Previously, I discussed how patristic authors believed Jesus of Nazareth to be the interpretive key for understanding all of Scripture. Now, turning to chapter 3 of O’Keefe & Reno’s Sanctified Vision, we consider the first of three major methods of reading utilized within this overarching hypothesis: intensive reading.
The central thrust of this chapter is that a christocentric reading of Scripture does not diminish but in fact heightens the need for careful study and exegesis of the Scriptures. “Exploring countless scriptural details with an eye toward assembling a full and complete picture marks the most basic ‘method’ of patristic exegesis” (45). In other words, “The overall reading was not developed in broad strokes or with large abstractions; it was carefully constructed verse by verse. In this sense, for all the ambition of patristic biblical interpretation, the church fathers were intensive readers ever on the lookout for hints and signs amid the tiniest details of the text” (46).
O’Keefe and Reno identify three strategies of reading that fall under this “intensive” method of interpretation. The (1) lexical strategy analyzed the different meanings a single word could have in hopes of providing a reliable interpretation, while the (2) dialectical strategy focused on two apparently contradictory texts with an eye towards providing an interpretation that could harmonize the two. Neither of these should strike us today as particularly unusual; forms of them are still practiced today.
More interesting, though, is the (3) associative strategy, which “involves the countless ways in which particular words, images, or phrases are joined together in our minds” (48). An interpreter might jump from a verse about “wood” to one about “trees” and from there to several on “fruit-bearing” and so on and so forth. Part of our difficulty in grasping this method comes from modernity’s flattening out of language. For many of those who limit themselves to the historical-grammatical hermeneutic, the fear is that if words or texts are allowed to have more than one meaning, there is no end to the amount of subjective meanings they might have. I take it that this is the fear that drives many conservative Christians to embrace this hermeneutic. But postmodernism is helping us to recapture the intrinsic multivalency of language, such that we could agree with the Fathers, who “thought the scriptures infinitely rich, and, for them, interpretive adventure beckoned in every word and image” (67).
One other noteworthy point from this chapter: the authors make the remarkable claim that careful exegesis drove the development of doctrine, and not vice versa, as is normally claimed. In their discussion of dialectical interpretation, the authors write, “We tend to read figures such as Athanasius with the retrospective knowledge of the development and communal endorsement of his approach. This encourages us to think of the exegesis in treatises such as the Orations against the Arians as attempts to resolve unfortunate textual difficulties that stand in the way of ‘orthodox doctrine.’ … (but this) fails to see how a technical distinction in Christian theology, in this case the distinction between essence and economy, function within the exegesis rather than operating upon it from the outside, either as something to be defended or applied” (60). In other words, the exegetical results stemming from attempts to harmonize apparently contradictory passages of Scripture (e.g., the created or uncreated nature of the Son; cf. John 1:1 and Heb 3:2) were what produced what would become orthodox doctrine (as opposed to saying that these doctrines developed in an independent, theological sense and were then “back-proven” with reference to proof-texts). If this is true, this makes for a very, very different way of thinking about how early Christian theology developed!