O’Keefe and Reno have embarked upon an ambitious path to describe and understand the world of patristic interpretation of the Scriptures. They are not so much interested in surveying the early church fathers’s exegesis of the Scripture, but rather wish “to consider the exegesis itself as a discrete intellectual practice" (p.5). In doing so, they desire to correct a modernist misconception that the early church’s methods of interpretation were arbitrary and unconcerned with the historical nature of the sacred text. With this goal in mind, the authors invite the reader on a journey into the mindset of early Christian interpreters who saw the biblical text as the source of divine wisdom, and that this wisdom could only have been obtained through faith (p.139).

Essential to O’Keefe and Reno’s argument is distinguishing how the fathers understood "meaning" in the Bible — quite different than how modernists typically do. Modern readers usually assume a referential theory of meaning, whereby the text contains meaning when tied to some form of referential object. Conversely, the fathers understood the text to be the meaning and the subject matter at hand, because “it is divine revelation" (p.12). Working with this patristic assumption, the fathers’ were committed to “establish an overall interpretation of scripture" (p.24). With this aim they sought “to read the Bible as a single text that taught a coherent, unified truth about the nature of God and human destiny" (p.25). This “total” reading of Scripture is centered on Christ as the “hypothesis” or fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. With Christ as the “hypothesis” the Scriptures have an economy “or plot that allows us to discern the flow of the narrative" (p.37). Working from this presupposition the fathers likened the Scripture to a mosaic of a handsome king whereby God has arranged the pieces in such a sequence that the image is brought forth. To fail to see the handsome king will inevitably lead to an incorrect reading of the text. Therefore, the defining characteristic of patristic exegesis is “knowing the identity of Jesus Christ is the basis for right reading of the sacred writings of the people of Israel" (p.28).

With Christ as the key to understanding the Scriptures, the early fathers employed an intensive reading of Scripture looking for “hints and signs amid the tiniest details of the text" (p.46). By finding verbal associations that provided contact between one passage and another, the fathers prepared a way for a comprehensive reading of Scripture. Along with this intensive reading, the methods of typology and allegory were also used. This aspect of patristic interpretation is most objectionable to modern interpreters. O’Keefe and Reno explain, however, that even the use of allegory was not devoid of textual restraint. In fact the fathers believed that an allegorical reading is “justified because it seeks the original intention of the author, who is the spirit of God.”

Overall, O’Keefe and Reno have given critics of patristic methods of interpretation much to ponder. By providing a cogent articulation of early Christian interpretation of the Scripture, they have offered a helpful corrective to anyone who would see such methods as “nothing more than an exhaustive exercise in proof-texting animated by an anti-intellectual submission to doctrinal authority.” However, there remains an ambiguity around where the source of meaning lies. What does it really mean to say the text is the meaning? O’Keefe and Reno do not answer that question directly. Instead, they allow the practice of patristic exegesis to fill in the gaps. Students of early Christian interpretation will certainly want to wrestle with this subject more. Nevertheless, Sanctified Vision is a welcomed introduction to patristic methods of interpretation.

About the Author:
Chase Sears

Chase Sears is currently a Ph.D. Student in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research focuses mainly on New Testament Theology, Pauline Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ecclesiology.