We run our website the way we wished the whole internet worked: we provide high quality original content with no ads. We are funded solely by your direct support. Please consider supporting this project.

gregory of nyssa

How the Church Fathers Read the OT

After the completion of the New Testament, the church fathers developed theology in their increasingly Gentile post-apostolic church in such a way that many of the distinctively Jewish features of the NT’s use of the OT diminished. However, this was not the case with regard to the Christocentric interpretation of the OT that was so central to how the NT writers interpreted the OT. As noted historian, Robert Wilken, has noted, the early church fathers didn’t consider the original meaning of OT passages to be altogether irrelevant, but they did consider it merely “preparatory” for the fuller meaning of passages that was unlocked when they were read in the light of Christ. The distinctly “Christian understanding” of Scripture was for them “oriented toward the living Christ revealed through the words of the Bible…”[1]

For these believers, writes Denis Farkasfalvy, “Jewish holy books function and are interpreted as documents of a Christ-centered salvation history with its full and true meaning apparent only in the light of the Church’s faith in Christ.”[2] Indeed, according to Claire McGinnis, “[n]ot only did the NT serve as the key to understanding the Old” for these fathers, but the uniform assumption of interpreters during this period was that “the books of the Old were about Christ.”[3] Following the precedent of the NT, these fathers understood Christ to be the fulfillment of fundamental OT motifs as well as of specific OT prophecies.

Following this precedent, these fathers relied on typological as well as allegorical interpretive strategies to discern Christ in the OT. It was by this means that Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, John Cassian and others were able to discern how violent portraits of God in the OT bore witness to Christ, as argued in The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.

By means of creative Christocentric interpretive strategies such as these, the Bible became for these interpreters “a vast field of interrelated words, all speaking about the same reality, the one God revealed in Christ,” as Wilken notes. The central goal of early Christian interpreters, he continues, was “to find Christ in surprising and unexpected places.” [4] And it was primarily by this means that the early Church was able to continue to embrace the OT as its own.

[1] R. L. Wilken, “Interpreting the Old Testament,” Isaiah: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, trans. and ed. R. L. Wilken, A, R. Christman, and J. Hollerich; The Church’s Bible, xvii.

[2] Denis Farkasfalvy, Inspiration and Interpretation, 23.

[3] Claire McGinnis. “Stumbling over the Testaments: On Reading Patristic Exegesis and the Old Testament in Light of the New,” Journal of Theological Interpretation (April, 2010), 15-31.

[4] Wilken, “Interpreting the Old Testament,” xviii.

Photo credit: Nick in exsilio via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Related Reading

When God Wears Masks

At various times throughout the OT we find Yahweh assuming the role of a tester, refiner, punisher and even an enemy of Israel (e.g. Jer. 9:7; Lam. 2:5; Isa 63:10). Yet, when we examine these roles, or masks, in the light of the crucified Christ and the broader canonical witness, it becomes clear that these…

Why Are Jesus’s Parables So Violent? (podcast)

Greg pops the hood to offer a helpful tutorial on how parables operate.  Episode 609 http://traffic.libsyn.com/askgregboyd/Episode_0609.mp3

The Twist that Reframes the Whole Story

Many people read the Bible as if everything written within it is equally authoritative. As a result, people read it along the lines of a cookbook. Like a recipe, the meaning and authority of a passage aren’t much affected by where the passage is located within the overall book. The truth, however, is that the…

Podcast: Why Does Peter Say Lot Was a Righteous Man?

Greg ponders the moral judgements of Lot by Peter in light of Lot’s treatment of his daughters.    http://traffic.libsyn.com/askgregboyd/Episode_0302.mp3

The Cross and the Witness of Violent Portraits of God

In my previous post I noted that the prevalent contemporary evangelical assumption that the only legitimate meaning of a passage of Scripture is the one the author intended is a rather recent, and very secular, innovation in Church history. It was birthed in the post-Enlightenment era (17th -18th centuries) when secular minded scholars began to…

One Word

While I’ve lately been pretty distracted finishing up Benefit of the Doubt (Baker, 2013), my goal is to sprinkle in posts that comment on the distinctive commitments of ReKnew a couple of times a week. I’m presently sharing some thoughts on the second conviction of ReKnew, which is that Jesus Christ is the full and…