How the Early Church Read the Bible

As I was cruising through Facebook today I noticed that John Armstrong, an author and theologian whose blog I regularly read, had a comment that directed people to an article in Christianity Today titled, “How the Early Church Read the Bible,” by David Neff, an editor and regular contributor to the magazine.

The gist of the article is that the Early Church was more attuned to the way the Bible tells its own story, which includes a greater sensitivity to the symbolic dimension of human nature, a dimension that is critical to encounter God. Affirming this idea the article quotes a former professor of mine, Robert Webber, who said, “When the cognitive aspect of the person dominates the symbolic side, a vital part of humanity is neglected and the human spirit is squelched.”

What this article did not address that may have strengthened it’s point, is that the historical-grammatical method of reading the Scriptures has come under the postmodern critique that says no one really deals with bare facts when it comes to understanding the Scriptures in their original historical contexts. The idea of this critique is that our ability to identify facts is supported by an intellectual framework that is laden with presuppositions about how the world is, and which therefore deeply influences the decisions we make about what we will admit as facts, and how we interpret those facts once we have them.

The upshot of all this is that the debate regarding the historical veracity of the Bible still rages on among biblical scholars of various persuasions. In the mean time, I thank God for both orthodox scholars like N.T. Wright who critically engage the naysayers through historical methodologies, and who also bring fresh insight to our understanding Scripture, as well as this call for a recovery of the symbolic modes of interpretation prevalent in the Early Church. Perhaps together such approaches to Scripture will inject much needed vitality to the modern-postmodern Church.


How the Early Church Read the Bible

Ancient Future Faith

4 Responses to “How the Early Church Read the Bible”

  1. Roger Green  

    When our little group does Bible study, we try (to some passing degree, anyway) to discern what the Scripture might have meant in its historical context, as well as what does it say to us now. Yet historical veracity has seldom, if ever, been an issue. Liberal that I am, I’d almost say that I DON’T CARE if it’s factually true, as long as it’s spiritually true.

  2. Roger Green  

    It also occurred to me that when the early church read the Bible, the people thought the Second Coming was coming soon, and that fact colored both the perception of the Scripture, and quite possibly, its actual writing.

  3. K.L.B.  

    “…the Early Church was more attuned to the way the Bible tells its own story, which includes a greater sensitivity to the symbolic dimension of human nature…”

    Speaking as a Southerner, I can attest that in some sense, neither the beginning or the end of the story makes much difference. That’s because, my good friend, we know that the story is in the telling.

    Remember, Anthony… “it’s okay to say ‘green.'” (*LOL*)


  4. Anthony Velez  

    Roger – The dichotomy you pose between factually true and spiritually true invites exploration and examination. I get that the Scriptures are often true the way a good novel is true, insofar as it sheds light on the human condition. However, one of the central doctrines of Christianity, the Incarnation, affirms the importance of history for discerning spiritual truth. On the other hand, the Incarnation also addresses the limitations of history, as no one gets to the living Jesus through strict historical study.