Monday, June 07, 2010

Heine on the ancient Church and its Bible

For the last couple weeks I've been working on a course on the history of New Testament interpretation, which is far enough afield from my own specialty to force me to research a number of interesting topics and historical figures. I'm dissatisfied with approach of the course I inherited, which provided brief synopses of how the Church has read the NT but did not require any primary readings. The approach I'm taking is to provide brief introductory comments on significant figures and then feature extended readings of actual examples of biblical interpretation from those figures.

For unrelated reasons, I picked up Ronald E. Heine's book, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church: Exploring the Formation of Early Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), which is part of Baker's "Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future" series. Heine's goal is to examine "the central role that the Old Testament played in the formation of Christian thinking and life in the early centuries of the church" (11–12). His book feeds my growing interest in the history and writings of the post-Apostolic church, and it overlaps considerably with the material I'm researching and writing for my history course.

Heine's discussion of the Hebrew Bible among early Christians highlights just how foreign contemporary (i.e., post-Enlightenment) Christianity is to its ancient counterpart. From the end of Heine's introductory chapter:
[T]here can be no doubt that there has been an erosion of the position and authority of the Old Testament in much of Protestant theology since the beginning of the Enlightenment. Protestant theology has not had a consistent position on the role of the Old Testament in the church.
We will see in the chapters that follow that the church fathers never questioned that the Old Testament held a central position in the life of the church. They did not all agree on how it should be read in order to speak to the church but, with the exception of Marcion and perhaps a few Gnostics who were not church fathers, they never thought that it should be dismissed as uncanonical or treated as second-class literature in comparison with the New Testament. Averil Cameron has correctly observed that the energies exerted by the fathers in their explanations of the Old Testament demonstrate "how tenaciously Christians" defended it in spite of the difficulties they often encountered in interpreting it. (Heine 2007: 29, citing A. Cameron, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire: The Development of Christian Discourse [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991], 110)

As I read Heine's book and the writings of the Church Fathers (esp. the Ante-Nicene Fathers), I'm beginning to think that the early Christians had a clearer sense of the importance of Israel's history and texts for their own identity than they did of how that history and those texts informed and sustained their identity. Justin, Irenaeus, Origen, et al., might not have known what to do with the Hebrew Bible (though they spent a lot effort trying to figure it out), but they knew they had to do something with it. The contemporary church, perhaps, shows itself unwilling to continue the struggle to reconcile an emphatically Christian identity with that identity's foundationally Israelite (or Mosaic, or Abrahamic, or whatever) pedigree.

No comments:

My Visual Bookshelf