Reviewing 'Early Christian Doctrines' – Inspiration and Interpretation of the Scriptures

Now, is that a shocker or what? A fundamentalist displaying an icon as an opening volley. On the left is John Chrysostom, a post-Nicene Christian writer who participated in the second Ecumenical council, but was much more than that.  I have found great inspiration in Chrysostom, and much more so after reading the third Chapter in Kelly’s book, Early Christian Doctrines. He is known for his liturgies, his extensive writings and his commentaries on Scripture.

As Kelly points out, Chrysostom had a ‘straightforward understanding of the Scriptures (in contrast to the Alexandrian tendency towards allegorical interpretation) meant that the themes of his talks were practical, explaining the Bible’s application to everyday life. Such straightforward preaching helped Chrysostom to garner popular support.’ (wikipedia) After discussing the formation of the canon, which any serious student of Christianity knows took a century for the core books and perhaps another half century for the rest of the New Testament, Kelly turns to the methods of interpretation that existed in the ancient Church.

Kelly draws a line between the two types of interpretation methods that existed in the early church. The allegorical method, most often employed in the Alexandrian School of Clement and Origen, sought a deep meaning and more often focused on words instead of the passage. Origen, as Kelly points out, would use even the names of plants as a source of some spiritual truth. (72-74). One would have to agree with Dr. Kelly that the ‘inherent difficulties in typology…made the transition to allegorism extremely tempting, especially where the cultural environment was Hellenistic and impregnated with Platonic idealism, with its theory that the whole visible order is a symbolical reflection of invisible realities.’ It must be countered, though, that difficulties in the interpretation of Scripture, although inherent, must overcome using a method that itself is not left over to interpretation. We might also say that difficulties in translations, especially by learned and lettered individuals, more often than not arise when the passage correctly interpreted conflicted with the view and education of the individual.

To the early Fathers credit, most seems to reject this gnostic form of interpretation, except of course, for Alexandria where the allegorical method was nurtured and eventually smothered the Church in the doctrinal controversies.

Returning to Origen, Kelly draws attention to his view of Scripture in which the Alexandrian gnostic saw a vast ocean of mysteries. In Origen’s mind, ‘it was impossible to fathom, or even perceive, them all, but one could be sure that every line, even every word, the sacred authors wrote was replete with meaning.’ He would go on to establish three levels of interpretation, often times employed today, as

  1. plain, historical sense
  2. typological sense
  3. spiritual sense, ‘in which the text may be applied to the devout soul’

Origen, a mastermind of biblical interpretation, was able to draw out of Scripture almost infinite interpretations. He was able to detect symbolism in every passage, every verse, and indeed in every word of the bible. He thought this method the best ‘possible to interpret’ the Scriptures ‘in a manner worthy of the Holy Spirit, since it would not be proper to take literally a narrative or a command unworthy of God.’ We can see here a near Marcionite view of scripture which lead Marcion to ‘Christian’ Gnosticism as he rejected the Old Testament as unworthy of the God of Jesus Christ, and indeed mutilated the New Testament when it came to the Jewishness of it. Kelly goes on to remark,

Finally, not only does he (Origen) strive to find a spiritual, in addition to the obvious factual, sense in the gospels, but he is on occasion prepared to borrow the Gnostic technique of seeing in the episodes of Christ’s life an image or representation of events accomplished in the spiritual realm

It is at Alexandria that the Platonizing effect on Christianity first takes hold. Origen was not alone in his method, having learned the foundation of is from his teacher, Clement of Alexandra who ‘expounded the theory that all the loftiest truths can only communicated by symbols’. Clement thought that the perfect Christians would always be on the look out for these deep meanings, failing to recognize in himself and his doctrine the Gnosticism that had eroded away at the Christianity of the the Fathers. Both Clement and Origen was Platonic (Clement going so far to call Plato divine) and given to the Gnostic viewpoint that the hierarchy of higher beings can be reflect by the lower things.

As this mode of interpretation infected the West, the theology changed, often times crsating different interpretations of the same passage. Jerome, the great bible translator and Latin exegete, seemed to ‘have held that the same passage of Scripture may have several different meanings, all of them willed by the Holy Spirit. According to Kelly (pg74-75), this tradition secured an established presence in the Church through those that followed Origen, ‘from Dionysius to Cyril’ although many would not go that far. His influence can be seen in Palestine and the Cappadocian Fathers as well as Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose.

Typology, on the other hand is ‘characteristically Christian.’ It provides for a literal interpretation of Scripture and was firmly rooted in the Biblical view of history. The adherents attempted to bring out the unity of the two Testaments. They saw types and shadows of Christianity in the personages and events of the Old Testament. This firmly rooted Christianity to Judaism, seeing Christianity as a fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. Kelly says, ‘the typologist took history seriously; it was the scene of the progressive unfolding of God’s consistent redemptive purpose.’ Looking at things this way, Christ was the climax of the Old Testament, and the Church the new Israel. Dr. Kelly points out that this was the mere invention of theologians, but found its example in the Old Testament where Isaiah used the Egyptian bondage as a type and shadow of the Babylonian captivity.

Dr. Kelly goes on to say,

But a corollary of it was that typology, unlike allegory, had no temptation to undervalue, much less dispense with, the literal sense of Scripture.

This allowed the student to to see history as a linear object, replete with God’s trustworthiness in His dealings with humanity. Typology alone allows the Christian to rest firmly in the promises of God because it is through this method of interpretation where can define Christ and the Church properly. It is here that we can connect our present troubles with those of the past and seek hope in a hopeless world because even now we can point to a type and shadow from both Testaments where God has brought His people safely through.

Kelly rightly notes that the different schools of interpretation, Alexandria and Antioch, can be distinguished by one’s jump to allegory and the others ‘passion for literalism’. They did have their agreement on ‘cardinal issues’ such as Adam, Moses, the pre-figurement of baptism and more, but in the end, the allegorical method separate the two and brought about two different ways of looking at Scripture. In the culmination of the doctrinal controversies, it has to be seen that the gnostic/allegorical way of interpretation created certain doctrines, including the Trinity.

In section 6 of the chapter, (pg75-79) Dr. Kelly goes into an area of history in which I wish that he would have spent the remainder of the book, the Antiochene Reaction. In it he notes that the reaction against Alexandria was vigorous, and like many other controversies with Alexandra, Antioch stood up as the center of opposition (see the Quartodeciman Controversy). This time, the Church was supported by the likes of Lucian, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret and John Chrysostom. The entire school, Dr. Kelly says, was ‘united in believing that allegory was an unreliable, indeed illegitimate, instrument for interpreting Scripture.’ Instead, they used a principle of interpretation called theoria. This was typology proper, that of ‘prophecy expressed in terms of things’. Chrysostom established three criteria for use of theoria:

  1. The literal sense of the sacred narrative should bot be abolished
  2. There must be a real correspondence between the historical fact and the further spiritual object discerned
  3. The two objects should be apprehended together, though of course in different ways

Kelly sites the example of Severian of Gabbala who justified his parallel with the creatures in Genesis 1.21 and the baptismal regeneration. Severian says,

It is one thing to course allegory out of the history, and quite another thing to preserve the history intact while discerning a theoria over and above it.

Chrysostom goes on to say to divide Scriptural statements into three views:

  1. Those which allow a ‘theoretic’ in addition to the literal sense
  2. Those which are to be understood solely in the literal sense
  3. Those which admit only a meaning other than the literal

This is not the same as Origen who sough allegory is everything that the read, instead Chrysostom sought first the easiest sense possible, the most literal sense and then after exhausting his abilities, would retreat to the allegorical. Diodore would say, ‘We must, however, be on our guard against letting the theoria do away with the historical basis, for the result would then be, not theoria, but allegory.

For a moment, we will examine John Chrysostom and his view of Scripture. In his homily on Colossians, he wrote that his congregation should not seek no other teacher than the oracles of God. And in another place, he would say,

“Regarding the things I say, I should supply even the proofs, so I will not seem to rely on my own opinions, but rather, prove them with Scripture, so that the matter will remain certain and steadfast.” St. John Chrysostom (Homily 8 On Repentance and the Church, p. 118, vol. 96 TFOTC)

Kelly remarks that Chrysostom considered everything about Scripture inspired (God-breathed), even the salutations on the Epistles. He would devote homilies on Romans 16 in an effort to convince those that heard him the ‘treasures of wisdom’ that ‘lie hid in every word spoken by the Spirit.’ Chrysostom further said,

“Reading the Holy Scriptures is like a treasure. With a treasure, you see, anyone able to find a tiny nugget gains for himself great wealth; likewise in the case of Sacred Scripture, one can get from a small phrase a great wealth of thought and immense riches. The Word of God is not only like a treasure, but is also like a spring gushing with ever-flowing waters in a mighty flood.”

“For doctrine.” For thence we shall know, whether we ought to learn or to be ignorant of anything. And thence we may disprove what is false, thence we may be corrected and brought to a right mind, may be comforted and consoled, and if anything is deficient, we may have it added to us. “That the man of God may be perfect.” For this is the exhortation of the Scripture given, that the man of Godmay be rendered perfect by it; without this therefore he cannot be perfect. Thou hast the Scriptures, he says, in place of me. If thou wouldest learn anything, thou mayest learn it from them. And if he thus wrote to Timothy, who was filled with the Spirit, how much more to us! “Thoroughly furnished unto all good works”; not merely taking part in them, he means, but “thoroughly furnished.” (John Chrysostom, Homily 9, commentary on 2 Tim 3:16-17)

“For how is it not absurd that in respect to money, indeed, we do not trust to others, but refer this to figures and calculation; but in calculating upon facts we are lightly drawn aside by the notions of others; and that too, though we possess an exact balance, and square and rule for all things, the declaration of the divine laws? Wherefore I exhort and entreat you all, disregard what this man and that man thinks about these things, and inquire from the Scriptures all these things; and having learnt what are the true riches, let us pursue after them that we may obtain also the eternal good things; which may we all obtain, through the grace and love towards men of our Lord Jesus Christ, with Whom, to the Father and the Holy Spirit, be glory, might, and honor, now and ever, and world without end. Amen.” (John Chrysostom, Homily 13, commentary on 2 Cor 7:1)

As a final statement in response to this chapter, I believe that we can readily see where the Church first had first started to fall away. In my limited studies on the subject, I have come to see Alexandria and the Theological School there, as the source of the Trinity doctrine. After reading this chapter, I believe that we can see that it was at Alexandria where the method and view point of Scripture which produced certain doctrines was formed. We see this interpretative method still in existence today, although perhaps under different names. This interpretative method allows for the individuals to ‘receive’ differing revelations and differing doctrines. It was in Alexandria and in the allegorical method that united Greek philosophy and Christian Theology, with an amalgamation producing something foreign to the Apostles and the Tradition that they handed down.

*I realize that I may have critics who would seek to void my admiration for John Chrysostom, but one has to remember that by this time, the Trinity doctrine had been firmly established in Christiandom, and yet we can still find traces of true doctrines in these people, such as John Chrysostom. We can also come to understand that certain battles were still being waged on the planes of history which affected the Church for the next 1600 years and is still raising it’s head. The battle of interpretation is one that leads to discussion and misunderstandings. Once you establish firmly a method of interpretation, you can then focus on doctrine, but until you devise a way to reach the goal, the journey is unnecessary.

As a biblical literalist, a modalist, and a fledgling Church historian, I find it necessary to examine ever facet of the early controversies which led us to the Councils the Creeds. I also find it acceptable to admire the writings of those who I would have naturally challenged, for If we can find a common ground for discussion, such as the literalist view point of the Scriptures held by John Chrysostom, then it will go a long ways into helping break the ice on doctrinal discussions.

With that said, I know that I cannot please everyone, but you are free to comment, pray for me, or try to sway me.

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0 Replies to “Reviewing 'Early Christian Doctrines' – Inspiration and Interpretation of the Scriptures”

  1. Polycarp,

    Very nice review! It is yours personally of course, but our journey with God is indeed a wonderful travel like experience. We go from apprenticeship to journeyman…this takes a lifetime, if He gives it!

    John Chrysostom is/was a great Christian! He is one of the East’s best! The typological NT hermeneutic is certainly the Apostles doctrine. (1 Cor.10:1-14)

    Again, thanks for the trip (so far).

    Fr. R.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I am finding Dr. Kelly an great read (although I wish he would have stayed more at Antioch). Of course, you well know the next chapter. I hope, however, that I am laying a foundation for further discussion with Dr. Kelly.

  3. Before he died I got to chat with this great man. He always wished, he told me, that we would have done better in areas (on this book), but he also knew that would have made the book much longer, etc. He always said that the book was meant to be an overview. It has always been a treasure for me!

    Did I tell you he wrote a historic bio on Jerome? I read it years ago. This was more indepth, because it was just one man. RIP…John Norman Davidson Kelly, true scholar and Anglo-Irish.

    Fr. R.

  4. Hi P

    I guess i could not wait to comment after all… Great review easy to understand.I will probably read that book.

    I like what John Chrysostom said concerning 2 Timothy 3:16,17 and want to read more of his writings.I had not heard of him before… Are there any books or writings by him?

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