Thursday, June 29, 2006


syn·the·sis: The combining of separate elements or substances to form a coherent whole.
a·nal·y·sis: The separation of an intellectual or material whole into its constituent parts for individual study.

One of the tasks of the past year was learning how to read Scripture synthetically. A tall order, for people in our age of analysis. We analyze everything - it's how our brains are wired. Give us the Bible, and we will sit down and break it up into pieces and try to understand all we can about those pieces. If we read the Gospel of John, we want to know who John was, when he wrote it, what the cultural setting was surrounding the writing, and what he meant with every turn of phrase that came from his pen.

There's nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. But it's an incomplete way of looking at the Word of God, if that's all that we ever do. And, interestingly enough, it's not how the early Christians read Scripture. They certainly wanted to understand the meaning behind each passage. But they were more apt to spend their time making connections between passages throughout the whole of scripture than they were to sit down and analyze one particular section.

It's for this reason that we modern folk often have a hard time understanding what the church fathers were talking about in many of their writings. John J. O'Keefe and R.R. Reno offer their experience in the opening paragraph of their book Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible:
Reading the church fathers is difficult. Simply to pick up Irenaeus' treatise Against the Heresies and read invites confusion and boredom if one does not know the point of the many digressions. Most of them involve biblical details, either as misread by his adversaries or arranged as so many bricks in Irenaeus' seemingly endless wall of defense... As first-time readers, we dutifully soldiered through page after page, underlining here and there when he seemed to be saying something that fit with what we were told. Vast stretches of text seemed irrelevant to these issues; they were veritable wastelands under titles helpfully provided by a patient nineteenth-century translator... We did not so much thirst for righteousness as hunger for what we imagined to be the red meat of doctrine.
The key to reading Scripture synthetically, is first of all to see the Bible as a unified whole. It's true that the Bible is a collection of many books written at different times by different authors. But it's also true that, as Vatican II's Dei Verbum maintains, the scriptures "have God as their author" and "firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures." Hence the many parts can be taken together as a whole to transmit a unified message. Not surprisingly, this was the starting point for the church fathers. Origen, in fact, held that the scriptures were "the sole source of wisdom."

Once you see the entire Bible in this way, connections come alive that otherwise wouldn't seem possible. The Old and the New Testaments complement each other and bring new understanding to each other. For example, Israel's passing through the Nile river into freedom from slavery becomes a precursor to the waters of Baptism, through which we pass into freedom from the slavery of original sin. Likewise, the suffering servant found in Isaiah 52 tells us an awful lot about Christ and his sacrifice. And the list goes on...

This is how the church fathers read Scripture.


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