How the Early Church Read the Bible

The church fathers show us how to read Scripture imaginatively.

When I was a pastor in the 1970s, I introduced my congregation to the Serendipity Bible study materials. Small-groups pioneer Lyman Coleman had created exercises that used the Bible as an aid to "self-discovery" and "creative expression." It was radical stuff.

The groups in my church were used to reading through lists of key texts in order to learn how to explain our church's doctrines. The new study materials were intensely personal. They demanded existential engagement. Unfortunately, they lacked a reference point beyond the self.

It was an adjustment for people who weren't used to being asked what they felt about a Bible passage. They expected an assemblage of scriptural data. Instead, they got an exercise in "encounter."

I expected some resistance, but as I introduced the new approach (which, I believe, had us use paper plates and crayons), one of the older saints became almost embarrassingly enthusiastic. Her response effectively granted permission to everyone else.

Self-Focused Spirituality

Like the members of my congregation, the late theologian Robert Webber had been taught to mine the Bible for doctrinal facts.

This intellectual spirituality colored every aspect of Bob's Christianity, including his way of reading the Bible. He eventually came to realize that "an intellectual spirituality is situated not in God's story, but in my knowledge about God's story …. This quest to know God through the mind was just another self-focused spirituality." When he realized that narcissistic potential, Bob headed in a different direction: to the early church and its typological way of understanding Scripture.

The early church was as thoroughly convinced of the Bible's historical reliability as modern evangelicals are. Yet, thought ...

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Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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