—This is part two of a three part series on the topic of retreival exegesis—

In the previous post I concluded that retrieval exegesis is hearing and listening to voices of the past for one’s current understanding of the Bible. Retrieval exegesis is mining the past to allow an ancient figure to shape, influence, and contribute to the current repository of readings. In this post I want to survey some of the philosophical foundations for retreival exegesis.[1]

Recovery of Catholicity

One feature of the modern and post-modern church—and all the helpful elements of post-modernity—is their desire for tradition. Tradition has acumen of antiquity—to help provide a keen voice and perception of linking with antiquitous theological traditions. Much like the ancient apologists and early writers of the Christian faith (i.e., Irenaeus of Lyons, Adv. Haer. 3.2–3), appealing to antiquity is part of their claim of Christianity as the legitimate faith tradition.[2] That is, antiquated tradition helped compete with Gnostic traditions.

Retrieval exegesis helps recover a sense of catholicity. When Augustine enters your pulpit, there is a sense of tradition, a sense of linking with the past. When Cyril of Alexandria or Athanasius enters your pulpit, you have a voice that has vied for Christological orthodoxy. This retrieval of the Patristic voice helps connect the modern and post-modern church to antiquity, and subsequently, recover a form of Catholicity for the Church.

Affirmation of the Broader Work of the Spirit and Illumination

Many Bible interpreters and pastors likely have a slew of modern authors in their study. When preaching through the Gospel of Matthew, Luz, Davies and Allison, and Hagner should be readily available. Or, Koester, O’Brien, and Lane when studying Hebrews. Or, Jobes, Achtemeier, and Michaels when working on 1 Peter. These texts should be readily available and used with frequency.

The problem, however, is not in using these recent authors. The problem occurs when these figures are the only teachers one has when studying Scripture. Albeit, the majority of these commentators, evangelical or not, are still influenced by the historical modern enterprise of objective readings of Scripture. This may cause for a functional pneumatology to see the Spirit offering more illuminating activity to current authors and not the authors of old. I say functional because I’m sure many Christians would affirm a broader influence of the Holy Spirit.

Retrieval exegesis recognizes the broad work—and active work, at that—of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church throughout the generations. The same Spirit has guided both modern and ancient figures in their readings of Scripture. In the same way that Jobes, Davies and Alison, or O’Brien discover meaning in the Bible text through the work of the Holy Spirit, so have Augustine, Origen, Chrysostom, and others. The active work of the Holy Spirit, in the life of the Church, guided ancient interpreters of Scripture in much the same way He guides modern readers. Thus, retrieval exegesis assumes the equaled work of the Spirit of God illuminating the readings of Scripture across the centuries to aid current readings of the Bible.

Offers an Extension of Meaning

The subsequent effect of the previous point views the ancient interpreters as an extension the meaning of the Scriptures. That is, just like modern and current readings of Scripture recognize and understand meaning, so are the ancient interpreters discovering and articulating the meaning of the Bible—reception acts as a dialogical process of understanding.

This is where the discipline of the History of Interpretation provides an invaluable in-road to the study of Scripture.[3] The History of Interpretation helps observe the guiding Spirit in the life of the Church’s readings—not all readings are of equal value and profit, though. Thus, even if modern readings of the Church disagree with interpretive patterns of the early Church, we are still reading and experiencing the workings of the Holy Spirit in the life of an ancient Church. Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy has preserved the direction of the Christian Church; yet, we have never settled on one or two, or possibly three potential readings of various passages of Scripture—I stress the idea, all is within the confines of orthodoxy.

As David Parris explains this, it is moving from a two-way dialogue to a three-way dialogue. “The reader must move from a two-way dialogue with the Bible to a three-way dialogue.”[4] Interpretation, then, no longer remains an individual and their bible. Rather, interpretation now invites ancient voices and tradition to add direction on how to read the Bible.

Thus, retrieval exegesis serves as an extension of meaning because we are reading the work of the Holy Spirit illuminating the Saints. We can affirm the Spirit guides interpreters of the current Church in much the same way and—if I may—with potentially different readings of the Bible.

Historical Situatedness

C.S Lewis has commented on the value of reading old books.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.[5]

When we read older works and older authors, we should readily notice a different cultural climate to our own. This helps explain why Patristic readings of the Scriptures seem so foreign—they look weird. As Lewis notes, antiquarian volumes does not equate uselessness; rather, it is just the opposite.

Patristic exegesis exists in a world foreign to our own. When we read them, we can be easy to critique their readings of Scripture because of our historical situation. We are far removed from their frame of reference. But can they not do the same to us? Can they not be a voice to help us see our current context?

Nonetheless, retrieval exegesis reads authors outside one’s own historical situation. This historical difference allows ancient authors to have a fresh voice in our current philosophical, theological, ideological, ethical, and pastoral blind spots.


Retrieval exegesis is the exercise of recovering the voice of the past to help shape the present. The aforementioned is merely a surface-level philosophical foundation for retrieval exegesis.

Billings has helpfully expressed the caution and need for such an endeavor.

“In the end, we should read premodern exegetes in particular not because we always agree with their positions. Indeed, they often disagree with each other. We should not read them because they replace or make obsolete the insights that come from critical studies of the Bible. Premodern interpreters are fallible and limited, as are we. But they also reflect the work of the Spirit in the past, and they show great insight into hot to interpret all of Scripture as God’s own word in Christ.”[6]

Further Reading: History of Interpretation

The final post will offer practical ways for pastors and students to participate in retrieval exegesis as a part of their weekly Bible reading.

About the Author:
Shawn Wilhite

Shawn Wilhite is currently a Ph.D. student in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research interests coalesce around New Testament and early Christian origins, the Epistle to Hebrews, History of New Testament Interpretation, Theological Interpretation of Scripture and Early Christian Hermeneutics, and Greek and Latin Studies.

Doctrinae Coram Deo

  1. For more on this topic, I readily recommend: Michael Allen and Scot R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).; J. Todd Billings, The Word of God for the People of God: An Entryway to the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010); Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InvterVarsity Press, 1998).  ↩

  2. According to David Brakke, early Christians offered six different forms of self-differentiation to the Gnostic pseudepigraphy, genealogical rhetoric, and more. For our purposes of appealing to catholicity, items 3 and 4 would fall somewhere between these two features.
    1. Modes of personalized authority, express in claims either to visionary insight or to a succession of teachers or bishops, sometimes expressed in procreative or agricultural metaphors
    2. Embryonic canons of the Bible, usually consisting of Old and New Testaments
    3. Allegorical and typological methods of scriptural reading, which articulated the unity of the bipartite Bible and enabled the elaboration of speculative ideas
    4. Formulation of a ‘rule of faith’ as a limit to such reading and speculation
    5. Heresiology as a means of trivializing a range of opponents and bolstering one’s own claim to single and original truth 6. Withdrawal of communion
    David Brakke, “Self-differentiation Among Christian Groups: the Gnostics and their Opponents,” in Origins to Constantine, vol 1 of The Cambridge History of Christianity, ed. Margaret M. Mitchell and Frances M. Young (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 259–60.  ↩

  3. See the further reading below
  4. David Paul Parris, Reading the Bible with Giants: How 1000 Years of Biblical Interpretation can Shed New Light on Old Texts (London: Paternoster, 2006);  ↩

  5. C.S. Lewis, introduction to On the Incarnation by Athanasius, Popular Patristics Series (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 12.  ↩

  6. Billings, Word of God for the People of God, 188.  ↩