Reading the Bible With the Church Fathers

Interview With Historian Robert Louis Wilken

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ROME, JUNE 19, 2003 ( Interest in the wisdom and writings of the Church fathers has exploded recently among Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians.

In an effort to describe the spiritual and theological vision of the fathers, University of Virginia Church-historian Robert Louis Wilken has published a new book, “The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God” (Yale). He discussed his book with ZENIT while in Rome as a McCarthy lecturer at the Gregorian University.

Q: The title of your book brings to mind Étienne Gilson’s book “The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy.” Was this a conscious decision on your part?

Wilken: I would not want to compare myself with the great Catholic philosopher and historian of philosophy Étienne Gilson, but there was a sense in which I hoped to do for the world of the early Church what Gilson had done for medieval philosophy.

Of course there are large differences between early Christian thought and medieval thought. But Gilson hoped to give readers a feel for what animated the whole, hence the term “spirit” in the title.

Also, though he dealt with Christian thought in a particular historical period, the Middle Ages, he intended his book to say something about the ongoing significance of medieval philosophy….

My aim was to depict the pattern of Christian thinking as it took shape in the first centuries, how Christians thought about the things they believed. I try to see things whole, to present persons and ideas as part of a common tradition rooted in a specific historical period yet not bound to time. Though long dead, the Church fathers maintain their ground.

Q: It is apparent in your book how central the Bible was for the Church fathers. Why is this fact often obscured in the histories of the early Church?

Wilken: There has been a major shift in the study of the early Church in the last two generations. In the 1940s a group of French Jesuits, most notably Jean Danielou and Henri de Lubac, began to publish a series of early Christian texts entitled “Sources Chrétiennes,” or Christian sources.

Danielou and de Lubac were reacting against the way theology was being taught in Catholic seminaries and schools of theology in the early part of the 20th century. They felt that theology had lost contact with the imaginative world of the Bible, a world of images and metaphors, of story and history, and believed that the way to recover this aspect of Christian thinking was to publish modern translations of classical Christian texts.

Today, “Sources Chrétiennes” is approaching 500 volumes and many are of works that had never been translated into a modern language. Some were biblical commentaries, for example, a large commentary on the Gospel of John by Origen of Alexandria, the first great Christian biblical scholar.

In the book I give many examples of how the Bible shaped Christian thinking, for example, the doctrine of the Trinity, the person of Christ, the moral life. Even a topic such as the freedom of the will, something that had long been discussed by Greek philosophers, became for Christians a discussion about the proper interpretation of key biblical texts.

As I tell my students, in reading the Church fathers one should always have a Bible open on one’s desk.

Q: The title of your McCarthy lecture at the Gregorian was “The Inevitability of Allegory.” Many people today believe that “allegory,” giving a passage another sense than the plain sense, has no place in modern biblical interpretation. Isn’t the historical approach to the Bible one of the most important developments in Catholic thinking in the 20th century?

Wilken: It is indeed. And again a little history might help clarify things. The same year that “Sources Chrétiennes” began publishing, 1943, Pope Pius XII issued the encyclical, “Divino Afflante Spiritu.” This encyclical was the magna carta for Catholic biblical scholarship.

However, just at the moment that Catholic biblical scholars believed they had won the right to study the Bible historically, another group of Catholic scholars were urging a reappropriation of the classical Christian way of interpreting the Bible.

So there is some tension between how the Church fathers interpret and use the Bible and how modern historical scholarship views things. Yet I don’t think that they are in fundamental conflict, and in many respects they complement one another.

Q: Could you give an example?

Wilken: You will remember the well-known passage in Romans 10 where St. Paul says it is not possible to believe unless one has heard, and one cannot hear without a preacher. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the preaching of Christ. Then he quotes from Psalm 19, “Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”

In its original setting the first part of Psalm 19 — Psalm 18 in the Vulgate — celebrates the silent witness of the heavens to the majesty of God. “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. … There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.”

Paul, however, interprets the text not in relation to the knowledge of God displayed in creation but as a psalm about the mission of the apostles. He understands the psalm in relation to the new thing that had happened, the coming of Christ and the preaching of the Gospel. In other words, he gives the passage another sense than its obvious or plain meaning.

Paul’s interpretation of the psalm had large consequences, for it passed over into the Church’s worship, most notably in daily prayer. Whenever we celebrate the feast of an apostle, one of the psalms appointed to be read in the office of readings is Psalm 19 whose words “their voice has gone out to the limits of the earth, their words to the end of the world” are used as the antiphon.

For those who pray with the Church the apostolic interpretation of Psalm 19 is as familiar and natural as the original or plain sense of the psalm.

This does not mean that the original meaning of the psalm is abandoned. It stands confidently as a testimony to the witness of creation to the mystery and majesty of God. At the same time the allegorical or spiritual interpretation became a precious and fixed part of the Church’s life and worship. The two interpretations live comfortably side by side.

Q: It is interesting that the example you chose comes from the Church’s prayer, from worship. What is the relation between liturgy and the interpretation of the Bible?

Wilken: The Church fathers were men of prayer and even when writing learned treatises in their studies they were never far from the Church’s worship. In the liturgy they came to know Christ not so much as a historical figure from the past, but as a living person present in the Eucharist.

When they opened their Bibles they discovered this same Christ not only in the writings of the evangelists and St. Paul but also in the Old Testament. In the liturgy the words of the Scripture are alive and filled with the mystery of Christ.

For example, in the great Vigil of Easter in ancient times, when the newly baptized were preparing to receive communion for the first time, Psalm 42 was sung: “As the deer yearns for living waters, so longs my soul for you, O Lord.”

The regular reading of the Scriptures in the liturgy and the recitation of the psalms in daily prayer worked powerfully on the minds of Christian interpreters. One might say that the Bible provided a lexicon of words for Christian speech and the liturgy a grammar of how they are to be used.

Q: What is the enduring significance of the early Christian understanding of the Bible?

Wilken: In s
pite of its many accomplishments, a strictly historical approach to the Bible can only give us a medley of documents from different times and places in the ancient world. It cannot give us the book of the Church, the Scriptures as heard by Christians for centuries, the psalms imprinted on the Church’s soul, the words and images that bear witness to the Holy Trinity.

If we ignore the first readers of the Bible we are left with a collection of fragments, interesting in their own right, but lacking the unity that only the living Christ can give.

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