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Phil at hyperekperissou has a nice article about Protestants reading the early church fathers. The article grows out of an attitude that I also sometimes encounter: Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christians of a certain bent seem offended that a Protestant would show any interest in the fathers, or accuse them of cherry-picking the bits we like and leaving the rest behind. In for a penny, in for a pound?
Even if I were not personally offended by this, it would strike me as counter-productive. Have these detractors not considered that many Protestants who have begun to take the fathers seriously have ended up crossing the Tiber (or the Bosphorus)? If I were Catholic or Orthodox and I knew an evangelical who was interested in patristics, I would stock her up with all the best resources I could! I would applaud her baby steps toward the fullness of God’s revelation. I would ask, “What have you learned lately? Where is your study taking you?” and listen respectfully to the answers.
But I’m not Catholic or Orthodox (in the capital-letter sense). I can only speak for folks like me. So let me first acknowledge that Protestants, especially free-church Protestants, and especially evangelical free-church Protestants, have brought some of this surprise and suspicion on ourselves. We have largely forgotten that the early Reformers—Luther, Calvin, and the like—all knew their patristics! Their argument against Rome was not that the fathers were irrelevant but that Rome had misread them!
For Luther et al., the fathers had to be read in light of Scripture, which holds the final authority. Still, they are valuable examples of how people read the Bible in earlier days, and they do carry genuine authority (of a secondary, derivative sort) in settling matters of faith and practice. As my seminary church history professor would say, we believe in sola scriptura, not nuda scriptura.
That is why I celebrate the fact that many Protestants are coming around to rediscover the fathers. In so doing, we are discovering not only our ancient but ourProtestant roots. We are sorting out what is the core of our faith and what is a passing fad.
The Reformers would be proud!
…and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20)
What are you doing, Paul, making common things your own, and claiming for yourself what was done on behalf of the whole world? For he says not “who loved us” but “who loved me.” … But Paul speaks in this highly personal voice, aware of the culpability of human nature and the ineffable compassion of Christ, aware of what he redeems us from and what grace he confers upon us. Burning with desire toward him, he utters this. In just this way did the prophets often make the universal God their own, crying, My God, my God, I invoke you. He shows that each of us ought to render as much thanks to Christ as though Christ had come for him alone. For God would not have withheld this gift even from one person. He has the same love for every individual as for the whole world.
—John Chrysostom, Homily on Galatians 2.20
From Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses:
The loftier meaning [of the Israelite's plundering the wealth of Egypt] is therefore more fitting than the obvious one. It commands those participating through virtue in the free life also to equip themselves with the wealth of pagan learning by which foreigners to the faith beautify themselves. Our guide in virtue commands someone who “borrows” from wealthy Egyptians to receive such things as moral and natural philosophy, geometry, astronomy, dialectic, and whatever else is sought by those outside the Church, since these things will be useful when in time the divine sanctuary of mystery must be beautified with the riches of reason.
Those who treasured up for themselves such wealth handed it over to Moses as he was working on the tent of mystery, each one making his personal contribution to the construction of the holy places. It is possible to see this happening even now, for many bring to the church of God their profane learning as a kind of gift. Such a man was the great Basil [of Caesarea], who acquired the Egyptian wealth in every respect during his youth and dedicated this wealth to God for the adornment of the Church, the true tabernacle.
In this classic of Christian mysticism, Gregory reads the entire story of Moses as an allegory of the spiritual life. Whenever the bare historical details of the text create moral or rational difficulties, he finds a “spiritual” meaning beneath the surface. This is what he did with the detail that the Israelites on their way out of Egypt plundered the wealth of their former oppressors. He equates the “Egyptian wealth” with the learning of pagan cultures–the Egyptians of Moses’ time and the Greeks and Romans of his own. He praised Basil the Great for his extensive learning in pagan arts and sciences.
One of my majors in college was geography, and as a Neutestamentler I have also had some training in the study of history. Both are “field-encompassing fields.” You can’t just learn history or geography; studies in those fields will eventually lead one to dabble in a handful of other disciplines. Sociology and linguistics are more or less obvious examples, but sometimes a historian must go even further afield. He or she may be called on to learn a little astronomy to interpret the timing of events such as comets and eclipses as an aid to establishing ancient chronology, agriculture and animal husbandry in order to understand farming practices and technology, medicine in order to interpret physical conditions described in texts written before the advent of modern medicine, and so on. The field-encompassing nature of these disciplines is probably one of the main reasons I am personally drawn to them, which may be a highly academic way of confessing that I have a very short attention span.
Hopefully, however, I’ve acquired a small bit of “Egyptian wealth” in this sense. A liberal arts education exposes one to a little bit of a lot of disciplines (science, economics, history, mathematics, etc.)—for some, enough to make them think they know something; for others, enough to convince them there is much more to learn. In the spirit of Gregory, I would like to think that my meager “wealth” is at God’s disposal, to bring beauty to his spiritual house.
Not every Christian would agree with Gregory about the value of this “Egyptian wealth,” however. Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” By that he meant, What does profane learning have to do with the things of the spirit? There are plenty of Tertullianists around today who reject the idea that Christians can learn anything from unbelievers. There was a fairly recent outbreak of this attitude at Patrick Henry College when a couple of faculty members wrote a paper about “The Role of General Revelation in Education.”
Others—thankfully the majority over the course of Christian history—have seen the wisdom of learning whatever can be known, even if pagans teach it. Justin Martyr was an early proponent of this view, which is also found in Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and many others. These heroes of the faith would have agreed with the concluding paragraph of the paper cited above:
When we examine the writings of any author, professed Christian or otherwise, the proper question is not, “Was this man a Christian?” but “Is this true?” Nor should we spend much time looking for points of disagreement. Rather we should focus on taking what has been rightly said and submitting it to the service of Christ.
I hope my students figure this out early in their college careers. When they take their classes in economics, physics, or English literature, they are storing up treasure they can place at Christ’s disposal. It doesn’t matter where that knowledge came from. It only matters if it’s true.
So, one of the reasons I haven’t been blogging as much lately is that I’ve been working working on the Galatians volume of the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Marion Soards has ably handled the exposition; I’m responsible for supplementary materials: sidebars, sermon/teaching ideas, and so forth. My deadline is still about a month away, so I’m still going to be fairly quiet around here, but I thought I’d repost a bit on the reception history of the Hagar story from Genesis that, you may know, figures prominently in Galatians 4.
In chapter 1 of Reading the Bible with the Dead, John L. Thompson surveys the history of Christian interpretation of Hagar, Abraham’s wife-concubine whose story is told mainly in Genesis 16 and 21. Hagar enters the biblical narrative as Sarah’s Egyptian slave, forced to sleep with her husband Abraham in an ill-advised scheme to produce for him an heir. She is used, abused, and then cast out of the family when, after the birth of Isaac to Sarah, it was deemed she had outlived her usefulness.
In Galatians 4, Paul used Hagar yet again—this time as an allegory for slavery to the Mosaic law. The “throw-away” sexual surrogate becomes a symbol of all that is second-rate in the economy of God. But such readings miss some amazing details of Hagar’s depiction in the book of Genesis, and Thompson credits feminist interpreters with bringing these details to light. Three observations and criticisms have registered with respect to Hagar’s story in Genesis. First, there is the concern “to recognize and recover the dignity, eminence, and even the exemplary character of Hagar” (15). Second, other feminist interpreters take an opposite approach by calling attention to what Hagar suffered and what this tells us about the character of Abraham (and Sarah). Finally, Hagar’s story has drawn attention to what may be called “the sins of the narrator” (16), the subtle clues in the text that betray the patriarchal biases of the storyteller himself, if not the Deity behind the action.
After this brief introduction to the problems surrounding the Hagar narratives, Thompson raises the question to which many modern interpreters believe they already have the answer: Has the church forgotten Hagar? In fact, Thompson finds that interpreters of previous generations had long struggled with the disparities of these biblical texts—and often came to conclusions quite similar to those of modern feminists.
Did Paul’s Allegory Win?
In answer to the first concern, that of recognizing the positive dimensions of Hagar’s character, Thompson notes that there were, in fact, two strands of allegorical thought surrounding Hagar. The one in Galatians 4 we know, but ancient interpreters realized this was only one piece of the puzzle. For Philo of Alexandria, the symbolism of Hagar was the “preliminary teachings” that the wise must study on their way to true wisdom (symbolized by Sarah).
For Origen as well, Hagar does not represent a literal wife or a fleshly union, “but rather the virtue of wisdom” (19). Abraham thus did not take on a second wife, but a second virtue. Her expulsion from Abraham’s camp provides a contrast between the meager skin of water with which she is provided and the divine spring she discovers in the wilderness. She is thus like the Samaritan woman of John 4: “both had their eyes opened to see a well of living water, which in each case was Jesus Christ” (19).
Later patristic interpreters likewise found in Hagar some symbol of godly virtues. For Didymus the Blind, Hagar could only symbolize these virtues because, as a historical person, she possessed them in a literal way, “as evidenced by her good behavior and her worthiness to receive heavenly visitations” (19). He even invokes Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” to argue that, since she had a divine vision, Hagar must have been pure in heart.
In all of the patristic era, Augustine is virtually alone in attributing purely negative characteristics to Hagar. For him, she is a figure of heresy. Into the medieval period, the church’s assessment owes more to Origen and Didymus than to the bishop of Hippo.
Abraham on Trial
Nor does the early church let Abraham off the hook for his despicable treatment of Hagar. The earliest worries about Abraham expelling Hagar and her son Ishmael come from the rabbis. In Genesis Rabbah, there is great interest in the meaning of the Hebrew term in Genesis 21:9 where Ishmael is “playing” with Isaac. For the rabbis, this term was associated with shameful deeds—”fornication, or idolatry, or attempted homicide” (23). Whether these speculations are true, it must be said that they apparently arose out of a sense of discomfort with Abraham’s seeming extreme reaction against Ishmael’s otherwise innocent behavior.
The disparity between Ishmael’s “crime” and the “punishment” inflicted by Abraham captured the attention of Christian writers as well. John Chrysostom “attributes great reservations to Abraham over the severity and oppressiveness of Sarah’s plan to evice Hagar and Ishmael. A few years later, preaching on Galatians, he makes some similar moves, arguing that only the stirrings of divine providence can account for this event, for otherwise the penalty would be vastly more serious than Ishmael’s brashness warranted” (23).
Abraham’s severity in this episode was a preoccupation of Jewish and Christian interpreters throughout the Middle Ages, with varying success. Thompson explains,
Rashi reported that Hagar’s “wandering” in Genesis 21:4 may have implied her moral wandering into idolatry, while Abraham Ibn Ezra insisted that later on, after Sarah’s death, Abraham lavished gifts upon Ishmael’s children. None of the rabbis, however, nor any Christian commentator, can equal the blunt confession of Rabbi Nachman, writing in the thirteenth century: “Sarah sinned in afflicting her, and also Abraham for permitting it. God hearkened to Hagar’s cry, and as a result her descendants persecute and afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah. (24)
Christian interpreters as well wrestled with the questionable morality of Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of Hagar. Thompson lists Cardinal Cajetán, Conrad Pellican, Wolfgang Musculus, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Martin Luther as Christians who noted the ethical problems with this text. He quotes Luther’s assessment,
Abraham simply sends away his beloved spouse, she who first made him a father, along with his firstborn son, giving them only a sack of bread and a skin of water…. But does it not seem cruel that a mother burdened with offspring should be dismissed so miserably, and that, to an unknown destination, indeed, into a vast and arid desert? … If someone wanted to rant against Abraham at this point, he could make him the murderer of his son and wife…. Who would believe this if Moses had not recorded it? (25)
None of these precritical interpreters intended to hang Abraham without a trial. On the contrary, they strove to find a way to harmonize the actions of the biblical characters with the moral standards they learned in Christ. But as Thompson notes, “If some [commentators] appear to have worked overtime to exonerate Abraham, they never lost sight of the seriousness of the charge against the patriarch nor brushed aside the terror inflicted on Hagar and her son” (25-26).
What then about the “sins of the narrator” in how Hagar’s story is told? Feminist interpreters charge that traditional, patriarchal exegesis has locked Hagar into “a petty and stereotypical role” (26) and whitewashed the injustices committed against her. But Thompson argues the history of exegesis of these passages does not quite fit this billing. “They are admittedly patriarchal, albeit in an unconscious way,” Thompson argues, “and they are capable of succumbing to gender stereotyping, but they show a surprising tendency to rise above these traits in pursuit not only of ‘literal’ exegesis but also in defense of Hagar” (26).
Again, Thompson surveys numerous commentators, this time from the Reformation era. Zwingli, Pellican, Musculus, and Luther all characterize Hagar as a humble, pious woman, despite the culturally bound gender stereotypes within which they worked. Musculus in particular believed Hagar had every reason to complain of her treatment. He even admits that “Hagar would not have sinned had she voiced some of her complaints. AFter all, Job and Jeremiah offered laments, and even Christ cried out fromthe cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (27). Luther could even speak of the godliness of “saintly Hagar” (28) and ponder how her experience is a figure of the Christian path from humiliation to faith and repentance.
Hagar in Church and Pulpit
Reading the story of Hagar with the dead offers a payoff to Christians today. Freely admitting that not every early interpreter saw Hagar in such a sympathetic light (Augustine and Calvin in particular are noted for being “curiously untouched by the various expressions of interest and sympathy that most commentators drew from this biblical text,” 29), Thompson suggests there are four key lessons we can learn from the history of exegesis of Hagar’s story (29-31):
- Hagar is Important. Any incursion into the patriarchal narratives that treats Hagar as the lectionary has mostly done, excising the dubious deeds of Abraham as well as Hagar’s own triumphs and travails, is at once a betrayal of the integrity of the biblical text and the squandering of a rich homiletical opportunity.
- Hagar’s Story Is Terrifying. Nothing is gained by “reading for the center” so as to pretend that Hagar’s misfortunes did not happen or that they weren’t so bad after all, given the happy ending that came her way.
- Hagar Is More than a Symbol. Despite the precedent offered by Paul’s allegory of Hagar as a figure or type of those who foolishly sought justification through the law, Galatians 4 should not erase or upstage the compelling portrait of Hagar in Genesis.
- Hagar Is Connected to Us by Our Own Tradition. If it is dysfunctional to ignore Scripture’s silences, it is hardly better for preachers to suppose they can fix the Bible alone, by exercising their own authority or creativity. Instead, congregations ought to be reconnected to Christian tradition by being reminded of the witness of past interpreters.
A final note: Thompson covers vast swaths of history of interpretation in only a few pages. While at one level I would have preferred more extensive quotation from the primary sources, I appreciate that this would make the book large and unwieldy. He provides a 28-page “Finding Guide” at the back, broken down by biblical book, of the major historical interpreters whose works are currently available in English. Readers who want to check Thompson’s citations and do additional research are thus armed for the task.
My wife actually has a distant ancestor named Balaam (although he spelled it “Balum”). This ancient Gentile prophet is something of a paradox in the Hebrew Bible and even moreso in later Jewish tradition. Sometimes he is depicted as a paragon of virtue, a “righteous gentile,” but at other times he is vilified as one who led God’s people astray.
This post by Seth Sanders provides an informative introduction to this perplexing figure.
There’s plenty for your reading pleasure now posted at Reading Acts.