Saturday, November 03, 2007
Book Review: Ronald E. Heine, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church.
I just finished Ronald Heine's book, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church, this week. Heine's book is part of the Evangelical Resourcement series from Baker Academic. I haven't read the other books, but I intend to hunt them up in the next few months. The series, of course, is part of the growing interest in the Church Fathers by conservative evangelicals which has spawned such projects as the Ancient Christian Commentary series and a multitude of books including the most recent entry from Brazos, Bryan Litfin's, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. .
I am, of course, heavily influenced by some of the big names in the movement, especially Christopher Hall, who really got that ball rolling in the late 90s. The first book on the Fathers I ever read was Hall's book on Reading Scripture through the Fathers, so Heine's subject is familiar. Of course, Heine's interest is more narrowly focused on the Old Testament which presents challenges and issues rather different from those of the patristic treatment of the New Testament. The attempt to read the Old Testament through the eyes of Christ was, of course, one of the major concerns of the Fathers, especially the earliest ones. It is still a task that we continue with, especially in the light of the Holocaust and the reassessment of Christian historical and theological stances to Judaism which followed that horrific event.
Understandably, much of the reaction of contemporary scholars to the patristic treatment of the Old Testament has been to highlight moments of insensitivity or outright anti-Semitism in the Fathers. No one, I think, can deny either of these issues. The stance of the Fathers to Judaism was inherently polemical which made sense because the two had very different readings of the Old Testament which are impossible to reconcile. The result was bitter controversy over readings which, in the style of all intellectual controversy of the day, degenerated quickly into accusations of bad faith and dishonesty on both sides. When the Christian view became backed by the Imperial government (which, in its pagan form, had been hardly pro-Jewish), Judaism began to suffer.
Yet, these same Fathers also establish our reading of the Old Testament in ways that people just don't remember. Heine goes through the way that this reading evolved by looking at the Fathers on such subjects as the Law, Exodus, the Prophets and the Psalms. Each of these presented similar problems because the Christian reading had to be established and defended, sometimes even against the literal sense of the passage. This is where much of the theory about allegory, typology and such like evolved because, otherwise, the Old Testament is a tough sell to Christians. This effort was, of course, started off by Jesus Himself in His explications of various texts as referring to His own coming. The Fathers, however, spend a lot of time working out how the re-reading started by Jesus could be applied through the Law, Prophets and Writings.
Heine's book is valuable for those unfamiliar with this approach and feeling that contemporary approaches are, perhaps, a little lacking. Given the general neglect of the Old Testament and the feeling among many Christians that they really don't know what to do with this series of writings, Heine's contention that the Fathers may be good guides in reading these difficult books should be welcomed. The Fathers, despite their very human failings, have shown themselves to be masters in biblical interpretation. We could definitely have worse guides.