Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Reading with the Church Fathers

As we saw in the last post, the New Testament authors found Jesus throughout the Old Testament — not by a plain, literal reading of the text but by figurative, metaphorical and allegorical readings. The early Church Fathers followed this same pattern of interpretation. The examples of this are as numerous as the Old Testament Scriptures themselves, over the next few posts, we will focus on a few of them. We will first consider them from a literal or historical reading, then we will look at how the early Fathers understood them through a Christ-centered, gospel-centered reading.

Psalm 41
This psalm came up in my devotional reading this morning. By a plain, historical reading, it is about David and his experience of God. But the Church Fathers understood it as about Christ and the gospel. Theodoret of Cyr makes an observation in this psalm that is generally applicable to all the psalms: “Since the Lord says, ‘for the Scripture to be fulfilled,’ and shows the present psalm applies to him and no one else, I consider it rash and presumptuous to develop another explanation not applicable to him” (Commentary on the Psalms).

Ambrose comments on the superscription as it is found in the Septuagint version of this psalm. “He who had perished in Adam had to be restored in Christ. That is why we have, at the head of the psalm, ‘To the end,’ because Christ is the end to which all our hope is directed” (Commentary on Twelve Psalms).
Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the LORD delivers them in times of trouble. (Psalm 41:1)
Gregory of Nyssa says of this: “The Word defines blessedness for us in another way than at the beginning. For in the first psalms, to depart from evil was blessed, but here to know the good more fully is pronounced blessed. Now the nature of the good is the ‘only-begotten God,’ ‘who, though he was rich, for our sake became poor.’ The Word here predicts his ‘poverty’ in the flesh, which is pointed out to us through the Gospel account, pronouncing the one who has recognized that ‘poverty’ with understanding blessed” (Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms).
I said, “Have mercy on me, LORD; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” (Psalm 41:4)
Theodoret of Cyr understands this as Christ identifying with us in our poverty, suffering and sin: “I am the one who is poor, he is saying, who embraced voluntary poverty, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who makes my own the sufferings of human beings, who though having committed no sin offers the prayer for human nature as nature’s firstfruits” (Commentary on the Psalms).
My enemies say of me in malice, “When will he die and his name perish?” (Psalm 41:5)
Here, Augustine says: “He died, but his name did not disappear; far from it. Rather was his name sown like seed. As the grain was dead, the harvest sprang up. No sooner had our Lord Jesus Christ been glorified than people came to believe in him far more strongly and in much greater numbers; and then his members began to hear the same mutterings that their Head had heard” (Expositions of the Psalms).
When one of them comes to see me, he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander; then he goes out and spreads it around. All my enemies whisper together against me; they imagine the worst for me, saying, ‘A vile disease has afflicted him; he will never get up from the place where he lies.’ Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me. (Psalm 41:6-9)
Theodoret sees in this the false charges brought against Christ as he stood before Pilate. Ambrose and Augustine see Christ’s betrayal by Judas, as do Arnobius the Younger and Diodore of Tarsus.
But may you have mercy on me, LORD; raise me up, that I may repay them. I know that you are pleased with me, for my enemy does not triumph over me. Because of my integrity you uphold me and set me in your presence forever. (Psalm 41:10-12)
Theodoret says: “All this was said on the part of the nature assumed, which was involved also in the passion. Since, then, the assumed nature remained free of all wickedness, it was right for him to say, ‘But you supported me for my innocence and confirmed me in your presence forever’” (Commentary on the Psalms).

Second Kings 2:8-14
This passage also came up in my devotional reading this morning. By a literal, historical reading, it is about the prophets Elijah and Elisha.
Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and the to left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied. “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours — otherwise, it will not.” As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two. (2 Kings 2:9-14)
The simple narrative is that Elijah parts the Jordan River by striking it with his mantle, then they both passed between the waters to the other side. There is a brief conversation about Elisha receiving Elijah’s spirit. Then a chariot of fire suddenly appears and Elijah is conveyed to heaven in a whirlwind. Reading through the lens of Christ and the gospel, however, the Fathers see that there is much more at work in this account.

Origen understands the parting of the Jordan and crossing to the other side as baptism, just as Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10:2, understood Moses leading the children of Israel between the waters of the Red Sea as baptism:
We must note in addition that when Elijah was about to be taken up in a whirlwind as into heaven, he took his sheepskin and rolled it up and struck the water, and it was divided on this side and that, and both crossed, that is to say, himself and Elisha. He was better prepared to be taken up after he was baptized in the Jordan, since Paul, as we explained previously, called the more incredible passage through water a baptism. (Commentary on the Gospel of John)
He understands the “spirit” of Elijah in regard to John the Baptist as a precursor of Christ:
And this also we have brought forward, because of John having come before Christ “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” in order that the saying “Elijah has already come” may be referred to the spirit of Elijah that was in John; as also the three disciples who had gone up with him understood that he spoke to them about John the Baptist ... And likewise, by Elijah, in this place, I do not understand the soul of that prophet but his spirit and his power; for these it is by which all things shall be restored, so that when they have been restored, and, as a result of that restoration, become capable of receiving the glory of Christ, the Son of God who shall appear in glory may sojourn with them.” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew)
Bede the Venerable, in his Homilies on the Gospels, understands the whole narrative as a rich typology of the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, the imparting of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the institution of the sacraments of the Church. This is a longer passage but provides a very good example of a Christ-centered reading of the Old Testament.
The prophets proclaimed the mystery of the Lord’s ascension not only by their words but also by their actions. Both Enoch, the seventh from Adam, who was transported from the world, and Elijah, who was taken up into heaven, gave evidence that the Lord would ascend above all the heavens …

Let your love take note, my brothers, how the symbolic event agrees point by point with its fulfillment. Elijah came to the river Jordan, and having laid aside his cloak, he struck the waters and divided them. The Lord came to the stream of death, in which the human race ordinarily was immersed, and laying aside from himself for a time the clothing of flesh that he had assumed, struck down death by dying and opened up for us the way to life by rising. The change and decline of our mortal life is properly represented by the river Jordan, since the meaning of Jordan in Latin is “their descent,” and since as the river flows into the Dead Sea, it loses its praiseworthy waters.

After Jordan was divided, Elijah and Elisha crossed over on dry land; by his rising from the dead the Savior bestowed on his faithful ones the hope of rising too. After they had crossed over the river Jordan, Elijah gave Elisha the option of asking for what he wanted. The Lord too, after the glory of his resurrection had been fulfilled, implanted in his disciples a fuller comprehension of what he had promised previously, that “whatever you ask in my name, I will do.”

Elisha asked that the spirit of Elijah might become double in him. The disciples, thoroughly instructed by the Lord, desired to receive the promised gift of the Spirit, which would make them capable of preaching not only to the single nation of Judah, which he himself taught when he was present in the flesh, but to all countries throughout the globe as well. Did he not pledge the double grace of his Spirit when he said, “A person who believes in me will himself also do the works that I do, and he will do even greater ones than these”?

As Elijah and Elisha were conversing together, a chariot with fiery horses suddenly snatched Elijah as if into heaven. By the chariot and fiery horses we are to understand the angelic powers, of whom it is written, “He makes the angels his spirits and his ministers a burning fire” (Elijah, being an ordinary human being, had need of them to be raised up from the earth). The Lord too was suddenly taken up as he was speaking with his apostles and as they were looking on; although he was not assisted by the help of angels, he was served by an angelic band of companions. He was truly assumed into heaven with the angels also bearing witness to it, for they said, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven.”

When Elijah was raised up to the heavens, he let the cloak with which he had been clothed fall to Elisha. When our Lord ascended into heaven, he left the mysteries of the humanity he had assumed to his disciples, to the entire church in fact, so that it could be sanctified by them and warmed by the power of his love. Elisha took up Elijah’s cloak and struck the waters of the river Jordan with it; and when he called on the God of Elijah, were divided, and he crossed over. The apostles and the entire church took up the sacraments of their Redeemer that had been instituted through the apostles, so that, spiritually guided by them and cleansed and consecrated by them, they too learned to overcome death’s assaults by calling on the name of God the Father and to cross over to undying life, spurning the obstacles of death.
Though we may not be accustomed to reading the Old Testament in this fashion, the Church Fathers were. But it is important to note that they were not undisciplined or unlimited in their approach. Their understanding of the Old Testament did not venture outside the boundaries of Christ and the gospel. All was understood within that framework.

Part 2 | Part 3

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