Learning to Read Scripture as if Jesus is its Meaning and Context: Along with Athanasius and the Fathers

We all interpret. Whether it be while driving down the street, and stopping at a stop sign, or reading the various sections of a newspaper. We bring readerly expectations and conditions to our daily lives that inform how we arrive at our interpretive conclusions. But for some reason when it comes to biblical interpretation many people in the churches place that into a special mystical, even magical category; as if said people can simply open the text, read it, and receive it as is without interpretation. But this is false of course. We are all faced with interpretive dilemmas, particularly when it comes to the text of Scripture.

At the very beginning, when a confessing Christian opens the Bible to read they are approaching it from an a priori (prior) interpretation, and thus confession (as orthodox Christians). They are approaching Scripture from the context that it is Holy and the place where God has ordained to speak to His people, and to the world. That is, based on an interpretation of the Bible that not all share, of course! Atheists don’t approach Scripture as if it is the triune God’s Word for humanity. The atheist, clearly, approaches Scripture through a negation, through skepticism, through unbelief; and so because of their approach (interpretation) they visit its reading with different readerly expectations than an orthodox biblical Christian does.

Once it is has been established that Christians read Scripture itself from a confession, based on an interpretation, it should be easier to persuade the reader of what I hope to throughout the brief body of the following post. Confessional Christians ought to read Scripture through God’s interpretation and reality for Scripture in His Self-revelation in Jesus Christ. This is what the early church fathers presumed; viz., that Scripture was about Jesus, and the triune God He revealed. They further believed that because of this Christological condition of Scripture that it required that as the church, as God’s confessional people, that they attempt to interpret Scripture with reference to articulating its reality in the who of Jesus Christ and the triune God. This motivation was propelled with greater urgency in the face of many of the early heretics who were present within the church’s walls (think Arius, Eunomius, Pelagius et al.) And so through a series of various circumstances church councils were convened in order to develop and codify grammar wherein who Jesus was, as both God and Man, could be articulated in such a way that would ally the heretics and edify the faithful at the same time. We see these conciliar articulations, and thus theological grammar develop in such key councils as: Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon, so on and so forth. These councils led to what came to be understood as the limiting grammar for how to think of the singular person of Jesus Christ as both fully God and fully human (i.e., the hypostatic union and homoousios). For our purposes what I want to press is the way the fathers went about interpreting Scripture in this instance.

To help us wade into this massive locus let me introduce us to a thought Peter Leithart has on the reality of theological interpretation of Scripture. He points to Athanasius as a particular and early example of a church father who definitively engaged in the type of biblical interpretation I have been calling our attention to previously. He writes:

Theological interpretation of Scripture thus involves respect for the premodern interpretation, attention to the doctrinal tradition of the church, recognition that Bible scholarship takes place within the church and exists for the edification of the church, and acknowledgment that interpretation is not a clinical scientific enterprise but a form of piety and properly preceded and followed by prayer, praise, and worship. Athanasius is among the precritical interpreters of Scripture whom contemporary theological readers of Scripture seek to emulate. Lessing’s ditch was unknown to him, as was Benjamin Jowett. Of course, so too was the Nicene tradition to which Reno appeals. Athanasius does appeal to the authority of the “fathers” at Nicaea, but he is one of the key formulators of the Nicene tradition, rather than an heir of it. His biblical interpretation is therefore of peculiar importance, since by following his lead we can discover some of the paths by which he moved from Scripture’s narrative, law, gospel, and epistle to the metaphysical claims inherent in Nicene theology.[1]

Leithart recognizes the inherent reality of interpretation of the biblical text as we approach it as confessional Christians; that is, that we do so from an already vantage point that we have definitionally as Christians. He points us to Athanasius, the great stalwart for christological orthodoxy at the Council of Nicaea in 325 ad. Athanasius understood, 1) that Scripture’s reality was funded by Christ (cf. Jn 5.39); 2) that Scripture itself, while funded by the reality of Christ, didn’t explicitly, but only implicitly taught what we have come to know as dogma or sacra doctrina today; 3) thus, Athanasius knew, as Leithart underscores, that in order to speak explicitly about the divinity and humanity of Christ together, just as sure as Scripture is oriented by both realities singularly, there would have to be some sort of intelligible grammar developed in order to make clear what was, explicitly present in the text, but left in implicit and inner-theological ways. He along with many others, as they were engaging what came to be understood as heretical christologies, gave the church the theological grammar the orthodox churches deploy to this day. As such, when confessional Christians think about Jesus, and the triune God in the 21st century, if they are orthodox, are thinking from these early theological grammars developed by the fathers with reference to who Jesus is vis-à-vis the triune God. This shouldn’t be taken for granted (as it so often is!)

My basic point in this post is to confront the idea that people simply read Scripture as if tabula rasa; i.e., as blank slates who re-create and re-interpret the biblical interpretive wheel as if magic fallen from the heavens as fairy-dust. Orthodox (little ‘o’) Christians are part of a continuous history established by God in Christ, just as sure as He has established His church. That is, we receive by listening to the past. For many Christians in the 21st century they are only interested in receiving from the Post-Enlightenment past, thus, and again, reading Scripture from rationalist, naturalistic lenses wherein their personal experiences and rationality becomes the standard by which Scripture is interpreted. But in fact, confessional Christians, as Leithart noted for us, read along with the ‘faithful’ from all periods; particularly as that has been funded by the conciliar past, and the christological and theological proper grammars developed thereat.

My hope is that the reader walks away from this post with the recognition that there is more going on with the text of Scripture than simply knowing the languages (while very important), or understanding literary and narratival theory, or simply understanding biblical grammar and philology. All of that is important towards being a good exegete of Scripture, but what is most important is to approach Holy Scripture as if it is Holy; which is to say, to approach Scripture as from the confessional standpoint that the early Christians and church fathers did. That is, to approach Scripture as if its ultimate context and thus determinative for meaning is indeed Jesus Christ and the triune God. If we don’t read Scripture this way, just as the fathers did, then we will imbue ‘our’ meanings and contexts into the text, and allow our ‘responses’ to determine its meaning and theological conclusions. We will make Scripture an instance of self-projection wherein it fits our desires and wishes (which would help Feuerbauch with his case), rather than allowing it to be enflamed with God’s voice, as we encounter it with each page turned; wherein the Spirit brings the risen Christ’s face into ours and says both Yes and No. But I would argue that the orthodox Christian cannot and should not read Scripture apart from its orthodox frame as presented by the conciliar fathers. We can receive the limits they presented, and positively and constructively build off of those, but they should never be left behind. If we are going to be catholic (universal) Christians, we will affirm said orthodoxy, and the type of confessional and devotional heart and mindset that was formed by that, and allow who Christ is as the meaning of the text to inform the way we proceed in our exegesis and thus conclusions about what the text is saying for us today—and we will receive that from the Right Hand of the Father as that has been given formation, afresh anew, through the corridors of the church’s history. We will Listen to the Past as Stephen Holmes has so sagaciously alerted us to.

We will close with someone who understands the significance of engaging the ‘drama’ of Scripture in the way I have been describing previously:

In sum, the Gospel is ultimately unintelligible apart from Trinitarian theology. Only the doctrine of the Trinity adequately accounts for how those who are not God come to share in the fellowship of Father and Son through the Spirit. The Trinity is both the Christian specification of God and a summary statement of the Gospel, in that the possibility of life with God depends on the person and work of the Son and Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity thus serves both as an identification of the dramatis personae and as a precis of the drama itself. “He is risen indeed!”[2]

[1] Peter J. Leithart, Athanasius, 28.

[2] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 43-44.

One thought on “Learning to Read Scripture as if Jesus is its Meaning and Context: Along with Athanasius and the Fathers

  1. “Confessional Christians ought to read Scripture through God’s interpretation and reality for Scripture in His Self-revelation in Jesus Christ.”

    Amen!… and emet.

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