It will be helpful to consider the
manner in which the Fathers read the Scriptures, drawing from it their
moral doctrine. They did not have at their disposal the resources of modern
historical exegesis, but they did possess a method of interpretation that
enabled them to discover the rich spiritual substance their works contain
and that still nourishes us today.
Patristic exegesis might be described
as a “real” reading of Scripture, as contrasted with a literary or positivist
approach. The main object of the Fathers was to penetrate beyond the signs,
the words, to the reality signified, even to the mystery of Christ and
God. They were aware they could reach this mystery only through faith in
Christ and obedience to his word. Their reading was therefore directly
related to their lives and was enlightened by a gradual formed experience
of the reality and truth of what they believed. Their exegetical works
expressed the penetration of their minds into the mysteries contained in
Scripture, a penetration due to their active experience of the mysteries.
They are properly speaking words of wisdom. Patristic exegesis was essentially
linked to faith and practice. It included nonetheless some very fine literary
analyses and carefully wrought intellectual reflections such as we find,
for example, in St. Augustine’s De doctina christiana. Still, the
main thing for them was an intellectual savoring of the divine realities
communicated by the Holy Spirit, the principal Author of Scripture.
Bread of Scripture
The following image may be helpful
in demonstrating the patristic method. The Church Fathers possessed the
art of forming nourishing bread from the wheat of Scripture. The comparison
of scriptural texts to wheat is apt, for they are often made up of short
sentences that enclose in a few words a theme or a rich doctrine containing
a seed of life. Let us consider the stages of this spiritual work.
The first task was to strip off the
husk covering the grain, to free the Word from its human coverings: language,
literary genre, the particularities of the author, the setting, period
and so forth. To get at the living grain in this way, faith was needed
as much as dexterity, for faith alone opens our minds to the Word and allows
it to penetrate to the depths of our hearts. By the same token, it is faith
that enables us to penetrate this Word and so grasp and understand it.
Next, the grain was ground to produce
flour; they needed to meditate on the Word and crush it, so to speak, through
reflection and life, with the aid of memory and experience. Meditation
led to practice, comparable to kneading, for the demands of action, with
all its ardors, resistance, and delays, truly knead and mold us. This task
could not succeed without the water of regular prayer. Finally the bread
that had been shaped must be put in the oven; it passed through the fire
of trial, like the gold of the Word, seven times purified, purified slowly.
Only now was the bread ready to be offered as nourishment. The reader of
the Scriptures could offer to others a substantial explanation of the Word
of God: this the Fathers did in their commentaries.
Quote from The
Sources of Christian Ethics, Chapter 8, by Servais Pinckaers, ©
1985, University Press Fribourg