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The Church Fathers and Biblical Theology
Defining our Terms
Where do the church fathers stand in relation to biblical theology? In one sense, this is an extremely easy question to answer, because if we define the
'church fathers' as those Christian writers who expounded the faith in the centuries when the dominant Greco-Roman culture was still pagan, then it is clear that they all believed that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures were the only acceptable source of Christian theology, and in that sense they could all be called 'biblical theologians' virtually without exception. The difficulty comes when we turn to consider the meaning of the term 'biblical theology'. If we believe that
'biblical theology' is the attempt to grasp Scripture in its totality, according to its own categories and inner dynamic, can the claim of the Fathers to have been
'biblical theologians' be allowed to stand, even if we have to make some reservations when it comes to the phrase 'according to its own categories'.
Problems with the assertion that patristic theology was simply 'biblical theology'
inevitably arise when we try to impose modern understandings of what biblical theology is (or ought to be) on the ancient texts. Even allowing for the fact that modern interpreters are by no means always agreed about how the term 'biblical theology' ought to be defined,1 it is clear that there are some things which are now included in it which would not have occurred to the
Fathers. Likewise, there are other things, including some of the basic
See J. Barr, The Concept of Biblical Theology, for a recent discussion of this problem.
Barr does not discuss the church fathers as such, but it is clear that he would not recognize them as 'biblical theologians' because their methods of reading Scripture were very different from what modern biblical scholars would accept as justifiable forms of interpretation. At the risk of oversimplifying Barr's approach, it can be said that his basic objection to the Fathers' reading of Scripture would be that they did not read the Bible 'according to its own categories', but rather according to a scheme which they imported from elsewhere -- mainly from different types of late Hellenistic philosophy.
24 Gerald Bray presuppositions of modern theological thought, which make establishing a genuine relationship between what the Fathers thought of as 'biblical theology'
and what we now understand by that term somewhat problematic.
Modern scholars think of 'biblical theology' primarily in analytical terms.
They start with what they regard as the theology of Paul, or of the wisdom literature
(or whatever), and then they try to situate this in relation to the rest of the canonical scriptural tradition. To take only the most familiar instance,
modern scholars all believe that it is possible to discern peculiarly Pauline themes in his writings and to present a generally coherent picture of them,
though by no means all of them would claim that Paul's theology is either comprehensive or entirely consistent. They may assert that he developed his ideas over time, and even that he tailored his arguments to fit his different audiences,
with the result that discrepancies can be detected when one compares different writings. Furthermore, many of them divide the Pauline corpus into 'authentic'
and 'deutero-Pauline' writings, using theological content as one of the criteria for deciding which is which. What is true of Paul is even more true when his writings are set alongside the rest of the Bible. Broadly speaking, most modern students of biblical theology are prepared to believe that it developed over time, and that the later a document was written, the more sophisticated the theology it contains is likely to be. Loose ends and contradictions are an almost inevitable consequence of this pattern of development, so that we must not expect 'biblical theology' to offer us the kind of coherent picture that systematic theology demands.
The analytical principles and practices associated with this modern form of biblical theology are certainly not beyond questioning, and even when they are accepted they can lead to some surprisingly varied conclusions, but it can safely be said that the Fathers would have found them alien and unacceptable. They approached the Bible as pagans who had been converted to the Christian gospel, and Scripture presented them with a mental and spiritual universe that struck them as entirely different from what they had grown up with. Some of them were prepared to grant that certain pagan philosophers, like Plato, had discovered elements of the truth -- but this was either because those philosophers had read the Old Testament and adapted it to their own purposes or because they had stumbled upon some aspect of reality, rather like blind men in the dark, and had correctly guessed what it was they had encountered.2 What we now call 'natural' and 'philosophical' theology was acceptable to the
Fathers only in so far as it was validated by Scripture itself. Passages like Psalm
19, for example ('The heavens declare the glory of God'), provided a basis on
2 This was the opinion advanced by Justin Martyr (d. 165) in his Hortatory Address to the
Greeks 25--36, and much the same thing can be found nearly three centuries later in
Augustine, City of God VIII, 11.
The Church Fathers and Biblical Theology 25
which they could recognize the validity of some pagan insights. The Apostle
Paul's appeal to the philosophers of Athens in Acts 17 showed that it was sometimes possible to quote pagan authors in support of Christian beliefs. But, for the Fathers, the true locus of authority was never in doubt. Pagan testimonies were valid only to the extent that they agreed with the biblical witness, and such agreement was likely to be haphazard and partial at best.
As far as the influence of Hellenistic philosophy was concerned, the notion that a coherent, Christian theological system could be built up using only the evidence of nature and reason was anathema to the Fathers. It is not that they were unaware of the possibility of doing this -- they knew only too well that someone could take a philosophical idea, find it in some biblical text, and erect an entire system on that slender basis. This was actually being done in the late first and early second century by a number of teachers whom we collectively refer to as 'gnostics'. The first person to attempt a refutation of their methods was Irenaeus of Lyon (d. 202), who attacked their heresies (as he understood them) by claiming that the Bible was the only source of truth, that it spoke primarily of the Christian God and that it could be read and interpreted only according to a 'rule of faith' which outlined its fundamental teachings.3
It is not too much to say that it was Scripture, even Scripture alone, which set their theological agenda, and it is noticeable that their apologetic was often strongest precisely at those points where Scripture clashed with what the average pagan believed.4 For example, almost all of the major church fathers wrote commentaries on the creation narrative in Genesis, because they understood that the Christian doctrine of creation was antithetical to what most ancient philosophers taught about the origin and nature of matter.5 It must be admitted that this sometimes led them to make assertions which most modern theologians,
including very conservative ones, prefer to avoid or reject. Augustine,
for instance, was quite prepared to argue that the world had been created relatively recently, and in the space of six days -- particularly in the face of the standard pagan belief that matter was eternal. Almost no one would now follow him in this but it ought to be recognized that, however much it was stated and believed, it was not really fundamental to the Fathers' doctrine of creation.
3 See Childs,