Scripture and Tradition in the Early Church

Tradition As Interpretation

The Formal Sufficiency of Scripture


William Webster



A third major category of tradition is that of authoritative interpretation. The argument made by Rome is this: since Scripture is obscure and not self interpreting, it is necessary to have an authoritative, infallible interpreter to disclose its meaning. In other words, Scripture is not formally sufficient. Apart from such an authority, Rome argues that interpretation would be arbitrary, private judgment which would lead to mass confusion. In fact, Rome points to the plethora of Protestant denominations to justify her argument. Rome claims that God has appointed her as the ultimate authority for the interpretation of Scripture and submission to her as the answer to disunity. Rome claims that she and she alone has been established by God, not just as an authoritative interpreter, but one that is also infallible.

Rome’s claims and charges are serious and deserve careful consideration. No one can deny the many disagreements among Protestants. But is Rome the answer? Are her claims true? Is she an infallible interpreter of Scripture? And is the denominational problem within Protestantism as severe as Rome says it is? In this article we will attempt to answer these questions.

The Unanimous Consent of the Fathers

The claims of Rome were given dogmatic expression by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, and later reaffirmed by Vatican I in 1870:

Trent: Furthermore, to check unbridled spirits, it decrees that no one relying on his own judgment shall, in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Holy Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions, presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which holy mother Church, to whom it belongs to judge their true sense and interpretation, has held and holds, or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers, even though such interpretations should never at any time be published (The Decrees of the Council of Trent (Rockford: Tan, 1978), Fourth Session, The Canonical Scriptures, pp. 18–19).

Vatican I: And as the things which, in order to curb rebellious spirits, the holy Synod of Trent decreed for the good of souls concerning the interpretation of Divine Scripture have been wrongly explained by some, We, renewing the said decree, declare this to be its meaning: that, in matters of faith and morals, appertaining to the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be held as the true sense of Holy Scripture which our holy Mother Church hath held and holds, to whom it belongs to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures; and, therefore, that it is permitted to no one to interpret the Sacred Scripture contrary to this sense or likewise contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers (Dogmatic Canons and Decrees of Vatican Council I (Rockford: Tan, 1977), pp. 222–223).

In these decrees, the Roman Catholic Church claims historical continuity with the early Church. By decreeing it unlawful to interpret Scripture contrary to the unanimous consent of the fathers, Trent sought to link the authority of the Church fathers to its teachings. This was a way of asserting that its teachings were not novel but conformed to those of the ancient Church, while those of the Reformers supposedly did not. In addition, the Council prescribed an objective standard by which Rome’s teachings and interpretations of Scripture were to be judged. It is one thing to claim validation for teachings by appealing to the unanimous consent of the fathers, but something else altogether to prove the correlation exists. Furthermore, Trent has interpreted the meaning of unanimous consent to include not just the broad and general truths of Scripture, but its actual interpretation. Trent was attempting to blunt the effective Protestant apologetic, that its teachings were a departure from and perversion of the revelation of Scripture. The Council took refuge in an historical appeal, identifying itself with the fathers of the Church, branding the Reformers as rebels outside the mainstream of the Church historically. Thus, Trent claimed to interpret Scripture and to promulgate teachings consistent with those of the early Church — a claim consistently asserted even to the present day. In the decree on unanimous consent, Trent articulated a conservative principle, one that eschewed novelty and looked to the past for validation of present teachings. It was first formulated into a working principle by Vincent of Lerins in the fifth century. He wrote:

I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.
    But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason, — because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.
     Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense ‘Catholic,’ which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors (NPNF2, Volume XI, Vincent of Lerins, A Commonitory 2.4–6).

Vincent stated that those teachings are truly catholic and apostolic which have been believed everywhere, always and by all (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est). In other words, the principle of unanimous agreement encompassing universality (believed everywhere), antiquity (believed always) and consent (believed by all). Vincent is propounding a principle that had been taught by Irenaeus in the second century:

Universality: The Universal Church, moreover, through the whole world, has received this tradition from the apostles (ANF, Vol. 1, Irenaeus, Against Heresies II.9.1).

Consent: the preaching of the Church is everywhere consistent, and continues in an even course, and receives testimony from the prophets, the apostles, and all the disciples (Ibid., Against Heresies III.24.1)

Antiquity: True knowledge is [that which consists in] the doctrine of the apostles, and the ancient constitution of the Church throughout all the world, and the distinctive manifestation of the body of Christ according to the successions of the bishops, by which they have handed down that Church which exists in every place, and has come even unto us, being guarded and preserved without any forging of Scriptures, by a very complete system of doctrine, and neither receiving addition nor [suffering] curtailment [in the truths which she believes]…(Ibid., Against Heresies IV.34.8)

But what he and Irenaeus were referring to was the rule of faith; the general truths of Christianity and the interpretations of Scripture which were foundational for the defense and proclamation of the specific doctrines which made up the rule, and not to the general interpretation of individual passages of Scripture. As Vincent put it:

And here I perceive that, as a necessary sequel to the foregoing, I ought to show by examples in what way, by collating the consentient opinions of the ancient masters, the profane novelties of heretics may be detected and condemned. Yet in the investigation of this ancient consent of the holy Fathers we are to bestow our pains not on every minor question of the Divine Law, but only, at all events especially, where the Rule of Faith is concerned.

Robert Grant affirms Vincent’s perspective in these comments:

But the heretics also make great use of scripture…In the face of these difficulties what is the Catholic exegete to do? He is to follow the rule set forth at the beginning of Vincent’s work; and handed down to him by holy and learned men: they are to interpret the divine canon ‘according to the traditions of the universal church and according to the rules of Catholic dogma.’ In effect this interpretation is to be found in the general decrees of a universal council, and also in the consentient opinions of many great masters. This rule is not intended to apply ‘in every little question of the divine Law’ but only in matters concerning the rule of faith (Robert Grant with David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), p. 81).

As we have previously pointed out, the Protestant Church fully agrees with all the articles of the rule of faith as set forth by the fathers of the early Church. The creed is often recited in Sunday services of varying denominations, a fact rarely considered in discussions of the Protestant Church and disunity. It will become important when we consider the whole issue of authority and scriptural interpretation.

The early Church spoke much about the authority of the Church as Vincent of Lerins pointed out. When Roman Catholic apologists attempt to draw a direct correlation between the Church fathers and their appeal to the authority of the Church to support the Roman Catholic claims to authority, especially with respect to the interpretation of Scripture, they often misrepresent the teachings of the early Church. They try to present a picture of a unified, monolithic authority to which all the Church fathers looked for guidance for their interpretation and understanding of Scripture. The impression is given that all agreed on the interpretation of Scripture because there was a universal criterion for interpretation established by the Church to which all referred. For example, Joe Gallegos writes that to prove the fathers taught sola Scriptura, Protestants must demonstrate that the fathers affirmed the formal sufficiency of Scripture, that is, that no authority outside of Scripture (such as tradition and the Church) was needed to interpret Scripture authoritatively. He contends that the fathers taught the formal insufficiency of Scripture and therefore repudiated the notion of sola Scriptura. He makes these statements about Origen, Clement and Athanasius:

Clement: As with the Fathers before and after, Clement finds that the fundamental error of the heretic is that he doesn’t apply the Church’s inerrant Tradition when interpreting the Scriptures. Instead, the heretic selects and interprets the passages of the Sacred Text according to his own judgment and desires apart from the traditional truth contained in the Church (NBSA, Joe Gallegos, What Did the Fathers Teach?, pp. 418).

Origen: Origen replays the consistent theme of the Fathers, that is, one must interpret the sacred text according to the ecclesiastical standard established in Tradition, one which is authenticated by the order of succession from the apostles (Ibid., pp. 418).

Athanasius: Following his appeal to Scripture Athanasius explains that he does not rely on the inherent force of the Scriptural passages alone to provide their meaning. Athanasius affirms that although the various passages of Scripture justify the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the traditional faith obliges him to interpret the text in a certain way...According to Athanasius Tradition is substantive in content and authoritative. He receives these ecclesiastical doctrines through Tradition and it is within the Traditional milieu that the Scriptures are to be understood (Ibid., pp. 425–426).

In the above statements, Gallegos fails to provide the proper historical context for understanding what these fathers meant by the terms they used. When Origen, for example, wrote that one must interpret Scripture according to the ecclesiastical standard established by tradition, what did he mean? Gallegos implies that Origen meant a universal criterion for interpretation established by the Church to which he and other fathers appealed. But this is not true. In addition, Gallegos fails to inform his readers that while the early Church agreed on the fundamentals of the Creed — the rule of faith — it generally disagreed on the actual interpretation of Scripture itself. It is well known that there was long standing disagreement and conflict in the early Church on the  approach to Scripture and the method which should be employed for its interpretation, leading to wide spread differences in the actual interpretation of individual verses and passages. As Prestige points out,

‘No one method of interpretation was universally accepted in the early Church’ (G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (London; SPCK, 1958), p. 20).

There was no agreement among the fathers on the precise meaning of Scripture, except for truths used to defend and explain the rule of faith. And yet, by indiscriminate use of patristic quotes wrenched out of context, Roman apologists have grossly misrepresented the historical facts. A review of the history of interpretation proves this to be so.

The History of Interpretation

In the early Church, there were two fundamental approaches to the interpretation of Scripture. In the East, there were two schools of interpretation represented by Alexandria and Antioch. Each promoted and applied completely different methodologies to the interpretation of Scripture. Alexandria advocated the allegorical method while Antioch promoted a literal–historical approach. The Alexandrians did not completely repudiate the literal–historical method, nor Antioch the allegorical. The difference in approach was due to what these competing schools considered to be the primary meaning of Scripture. The Alexandrians were heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy which bled over in their approach to the interpretation of Scripture. Therefore, the primary meaning was not literal and historical, rather, it was a hidden and higher spiritual, mystical meaning which could only be derived through allegory. The Antiochenes, on the other hand, being more influenced by Aristotle, held the literal–historical meaning as primary and the allegorical as secondary, to be utilized sparingly and under strict standards. The Western Church likewise possessed no consistent unified interpretive method. We find the influence of both Eastern schools on various fathers of the West until finally with Augustine there was a synthesis of the two. An examination of the schools of Alexandria and Antioch will reveal the contradictory positions on Scripture interpretation held in the early Church.

The School of Alexandria

The allegorical method can be traced to the Greek culture. The father of Alexandrian Christian allegory was the Alexandrian Jew, Philo. Historians are nearly unanimous in this assessment. Joseph Trigg provides a detailed background on the roots of allegorical interpretation: 

Patristic biblical interpretation has roots in both Greek and Jewish traditions. All of the significant Greek and Latin fathers, from the end of the second century on, had received a Hellenistic education. This education, which chiefly consisted in the study of the Greek and (in the case of Westerners) Latin literary classics, inculcated a procedure for approaching a text that Patristic authors took for granted…Greek literary theory provided the principal basis for early Christian interpretation because Greek authors had already faced similar problems to those that had confronted Patristic authors. The poems of Homer and Hesiod, especially the former, occupied a position in classical culture analogous to that the Bible occupied for Christians…By the sixth century B.C….it was apparent that their religious and moral world–views were incompatible with those of a more sophisticated society. Grossly anthropomorphic gods and self–serving heroes were no longer appropriate. Just as some early Christian writers advocated rejecting the Old Testament, some Greek thinkers, most notably Plato, advocated eliminating the works of the poets from the education of the young.
     As in early Christianity, a more moderate position, advocating the retention of the poems while reinterpreting them to meet new needs, eventually won out. Interpreters sought a ‘deeper meaning’ (huponoia) of the texts  consistent with their own world–view, obtaining, in the process, a warrant for their own ideas in a hallowed tradition…Greek authors after Plato constructed elaborate allegorical interpretations of the Homeric poems. During the Hellenistic and Roman periods, roughly from the fourth century B.C. to the sixth century A.D., philosophers extended allegorical interpretation to myths of other national traditions with which the Greeks became more familiar following Alexander’s conquests…Jewish authors educated in Hellenistic literature, notably Philo and the author of the Letter of Aristeas, naturally looked at their own national literature and mythology from such a perspective…
    The extensive works of Philo (c. 20 B.C .– c. 50 A.D.), in particular, provided a foundation for Christian allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament. Philo, a loyal Alexandrian Jew who served courageously as a spokesman for his community, was also an original philosopher in the Platonic tradition. He believed that the Torah set forth, in symbolic language, philosophical doctrines which anticipated the teachings of Plato (Message of the Fathers of the Church (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1988), Joseph Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, p. 15).

He says of Philo’s influence on the early Church fathers:

The extensive works of Philo (c. 20 B.C.–c. 50 A.D.), in particular, provided a foundation for Christian allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament. Philo, a loyal Alexandrian Jew who served courageously as a spokesman for his community, was also an original philosopher in the Platonic tradition. He believed that the Torah set forth, in symbolic language, philosophical doctrines which anticipated the teachings of Plato (Ibid., Joseph Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, p. 15).

Philo sought through allegory to demonstrate the compatibility of Greek Platonic philosophy with the revelation of Scripture. The allegorical method aimed at the discovery of spiritual and moral truths supposedly hidden under the veil of the literal words and actions. Thus, the literal meaning is set aside for that which is mystical and spiritual. The literal words are only symbols. Karlfried Froehlich comments on Philo’s approach to the interpretation of Scripture:

Like his Jewish and Greek predecessors, Philo used a Platonic anthropological dichotomy as the model for his hermeneutical principle: the literal meaning of the sacred text is its body, the deeper spiritual and philosophical understanding is its soul (Karlfried Froehlich, Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), pp. 7–8).

An example of the principle of allegory applied by Philo to the interpretation of Scripture is supplied by Frederick Farrar from Philo’s work On the Allegories of the Sacred Laws, where he gives a commentary on Genesis.

‘It would,’ he tells us, ‘be a sign of great simplicity to think that the world was created in six days or indeed at all in time.’ Six, therefore, is only mentioned because it is a perfect number, being the first which is produced by the multiplication of two unequal factors. On the seventh day God did not ‘rest,’ but, having desisted from the creation of mortal creatures, began the formation of more divine beings; and the word should be rendered ‘He caused to rest.’ Nature delights in the number seven. There are seven stars in the Bear, seven parts of the soul, seven viscera, seven limbs, seven secretions, seven vowels, seven tones of the voice, seven strings to the lyre;  and by God’s ‘causing to rest’ on the seventh day is meant that when reason ‘which is holy according to the number seven has entered into the soul, the number six is then arrested, and all the mortal things which this number appears to make.’ By ‘the green herb of the field’ Moses means ‘that portion of the mind which is perceptible only by intellect.’ The verse ‘God did not rain upon the earth,’ means that God did not shed the perceptions of things upon the senses. To take literally the words ‘God planted a Paradise in Eden’ is impiety; ‘let not such fabulous nonsense ever enter our minds.’ 
    The meaning is that God implants terrestrial virtue in the human race. The tree of life is that most general virtue which some people call goodness. The river that goes forth out of Eden is also generic goodness. Its four heads are the cardinal virtues. Pheison is derived from pheidomai ‘Ispare,’ and means prudence, and being an illustrious virtue it is said to compass the whole land of Evilat where there is gold. The name Gilion means ‘chest’ or an animal which attacks with its horns, and therefore stands for courage, and it compasses Ethiopia or humiliation; in other words, it makes hostile demonstrations against cowardice. Tigris is temperance; the name is connected with a tiger because it resolutely opposes desire. Euphrates means fertility and stands for justice. Again, Pheison means ‘change of the mouth,’ and Evilat ‘bringing forth,’ which is an appropriate name for folly which always aims at the unattainable, and is destroyed by prudence manifested by speaking i.e. by the changing of the mouth! The carbuncle and emerald of the land of Evilat stand for Judah and Issacbar.
    The Euphrates does not mean the river, but the correction of manners. The literal statement that God cast Adam into a deep sleep and made Eve of one of his ribs is fabulous; the meaning is that God took the power which dwells in the outward senses, and led it to the mind. The serpent means pleasure, which leads Philo into a long disquisition about the rod of Moses, and the tribe of Dan. Dan means ‘temperance’ though he is the son of Bilhah, which means imbibing; he is a serpent in the path that is in the soul; he bites the heels of the horse, because ‘passion has four legs as a horse has,’ and is an impetuous beast and full of insolence, and the soul which is the rider of this horse falls backwards, i.e. falls from the passions when they have been wounded.
Such explanations, with long digressions, strange etymologies, and imaginary parallels occupy two whole books of this treatise. The third is of the same character (Frederick Farrar, History of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1961), pp. 142–144).

Philo had an enormous influence on both Clement of Alexandria and Origen. As R.P.C. Hanson has pointed out:

Clement and Origen introduced the Philonic tradition of allegory consciously and systematically, Clement with a tendency to somewhat naïve reproduction of Philonic ideas and even phrases, Origen in a more indirect and well–assimilated way, but all the more effectively for that.354 (The Cambridge History of the Bible, P.R. Ackroyd and C.F. Evans, Ed., (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1970), Volume I, From the Beginnings to Jerome, R.P.C. Hanson, Biblical Exegesis in the Early Church, p. 436).

In much of his commentary on Scripture, Clement relied heavily on Philonic principles of allegory. But it was through Origen that the Church of both East and West became deeply influenced by the allegorical method of interpretation. Froehlich says of him:

In Origen (ca. 185–253/54) we encounter one of the great minds and probably the most influential theologian of the early Christian era.355 (Karlfried Froehlich, Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), p. 16.

Origen influenced many Church fathers throughout the centuries with his interpretive methods including Dionysius the Great, Didymus the Blind, Eusebius of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Rufinus, Ambrose, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Alexandria, and in his early days, Jerome. He also had a tremendous influence on the exegetes of the medieval Church. An example of his influence is seen in these comments by Didymus the Blind, who was head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, from his Commentary on Genesis:

The firmament created in the midst of the waters is thus the reason which makes apparent the diversity which exists as to moral judgment. Received from God in the governing faculty of the soul, it separates evil things from good ones so that the person judging can choose. It is in this sense and not in the corporeal sense that you should take the separation if you observe the response made by Abraham to the rich man who asked that he send Lazarus to him: “A great gulf has been fixed between us” (Luke 16:26). He indicated in that way that virtue is separated from evil, not in space, but by a difference that derives from their completely opposed character. In fact, since righteousness cannot coexist with unrighteousness, the righteous and the unrighteous cannot be together, not, I should say, together in space but in their character and disposition. Thus, since the difference between virtue and vice is a “gulf” which divides good from evil, so God has made a “firmament in the midst of the water,” that is, in the governing faculty of the soul, so that one can discern between good and evil (Message of the Fathers of the Church (Wilmington: Michel Glazier, 1988), Joseph Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, p. 15).

This passage was interpreted altogether differently by the theologians who followed the school of Antioch. Boniface Ramsey gives the following assessment of the allegorical method used by the fathers:

In allegory…history was generally either denied or, for the sake of the deeper sense, ignored. In the first case, for example, Origen denies completely the existence of an earthly paradise, saying that the Genesis narrative is intended exclusively to point to certain mysteries…Allegory held to no tradition but for all practical purposes seems to have operated freely within the relatively broad limits set by orthodox belief. It was largely the work of imagination, and the imagination of one Father could well be at variance with that of another (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers (New York: Paulist, 1985), pp. 30–31).

The School of Antioch

Theologians of the Antiochene tradition were greatly opposed to the interpretive methodology of Alexandria. Robert Grant says:

The allegorical method encountered considerable opposition within the church…Such was certainly the case at Antioch (Robert Grant with David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984). p. 63.

The Antiochene position was represented by such theologians and fathers as Lucian, Theophilus, Diodore of Tarsus, Basil the Great, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Dorotheus, Eusthasius, John Chrysostom and Theodoret. Diodore and Theodore wrote treatises highly critical of the Alexandrian method. This criticism centered on the tendency of allegorists to relegate the literal, historical sense of Scripture to a status of secondary importance or to disregard it altogether. This gave free reign to commentators to interpret Scripture on the basis of private speculations and to give those speculations authoritative sanction even though they were often far removed from the true meaning of the Scriptures they were interpreting. Joseph Trigg makes these comments on the Antiochene approach:

They tended toward an approach which shied away from allegory and sought the sense intended by the author, which they determined by close attention to the historical meaning of individual words of scripture. Fragments of Lucian of Antioch (d. 312) attest to the strong concern for the plain meaning of the scriptural texts themselves (Message of the Fathers of the Church (Wilmington: Michel Glazier, 1988), Joseph Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, p. 31).

The Antiochene criticism of allegory is well expressed by Theodore of Mopsuestia:

There are people who take great pains to twist the senses of the divine Scriptures and make everything written therein serve their own ends. They dream up some silly fables in their own heads and give their folly the name allegory…When they start expounding divine Scripture ‘spiritually’—‘spiritual interpretation’ is the name they like to give their folly—they claim that Adam is not Adam, paradise is not paradise, the serpent is not the serpent. I should like to tell them this: If they make history serve their own ends, they will have no history left. But if this is what they do, let them tell us how they can answer questions such as these: Who was created the first human being? How did disobedience come about? How was our death sentence introduced?
    Now, if they gleaned their answers from the Scriptures, then their so–called allegory is unmasked as being foolishness, for it proved superfluous throughout. But if their assertion is true, if the biblical writings do not preserve the narrative of actual events but point to something else, something profound which requires special understanding—something ‘spiritual’ as they would like to say, which they have discovered because they are so spiritual themselves, then what is the source of their knowledge? Whatever name they may give to their interpretation, have they been taught by divine Scripture in their speaking? (Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on Galatians 4:22-31. Cited by Karlfried Froehlich, Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), pp. 96–97).

A similar criticism was offered by Basil of Caesarea. Joseph Trigg writes of the significance of the Antiochene influence and the fundamental differences that existed between Gregory of Nyssa (who fully embraced Alexandrian allegory) and Basil (who rejected it):

Antiochene interpretation significantly influenced biblical exegesis in the Greek, Latin and Syriac traditions. If Gregory of Nyssa represents a brilliant culmination of Alexandrian exegetical tradition, his older brother Basil of Caesarea (c. 330–379) is uncompromisingly Antiochene in his approach to the Bible. In On the Hexaemeron, Basil explicitly rejects the Alexandrian approach to the creation narrative in Genesis as firmly as Theodore did. He alleges that allegorists, out of embarrassment with the actual content of the Bible, treat things mentioned in it like symbols to be decoded from a dream…Gregory of Nyssa’s introduction to his Homilies on the Song of Songs provides a concise justification of allegorical method in the light of fourth–century discussions…Gregory implicitly rejects his brother’s Antiochene approach, arguing for an allegorical interpretation of, among other things, the early chapters of Genesis (Message of the Fathers of the Church (Wilmington: Michel Glazier, 1988), Joseph Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, pp. 35, 144).

Basil’s position is clearly identifiable in his work, On the Hexaemeron:

I know the laws of allegory, though less by myself than from the works of others. There are those truly, who do not admit the common sense of the Scriptures, for whom water is not water, but some other nature, who see in a plant, in a fish, what their fancy wishes, who change the nature of reptiles and of wild beasts to suit their allegories, like the interpreters of dreams who explain visions in sleep to make them serve their own ends. For me grass is grass; plant, fish, wild beast, domestic animal, I take all in the literal sense…Shall I then prefer foolish wisdom to the oracles of the Holy Spirit? Shall I not rather exalt Him who, not wishing to fill our minds with these vanities, has regulated all the economy of Scripture in view of the edification and the making perfect of our souls? It is this which those seem to me not to have understood, who, giving themselves up to the distorted meaning of allegory, have undertaken to give a majesty of their own invention to Scripture. It is to believe themselves wiser than the Holy Spirit, and to bring forth their own ideas under a pretext of exegesis. Let us hear Scripture as it has been written (NPNF2, Vol. 8, Basil, Hexaemeron, Homily 9.1).

Contrast the statements of Basil with Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis:

Were the waters above the firmament like these visible ones below the firmament? Scripture seems to refer to the water over which the Spirit was borne, and we took that water to be the matter of this world. Should we then believe that in this passage this matter is separated by the interposition of the firmament so that the lower matter is that of bodies and the higher matter of souls? For Scripture here calls the firmament what it later calls heaven. Among bodies there is none better than the body of heaven. Indeed heavenly bodies are completely different from earthly bodies, and the heavenly ones are better (FC, Vol. 83, Augustine on Genesis: Two Books on Genesis against the Manichees and On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis: An Unfinished Book, p.165.

The Antiochenes were very concerned about maintaining the primacy of the historical meaning of  Scripture. Robert Grant says: ‘They were unwilling to lose it in a world of symbols and shadows.’364 Thus, there were often very contradictory interpretive results between those who followed the schools of Antioch and Alexandria. This is not to say that Antiochene theologians rejected allegory altogether but rather, they restricted its use and grounded it upon the literal, historical interpretation of Scripture, looking to Scripture itself to guide in the use of allegory, if such an interpretation was warranted. John Chrysostom sums up the Antiochene view:

There is something else we can learn here. What sort of thing is it? It is when it is necessary to allegorize Scripture. We ourselves are not the lords over the rules of interpretation, but must pursue Scripture’s understanding of itself, and in that way make use of the allegorical method. What I mean is this. The Scripture has just now spoken of a vineyard, wall, and wine–vat. The reader is not permitted to become lord of the passage and apply the words to whatever events or people he chooses. The Scripture interprets itself with the words, ‘And the house of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord Sabaoth.’ To give another example, Ezekiel describes a large, great–winged eagle which enters Lebanon and takes off the top of a cedar.
    The interpretation of the allegory does not lie in the whim of the readers, but Ezekiel himself speaks, and tells first what the eagle is and then what the cedar is. To take another example from Isaiah himself, when he raises a mighty river against Judah, he does not leave it to the imagination of the reader to apply it to whatever person he chooses, but he names the king whom he has referred to as a river. This is everywhere a rule in Scripture: when it wants to allegorize, it tells the interpretation of the allegory, so that the passage will not be interpreted superficially or be met by the undisciplined desire of those who enjoy allegorization to wander about and be carried in every direction. Why are you surprised that the prophets should observe this rule? Even the author of Proverbs does this. For he said, ‘Let your loving doe and graceful filly accompany you, and let your spring of water be for you alone.’ Then he interprets these terms to refer to one’s free and lawful wife; he rejects the grasp of the prostitute and other woman (Duane A. Garrett, An Analysis of the Hermeneutics of John Chrysostom’s Commentary on Isaiah 1-8 with an English Translation, Isaiah Chapter 5 (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1992), pp. 110–111).

Roman apologists frequently mock the Protestant assertion that Scripture interprets Scripture366 and yet this principle was thoroughly embraced by Chrysostom and the fathers of the early Church. Robert Charles Hill gives this summation on Chrysostom’s approach to interpretation as a representative of the school of Antioch:

His mentor Diodore, whom in the Laus Diodori he commends as ‘this wise father of ours,’ had written a work on the difference between allegoria and theoria, and in a work on the Octateuch had expressed the view ‘that we esteem the literal sense as far superior to the allegorical.’ This was a fair summary of the reluctance of the school of Antioch to follow Origen’s lead in Alexandria to move the accent from literal to spiritual senses in Scripture. In the terminology of modern hermeneutics, Antioch retained its preference for an adequate historical, spatio–temporal understanding of texts, more text and author–centered than reader–centered (Robert Charles Hill, St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Psalms (Brookline: Holy Cross, 1998), Volume I, pp. 27–28).

Robert Krupp gives a similar assessment of John Chrysostom’s approach to interpretation:

John saw the method of interpretation as arising from the text itself and he favored a literal as opposed to a multilayers understanding of the text. He believed that the literal meaning and not the allegorical senses was the key to both interpreting and applying the text (R.A. Krupp, Shepherding the Flock of God: The Pastoral Theology of John Chrysostom (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), American University Studies, Series VII, Theology and Religion, Vol. 101, p. 76).

Typology and Allegory

We must make an important distinction between allegory and typology in the exegesis of the fathers. Sometimes the two are grouped together under the spiritual meaning of Scripture (as distinct from the literal meaning), or typology is placed under the heading of allegory. However, the fathers distinguished between the two; both are quite different methodologies of interpretation. Typology is actually a form of prophecy and is not divorced from the historical narrative of Scripture as was much of allegory. Thomas Carroll writes of the differences:

Typological exegesis is the search for divine intentional links between events, persons or things within the historical framework of revelation, whereas Allegory is the search by man for a secondary and hidden meaning underlying the primary and obvious meaning of the narrative. This secondary sense of a narrative, discovered by allegory, does not necessarily have any connection at all with the historical framework of revelation; indeed it is only when the secondary allegorical sense has an accidental reference to God’s self–revelations in history that there is an accidental resemblance between allegory and typology. On the other hand, typology is the corollary of prophecy, for biblical types (tupoi) are as much the inspired events of the Holy Spirit as parables (logoi) are his inspired utterances (Message of the Fathers of the Church (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1984), Volume 11, Thomas Carroll,  Preaching the Word, pp. 29–30).

The fathers employed both methods of interpretation and their differences should be noted. The one should not be confused with the other.

The Western Church

The situation in the Western Church was similar to that in the East. In the fourth century, a number of leading fathers were greatly influenced by the Alexandrian methodology of Origen, such as Hilary of Poitiers, Rufinus and Ambrose. Hilary wrote his Treatise on the Mysteries,the first exegetical handbook promoting the allegorical principles of Origen. For the most part, however, the Western history of exegesis was more conservative and in keeping with the Antiochene position. Irenaeus and Tertullian both emphasized a literal approach to Scripture. As has already been noted, Tertullian was adamantly opposed to Greek philosophical influence, and therefore highly critical of the Platonic influences and presuppositions that undergirded the Alexandrian allegorical exegesis. Jerome and Augustine were initially impressed with allegory but came in time embraced the Antiochene approach, especially Jerome. At the beginning of his career, Jerome was a great admirer of Origen but later followed the Antiochene tradition. He became a sharp critic of Origen, and of those who followed Origen’s lead. Farrar writes of the disdain Jerome had, for example, for Ambrose:

St. Jerome says of his two commentaries on St. Matthew and St. Luke, that the latter trifles in the words and drowses in the meanings, and the other is dull in both. Jerome, however, was strongly prejudiced against him. In his Catalogue he only says that he will make no remark about him, because he is still living, and that he may not be blamed either for flattery or plain–speaking. He compares the superficial and meager commentary of Ambrose to the croaking of a raven which makes sport of colours of all other birds, and yet is itself dark all over (Frederick Farrar, History of Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1961), pp. 206).

Augustine came to represent a synthesis between the two schools. While fully supporting the Antiochene position giving primacy to the literal historical meaning of Scripture, he also utilized allegory. Augustine’s method, which was also developed by John Cassian, assigned Scripture four major meanings—the literal, allegorical, moral or tropological and anagogical—and his method was adopted by the medieval Church as the standard basis of interpretation. He was much influenced by the Donatist bishop, Tychonius, who had written a treatise on biblical interpretation. Augustine incorporated these in his treatise On Christian Doctrine which set forth a systematic presentation of the principles of interpretation and how to effectively communicate them to others. The general principles set forth in his work are important as a summary and representation of the eastern and western fathers approach to the interpretation of Scripture.

We need to note that the principles of interpretation given by Augustine were not meant exclusively for his fellow bishops but for the average lay people. It was his conviction that individual Church members could be taught principles of interpretation which would free them from dependence on others and enable them to interpret accurately obscure and ambiguous passages:

The person who reads some writing out loud to other listeners obviously knows what he is pronouncing, while the one who teaches people in literacy classes does this so that they too may know how to read. Each of them, all the same, is handing on what he has received. In the same sort of way those too who explain to an audience what they understand in the scriptures are, as it were, performing the office of reader and pronouncing letters they know, while those who lay down rules about how they are to be understood are like the person who teaches literacy, who gives out the rules, that is, on how to read. So just as the person who knows how to read does not require another reader, when he gets hold of a volume, to tell him what is written in it, in the same way, those who have grasped the rules we are endeavoring to pass on will retain a knowledge of these rules, like letters, when they come across anything obscure in the holy books, and will not require another person who understands to uncover for them what is shrouded in obscurity. Instead, by following up certain clues, they will be able themselves to get the hidden meaning of a passage without any error—at the very least to avoid falling into any absurdly wrongheaded opinion (The Works of Saint Augustine, John Rotelle, Editor (Hyde Park: New City, 1996), Volume I/11, Teaching Christianity, De Doctrina Christiana, Prologue 9, p. 104).

He believed it possible for individuals to be taught directly by God through inner illumination completely independent of any human agency: 

Finally, those who can boast of understanding whatever is obscure in the scriptures by a gift from God, without being furnished with any rules, are right indeed to believe, and it is in fact true, that this ability of theirs does not derive from themselves, but has been granted them from God. This shows that they are seeking God’s glory and not their own. But since they themselves read the Bible, and understand it without any other human being explaining it to them, why are they so eager to explain it to others, instead of referring them back to God, so that they too may come to understand it through his teaching them inwardly, and not through the teaching of other men? But of course they are afraid they might hear from the Lord, Wicked servant, you should have given my money to the bankers (Mt 25:26.27). So these people too make known to others what they understand, either by lecturing or by writing…(Ibid., De Doctrina Christiana, Prologue 9, pp. 103–104).

Augustine enunciated two broad perspectives on Scripture related to understanding its meaning. The first has to do with the principle of perspicuity, that is, with truths that are plain and clear. The second has to do with obscurity. Augustine taught that the essential truths of the Christian faith and those that relate to moral living are plain, clear and unambiguous. They are not difficult to understand:

The fact is, after all, that in the passages that are put plainly in scripture is to be found everything that touches upon faith, and good morals, that is to say hope and charity, which we dealt with in a previous book (Ibid., De Doctrina Christiana, Book II.14, p. 135).

Augustine then sets down general principles for properly interpreting the obscure and ambiguous passages and how to distinguish between the literal and figurative. Overall, the main focus of Augustine’s work, On Christian Doctrine, had to do with principles for interpreting the obscurities of Scripture:

So just as the person who knows how to read does not require another reader, when he gets hold of a volume, to tell him what is written in it, in the same way, those who have grasped the rules we are endeavoring to pass on will retain a knowledge of these rules, like letters, when they come across anything obscure in the holy books, and will not require another person who understands to uncover for them what is shrouded in obscurity. Instead, by following up certain clues, they will be able themselves to get the hidden meaning of a passage without any error—at the very least to avoid falling into any absurdly wrongheaded opinion (Ibid., Teaching Christianity, De Doctrina Christiana, Prologue 9, p. 104).

This was also the main thrust of Tychonius’ work:

There was a man called Tychonius, who wrote against the Donatists in a manner that is quite impossible to refute, and whose unwillingness to part company with them completely reveals the utter absurdity of his attachments. He composed what he called a book of Rules, because in it he worked out seven rules by which hidden meanings of the divine scriptures might be unlocked as with keys (Ibid., Teaching Christianity, De Doctrina Christiana, Book III.42, p. 187).

According to Augustine, the specific principles for interpretation could be grouped under two general headings, one moral and the other technical. Under the moral heading, he listed seven stages of moral criteria for the proper interpretation of Scripture, those being: true conversion and the fear of God, piety, knowledge, fortitude and courage, counsel, death to the world, inner heart purification and finally wisdom:

    What is needed above all else, therefore, is to be converted by the fear of God to wishing to know his will, what he bids us seek and shun. Now this fear of necessity shakes us with thoughts of out mortality and of our death to come, and so to say nails our flesh and fixes all the stirrings of pride to the wood of the cross. What is needed next is to grow modest with piety, and not to contradict the divine scripture, whether we have understood it when it lashes our vices, or whether we have not understood it, as though we could have better ideas and make better rules ourselves. Instead, we should rather think andbelieve that what is written there is better and truer, even if its meaning is hidden,  than any good ideas we can think up for ourselves.
    After these two stages of fear and piety, we come to the third stage knowledge, which I have undertaken to deal with here and now. Because it is with this stage that every serious student of the scriptures has to occupy himself;  and he is not going to find anything else in them but that God is to be loved on God’s account, and one’s neighbor on God’s account; to love God, indeed, with one’s whole heart, with one’s whole soul, with one’s whole mind, but one’s neighbor as oneself, that is to say, that one must refer all the love of one’s neighbor, as of oneself, to God. We discussed these two commandments in previous book, when we were dealing with things.
    So one first has to discover oneself, in the scriptures, as tied up in love of this world, that is of temporal things, and far removed from such love of God and such love of neighbor as scripture itself prescribes. Then, however, that fear by which one reflects on the judgment of God, and that piety by which one cannot help believing in and yielding to the authority of the sacred books, oblige one to mourn for oneself. Because this knowledge, filled with good hope, leads one to bewail oneself, not to vaunt oneself; and in this frame of mind one begs with assiduous prayer for the consolation of divine help, to prevent one from being crushed with despair, and one begins to reach the fourth stage, that of fortitude or courage, in which one is hungry and thirsty for justice. For in this frame of mind one extricates oneself from all deadly delight in passing things, and turning away from that, one turns instead to love of eternal things, namely to the unchanging unity which is at the same time a trinity.
    On fixing your gaze, to the extent that you are able, on this light as it sheds its rays from afar, and on perceiving that with your weak sight you cannot bear its brightness, you come to the fifth stage, that is to the stage of counsel which goes with mercy, and you purge your restless and ill–behaved soul of its appetite for inferior things and the dirt it has picked up from them. Here, though, you drill yourself diligently in love of your neighbor, and come to perfection in it; and filled now with hope and having all your powers unimpaired, you climb up to the sixth stage, at which you purge and clean those eyes with which God can be seen, insofar as he can be by those who die to this world, insofar as they can; because we see, to the extent that we do die to this world, while to the extent that we live for this world, we do not see.
    And the reason that the beauty of this light is still said to be seen in a riddle and through a mirror (I Cor 13:12), even though it is already beginning to be manifested to us more surely, already borne more easily and found to be more enjoyable, is that we are walking more by faith than by sight as long as we are on our journey through this life, though our true abode is in heaven. But at  this stage those who have died to this world so purge and clean the eyes of their hearts that they do not even put their neighbors before the truth, or on a level with it, nor themselves either, therefore, because not the ones whom they love as themselves. So these holy people will be so singleminded pure in heart, that they cannot be diverted from the truth either by any determination to please men, or by a concern to avoid any of those inconveniences that tend to spoil  this life. Such children of God are now climbing up to wisdom, which is the last and seventh stage, which is to be enjoyed in peace and tranquility. Thus the fear of the Lord, you see, is the beginning of wisdom (Ps 111: 10; Sir 1:16); and it is through these stages that one moves from that to this (Ibid., Teaching Christianity, De Doctrina Christiana, Book II.9–11, pp. 132-133).

Those wishing to understand and see clearly must be rightly related to God, love him supremely, live a life of holiness and pray for illumination. The end of biblical understanding is not knowledge alone but love—love for God and for one’s neighbor:

So if it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures, or any part of them, in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not yet understood them (Ibid., Teaching Christianity, De Doctrina Christiana, Book I.40, p. 124).

With respect to the technical or practical aspects of interpretation, Augustine enumerated the following principles:

1) Scripture interprets Scripture, the obscure passages are to be interpreted in light of the clearer ones:

But wherever their meaning is clear, there we must learn how they are to be understood in obscurer places. After all, there is no better way of understanding what was said to God in the verse, Take up arms and shield, and arise to help me (Ps 35:2), than from that other place where we read, Lord. You have crowned us as with the shield of your good will (Ps 5:12)…But where a possible meaning emerges which cannot be made entirely clear by other certain testimonies of the holy scriptures, it remains to elucidate it with arguments from reason, even if the writer whose words we are trying to understand did not perhaps intend that meaning. But this habit is risky; it is really much safer to walk along with the divine scriptures; when we wish to examine passages rendered obscure with words used metaphorically, either let something emerge from our scrutiny that is not controversial, or else if it is so, let the matter be settled from the same scripture by finding and applying testimonies from anywhere else in the sacred books (Ibid., Teaching Christianity, De Doctrina Christiana, Book III.37, 39, pp. 185–186).

2) Any passage must be interpreted within the context of that which precedes and follows it as well as the broader context of the rule of faith:

But when ambiguities arise in scripture about the meaning of words used in their proper sense, the first thing we must do is see whether we have phrased or pronounced them wrongly. So when, on paying closer attention, you still see that it is uncertain how something is to be phrased, or how to be pronounced, you should refer it to the rule of faith, which you received from the plainer passages of scripture and from the authority of the Church, about which we dealt sufficiently when we were talking in the first book about things. But if both possibilities, or all of them, if it is multiple ambiguity, are consonant with the faith, it remains to refer to the whole context, to the sections that precede and that follow the ambiguous passage, holding it in the middle between them, so that we may see which of the several meanings that present themselves the context will vote for and allow to fit in with itself…It is extremely rare, then, and indeed very hard, to find any ambiguity in the literal meaning of words, as far as the books of the divine scriptures are concerned, which cannot be settled either from the context of the word, which indicates the intention of the writers, or from a comparison of different versions, or from an examination of the original language (Ibid., Teaching Christianity, De Doctrina Christiana, Book III.2, 8, pp. 169, 172–173).

3) One must seek to understand the original intention of the author in his writings: 

But when from the same words of scripture not just one, but two or more meanings may be extracted,even if you cannot tell which of them the writer intended, there is no risk if they can all be shown from other places of the holy scriptures to correspond with the truth. However, those who are engaged in searching the divine utterances must make every effort to arrive at the intention of the author through whom the Holy Spirit produced that portion of scripture (bid., Teaching Christianity, De Doctrina Christiana, Book III.38, pp. 185–186).

4) It is important to have recourse to the original languages and an accurate translation:

The best remedy for ignorance of proper signs is the knowledge of languages; and in addition to the Latin language, the people whom I have now undertaken to advise have need of the two other languages of the divine scriptures, namely Hebrew and Greek, so that they can have recourse to the earlier versions whenever doubt about the meaning of a text is raised by the infinite variety of Latin translations…
    But the proper meaning of a passage, which several translators attempt to express, each according to his capacity and judgment, can only be definitely ascertained from an examination of it in the language they are translating from; and translators frequently deviate from the author’s meaning, if they are not particularly learned. So one should either aim at a knowledge of those languages from which the scriptures have come to their Latin versions, or else get hold of translations which have been most strictly literal, word for word, renderings of the original, not because they are sufficient in themselves, but because they can help one to control the freedom, or even mistakes, of those translators who have preferred to follow the meanings rather than the words of the authors…
    The examination and discussion of a variety of versions that can be compared is of the greatest help—provided only that they are not full of mistakes. The first thing, in fact, to which those who wish to know the divine scriptures should devote their careful attention and their skill is the correction of their copies, so that the uncorrected ones give way to the corrected ones, when they derive, that is, from one and the same type of translation (Ibid., Teaching Christianity, De Doctrina Christiana, Book II.16, 19, 21, pp. 135–136, 137–138, 139).

5) One must read, study and memorize the books of Scripture:

What those who fear God and have a docile piety are looking for in all these books is the will of God. The first step in this laborious search, as I have said, is to know these books, and even if not yet so as to understand them, all the same by reading them, to commit them to memory, or at least not to be totally unfamiliar with them (Ibid., Teaching Christianity, De Doctrina Christiana, Book II.14, p. 135).

In addition, Augustine stated that where the meaning of a difficult passage could not be resolved by a study of the immediate context or by appeal to the rule of faith, the individual was free to exercise private judgment in its interpretation. As Augustine phrased it, the meaning is left to ‘the discretion of the reader’:

Where, however, an ambiguity can be resolved neither by the standard of faith nor by the actual context of the passage, there is no objection to your phrasing it in any of the ways that are open to you…The phrasing, therefore, of such ambiguities is left open to the discretion of the reader (Ibid., Teaching Christianity, De Doctrina Christiana, Book III.5, p. 170).

The Middle Ages

The approach to exegesis during the Middle Ages, like the patristic age, was influenced by both the Antiochene and Alexandrian philosophies of interpretation, though the Alexandrian dominated. Both schools, and the conflict between their methodologies and interpretive results, which were prevalent in the patristic age, continued through the Medieval Age. The influence of allegory is seen in the almost universal embracing of the quadriga, the fourfold exegesis of Scripture, as developed by Augustine and John Cassian. Robert Grant writes of this:

The most important and characteristic method of biblical interpretation, however, was not literal but allegorical. In the late patristic age and Medieval Ages, a system of allegorization was developed according to which four meanings were to be sought in every text…A little verse in circulation as late as the sixteenth century illustrates these senses:

Littera gesta docet, quid creduas allegoria, moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.
The letter shows us what God and our fathers did; the allegory shows us where our faith is hid; the moral meaning gives us rules of daily life; the anagogy shows us where we end our strife.

Though this classification was widespread in the Middle Ages, it comes originally from the time of Augustine and John Cassian. Its use can best be shown in the example of Galatians 4:22ff. Here ‘Jerusalem’ can be understood in four different ways. Historically it means the city of the Jews; allegorically it signifies the church of Christ; anagogically it points to that heavenly city which is the mother of us all; and tropologically (or morally) it indicates the human soul (Robert Grant with David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984). p. 85).

Although the use of allegory was widespread during the Middle Ages, the literal approach to exegesis came also to have wide usage. Robert Grant provides insight into this development:

The Aristotelian view of nature, which the newer theologians were adopting, did not encourage the idea of symbolism. And for this reason among others, the literal meaning of scripture came to be regarded more highly. The principal exponent of the importance of the literal sense of scripture is St. Thomas Aquinas, the most influential philosophical theologian of the Catholic church (Robert Grant with David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984). p. 87).

While accepting multiple levels of meaning in Scripture, Aquinas held to the Antiochene emphasis on the literal meaning as primary. He wrote:

The multiplicity of these senses does not produce equivocation or any other kind of multiplicity, seeing that these senses are not multiplied because one word signifies several things, but because the things signified by the words can be themselves types of other things. Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one—the literal—from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48). Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense (Summa Theologica, FP Q[1] A[10] R.O. 1).

Richard Muller gives the following synopsis of the development of the literal approach during the Middle Ages:

As the history of exegesis in the Middle Ages amply demonstrates, this approach to the text (four fold meaning of Scripture) could result either in a movement away from or gravitation toward the literal sense. At the beginning of the scholastic era, Hugh of St. Victor could dispute with those among his contemporaries who ignored the letter for the spiritual meanings…Hugh’s disciple, Andrew of St. Victor, coupled his teacher’s emphasis on the literal meaning of the text with a firm grounding in Hebrew and a profound use of Jewish exegesis of the Old Testament…In the next century, Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas were largely responsible for a major shift in the emphasis of medieval exegesis away from Gregorian allegorism toward a greater emphasis on the letter (Richard Muller, Post–Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), p. 18).

This emphasis was further propounded by such influential theologians as Nicholas of Lyra (c. 1270–1349) and greatly influenced the Reformers’ approach to exegesis. Nicholas was known as the most important and influential biblical commentator of the later Middle Ages and is representative of the literal–historical school of exegesis, much like Aquinas, though he also expressed his acceptance of the traditional four–fold method of interpretation:

This book, however, has this special quality, that one narrative contains many senses. The reason is that the principal author of this book is God himself, in whose power it is to use words to signify something (which even men can do), but also the things signified by the words are used to signify other things....So by first signification, which is through words, is meant the literal or historical sense; by the other signification, which is through the things themselves, is meant the mystical or spiritual sense, which is of three kinds: 1) the allegorical sense, if the things signified by the words are brought to signify things to be believed in the new law, 2) the moral or tropological sense, if they are brought to signify things we should do, and 3) the anagogical sense, if they are brought to signify things which we hope to receive in future beatitude (so–called from a;navgw, meaning ‘I take upward’); as that verse expresses it:

The literal teaches history; the allegorical, what you should believe; the moral, what you should do; the anagogical, your destination.388 ((Translated by Dr. Michael Woodward. Cited by Michael Woodward, Nicholas of Lyra on Beatific Vision, A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate School of the University of Notre Dame in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Medieval Institute, Notre Dame, Indiana, April, 1992, pp. 172–173).

While accepting the quadriga, Michael Woodward points out that Nicholas also expressed concern over the inclination of many exegetes in his day to emphasize what he called a mystical–spiritual interpretation over the literal meaning, thereby obscuring the literal understanding of Scripture:

To the right of the one sitting on the throne I saw a book written inside and out.’ (Apoc. 5.1) As was said in the preceding prologue, this book is the Holy Scripture, which is said to be written on the outside with regard to the literal sense, and on the inside with regard to the mystical or spiritual sense...and although a multiplication of mystical interpretations can be made in particular for each of the three spiritual senses, all still presuppose the literal sense as a foundation. Thus, as a building that leans away from its foundation is liable to topple, so a mystical interpretation departing from the literal sense should be considered improper and useless, or at least less proper and less fitting than other, suitable interpretations; and so it is necessary for those wishing to advance in the study of Holy Scripture to begin with an understanding of the literal sense, especially since only from the literal sense, and not from the mystical, can an argument be made for proving or demonstrating any matter in question, according to what Augustine says in his Letter against the Donatist Vincent.
     It should be considered further, that the literal sense, from which one must begin, as was said, seems very obfuscated in our days; partly from the fault of writers, who, because of the similarity of words in many places, have written other than what the truth of the context holds; partly from the lack of expertise of certain critics, who, in many places, have placed punctuation where none should have been placed, and have begun or ended verses where they should not be begun or ended, and by this the meaning of the passages vary (as will be clear when I investigate, God willing, those places below); partly from the state of our translation, which differs in many places from the Hebrew text....
    It should be known as well that the literal sense is much overshadowed because of the method of exposition commonly followed by others, who, although they said many good things, discussed too little the literal meaning, and multiplied the mystical meanings to such an extent that the literal meaning, interrupted by so many mystical interpretations, is almost suffocated. They have also broken up the contexts into so many pieces, and cited so many sources agreeing with their position, that they partly confuse the understanding and memory, distracting the mind from an understanding of the literal sense.
    Therefore, proposing to avoid these and similar problems, I intend, with God’s help, to focus on the literal sense, and sometimes, though rarely, to include a very few and brief mystical interpretations (Nicholas of Lyra, Postilla litteralis, Prologue 2, MPL 113, Cols. 29b–30c. Translated by Dr. Michael Woodward. Cited by Michael Woodward, Nicholas of Lyra on Beatific Vision, A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate School of the University of Notre Dame in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Medieval Institute, Notre Dame, Indiana, April, 1992, p. 174).

His comments highlight the fact that in the Middle Ages there were conflicting views on interpretation. Throughout the Medieval period and up to the time of the Reformation there was no universally consistent principle agreed on by all by which Scripture was to be interpreted. While all agreed that the four–fold method of the quadriga was the authoritative means of determining the proper meaning of the text of Scripture, there was no agreement as to which method—the literal, allegorical, tropological or anagogical—should take priority, or what the precise meaning of Scripture was when employing those methods. Other schools, such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans, held differing viewpoints. One theologian’s understanding of the allegorical sense, for example, would differ from another’s. As was true in the Patristic Age, those of the Medieval Age also held conflicting views on the meaning of Scripture, though all were fundamentally agreed on the primacy of Scripture. Alister McGrath highlights this diversity:

The doctrinal diversity so characteristic of the later medieval period cannot be explained on the basis of any single development. Of the various factors contributing to this development, in addition to the absence of magisterial pronouncements, however, a number may be singled out as being of particular importance. First, it is clear that a number of quite distinct theological schools emerged during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, with differing presuppositions and methods. These schools tended to be based upon, or at least associated with, specific religious orders. As a result, a number of quite distinct approaches to theology, with differences both in substance and in emphasis, may be discerned within the late medieval period. Second, there was considerable disagreement upon the nature of the sources of theology, and their relative priority. Of particular interest in this respect is the absence of general agreement concerning the status and method of interpretation of both scripture and the writings of Augustine (Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Roots of the Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), p. 16.

Patristic Catenas

One of the most important principles of interpretation to develop during the Middle Ages was the use of patristic catenas which documented the comments of eminent Church fathers on specific topics or passages of Scripture. Thomas Aquinas made great use of this approach as seen in his commentary on the Gospels, the Catena Aurea.

The Glossa ordinaria, the biblical text used throughout the Middle Ages, was not only a text of the Bible, but included a running commentary on individual verses utilizing the commentaries of major fathers such as Jerome, Augustine and Gregory the Great. The use of patristic catenas and commentaries demonstrates the fact that tradition, for the theologians of the Middle Ages, was not just biblical but historical. They sought to maintain historical continuity in teaching. This again was the basis of the principles expressed by Vincent of Lerins of unanimous consent (universality, antiquity and consent) and development of doctrine.

The Conflicting Nature of Patristic Exegesis

From this overview we have observed clear differences in approach to the interpretation of Scripture in the early Church and Middle Ages with widely varying results as to the determination of the true meaning of Scripture. While all the orthodox fathers and theologians agreed on the rule of faith and the primacy of Scripture, they did not all agree on an interpretive methodology or on the precise meaning of specific passages of Scripture. Basil the Great commented on the great divergence of opinion on the interpretation of Scripture among the leading theologians of the Church in his own day:

Liberated from the error of pagan tradition through the benevolence and loving kindness of the good God, with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the operation of the Holy Spirit, I was reared from the very beginning by Christian parents. From them I learned even in babyhood the Holy Scriptures which led me to a knowledge of the truth. When I grew to manhood, I traveled about frequently and, in the natural course of things, I engaged in a great many worldly affairs. Here I observed that the most harmonious relations existed among those trained in the pursuit of each of the arts and sciences; while in the Church of God alone, for which Christ died and upon which He poured out in abundance the Holy Spirit, I noticed that many disagree violently with one another and also in their understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Most alarming of all is the fact that I found the very leaders of the Church themselves at such variance with one another in thought and opinion, showing so much opposition to the commands of our Lord Jesus Christ, and so mercilessly rendering asunder the Church of God and cruelly confounding His flock that, in our day, with the rise of the Anomoeans, there is fulfilled in them as never before the prophecy, ‘Of your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them’ (FC, Vol. 9, Preface on the Judgment of God, p. 37).

We have documented the differences between Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa as to their methods of interpretation and contrary interpretations of Genesis. We have also noted Jerome’s low opinion of Ambrose as an interpreter. Duane Garrett cites a number of interesting examples of conflicting interpretations between John Chrysostom and other Church fathers in his commentary on Isaiah:

He (Chrysostom) completely rejects the view that ‘I have built a tower and a wine–vat in the middle of it’ (Isa 5:2) refers respectively to the temple and the altar. He argues that the details of this phrase have no allegorical significance but are given only to reinforce the main point of the song, namely, that God ‘has done everything he could and has shown them every consideration.’ By contrast, Eusebius of Caesarea says that the wine–vat is the altar and the clouds are the prophets, and Cyril of Alexandria says that the tower is the temple and the wine–vat is the altar. In addition, since the context plainly indicates that the Song of the Vineyard concerns only Judah, he nowhere treats it as an allegory of Christ or the Church. Eusebius, on the other hand, notes that Symmachus translates Swrhc ‘elect’ (eklekthn), and on the basis of John 15:1 and in disregard of context says that the ‘vine of Sorek’ is Christ, the true vine. Theodoret’s allegorization is stranger yet. Discussing Isa 5:2, ‘I built…a wine–vat,’ he says:

The wine–vat (prolhnion) is the altar. That altar was not a wine–press (lhnoV), but a wine–vat (prolhnion). Herein the truth shows itself. For we now have the heavenly altar as our own wine–press (lhnoV). By which we squeeze the mystical wine from the true vine and sing the canticles of the vintage (PG 81:253)...

The standard patristic interpretation of Isa 1:22 was that the Jewish scribes and rabbis who diluted the law with their own traditions were the wine merchants who mingled water with wine. Cyril of Alexandria so interprets the verse and compares it to Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees in Matt. 15:1–6. Theodoret comments, ‘Thus the Jewish teachers corrupted the divine law by mingling their own ideas with it and supplementing it with their traditional fables.’ Eusebius and Jerome interpret the passage in the same way. Chrysostom, on the other hand, says, ‘I disdain this exegesis, and consider the literal to be more accurate.’…In many other places in the commentary, too, Chrysostom’s natural and literal understanding of the text of Isaiah contrasts with another father’s allegorization. Cyprian, for example, takes Isa 3:1, which says God will remove the supply of bread, as a reference to the Lord’s Supper and interprets the verse as an indication that the Jews would lose fellowship with Christ. Chrysostom, on the other hand, takes it as a literal loss of nourishment….Interestingly, Jerome holds to one interpretation which Chrysostom not only knows but explicitly rejects. Jerome explains the uncleanness of Isaiah’s lips (6:5), by claiming that when Uzziah invaded the temple, Isaiah failed to rebuke him…Chrysostom argues that there is no evidence to support this interpretation (Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen, 1992), Volume 12, Duane Garrett, An Analysis of the Hermeneutics of John Chrysostom’s Commentary on Isaiah 1–8, pp. 205–206, 239).

Robert Krupp writes that Chrysostom acknowledged the conflicting nature of interpretation in the Church of his day:

He (Chrysostom) also recognized that there was not always unanimity in the Christian community in interpreting various passages on Scripture and allowed his congregation to pick between different views on difficult passages (R.A. Krupp, Shepherding the Flock of God: The Pastoral Theology of John Chrysostom (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), American University Studies, Series VII, Theology and Religion, Vol. 101, p. 77).

Another example is that of Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret in their interpretation of Zechariah 9:8–10. Both fathers held to the Antiochene approach to interpretation and were at odds with Origen over the interpretion of this passage, but they also disagreed with one another. Theodore comments:

It is clear that these things are said about Zerubbabel. I am amazed at the understandings of those people who turn to bizarre interpretations, those who would apply a certain part to Zerubbabel, another part to Christ the Lord, then again another part to Zerubbabel, then again another part to Christ the Lord, which is nothing else but dividing the prophecy between Zerubbabel and Christ the Lord. These things are the result of the uttermost senselessness (Theodore of Mopsuestia, Commentary on Zechariah, Zechariah 9:8–10, MPG 66:556-561. Cited by Message of the Fathers of the Church (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1988), Volume 9, Joseph Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, p. 167).

Theodoret, disagreeing with Theodore, wrote:

I am astonished at the stupidity of the Jews who foolishly refer this prophecy to Zerubbabel. For Zerubbabel did not rule over all Palestine, but only Judaea, as they would have to admit. The prophet said that one seated on an ass would rule the whole world. We know that the Lord used an ass; that Zerubbabel  had done this no one who has written concerning divine things has said even to this day (Theodoret of Cyrrhus, On Zecharaiah 9:23, MPG 81:1917. Cited by Message of the Fathers of the Church (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1988), Volume 9, Joseph Trigg, Biblical Interpretation, p. 34).

Yet another example is the varying interpretations over the meaning of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. Some fathers believed in a transformation of substance while others taught that the elements were simply representative of the body and blood of Christ. Cyril of Jerusalem spoke of a miraculous change in the elements very much like transubstantiation:

Even of itself the teaching of the Blessed Paul is sufficient to give you a full assurance concerning those Divine Mysteries, of which having been deemed worthy, ye are become of the same body and blood with Christ. For you have just heard him say distinctly, That our Lord Jesus Christ in the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks He brake it, and gave to His disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is My Body: and having taken the cup and given thanks, he said,   Take, drink, this is My Blood. Since then He Himself declared and said of the Bread, This is My Body, who shall dare to doubt any longer? And since He has Himself affirmed and said, This is My Blood, who shall ever hesitate, saying, that it is not His blood? He once in Cana of Galilee, turned the water into wine, akin to blood, and is it incredible that He should have turned wine into blood? When called to a bodily marriage, He miraculously wrought that wonderful work; and on the children of the bride-chamber, shall He not much rather be acknowledged to have bestowed the fruition of His Body and Blood? (NPNF2, Vol. 7, Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 22.1–2).

Pope Gelasius (492–496 A.D.), on the other hand stated that there is no change that takes place in the elements themselves:

The sacrament which we receive of the body and blood of Christ is a divine thing. Wherefore also by means of it we are made partakers of the divine nature. Yet the substance or nature of the bread and wine does not cease to be. And certainly the image and likeness of the body and blood of Christ is set out in the celebration of the mysteries... Thus, as the elements pass into this, that is, the divine substance by the Holy Ghost, and none the less remain in their own proper nature, so they show that the principal mystery itself, the efficacy and virtue of which they truly make present (repraesentant) to us, consists in this, that the two natures remain each in its own proper being so that there is one Christ because He is whole and real (Pope Gelasius, On the Two Natures in Christ. Cited by Darwell Stone, A History of the Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist (London: Longman’s, Green, 1909), Volume I, p. 102). 

Augustine taught that John 6 was to be interpreted figuratively and used it as an illustration on how to properly interpret Scripture:

If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative. ‘Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man,’ says Christ, ‘and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.’ This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us (NPNF2, Vol. 2,Augustin, On Christian Doctrine 3.16.24).

He did not believe that Christ was physically present in the sacrament because he is physically present only in heaven until his second coming. He warned that one must be  careful to distinguish the difference between what is true of Christ as man and what is true of him as God. As God, he says, Christ is everywhere present spiritually, but as man, he is physically present only in heaven:

‘The poor ye will always have with you, but Me ye will not always have’...He was speaking of His bodily presence. For, in respect of His majesty, His providence, His ineffable and invisible grace, His own words are fulfilled, ‘Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world. But in respect of the flesh He assumed as the Word...‘ye will not have Him always.’ And why? Because He...ascended into heaven and is no longer here. He is there, indeed, sitting at the right hand of the Father; and He is here also, having never withdrawn the presence of His glory. In other words, in respect of His divine presence we always have Christ; in respect of His presence in the flesh it was rightly said to the disciples, ‘Me ye will not have alway.’ In this respect the Church enjoyed His presence only for a few days: now it possesses Him by faith, without seeing Him with the eyes’…
     Since, then, Christ is God and man...we must take account of both these natures in Him when He speaks or when Scripture speaks of Him, and we must mark in what sense anything is said. When we say that Christ is the Son of God we do not separate His humanity from Him, nor when we say that the same Christ is the Son of man do we lose sight of His divinity…For, as man He was on earth, not in heaven where He now is...although in His nature as Son of God He was in heaven, but as Son of man He was still on earth and had not yet ascended into heaven...Do not doubt, then, that the man Christ Jesus is now there whence He shall come again; cherish in your memory and hold faithfully to the profession of your Christian faith that He rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, sitteth at the right hand of the Father, and will come from no other place but there to judge the living and the dead; and He will so come, on the testimony of the angel’s voice, as He was seen going into heaven, that is, in the same form and substance of flesh to which, it is true, He gave immortality, but He did not take away its nature.
    According to this form, we are not to think that He is everywhere present. We must beware of so building up the divinity of the man that we destroy the reality of His body. It does not follow that what is in God is in Him so as to be everywhere as God is. The Scripture says, with perfect truth: ‘In him we live and move and are,’ yet we are not everywhere present as He is, but man is in God after one manner, while God is in man quite differently, in His own unique manner. God and man in Him are one Person, and both are the one Jesus Christ who is everywhere as God, but in heaven as man (Ibid., Vol. 7, Augustin, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Tractate 50.13, p. 282–283).

He taught that when we partake of the sacrament, we do so spiritually and not physically or materially. For example, he wrote that when the Jews responded in faith to the preaching of Peter on the day of Pentecost, they ‘drank the blood of Christ,’ demonstrating that, for him, the terminology of eating and drinking is spiritual and not physical: 

For on the sending down of the Holy Spirit after the Lord’s passion, and resurrection, and ascension, when miracles were being done in the name of Him whom, as if dead, the persecuting Jews had despised, they were pricked in their hearts; and they who in their rage slew Him were changed and believed; and they who in their rage shed His blood, now in the spirit of faith drank it; to wit, those three thousand, and those five thousand Jews...(Ibid., On the Gospel of John, Tractate 40.2, p. 225.

Clement of Alexandria expressed the spiritual, figurative interpretation which was also representative of Origen:

‘Eat ye my flesh,’ He says, ‘and drink my blood.’ Such is the suitable food which the Lord ministers, and He offers His flesh and pours forth His blood, and nothing is wanting for the children’s growth. O amazing mystery! We are enjoined to cast off the old and carnal corruption, as also the old nutriment, receiving in exchange another new regimen, that of Christ, receiving Him if we can, to hide Him within; and that, enshrining the Saviour in our souls, we may correct the affections of our flesh. The flesh figuratively represents to us the Holy Spirit; for the flesh was created by Him. The blood points out to us the Word, for as rich blood the Word has been infused into life; and the union of both is the Lord, the food of the babes - the Lord who is Spirit and Word. The food - that is, the Lord Jesus - that is, the Word of God, the Spirit made flesh, the heavenly flesh sanctified. Further, the Word declares Himself to be the bread of heaven. ‘For Moses,’ He says, ‘gave you not that bread from heaven, but My Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He that cometh down from heaven, and giveth life to the world. And the bread which I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’
    Here is to be noted the mystery of the bread, inasmuch as He speaks of it as flesh...But since He said, ‘And the bread which I will give is My flesh,’ and since flesh is moistened with blood, and blood is figuratively termed wine...Thus in many ways the Word is figuratively described, as meat, and flesh, and food, and bread, and blood, and milk. The Lord is all these, to give enjoyment to us who have believed on Him. Let no one then think it strange, when we say that the Lord’s blood is figuratively represented as milk. For is it not figuratively represented as wine? The same blood and milk of the Lord is therefore the symbol of the Lord’s passion and teaching (ANF, Vol. 2, Clement of Alexandria,The Instructor, Book I, Chapter 6).

Tertullian spoke of the elements as figures of the body and blood of Christ:

How earnestly, therefore, does He manifest the bent of His soul: ‘With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.’ What a destroyer of the law was this, who actually longed to keep its passover! Could it be that He was so fond of the Jewish lamb? But was it not because He had to be ‘led like a lamb to the slaughter; and because, as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so was He not to open His mouth,’ that he so profoundly wished to accomplish the symbol of His own redeeming blood?...
    Then, having taken the bread and given it to His disciples, He made it His own body, by saying, ‘This is my body,’ that is, the figure of my body. A figure, however, there could not have been, unless there were first a veritable body...
    In order, however, that you may discover how anciently wine is used as a figure for blood, turn to Isaiah, who asks, ‘Who is this that cometh from Edom, from Bosor with garments dyed in red, so glorious in His apparel, in the greatness of His might? Why are thy garments red, and thy raiment as his who cometh from the treading of the full wine press? The prophetic Spirit contemplates the Lord as if He were already on His way to His passion, clad in His fleshly nature; and as He was to suffer therein, He represents the bleeding condition of His flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red, as if reddened in the treading and crushing process of the winepress, from which the labourers descended reddened with the wine-juice, like men stained in blood...Thus did He now consecrate His blood in wine, who then (by the patriarch) used the figure of wine to describe His blood (Ibid., Vol. 3, Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.40).

Philip Schaff writes of the various views on the eucharist held among the Church fathers:

The realistic and mystic view is represented by several fathers and the early liturgies…They speak in enthusiastic and extravagant terms of the sacrament and sacrifice of the altar.  They teach a real presence of the body and blood of Christ, which is included in the very idea of a real sacrifice, and they see in the mystical union of it with the sensible elements a sort of repetition of the incarnation of the Logos.  With the act of consecration a change accordingly takes place in the elements, whereby they become vehicles and organs of the life of Christ, although by no means necessarily changed into another substance.  To denote this change very strong expressions are used, like metabolh, metaballein, metaballesqai, metastoiceiousqai, metapoieisqai, mutatio, translatio, transfiguratio, transformatio; illustrated by the miraculous transformation of water into wine, the assimilation of food, and the pervasive power of leaven...
    The symbolical view, though on a realistic basis, is represented first by Eusebius, who calls the Supper a commemoration of Christ by the symbols of his body and blood, and takes the flesh and blood of Christ in the sixth chapter of John to mean the words of Christ, which are spirit and life, the true food of the soul, to believers. Here appears the influence of his venerated Origen, whose views in regard to the sacramental aspect of the Eucharist he substantially repeats...
    It is remarkable that Augustine, in other respects so decidedly catholic in the doctrine of the church and of baptism, and in the cardinal points of the Latin orthodoxy, follows the older African theologians, Tertullian and Cyprian, in a symbolical theory of the Supper, which however includes a real spiritual participation of the Lord by faith, and in this respect stands nearest to the Calvinistic or Orthodox Reformed doctrine, while in minor points he differs from it as much as from transubstantiation and consubstantiation (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), Volume III, Nicene and Post–Nicene Christianity, Chapter VII, § 95, The Sacrament of the Eucharist, pp. 493, 495, 498).

It is clear, then, that while the fathers and theologians all agreed on the rule of faith, they did not all agree on the precise meaning of Scripture itself, holding to differing interpretive methodologies resulting in differences in interpretation. As Boniface Ramsey points out:

It must be clear that the interpretation of Scripture in the early Church was an affair that offered almost innumerable possibilities and variations’(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1986), p. 6).

The reality of the conflicting nature of patristic exegesis is addressed in Peter Abelard’s work in the Middle Ages titled Sic et Non, which translated is Yes and No. The work is a massive compilation of contrary opinions given by Church fathers on particular issues and the interpretation of Scripture.

The Council of Trent would have us believe it is possible to interpret Scripture in accordance with the ‘unanimous consent of the fathers.’ Such consent is nonexistent, excepting what related to the rule of faith or a very few specific passages. And, in some cases, where the fathers expressed universal consent, Rome today has interpreted Scripture contrary to it. As has been pointed out, the appeal of Trent and Vatican I to unanimous consent is historically untenable. As with so many of the claims of Rome, it is a claim that cannot stand the scrutiny of historical fact. Joseph Fitzmyer’s comments warrant repeating:

When one hears today the call for a return to a patristic interpretation of Scripture, there is often latent in it a recollection of Church documents that spoke at times of the ‘unanimous consent of the Fathers’ as a guide for biblical interpretation (thus the Council of Trent in its decree of 1546 on the Latin Vulgate and the mode of interpreting Scripture...and in its profession of faith). But just what this would entail is far from clear. For...there were Church Fathers who did use a form of the historical critical method, suited to their own day, and advocated a literal interpretation of Scripture, not the allegorical. But not all did so. Yet there was no uniform or monolithic patristic interpretation, either in the Greek Church of the East, Alexandrian or Antiochene, or in the Latin Church of the West. No one can ever tell us where such a ‘unanimous consent of the Fathers’ is to be found, and Pius XII finally thought it pertinent to call attention to the fact that there are but few texts whose sense has been defined by the authority of the Church, ‘nor are those more numerous about which the teaching of the Holy Fathers is unanimous’(Joesph Fitzmyer, S.J., Scripture, the Soul of Theology (New York: Paulist, 1994), p. 70).

This assessment is reiterated by Roman Catholic theologian Johann Möhler:

Except in the explanation of a very few classical passages, we know not where we shall meet with a general uniformity of Scriptural interpretation among the fathers, further than that all deduce from the sacred writings, the same doctrines of faith and morality, yet each in his own peculiar manner; so that some remain for all times distinguished models of Scriptural exposition, others rise not above mediocrity, while others again are, merely by their good intentions and love for the Saviour, entitled to veneration (Johann Adam Möhler, Symbolism: Exposition of the Doctorinal Differences between Catholics and Protestants as evidenced by their Symbolical Writings, trans. James Burton Robertson (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1997), pp. 301–302).

The Misinterpretation of the Teaching of the Fathers by Roman Catholic Apologists

This brief overview was necessary in order to understand rightly the terms used by Church fathers when referring to tradition and authoritative interpretation. By placing these terms in their proper historical context, we can understand what the fathers meant by them. Earlier in our consideration of this subject, reference was made to Joe Gallegos’ comments on Clement, Origen and Athanasius. In light of the foregoing survey we will now critically examine those comments. What will become clear is that Gallegos, in complete disregard of historical context, has imposed his own preconceived theology on the writings of the fathers. 

Clement of Alexandria

In his treatise, The Stromata, Clement explains that the Gnostic heretics  departed from the truth because they had departed from the authoritative tradition of the Church. He used the term ‘tradition’ to mean a secret, unwritten rule of interpretation handed down from the apostles to the spiritual elite within the Church, those who were intellectually capable of understanding it. R.P.C. Hanson explains:

The secret tradition is, moreover, a completion of the ordinary faith. S. Paul, he says (Strom. vi.xviii), preached the ‘gnosis’ at Corinth, and this ‘is perfecting of faith, and goes beyond the ordinary instruction, following the abundance of the Lord’s teaching and the Church’s rule of faith.’...Clement specifically refers to this tradition as unwritten (Strom. vi.xv)...This clearly refers to an unwritten tradition of interpreting the Scriptures delivered by our Lord to his apostles and by them to succeeding generations, independent of the Bible and available to Clement in his own day (R.P.C. Hanson, Origen’s Doctrine of Tradition (SPCK: London, 1954), p. 57).

There are a number of phrases used by Clement to describe this tradition. He referred to it as the canon of truth, the gnosis, the rule of truth, the ecclesiastical rule, and the tradition (paradosis):

If, then, we assert that Christ Himself is Wisdom, and that it was His working which showed itself in the prophets, by which the gnostic tradition may be learned, as He Himself taught the apostles during His presence; then it follows that the gnosis, which is the knowledge and apprehension of things present, future, and past, which is sure and reliable, as being imparted and revealed by the Son of God, is wisdom.
     And if, too, the end of the wise man is contemplation, that of those who are still philosophers aims at it, but never attains it, unless by the process of learning it receives the prophetic utterance which has been made known, by which it grasps both the present, the future, and the past — how they are, were, and shall be.
     And the gnosis itself is that which has descended by transmission to a few, having been imparted unwritten by the apostles. Hence, then, knowledge or wisdom ought to be exercised up to the eternal and unchangeable habit of contemplation (ANF, Vol. 2, Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6.7).

‘But all things are right,’ says the Scripture, ‘before those who understand,’ that is, those who receive and observe, according to the ecclesiastical rule, the exposition of the Scriptures explained by Him; and the ecclesiastical rule is the concord and harmony of the law and the prophets in the covenant delivered at the coming of the Lord...
    For many reasons, then, the Scriptures hide the sense. First, that we may become inquisitive, and be ever on the watch for the discovery of the words of salvation. Then it was not suitable for all to understand, so that they might not receive harm in consequence of taking in another sense the things declared for salvation by the Holy Spirit. Wherefore the holy mysteries of the prophecies are veiled in the parables — preserved for chosen men, selected to knowledge in consequence of their faith; for the style of the Scriptures is parabolic...truth appertains not to all, it is veiled in manifold ways, causing the light to arise only on those who are initiated into knowledge, who seek the truth through love...
    Did not the Power also, that appeared to Hermas in the Vision, in the form of the Church, give for transcription the book which she wished to be made known to the elect? And this, he says, he transcribed to the letter, without finding how to complete the syllables. And this signified that the Scripture is clear to all, when taken according to the bare reading; and that this is the faith which occupies the place of the rudiments. Wherefore also the figurative expression is employed, ‘reading according to the letter;’ while we understand that the gnostic unfolding of the Scriptures, when faith has already reached an advanced state, is likened to reading according to the syllables.
    Further, Esaias the prophet is ordered to take ‘a new book, and write in it’ certain things: the Spirit prophesying that through the exposition of the Scriptures there would come afterwards the sacred knowledge, which at that period was still unwritten, because not yet known. For it was spoken from the beginning to those only who understand. Now that the Savior has taught the apostles, the unwritten rendering of the written [Scripture] has been handed down also to us, inscribed by the power of God on hearts new, according to the renovation of the book (Ibid., Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6.15–16, pp. 509–510).

According to Clement, the Scriptures are the only source of doctrine for the Church, but they must be interpreted by the ecclesiastical rule, or the secret tradition of interpretation handed down from the apostles. This secret tradition was, in fact, Clement’s personal approach to the allegorizing of Scripture, which he included as part of the rule of faith of the Church. An example his interpretation, which he specifically referred to as the Church’s ecclesiastical canon, is found in his exegesis of the ten commandments. He begins by stating that it is an example of what he calls gnostic exposition, which was, in the main, pure allegory:

Let the Decalogue be set forth cursorily by us as a specimen for gnostic exposition.

THE NUMBER ‘TEN.’
That ten is a sacred number, it is superfluous to say now. And if the tables that were written were the work of God, they will be found to exhibit physical creation. For by the ‘finger of God’ is understood the power of God, by which the creation of heaven and earth is accomplished; of both of which the tables will be understood to be symbols. For the writing and handiwork of God put on the table is the creation of the world.
And the Decalogue, viewed as an image of heaven, embraces sun and moon, stars, clouds, light, wind, water, air, darkness, fire. This is the physical Decalogue of the heaven.
And the representation of the earth contains men, cattle, reptiles, wild beasts; and of the inhabitants of the water, fishes and whales; and again, of the winged tribes, those that are carnivorous, and those that use mild food; and of plants likewise, both fruit-bearing and barren. This is the physical Decalogue of the earth.
And the ark which held them will then be the knowledge of divine and human things and wisdom.
And perhaps the two tables themselves may be the prophecy of the two covenants. They were accordingly mystically renewed, as ignorance along with sin abounded. The commandments are written, then, doubly, as appears, for twofold spirits, the ruling and the subject.‘For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh.’
And there is a ten in man himself: the five senses, and the power of speech, and that of reproduction; and the eighth is the spiritual principle communicated at his creation; and the ninth the ruling faculty of the soul; and tenth, there is the distinctive characteristic of the Holy Spirit, which comes to him through faith.

THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT.
And the fourth word is that which intimates that the world was created by God, and that He gave us the seventh day as a rest, on account of the trouble that there is in life. For God is incapable of weariness, and suffering, and want. But we who bear flesh need rest. The seventh day, therefore, is proclaimed a rest — abstraction from ills — preparing for the Primal Day, our true rest; which, in truth, is the first creation of light, in which all things are viewed and possessed.     From this day the first wisdom and knowledge illuminate us. For the light of truth — a light true, casting no shadow, is the Spirit of God indivisibly divided to all, who are sanctified by faith, holding the place of a luminary, in order to the knowledge of real existences. By following Him, therefore, through our whole life, we become impassible; and this is to rest...And as marriage generates from male and female, so six is generated from the odd number three, which is called the masculine number, and the even number two, which is considered the feminine. For twice three are six.
    Such, again, is the number of the most general motions, according to which all origination takes place — up, down, to the right, to the left, forward, backward. Rightly, then, they reckon the number seven motherless and childless, interpreting the Sabbath, and figuratively expressing the nature of the rest, in which ‘they neither marry nor are given in marriage any more.’ For neither by taking from one number and adding to another of those within ten is seven produced; nor when added to any number within the ten does it make up any of them. And they called eight a cube, counting the fixed sphere along with the seven revolving ones, by which is produced ‘the great year,’ as a kind of period of recompense of what has been promised.
    Thus the Lord, who ascended the mountain, the fourth, becomes the sixth, and is illuminated all round with spiritual light, by laying bare the power proceeding from Him, as far as those selected to see were able to behold it, by the Seventh, the Voice, proclaimed to be the Son of God; in order that they, persuaded respecting Him, might have rest; while He by His birth, which was indicated by the sixth conspicuously marked, becoming the eighth, might appear to be God in a body of flesh, by displaying His power, being numbered indeed as a man, but being concealed as to who He was. For six is reckoned in the order of numbers, but the succession of the letters acknowledges the character which is not written. In this case, in the numbers themselves, each unit is preserved in its order up to seven and eight. But in the number of the characters, Zeta becomes six and Eta seven.

THE SIXTH COMMANDMENT.
Then follows the command about murder. Now murder is a sure destruction. He, then, that wishes to extirpate the true doctrine of God and of immortality, in order to introduce falsehood, alleging either that the universe is not under Providence, or that the world is uncreated, or affirming anything against true doctrine, is most pernicious.

THE SEVENTH COMMANDMENT.
This is followed by the command respecting adultery. Now it is adultery, if one, abandoning the ecclesiastical and true knowledge, and the persuasion respecting God, accedes to false and incongruous opinion, either by deifying any created object, or by making an idol of anything that exists not, so as to overstep, or rather step from, knowledge. And to the Gnostic false opinion is foreign, as the true belongs to him, and is allied with him. Wherefore the noble apostle calls one of the kinds of fornication, idolatry, in following the prophet, who says: ‘[My people] hath committed fornication with stock and stone. They have said to the stock, Thou art my father; and to the stone, Thou hast begotten me’ (Ibid., Clement of Alexandria, Stromata VI.16.).

This is an example of what Clement believed to be the authoritative ecclesiastical rule of interpretation for the Church, a tradition supposedly handed down from the apostles. In reality, however, this method originated with Philo and the author of the Epistle of Barnabus. Hanson gives us the following information on the derivation of Clement’s method of interpretation:

Two tell–tale facts compel us to discard Clement’s claim to be in possession of a secret, unwritten tradition of doctrine independent of the Bible, on the grounds that it is entirely untrustworthy. The first is that when we examine the contents of this tradition we find it to consist of theological speculations which have a suspiciously Alexandrian ring about them, and which we cannot possibly imagine to have emanated from our Lord and his apostles. The second is that we can with very fair probability determine whence Clement derived both the idea that such a tradition might exist and the conviction that it did exist. The first of these sources is Philo. We have seen how Clement borrowed both vocabulary and ideas on this subject from him. The other is the Epistle of Barnabus.
    Writers on Clement have noticed that he seems to have borrowed his phrase h gnwsiV (the gnosis) from this work, but no one has apparently gathered all the evidence, as it can be gathered, to show how likely it is that Clement derived his whole theory of secret tradition from the Epistle of Barnabus. Clement quotes the Epistle several times and seems to regard it as tradition as authentic as that of any New Testament epistle...In a fragment of the Hypotyposeis (Book VII) quoted by Eusebius, he says: ‘The Lord gave the secret knowledge (paredwke ten gnwsin) to James the Just, to John, and to Peter, after the Resurrection. They handed it on to the other apostles, and the other apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabus was one.’...
    The conclusion is almost irresistible that Clement of Alexandria was influenced enough by his reading of the Epistle of Barnabus, and by the existence of quite a large body of legend about the Barnabus of the New Testament, to exalt the Epistle’s ‘gnosis’ — that is its system of allegorizing the Old Testament and especially the Law–books — into a theory that Barnabus received a special secret tradition through the apostles from Christ. The main content of this tradition Clement apparently believed to be the allegorization of the Old Testament so as to yield support for all kinds of speculations appealing to his own mind and the mind of his teachers. And he persuaded himself that this supposed secret teaching of Barnabus had been maintained independently of the New Testament up to his own day (R.P.C. Hanson, Origen’s Doctrine of Tradition (SPCK: London, 1954), pp. 68–69.

So, Clement propounded a concept of tradition that involved an authoritative interpretation of Scripture, which he believed was to be applied to the Church universally. This certainly is how Roman Catholic apologists interpret his words. For example, in Not By Scripture Alone, Joe Gallegos writes that Scripture is not sufficient to declare its own meaning and therefore we must look to the Roman Church and her tradition for the proper interpretation of Scripture. He attempts to support this from statements by Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria. With respect to Clement, Gallegos writes:

Clement of Alexandria applies the same methodology (as Irenaeus, Terullian and Origen) regarding the interpretation of the Scriptures. According to Clement, one must read the Scriptures within the milieu of the rule of faith (‘canon of truth’) which has been handed down from the Apostles to the Church…Similarly, as with the Fathers before and after, Clement finds that the fundamental error of the heretic is that he doesn’t apply the Church’s inerrant Tradition when interpreting the Scriptures. Instead, the heretic selects and interprets the passages of the Sacred Text according to his own judgment and desires apart from the traditional truth contained in the Church (italics mine) (NBSA, Joe Gallegos, What Did the Fathers Teach?, pp. 418–419).

Gallegos equates the position of Irenaeus and Tertullian with that of Clement’s regarding authoritative interpretation. The implication is that there existed a consensus of ecclesiastical interpretation; agreement not only with respect to the rule of faith but over the actual method of interpreting Scripture as well, so that there was unanimity of opinion on the meaning of Scripture. While there certainly was agreement among the fathers on the rule of faith, many of those same fathers did not agree with what Clement called the ecclesiastical rule or canon. Gallegos says that ‘according to Clement, one must read the Scriptures within the milieu of the rule of faith (canon of truth) which has been handed down from the Apostles to the Church.’ The problem with this assertion is that he mistakenly equates Clement’s use of the ‘ecclesiastical rule or canon,’ with the rule of faith. The rule of faith was something altogether independent of the ecclesiastical canon, as we have seen. Clement believed this canon to be an authoritative method of interpreting Scripture consisting of a heavy emphasis on allegory. It was a means of eliciting what he considered to be the spiritual meaning behind the literal words of Scripture. We have seen an example of Clement’s interpretation which he refers to as the Church’s ecclesiastical canon and which Gallegos suggests is the Church’s authoritative tradition in his exegesis of the ten commandments. Is Gallegos willing to embrace this particular interpretation and elevate it to the status of the Church’s authoritative tradition? Probably not. In fact, the Church of Rome would repudiate Clement’s interpretation today.

We are faced with a common historical error often made by Roman Catholic apologists. They assume that when the fathers used the term tradition, they all define it in the same way. Obviously, this was not the case. Roman apologists indiscriminately quote the fathers with no attempt to explain the context of their statements, thereby distorting what they really taught. They are guilty of what Clement accused the heretics of in their use of Scripture:

But, selecting ambiguous expressions, they wrest them to their own opinions, gathering a few expressions here and there; not looking to the sense, but making use of the mere words. For in almost all the quotations they make, you will find that they attend to the names alone, while they alter the meanings; neither knowing, as they affirm, nor using the quotations they adduce, according to their true nature (ANF, Vol. 2, Clement of Alexandria, Stromata  7.16.

The fact is, the meaning of tradition, in the sense of the ecclesiastical interpretation as defined by Clement, would be rejected by Gallegos and most present day Roman Catholics. In addition, Clement’s position differed from that of Irenaeus and Tertullian in that it included philosophical speculation and allegory. Though Clement called his interpretative method the ecclesiastical canon, it could claim no universal application in the Church of his day and would be rejected by the Roman Church in our own. Consequently, the Roman appeal to Clement for support of her tradition and authoritative interpretation is baseless. Hanson sums up the position of Clement of Alexandria in these words:

Clement’s secret teaching did, as far as we can reconstruct it, consist of speculations, intuitions, and inspired (or not so inspired) theologizing, which had no connection with any oral teaching given by our Lord or His Apostles; and...it was intimately connected with his own devotional life...It is clear, that Clement has confused in his theory of secret tradition at least three separate things: First, his own private speculations, which are often of a Gnostic cast; second, a tradition of doctrinal speculation inherited from eminent teachers before him, not least among whom were (as we can see from Clement’s own writings) Philo, and (as he tells us himself) Pantaenus, a tradition which he attributed quite mistakenly to Barnabus, whom he imagined to have derived it through the Twelve from our Lord; third, what Prestige calls didaskalia (didaskalia), the Church’s interpretation of her tradition in teaching and preaching (R.P.C. Hanson, Origen’s Doctrine of Tradition (SPCK: London, 1954), pp. 71–72).

Origen

Like Clement, Origen believed there were two classes of Christians: the common class who could only comprehend the rule of faith, and the spiritual elite, who could understand the truth of Scripture spiritually:

Then, finally, that the Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have a meaning, not such only as is apparent at first sight, but also another, which escapes the notice of most. For those (words) which are written are the forms of certain mysteries, and the images of divine things. Respecting which there is one opinion throughout the whole Church, that the whole law is indeed spiritual; but that the spiritual meaning which the law conveys is not known to all, but to those only on whom the grace of the Holy Spirit is bestowed in the word of wisdom and knowledge (ANF, Vol. 4, Origin, De Principiis, Preface 8).

This brings us back to the view that the Church had received an authoritative, allegorical method for interpreting Scripture enabling the spiritual elite to extract the true spiritual meaning from the literal words of Scripture. The rule of faith was normative for the Church. It represented the summation of the principal doctrines of Scripture, and was handed down from the apostles. But as Origen wrote, he also believed there was a rule of interpretation handed down from the apostles, which he called the Church’s spiritual interpretation, a method of allegorizing of Scripture. This rule of interpretation was a step beyond the rule of faith and capable of being apprehended only by a minority of elite Christians. To Origen, allegory was the Church’s way of spiritually interpreting Scripture. Tradition, then, included not only the passing down of fundamental doctrines but also an authoritative method of interpretation, the principle part of which was allegory. However, Origen’s claim that this methodology was part of the universal tradition of the Church handed down from the apostles was spurious.

From a Roman Catholic perspective this is significant. When Roman apologists like Gallegos identify the early Church’s tradition with an authoritative interpretive function they seek to draw a direct parallel between the present day Roman Church and that of the early centuries. But this identification is only done in general terms. The reader is never informed that the meaning of tradition as authoritative interpretation as defined by Clement and Origen is not only antithetical to the present day Roman Church but to the Church of Origen’s day as well. The Roman Catholic Church today would not accept Origen’s principle of allegorization or his interpretation of Scripture based on those principles. This error is clearly illustrated in the following comments of Gallegos about Origen’s view of tradition:

In a later chapter Origen replays the consistent theme of the Fathers, that is, one must interpret the sacred text according to the ecclesiastical standard established in Tradition, one which is authenticated by the order of succession from the apostles:

Now the cause, in all the points previously enumerated, of the false opinions, and of the impious statements or ignorant assertions about God, appears to be nothing else than the not understanding the Scripture according to its spiritual meaning, but the interpretation of it agreeably to the mere letter. And therefore, to those who believe that the sacred books are not the compositions of men, but that they were composed by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, agreeably to the will of the Father of all things through Jesus Christ, and that they have come down to us, we must point out the ways (of interpreting them) which appear (correct) to us, who cling to the standard of the heavenly Church of Jesus Christ according to the succession of the apostles (De Prin 4.1.9) (NBSA, Joe Gallegos, What Did the Fathers Teach?, pp. 417–418.

Gallegos commits the same error with Origen that he did with Clement, suggesting that the fathers consistently claimed that the text of Scripture must be interpreted according to an authoritative principle or standard handed down to the Church in her tradition. He assumes that this principle, as expressed by Origen, had universal application. But when Origen spoke of men not understanding Scripture according to its spiritual meaning, he was referring to his own unique method of allegorizing the Scriptures. That is what he meant by the ecclesiastical standard established in tradition. Origen sincerely believed that this method of interpretation was apostolic in origin and had been handed down through the Church’s tradition. But such is merely a sincere conviction without validation. As Hanson observes:

If we agree (as I think we must) that in respect to allegorizing, Origen did as he probably did with all his esoteric doctrines, that is, he himself taught and believed them, and assumed that Christ and his apostles taught and believed them, but could not prove, and never claimed that he could prove, that they had been taught and believed continuously from the apostles’ day to his own independently of the Bible, then Origen’s contention that allegorism was an original article of the Church’s rule of faith becomes worthless. It becomes about as likely as Clement’s claim to possess esoteric doctrine derived from Christ and his apostles independent of the Bible (R.P.C. Hanson, Origen’s Doctrine of Tradition (London: SPCK, 1954), p. 104).

Origen believed that the intellectual elite should strive to go beyond the literal understanding of the Church’s rule of faith, while the simpler, less enlightened and less intellectual Christian would have to be satisfied with the rule of faith alone. Allegory gave Origen a means of expressing his own inclination and proclivity towards theological speculation, cloaking it in seeming apostolic authority by claiming it as part of the Church’s authoritative tradition. This is where we see such a marked difference between Irenaeus and Tertullian, and Clement and Origen. Tertullian said there was to be no agreement between Athens and Jerusalem, that is between Greek philosophical speculation and revelation. But Clement and Origen strove to wed the two. For Irenaeus and Tertullian, speculation was illegitimate:

But, beyond reason inflated [with your own wisdom], ye presumptuously maintain that ye are acquainted with the unspeakable mysteries of God; while even the Lord, the very Son of God, allowed that the Father alone knows the very day and hour of judgment, when He plainly declares, ‘But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, neither the Son, but the Father only.’ If, then, the Son was not ashamed to ascribe the knowledge of that day to the Father only, but declared what was true regarding the matter, neither let us be ashamed to reserve for God those greater questions which may occur to us. For no man is superior to his master. If any one, therefore, says to us, ‘How then was the Son produced by the Father?’ we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling, or revelation, or by whatever name one may describe His generation, which is in fact altogether indescribable. Neither Valentinus, nor Marcion, nor Saturninus, nor Basilides, nor angels, nor archangels, nor principalities, nor powers [possess this knowledge], but the Father only who begat, and the Son who was begotten (ANF, Vol 1, Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.28.6).

 It is a serious historical error to suggest, as Gallegos does, that Tertullian and Irenaeus were in fundamental agreement with Origen and Clement on the interpretation of Scripture. 

Athanasius

Like the fathers who preceded him, Athanasius also spoke of tradition. In his first epistle to Serapion, he wrote:

These sayings concerning the Holy Spirit, by themselves alone, show that in nature and essence he has nothing in common with or proper to creatures, but is distinct from things originate, proper to, and not alien from, the Godhead and essence of the Son; in virtue of which essence and nature he is of the Holy Triad, and puts their stupidity to shame. But, beyond these sayings, let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the Church is founded, and he who should fall away from it would not be a Christian and should no longer be so called. There is, then, a Triad, holy and complete, confessed to be God in Father, Son, and holy Spirit, having nothing foreign or external mixed with it, not composed of one that creates and one that is originated, but all creative; and it is consistent and in nature indivisible, and its activity is one (The Letters of Saint Athanasius, Concerning the Holy Spirit, C.R.B. Shapland, Translator (New York: Philosophical Library, 1951), Epistle I.27–28, To Serapion, pp. 133–134).

In Not By Scripture Alone, Gallegos cites this passage precisely as given above. He provides nothing more, failing to give the full context of Athanasius’ statements. He then continues:

Following his appeal to Scripture Athanasius explains that he does not rely on the inherent force of the Scriptural passages alone to provide their meaning. Athanasius affirms that although the various passages of Scripture justify the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the traditional faith obliges him to interpret the text in a certain way...According to Athanasius, Tradition is substantive in content and authoritative. He receives these ecclesiastical doctrines through Tradition and it is within the Traditional milieu that the Scriptures are to be understood.419 (NBSA, Joe Gallegos, What Did the Fathers Teach?, p. 426).

In his reference to tradition what did Athanasius mean? Did he, as Gallegos wants us to believe, mean an ecclesiastical tradition independent of Scripture and authoritative in giving an official interpretation of its text? The answer is no. When we read further in the letter, Athanasius defined the meaning of tradition:

Thus one God is preached in the Church, ‘who is over all, and through all, and in all’ — ‘over all’, as Father, as beginning, as fountain; ‘through all’, not only in name and form of speech, but in truth and actuality. For as the Father is he that is, so also his Word is one that is and God over all. And the Holy Spirit is not without actual existence, but exists and has true being. Less than these (Persons) the Catholic Church does not hold, lest she sink to the level of the modern Jews, imitators of Caiaphas, and to the level of Sabellius. Nor does she add to them by speculation, lest she be carried into the polytheism of the heathen. And that they may know this to be the faith of the Church, let them learn how the Lord, when sending forth the Apostles, ordered them to lay this foundation for the Church, saying: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Mt. 28:19). The Apostles went, and thus they taught; and this is the preaching that extends to the whole Church which is under heaven. Since then the Church has this foundation of faith, let these men tell us once again and let them make answer, Is God tryad or dyad? (The Letters of Saint Athanasius, Concerning the Holy Spirit, C.R.B. Shapland, Translator (New York: Philosophical Library, 1951), Epistle I.28–29, To Serapion, p. 135–136).

What Athanasius meant by tradition is that which was taught by Christ and handed on to the apostles to preach, namely the Great Commission  recorded in Matthew 28:19. Athanasius prefaced his comments with this remark: ‘Let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept.’ This tradition is found in Scripture in the words of Jesus to his apostles, proving that the faith proclaimed by the Church has been the same faith from the beginning. Tradition, then, according to Athanasius, is rooted in Scripture. The tradition of the apostles was passed on to the Church in Scripture and verified by Scripture. This is why Athanasius referred to Scripture as the Apostolic Tradition. Scripture is not just a part of  overall tradition, it is that tradition. When Athanasius wrote, ‘Let us look at the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept,’ he was referring to Scripture, not, as Gallegos suggests, to a traditional ecclesiastical norm of interpretation by which he determined the meaning of Scripture. C.R.B. Shapland, the translator of Athanasius’ letters to Serapion (from which the above quotes were taken) makes this comment on Athanasius’ use of the term tradition in these letters:

It is important to understand what Athanasius is appealing to here. The passage from ad Adelph. which we have already quoted makes it clear that tradition to Athanasius is not an indefinite source of knowledge, independent of Scripture. Not only does he insist on the sufficiency of Scripture...he does not strictly distinguish tradition and Scripture...nor is he appealing to the authority of earlier Fathers (Ibid., Epistle I.28-29, To Serapion, p. 134).

Shapland points out that, when using the term tradition, Athanasius was not appealing to earlier fathers, but to Scripture. This is seen from the fact that all of his arguments supporting the deity of the Holy Spirit came from Scripture alone and had no previous traditional interpretive history. Gallegos says that Athanasius received his understanding of the meaning of Scripture in terms of its detailed interpretation through tradition, that is, that it is within the traditional milieu that the Scriptures were to be understood. While it is true that the rule of faith provided a broad based tradition for understanding the overall thrust of Scripture, it is not true to say that Athanasius received his interpretation of Scripture from tradition because there was no interpretive tradition to which he could appeal. He is the first father to give a systematic exposition of Scripture in defense of the deity of the Holy Spirit and he appealed only to the written Scriptures. The  Council of Nicaea completely passed over any explanation of the person of the Holy Spirit. Hanson writes:

It was Athanasius of Alexandria who first faced squarely the subject of the Holy Spirit, first, not merely among those who were involved in the great debate about the Christian doctrine of God which preoccupied the minds of men of the fourth century, but first in the history of Christianity (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), p. 748).

Gallegos writes that the fathers did not consider themselves private exegetes of Scripture but looked to the Church for its meaning. But in his scriptural defense of the Holy Spirit that is precisely what Athanasius was, a private exegete. There was no ecclesiastical exegetical committee in the Church to which fathers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian or Athanasius could appeal to in order to make sure their exegesis of Scripture was correct. They were all private exegetes who adhered to the rule of faith in their interpretation of Scripture. Sometimes, as was the case with Athanasius when defending the deity of the Holy Spirit, their interpretation became foundational and normative for the rest of the Church.

It is clear from the examples of Clement, Origen and Athanasius, that Roman Catholic apologists often misuse statements by the Church fathers to promote an agenda. They provide no context or interpretation by which to properly understand what the fathers meant by the terms they used, often redefining their words to conform to a present day meaning which is contrary to their original intent.

General Principles of Patristic Interpretation

While there was disagreement among the Church fathers over the practical application of the interpretation of Scripture, it is important to note that there was general agreement on a number of fundamental exegetical principles which we will examine in some detail.

1) The Continuity Between the Old and New Testaments

One of the universally accepted principles held by the fathers was belief in the unity of the Old and New Testaments. The New was the fulfillment of the Old. This was clearly articulated by Augustine when he wrote that what was latent in the Old Testament became patent in the New. In addition, the fathers found a unifying theme in the person of Christ. They considered the Scriptures to be essentially Christocentric. As Augustine expressed it:

To enumerate all the passages in the Hebrew prophets referring to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, would exceed the limits of a volume, not to speak of the brief replies of which this treatise consists. The whole contents of these Scriptures are either directly or indirectly about Christ. Often the reference is allegorical or enigmatical, perhaps in a verbal allusion, or in a historical narrative, requiring diligence in the student, and rewarding him with the pleasure of discovery. Other passages, again, are plain; for, without the help of what is clear, we could not understand what is obscure. And even the figurative passages, when brought together, will be found so harmonious in their testimony to Christ as to put to shame the obtuseness of the sceptic (NPNF1, Vol. 4, Augustin, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, Book XII, section 7).

The belief in the continuity between the Testaments is seen in the patristic use of typology as an exegetical method. As we have seen, this method differed from allegory in that it demonstrated the organic relationship between two historical realities, the one being a prefigurement of the other. Typology was a form of prophecy and was firmly rooted in the historical acts of Scripture. As Jesus had taught, the lifting up of the serpent in the wilderness by Moses was a type of his atonement (Jn. 3:14–16). The entire sacrificial Jewish system was a type and prefigurement of Christ, the Lamb of God. Through types, the fathers saw the unity between the Old and New Testaments in the person of Christ.

2) The Rule of Faith

The fathers universally agreed that the fundamentals of the faith were summed up by the rule of faith. The rule gave expression to what the early Church considered to be the general drift of the overall meaning of Scripture, a summation of the key doctrines of Scripture, and all interpretation was to be made in light of those essential truths. As Ellen Flesseman–van Leer points out:

The Regula is the real content of revelation, the fundamental tenor of the one message of scripture…It is one and the same to explain scripture according to its inherent harmony and according to the Regula. This is the same as what the Reformation calls interpretation according to the analogy of faith. For in neither case is meant a formal principle outside of scripture, but the purport, intention of scripture itself (Ellen Flesseman–van Leer, Tradition and Scripture in the Early Church (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1953), p. 194.

3) The Perspicuity of Scripture

One of the major themes in the writings of the Church fathers is what Chrysostom called the condescension of Scripture, the teaching that the revelation of God in Scripture allows for the frailty of men in their capacity to understand it. God has therefore condescended to put his truth in language that is plain, simple, straightforward and easy to understand. He has condescended to our weakness and sinful condition. The following quotation of Chrysostom’s commentary on Isaiah and Genesis illustrates this point:

Once again, Isaiah portrays an ineffable message for us with precise imagery. He made the condescension first of all for the sake of the weakness of those who heard him back then, but in the same way, through the condescension, he accurately explains to us concepts that surpass all understanding…As I have already said, he condescends to the weakness of the audience, and by using things they could grasp lifted their understanding to a higher plane (Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity (Lampeter: Edwin Mellon, 1992), Volume 12,  Duane Garrett, An Analysis of the Hermeneutics of John Chrysostom’s Commentary on Isaiah 1–8 with an English Translation, pp. 127, 144.

Notice how Sacred Scripture narrates everything in human fashion even out of considerateness to us. I mean, it would not have been possible for us in any other way to understand anything of what was said had not such considerateness been thought fitting (FC, Vol. 74, Homilies on Genesis 1–17, Homily 10.16, p. 138).

This is a recurring theme in the writings of many of the fathers such as: 

Hilary of Poitiers 

Now we ought to recognize first of all that God has spoken not for Himself but for us, and that He has so far tempered the language of His utterance as to enable the weakness of our nature to grasp and understand it (NPNF2, Vol.9, Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book VIII, Section 43).

Thus God out of regard for human weakness has not set forth the faith in bare and uncertain statements. For although the authority of our Lord’s mere words of itself compelled their acceptance, He nevertheless has informed our reason by a revelation which explains their meaning, that we might learn to know His words, I and the Father are one, by means of that which was itself the cause of the unity in question (Ibid., On the Trinity, Book VIII, Section 52).

The Lord enunciated the faith of the Gospel in the simplest words that could be found, and fitted His discourses to our understanding, so far as the weakness of our nature allowed Him, without saying anything unworthy of the majesty of His own nature (Ibid., On the Trinity, Book IX, Section 40).

Augustine

Consider, moreover, the style in which Sacred Scripture is composed,—how accessible it is to all men, though its deeper mysteries are penetrable to very few. The plain truths which it contains it declares in the artless language of familiar friendship to the hearts both of the unlearned and of the learned; but even the truths which it veils in symbols it does not set forth in stiff and stately sentences, which a mind somewhat sluggish and uneducated might shrink from approaching, as a poor man shrinks from the presence of the rich; but, by the condescension of its style, it invites all not only to be fed with the truth which is plain, but also to be exercised by the truth which is concealed, having both in its simple and in its obscure portions the same truth (NPNF2,Vol. 1, Augustin, Letters of St. Augustine, Letter 137, Chapter 5, Section 18).

Isidore of Pelusium

If God had had respect only to his own dignity, and not the profit of the reader, he would have used heavenly and divine words and examples. But since he was legislating for men that are weak and in need of human words (for thus they were able easily to understand things above them), he expressed his divine doctrines in common words, to the intent that even a woman and a child, and the most ignorant of all men, might obtain some profit even from the very hearing. For, the word having a consideration for the salvation of the multitude, and even rustics, is expressed with so much clearness through the philanthropy of the legislator, as to deprive no one of the benefit proportioned to his powers; nor hath it neglected the wiser of mankind; for in this so great clearness, such unutterable words dwell like treasures, that even the wisest and most learned of men are lost in the profundity of the thoughts, and often confess themselves overcome by the incomprehensibility of the wisdom (Isidore of Pelusium, Epistolarium, Lib. II, Epist. 5. PG78:461.Translation by William Goode, Vol. 3, p. 284).

Athanasius

For such illustrations and such images has Scripture proposed, that, considering the inability of human nature to comprehend God, we might be able to form ideas even from these however poorly and dimly, and as far as is attainable (NPNF2, Vol. 4, Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse II Chapter XVIII, Section 32).

Lactantius

 For this is especially the cause why, with the wise and the learned, and the princes of this world, the sacred Scriptures are without credit, because the prophets spoke in common and simple language, as though they spoke to the people (ANF, Vol. 7, Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book V, Chapter I).

Theodoret

The divine Scripture is accustomed to accommodate its lessons to those who are to be instructed; and to the perfect, to offer that which is perfect; and to the ignorant, elementary points and things suited to their ability...The divine Scripture accommodates its language to men; and orders its words so that they may be able to understand (Quæstiones in Genesim, Interrogatio 1, PG80:77; Interrogatio LII, PG80:156; Translation by William Goode, Vol. 3, p. 285).

The application of this principle led the fathers to the conclusion that the Scriptures—in the essential truths of salvation—are perspicuous, that is, they are clear and understandable. Remember that Clement and Origen believed there were two types of Christian, the simple believer who adhered only to the essentials truths of the rule of faith, and the more intellectual Christian, who was able to go beyond the rudimentary truths of Scripture as summed up in the rule, to plumb the depths of its spiritual meaning. This makes clear a reality often overlooked in discussions of patristic interpretation of Scripture, that the fathers held two different perspectives on Scripture. They believed the essential truths of salvation were clear and could be easily understood by the common believer, if certain basic principles were followed. But they also believed that certain portions of Scripture were obscure and difficult to understand. However, they made it clear that the obscure passages were of secondary importance and did not affect the essential truths of salvation.

Furthermore, the obscure passages could be understood in light of those that were clear. During the Reformation, the Reformers continually emphasized the truth of the perspicuity of Scripture. This principle has been consistently derided by Roman Catholic apologists. They claim that Scripture cannot be understood apart from the infallible teaching magisterium of the Roman Church. This was not the view of the Church fathers. The principle of perspicuity enunciated by the Reformers was a general patristic teaching. The fathers repeatedly affirmed that the essential truths of Scripture are clearly revealed and not obscure. But they were equally quick to point out that the perspicuity of Scripture could only be realized when fundamental principles of interpretation were followed. We will examine those principles briefly but first let us first look at the general principle of perspicuity articulated by the Church fathers. One of the first fathers to give expression to this principle was Irenaeus:

A sound mind, and one which does not expose its possessor to danger, and is devoted to piety and the love of truth, will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed within the power of mankind, and has subjected to our knowledge, and will make advancement in [acquaintance with] them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study. These things are such as fall [plainly] under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures (ANF, Vol. I, Irenaeus,  Against Heresies II.27.1).

Since, therefore, the entire Scriptures, the prophets, and the Gospels, can be clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all...(Ibid., Against Heresies II.27.2-3).

Irenaeus criticized the Gnostics for teaching that the Scriptures are ambiguous and cannot be understood apart from their authoritative interpretive tradition: 

When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition. For [they allege] that the truth was not delivered by means of written documents, but viva voce (Ibid., Against Heresies III.2.1).

He also states that one is not to seek to interpret obscure passages of Scripture by others equally obscure but by referring to those that are plain and clear: 

For by the fact that they thus endeavour to explain ambiguous passages of Scripture (ambiguous, however, not as if referring to another god, but as regards the dispensations of [the true] God), they have constructed another god, weaving, as I said before, ropes of sand, and affixing a more important to a less important question. For no question can be solved by means of another which itself awaits solution; nor, in the opinion of those possessed of sense, can an ambiguity be explained by means of another ambiguity, or enigmas by means of another greater enigma, but things of such character receive their solution from those which are manifest, and consistent and clear (Ibid., Against Heresies, II:10:1).

Clement of Alexandria explained, that in the rudiments of the faith, Scripture is clear to all:

And this signified that the Scripture is clear to all, when taken according to the bare reading; and that this is the faith which occupies the place of the rudiments (ANF, Vol. II, Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book VI, Chapter XV). 

Though adhering to the allegorical interpretation of Scripture, Clement believed that this method was based on the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture and what cannot be supported from Scripture is to be repudiated:

For we may not give our adhesion to men on a bare statement by them, who might equally state the opposite. But if it is not enough merely to state the opinion, but if what is stated must be confirmed, we do not wait for the testimony of men, but we establish the matter that is in question by the voice of the Lord, which is the surest of all demonstrations, or rather is the only demonstration; in which knowledge those who have merely tasted the Scriptures are believers; while those who, having advanced further, and become correct expounders of the truth, are Gnostics. Since also, in what pertains to life, craftsmen are superior to ordinary people, and model what is beyond common notions; so, consequently, we also, giving a complete exhibition of the Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves, from faith persuade by demonstration…But the truth is not found by changing the meanings (for so people subvert all true teaching), but in the consideration of what perfectly belongs to and becomes the Sovereign God, and in establishing each one of the points demonstrated in the Scriptures again from similar Scriptures (Ibid., The Stromata, Book VII, Chapter XVI).

Another similar passage reads: ‘For those are slothful who, having it in their power to provide themselves with proper proofs for the divine Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves, select only what contributes to their own pleasures’ (Ibid., The Stromata, Book VII, Chapter XVI).

Tertullian wrote that the Scriptures are plain and open and unmistakable in their meaning. They are not obscure or ambiguous:

Take away, indeed, from the heretics the wisdom which they share with the heathen, and let them support their inquiries from the Scriptures alone: they will then be unable to keep their ground. For that which commends men’s common sense is its very simplicity, and its participation in the same feelings, and its community of opinions; and it is deemed to be all the more trustworthy, inasmuch as its definitive statements are naked and open, and known to all. Divine reason, on the contrary, lies in the very pith and marrow of things, not on the surface, and very often is at variance with appearances (ANF, Vol. III, Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter III).

He also listed a number of basic principles of interpretation. The first is the principle of context, that individual passages are to be interpreted in light of the whole of Scripture. The second, also taught by Irenaeus, was that obscure passages of Scripture are to be interpreted in light of those that are plain and clear:     

They would have the entire revelation of both Testaments yield to these three passages, whereas the only proper course is to understand the few statements in the light of the many (Ibid., Against Praxeas, Chapter XX).

…and, indeed, (since some passages are more obscure than others), it cannot but be right—as we have shown above—that uncertain statements should be determined by certain ones, and obscure ones by such as are clear and plain…(Ibid., On the Resurrection of the Flesh, Chapter 21).

Origen taught that the Scriptures alone are sufficient by the power of the Holy Spirit to produce saving faith in those who merely read them. In other words, a person can adequately understand the necessary truths of salvation from Scripture alone without the mediation of any other individual or the Church:

We have to say, moreover, that the Gospel has a demonstration of its own, more divine than any established by Grecian dialectics. And this diviner method is called by the apostle the ‘manifestation of the Spirit and of power;’of ‘the Spirit,’ on account of the prophecies, which are sufficient to produce faith in any one who reads them…(ANF, Vol. 4, Origen, Against Celsus, Book I, Chapter 2).

Athanasius believed the Scriptures sufficient to declare the truth and plain in their meaning:

The knowledge of our religion and of the truth of things is independently manifest rather than in need of human teachers, for almost day by day it asserts itself by facts, and manifests itself brighter than the sun by the doctrine of Christ…the sacred and inspired Scriptures are sufficient to declare the truth…(NPNF2, Vol. 4, Athanasius, Against the Heathen, Part I, §1).

…For the true and pious faith in the Lord has become manifest to all, being both ‘known and read’ from the Divine Scriptures (Ibid., Letters of Athanasius, II. Personal Letters, Letter LVI - To Jovian Concerning the Faith).

He also taught that the Holy Spirit directly and personally illumines the mind and heart of an individual and gives understanding:

In the words of the blessed Apostle, being ‘natural men’, they could not receive the things of the Spirit of God, because these things were spiritually judged. But those who mind the things that belong to truth judge all things, but are themselves judged of no man. For they have within them the Lord who in the Spirit reveals to them himself, and through himself the Father (The Letters of Saint Athanasius, Concerning the Holy Spirit, C.R.B. Shapland, Translator (New York: Philosophical Library, 1951), Epistle I, To Serapion, p. 147).

Hilary of Poitiers taught that the faith is clear and unambiguous though heretics twist the clear meaning of Scripture seeking to make it obscure:

For there have risen many who have given to the plain words of Holy Writ some arbitrary interpretation of their own, instead of its true and only sense, and this in defiance of the clear meaning of words. Heresy lies in the sense assigned, not in the word written; the guilt is that of the expositor, not of the text. Is not truth indestructible? When we hear the name Father, is not sonship involved in that Name? The Holy Ghost is mentioned by name; must He not exist? We can no more separate fatherhood from the Father or sonship from the Son than we can deny the existence in the Holy Ghost of that gift which we receive. Yet men of distorted mind plunge the whole matter in doubt and difficulty, fatuously reversing the clear meaning of words, and depriving the Father of His fatherhood because they wish to strip the Son of His sonship (NPNF2, Vol. 9, Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book II, Section 3)

The words of the faith are clear; the heretics do their utmost to involve the meaning in doubt. We may not on this account add to the appointed form (i.e. the language of Scripture - my comment), yet we must set a limit to their license of interpretation. Since their malice, inspired by the devil’s cunning, empties the doctrine of its meaning while it retains the Names which convey the truth, we must emphasize the truth which those Names convey. We must proclaim, exactly as we shall find them in the words of Scripture, the majesty and functions of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so debar the heretics from robbing these Names of their connotation of Divine character, and compel them by means of these very Names to confine their use of terms to their proper meaning. I cannot conceive what manner of mind our opponents have, who pervert the truth, darken the light, divide the indivisible rend the scatheless, dissolve the perfect unity (Ibid., On the Trinity, Book II, Section 5).

The Lord has not left in doubt or obscurity the teaching conveyed in this great mystery; He has not abandoned us to lose our way in dim uncertainty. Listen to Him as He reveals the full knowledge of this faith to His Apostles; — I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no man cometh unto the Father but through Me (Ibid., On the Trinity,Book VII, Section 33).

He believed that man is capable of understanding Scripture because it is the Lord himself who gives understanding to the individual:

But he does not forget that there are things which cannot be understood in the moment of hearing. The infirmity of man needs time to review before the true and perfect tribunal of the mind, that which is poured indiscriminately into the ears. Comprehension follows the spoken words more slowly than hearing, for it is the ear which hears, but the reason which understands, though it is God Who reveals the inner meaning to those who seek it. We learn this from the words written among many other exhortations to Timothy, the disciple instructed from a babe in the Holy Scriptures by the glorious faith of his grandmother and mother: Understand what I say, for the Lord shall give thee understanding in all things. The exhortation to understand is prompted by the difficulty of understanding. But God’s gift of understanding is the reward of faith, for through faith the infirmity of sense is recompensed with the gift of revelation. Timothy, that ‘man of God’ as the Apostle witnesses of him, Paul’s true child in the faith, is exhorted to understand because the Lord will give him understanding in all things: let us, therefore, knowing that the Lord will grant us understanding in all things, remember that the Apostle exhorts us also to understand (Ibid., On the Trinity, Book XI, Section 23).

It is interesting to note, as Turner points out, that Hilary personally testified that he came to an understanding of the Trinity, not through the authority of the Church and the Council of Nicaea, but as a result of his own personal study of Scripture:

There can be no doubt that the Bible is fundamentally an orthodox book, sufficient if its teaching is studied as a whole to lead to orthodox conclusions. Such was the experience of St. Hilary of Poitiers, who makes the surprising confession that he only discovered the Creed of the Council of Nicaea on the very eve of his exile, although he had previously held the teaching which it contained on the basis of his study of the Bible (H.E.W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth (London: Mowbray, 1954), p. 300).

Hilary himself states:

‘Though long ago regenerate in baptism, and for some time a bishop, I never heard of the Nicene creed until I was going into exile, but the Gospels and Epistles suggested to me the meaning of omoousion(homoousian) and omoiousion(homoiousion) (NPNF2, Vol. 9, Hilary of Poitiers, On the Councils 91).

Basil of Caesarea, in a letter to a widow, informed her that she did not need his assistance to understand Scripture and its moral teachings because she had what he described as the all–sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead her in a personal and direct way:

Enjoying as you do the consolation of the Holy Scriptures, you stand in need neither of my assistance nor of that of anybody else to help you to comprehend your duty. You have the all–sufficient counsel and guidance of the Holy Spirit to lead you to what is right (NPNF2, Vol. VIII, Basil, Letters, Letter 283).

John Chrysostom stressed that the fundamental teachings of Scripture are communicated in plain and clear words, easy for even the common person to understand:

But our lessons are not such; rather Christ hath taught us what is just, and what is seemly, and what is expedient, and all virtue in general, comprising it in few and plain words: at one time saying that, ‘on two commandments hang the Law and the Prophets; that is to say, on the love of God and on the love of our neighbor: at another time, ‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them; for this is the Law and the Prophets. And these things even to a laborer, and to a servant, and to a widow woman, and to a very child, and to him that appeareth to be exceedingly slow of understanding, are all plain to comprehend and easy to learn. For the lessons of the truth are like this; and the actual result bears witness thereto (NPNF1, Vol. 10, Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew, Homily 1.12).

All things are clear and open that are in the divine Scriptures; the necessary things are all plain (NPNF2, Vol. 13, Homilies on the Second Epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians, Homily III, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, 10).

For this reason too, he did not hide his teaching in mist and darkness, as they did who threw obscurity of speech, like a kind of veil, around the mischiefs laid up within. But this man’s doctrines are clearer than the sunbeams, wherefore they have been unfolded to all men throughout the world. For he did not teach as Pythagoras did, commanding those who came to him to be silent for five years, or to sit like senseless stones; neither did he invent fables defining the universe to consist of numbers; but casting away all this devilish trash and mischief, he diffused such simplicity through his words, that all he said was plain, not only to wise men, but also to women and youths. For he was persuaded that the words were true and profitable to all that should hearken to them. And all time after him is his witness; since he has drawn to him all the world, and has freed our life when we have listened to these words from all monstrous display of wisdom; wherefore we who hear them would prefer rather to give up our lives, than the doctrines by him delivered to (Ibid., Vol. 14, Homilies on the Gospel of  St. John, Homily II.5).

‘But what,’ say they, ‘if we do not understand the things we read?’ Even if you do not understand the contents, your sanctification in a high degree results from it. However, it is impossible that all these things should alike be misunderstood; for it was for this reason that the grace of the Holy Spirit ordained that tax–gatherers, and fishermen, and tent–makers, and shepherds, and goatherds, and uninstructed and illiterate men, should compose these books, that no untaught man should be able to make this pretext; in order that the things delivered should be easily comprehended by all—in order that the handicraftsman, the domestic, the widow, yea, the most unlearned of all men, should profit and be benefited by the reading. For it is not for vain–glory, as men of the world, but for the salvation of the hearers, that they composed these writings, who, from the beginning, were endued with the gift of the Holy Ghost (Four Discourses of Chrysostom, Chiefly on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, F. Allen, trans., (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1869), 3rd Sermon, Sections 2–3, pp. 62–63).

In contrast to the philosophers who intentionally obscured terms, he writes that the authors of Scripture penned what could be easily understood by all men by mere reading, unaided by human teachers:

For those without — philosophers, rhetoricians, and annalists, not striving for the common good, but having in view their own renown — if they said anything useful, even this they involved in their usual obscurity, as in a cloud. But the apostles and prophets always did the very opposite; they, as the common instructors of the world, made all that they delivered plain to all men, in order that every one, even unaided, might be able to learn by the mere reading (Ibid., 3rd Sermon, sections 2-3, pp. 62–63).

Chrysostom taught that anyone could know truth with certainty through personal study and the reading of the Scriptures:

Now Luke tells us also the cause wherefore he proceeds to write: “that thou mayest hold,” saith he, “the certainty of the words wherein thou hast been instructed;” that is, that being continually reminded thou mayest hold to the certainty, and abide in certainty (NPNF2, Vol. 10, Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily I, Section 7-8).

Questioning is the subversion of faith. For he that seeks has not yet found. He who questions cannot believe. Therefore it is his advice that we should not be occupied with questions, since if we question, it is not faith; for faith sets reasoning at rest. But why then does Christ say, ‘Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you’ (Matthew 7:7); and, ‘Search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life’? (John 5:39.) The seeking there is meant of prayer and vehement desire, and He bids ‘search the Scriptures,’ not to introduce the labors of questioning, but to end them, that we may ascertain and settle their true meaning, not that we may be ever questioning, but that we may have done with it (Ibid., Chrysostom, Homilies on Timothy, 1 Timothy, Homily 1, 1 Tim 1:4). 

The argument that Scripture is obscure and difficult to understand was rejected by Chrysostom as nothing more than an excuse for slothfulness:

But (it is asked) are the parts containing the signs and wonders and histories also clear and plain to every one? This is a pretence, and an excuse, and a mere cloak of idleness. You do not understand the contents of the book? But how can you ever understand, while you are not even willing to look carefully? Take the book in your hand. Read the whole history; and, retaining in your mind the easy parts, peruse frequently the doubtful and obscure parts; and, if you are unable, by frequent reading, to understand what is said, go to some one wiser; betake yourself to a teacher; confer with him, about the things said. Show great eagerness to learn; then, when God sees that you are using such diligence, He will not disregard your perseverance and carefulness; but if no human being can teach you that which you seek to know, He himself will reveal the whole (Four Discourses of Chrysostom, Chiefly on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, F. Allen, Translator (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1869), Discourse III, p. 66).

All things are clear and open that are in the divine Scriptures; the necessary things are all plain. But because ye are hearers for pleasure’s sake, for that reason also you seek these things. For tell me, with what pomp of words did Paul speak? and yet he converted the world. Or with what the unlettered Peter? But I know not, you sub the things that are contained in the Scriptures. Why? For are they spoken in Hebrew? Are they in Latin, or in foreign tongues? Are they not in Greek? But they are expressed obscurely, you say: What is it that is obscure? Tell me. Are there not histories? For (of course) you know the plain parts, in that you enquire about the obscure. There are numberless histories in the Scriptures. Tell me one of these. But you cannot. These things are an excuse, and mere words (NPNF1, Vol. 13, Homilies on Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Homily 3, 2 Thessalonians 1:9–10).

He stated explicitly that the multi–faceted truth of Scripture can be easily appropriated by the common believer by simply taking time to read it. In his commentary on Isaiah he wrote, ‘It is sufficient merely to glance within for one to go off laden with every benefit’:

The prophets’ mouths are the mouth of God; such a mouth would say nothing idle. Accordingly, let there be nothing idle in our attention. After all, men digging in the quarries let no fragment no matter how small go unnoticed, but on striking a vein of gold they examine every single one closely. How much more should we act like this with the Scriptures? Yet, as a matter of fact, in the case of quarries discovery of the metals you want is hard to come by; this is because the quarries are earth, and the gold is really only earth, and this Substantial identity with the object of the search tricks the eye. Still, despite this the men by no means give up, but show all diligence, and they come to know by looking at them what is really gold, and what is earth and nothing more.
     With the Scriptures, however, it is not like this. The gold does not lie before us mixed up with earth; instead it is gold and only gold. That is what we read in the words: ‘The sayings of the Lord are without defilement, silver purified in the furnace, proven in the soil.’ For the Scriptures are not quarries requiring the labour of research; instead, they provide treasure ready at hand for those who look for the wealth to be found in them. It is sufficient merely to glance within for one to go off laden with every benefit; it is sufficient merely to open for one to spy the brilliance of the jewels’ (Homily on Isaiah 2, 2. Cited by Robert Hill, St John Chrysostom’s Teaching on Inspiration in ‘Six Homilies on Isaiah’, Is. 2,2. Found in Vigilae Christianae 22 (Amsterdam: North–Holland, 1968), pp. 28-29).

He emphasized the same truth enunciated by Basil, Origen and Hilary of Poitiers, that the Scriptures are understood through the all–sufficient ministry of the Holy Spirit. He goes so far as to say that no human intermediary is necessary for understanding Scripture for the Spirit of God himself enlightens the heart of the individual if he will seek the Scriptures with diligence and prayer:

If you are unable, by frequent reading, to understand what is said, go to some one wiser; betake yourself to a teacher; confer with him about the things said. Show great eagerness to learn; then, when God sees that you are using such diligence, He will not disregard your perseverance and carefulness; but if no human being can teach you that which you seek to know, He himself will reveal the whole. Remember the eunuch of the queen of Ethiopia. Being a man of a barbarous nation, occupied with numerous cares, and surrounded on all sides by manifold business, he was unable to understand that which he read…Since therefore, while he had no man to guide him, he was thus reading; for this reason he quickly received an instructor. God knew his willingness, He acknowledged his zeal, and forthwith sent him a teacher. But, you say, Philip is not present with us now. Still, the Spirit that moved Philip is present with us (F. Allen, trans., Four Discourses of Chrysostom, Chiefly on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, 3rd Sermon, §3 (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1869), pp. 62–68. Cf. Chrysostom’s Concionis VII, de Lazaro 3, MPG 48:993–996).

If you accustom yourselves to pray fervently, you will not need instruction from your fellow servants because God himself, with no intermediary, enlightens you mind (FC, Vol. 72, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, Homily 3.35, p. 111).

Tarry not, I entreat, for another to teach thee; thou hast the oracles of God. No man teacheth thee as they; for he indeed oft grudgeth much for vainglory’s sake and envy. Hearken, I entreat you, all ye that are careful for this life, and procure books that will be medicines for the soul. If ye will not any other, yet get you at least the New Testament, the Apostolic Epistles, the Acts, the Gospels, for your constant teachers. If grief befall thee, dive into them as into a chest of medicines; take thence comfort of thy trouble, be it loss, or death, or bereavement of relations; or rather dive not into them merely, but take them wholly to thee; keep them in thy mind (NPNF1, Vol. 13, Chrysostom, Homilies on Colossians, Homily 9, Col 3:16–17).

And this also this blessed Apostle shows in what he said to the Philippians; ‘Even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, both in my bonds, and in the defense and confirmation of the Gospel.’ (Philippians 1:7.) And so ye also, if ye be willing to apply to the reading of him with a ready mind, will need no other aid. For the word of Christ is true which saith, ‘Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.’ (Matthew 7:7.) (Ibid.,Vol. 11, Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, The Argument).

Chrysostom believed that the Scriptures, under the ministry of the Holy Spirit, have an innate divine power and are able to change the hardened hearts of sinners. It was the Scriptures, he said, that led him to Christ:

But if a word merely have such great power, tell me, how is it thou dost despise the Scriptures? And if an admonition can do such great things, far more when the admonitions are with the Spirit. Yes, for a word from the divine Scriptures, made to sound in the ear, doth more than fire soften the hardened soul, and renders it fit for all good things (Ibid., Vol. 10, Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily 2.10).

I am not speaking of the Scriptures. Heaven forbid! It was the Scriptures which took me by the hand and led me to Christ (FC, Vol. 68, Discourses Against Judaizing Christians, Disc. 1.6.5,pp. 23-24).

As with the fathers who preceded him, Augustine taught that the necessary truths of salvation are plain and able to be comprehended by the learned and unlearned alike. Everything pertaining to faith and morals, he says, are plainly communicated in Scripture. God has condescended to reveal truth in a way that takes into account the varying capacities of mortal, sinful men. Even the truth of the Trinity is plainly revealed:

For among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life (NPNF1, Vol. 2, Augustin, On Christian Doctrine, Book II, Chapter 9).

Therefore hath God lowered the Scriptures even to the capacity of babes and sucklings…(Ibid., Vol. 8, Augustin, On the Psalms, Psalm VIII:2, section 8).

Here then we have the Trinity in a certain sort distinguished. The Father in the Voice—the Son in the Man—the Holy Spirit in the Dove. It was only needful just to mention this, for most obvious is it to see. For the notice of the Trinity is here conveyed to us plainly and without leaving room for doubt or hesitation (Ibid., Vol. 6, Augustin, Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament, Sermon 2, Section 1).

He chastised Julian the Pelagian for denigrating the perspicuity of Scripture:

You exaggerate ‘how difficult the knowledge of the sacred scriptures is,’ claiming that ‘it is suited for only the learned few, . . .’ (The Works of Saint Augustine, John  E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., trans. Roland J. Teske, S.J. (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1998), Part 1, Vol. 24, Answer to the Pelagians, II, Answer to Julian, Book V:2, p. 432.

Augustine wrote that the meaning of even obscure passages is set forth in the plain language of Scripture in other places and can therefore be understood by recourse to Scripture itself:

Accordingly the Holy Spirit has, with admirable wisdom and care for our welfare, so arranged the Holy Scriptures as by the plainer passages to satisfy our hunger, and by the more obscure to stimulate our appetite. For almost nothing is dug out of those obscure passages which may not be found set forth in the plainest language elsewhere (NPNF1,Vol. 2, Augustin, On Christian Doctrine, Book II, Chapter 6, Section 8).

Only then, however, after acquiring some familiarity with the actual style of the divine scriptures, should one proceed to try to open and unravel their obscurities, in such a way that instances from the plainer passages are used to cast light on the more obscure utterances, and the testimony of some undoubted judgments is used to remove uncertainties from those that are more doubtful. In this matter what is of the greatest value is a good memory; if this is wanting, these instructions cannot be of any great assistance (The Works of Saint Augustine, John  E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., trans. Edmund Hill, O.P., (New York: New City Press, 1996), Part 1, Vol. 11, De Doctrina Christiana, Book II, Chapter 9, Section 14, p. 135).

Other passages, again, are plain; for, without the help of what is clear, we could not understand what is obscure (NPNF1, Vol. 4, Augustin, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, Book XII, section 7).

In addition, Augustine emphasized over and over again the necessity for seeking the aid of the Holy Spirit for illumination and enabling to obtain a proper understanding of Scripture, implying that such aid would be readily provided:

Commenting on John 1:1-5: These are wonderful and amazing words, even before they are understood; once understood they have to be wholeheartedly embraced. We are enabled, though, to understand them, not by human aids but by being inspired to grasp them by the one who was good enough to inspire fishermen to utter them…To save you from wasting your time seeking an understanding of these words from me, I told you that you can only understand them when you are inspired by the one whose inspiration was the cause of an uneducated fisherman proclaiming them…You were a bit scornful when you heard ‘the Word’—words are heard all the time, after all; well, don’t go on being scornful, because the Word was God. ‘And how am I to understand him being God and Word?’ May the one who gave the fisherman his fill also cause you to drink. Meanwhile, just listen to the one who’s belching, believe his belching, so that you too may climb up on the ladder of faith and take your fill of lively understanding…So, brothers and sisters, I think that’s enough to have put before you. In order fully to understand it, though, knock at his (God’s) door (The Works of Saint Augustine, Newly Discovered Sermons, John  E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., trans. Edmund Hill, O.P. (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997), Part 3, Vol. 11, Sermon 341.3, 5, 8, pp. 284, 286, 287, 289).

But if it should happen that I buckle under the sheer magnitude of the task, being so feeble and so unequal to the subject that I fail to express it as it deserves, you have someone to turn to from me. May he, the Son of God himself, the Word of God, be present in your minds and achieve by conversing with you inwardly what I, as a mere man, cannot achieve outwardly in your ears (The Works of Saint Augustine, Newly Discovered Sermons, John  E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., trans. Edmund Hill, O.P., (New York: New City Press, 1997), Part 3, Vol. 11, Sermon 293A.6, p. 256).

I do not want you to depend on my authority, so as to think that you must believe something because it is said by me; you should rest your belief either on the canonical Scriptures, if you do not see how true something is, or on the truth made manifest to you interiorly, so that you may see clearly (FC,Vol. 20, Saint Augustine Letters, Letter 147,Chapter 2,p. 171).

As for those who, even though they know and understand my directions, fail to penetrate the meaning of obscure passages in Scripture, they may stand for those who, in the case I have imagined, are just able to see my finger, but cannot see the stars at which it is pointed. And so both these classes had better give up blaming me, and pray instead that God would grant them the sight of their eyes. For though I can move my finger to point out an object, it is out of my power to open men’s eyes that they may see either the fact that I am pointing, or the object at which I point (NPNF1, Vol. 2, Augustin, On Christian Doctrine, Preface).

Epiphanius taught that the essential truths of salvation are clearly revealed in Scripture; that there is nothing obscure or difficult to understand:

And thus it is fully demonstrated that there is no obscurity or contradiction in the holy Gospels or between the evangelists, but that everything is plain (The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis:, Frank Williams, trans. (Leiden: Brill, 1994), Book II and III (Sects 47-80, De Fide) Heresy 51, Against the sect which does not accept the Gospel according to John, and his Revelation, 15,14, p. 41.

…And thus everything is crystal clear, and nothing in the sacred scripture is contradictory or has any taint of death, as the Arians pretend in concocting their wicked arguments (The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Frank Williams, trans., (Leiden: Brill, 1994), Book II and III (Sects 47-80, De Fide) Heresy 69, Against the Arian Nuts, 55,7 p. 373).

And you see, servants of Christ and sons of God’s holy church and orthodox faith, that there is nothing obscure or knotty in the sacred scripture; everything has been written marvelously and applied marvelously for our salvation. However, in their hostility to God’s only-begotten Son and the Holy Spirit, Arians think up all sorts of plans and subtleties like enemies (Ibid., Heresy 69, Against the Arian Nuts, 62,8, p. 381).

Everything in the sacred scripture is clear, to those who will approach God’s word with pious reason, and not harbor the devil’s work within them and turn their steps to the pits of death—as this unfortunate man and his converts have attacked the truth more vigorously than any who have become blasphemers of God and his faith before them (Ibid., Heresy 75, Against Aerius, 7,7, p. 504).

Epiphanius stated further that Scripture, in its very nature, possesses a life–giving power:

And once again the argument from the sacred scripture which they [i.e. the Arians] use as their excuse has proved a failure, for scripture is life–giving; nothing in it offers an obstacle to the faithful or makes for the downfall of blasphemy against the word (Ibid., Heresy 69, Against the Arian Nuts, 39,5, p. 357).

Lactantius wrote that God, out of condescension, put the divine writings in clear and simple language so that all could understand them:

For this is especially the cause why, with the wise and the learned, and the princes of this world, the sacred Scriptures are without credit, because the prophets spoke in common and simple language, as though they spoke to the people. And therefore they are despised by those who are willing to hear or read nothing except that which is polished and eloquent; nor is anything able to remain fixed in their minds, except that which charms their ears by a more soothing sound. But those things which appear humble are considered anile, foolish, and common. So entirely do they regard nothing as true, except that which is pleasant to the ear; nothing as credible, except that which can excite pleasure: no one estimates a subject by its truth, but by its embellishment. Therefore they do not believe the sacred writings, because they are without any pretence; but they do not even believe those who explain them, because they also are either altogether ignorant, or at any rate possessed of little learning (ANF,: Vol. 7, Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, Book V, Chapter I).

For, being accustomed to sweet and polished speeches or poems, they despise the simple and common language of the sacred writings as mean. For they seek that which may soothe the senses. But whatever is pleasant to the ear effects persuasion, and while it delights fixes itself deeply within the breast. Is God, therefore, the contriver both of the mind, and of the voice, and of the tongue, unable to speak eloquently? Yea, rather, with the greatest foresight, He wished those things which are divine to be without adornment, that all might understand the things which He Himself spoke to all (Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume VII, The Divine Institutes, Book VI Of True Worship, Chapter 21 Of the Pleasures of the Ears, And of Sacred Literature).

A similar sentiment was expressed by Isidore of Pelusium (fl. A.D. 412) who taught that God condescended to express the truth of Scripture in simple language so that both the learned and unlearned might understand  and learn it:

If God had had respect only to his own dignity, and not the profit of the reader, he would have used heavenly and divine words and examples. But since he was legislating for men that are weak and in need of human words (for thus they were able easily to understand things above them), he expressed his divine doctrines in common words, to the intent that even a woman and a child, and the most ignorant of all men, might obtain some profit even from the very hearing. For, the word having a consideration for the salvation of the multitude, and even rustics, is expressed with so much clearness through the philanthropy of the legislator, as to deprive no one of the benefit proportioned to his powers; nor hath it neglected the wiser of mankind; for in this so great clearness, such unutterable words dwell like treasures, that even the wisest and most learned of men are lost in the profundity of the thoughts, and often confess themselves overcome by the incomprehensibility of the wisdom (Epistolarium Lib. II, Epist. 5, PG 78:461.Cited and translated by William Goode, Vol. 3, p. 284).

If the truth be joined to eloquent language, it is able to profit the educated, but to all others it will be of no use or advantage. Wherefore the Scripture hath declared the truth in simple language, that both the unlearned and the wise, and even children and women, might learn it. For by this the wise are in no respect injured; but by the other [i.e. Scripture being indited in superior language] the greater part of the world would have been injured; and if it behoved it to consider the few, it more especially behoved it to consider the many; and since it has considered all, it is clearly shown to be divine and heavenly (Epistolarium Lib. IV, Epist. 67,PG 78:461.Cited and translated by William Goode, Vol. 3, p. 284.

He also wrote that obscure passages of Scripture could be understood in light of those that are plain: 

If all things were plain, where should we make use of our understanding, there not being any investigation to make? But if all things were obscure, thus also we should fall, there being no discovery of the truth. But now, through those parts that are plain, those that are obscure are in a manner understood (Epistolarium Lib. IV, Epist. 82, PG 78:1144–1145.Cited and translated by William Goode, Vol. 3, p. 285).

While holding to belief in the perspicuity of Scripture, the fathers insisted that perspicuity was grounded on certain unalterable principles, certain basic laws or rules of interpretation. Prestige has noted:

It was firmly insisted that although the tradition was enshrined in the Bible, a process of interpretation was required in order to extract it. Appeal was made, not to the Bible simply, but to the Bible rightly and rationally interpreted…From the time that the New Testament substantially was compiled and accepted, it came inevitable to be considered the depository of apostolic authority. Then questions began to arise in turn about its proper meaning, as they had previously arisen about the interpretation of the Old Testament, and a practical basis of authority was worked out. The old idea was reasserted that the faith rests on the divine tradition; the substance of that tradition was found in the Scriptures; and it was recognized that principles of Biblical interpretation were required. The voice of the Bible could be plainly heard only if its text were interpreted broadly and rationally, in accordance with the apostolic creed and the evidence of the historical practice of Christendom. It was the heretics that relied most on isolated texts, and the Catholics who paid more attention on the whole to scriptural principles (G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics London: SPCK, 1958), pp. 14, 21).

It is clear from Church history that Scripture can easily be misinterpreted even in the essential truths of salvation. The fathers were quick to point out that the plain teaching of Scripture was distorted when one or more of the fundamental principles of interpretation was violated. The result was that while professing to adhere to Scripture, they actually distorted its meaning. The particular principles most emphasized by the fathers are of two fundamental categories—the technical and the moral. The principles that relate to the technical category are: 1) the scope of Scripture, 2) the rule of faith, 3) Scripture interprets Scripture, and 4) Scripture communicates its own meaning. In the moral category the fathers listed: the need for diligent study, a holy life and prayer.

4) The Principle of Context: The Scope of Scripture

One of the most important principles used by the fathers for proper interpretation was that of context. A consistent criticism by the early fathers with respect to the heretics (Gnostics, Arians, Pelagians etc.), was that they  isolated individual passages of Scripture from the immediate and broader context of the entirety of Scripture. The result being that a meaning was given individual passages that was antithetical to the meaning of Scripture as a whole. Rather than allowing Scripture to determine the content of their teaching, they twisted Scripture to conform to their own preconceived theology. Thus, they used Scripture to promote teachings that were actually contrary to Scripture. 

One of the clearest expressions of this principle is found in the writings of Athanasius. A consistent theme of his exegesis is what he referred to as the ‘scope’ of Scripture. He stated repeatedly that the Arians erred in their understanding and interpretation of Scripture because they failed to interpret individual passages in light of its overall scope:

Now the scope and character of Holy Scripture, as we have often said, is this, — it contains a double account of the Saviour; that He was ever God, and is the Son, being the Father’s Word and Radiance and Wisdom; and that afterwards for us He took flesh of a Virgin, Mary Bearer of God, and was made man. And this scope is to be found throughout inspired Scripture, as the Lord Himself has said, ‘Search the Scriptures, for they are they which testify of Me’ (NPNF2I, Vol. 4, Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse III Chapter XXVI, Section 15).

…But as they plead the passage in Proverbs, ‘The Lord created me, a beginning of his ways, for his works’, adding, ‘See, “He created”! He is a creature!’: we must show from this passage too how greatly they err, not realizing the scope of divine Scripture (The Letters of Saint Athanasius, Concerning the Holy Spirit, C.R.B. Shapland, Translator (New York: Philosophical Library, 1951), Epistle I, To Serapion, p. 162).

By scope, Athanasius meant the general drift of the teaching of Scripture as a whole regarding a particular doctrine, such as the persons of Christ and the Holy Spirit. He spoke in general terms about the doctrine of Christ, for example, and then illustrated what he meant by the scope of Scripture by documenting his teaching from passages from both the Old and New Testaments. T.E. Pollard comments:

By appealing to this scope, Athanasius is simply asserting the principle that Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture, the part in light of the whole…When he appeals to the scope of Scripture, Athanasius is appealing to the witness of Scripture as a whole over against what might be deduced from any single isolated passage or verse (T.E. Pollard, The Exegesis of Scripture and the Arian Controversy, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 41, 1959, p. 424. Cited by R.P.C. Hanson, Tradition in the Early Church (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), p. 180.

Hanson, in referring to Pollard’s article, points out that this is the same principle referred to by Irenaeus and Tertullian, and which was appealed to and insisted upon by the Reformers under the heading of the ‘analogy of faith’:

Athanasius’ appeal to the scope (skopoV) of Scripture…is a concept like Irenaeus’ ‘main body of truth’, the ‘purport’ (ratio) of Scripture in Tertullian and the ‘analogy of faith’ among the sixteenth–century Reformers (Ibid., p. 180).

As Pollard noted, this principle of scope or context was a general principle applied by the fathers to the exegesis of Scripture. We have seen it applied by Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Augustine and Athansius. Clement of Alexandria also criticized the heretics of his day for violating this principle, accusing them of consistently misusing Scripture by isolating texts and not interpreting them in light of the whole of Scripture. As he put it they did not use all the Scriptures. In other words they did not interpret particular passages of Scripture by its scope:

And if those also who follow heresies venture to avail themselves of the prophetic Scriptures; in the first place they will not make use of all the Scriptures, and then they will not quote them entire, nor as the body and texture of prophecy prescribe. But, selecting ambiguous expressions, they wrest them to their own opinions, gathering a few expressions here and there; not looking to the sense, but making use of the mere words. For in almost all the quotations they make, you will find that they attend to the names alone, while they alter the meanings; neither knowing, as they affirm, nor using the quotations they adduce, according to their true nature (ANF,Vol. 2, Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book VII, Chapter 16).

Other fathers who expressed similar sentiments were:

Irenaeus

Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions (ANF,Vol.1, Irenaeus, Against Heresies I:8:1).

Tertullian

But I must take some further pains to rebut their arguments, when they make selections from the Scriptures in support of their opinion, and refuse to consider the other points, which obviously maintain the rule of faith without any infraction of the unity of the Godhead, and with the full admission of the Monarchy. For as in the Old Testament Scriptures they lay hold of nothing else than, ‘I am God, and beside me there is no God;’ so in the Gospel they simply keep in view the Lord’s answer to Philip, ‘I and my Father are one;’ and, ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me.’ They would have the entire revelation of both Testaments yield to these three passages, whereas the only proper course is to understand the few statements in the light of the many. But in their contention they only act on the principle of all heretics. For, inasmuch as only a few testimonies are to be found (making for them) in the general mass, they pertinaciously set off the few against the many, and assume the later against the earlier. The rule, however, which has been from the beginning established for every case, gives its prescription against the later assumptions, as indeed it also does against the fewer (ANF, Vol. 3, Tertullian,  Against Praxeas, Chapter 20).

Hippolytus

And these words he cites without understanding what precedes them. For whenever they wish to attempt anything underhand, they mutilate the Scriptures. But let him quote the passage as a whole, and he will discover the reason kept in view in writing it (ANF, Vol. 3,Hippolytus, Against the Heresy of One Noetus, sec. 4).

Augustine

When bad members of the clergy hear this that is said against them in this text, they try to twist the meaning. Yes, I’ve actually heard some of them trying to twist the meaning of this judgment. If they were allowed to, wouldn’t they simply delete it from the gospel? But because they can’t delete it, they look for ways of twisting its meaning. But the grace and mercy of the Lord is at hand, and he doesn’t let them do so, because he has hedged all his judgments round with his truth, and balanced them. Thus no matter who tries to cut something out or to tamper with it by reading or interpreting it wrongly, the person of sound and solid sense should join to scripture what has been cut out of scripture, and read what goes before or comes after, and they will find the true meaning which the others tried to explain away wrongly (The Works of Saint Augustine, John  E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., trans. Edmund Hill, O.P., (Brooklyn: New City, 1992), Part 3, Vol. 4, Sermons, Sermon 137.7, p. 376).

Hilary of Poitiers 

All these passages they neither understand rationally, nor distinguish as to their occasions, nor apprehend in the light of the Gospel mysteries, nor realize in the strict meaning of the words and so they impugn the divine nature of Christ with crude and insensate rashness, quoting single detached utterances to catch the ears of the unwary, and keeping back either the sequel which explains or the incidents which prompted them, though the meaning of words must be sought in the context before or after them (NPNF2, Vol. 9, Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book IX, Section 2).

These are representative of the fathers as a whole.

Closely related to the principle of context is the rule of faith. As mentioned previously, the fathers consistently referred to it as the standard or criterion by which Scripture must be interpreted. When teaching that Scripture must be interpreted in accordance with the tradition of the Church this was generally that to which they referred. They considered the doctrines of the rule to be a summation of the most important truths that expressed the scope of Scripture. Athanasius explains:

Now what has been briefly said above may suffice to shew their misunderstanding of the passages they then alleged; and that of what they now allege from the Gospels they certainly give an unsound interpretation, we may easily see, if we now consider the scope of that faith which we Christians hold, and using it as a rule, apply ourselves, as the Apostle teaches, to the reading of inspired Scripture. For Christ’s enemies, being ignorant of this scope, have wandered from the way of truth, and have stumbled on a stone of stumbling, thinking otherwise than they should think (NPNF2, Vol. 4, Athanasius, Four Discourses Against the Arians, Discourse III, Chapter XXVI, Section 15).

 This view was also held by John Cassian:

For, as you know, a Creed (Symbolum) gets its name from being a ‘collection.’ For what is called in Greek ouvmbolo~ is termed in Latin ‘Collatio.’ But it is therefore a collection (collatio) because when the faith of the whole Catholic law was collected together by the apostles of the Lord, all those matters which are spread over the whole body of the sacred writings with immense fullness of detail, were collected together in sum in the matchless brevity of the Creed, according to the Apostle’s words: ‘Completing His word, and cutting it short in righteousness: because a short word shall the Lord make upon the earth.’ This then is the ‘short word’ which the Lord made, collecting together in few words the faith of both of His Testaments, and including in a few brief clauses the drift of all the Scriptures, building up His own out of His own, and giving the force of the whole law in a most compendious and brief formula. Providing in this, like a most tender father, for the carelessness and ignorance of some of his children, that no mind however simple and ignorant might have any trouble over what could so easily be retained in the memory (Ibid., Vol. 11, John Cassian, On the Incarnation of Christ Against Nestorius, Book 6, Chapter 3).

The rule was not an interpretive grid imposed on Scripture from without by the authority of the Church but a summation of the major truths extracted from Scripture itself to capsulize the faith of the Church. It was to be used as a general guide to truth to protect the interpreter from imposing his own rationalizations and opinions on the text of Scripture.

5) Scripture Interprets Scripture

In teaching the principle of context, the fathers were implicitly laying down the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. Though they approached Scripture with differing methodologies, they all held to this fundamental principle. Irenaeus, for example, commented:

If, therefore, according to the rule which I have stated, we leave some questions in the hands of God, we shall both preserve our faith uninjured, and shall continue without danger; and all Scripture, which has been given to us by God, shall be found by us perfectly consistent; and the parables shall harmonize with those passages which are perfectly plain; and those statements the meaning of which is clear, shall serve to explain the parables; and through the many diversified utterances [of Scripture] there shall be heard one harmonious melody in us, praising in hymns that God who created all things (ANF, Vol. 1, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II:28:3).

Clement of Alexandria wrote that the proper meaning of Scripture was established by interpreting individual passages in confirmation of the rest of Scripture:

We also, giving a complete exhibition of the Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves, from faith persuade by demonstration…and in establishing each one of the points demonstrated in the Scriptures again from similar Scriptures (ANF, Vol. 2, Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book VII, Chapter 16).

John Chrysostom instructed that Scripture interprets itself, even its own allegories and metaphors:

For every where when he has said any thing obscure, he interprets himself again. So he has done here also, giving a clear interpretation of this which I have cited (NPNF1,Vol. 12, Chrysostom, Homilies on Second Corinthians, Homily 9.

Let us follow the direction of Sacred Scripture in the interpretation it gives of itself (FC, Vol. 74, Homilies on Genesis 1-17, 13.8 p. 172).

Do you see how Scripture interprets itself (St. John Chrysostom: Commentary on the Psalms (Brookline: Holy Cross, 1998), Vol. 1, Psalm 45,p. 268.

We ourselves are not the lords over the rules of interpretation, but must pursue Scripture’s understanding of itself, and in that way make use of the allegorical method…The Scripture interprets itself…This is everywhere a rule in Scripture: when it wants to allegorize, it tells the interpretation of the allegory…(Duane A. Garrett, An Analysis of the Hermeneutics of John Chrysostom’s Commentary on Isaiah 1-8 (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen  1992), Isaiah Chapter 5, pp. 110-111.

For Scripture everywhere gives the interpretation of its metaphors, just as it has done here. Having spoken of a river, it did not stick to the metaphor, but told us what it means by river: ‘The king of Assyria, and all his glory’ (Ibid., Isaiah Chapter 8, p. 161).

Robert Charles Hill writes of Chrysostom’s approach:

‘He is a great believer in his principle “Scripture interprets itself’ (Robert Charles Hill, St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Psalms (Brookline: Holy Cross, 1988), Volume I, p. 30).

Duane Garrett also confirms this in Chrysostom’s exegesis:

‘His basic principle of hermeneutics is that Scripture interprets Scripture’ (Duane A. Garrett, An Analysis of the Hermeneutics of John Chrysostom’s Commentary on Isaiah 1-8 (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen  1992), Isaiah Chapter 5, p. 203).

Augustine likewise exhorted:

Our thoughts, my dearest brothers and sisters, in reflecting on and discussing the holy scriptures must be guided by the indisputable authority of the same scriptures, so that we may deal faithfully both with what is said clearly for the purpose of giving us spiritual nourishment, and what is said obscurely in order to give us spiritual exercise. Who, after all, would dare to expound the divine mysteries otherwise than has been practiced and prescribed by the mind and mouth of an apostle? (The Works of Saint Augustine, John  E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., trans. Edmund Hill, O.P. (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1995), Part 3, Vol. 10, Sermons, Sermon 363.1, p. 270).

All throughout their writings, the fathers furnish abundant examples of the application of Scripture interpreting Scripture.

6) Scripture Declares Its Own Meaning

Implicit in the fathers’ belief that Scripture interprets Scripture was the conviction that the interpreter was to seek the meaning of Scripture from Scripture itself. This guarded against an individual imposing on Scripture a preconceived theology. Hilary of Poitiers testified to this when he wrote:

For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages. Since then we are to discourse of the things of God, let us assume that God has full knowledge of Himself, and bow with humble reverence to His words. For He Whom we can only know through His own utterances is the fitting witness concerning Himself  (NPNF2, Vol. 9, Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book I, Section 18).

And it is obvious that these dissensions concerning the faith result from a distorted mind, which twists the words of Scripture into conformity with its opinion, instead of adjusting that opinion to the words of Scripture (Ibid., On the Trinity, Book VII, Section 4)…

And therefore let us, in the next place, seek out the true meaning of the instruction given us here. For it is not by cleaving to a preconceived opinion, but by studying the force of the words, that we shall enter into possession of this faith (Ibid., On the Trinity, Book VII, Section 33)

Scripture carries its own inherent meaning from which the interpreter must form his convictions. The constant criticism of the heretics by the fathers was that they twisted Scripture to make it conform to their own opinions, refusing to interpret it in its overall context and allowing Scripture to dictate what they believed. Consequently, they were guilty of using Scripture to promote teachings that actually undermined Scripture.

Irenaeus: Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions (ANF,Vol. I, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book I:8:1).

Clement of Alexandria: For those are slothful who, having it in their power to provide themselves with proper proofs for the divine Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves, select only what contributes to their own pleasures. And those have a craving for glory who voluntarily evade, by arguments of a diverse sort, the things delivered by the blessed apostles and teachers, which are wedded to inspired words; opposing the divine tradition by human teachings, in order to establish the heresy (Ibid., Vol. 2, Clement of Alexandria,The Stromata, Book VII, Chapter 16).

John Chrysostom: But this comes to pass, when any hold fast their own prejudices contrary to what is approved by the Scriptures (NPNF1, Vol. 10, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, Homily 86, Section 4).

Athanasius: Thus each of these heresies, in respect of the peculiar impiety of its invention, has nothing in common with the Scriptures. And their advocates are aware of this, that the Scriptures are very much, or rather altogether, opposed to the doctrines of every one of them; but for the sake of deceiving the more simple sort (such as are those of whom it is written in the Proverbs, ‘The simple believeth every word ),’ they pretend like their ‘father the devil ‘ to study and to quote the language of Scripture, in order that they may appear by their words to have a right belief, and so may persuade their wretched followers to believe what is contrary to the Scriptures (NPNF2, Vol. 4, Athanasius, To the Bishops of Egypt, Chapter I, Section 4).

For being forced from the conceptions or rather misconceptions of their own hearts, they fall back upon passages of divine Scripture, and here too from want of understanding, according to their wont, they discern not their meaning; but laying down their own irreligion as a sort of canon of interpretation, they wrest the whole of the divine oracles into accordance with it (Ibid., Four Discourses Against the Arians,  Discourse I, Chapter XII, Section 52).

The heretics, on their part, charged the fathers with violating their own principles because they used philosophical, non–biblical terms such as ousia and homoousios to explain the meaning of Scripture. They demanded that the fathers repudiate non–Scriptural language and use the language of Scripture alone. The fathers refused to comply, arguing that the use of non–biblical terms was not a violation of their principles of interpretation. They reasoned that though the terms themselves were not explicitly found in Scripture, they nevertheless conveyed its true meaning. Athanasius, for example, stated that the fathers at Nicaea were justified in their use of the term unoriginate because they followed the sense of Scripture: 

But perhaps being refuted as touching the term Unoriginate also, they will say according to their evil nature, ‘It behoved, as regards our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ also, to state from the Scriptures what is there written of Him, and not to introduce non-scriptural expressions.’ Yes, it behoved, say I too; for the tokens of truth are more exact as drawn from Scripture, than from other sources; but the ill disposition and the versatile and crafty irreligion of Eusebius and his fellows, compelled the Bishops, as I said before, to publish more distinctly the terms which overthrew their irreligion; and what the Council did write has already been shewn to have an orthodox sense…(Ibid., De Decretis or Defense of the Nicene Definition, Chapter VII).

In his work, De Trinitate, Hilary of Poitiers supported the use of the term homoousios, claiming that it could be defended by the teaching of Scripture while the Arian demand for exclusion of non–biblical terms was simply a ploy to cover an interpretation that perverted the true meaning of Scripture:

To assure ourselves of the needfulness of these two phrases, adopted and employed as the best of safeguards against the heretical rabble of that day, I think it best to reply to the obstinate misbelief of our present heretics, and refute their vain and pestilent teaching by the witness of the evangelists and apostles. They flatter themselves that they can furnish a proof for each of their propositions; they have, in fact, appended to each some passages or other from holy Writ; passages so grossly misinterpreted as to ensnare none but the illiterate by the semblance of truth with which perverted ingenuity has masked their explanation (NPNF2, Vol. 9, Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book IV.7).

A point that needs to be made here regarding the faith of the early Church and the use of nonbiblical terms is that it was not necessary to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity and Christ in technical, philosophical language in order to be orthodox. The fathers all acknowledged that in using such terms as homousios they were only expressing what Christians had always believed about the person of Christ. A polemical work written by the pagan philosopher, Celsus, in the late second century titled The True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians, underscores this fact. He stated unambiguously that Christians believed Christ to be God and worshipped him as such:

Now, if the Christians worshiped only one God they might have reason on their side. But as a matter of fact they worship a man who appeared only recently. They do not consider what they are doing a breach of monotheism; rather, they think it perfectly consistent to worship the great God and to worship his servant as God. And their worship of this Jesus is the more outrageous because they refuse to listen to any talk about God, the father of all, unless it includes some reference to Jesus: Tell them that Jesus, the author of the Christian insurrection, was not his son, and they will not listen to you. And when they call him Son of God, they are not really paying homage to God, rather, they are attempting to exalt Jesus to the heights (Celsus, On the True Doctrine: A Discourse Against the Christians, R. Joseph Hoffmann, Translator (Oxford: Oxford University, 1987), p. 116).

Roger Olson remarks on the significance of Celsus’ work:

Celsus’s attack on Christianity offers a wealth of information about second–century Christian life and belief. In spite of obvious distortions and misrepresentations, On the True Doctrine helps church historians understand what Christians believed and how that was seen by non–Christians. For example, Celsus made absolutely clear that Christians of his time believed in and worshiped Jesus Christ—a man—as God (Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), p. 34).

This pagan philosopher witnessed to the faith of the early Church. The average Christian could not have articulated his faith in precise philosophical terminology that became commonplace two centuries after Celsus but he understood clearly who Jesus was.

7) Need For Diligent Study, a Holy Life and Prayer

In addition to strict adherence to general technical principles of interpretation, the fathers also taught that there was an important moral component involved in being able to understand and properly interpret Scripture. Many of the fathers exhorted the members of their congregations to give themselves to the reading and diligent study of the word of God if they would truly understand it. One of the most notable examples of this, as we have seen, was John Chrysostom: 

Beloved, we need much care, much watchfulness, to be able to look into the depth of the Divine Scriptures. For it is not possible to discover their meaning in a careless way, or while we are asleep, but there needs close search, and there needs earnest prayer, that we may be enabled to see some little way into the secrets of the divine oracles (NPNF1, Vol. 14, Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Homily 21, John 1:49-50).

Although I am always telling you this both in private and in public, I effect nothing, but see you all your time nailed to the things of this life, and not so much as dreaming of spiritual matters. Therefore our lives are careless, and we who strive for truth have but little power, and are become a laughing stock to Greeks and Jews and Heretics. Had ye been careless in other matters, and exhibited in this place the same indifference as elsewhere, not even so could your doings have been defended; but now in matters of this life, every one of you, artisan and politician alike, is keener than a sword, while in necessary and spiritual things we are duller than any; making by-work business, and not deeming that which we ought to have esteemed more pressing than any business, to be by-work even. Know ye not that the Scriptures were written not for the first of mankind alone, but for our sakes also? (Ibid., Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Homily 30, John 3:31).

The Lord, the fathers admonished, would not bless slothfulness. The blessings of scriptural knowledge could be attained only by those who earnestly sought it through the hard work of study and meditation. But diligent study was not enough. The fathers also taught the necessity for a holy, pious, obedient and prayerful life if one was to receive the illumination of the Holy Spirit and properly understand Scripture.

John Cassian offered this description of the capacity of an individual to understand the essential truths of Scripture by the direct ministry of the Holy Spirit, if one gave himself to a the diligent application of a holy life:

We knew also Abbot Theodore, a man gifted with the utmost holiness and with perfect knowledge not only in practical life, but also in understanding the Scriptures, which he had not acquired so much by study and reading, or worldly education, as by purity of heart alone: since he could with difficulty understand and speak but a very few words of the Greek language. This man when he was seeking an explanation of some most difficult question, continued without ceasing for seven days and nights in prayer until he discovered by a revelation from the Lord the solution of the question propounded…
    This man therefore, when some of the brethren were wondering at the splendid light of his knowledge and were asking of him some meanings of Scripture, said that a monk who wanted to acquire a knowledge of the Scriptures ought not to spend his labor on the works of commentators, but rather to keep all the efforts of his mind and intentions of his heart set on purifying himself from carnal vices: for when these are driven out, at once the eyes of the heart, as if the veil of the passions were removed, will begin as it were naturally to gaze on the mysteries of Scripture: since they were not declared to us by the grace of the Holy Spirit in order that they should remain unknown and obscure; but they are rendered obscure by our fault, as the veil of our sins covers the eyes of the heart, and when these are restored to their natural state of health, the mere reading of Holy Scripture is by itself amply sufficient for beholding the true knowledge, nor do they need the aid of commentators, just as these eyes of flesh need no man’s teaching how to see, provided that they are free from dimness or the darkness of blindness.
    For this reason there have arisen so great differences and mistakes among commentators because most of them, paying no sort of attention towards purifying the mind, rush into the work of interpreting the Scriptures, and in proportion to the density or impurity of their heart form opinions that are at variance with and contrary to each other’s and to the faith, and so are unable to take in the light of truth (NPNF2, Vol. 11, John Cassian, Institutes of The Coenobia, 5:33-34. PL 49:250–254.

Other examples of those who taught this same principle are Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine and John Chrysostom:

Athanasius: But for the searching or the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honorable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modeling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. For just as, if a man wished to see the light of the sun, he would at any rate wipe and brighten his eye, purifying himself in some sort like what he desires, so that the eye, thus becoming light, may see the light of the sun; or as, if a man would see a city or country, he at any rate comes to the place to see it; — thus he that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God, and thenceforth, as closely knit to them, may escape the peril of the sinners and their fire at the day of judgment, and receive what is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven, which ‘Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man,’ whatsoever things are prepared for them that live a virtuous life, and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord: through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honor and might and glory for ever and ever (NPNF2,Vol. 4, Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word 57).

Hilary of Poitiers: And therefore we look to Thy support for the first trembling steps of this undertaking, to Thy aid that it may gain strength and prosper. We look to Thee to give us the fellowship of that Spirit Who guided the Prophets and the Apostles, that we may take their words in the sense in which they spoke and assign its right shade of meaning to every utterance (NPNF2, Vol. 9, Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book I, Section 38).

Augustine: In order fully to understand it, though, knock at his (God’s) door (The Works of Saint Augustine, Newly Discovered Sermons, John  E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., trans. Edmund Hill, O.P., (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1997), Part 3, Vol. 11, Sermon 341.8,p. 289).

John Chrysostom: If you accustom yourselves to pray fervently, you will not need instruction from your fellow servants because God himself, with no intermediary, enlightens you mind (FC, Vol. 72, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, Homily 3.35, pp. 111).

The Fathers, Councils and Scripture Interpretation

Some have suggested that the fathers of the early Church were not exegetes of Scripture in the primary sense, but in the major theological controversies they merely looked to ‘the Church’ and her authoritative tradition. One historian has written:

The history of the Council of Nice has been so often written by so many brilliant historians, from the time of its sitting down to to–day, that any historical notice of the causes leading to its assembling, or account of its proceedings, seems quite unnecessary. The editor, however, ventures to call the attention of the reader to the fact that in this, as in every other of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the question the Fathers considered was not what they supposed Holy Scripture might mean, nor what they, from a priori arguments, thought would be consistent with the mind of God, but something entirely different, to wit, what they had received. They understood their position to be that of witnesses, not that of exegetes. They recognized but one duty resting upon them in this respect—to hand down to other faithful men that good thing the Church had received according to the command  of God. The first requirement was not learning, but honesty. The question they were called upon to answer was not, What do I think probable, or even certain, from Holy Scripture? but, What have I been taught, what has been entrusted to me to hand down to others? When the time came, in the Fourth Council, to examine the Tome of Pope St. Leo, the question was not whether it could be proved to the satisfaction of the assembled fathers from Holy Scripture, but whether it was the traditional faith of the Church. It was not the doctrine of Leo in the fifth century, but the doctrine of Peter in the first, and of the Church since then, that they desired to believe and to teach, and so, when they studied the Tome, they cried out: “This is the faith of the Fathers! This is the faith of the Apostles!...Peter hath thus spoken by Leo! The Apostles thus taught! Cyril thus taught!” etc. (NPNF2, Vol. 14, The Seven Ecumenical Councils, The First Ecumenical Council, The ouncil of Nice, Historical Introduction).

These statements do not truly represent the Councils or the fathers, and especially not the Council of Nicaea. Although the fathers looked to the rule of faith as the supreme expression of the Church’s tradition, it is a misrepresentation to say they were not exegetes of Scripture or that the Councils did not engage in exegesis. Quite the contrary, the fathers defended the rule of faith by the exegesis of Scripture in order to demonstrate that the rule was not a set of doctrines handed down through the Church independent of Scripture but was thoroughly grounded in Scripture. Of course they were concerned with handing down what they knew the Church had always believed, but were equally concerned with proving that what the Church had always believed could be verified from Scripture.

Roman apologists are fond of arguing that the fathers looked to the Church as the ultimate authority in theological conflicts, but just what constituted ‘the Church’ is never defined. For example, what ‘Church’ did the bishops at Nicaea look to for guidance? The fact is, the bishops at Nicaea were the Church. There was no higher body and once they decreed the true doctrine of Christ, they became the standard that later fathers looked to and called ‘the Church.’ To say that the fathers at Nicaea were not exegetes of Scripture and were not primarily concerned to defend the faith by Scripture is simply contrary to the truth. Athanasius was present at the Council and he testified that the Nicene bishops rejected the teaching of Arius on the basis of Scripture and defended the doctrine of Christ by an appeal to Scripture:

This enables us to see, brethren, that they of Nicaea breathe the spirit of Scripture, in that God says in Exodus, ‘I am that I am,’ and through Jeremiah, ‘Who is in His substance and hath seen His word;’ and just below, ‘if they had stood in My subsistence and heard My words:’ now subsistence is essence, and means nothing else but very being, which Jeremiah calls existence, in the words, ‘and they heard not the voice of existence.’…And again the fathers taught at Nicaea that the Son and Word is not a creature, nor made having read ‘all things were made through Him,’ and ‘in Him were all things created, and consist;’ while these men, Arians rather than Christians, in their other synods have ventured to call Him a creature, and one of the things that are made, things of which He Himself is the Artificer and Maker. For if ‘through Him all things were made’ and He too is a creature, He would be the creator of Himself. And how can what is being created create? or He that is creating be created?…
    For the assembled bishops wished to put away the impious phrases devised by the Arians, namely ‘made of nothing,’ and that the Son was ‘a thing made,’ and a ‘creature,’ and that ‘there was a time when He was not,’ and that ‘He is of mutable nature.’ And they wished to set down ‘in writing the acknowledged language of Scripture, namely that the Word is of God by nature Only-begotten, Power, Wisdom of the Father, Very God, as John says, and as Paul wrote, brightness of the Father’s glory and express image of His person…Such was the corrupt mind of the Arians. But here too the Bishops, beholding their craftiness, collected from the Scriptures the figures of brightness, of the river and the well, and of the relation of the express Image to the Subsistence, and the texts, ‘in thy light shall we see light,’ and ‘I and the Father are one.’ And lastly they wrote more plainly, and concisely, that the Son was coessential with the Father; for all the above passages signify this. And their murmuring, that the phrases are unscriptural, is exposed as vain by themselves, for they have uttered their impieties in unscriptural terms: (for such are ‘of nothing’ and ‘there was a time when He was not’), while yet they find fault because they were condemned by unscriptural terms pious in meaning (NPNF2, Vol. 4, Athanasius,To the Bishops of Africa 4–6).

Athanasius also indicated that the fathers at Nicaea, in answer to the charge of novelty, defended their use of unscriptural terms by an appeal to tradition. In other words, they appealed to the authority of fathers who had preceded them:

While they, like men sprung from a dunghill, verily ‘spoke of the earth,’ the Bishops, not having invented their phrases for themselves, but having testimony from their Fathers, wrote as they did. For ancient bishops, of the Great Rome and of our city, some 130 years ago, wrote and censured those who said that the Son was a creature and not coessential with the Father. And Eusebius knew this, who was bishop of Caesarea, and at first an accomplice of the Arian heresy; but afterwards, having signed at the Council of Nicaea, wrote to his own people affirming as follows: ‘we know that certain eloquent and distinguished bishops and writers even of ancient date used the word ‘coessential’ with reference to the Godhead of the Father and the Son.’…
    This then the Fathers perceived when they wrote that the Son was coessential with the Father, and anathematized those who say that the Son is of a different Subsistence: not inventing phrases for themselves, but learning in their turn, as we said, from the Fathers who had been before them. But after the above proof, their Ariminian Synod is superfluous, as well as any other synod cited by them as touching the Faith. For that of Nicaea is sufficient, agreeing as it does with the ancient bishops also, in which too their fathers signed, whom they ought to respect, on pain of being thought anything but Christians (Ibid., To the Bishops of Africa 6, 9).

Who were these fathers that the Council of Nicaea looked to as authorities with respect to the terminology they used? As was mentioned in chapter one, Athanasius made mention of four in particular: Dionysius of Alexandria, Dionysius of Rome, Origen and Theognostus, head of the catechetical school at Alexandria at the end of the third century:

This then is the sense in which they who met at Nicaea made use of these expressions. But next that they did not invent them for themselves (since this is one of their excuses), but spoke what they had received from their predecessors, proceed we to prove this also, to cut off even this excuse from them. Know then, O Arians, foes of Christ, that Theognostus, a learned man, did not decline the phrase ‘of the essence,’…Next, Dionysius, who was Bishop of Alexandria, upon his writing against Sabellius and expounding at large the Savior’s Economy according to the flesh, and thence proving. against the Sabellians that not the Father but His Word became flesh, as John has said, was suspected of saying that the Son as a thing made and originated, and not one in essence with the Father; on this he writes to his namesake Dionysius, Bishop of Rome, to allege in his defense that this was a slander upon him. And he assured him that he had not called the Son made, nay, did confess Him to be even one in essence…
    And that the Word of God is not a work or creature, but an offspring proper to the Father’s essence and indivisible, as the great Council wrote, here you may see in the words of Dionysius, Bishop of Rome, who, while writing against the Sabellians, thus inveighs against those who dared to say so…And concerning the everlasting co-existence of the Word with the Father, and that He is not of another essence or subsistence, but proper to the Father’s, as the Bishops in the Council said, you may hear again from the labor-loving Origen also (Ibid., De Decretis or Defence of the Nicene Definition, Chapter VI.25, 26, 27).

Tertullian was also influential in this regard. Athanasius informed us that the bishops at Nicaea used the terms they did, not simply because the fathers before them had done so, but because the terms conformed to the meaning of Scripture and could validated from Scripture. These fathers, according to Athanasius, exegeted Scripture to prove their position:

…even if the expressions are not in so many words in the Scriptures, yet, as was said before, they contain the sense of the Scriptures, and expressing it, they convey it to those who have their hearing unimpaired for religious doctrine (Ibid., De Decretis or Defence of the Nicene Doctrine 21).

Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture…And, while the whole assembly was discussing the matter from the Divine Scriptures, these men produced a paper… (Ibid., De Synodis, Part I, Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia 6, 8).

Athanasius continues, writing that proof for the Nicene doctrine was not from some external source such as the Church but from the Scriptures. Thus, the Church’s authority is contingent upon her adherence to the truth of Scripture:

For the Son of God, as may be learnt from the divine oracles themselves, is Himself the Word of God, and the Wisdom, and the Image, and the Hand, and the Power… Doubtless the things, which came to be through the Word, these are ‘founded in Wisdom’ and what are ‘founded in Wisdom,’ these are all made by the Hand, and came to be through the Son. And we have proof of this, not from external sources, but from the Scriptures…(Ibid., De Decretis or Defence of the Nicene Doctrine, Chapter 4.17).

It is significant that when Athanasius wrote his Defense of the Nicene Council (De Decritis), he did not merely point to the authority of the Church and say in effect, ‘This is tradition, we need no other defense.’ He constantly appealed to Scripture as the ultimate justification for the teaching of Nicaea:

But let us, as it is written, ‘put on the words of holy Scripture,’… let the word of Truth be preferred before all things (Ibid., To the Bishops of Egypt, Chapter II.23).

In his defense of the Council, Athanasius began by summarizing the teaching of the Arians, then systematically refuted them by a detailed exegesis of Scripture. He stated that the fathers rejected it because it was contrary to Scripture:

But if He be styled the Word and the Wisdom by a fiction on our account, what He really is they cannot tell. For if the Scriptures affirm that the Lord is both these, and yet these men will not allow Him to be so, it is plain that in their godless opposition to the Scriptures they would deny His existence altogether. The faithful are able to conclude this truth both from the voice of the Father Himself, and from the Angels that worshipped Him, and from the Saints that have written concerning Him; but these men, as they have not a pure mind, and cannot bear to hear the words of divine men who teach of God, may be able to learn something even from the devils who resemble them, for they spoke of Him, not as if there were many besides, but, as knowing Him alone, they said, ‘Thou art the Holy One of God,’ and ‘the Son of Gods.’ He also who suggested to them this heresy, while tempting Him, in the mount, said not, ‘If Thou also be a Son of God,’ as though there were others besides Him, but, ‘If Thou be the Son of God,’ as being the only one.
    But as the Gentiles, having fallen from the notion of one God, have sunk into polytheism, so these wonderful men, not believing that the Word of the Father is one, have come to adopt the idea of many words, and they deny Him that is really God and the true Word, and have dared to conceive of Him as a creature, not perceiving how full of impiety is the thought. For if He be a creature, how is He at the same time the Creator of creatures? or how the Son and the Wisdom and the Word? For the Word is not created, but begotten; and a creature is not a Son, but a production. And if all creatures were made by Him, and He is also a creature, then by whom was He made? Things made must of necessity originate through some one; as in fact they have originated through the Word; because He was not Himself a thing made, but the Word of the Father. And again, if there be another wisdom in the Father beside the Lord, then Wisdom has originated in wisdom: and if the Word of God be the Wisdom of God, then the Word has originated in a word: and if the Son be he Word of God, then the Son must have been made in the Son.
    How is it that the Lord has said, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father in Me,’ if there be another in the Father, by whom the Lord Himself also was made? And how is it that John, passing over that other, relates of this One, saying, ‘All things were made by Him; and without Him was not any thing made?’ If all things that were made by the will of God were made by Him, how can He be Himself one of the things that were made? And when the Apostle says, ‘For whom are all things, and by whom are all things,’ how can these men say, that we were not made for Him, but He for us? If it be so, He ought to have said, ‘For whom the Word was made;’ but He saith not so, but, ‘For whom are all things, and by whom are all things,’ thus proving these men to be heretical and false. But further, as they have had the boldness to say that there is another Word in God, and since they cannot bring any dear proof of this from the Scriptures, let them but shew one work of His, or one work of the Father that was done without this Word; so that they may seem to have some ground at least for their own idea. The works of the true Word are manifest to all, so as for Him to be contemplated by analogy from them.
    For as, when we see the creation, we conceive of God as the Creator of it; so when we see that nothing is without order therein, but that all things move and continue with order and providence, we infer a Word of God who is over all and governs all. This too the holy Scriptures testify, declaring that He is the Word of God, and that ‘all things were made by Him, and without Him was not any thing made.’ But of that other Word, of whom they speak, there is neither word nor work that they have to shew. Nay, even the Father Himself, when He says, ‘This is My beloved Son,’ signifies that besides Him there is none other (Ibid., To the Bishops of Egypt, Chapter II.14-15).

His criticism of the Arians was that their doctrines lacked biblical support and therefore they had no grounds for their teaching:

But further, as they have had the boldness to say that there is another Word in God, and since they cannot bring any clear proof of this from the Scriptures, let them but shew one work of His, or one work of the Father that was done without this Word; so that they may seem to have some ground at least for their own idea (Ibid., To the Bishops of Egypt, Chapter II.14-15).

Thus, the allegation that the fathers were not primarily concerned with ‘what they supposed Holy Scripture might mean’ and that ‘they understood their position to be that of witnesses, not that of exegetes,’ is proven false. Again, the Church’s tradition, in their minds, was authoritative because it reflected the teaching of Scripture. 

It is interesting to note that all of the patristic interpretative principles cited above are those agreed upon and applied by the Reformers during the Reformation. Their approach to Scripture and its interpretation was rooted in patristic principles. Thus, the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura is an affirmation of the explicit teaching of the Church fathers. Roman Catholic apologists, however, object to this assessment. Joe Gallegos writes:

In order for Protestant apologists to prove that the Fathers affirmed sola scriptura (not merely material sufficiency) they must prove that the Fathers affirmed formal sufficiency. That is, they must show that the Fathers required no normative authority (such as Tradition or a teaching Church) in order to interpret the Sacred text in an authoritative and orthodox manner…The Fathers are consistent in their writings that the entire Christian faith is contained within the corpus of Sacred Scripture. The Fathers clearly understood Scripture as materially sufficient. However, these same Fathers write that Scripture must be understood and read within the context of the Church’s Tradition. In other words, the Fathers assumed an authoritative Tradition and Church when they affirmed the sufficiency of Scripture (NBSA, Joe Gallegos, What Did the Church Fathers Teach?, p. 39).

This statement, while true enough regarding the fathers belief in the material sufficiency of Scripture is very misleading with respect to a tradition which could provide an authoritative interpretation of Scripture. Gallegos and other contributors to Not By Scripture Alone would have us believe there existed a monolithic and universally consistent interpretative tradition within the Church that would have applied to the interpretation of Scripture in general. However, there was no authoritative external authority in the Church which determined the meaning of Scripture. As emphasized previously, when the fathers taught that Scripture had to be understood in the context of the Church’s tradition they meant the rule of faith. And the Protestant Church agrees with that rule. Thus, the charge brought against the Protestant Church that conflicting interpretations demonstrates a departure from God’s ordained authority — the Church — is baseless. Varying interpretations do not disqualify one from being a legitimate part of the true Church. This has been the reality throughout her long history and the charge made against the Protestant Church could be made against the patristic age as well.

The Church fathers who interpreted Scripture did so as individual exegetes and often with differing methodologies and contrary results.   They were in agreement on the essential truths of Scripture as summarized by the creed but disagreed on the specific application of interpretation. We have seen that the rule of faith was universal and uniform for the entirety of the Church and that it played the function of an interpretive key for the Church as a whole. But the rule itself was not interpretation, it was the setting forth of the major truths of Scripture that summarized the faith. There was no universal interpretive tradition that could give a uniform and universally consistent meaning to Scripture.

The documentary evidence we have examined confirms the fact that the Church fathers not only believed that Scripture was materially sufficient but that it was also formally sufficient. They believed that all the truths necessary for salvation are contained in Scripture, that these truths are perspicuous, that Scripture is self–interpretive and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, able to be comprehended by the individual without the aid of human mediators in its basic and essential truths. The fathers believed in and actively taught sola Scriptura, in the fullest sense of that term.

The claim is also made that there is a continuity and direct correlation between Rome today and the fathers of the first centuries. As we have seen, upon close examination of the facts, the historical record tells a different story. The Church had authority, in the view of the fathers, because her teaching was true to the apostolic doctrine which could be verified from Scripture. Repeatedly, the fathers rejected any notion that the Church could introduce new doctrines to the rule of faith. Like the heretics of old who used Scripture to promote teachings that invalidated its true meaning, so Rome uses the language of the fathers to justify teachings which have no identification with the rule of faith, the interpretive history of the Church or with Scripture, thereby invalidating the true meaning of the teaching of the fathers. The fathers believed that all doctrines must be validated by the Scriptures. Rome does not.