Reading Scripture with the Early Church Fathers

The Nourishing Bread of Scripture

by Servais Pinckaers

Patristic Exegesis
It will be helpful to consider the manner in which the Fathers read the Scriptures, drawing from it their moral doctrine. They did not have at their disposal the resources of modern historical exegesis, but they did possess a method of interpretation that enabled them to discover the rich spiritual substance their works contain and that still nourishes us today.

Patristic exegesis might be described as a “real” reading of Scripture, as contrasted with a literary or positivist approach. The main object of the Fathers was to penetrate beyond the signs, the words, to the reality signified, even to the mystery of Christ and God. They were aware they could reach this mystery only through faith in Christ and obedience to his word. Their reading was therefore directly related to their lives and was enlightened by a gradual formed experience of the reality and truth of what they believed. Their exegetical works expressed the penetration of their minds into the mysteries contained in Scripture, a penetration due to their active experience of the mysteries. They are properly speaking words of wisdom. Patristic exegesis was essentially linked to faith and practice. It included nonetheless some very fine literary analyses and carefully wrought intellectual reflections such as we find, for example, in St. Augustine’s De doctina christiana. Still, the main thing for them was an intellectual savoring of the divine realities communicated by the Holy Spirit, the principal Author of Scripture.

The Nourishing Bread of Scripture
The following image may be helpful in demonstrating the patristic method. The Church Fathers possessed the art of forming nourishing bread from the wheat of Scripture. The comparison of scriptural texts to wheat is apt, for they are often made up of short sentences that enclose in a few words a theme or a rich doctrine containing a seed of life. Let us consider the stages of this spiritual work.

The first task was to strip off the husk covering the grain, to free the Word from its human coverings: language, literary genre, the particularities of the author, the setting, period and so forth. To get at the living grain in this way, faith was needed as much as dexterity, for faith alone opens our minds to the Word and allows it to penetrate to the depths of our hearts. By the same token, it is faith that enables us to penetrate this Word and so grasp and understand it.

Next, the grain was ground to produce flour; they needed to meditate on the Word and crush it, so to speak, through reflection and life, with the aid of memory and experience. Meditation led to practice, comparable to kneading, for the demands of action, with all its ardors, resistance, and delays, truly knead and mold us. This task could not succeed without the water of regular prayer. Finally the bread that had been shaped must be put in the oven; it passed through the fire of trial, like the gold of the Word, seven times purified, purified slowly. Only now was the bread ready to be offered as nourishment. The reader of the Scriptures could offer to others a substantial explanation of the Word of God: this the Fathers did in their commentaries.

Quote from The Sources of Christian Ethics, Chapter 8, by Servais Pinckaers, © 1985, University Press Fribourg

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 (c) 2010 Don Schwager