Review: How the Church Fathers Read the Bible by Gerald Bray

If you were to survey your average Reformed churchgoer on the extent of their knowledge of church history, my guess is that their knowledge would extend as far back as the sixteenth century and the Protestant Reformation. They know the story of Luther’s conversion by heart, they have read excerpts from Calvin’s Institutes and heard his commentaries referenced in sermons, and they are acquainted with men like Bucer, Bullinger, Beza, and even that Ursinus fellow. I have heard people are big fans of him too.

Of late, Reformed scholars have been engaging in theological retrieval and found tremendous value in studying catholic thinkers from the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas and his Summa Theologica being the prime example. If this backward-looking trend continues at the same rate, I suspect that in coming decades, especially as hostility toward the visible church in the West increases and looks more and more like that endured by the early church, Reformed scholars will develop a renewed interest in the Early Church Fathers. To be sure, there have been many important contributions to patristic studies in recent decades, but Gerald Bray’s How the Church Fathers Read the Bible (Lexham Press, 2022) offers a much-needed primer on this vast and often misunderstood era of church history. Whether you are studying the Early Church Fathers independently for the first time, or you are teaching a college/seminary level course on the early church or on the history of hermeneutics, you will want to consult this book.

The first thing that stands out about Bray’s writing is its accessibility. He assumes nothing and explains everything, ensuring that all readers are on the same page from the outset. Thinking again of the Reformed churchgoer who is unfamiliar with early church history, words like patristics may cause internal panic because they do not even know what it means. Bray heads off any potential confusion and explains the origins of the term in seventeenth-century Germany and the period of time that the term encompasses (post-Apostolic period to 735 AD in the East, and 750 AD in the West). Having established the who, Bray moves to the all-important hows of the book’s title: how did the Early Church Fathers read the Bible, and how did they interpret it? Again, Bray is careful to explain what he means by Bible as the biblical texts to which the Fathers had access looked very different from the completed Bibles we possess today. Given the various manuscripts that existed at the time, the role of the Septuagint in Old Testament interpretation, and disagreements between the East and West on which books were canonical, is it any wonder why there was so much diversity of interpretation among the Fathers? Bray does an excellent job of presenting this complex and dynamic era in simple, understandable terms. No reader will be left behind.

My only critique of this first chapter is its organization. The content is clear and convincing (I especially appreciated his distinguishing hermeneutical theory, exegesis, and exposition from one another on pp. 47–48, terms which are often confused with each other), but the sheer volume of information covered justifies either separate chapters or clearer internal organization. For instance, the three major sections of the chapter are “What Is The Bible?”, “Who Were The Church Fathers?”, and “What Is Biblical Interpretation?” This is clear enough. The subheadings under each section, however, are where it becomes difficult to track. For instance, under the second section “Who Were The Church Fathers?” the subheadings are: The Second Century, The Beginnings of Christian Biblical Interpretation, The Greek Tradition, The Latin Tradition, Oriental Traditions, and Conclusion. The Beginnings of Christian Biblical Interpretation subheading, in my opinion, would fit better under the third major section, “What Is Biblical Interpretation?” Furthermore, if the first subdivision I encounter is titled The Second Century, my assumption is that the material thereafter will be organized chronologically as well, but this is not the case. What about the third, fourth, and fifth centuries? Are they subsumed under the successive subsections, will they be addressed in later chapters, or are they so insignificant they are not worth mentioning? Again, the content was stellar, but the organization hindered the flow of the chapter.

One of my favorite features of the book is Bray’s distillation of each chapter into a succinct, concluding summary. If you plan to teach through this book in a classroom setting, it may be wise to consult the chapter summary first to ensure that you emphasize the most important themes as you read and/or teach. This would be my recommendation, especially for the first chapter.

Having laid the foundation in the opening chapter, Bray explains how the Early Church Fathers interpreted Scripture both in line with Greek and Jewish worldviews and in a unique way all their own. Seeing Christ in the types and shadows of the Old Testament obviously put them at odds with rabbinical interpretation at the time, but the Fathers were no less staunch in their commitment to monotheism, the doctrine of creation, and their belief in the dignity of man as made in the image of God. While it is true that some, like Origen, leaned too heavily on Greek philosophical categories in their interpretation of Scripture, Bray rebuffs the idea popularized by von Harnack that the Fathers had all but Hellenized away the true faith (82). He writes, “But to claim that they capitulated to a Hellenistic worldview is going too far. They moved in a culture permeated by Platonism (or more precisely by its descendant, Neoplatonism) and worked with similar concepts, but patristic Christianity was far from being Neoplatonic in content or in inspiration” (82). How so? Bray continues, “Completely missing from any pagan scheme of moral or spiritual improvement is the notion of deliverance for those who are unworthy of it” (85). This gets to the heart of the issue and explains why so many are suspicious of the Fathers as a whole. Most readers, whether they know it or not, have imbibed von Harnack’s thesis. They think the Fathers are so philosophical that they are not worthy of study. Athens has overtaken Jerusalem. In the next two chapters, however, Bray demonstrates that for every Origenist who engaged in fanciful allegorizing, there were three to four interpreters like Augustine and Tyconius whose interpretations came closer to what we would recognize today as responsible exegesis. Bray does an excellent job arguing that the Fathers were not theological compromisers, but rather, earnest evangelists speaking in terms that their contemporaries could understand, though some did take this contextualization to wild extremes.

Bray’s explanation of Origen’s three senses of interpretation (bodily, moral, spiritual) and the later development of John Cassian’s fourth interpretation (analogical) helps to fill out a topic with which most readers are familiar only in name. They know of the four senses, but they do not know the four senses. The subsection, The Harmony of the Three Senses, is particularly helpful in showing how Origen’s three views, which are often studied independently of each other, worked together to inform the interpretation of a single text Scripture, namely that of the flood narrative and Noah’s ark (100).

With the passage of time, the Fathers, particularly in the West, started moving away from the allegorizing common among Origenists and gravitated toward early forms of typology, recapitulation, and a focus on the literal interpretation of Scripture. Credit is certainly due to Tyconius whose rules of interpretation were applauded by Augustine, even though he regarded Tyconius as a schismatic. This represents yet another strength of Bray’s approach. Bray introduces the reader to men whom history may not remember as orthodox, but who nevertheless influenced orthodox Fathers in significant and even positive ways (e.g., see the fascinating examination of men like Pelagius and Ambrosiaster, 30). His ability to affirm what can be affirmed and deny what must be denied serves as a model for responsible and faithful historiography. Our history will only be as accurate as we are committed to studying persons with whom we do not agree, fairly and dispassionately.

At this point, the reader may feel like they have a massive pile of cogs and gears before them and little idea of how they all fit together.  They know more now about patristic interpretation than they ever have, but they struggle to bring all the pieces together into a cohesive whole. In chapter five, however, Bray walks through ten case studies (five texts from the Old Testament and five texts from the New Testament) showing the reader how the Fathers interpreted key portions of Scripture (Gen 1, 1 Sam 28, Rom 5, Rev 20, etc.). In essence, Bray assembles all the cogs and gears he presented earlier and shows the reader a fully functioning clock— a cohesive body of interpretation. It is one thing to explain an interpretive rule, but another to show the application of that rule to a given text in real time. The fact that the reader is able to follow this chapter is proof that Bray has done his job in the earlier chapters of the book and has furnished them with sufficient categories to read the Fathers rightly.

As he did at the end of each chapter, Bray’s concluding chapter summarizes the contents of the entire book and offers seven theses for how to rightly read the Fathers. The sixth thesis, I would argue, best represents the aim of the book as a whole: “The modern church must respect the Fathers and be prepared to learn from them, but without idolizing them or claiming for them an authority that they did not claim for themselves.” If someone asked me what this book is about, or to summarize the book in a sentence, I would point to this sixth thesis and say that Bray makes his case compellingly.

Studying the Early Church Fathers is profitable in untold ways. No, their authority is not so great that we ought to quote them as though they had an authority on par with Scripture itself, but neither were they so beyond the pale of orthodoxy that there is nothing left to learn from them. There is more in the Fathers than many realize, and it is high time to study them with a humble frame of mind. Bray walks this fine line between veneration and dismissal. His honest assessment of the Fathers encouraged me to study them further and will encourage any reader to do the same.

© Stephen Spinnenweber. All Rights Reserved.


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  • Stephen Spinnenweber
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    Stephen Spinnenweber is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church (PCA). He was born and raised in Pasadena, MD and was educated at the University of Maryland and and Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Together with a local campus minister, he cohosts The Shorter Podcast, a podcast on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Stephen and his wife Sarah have been married since 2013. They are proud parents to Reid (3), Ruthie (1), and recently welcomed their third child, Wesley.

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