Book Plunge: Language for God in Patristic Tradition

What do I think about Mark Sheridan’s book published by IVP? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

How do you interpret a text of Scripture? The ways it’s done throughout history have changed and this book by Mark Sheridan is a fascinating look at the earliest interpreters. Today, we often have an idea that we have to get at the “literal” meaning of the text, but a look at the church fathers shows they were quite different. In fact, it looks like many times the last thing they wanted to do was to take the text “literally.” The first point was to take the text in a manner that was fitting to God. This would mean that you had to avoid things that would seem like emotional outbursts on the part of the deity. If the text said God was angry, you had to interpret that differently because the deity does not get angry. While I agree with that point, it is irrelevant to the thesis of the book as well. You can say that fathers were wrong in that belief, but the reality is that is still how they interpreted the text.

It wasn’t just them. They got this also from Philo who before Christianity followed the same kind of path with looking at the work we call the Old Testament today, even to the point of thinking philosophers like Plato had read Moses. Philo wanted to make sure the text was also being read in a way that was fitting to God and this would often mean a strong allegorical interpretation. The church fathers followed in suit with the allegory and sometimes, it looks quite amazing. We can look at what the church fathers said in their day and wonder how it could be that someone would come to that interpretation.

For instance, consider Psalm 137 where we are told about Babylon that happy is he who takes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. It’s not just moderns today who have a hard time interpreting the passage. The ancients did too. Their viewpoint was that the children of Babylon are the sins that we struggle with. The rock that the babies then were dashed against was Christ. The message the Psalmist was giving then was that we should take our sins and dash them against the rock of Christ so that they could be destroyed. Most of us today look at that and say “Huh?”, but in the time of the Fathers, this would have been seen as a valid interpretation.

Other passages were also troubling to them. What about what Abraham did with Hagar? What are we to do with that? What about the imprecatory Psalms? What are we to do with those? What about the conquest of Canaan? How do we handle that? The ancients struggled with this just like we do. Sheridan takes us through many of the church fathers to see how they interpreted these passages. In the end then, he takes us up to our modern era to show how we handle them today. Do we necessarily have a clear interpretation? Maybe not, but it is important to see how this has gone on throughout history and to realize that our hang-up on literalism is really a more modern one than anything else.

I do encourage those interested in the history of interpretation to read Sheridan’s book. You’ll quite likely disagree with your Christian ancestors, but it will be well worth the read.

In Christ,
Nick Peters