Brevard Childs on Biblical Interpretation in Antioch and Alexandria

We’ve been having an interesting discussion over on Shane’s post about Peter Leithart’s commentary on 1 & 2 Kings. Hermeneutics is a challenging study and the debate about the relationship between historical and spiritual meaning in the text has been an age old affair. All this reminded me of some excellent reflections I read in Brevard Childs’ book The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture (Eerdmans, 2004).

Following on the heels of his monumental commentary on Isaiah in the Old Testament Library series, The Struggle focuses on the history of exegesis in a way that the Isaiah commentary could not due to limitations of space. And yet, realizing that the history of exegesis is a crucial component of exegesis, Childs knew that the work done had to be published.

His chapter on Origen (pgs. 62-74) is remarkable; Childs draws attention to recent work that has been done on allegory in general and on Origen in particular. In chapter 18, “Hermeneutical Conclusions,” Childs provides an interesting summary of Antioch and Alexandria:

I would further argue that a basic characteristic of Christian exegesis has been its recognition of both a literal and a spiritual dimension of scripture. Of course, the warrant for this hermeneutical decision was found in the New Testament itself (John 3:14; Matt. 16:4; 1 Cor. 9:9; Romans 3:31ff.; etc.), and could not be explained as a late Hellenistic intrusion. Andrew Louth (Discerning, pp. 96-131) is certainly correct in asserting that allegory, used in its broadest sense, is constitutive of Christian interpretation as a means of discerning the mystery of Christ. It is, therefore, a basic error to dismiss it as an escape hatch used to avoid difficulties within the text.

Yet at the same time during much of the church’s history, enormous energy, reflection, and debate has gone into the effort to understand exactly the relation between the literal and the spiritual dimensions of the biblical text. Usually the extravagant development of the allegorical method within Christianity has been assigned to Origen, whose influence of course has been enormous. Nevertheless, as we have seen, the interpretation of Origen has undergone serious revision during the last decades, and  the earlier attempts to describe allegory as a Gnostic innovation, basically alien to Christianity, have not been sustained. A more balanced way of understanding the hermeneutical issues involved emerged from an analysis of the historic tensions between the Alexandrian and Antiochene schools. The earlier misconstrual of the relationship, as if the Alexandrians were fanciful allegorists while the Antiochenes adumbrated modern historical criticism in stressing the historical context, has been replaced by careful study of both the similarities and differences regarding the issue of multiple textual meanings. Both schools fully agreed in recognizing both a literal and spiritual dimension, and both south to develop subtle strategies by which to guide and control the interrelationship of the two. The great variation in the hermeneutical terminology – theoria, allegoria, skopus, nous – reflects the continuing struggle for exegetical precision. The Alexandrians were passionate in believing that the literal sense apart from the spiritual killed its meaning. However, the Antiochenes feared the biblical historical sequence could be lost in timeless symbolism. It is important to note that by the fifth century elements of the best from each exegetical tradition had been appropriated by Christian expositors (Jerome, Theodoret, Cyril).

The Struggle to Understand Isaiah as Christian Scripture, pgs. 302-303.

That there is a distinction (n.b., I didn’t say division) between the literal and spiritual sense of scripture seems self-evident enough. But has this has played out historically among the faithful has led to a variety of conclusions, some of them being more plausible than others. I’ll do another post soon on Childs’ summary of Reformation exegesis and its own debt to this history of exegesis.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA

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