Book Review: Language for God in Patristic Tradition

51lxsmibydl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism. By Mark Sheridan. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015, 254 pp., $26.00 paper.

Biblical characterizations of God are often theologically unworthy of him and are, at times, downright immoral. Not only do the sacred texts of the Old and New Testaments suggest that God walks, talks, sees, forgets, remembers, and fights, they present God as malicious, moved to anger by disobedient human beings who provoke him to bursts of wrathful retribution. For Patristic authors, such anthropomorphic and anthropopathetic depictions of God—interpreted according to the bare letter—are unacceptable. In these authors’ estimation, it would be theologically untenable to suppose that God possesses a physical form like his creatures. More importantly, it would be an error of the greatest magnitude to think that God can be moved by petty jealousy or anger and be guilty of the same immoral behavior as his creatures.

How, then, did the earliest interpreters handle the difficult passages contained within their scriptures? Did they ignore problematic passages, or did they take a different approach? Mark Sheridan attempts “to show how ancient writers perceived the problem [of anthropomorphic and anthropopathetic depictions of God] and how they dealt with it” (17).

The Nature of Sacred Scripture

Understanding how the Patristics dealt with and neutralized unseemly passages begins with belief in God as the author of sacred scriptures. The singular divine authorship of all scripture—despite the participation of human agents—grants interpreters the freedom to see various levels of meaning within the text: the literal meaning and the spiritual meaning. The spiritual meaning of a text can be disconnected from and at times the very opposite of the text’s literal meaning.

Disconnecting the spiritual from the literal meaning, however, does not devolve into hopeless subjectivism. A text cannot mean whatever one wants, despite what modern scholars may think of their forefathers’ interpretive practices. Rather, authors within the Patristic tradition performed their interpretative task with the understanding that Christ was the hermeneutical key to Old Testament. Only the Spirit—the author of sacred scripture—could remove the veil that obscured Christ (i.e. the literal meaning of the text) to get at a deeper meaning (218–219). Once the veil is removed, Christ can be seen throughout the text.

Worthy of God and Useful for the Church

Christ as both the hermeneutical key  and interpretive aim of the scriptures was not the only a piece of the interpretive grid Patristic authors used in their interpretation of the Old Testament. To this should be added a two-fold criteria (24), wherein interpretations must:

  1. be worthy of God
  2. be useful for the church.

This framework ensures that the early church could neutralize anthropomorphic and anthropopathetic language about God due to the fact that it is unworthy of God, while at the same time affirming its relevance for the church. For instance, God is not really angry. The biblical authors use this language to tutor those who lack understanding to fear God and obey him.

Applying a Precedent

Having laid the foundation for Patristic interpretation, Sheridan takes a step back in chapters two and three to draw the connections between early christian methods of interpretation and those that predate it. Chapter two looks at the philosophical critique of Greek mythology and the allegorical method of interpretation that grew up in defense of works like Homer. Homer, claimed his defenders, used allegory

so that lovers of learning, delighted by a certain elegance, might more easily seek and find the truth, while the ignorant would not scorn what they could not understand. That which is signified through hidden meanings may be attractive where that which is said explicitly is of little value (54).

In chapter three, Sheridan notes that hellenistic Jewish authors such as Philo adopt a similar interpretive framework in defense of the Old Testament texts. For Philo, Abraham’s adulterous relationship with Hagar points to a deeper reality. Hagar is the handmaid—lower instruction such as the various sub-disciplines of knowledge —who acts as our tutor and means of acquiring knowledge. Sarah, however, represents virtue (73). One must first call upon the lower form of instruction in the pursuit of virtue. Sheridan writes, “The story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar is no longer a story about domestic strife but is elevated through allegory to become the vehicle of teaching about the spiritual life” (74).

What About the New Testament Authors?

Once Sheridan demonstrates that the Patristic tradition was within a well-established line of allegorical interpretation—interpretation that sought to alleviate the difficulties posed by anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms found in revered texts—he investigates the New Testament use of the Old. This is a particularly important chapter as he connects Paul’s own use of allegorical interpretation in Galatians as a source of Origen’s justification of his own method (89). Sheridan writes, “As Origen and many others saw it, Paul had given rules and examples of how to interpret the old writings. It was the task of Christian authors to continue this work” (105).

Deflecting Difficulties

Chapter 5 looks at specific examples of how various authors within the Patristic tradition deflect unworthy portraits of God (107). For instance, Didymus the Blind writes, “but we interpret obviously his hands as his powers of acting, his eyes as the fact that nothing escapes him and each member is like a power of God” (115). Furthermore, Didymus affirms the impassibility of God writing,

Thus it is said of God that “he repents,” not because he is subject to a passion, but to show the greatness of the sin. He was not in fact ignorant of the fact that men would be sinners, but in his goodness he wanted to see whereto [or not they would convert] in virtue of the laws inscribed in their thought (116).

Two common threads run throughout the chapter: (1) God is not disturbed, his being is not moved by men and (2) language that speaks otherwise can be explained on account of God’s considerate condescension in the way he addresses us (125).

Case Studies

Chapters 6–7 include case studies of important passages within the Old Testament: the creation narrative, Sarah and Hagar, the extermination of the nations in Deuteronomy and Joshua, and the lamentations of the Psalms. Each example has specific relevance to the methodological framework Sheridan elucidated within the foregoing chapters:

  • “The Genesis creation narrative, because of the repeated anthropomorphisms, had to be interpreted in a way ‘fitting to God.’ ” (162).
  • “The story of Abraham and Sarah had to be interpreted in a way fitting to holy persons, models for imitation” (162).
  • “The story of the conquest had to be interpreted in such a way that God could not be thought to have commanded such unspeakable cruelty” (162).
  • The Psalms contained all three issues with the special difficulty that it was a centerpiece for worship, and therefore could not be ignored (192).

Most interesting is the Patristic treatment of the conquest of the nations. Origen cannot reconcile the nature of God with the historical recounting of the battle of Ai. In lieu of an historical/literal meaning, Origen believes that this passage can be interpreted by no other means than allegory. For Origen, the inhabitants of Ai are the demons of the mind that must be exterminated (159).

For Cassian, the seven nations Israel is to drive from the land represent the seven carnal sins, which should be conquered. God’s warning that Israel’s “righteousness” will not spare them functions as a warning that the little successes they experience in warring against vices should not puff them up” (153). Later on in his commentary, Cassian switches to a discussion about 8 nations, not 7. Sheridan writes,

This allows Cassian to extend the allegory to Egypt, which represents the first vice to be combated, gluttony. But Egypt is different from the other seven, because the order was not given to destroy it (153–54).

Since eating and drinking is necessary for life, Egypt cannot be destroyed. For, to destroy Egypt would be to destroy the body.All other vices cannot be endured even in the least. Cassian writes, “Food can be taken in moderation, but not anger or greed or vainglory or pride” (154).

Both Cassian and Origen forego the literal meaning of the text in favor of a spiritual/theological meaning that is both useful for the church and worthy of God.

Ancient and Modern Hermeneutics

Sheridan concludes the volume with observations about the differences between Patristic and modern interpretation. He notes that the concerns of the ancient authors are different from our own. They did not back down from addressing the question of what was appropriate to say about the nature of God, and approached their texts from this perspective.

While we are concerned about reconciling the language of Genesis 1–4 with scientific accounts of the evolutionary origins of life, the ancients sought to counter attacks that claimed the biblical account of life was nothing more than a mythological origins story (194).

While modern authors either condemn (on account of adultery) or condone (on account of ancient practices and the fact that the law had not been give) Abraham’s affair with Hagar, the ancient interpreters sought to maintain the normative nature of the text by utilizing allegorical interpretation as a means of deriving a deeper meaning (198–200).

And while the modern commentators cannot simply give up the literal import of the ruthless destruction of the inhabitants of the land, ancient authors had no problem denying its literal import, offering a spiritual interpretation that encouraged believers to put to death their carnal vices (204–205).

As a final thought, Sheridan recognizes that though the modern interpreter is “no longer able to accept the ancient idea that sacred texts in general have a hidden meaning” (213–214), “the original historical meaning of these texts is not sufficient, especially in an era of increasing literalist readings” (215). Sheridan calls on the church to grapple with the theological meaning of texts, their implications, and what that means about the nature of God.

Some Reflections

Sheridan claimed that the Patristics thought that the portrayal of God in the conquest narrative was unworthy of God. God’s execution of judgement against the Canaanites in Deuteronomy and Joshua was entirely reinterpreted by means of allegory. Sheridan notes that this intense grappling with the theological implications of a passage in terms of what it says about the nature of God is a question the Patristics addressed head-on, while modern interpreters avoid it entirely.

Yet, Sheridan is uneven in his treatment of the issue. He has only told half the story. Nowhere in the book does he mention the final judgment or eternal damnation, a view that—with the exception of Origen—was widely upheld within the Patristic tradition. Without recognizing that the Fathers were comfortable attributing to God’s role as judge the ability to sentence countless sinners to eternal damnation, he has played fast and loose with his assessment of their understanding of God’s nature.

That is to say, why isn’t it okay for God to act as judge against the nations within the physical realm, but it is okay for him to act as judge and sentence sinners to eternal damnation in the spiritual realm?

Despite this quibble, I found The Language of God in Patristic Tradition to be one of the best primers I have read on Patristic hermeneutics. It is a must have for anyone interested in the Patristics. Evangelical texts on the subject too often devolve into a discussion about “finding Christ under every rock” and not truly seeking to interact with the concerns of the Patristic authors. Sheridan forces us to see that despite our arrogant claims to epistemological superiority, the ancients were not ignorant of the inherent difficulties of the Old Testament texts. Instead, they viewed those texts as opportunities to demonstrate that they were worthy of God and useful for the church.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from IVP in exchange for an honest review.

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4 Responses to Book Review: Language for God in Patristic Tradition

  1. Geoff says:

    This is a good review.

    I think that your quibble can be answered like so:
    1. The view of God as a judge/near eastern warlord was an anthropomorphism.
    2. It would be bad, even for a near eastern warlord to do the things attributed to God.
    3. Therefore the anthropomorphism (because God isn’t literally a near eastern warlord) is meant to teach us some lesson.

    Furthermore, the Fathers accepted an Aristotelian or Platonic metaphysic with the soul’s immortality being a natural trait. Therefore, people necessarily live forever post mortem. Therefore, they must live forever in God’s grace or opposed to it.

    This appears to be the argument of the Fathers, though I don’t have the time to trace it or fish for quotes. Why Sheridan left it out, I do not understand (perhaps a universalist?).

    • jacobcerone says:

      Excellent additions. I have no doubts that the Fathers have a coherent explanation, but for the life of me could not understand why Sheridan didn’t let us see this. He often stresses that God is not moved to anger. This anthropomorphic language is pedagogical in nature: it teaches us to fear God and to obey him. BUT why? This he doesn’t tell us. There are a few places where he notes that God will exercise judgement free of passions, but what that looks like and what punishment will be endured is not elaborated upon.

      It is certainly a small thing that shouldn’t detract from the overall value of the work!

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