AUTHORITY OF THE BIBLE IN EARLY CHRISTIAN HERMENEUTICS
(published in ÌíÞìç
ÉùÜííïõ Åõ. Áíáóôáóßïõ, Thessaloniki 1992, pp. 51-59).
The exegete's primary task is to interpret Scripture,
says Bultmann, but “to ‘interpret’ Scripture after he has responsibly
‘heard’ what Scripture has to say! And how is to ‘hear’ without
understanding? The problem, therefore, of interpretation, he concludes, is
precisely that of understanding”.[i]
This famous statement of Bultmann, reflecting the well known passage of Ro 10,14
ff. poses the perennial problem of Biblical Hermeneutics. And in view of the
Scripture's relationship, and sometimes even identification, with God's
revelation to humankind, this problem of biblical hermeneutics has often
determined the essence of our christian theology. For it has been thought, time
and again, that proper interpretation of the Bible is in fact the necessary
stage towards interpreting - and therefore towards understanding - the record of
God s revelation. In that sense, by looking upon early christian hermeneutics
one can solve in a way the problem of the entire biblical hermeneutics.
purpose of this communication is not very ambitious. In fact it is extremely
limited in scope; it concentrates on the problem of scriptural authority in the
early Church. Its only intention is to put forward some thoughts for further
discussion. To be honest, these thoughts have been expressed long ago in the
golden age of the patristic tradition but have since forgotten or at least not
given proper attention.
christian hermeneutics cannot go back beyond the early christian community. I am
not questioning here the significance of the historical work and teaching of
Jesus; in fact it would be of extreme importance if we knew exactly the way our
Lord used to interpret the Bible. Nevertheless, despite all the excellent
attempts in N.T. scholarship to rediscover the teaching of the historical Jesus,[ii]
I am not yet convinced that a clear-cut distinction between what Jesus did and
taught and what the early Church believed is possible, or even legitimate. After
all, as it is generally acknowledged the proper place of the Bible is the Church,
for it existed long before the formation of Scripture. “The Church”, as R.M.
Grand admitted, “is the environment of Scripture.”[iii]
What is legitimate, however, is to argue beyond any doubt, that the words of
Jesus recorded in our gospel tradition - no matter whether authentic of not-
while very similar both in form and sometimes in content with those of
contemporary rabbis, were in fact very different in their profound perspective,[iv]
at least with regard to the authority of Scripture. To the contemporary judaism
the supreme authority of every single word of the Bible was unquestionable.
There could be no question of its inspiration or authenticity. This
hermeneutical idea is clearly expressed in the tractate Sanhedrin of the
Babylonian Talmud: “He who says ‘The Torah is not from God’, or even if he
says ‘The whole Torah is from God with the exception of this or that verse
which not God but Moses spoke from his own mouth’, shall be rooted up”.[v]
Jesus on the other hand did not hesitate even to criticize Scripture and to
interpret it in a very radical way. It was not only that he regarded the whole
Bible in the light of the two great commandments (love of God and love of
neighbour), or that he established in the six antitheses of the Sermon on the
Mount a new Law; one can even argue that Jesus’ messianic interpretation of
Scripture¯namely the fulfillment of the prophesies in his mission¯was not
novel, since similar messianic interpretations have been found in the Dead Sea
Scrolls. What is novel and pioneer, is Jesus’ revolutionary proclamation, and
the early church's assured conviction, that the reign of God was at hand; in
fact it was inaugurated in Jesus’ own work.
now to St. Paul we can say that it was not merely the rabbinic form in the
exegesis of the O.T.[vi]
with the striking feature of its verbalism and the emphasis on single words at
the expense of context that characterized the pauline interpretation; nor was
the remarkable similarity between the exegetical work of Paul or of the author
of Hebrews and that of Philo of Alexandria[vii]
that can provide the clue to trace the trends of the early christian
hermeneutics. After all early christian interpretation was not a plain
allegarization; for the first christians have never denied the reality of the
O.T. history. The main feature, of course, of the early christian interpretation
was its christocentric dimension and character. However, what is of greater
importance is the fact that from Paul onwards the criticism of the Law made by
Jesus was carried even further, to the point of absolute rejection. And nobody
can argue that this was a mere rejection of legalism. This rejection of the Law
constitutes, I think, the quintessence of early christian hermeneutics.
question now which arises is whether the undermined authority of the existing at
that time Scripture was replaced by another authority contained in certain
written documents. At the beginning of the second century the answer was
certainly “No”. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch although he knew some of the N.T.
books¯certainly 1 Cor and other pauline letters, probably John and possibly
the synoptic gospels, at least some of them¯he never appealed to them; nor did
he make extensive use of the O.T. His only authority was Jesus Christ and his
saving work and the faith that comes through him («emoi ta
archeiaChristos»: to me the “charters” are Jesus Christ).[viii]
our view, this new understanding of scriptural authority, which began to show up
in the N.T. writings, bears some very important implications on the main
hermeneutical problem concerning the divine revelation. In fact, this unique
phaenomenon in the process of the judeo-christian religious thinking, was the
result of the early christian pneumatology. The doctrine, of course, of the Holy
Spirit in the N.T. and the early fathers cannot be easily reduced to a system of
concepts; actually this systematization did not happen until the 4th century AD.
However, with this doctrine, the beginnings of which go back to St. Luke's first
and second treatise,[ix]
christianity opened up new dimensions in the understanding of the mystery of the
divine revelation. For the first time humankind cease to look backwards to past
authorities and turn their attention to the future. The past no longer
suppresses the present, but it is dynamically reinterpreted in order to give new
meaning and new perspective to the future.[x]
patristic tradition of the early catholic Church conceived in the proper way
this important doctrine of the early Church. By placing the Holy Spirit to an
equal status in the trinitarian dogma with the Father and the Son, the christian
theology of the early undivided Church broke the chains of fear and dependence
on the past. The conciliar declaration of the divinity of the Holy Spirit was
undoubtedly one of the most radical considerations of the mystery of deity¯to
our view certainly of equal importance with the dogmatic definition of the
homoousion of the Logos to the Father.[xi]
is a common place that the first christian method to interpret the Old Testament,
used by the N.T. writers was generally that of typology.[xii]
However this method's real meaning and profound significance has been lost or at
least concealed by the conflict which arose a hundred years or so later between
the exegetical schools of Alexandria and Antioch. To our opinion, the
typological method apart from the affirmation of the historical reality of the
biblical revelation¯a concept which was lacking from the allegorical method¯was
in fact based on the presupposition that the authority of the Law and the
Prophets was somehow limited; for the entire Old Testament looks beyond itself
for its interpretation. It was along those lines that the famous antiochean
principle of theoria was developed
later by some ecclesiastical writers. This term was especially used in eastern
hermeneutical tradition for a sense of Scripture higher or deeper than the
literal or historical meaning, based of course firmly on the latter. Its meaning
however, was not exhausted simply on that; it had some further very significant
connotation. Acknowledging that in the Church every christian, and the saint in
particular, possesses under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the privilege and
the opportunity of seeing and experiencing the truth, later byzantine
theologians developed or presupposed a concept of revelation substantially
different from that held in the West. Because the concept of theologia
in cappadocian and antiochean thinking was inseparable from
theoria (i.e. contemplation), theology could not be¯as it was at least in
scholastic thinking¯a rational deduction from “revealed” premises i.e.
from Scripture or from the statements of an ecclesiastical magisterium; rather
it was a vision experienced by the saints, whose authenticity was of course to
be checked against the witness of Scripture and Tradition. The true theologian
in later byzantine thinking was to a considerable extent the one who saw and
experienced the content of his theology; and this experience was considered to
belong not to the intellect alone (the intellect of course is not excluded from
its perception), but to the “eyes of the Spirit”, which place the whole
human being¯intellect, emotions and even senses¯in contact with the divine
Defining, therefore, revelation as a living truth,
accessible to a human experience of God's presence in His Church without the
absolute limitations of certain scriptural documents¯and in later
ecclesiastical theology even of conciliar definitions¯christian pneumatology
has essentially rejected the idea of authority, thus affirming the human person (persona humanitas).
For the “Holy Spirit is the source of all donations” (panta horigei to pneuma to
as so beautifully assures an ancient byzantine hymn.[xiv]
“The Problem of Hermeneutics”, Essays
Philosophical and Theological, London,
1955, pp. 234-61.
am referring here to the well-known scholarly contributions of J.Jeremias, Die Abendmahlsworte Jesu, Güttingen
1960; Abba. Studien zur
neutestamentlichen Theologie und Zeitgeschichte, Güttingen,
1966; N. Perrin, Rediscovering the
Teaching of Jesus (SCM) London 1967 etc. For my view see P. Vassiliadis,
Issues of Biblical Hermeneutics, Thessaloniki,1985.
A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, London 1965 p.
5; cf. also G.Florovsky, “Revelation and Interpretation”, in
A.Richardson-W.Scheitzer (ed.), Biblical
Authority, London/Philadelphia, 1951, pp.163-18.
Grant, op. cit., p.15.
rabbinic et exégèse
Paris 1939; W.D.Davies, Paul and
Rabbinic Judaism, (SPCK 5) London 1970.
P.Heinisch, Der Einfluss Philo's auf
christliche Exegese, Münster,
1908; O. Michel, Paulus und seine Bibel, Gütersloh, 1929 etc.
on that B.Stoyannos, XPIÓTOMAÈIA.
The Chistocentric Hermeneutical Principle in St. Ignatius the God-Bearerãs
Epistles Thessaloniki 1976.
C.K. Barrett, The Holy Spirit in the
Gospel Tradition , (SPCK 11) London 1970.
“Hermeneutical Approach to Lk 3:16. The Pneumatological Dimention of
Christianity”, Gregorios ho Palamas 68
(1985) pp.61-65 (in Greek;
also in P.
Vassiliadis, Interpretation of the
Gospels, Thessaloniki 1990,
R.M.Grant, op. cit., p. 39; also
S.Agouridis, Hermeneutics of Holy
Scripture, Athens 1979, pp. 92 ff (in Greek).
am greatly indebted to the analysis of J.Meyendorff, Byzantine
Theology. Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, New York 1974, pp.
5ff. According to Meyendorff, “this was the initial content of the debate
between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the Calabrian, which started the
theological controversies of the fourteenth century (1337 -1340)” (p.9).
the feast of Pentecost.