The exegesis of the Church Fathers has become a growing interest of mine in recent months. In our modern methods of interpretation we often dismiss the their hermeneutics because it doesn’t match ours. If we trust in early church’s creeds and doctrines then why do we ignore their exegesis by claiming we have a more trustworthy model? The historical-grammatical method has become our bread and butter to get to the “meaning” of a text to the neglect of other methods. But is this the correct way to interpret a passage or are there other viable avenues?
David Paul Parris in Reading the Bible with Giants argues that we should incorporate Reception Theory, which analyzes how a text has been received through history. He says that our exegesis should be a three-way conversation: the reader, Bible, and history. We often want to get the the “meaning” of a text but we need to realize that meaning changes over time. Parris says “to argue that the term meaning is restricted only to the original act of communication misses the fact that every generation of readers perceives meaning when they read the text…if we define meaning as something that never changes we have little or no ground to interact with or incorporate tradition when we interpret the Bible” (95). We need Reception Theory to understand the significance of the text throughout history so it can shed light on new ways of reading today.
Throughout the book Parris examines the history of reception at the level of individual words to whole passages. By incorporating the history of reception at these levels we can begin to understand that our exegesis comes from unavoidable preconceptions. Approaching the Bible with a blank slate is a myth because when we come to a text we have our life situation, training in literature, church teachings, and tradition all weighing in on our interpretation. This is not a negative reality but we do need to recognize that we come to the text with many pre-conceived notions. In this way, “knowledge is not something that is personal, but is highly interpersonal by nature. In this sense, reading is built upon and requires a community. And communities are, in a sense the present instantiation of a tradition” (82). This is where Reception Theory is useful. If we analyze how a text has been received through church history we understand that there have been a variety of interpretations and can shed light on new texts for us. We should not ignore earlier interpretations because if today we value the work of the Holy Spirit in interpretation then it seems contradictory to not value the early church’s exegesis.
The book gives helpful case studies especially on the story of Jonah and the reception history of the word “whale” and the Great Commission passage in Matthew 28:16-20. In each of these case studies he shows that the interpretation we have today varies greatly from earlier interpretations. For example, Matthew 28:16-20 was first read as a formula for the Doctrine of the Trinity and that the commission to “go to the nations” ceased with the original apostles. It wasn’t until William Carey that this passage was understood as a command to all Christians to teach and baptize. By looking at the history of reception we can gain new insights into passages and realize that we are indebted to the church for our understanding of the Bible.
We need to incorporate the history of reception in our exegesis. This shouldn’t be the only method but should be one of the many tools in our toolbox. We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants when we interpret the Bible. Let us humble ourselves and learn from our forefathers when we interpret Holy Scripture.