Our Interpretive Mistakes are Worse than those of the Church Fathers

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biblical application

In his book Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers, Donald Fairbairn evaluates and defends the interpretive methodology of the church fathers in a way that is instructive for contemporary interpreters. Fairbairn explains the interpretive approach of the church fathers as a type of Christocentric canonical sensus plenior (fuller sense). He writes,

At this point, we have to recognize that the way we are trying to ensure accuracy in biblical interpretation is fundamentally different from the way the early church went about the same task. The Fathers had no qualms whatsoever about reading preconceived theological ideas into a given passage, as long as they got those ideas from elsewhere in the Bible. In fact, they regarded any attempt to avoid such a reading to be un-Christian. The Fathers believed that the entire Bible was a book about Christ, and therefore they were determined to read every passage of Scripture as being directly or indirectly about Christ, the Christian’s relationship to Christ or the church’s relationship to Christ (Life in the Trinity, 110).

He concedes that the church fathers Christocentric method of interpretation was prone to mistakes but rightly suggests all interpretive methods are prone to mistakes. Fairbairn asserts that we have a “preoccupation with the human author’s intent,” and “Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, we are influenced by a method of biblical interpretation that treats the Bible as a set of unrelated human testimonies to the divine-human encounter” (Life in the Trinity, 114). According to him, the key question is,

What kind of mistakes does one tend to commit if one sees the entire Bible as pointing to Christ? And what kinds of mistakes does one commit if one sees no connection between the books of the Bible or if one sees the connection in terms of something more peripheral to the Christian faith than Christ? (Life in the Trinity, 120).

Fairbairn concludes that the church fathers got the fundamental idea of Scripture correct and they looked for it everywhere. Thus, “the sorts of mistakes to which the early church was prone are not as dangerous as the ones to which we are prone” (Life in the Trinity, 120). He concludes,

With this in mind, we can recognize that is less dangerous to discern the Bible’s central message clearly but read that message too enthusiastically into all passages than it is to read each passage individually without an adequate grasp of the central message. This is the lesson we can and should learn from the early church. I freely admit that the church fathers were overly exuberant, and thus they read too much into certain Old Testament passages. But at the same time, I think they had the most important thing right. They correctly understand that the key to good interpretation is discerning the whole message of Scripture well, and they correctly saw the Bible as a whole is fundamentally about Christ (Life in the Trinity, 120-121).

When the church fathers are mentioned today, too many contemporary Christians have a dismissive attitude and accuse them of allegorizing and eisegesis. Such attitudes are more indicative of modern hubris than an indictment on the patristic exegetes. It seems to me that many embrace an almost Darwinian attitude in regard the evolution of interpretive history. Much of the modern criticism of the church fathers interpretive methods is inordinate and proceeds as if they have nothing to teach us. I fear that regardless of our orthodox doctrinal statements, many evangelicals functionally interpret the Bible as though its primarily a human book and not a divine and supernatural one. Following the apostles, the early church approached the Bible unapologetically prejudiced by Christ and his kingdom, and though we might differ about particular interpretations, I think we would do well to follow their example.

By |June 21st, 2015|Categories: Blog|Tags: |

About the Author:

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, the BGEA and Preaching Today


  1. Rich Barcellos June 22, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    good stuff, thanks!

  2. Jason Gray July 4, 2015 at 1:29 am

    Fantastic! Thank you so much for posting this insight.

  3. Rich Barcellos July 5, 2015 at 7:14 pm

    that was a good chapter

Comments are closed.