work contained in the sacred books announces with words, reveals by the
facts, and established by example the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ who,
sent by his father, became a man, being born of a virgin by the work of
the Holy Spirit. It is, therefore, he who, throughout this present age
engenders, washes, sanctifies, chooses, separates out, and redeems the
church in the true and manifest figures of the Patriarchs: by the sleep of
Adam, by the flood of Noah, by the blessing of Melchizedek, by the
justification of Abraham, by the birth of Isaac, and by the servitude of
Jacob. Through the entire unfolding of time, in a word, the assembly of
the prophets, serving the divine economy, gave us knowledge of his coming
--Hillary of Poitiers, Treatise on the Mysteries
The close reading of
the Bible by early Christian exegetes can be some of the most rewarding,
but also some of the most confusing, portions of patristic literature.
This is because they simply do not approach textual study in the same way
we do as late moderns or as post-moderns. In particular, the allegorical
reading of texts can be quite alienating, even absurd, to those unprepared
for the very different logic of the early church fathers. John J.
O’Keefe and R. R. Reno have suggested that patristic exegesis be
analyzed in the following manner:
Strategies of Intensive Reading—close attention to the words and
narrative of scripture.
Typological Understanding—discerning patterns and echoes between
various events separated by historical time.
Allegorical Understanding—locating connection points between
scriptural passages and a range of intellectual, moral, and mystical
Tools for Seeking the “Total Reading
The church fathers
believed the Bible to be a singular text inspired by God as its author, no
matter what one concluded about the number of human authors and editors.
Therefore, the Bible had intended for it by God a singular unity amidst
its diversity , even if it was also full of mysteries that challenged
human limitations and pride. This unity, they understood to be found in
Jesus Christ as 1) the fulfiller of all the promises and prophecies of the
old covenant, and as 2) the channel of salvation working through the new
covenant people called the Church. The fathers had a number of ways of
approaching this unity:
a summary/retelling of the key narratives elements of the text
contemplation of the “spiritual” senses of the scripture; a “web
of scriptural associations” (18).
Disclosure: The patristics held that scripture as the word of God
showed forth its meaning not through historical-critical analysis but
through a thick building up of internal textual associations
(Figura): a form, figure, or pattern into which something can be
that to which the earlier (and later) types point
the gist of a text that is found in reading and knowing the overall
plan—from beginning to ending.
the sacred outline and order that God has given the divine plan. The
problem with heretics is that they read certain sections without the
economy and hypothesis that God has intended.
(Anakephalaiosis): the final repetition of a sequence that sums up
and clarifies the meaning of all earlier parts of the sequence. Christ
is the recapitulation of the old covenant.
comparative apparatuses, such as Origen’s Hexapala, a
comparison of the Hebrew Old Testament with a transliteration of the
Hebrew into Greek and with four translations of the Hebrew into
studies of words
up a lexicon of possible connotations
Strategies—a study of various scriptural texts that seem to
contradict each other with the goal of finding a resolution, often
doctrinal in nature. The goal is to offer a solution that has even
wider implications for understanding other passages.
Strategies—These approaches likely seem strange and unwarranted to
modern sensibilities. They involve following chains of linguistic
(i.e. poetic) verbal associations in order to build up a net of
depend on the persuasive connection between differing persons, events,
objects, etc. Typological thinking may be simple historical analogies, but
in the Christian reading of history and scripture, the pattern goes
deeper. For Christians, the question was rather how the new covenant in
Christ is prefigured by the old as an expression of the divine plan for
history, and as a result, how the Church and Christians both figure Christ
and are prefigured by the events of the Old Testament. However, this
approach was typically not about offering singular proof-texting, but
instead a cumulative layering of types.
of Christ in the Old Testament
Practice Mirrored in Old Testament
Reading of One’s Own Life
“Allegory and typology
are part of the same family of reading strategies, often referred to by
the fathers as ‘spiritual,’ that seek to interpret the scriptures in
terms of the divine economy. The difference lies in the amount of work the
reader must put into the interpretation. . . . Unlike typologies,
allegories require significantly more interpretive investment capital. The
reader must outline the reality for which the text is a map, explaining
the coding system of the text so that the message can be read. For this
reason, an allegorical interpretation often seems a reading laid over
the text rather than a reading in the text” (90).
Sense of What Appears as Nonsense—An allegorical reading that seeks
to explain a text that otherwise doesn’t make sense. This can be
because of a dialectical tension between it and another text or, more
often, because the surface of the text appears illogical or flies in
the face of received wisdom or science.
to the Received Sense—Sometimes this involves extrapolating the
general principle or lesson that the historical narrative contains.
Just as often, however, it decodes a “spiritual” meaning not
otherwise apparent in the text (at least to modern readers).
What Appears as Objectionable—Texts such as Joshua’s taking no
prisoners, Samson’s sexual excess, the eroticism of Song of Songs,
or attributing changeable emotions to God, in the fathers’ minds,
warranted an allegorical reading.
The Rule of Faith & Becoming a
There were other factors
controlling patristic exegesis. First and foremost, was the way in which
the rule of faith—in its kerygmatic, creedal, and catechetical
forms—bounded the interpretative possibilities. Allegorical and
typological readings had to fall within the faith as taught and
understood, which is not to say that readings never went beyond this.
Nonetheless, the rule of faith acted as the framework by which to resolve
dialectical tensions or objectionable passages.
fashion, differing regions and schools of exegesis did have different
strategies, though the famous distinction between the literalist
Antiochian school and the allegorical Alexandrian was only partially true.
Patristic interpretation was hardly random or unprincipled. Some
approaches demanded more control over what strategies were warranted by
The rule of
virtue was also terribly important to patristic readers; namely, does the
particular interpretation lead to increased virtue on the part of the
reader? If it doesn’t, then the fathers would likely judge it as
misguided. The Bible in their minds is more than a human text; it is the
divine instrument of God. The goal of reading scripture is to guide the
person into an ever-increasing fellowship of love with the Triune God.
understanding, then, is dependent upon a spiritually mature reader, one
trained in the disciplines of the faith and maturing in good, pure life. A
reader who is turned away from God will interpret scripture to his or her
destruction. The spiritually immature reader must be dependent on the
instruction and guidance of the wise. Because the spiritual sense was
generally considered higher and more mature, many fathers assumed that the
theoria was only open to those who had made progress in the
O’Keefe, John J.
and R. R. Reno. Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early
Christian Interpretation of the Bible.
: John Hopkins UP, 2005.