Patristic Theories of Biblical Interpretation: The Latin Fathers, edited by Tarmo Toom, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2016.
This multi-author volume examines the exegetical methodologies of Latin patristic authors. The selection of ancient authors covered in this volume is governed by the explicit criterion that the ancient author must discuss something that may be surmised to be a “theory” of biblical interpretation. That is, the articles included do not simply survey how exegesis was practiced amongst Latin authors in late antiquity. Rather, they concern themselves specifically with Latin authors who articulated their hermeneutical method.
The chapters display a range of approaches to the theories of biblical interpretation explicated by ancient authors. This is unsurprising, given the varying size of these authors' literary corpuses. For example, in Chapter 4 (“Augustine’s hermeneutics: the science of the divinely given signs”), Tarmo Toom approaches Augustine’s extensive corpus through the lens of Augustine’s theory of semiotics. Toom argues that Augustine’s theory of language, wherein words are signs that represent things, is the fundamental basis of his theory of interpretation. Augustine’s argument is most well-known in its fully developed from in De doctrina christiana, but Toom traces the semiotic current that runs through Augustine’s earlier works as well, including De dialectica and De magistro. Thus, Toom’s approach—characteristic of other chapters as well—is not a broad analysis of all the places where Augustine interprets Scripture throughout his vast corpus. Rather it is precise argument about the hermeneutical principle that Augustine himself advocates.
In Chapter 7, (“Cassiodorus’ hermeneutics: the Psalms and the arts of language”) Rita Copeland takes on the hermeneutic of Cassiodorus, the 6th-century aristocrat, classically-trained rhetor, and founder of the monastery of Vivarium. Copeland focuses on Cassiodorus’ literary approach to Scripture, highlighting in particular the marginal annotation system that Cassiodorus developed for the book of Psalms to help students catch the various literary techniques demonstrated therein. The chapter on Gregory (Ch. 8: “Gregory’s hermeneutics: Scripture as a path to God”) by Brendan Lupton deals primarily with the theory of allegory found in the preface to his commentary on the Song of Songs and the epistolary preface to his Moralia. Lupton emphasizes the theological telos of Gregory’s hermeneutical method: the proper recognition and interpretation of allegory is—for Gregory—a means by which readers encounter God.
Two chapters on understudied figures are particularly worth highlighting. In Chapter 2 (“Tyconius’ hermeneutics: The way the Holy Spirit expresses itself through Scripture”), Jean-Marc Vercruysse makes a compelling argument that Tyconius is far more significant in the development of biblical interpretation in the Latin West than has often been recognized. Tyconius lived in the fourth century in North Africa, and he was—at least for a time—part of the Donatist Church until he was excommunicated. Despite disagreeing with Tyconius on various ecclesiastical matters, Augustine speaks positively of Tyconius’ approach to Scripture, as explicated in his Liber regularum. Vercruysse traces Tyconius’ impact on later Latin authors, including but not limited to Augustine, showing clearly that the relative paucity of surviving works is not a good measure of significance or impact in the Christian literary tradition.
The chapter on Junillus Africanus (Ch. 6: “Junillus Africanus’ hermeneutics: Antioch and beyond”), co-written by Peter W. Martens and Alden Bass, is perhaps the most interesting contribution to the volume because Junillus himself is such a complex case study of intellectual influences in late antiquity. Junillus—not to be confused with the 2nd/3rdcentury author Julius Africanus!—was born in North Africa, but he spent a significant amount of time in Constantinople, where he served in the court of Justinian I. Junillus came to be influenced by Antiochene exegesis through Paul the Persian, who had been trained at the school of Nisibis. Martens and Bass argue that Junillus’ exegetical method, as explicated in his Handbook of the Basic Principles of Divine Law, shows signs of Antiochene influence, despite remaining faithful to Chalcedon and the christological concerns of his North African milieu. In keeping with Martens’ other recent scholarship, this chapter helps complicate the broader picture of “Antiochene vs. Alexandrian” exegesis even further by showing how Antiochene exegetical concerns were easily adapted into other contexts.
As a proviso, the editorial introduction to the volume does not explain the use of the term “patristic” in the title rather than more expansive categories such as “early Christian” or “late antique” which have become much more common in recent scholarship. The use of this more traditional terminology to a degree signals that the methodological approach in this volume lacks the diversity of critical modes that have come to be associated with the study of “late antiquity.”
Moreover, given the explicit principles of inclusion for the volume, two authors seem more difficult to justify: Jerome and Cassian. As Aline Canellis points out in Chapter 3 (“Jerome’s hermeneutics: how to exegete the Bible”), the topic of biblical interpretation, particularly as it pertains to the translation of the Bible, pervades Jerome’s vast corpus of writings. And yet, it is a stretch to find any explicit “theory” of interpretation in Jerome’s writings. It is certainly possible to extrapolate such a theory (or set of theories) by surveying Jerome’s commentaries and exegetical epistles (as Canellis has capably done), but this point is worth making because the editorial preface to this volume draws a distinction between authors whose hermeneutical principles can be extrapolated and those who address it directly and makes the case that only the latter category is included in this volume. Similarly, in the chapter on Cassian (Ch. 5: “Cassian’s hermeneutics: purity of heart”), Christopher J. Kelly recognizes that “There is very little in the way of sustained consideration of various methods for faithfully interpreting scripture in Cassian” (112). Kelly goes on to discuss three passages in particular that seem to provide Cassian’s theoretical assumptions that undergird his biblical interpretation, but here too the concept of a “theory” of interpretation—at least as it is defined in this volume—is lacking. Despite this, this chapter is still a valuable part of the volume simply because Cassian is often overlooked in favor of the luminaries of the Latin tradition.
Overall, for those interested in the history of biblical interpretation, this volume will prove to be a valuable collection. Most of the ancient authors included in this volume have long been studied as part of the history of biblical interpretation, so readers familiar with this field will not find new material or unique arguments in every chapter. Still, these chapters provide convenient starting places for each author, with suggestions for further reading. This book would be an excellent resource for a graduate seminar on hermeneutics in the Latin patristic tradition, and scholars who are interested in the history of biblical interpretation will find it to be a useful collection of essays.
For a brief discussion of the study of “late antiquity” and method, see Anthony Kaldellis, “Late Antiquity Dissolves,” in the Late Antiquity and New Humanities Forum, ed. by Ellen Muehlberger. Posted September 15, 2015, and available at: http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/late-antiquity-dissolves-by-anthony-kaldellis/. For readers who wish to understand the development of the field of “late antique Christianity” from “Patristics” further, the best place to start is Elizabeth Clark, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguisic Turn(Cambrdige, MA: Harard University Press, 2004).
James Walters is an Associate Professor of Religion at Rochester College in Rochester Hills, MI. James teaches courses in biblical studies and the history of early Christianity, and his research focuses on early Syriac Christianity. He can be reached at email@example.com.