Often times the early church turns out to be the “black sheep” for hermeneutical methodology. In the academic world and the church there has been a growing interest in “theological exegesis.” Part of the struggle in this movement is how do we understand and model the early church’s hermeneutical method? Ideas such as “allegory” versus “literal” are often used with little understanding of how the early church understood these terms in their own right. It is often times the Protestant’s concern how can we know the “real meaning of Scripture” if it is allegorized? Will that not lead to a hermeneutical that is not grounded in the historical consciousness of the original writing? What about authorial intent? All these questions are valid today but the early church still dealt with these types of questions (albeit they were framed in a much different manner).
I have been reading through Origen’s homilies on Luke and I have noticed that he often times seeks the “literal” (understood here in the historical meaning of the passage) first and then moves onto a spiritual reading. With these thoughts going on I came across an articled titled “The Spiritual Sense(s) Today” by Glenn W. Olsen in The Bible and the University. In this essay he articulates how the early church understood exegesis and one section in particular stood out to me and helped make sense of Origen’s practice. He says,
The important point is that, using whatever terminology, the Fathers tended to distinguish between a use of the Scripture to articulate doctrine; a use of it to determine how Christians are to live, that is a moral use; and a use of it to articulate a path of spiritual progress. That is, the Scriptures could be seen as aiming at various things. Especially from the time of Origen, there was a tendency to associate doctrine with the the literal sense, and morals and spiritual growth with the spiritual senses. This does not mean that the Fathers did not think that all three — doctrine, morals, and the spiritual life — could be found in the literal sense, but that they tended to think of the spiritual senses as ways of particularly pursing something more personal than doctrine, such as spiritual development (128).
There is definitely more to this idea than this post will allow. But I am beginning to see that in my readings of the early church’s practice (i.e. homilies, commentaries, letters etc.) generally goes against much of the caricature of their hermeneutical method. I find in the early church a generally helpful way of reading the scriptures that is edifying for the church today. Let me end with this quote from the same essay:
A spiritual sense was a way of asking, in fidelity to the corporeal sense of Scripture, what its implication might be for some such subject as the life of one’s soul or the life of the Church. Since there was no such thing as an ‘academic theology’ which could be separated from daily living, all the senses of Scripture were seen as intertwined. Theory or theology was to lead to practice (128).