Book Review: A Short Introduction: How the Church Fathers Read the Bible, by Gerald Bray (Lexham Press 2022).

Gerald Bray’s current voluminous output continues apace, with this latest title from Lexham Press seeking to introduce the reader to the interpretive methods the Early Church Fathers employed in reading the Bible. An admirable goal and a beautifully produced book combine in a short volume that is certainly readable (something that cannot always be said of popular church history volumes!) and offers a broad introduction to the subject matter. If its strength lies in its engaging, introductory style, its weakness can be found in its breadth – which does on occasion lead to generalisations or oversimplification, particularly in regards to the treatment of certain sources.

Nonetheless, Bray offers a warm and insightful read; it is excellently researched, well-written, and illuminating. It opens up an often overlooked period to modern evangelical readers, and does so with a focus on the most essential common thread between the believer then and now – God’s Word. What follows below is a lengthy review, so in summary before I launch in: though limited by its short, introductory nature, Bray has written a highly commendable book, and I would gladly suggest it is read widely, as a great way to gain a glimpse of the often confusing, and certainly convoluted, world of the Early Church.


What is Patristic Biblical Interpretation?

Bray opens with his longest chapter – setting out what exactly his volume is seeking to cover. This recognition of the work’s remit is important; Bray does not seek to offer an introduction to the Early Church more broadly, on their history, actions and doctrine. Rather, he wants to examine their treatment of the Bible, how they approached God’s Word, and the ways in which this idea shifted throughout the first few centuries of Christian history. This opening chapter therefore takes on a survey form, dancing from the fledgling church of the first century, through well-known figures such as Origen and Augustine, up to later Western Fathers in the sixth and seventh centuries.

The Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testaments are introduced, and the means by which they were conveyed (the movement of scrolls to codices) is given due attention. Apocryphal works are considered (and occasionally revisited throughout the volume, where appropriate) and other questions of textual format and transmission are addressed, before Bray turns to the Fathers themselves, and examines who exactly these figures were. Figures from Greek, Latin and wider backgrounds are explored, and Bray acknowledges the position of Armenian, Georgian, Coptic and Ethiopian churches in this period of Christian history (and crucially, in the transmission of works otherwise lost to the modern reader.) This long chapter ends with a brief examination of the manner in which the Fathers approached biblical interpretation, before closing in a short summary section, something each chapter contains. This 52-page chapter takes up over a quarter of the entire book, and acts as both introduction, contextualisation, and technical foundation. Its breadth in subject matter means that names and ideas are occasionally mentioned without proper introduction – Pelagius is for example cited as an excellent scholar, with no recognition of his highly-controversial heretical teaching (41) whilst Tertullian is presented (by context) as though he were a Greek Father, despite being a Latin author (36). Despite these minor points, the chapter helpfully sets up the rest of Bray’s study.

Chapters Two – Four: Laying the Groundwork

After the mammoth opening chapter, Bray spends the following three chapters going deeper into how the Church Fathers went about their biblical interpretation. Chapter Two ‘A Clash of Worldviews’ explores the emergence of the Christian faith in a noisy and crowded intellectual landscape. Again, the nature of the work means the likes of gnosticism (66-7) are covered at breakneck speed, but Bray holds the fledgling faith up against both Jewish and ‘pagan’ cultures, and offers insightful comparisons of both. Particular examples – such as the development of the interpretation of Song of Songs – demonstrates Bray’s grasp on the material, and this brief mini-study is worthy of reflection, challenging believers today with the reflections of Christians in antiquity (73-4).

Chapter Three, ‘The Four Senses of Interpretation’ follows, a brief chapter that primarily focuses on Origen, and is largely limited to this particular figure, given the importance he holds in the history and study of patristic biblical interpretation. As Bray notes, these four senses (three by Origen, one added in the fourth century) skewed interpretation towards the metaphorical, particularly with regards to the reading of the Old Testament. The chapter opens with a discussion of the complex but entertaining figure of Clement of Alexandria, who Bray unquestioningly follows Eusebius in labelling Origen’s teacher (92, no evidence beyond Eusebius exists suggesting this link is valid, and this reviewer would argue that their relationship is an Eusebian construct, though it remains a minor point.) As Bray writes in opening Chapter Four ‘The Search for Consensus’, “The hermeneutical achievement of Origen set the agenda for the rest of the patristic period and beyond”, and so this short chapter acts as a helpful narrowing of the focus to explore something of Origen’s place in this wider tradition.

Before moving to case studies in Chapter Five, Bray explores this desire to find a unified approach in the interpretive habits of the Fathers. Chapter Four therefore explores some of the later responses to Origen’s ideas. In particular, Bray dwells on the reactions to excessive allegorising of biblical material. As with his earlier example of Song of Songs, Bray demonstrates some of the issues through helpful thoughts on Revelation, and the suspicion/acceptance of it among Early Christian communities.

Case Studies

Chapter Five is easily the highlight of Bray’s study, as he offers ten examples of patristic biblical interpretation. As he points out in opening this chapter “a short introduction cannot do justice to the whole of the biblical canon.” (135.) This is correct, and these case studies by no means demonstrate even everything covered in the preceding chapters. What they do offer, however, is insight into the thinking of these ancient Christian figures, and there is plenty for the modern believer to reflect on. Much like Chapter One, this is a long chapter, but the reader is glad of it, as it feels as though the book has been building to this. Once again, Bray is excellent on the Song of Songs, picking up some of the themes of Chapter Two as he examines Song of Songs 2:1-4. The downside to this lengthy chapter is that 45-odd pages is not enough to do justice to even these ten examples. This reviewer would have enjoyed the separation of these two groups into separate chapters, and more time given over to each example. The interpretive congestion comes to a head at several points. Bray’s exploration of Genesis 1:26-7 is only able to dwell largely on the errors of the Fathers; whilst his discussion of Isaiah 7:14 and 9:6 includes several underdeveloped major claims. This chapter is, on the whole, so insightful that it is a shame there is comparatively so little of it.

‘Seven Theses’

The study ends with Chapter Six, a short reflection on ‘Seven Theses on How the Church Fathers Read the Bible.’ As Bray wisely notes “the fathers were not perfect, and not everything they had to say has stood the test of time, but on certain fundamental principles they remain authoritative guides for the church today.” (181.) With just a short, summary paragraph on each principle, Bray conculdes his study. The ending is abrupt, but excellently ties together the many threads of this short volume. His sixth thesis is particularly apt for those considering reading this book. “The modern church must respect the Fathers and be prepared to learn from them, but without idolizing them or claiming for them an authority that they did not claim for themselves.” (186.) Here is the crux of the matter. Bray’s study demonstrates the complexity of this landscape, but also the value in engaging with these figures and their writings. Many of us have only a severely limited grasp on this period and these people, and Bray’s volume goes some way to introducing the reader to a period of history that we ignore at our own peril. By no means one to idolise and venerate holistically, but certainly, the patristic authors are figures from whom we can, in humility, learn a great deal.

Conclusion

The above note is a helpful one on which Bray ends, and on which to draw this review to a close. The Fathers offer a wealth of wisdom and insight, yet they are not perfect. Neither the positive nor negative parts of that conclusion suggest, however, that the modern church ought to abandon them. They have much to teach us, both as examples and innovators, and through their error or lapses in judgement. Bray’s introductory volume serves to open up that world to the reader, and for this it ought to be warmly commended. As to the audience – Bray seeks to be introductory, but the book itself acknowledges that it is pitched towards students. Christopher Hall’s commendation on the back cover makes this clear. I think this is about right; whether for students of Classics or Theology, or seminarians – this book will be a helpful introduction. But the audience I think is wider than merely this academic context, and this short volume would benefit any church member willing to grapple with the early history of the Christian faith, and seeking to explore the value and understanding of Scripture in this ancient period.

Before the Table of Contents, Bray has included the Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, from the Book of Common Prayer. This prayer asks that we might be wise to hear from those who wrote and studied Scripture, that we might digest their words, embrace them, and cling to the hope of Christ our Saviour. This is a helpful note from which to approach this book, and for the believer willing to work through some of the more complex history in this volume, Bray offers some helpful reflections on the most important book of all: God’s Word. Something which unites believers in the Early Church with the modern believer, teaching and delighting us with the blessed hope of eternal life that has been given us in Christ Jesus.


A Short Introduction: How the Church Fathers Read the Bible, by Gerald Bray, is available from Lexham Press.

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