Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Church's Bible

Robert Louis Wilken, author of one of my favorite books, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, is the General Editor of The Church's Bible, a new series of Bible commentaries that I was turned on to last month by R. R. Reno's article on First Things' On the Square.

Three volumes have been released thus far: The Song of Songs, 1 Corinthians, and Isaiah. Prof. Wilken's "Series Preface" helps us understand why this new series is so important for the Church today:
The volumes in The Church's Bible are designed to present the Holy scriptures as understood and interpreted during the first millennium of Christian history. The Christian Church has a long tradition of commentary on the Bible. In the early church all discussion of theological topics, of moral issues, and of Christian practice took the biblical text as the starting point. The recitation of the psalms and meditation on books of the Bible, particularly in the context of the liturgy or of private prayer, nurtured the spiritual life. For most of the Church's history theology and scriptural interpretation were one. Theology was called sacra pagina (the sacred page), and the task of interpreting the Bible was a spiritual enterprise.

During the first two centuries interpretation of the Bible took the form of exposition of select passages on particular issues. For example, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, discussed many passages from the Old and New Testaments in his defense of the apostolic faith against the Gnostics. By the beginning of the third century Christian bishops and scholars had begun to preach regular series of sermons that followed the biblical books verse by verse. Some wrote more scholarly commentaries that examined in greater detail grammatical, literary, and historical questions as well as theological ideas and spiritual teachings found in the texts. From Origen of Alexandria, the first great biblical commentator in the Church's history, we have, among others, a large verse-by-verse commentary on the Gospel of John, a series of homilies on Genesis and Exodus, and a large part of his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. In the course of the first eight hundred years of Christian history Christian teachers produced a library of biblical commentaries and homilies on the Bible.

Today this ancient tradition of biblical interpretation is known only in bits and pieces, and even where it still shapes our understanding of the Bible, for example, in the selection of readings for Christian worship (e.g., Isaiah 7 and Isaiah 9 read at Christmas), or the interpretation of the Psalms in daily prayer, the spiritual world that gave it birth remains shadowy and indistinct. It is the purpose of this series to make available the richness of the Church's classical traditional of interpretation for clergy, Sunday school and Bible class teachers, men and women living in religious communities, and serious readers of the Bible.

Anyone who reads the ancient commentaries realizes at once that they are deeply spiritual, insightful, edifying, and, shall we say, "biblical." early Christian thinkers moved in the world of the Bible, understood its idiom, loved its teaching, and were filled with awe before its mysteries. The believed in the maxim, "Scripture interprets Scripture." They knew something that has largely been forgotten by biblical scholars, and their commentaries are an untapped resource for understanding the Bible as a book about Christ.

The distinctive mark of The Church's Bible is that it draws extensively on the ancient commentaries, not only on random comments drawn from theological treatises, sermons, or devotional works. Its volumes will, in the main, offer fairly lengthy excerpts from the ancient commentaries and from series of sermons on specific books. For example, in the first volume on the Song of Songs, there are long passages from Origen of Alexandria's Commentary on the Song of Songs, from Gregory of Nyssa's Homilies on the Song, and from Bernard of Clairvaux's sermons of the Song. Some passages willa be as brief as a paragraph, but many will be seeral pages in length, and some longer. We believe that it is only through a deeper immersion in the ancient sources that contemporary readers can enter into the inexhaustible spiritual and theological world of the early Church and hence of the Bible.

It is also hoped that longer passages will be suitable for private devotional reading and for spiritual reading in religious communities, in Bible study groups, and in prayer circles.
Using this sort of commentary fits completely in line with what Dr. Gold taught me about biblical exegesis my first semester of seminary. Curiously, it doesn't fit the practice of the exegetes published most often in today's ELCA for the use of parish pastors, which focusses almost exclusively on the historical-critical method through a progressive/liberationist perspective — the main reason why I've stopped using the "latest" ELCA exegetical resources in recent years.

The volume on the Song was first published in 2003, 1 Corinthians (a 2006 Touchstone review had intrigued me to the series), with the third volume (Isaiah) published in 2007. Hopefully, Eerdmanns will be publishing upcoming volumes more quickly.

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