The Church Fathers writing is like a beautifully crafted mosaic. The end product is a masterpiece of colorful imagery and complex design but the starting points are often disconnected and a mystery to the outsider. A mosaic artist generally begins with solid pieces of stained glass that are then broken and reassembled to create the mosaic. An artist can look at this glass and visualize the end product and carefully piece together the glass to create a masterpiece. As a person who is not an artist I can not see the end from the beginning. Sure, I can look at a finished product and trace back how they created this but given just the glass this would be impossible to recreate without instruction.
This is how the Church Father’s exegesis often seems to people. The end is a beautiful masterpiece that is theologically rich but when we begin to see the process they took to get there we are puzzled. Just at looking at broken stained glass and wondering how the artist got from here to there we study the Church Father’s writing and are confounded. We may be able to connect the dots but it is a mystery to explain the hows and why. How they got there is not the road we expected. This chasm is created by years of church history, competing philosophies, and new methods make this gap difficult to cross. This is the gap that O’Keefe and Reno wanted to cross in their book Sanctified Vision. They wanted to begin with the broken stained glass and figure out the methods of creating the end product. This will be the first of several posts tracing and summarizing some of their findings in examining the interpretive methods of the Church Fathers.
In chapter 2 of their book they begin to lay out the framework of the Church Father’s exegesis. To the early church Christ was the key to all interpretations. He is the telos of Holy Scripture and without him much of the Bible is a mystery. They point out that the Fathers and three basic guides to interpretation: hypothesis, economy, and recapitulation.
First, for the Fathers the hypothesis is the “gist of the literary work” (34), which in the case of Holy Scripture, Christ is the key. We need to understand the overall plan of the Bible and that it is all consummated in Christ. The Fathers argued that a heretical interpretation was one that did not understand the literary plan of scripture and would take various details to create their own doctrine. Iraneaus provides an example of a “clever reader” by taking portions of the Illiad and Odyssey and creating a distorted picture from the text that is not true to the hypothesis (or gist) of the literary work.
“The clever reader rearranges the verses to exploit certain names and images. The illustration Irenaeus provides, the rearrangement of the veers yields a lament about Hercules rather than an epic about Achilles and Odysseus. Homer’s raw material is used to construct a poem based upon an alien hypothesis that is false to the thrust or hypothesis of the Homeric epics from which the verses are taken.” (36)
From this hypothesis the Fathers see that the Bible has an economy or “a structure or plot that allows us to discern the flow of the narrative” (37). By having a correct hypothesis you can construct the proper economy of the text. “The divine economy is clearly taught by the church…proper interpretation of scripture must both presume and discern the sequence of events that are ordained by God” (38). The scriptures don’t need proven that they are God’s word, rather this is assumed, and it is the Christians job to put together this true story. For Iranaeus, “the coming of Jesus Christ is the decisive event that clarifies the divine economy. The scriptures anticipate future events” (38).
Finally, the recapitulation (or “final repetition, summing up, drawing to conclusion”) of scripture is Christ. He is “the Logos of the Father, the logic or purpose in and through which the whole divine economy is conceived and implemented” (39). For example:
“Adam does not fall in an abstract sense. His obedience comes from the fruit of the tree, and from that tree comes death. Jesus Christ recapitulates this scene, though now in the key of righteousness rather than sin. Christ’s obedience triumphs over sin by his death upon the tree of the ross, and the fruit of that tree is life.”(39)
Therefore, Holy Scripture was written by God, which gives it a hypothesis or purpose of the Bible and from this we can construct a good economy that recapitulates in Christ. This provides us with a starting point in understanding how the Father’s viewed the Holy Scripture when they say that all texts lead to Christ. They were less worried about human authorial intent but saw that God, the author of scripture, had the telos of the scriptures to be Christ.
“Every work contained in the sacred books announces with words, reveals by the facts, and establishes by example the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ who, sent by his father, became a man, being born of a virgin by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is, therefore, he who, throughout this present age engenders, washes, sanctifies, chooses, separates out, and redeems the church in the true and manifest figures of the Patriarchs: by the sleep of Adam, by the flood of Noah, by the blessing of Melchizedek, by the justification of Abraham, by the birth of Isaac, and by the servitude of Jacob. Through the entire unfolding of time, in a word, the assembly of the prophets, serving the divine economy, gave us knowledge of his coming incarnation.”
— Hilary of Poitiers cited on p. 43