from the perspectives of other Christians around the globe today—both in spite of and because of our differences. What other Christian readings of the Bible, whether ancient or global, have to offer us is not new or different “information” about the text. Instead, they provide faithful examples from many times and places of how to read Scripture as Christians: namely, within the context of the Christian life, our eyes fixed on Christ.
Earlier Christian readers used the methods and reflected the assumptions of their own time and place. But they also excelled at seeking interpretations that continue to richly feed the church and shape the Christian life. When you think about it, that makes sense, because when Christians of any era approach the Bible, we don’t expect to encounter just ancient words on a page. We expect someone to speak to us—namely, the Lord God of Israel, revealed in Jesus Christ and dwelling in us through the Holy Spirit.
Look at the words on a page in your Bible right after reading the sentence above, and you may see them fairly squirm and dance with energy. God speaking! Once you add in the element of God speaking to us, his church, through the Spirit of Christ, the living Word, you may be surprised that those words can stay anchored on the page at all.
Calvin's commentaries. Online: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/commentaries.i.html
Luther's commentaries. Some selections online Galatians: https://www.blueletterbible.org/commentaries/luther_martin/; other available in print.
Billings, J. Todd. "Treasures in Jars of Clay: The Value of Premodern Biblical Interpretation," pp. 149-94 in The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2010.
Steinmetz, David. "The Superiority of Precritical Exegesis." Theology Today 37:1 (1980), 27-38. Online: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/004057368003700103
Thompson, John L. Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis That You Can't Learn from Exegesis Alone. Grands Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.
Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Series and Reformation Commentary on Scripture Series, both published by IVP Academic. Note: If you haven't read pre-modern interpretation of Scripture before, these commentaries offer an accessible introduction. They present a passage of Scripture, then offer bite-size selections from a variety of interpreters.
About the Author
Rachel M. Billings holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Harvard University and lives in Holland, Mich., with her husband, two busy children, and a gorgeous cat. In addition to writing and reading, she enjoys creative baking and archery.