Patristic Interpretation of the Christian Scriptures

"Every 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 incarnation."
--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:  

  1. The Strategies of Intensive Reading—close attention to the words and narrative of scripture.
  2. The Typological Understanding—discerning patterns and echoes between various events separated by historical time.
  3. The Allegorical Understanding—locating connection points between scriptural passages and a range of intellectual, moral, and mystical topics.

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:

  • Historia: a summary/retelling of the key narratives elements of the text
  • Theoria: contemplation of the “spiritual” senses of the scripture; a “web of scriptural associations” (18).
  • Revelatory 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
  • Typos (Figura): a form, figure, or pattern into which something can be fitted.
  • Antitypos: that to which the earlier (and later) types point
  • Hypothesis: the gist of a text that is found in reading and knowing the overall plan—from beginning to ending.
  • Economy: 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.
  • Recapitulation (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.

Intensive Reading Strategies

  1. Lexical Strategies—these included:
    • textual 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 Greek.
    • translation studies of words
    • building up a lexicon of possible connotations
  1. Dialectical 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.
  1. Associative 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 connections.

Typological Understanding

These approaches 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.

  1. Prefiguration of Christ in the Old Testament
  2. Church Practice Mirrored in Old Testament
  3. Typological Reading of One’s Own Life

Allegorical Understanding

“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).

  1. Making 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.
  2. Adding 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).
  3. Replacing 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 Spiritual Reader

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.

In similar 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 various passages.

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.

Scriptural 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 spiritual life.

O’Keefe, John J.  and R. R. Reno. Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible. Baltimore : John Hopkins UP, 2005.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding