Worthy of God and Useful for Us: a book review

One of the challenges of biblical interpretation is the way that the Bible describes God. In some places in the Bible, God is above the heavens and there is none like him. In other places, God seems like any other earthly ruler–sitting on a throne,waging ware, standing, laughing, getting angry.  The difficulty of sorting out God’s godhood from his human descriptions has been an issue that theologians have wrestled with from the early centuries of Christianity. We have a lot we can learn from the Ancient theological approach to Scripture

Mark Sheridan is a Benedictine monk and vice rector and dean of the faculty of theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm in Rome. He has written several monographs and edited the Genesis 12-50 volume of the ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture. In Language For God in Patrisitic Tradition:  Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism, Sheridan examines ancient biblical interpretation, exploring what the church fathers have to teach us about reading Scripture and their theology of God.

One of the hallmark’s of patrisitc tradition is the commitment to interpreting the Bible in a manner “worthy of God”  and “useful for us.” Anthropomorphism and anthropopathism in the Bible, make God seem “too human.”  Sheridan demonstrates that the general patristic consensus was that God was wholly unlike humanity; however where the Bible involves human matters, ‘it carries the human intellect, manners and way of speaking’ (30). Thus the otherness of God is preserved, but the fathers had a way of parsing those places of scripture where God seemed all-to-human.

Sheridan’s eight chapters form a tight and compelling argument. In chapter one, Sheridan reads Numbers 23:19,”God is not a man nor as the son of man to be threatened,” in tension with Deuteronomy 1:31.” [He] carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” This illustrates the way in which the Bible talks about God differently, in reference to Godself and in relationship to us in the economy of salvation. Sheridan shows how the fathers picks up this distinction.

In chapter two through four, he illustrates the major influences on the patrsitic interpretive tradition. Chapter two explores the way the Greek philosphical tradition handled the capricious, too-human pantheon of gods in the Homeric epics. Ideas about what is ‘worthy of God’ in Plato, have their influence on the theological development of the church’s early centuries.  Chapter three describes the Hellenized Jewish interpretation of scripture (especially Philo) and they handled passages where God was too human and too passionate. Chapter four examines the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament and the manner in which the patristic tradition saw their interpretive strategy in continuity with Paul and the gospels. Chapter five surveys major early Christian writers  and the various ways they employed the “worthy of God” strategy in interpreting the Bible. While there are differences between early theologians, and regions (Alexandria and Antioch in their approach to ‘allegory’), there is a broad consensus on what is worthy of God and what isn’t. Passages whre God ‘gets angry’ are placed inside a larger theological frame where God is impassible and divine emotional outbursts are merely connote the human experience of God’s wrath.

Chapter six highlights three cases which exemplify patristic interpretation: Genesis 1-4; Genesis 16 (the Hagar  and Sarah story); and the conquest narratives. The creation story (and fall) has a number of anthropomorphisms. Sheridan demonstrates the way ancient interpreters bracketed out any biblical interpretation that would be demeaning to God’s dignity.  The Sarah/Hagar story presented a different challenge. Because this story related Old-Testament saints behaving badly (i.e. Sarah and Abraham using and abusing Sarah’s slave), it was interpreted variously as an allegory or a morality tale. The conquest narratives were allegorized because of  patrsitic discomfort with the way God commanded the total destruction of the Canaanites (and what that implied about God’s character). Chapter seven shows how the Patrisic tradition handled he imprecatory Psalms.

Chapter eight, Sheridan’s final chapter, describes what he thinks modern interpreters ought to learn from our ancient counterparts. Sheridan holds up as sound, the patristic ‘rule’ of interpreting anthropomorphisms and difficult texts in a manner that is ‘worthy of God and useful to us.’ At various points our interpretations will diverge with patristics because we bring a different set of questions and assumptions to the text (i.e. ancient interpreters sought to defend the Bible against ancient mythos whereas modern interpreters seek to set the creation story with in the context of Ancient Near East literature). Yet Sheridan also challenges us to learn from patristics how to move beyond what the narrative of scripture describes to ask what it means for our lives (i.e. differences in contemporary and ancient approaches to Genesis 16).   At other points, Sheridan thinks that we ought to listen keenly to the questions that patristic scholars are asking. Contemporary evangelical scholars read the conquest accounts literally, seeking to minimize their destructive nature (i.e. hyperbole in the text, reading the destruction in Joshua alongside the gradual conquest in Judges, etc). Sheridan argues we have a lot to learn form the ways the fathers asked what divine conquest says about the character of God, and how to interpret these sections in a worthy manner.  He sees similar value in allowing patristics to inform our understanding of the imprecatory psalms (and how we are to pray them).

Sheridan offers a great overview of patristic interpretation and is incisive in his analysis of the way the ancient church interpreted scripture. The notion of interpreting in a manner ‘worthy of God’ seems a noble aim and certainly ancient authors as diverse as Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Gregory of Nyssa each helped untangle anthropomorphisms for us.

Yet as valuable as I find this study and patristic interpretation I am not totally convinced. First off, and this may just be my evangelicalism talking, I am suspicious of where allegory ignores or replaces the literal meaning of the text. In pastrictic interpretation the literal meaning sometimes provides clues to the deeper meaning of the passage. At other times, the deeper, allegorical meaning is used to  replace or explain the literal sense away. I have less problem when the text is metaphorical in its anthropomorphisms (i.e. God walking in the garden, etc) but feel the rub a little more when a whole section of sacred scripture (like the Canaanite conquest) is spiritualized because the early interpreters saw this piece of Israel’s history as beneath God. I admit that the literal interpretation of Canaanite destruction opens up questions about God’s character and goodness that are difficult; yet I think employing allegory is too easy and too readily shirks the difficulty of wrestling with the text.  Additionaly, I worry about the ways in which the Greek philosophical tradition informs the patristic understanding of what is ‘worthy of God.’ I applaud the way the fathers  sought to guard the image of God from seeing God as a capricious person; however I am uncertain that ancient Christian understanding of Divine immutability always does justice to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

My caveats name where I sit loose to some patristic conclusions, but. I think we have a lot to learn from them and Sheridan provides a great and accessible overview of their interpretive approach.  I would have found this a helpful book in seminary as I sought to untangle historic interpretation. This book is sufficiently non-technical for the the general reader. I give this 4.5 stars and recommend it for anyone interested in theological interpretation,  historical theology or spiritual exegesis.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

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