Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Patristic Exegesis: Introduction & Case Studies

The most significant aspect of the Fathers' exegesis of the Bible is their firm belief that Scripture has two senses or levels of meaning: the literal and the spiritual. This was held as an article of faith by all in the early Church, and all the Fathers held it, although they applied the principle of two senses in different ways and to greater or lesser degrees.

The “literal” sense in the use of the Fathers does not correspond to our sense of the “literal,” that is, a reconstruction of the author's intended meaning or a literalistic reading of Scripture in the modern sense of the "historical," but might be more accurately described as the “lexical” sense. That is, a great deal of attention was given to the very words themselves, particularly to their etymology.

St Augustine's work The Literal Intention of Scripture, for instance, has absolutely nothing in common with what today's Evangelists or Fundamentalists would view as a "literal" reading. Augustine writes that everything in the universe was created simultaneously by God, and not in seven consecutive twenty-four hour days. He argues, rather, that the six-day structure of creation represents a logical framework, and not the passage of time in a physical sense. I'd encourage all of today's "creationists" to consider these words, written by St Augustine in the first years of the fifth century:
It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation. (1:19–20, Chapter 19).

With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation. (Ibid, 2:9)

Within the realm of the spiritual sense of Scripture, a distinction is today often drawn between the typological and the allegorical (although the Fathers themselves did not draw such a distinction). A type may be understood as a fact from the Old Testament that was taken by the Fathers to have a true historical significance, but that was also capable of a further and deeper meaning. In allegory, on the other hand, history was generally either denied or, for the sake of the deeper sense, ignored. The allegorical could be further broken down into two or three subdivisions. For Origen, in addition to the literal sense, there was a moral or ascetic sense,corresponding to the soul, and a spiritual or mystical sense, corresponding to the human spirit. St. Ambrose speaks of three senses besides the literal: the natural (i.e., natural ethics), the moral (Christian ethical teachings), and the mystical or rational (deepest probing). Augustine speaks of the literal or historical sense as well as the aetiological (cause for why something is done), the analogical (demonstrates the unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament), and the allegorical (deeper meaning of things that can not be taken literally). St. John Cassian finds the literal or historical, the tropological (pertaining to the improvement of life and practical instruction), the allegorical (which we might rather call the sacramental or the typological), and the analogical (arises from scriptural mysteries to certain more sublime and sacred secrets of heaven). For the most part, though, the Fathers simply spoke of two senses: the literal and spiritual, making no further distinctions.

But all the Fathers would agree on the most fundamental exegetical principle: Christ is the deepest meaning of the Old and New Testaments. It could be said that there are essentially two meanings in Scripture: the literal and the Christological. The Christological meaning can in turn be subdivided into as many sections as there are aspects of Christ Himself. Christ may be considered either as an historical person manifested in the events recorded in the Gospels, or as a hidden life in the sacraments of the Church which is His body, or as appearing at the parousia at the end of the world and reigning in glory.

We can see something a similar division between literal (or lexical) and spiritual reading in our own “exegesis” of poetry. An English sonnet for instance, on a literal level, could be defined as a poem written within a set form of fourteen lines, normally of iambic pentameter, frequently rhymed as three alternatively rhymed quatrains followed by a couplet or as two alternately rhymed or abba quatrains followed by six lines rhymed in the pattern abcabc. But if we stop at the literal meaning, we lose the poetry.

Finally, spiritual purity is necessary for properly exegeting the Scriptures. When done properly, reading and interpreting the Scriptures is itself a deifying and salvific work.

I. St Jerome on Isaiah 3:7
An example of the movement from the “literal” to the “spiritual” can be seen in St Jerome’s commentary on Isaiah 3:7: “On that day he will speak out, saying: I am not a healer, and in my house there is neither bread nor clothing; do not make me leader of the people.”

St. Jerome begins by listing variant readings in the passage from three Greek editions of the Old Testament as well as from the original Hebrew text, and then he proceeds to the literal commentary:
But the person who has been chosen as leader will speak. And as the people had desired to have him as prince whom they see to be richer than themselves, so the one who has been chosen, reflecting on his poverty and weakness, bears witness that he is unworthy of the honor offered him and cannot heal vices; that is to say, he who can hardly attend to his own needs cannot cure the sick, give food to the hungry and clothe the naked.

Then he gives a spiritual interpretation:
Therefore let us not concur immediately in the judgment of the multitude, but when we have been chosen to lead we shall know our real worth and shall be humbled under the mighty hand of God, for God, who resists the proud, gives grace to the humble. How many there are who promise others food and clothing and do not have bread and clothing because they themselves are hungry and naked, and do not have spiritual food and do not keep Christ’s tunic whole! Full of wounds, they boast that they are healers. They do not observe what Moses says: Send someone else. Nor do they keep the other commandment: Do not seek to become a judge, lest perhaps you be unable to remove iniquities. Jesus alone heals all sicknesses and infirmities. About him it stands written: He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.
II. St John Cassian demonstrates his four-fold exegetical method on the meaning of "Jerusalem":
Historically it is the city of the Jews; allegorically it is the Church of Christ; anagogically, it is that heavenly city of God which is the mother of us all; tropologically it is the human soul, which frequently under this title is either blamed or praised by the Lord.
III. The meaning of Noah's Ark

1. St Jerome:
We read in Genesis that the ark that Noah built was three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high. Notice the mystical significance of the numbers. In the numbers fifty, penance is symbolized because the fiftieth psalm of King David is the prayer of his repentance. Three hundred contains the symbol of crucifixion. The letter T is the sign of three hundred, whence Ezekiel says, “Mark THAV on the forehead of those who moan; and do not kill any marked with THAV.” No one marked with the sign of the cross on his forehead can be struck by the devil; he is not able to efface this sign, only sin can. We have spoken of the ark, of the number fifty, of the number three hundred. Let us comment on the number thirty because the ark was thirty cubits high and finished above in one cubit. First, we repent in the number fifty; then, through penance, we arrive at the mystery of the cross through the perfect Word that is Christ. As a matter of fact, when Jesus was baptized, according to Luke, “he was thirty years of age.” These same thirty cubits were finished off one cubit above. Fifty, and three hundred, and thirty were finished above in one cubit, that is, in one faith of God.

2. St Augustine:
Undoubtedly the ark is a symbol of the city of God on its pilgrimage in history. It is a figure of the church that was saved by the wood on which there hung the “Mediator between God and men, himself man, Jesus Christ.” Even the very measurements of length, height and breadth of the ark are meant to point to the reality of the human body into which he came as it was foretold that he would come. It will be recalled that the length of a normal body from head to foot is six times the breadth form one side to the other and ten times the thickness from back to front. Measure a man who is lying on the ground, either prone or supine. He is six times as long from head to foot as he is wide from left to right or right to left, and he is ten times a long as he is high from the ground up. That is why the ark was made three hundred cubits in length, fifty in breadth, and thirty in height. As for the door on the side, that surely, symbolizes the open would made by the lance in the side of the Crucified – the door by which those who come to him enter in, in the sense that believers enter the church by means of the sacraments that issued from that wound. It was ordered that the ark be made out of squared timbers – a symbol of the four-square stability of a holy life, which, lie a cube, stands firm however it is turned. So it is with every other detail of the ark’s construction. They are all symbols of something in the church.

3. St Cyril of Jerusalem:
For now I need Noah’s ark that I may have Noah and his sons together, separated from his wife and his sons’ wives. For although the ark was one and the door was closed, yet decorum was observed. So now, though the church doors are barred and you are all inside, let distinction be kept: men with men, women with women. Let not the principle of salvation be made a pretext for spiritual license. Keeping close together is a good rule, provided that passion is kept at a distance

III. Here is a classical example of typology: St Augustine writes the following on the Exodus in Against Faustus (12:29-30)
Of the departure of Israel from Egypt, let us hear what the apostle himself says: "I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and did all eat the same spiritual meat, and did all drink of the same spiritual drink. For they drank of the spiritual rock which followed them, and that rock was Christ."
The explanation of one thing is a key to the rest. For if the rock is Christ from its stability, is not the manna Christ, the living bread which came down from heaven, which gives spiritual life to those who truly feed on it? The Israelites died because they received the figure only in its carnal sense. The apostle, by calling it spiritual food, shows its reference to Christ, as the spiritual drink is explained by the words, "That rock was Christ," which explain the whole. Then is not the cloud and the pillar Christ, who by His uprightness and strength supports our feebleness; who shines by night and not by day, that they who see not may see, and that they who see may be made blind? In the clouds and the Red Sea there is the baptism consecrated by the blood of Christ. The enemies following behind perish, as past sins are put away.

30. The Israelites are led through the wilderness, as those who are baptized are in the wilderness while on the way to the promised land, hoping and patiently waiting for that which they see not. In the wilderness are severe trials, lest they should in heart return to Egypt. Still Christ does not leave them the pillar does not go away. The bitter waters are sweetened by wood, as hostile people become friendly by learning to honor the cross of Christ. The twelve fountains watering the seventy palm trees are a figure of apostolic grace watering the nations. As seven is multiplied by ten, so the Decalogue is fulfilled in the sevenfold operation of the Spirit. The enemy attempting to stop them in their way is overcome by Moses stretching out his hands in the figure of the cross. The deadly bites of serpents are healed by the brazen serpent, which was lifted up that they might look at it. The Lord Himself gives the explanation of this: "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whosoever believeth in Him may not perish, but have everlasting life.''
So in many other things we may find a protest against the obstinacy of unbelieving hearts. In the passover a lamb is killed, representing Christ, of whom it is said in the Gospel, "Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world!" In the passover the bones of the lamb were not to be broken; and on the cross the bones of the Lord were not broken. The evangelist, in reference to this, quotes the words, "A bone of Him shall not be broken." The posts were marked with blood to keep away destruction, as people are marked on their foreheads with the sign of the Lord's passion for their salvation. The law was given on the fiftieth day after the passover; so the Holy Spirit came on the fiftieth day after the passion of the Lord. The law is said to have been written with the finger of God; and the Lord says of the Holy Spirit, "With the finger of God I cast out devils."
Such are the Scriptures in which Faustus, after shutting his eyes, declares that he can see no prediction of Christ. But we need not wonder that he should have eyes to read and yet no heart to understand, since, instead of knocking in devout faith at the door of the heavenly secret, he dares to act in profane hostility. So let it be, for so it ought to be. Let the gate of salvation be shut to the proud. The meek, to whom God teaches His ways, will find all these things in the Scriptures, and those things which he does not see he will believe from what he sees.
In this passage we see the following Christological parallels between Moses and Christ:
  1. Just as Moses delivered the Law from the mountain, so too did Christ deliver His new law, the Sermon on the Mount, from a mountain.
  2. Moses fasted for forty days, so did Christ fast in the wilderness.
  3. As God provided the miracle of the manna, so Christ multiplied loaves.
  4. As Moses commanded the sea at the Exodus, so Christ stilled the sea by His command.
  5. As the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea, so Christ walked on the waters.
  6. As Moses’ face shone after his encounter with God on Sinai, so was Christ visibly glorified at His Transfiguration on a high mountain.
  7. As twelve spies were commissioned, so were twelve apostles appointed.
  8. As Moses called Joshua to assume the leadership of Israel, so Christ called Simon Peter to lead the Church.
  9. Moses praying with his hands extended in the battle with Amalek as a type of Jesus’ cross with its extended arms.


Benjamin said...


Thank you, this post is helpful.

Joseph said...

This post is a good, concise and helpful summary of patristic exegesis.

SubDn Joseph L. Vacca