Most of my training in biblical studies occurred in a Reformed Protestant context, for which I am quite thankful. However, one of the problems of Protestant perspectives on early church history is a tendency to think, “right doctrines, dodgy exegesis”. The narrative constructed is that the early church did alright, except they ‘declined’ more and more from the golden age of the apostles, until the glorious restoration of the Reformation put everything right.
That’s not a very accurate historical picture, and it’s not good historiography either. It also introduces an acute crisis into Protestant theology – how can Protestants confess the same doctrinal and creedal formulations, if they reject as unsound the methods that produced them? Did the fathers at Nicaea and Constantinople come up with the right answer from the wrong working? And if so, is that okay?
One of the questions behind my research questions is concerned with this very problem. If, as the popular notion goes, patristic exegesis was deeply flawed, then the results of that exegesis, namely Classsical Trinitarianism, are open to severe doubt, and the claims of Protestant churches to be creedally Nicene becomes problematic since they reject the foundations of Nicene (well, Theodosian) orthodoxy.
But, of course, the reality is a much more complicated affair.
For one, patristic exegesis isn’t a monolithic ‘thing’. While there are indeed far-flung examples of rampant allegorism, this is not the only or even the predominant method for reading scripture in Late Antiquity. The practice of those trained in Greek and Latin rhetoric looks quite a bit like historico-grammatical criticism (although it would be a mistake to equate the two).
Which is great, until you realise that very often fathers produce ‘correct’ doctrine from incorrect texts. There’s a whole example in Hilary where his text appears to have a negation where they major textual tradition has a positive statement. Hilary thus spends a considerable amount of time proving an ‘orthodox’ doctrine from a text of scripture that affirms the exact opposite of what most Christians would consider to be the authoritative version of the text.
The good news, at least so far as those pesky people who keep asking what the result of my PhD studies is, is that patristic exegetes are much better at exegesis than 1st year seminary students think they are.
The bad news is, a large basis of that exegesis is built on a soteriology that most Protestants, and probably a large portion of Roman Catholics, would find problematic. The rejection of the non-Nicene soteriologies built around the Son being a creature who acts as revealer, exemplar, and model of salvation, is part-and-parcel of the victory of a pro-Nicene soteriology in which salvation occurs as human nature, conceived in a universal and collective sense, is assumed by the Logos, sanctified, and ultimately deified through the resurrection and ascension, resulting in the glorification of humanity in Christ. While, theologically speaking, I think this is true and compatible with other soteriological motifs in scripture, it is a long way from the predominance of justification and substitutionary atonement in modern reformed circles.
No doubt at this point many would like to know, ‘so, what does this mean?’, ‘what are the implications for contemporary Christian doctrine and practice?’, to which I am not ready to give an answer by any means. I think the challenge is to work at the two-fold task of being an excellent exegete of Scripture, for what it says in and of itself, and to work at the task of reading the Fathers faithfully, to exegete their works for what they say, in the historical context in which they write, so as not to distort them for ulterior purposes.