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

In the first 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 the previous post I surveyed some of the philosophical foundations for retreival exegesis.

The following seeks to provide tangible ways for retrieval exegesis. Building upon a philosophical foundation for such endeavor, we now need some practical advice to accomplish such task.

The pastor’s study or the intrigued student is already quite busy and to add a few more tasks per week may seem to discourage such addition. However, the following has in mind the busy pastor and will open new ways of studying the Scriptures with the tools that are already available to their disposal.

Step 1: Add One Ancient Commentary to Your Exegetical Study

The first step towards retrieval exegesis is merely to add one ancient commentary to your exegetical study. You all know that single commentary that is found at the bottom of your list, it is the last one that you’ll pick up—but it’s still used nonetheless. I would recommend ditching such commentary and adding a Church Father’s commentary in its stead. In this way, you are not totally adding an extra item in your reading process.

When you are studying particular books of the Bible, be mindful of the following Patristic series’s:

  1. Fathers of the Church (Amazon, Logos Bible Software, CUA)
  2. Ancient Christian Writers (Amazon, Logos Bible Software, PaulistPress)
  3. Ancient Christian Texts (Amazon, IVP)
  4. Popular Patristics Series (Amazon, Logos Bible Software, SVS Press)
  5. Oxford Early Christian Texts (Amazon, OUP)
  6. Monachos Patristic Source Texts (Link)
  7. IVP Ancient Christian Commentary (Amazon, Accordance Bible Software, Logos Bible Software, IVP)

When beginning a new book for your sermon preparation, scan a number of these texts to see if there is an available commentary on these books of the Bible. Also, an appendix in Reading the Bible with the Dead offers a guide to English translations of pre–1600 commentary literature.[1]

For example, the Fathers of the Church Series offers numerous commentaries on books of Bible: Oecumenius on Revelation; Origen on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Romans, and more; Augustine on the Gospel of John; or John Chrysostom on Genesis and the Gospel of John. The Popular Patristics Series has some on the following: Tertullian, Cyprian, and Origen on the Lord’s Prayer; a compilation of interpreters on the Transfiguration; and more.

The Ancient Christian Writers series is making its way onto the scene with more and more works devoted to books of the Bible. For example, the most recent addition is Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on John. This series is an attempt to recovery the ancient commentary tradition. Modern normative commentary standards drastically differ, and the editors call for the ancient commentary writers to “define commentarius according to their own lights.” Cyril is a notable figure because his work is left out from the ANF and NPNF series. According to David Maxwell, he offers advice when reading Cyril’s Commentary on John:[2]

  1. Do not skip Cyril’s citation of Scripture in an attempt to “get to the point.” Cyril’s handling of Scripture is the point.
  2. Ask what connections Cyril is making between different texts and on what basis he is making those connections.
  3. Pay attention when Cyril launches into a summary of the entire story of salvation. He has multiple ways of telling it.

Step 2: Utilize the New Features of Logos 6

Most students of Scripture now use Bible software in their study. Whether it is Accordance, Bible Works, or Logos, computer software is part of the student’s life.

A new feature in the Logos 6 data package is the ancient texts portion. Merely provide a Scripture reference in the “Passage Guide” feature and a slew of ancient texts will emerge. These show allusions or quotations of biblical texts from ancient authors. Merely hover over the hyperlink, if you have available books, and it will give you the direct passage. If you do not have any Church Fathers as a part of your Logos software, then copy the ancient text reference and consult free online sources.

See Rick Brannan’s screencast on how to use the Ancient Literature Tool (link).

Step 3: Take Advantage of the Online ANF and NPNF

Another way to step towards retrieval exegesis is by taking advantage of free online resources. The Ante-Nicene Fathers (NPF) and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) is a standard series—although dated—for ancient texts. It is 38 volumes and begins with the Apostolic Fathers and extends through Post-Nicene figures.

Christianbook.com has kindly listed the table of contents for the entire series (see here). A simple “search and find” will help you scroll the contents within seconds. Once you know what figure wrote on what biblical book, you will need to consult the ANF and NPNF series.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library hosts the entire set in open access format (see here). Also, if you are looking to see who made a brief comment on individual chapters in the New Testament, they also how a catena of texts (see here).

You can also purchase on Amazon (ANF and NPNF 1, and NPNF 2), Accordance Bible Software, and Logos Bible Software.

Step 4: Invest in Notable Commentary Sets

With other scholars catching the vision of retrieval exegesis, a number of commentary series are devoted to recovering ancient voices. I would recommend consulting some of the following commentary series: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible;Through the Centuries (Blackwell Bible Commentaries); The Church’s Bible; Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar.

The Brazos Theological Commentary is a Theological Interpretation of the Scriptures with a Nicene theological confession. It seeks to integrate theological readings of the Bible with the ancient voice.

The Through the Centuries (Blackwell Bible Commentaries) is a history of interpretation commentary. Each author will focus on the reception of individual books of the Bible throughout the centuries.

The Church’s Bible focuses on the Patristic and Medieval readings of Scripture. It offers both a compilation of quotations as well as the integration of such thoughts for discussing the meanings of Scripture.

The Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar series is for those who have acquired and can use German literature. This is an ecumenical commentary focusing on the History of Interpretation of the Bible.

Step 5: Master BiblIndex

Utilizing Biblindex is the final way—for our purposes—to use early interpreters of the Bible within the pastor’s study. At the outset, this last feature requires advanced research skills and time for expanded research. It may take a few efforts to work through this database.

Biblindex is a free online database that hosts 400,000 biblical references in the Church Fathers. I recommend using Firefox as your Internet browser because it does not function well with Safari or Explorer. In this database, you are able to search for any bible verse in a number of early interpreters of the Bible.

The most difficult aspect of this database is interpreting the results. Because this is a more academic database, it will point you to primary language sources. So, basic translating skills and access to particular books is required.


These steps, and not all need to be followed, are ways to move towards recovering ancient and pre-modern readings in your study. Take note of which step is more right for you as you reach into the Church’s past to help invigorate your study of Scripture. By inviting ancient voices of the past to influence your reading of Scripture, you invite yourself and others to experience the well of riches of ancient past.

About the Author:
Shawn Wilhite

Shawn Wilhite is currently a Ph.D. student in New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research focuses mainly on the Epistle to Hebrews, History of New Testament Interpretation, Theological Interpretation of Scripture, Early Christian and Patristic Hermeneutics, New Testament Theology, and Greek and Latin Studies.

Doctrinae Coram Deo

  1. Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead, 274–301.  ↩

  2. Thomas C. Oden and Gerald L. Bray, eds., Commentary on John: Volume 1, by Cyril of Alexandria, Ancient Christian Texts, trans. David R. Maxwell (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), xi.  ↩