Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Language for God in Patristic Tradition by Mark Sheridan – Book Review

When reading the Church Fathers, there are times when they are befuddling.  Why did they suddenly take this turn or that, which seemingly has nothing at all to do with the passage at hand?  Why did they go to such great lengths to explain themselves?  Many times we need a road map.  Mark Sheridan has provided just such a map, uncovering for the reader the mindset of the patristic writers in their wrestling and explanation of God’s self-revelation.  The author gleans primarily from Origen’s body of work to demonstrate how the Alexandrian father influenced exegesis for centuries afterward, even to today.

The author begins by examining the early writers as they wrestled with God's transcendence in communicating with mankind.  How could someone so completely “other” express himself in human terms?  Could a self-limiting language accurately convey the expanse of divine meaning?  What has been left unsaid that can only be extracted through the work of the Holy Spirit?  These questions are not those readily considered by the modern reader of Scripture, but to one such as John Chrysostom, this was paramount:
Chrysostom seems constantly to be concerned that his hearers will take the text too literally, and he frequently (several hundred times) introduces this distinction between God’s “considerateness” in formulating things in a human way and what is “a sense befitting God” (Sheridan, 41).
The literal meaning of a text was never in doubt, and we see the great care with which they mined the depths of Scripture in order to correctly expound the spiritual meaning and application.  Knowing their reverence for the Bible, we can understand how writers like Origen earned a reputation for overly spiritualizing in his commentaries and homilies.  We can readily admit that he overstepped the typology and figures the inspired writers used.

Alexandrian homileticians were not the only group to attempt to a spiritual extraction from their sacred text.  Philo, a Jew living at the time of Christ, was noteworthy in his use of allegory to explain the Hebrew Scriptures.  Also, a chapter is offered to the Greek and Latin philosophers who attempted the same rhetorical device to explain their concepts of divinity.  Perhaps this might be the weakest aspect of the book, since the intent is to explain biblical rather than pagan anthropomorphism, but it does lend an historical background to the patristic practice.

After this background information, Sheridan turns his attention to specific passages of the Hebrew Scriptures: first, by gathering patristic comments on Jesus’ and Paul’s use of Torah in teaching; second, by engaging three classic cases from the nation of Israel; and third, by reviewing the imprecatory portions of Psalms.  Each of these requires its own chapter to properly establish how the Fathers interacted with these in light of the New Testament.  These chapters of applying what has been presented in the prior chapters and developing the exegetical sense of the early church, especially as it relates to the Alexandrian school.  Lastly, we are offered a comparison of modern with patristic understanding of the problem texts mentioned in the previous chapters.

Overall, this book is worth the read and is not beyond most readers.  Preachers and teachers would do well to take up this work and learn how the Early Church addressed the Bible.  Plus there is bonus material.  As good as this book is, I found the appendix to be absolute gold.  Sheridan summarizes Christian hermeneutics during the first centuries of the church.  The three major points addressed are:
  1. Presuppositions about the Nature of the Text of the Scriptures
  2. Criteria for a Correct Interpretation
  3. Some Rules of Interpretation
This summary information from the Church Fathers is as applicable to today as it was 1700-1800 years ago and demonstrates that these early expositors were taking greatest care.  I dare say that if the modern Church took the same level of care in their attention to holy things, much exegetical nonsense would be avoided.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from IVP Academic.  I was not required to write a positive review.  The opinions I have expressed are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

No comments: