Mark Sheridan has truly given the world a gift with his recent publication, Language for God in Patristic Tradition, published by IVP Academic. I’ve used the book as a resource for a previous post – Cassiodorus on the Violence in Psalm 137 – and am thrilled to now offer a full review. During my time as a graduate student, I became very interested in patristic theology and hermeneutics. I was always particularly interested in how they dealt with biblical “anthropomorphisms” which might conflict with a classical theist’s view of God as un-changing, all-knowing, and more. With this book, Sheridan expertly navigates the reader through the interpretive strategies of the early church Fathers as they wrestled with our sacred texts.
The explicit goal of the book is to show how ancient Christian theologians understood the problem of certain presentations of God that attributed human characteristics and emotions to the divine and to detail how they dealt with it. To accomplish this task, Sheridan provides the reader with plenty of primary texts from patristic writers along with detailed expositions of their interpretations. He continually draws on authors such as the Alexandrians, Clement, Origen, Didymus, Chrysostom, and more. The heart of his discovery: there is a widely used double-criterion for interpreting the difficult texts of Scripture: 1] It must be useful to humans (since it was written by God and preserved by the Spirit for the spiritual maturity of the church) and 2] it must be “worthy of God” – that is, it must be read in light of certain truths about God that were already known. The early Christians drew some of their criteria for what is worthy of God from Plato and other Greek philosophers but also, and primarily, from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
Three case studies are offered in the book to illustrate how ancient authors used this hermeneutical strategy:
A. The Creation Story (saturated with anthropomorphisms)
B. The Story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar (which seems to condone adultery)
C. The Conquest Narratives of Joshua (which seems at odd with Jesus’ life and teachings)
The case studies show that the early Christians were not shy about addressing the problem of the divine nature as presented in problematic texts. I particularly enjoyed the way that the Church Fathers interpreted the violent conquest stories in light of the divine love of humanity revealed in Jesus Christ. The two criterion led them to allegorical interpretations – readings that would not be considered appropriate to a historical-grammatical exegete. However, these theological readings (interpretations made in light of their understanding of the nature of God) are often beautiful and perhaps more faithful to the overall narrative of Scripture than modern alternatives. Sheridan also offers a chapter on how the Church Fathers read the many disturbing images in the Psalms – an interesting and incredibly fruitful exercise.
I’ve been an outspoken proponent of theological exegesis for years now and found myself encouraged by the data presented in this book. I was happy, and a little surprised, to see just how much the patristic writers used the revelation of Jesus as an interpretive tool – something I have advocated for as well. Sheridan has clearly mastered this material and the result is an interesting, engaging, and convincing presentation of the interpretive strategy of the early church writers when it came to problematic texts in the Scriptures. Lastly, his very precise and brief appendix on the presuppositions, criteria, and rules employed in Ancient Christian Hermeneutics is worth the price of the book itself. It will be standard reading for all of my classes that discuss the different methods of interpretation throughout Christian history.
I highly recommend this book for:
– courses on the patristic writers or on hermeneutics in general
– those interested in patristics or hermeneutics
– those troubled with “problem texts” in the Scriptures
– those interested in the way we use language to speak about God
(In his foreword, Thomas C. Oden writes, “This book will keep the preaching pastor out of a whole lot of trouble. Constantly in biblical teaching we use human language to speak of God, knowing very well that God transcends human speech. We may stumble over the Bible’s words if we are unaware of how profoundly the classic Christian tradition has examined this question. This book gives the ordinary reader access to that wisdom.” I couldn’t agree more.)
Note: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review.