What the early church can tell us about preaching, prayer and biblical interpretation. By Jeff Baily
Most of us, when evaluating our churches, compare what we’re doing with what we understand the early church to have been like. While acknowledging that the early church had its own challenges and difficulties, we cannot escape the undeniable power that existed in those early communities that turned the world upside down. We rightly want our churches to be contemporary emulations of those early congregations.
It was with this reality in mind that we considered the role of preaching and the Bible-things central to the Vineyard. There are many good books and articles available on contemporary preaching – we have covered many of them in these pages. But what was preaching like in the first several centuries of the church? How did the Bible shape communities? And how does it differ from today? To address such questions, we turned to one of today’s most preeminent and widely-respected church historians, Robert Louis Wilken.
Wilken has taught at the Lutheran Theological Seminary and the University of Notre Dame, and today holds the William R. Kenan Jr. Chair in the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia. He is well-known for his pioneering work in the social and intellectual history of the early church, and his many books, including The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. and The Land Called Holy:Palestine in Christian History and Thought, are widely acclaimed. His most recent book, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, is one of those rare books that manage to be scholarly, beautifully and accessibly written, and spiritually invigorating. The book provides a fascinating look at the thinking of early Christian leaders such as Origen, Augustine, and Gregory of Nyssa, and discusses their views on worship, spiritual growth, and the Bible.
We hope that the discussion in these pages helps in your own efforts to be a community that values good preaching, a love for Scripture, and passing on the spirit of the early church.
-Jeff Bailey, Editor
The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is something of a sequel to The Christians As the Romans Sow Them, isn’t it? Although the approach you took with the earlier one is different from this present work.
One of the things I brought to that earlier project was an experience I had in the early seventies what was called a “T Group” – when one would get together with a small group of married couples and agree to spend twenty-four hours together and talk. (One of the rules that they laid down was that husbands could not speak for their wives!) One thing I learned from that was how differently people perceive you from how you perceive yourself. What you also learn is that how people perceive you is part of who you are. Our natural inclination as human beings is to want to correct what we consider to be misperceptions-but of
course you can’t, because you are what others perceive and in that there is truth.
Drawing on that experience I began to look at how the earliest Christians were viewed by outsiders, by the Roman pagans-to try to understand their perceptions of Christians, and to assume that they had insights into Christians that were true, but that Christians couldn’t necessarily see for themselves.
Following that book, you began to pay more attention to the centrality of the Bible for the Church Fathers. Did that lead you to approach this present book differently?
As I was reading patristic literature, I realized more and more how profoundly Biblical it was. One doesn’t realize that when reading the standard histories of Christian thought. Standard histories speak at a very abstract level about, for example, the three persons of the Trinity, or about substance and being, and so forth. The basic Biblical framework underneath doesn’t comet through. What I slowly began to realize was that the fire that gave early Christianity its power and verve came not so much from the culture in which they lived or the criticisms of the Greeks and Romans, but from the Scriptures! So I structured this book along the lines of what the Christians cared most about. rather than the questions that were being put to them, as in my earlier book.
There was another thing in my mind when I wrote this book. too. I had come to the conclusion that conventional histories of early Christian thought are much too intellectual. They give the impression that early Christian thinkers were primarily concerned with finding the conceptual and linguistic categories in which they would express – at a fairly high level of abstraction! -the basic truths of the faith. But I realized that what they were primarily interested in was changing people’s lives! So I thought, “Why don’t I try to write the book in such a way that I’m not simply a historian who is reporting what other people thought? Why don’t I try to invest something of myself in this book, in particular to try to speak faith-to·faith or heart-lo-heart?” As one reads further in the book, I think it is clear that I inserted more of myself in it. I had been writing this over ten years, during which time I had been going through something of a deeper spiritual
conversion personally. So the book has more historical objectivity in the early chapters, but as I get toward the later chapters, one can see that I went through something of a conversion about how to present the materials, as well.
On the other hand, I don’t want to disparage the other kind of historical writing. I am, however, in a different place in my life. Intellectually, I have more confidence, and I suspect I can get away with this, now. I noticed that in the book I wrote right before this one, a number of academic reviewers remarked on the personal nature of some of my reflections with some discomfort, feeling it was a moving into something too spiritual, too reflective of one’s own personal journey.
For the average contemporary Christian, if they were to go back and visit the early church that existed in the first several centuries, what kinds of things would they be most surprised by?
Probably one of the most surprising things would be the regularity of daily, corporate prayer. The church gathered morning, noon, and night to pray together! Corporate prayer was at the center of the lives of early Christians. I think also that by the third century- 250 years after the rise of Christianity – people would be struck by the fairly sharp line that was drawn between the church and the rest of society.
The practice of long periods of preparation before baptism-not months but years-where new believers would gradually be introduced to the Christian way of life with its beliefs and practices would surprise most people. It was a long, arduous process. The way baptism was celebrated was different too – always on Easter Eve in the midst of one of the great liturgies of the year. It was a very public ceremony, preceded by a period of scrutiny to make sure the baptismal candidates were morally acceptable. These kinds of very corporate, public rituals were very important to the early church. Christianity was not the kind of individualistic thing it is today.
Also, fasting is something you don’t hear much about in the church today, but many would be surprised by just how important it was to the early church, and how regularly it was practiced.
Another surprise might be the ritual of public penance for a grave sin such as adultery. The person who committed such sins was put in a special section of the church where he or she had to stand. One was not supposed to eat with them. They were shamed. It could go on for years, until they received formal absolution from the bishop. There was a kind of inner discipline within the early Christian community that the modern church would find quite foreign. There was much greater concern than today with the way Christians actually lived.
Would you see any of t hose practices as recoverable today?
I think the idea of a period of preparation for baptism has been grasped well by the Catholic church. Catholics call it RCIA, which is the Rite for Christian Initiation of Adults. In September a baptismal candidate is given a “tutor” who walks alongside him or her throughout the whole process. A period of education and formation is set up to help the candidate become more disciplined, and this leads up to a baptism on Easter Eve. It’s not widespread. but the ideal is baptism by immersion for adults. In fact. the baptismal rite now is written with that in mind. Immersion is much more powerful symbolically than being sprinkled.
I think it’s important that we have a recovery of fasting, too. The key to fasting, however, is that it needs to be communal. Fasting is something that you ought do with others. It helps you to do it, it gives it meaning, it becomes something that changes the life of the community when it’s practiced corporately.
When you think of how central daily, communal prayer was to the early church, it’s hard to imagine what that looks like in modern America, simply in light of geographical realities.
Urban areas are probably the best settings for it now, where people can walk to a central location. But there are other ways. I was in Paris recently, and there is a relatively new church community there where people are at work, but gather together in local little clusters during the day with those nearby to have communal prayer at specific times. That’s something that anybody can participate in.
On the preaching front, there seems to be such a difference between the concerns of the early church and the approach to preaching today. Is that because Scripture is approached differently?
There are still preachers today, especially among mainline Protestants and evangelicals, who have lived with the Bible for so long that every word that comes out of their mouths reverberates with the message of the Scripture. That kind of preaching is in the spirit of the early Church. One of the things that the preachers of the early church had was a superb rhetorical education.
The basic education in the world at that time was not in the humanities. or philosophy, or the liberal arts. It was in grammar and rhetoric. So what you learned – after you learned the rudiments of the language-was how to imitate the great orators of antiquity! You memorized their speeches. You learned to construct speeches modeled on theirs. You would be given assignments that involved speaking without notes. To do that, you had to have in your head appropriate phrases, you had to know how to structure your speech spontaneously, so when asked to speak extemporaneously on a given topic, you knew immediately what it would take to organize it; you had the phrases in your mind to give it the resonance it needed. So that is a key thing for understanding what helped make preaching so powerful in the early church.
Another reason, of course, was that it was a much more oral culture; speakers were much more accustomed to drawing on things by memory. Reading was all done aloud, not silently, as today – and when you read aloud you remember much more than when you are silent. (That’s how people pick up second languages much faster.) So they had a lot of the Bible at their mental fingertips.
Because of these two factors, they were capable of speaking with an eloquence that is today seldom matched.
Are there any other things that their approach to preaching can teach us?
One of the things you begin to discover is that a modern “translation” of Biblical phrases or vocabulary is not always helpful. You need to give people a new language. And the preachers in the early church instinctively understood that a story from the Bible, a metaphor from the Bible, even a word from the Bible is something that people will hear over and over again and it will stay with them and bring out resonances in relation to other ideas. So a sermon becomes a tapestry of Biblical texts drawn together, one text illuminating another, a word from one text leading to the same word in another text.
I was recently reading a sermon by Gregory of Nyssa on the Beatitudes about being persecuted for the sake of righteousness, and thirsting after righteousness. Well, the tendency in the modern critical style is that you read the Beatitudes on their own terms, in the context of Matthew and Jesus’ preaching. But in 1 Corinthians 1 Paul says that Christ is righteousness-Paul uses the same word as that used by Matthew. What Gregory does is to take Paul’s use of the word as they key to interpret the Beatitudes. Thus. to thirst after righteousness is to thirst after Christ!
Well, that kind of Biblical interpretation is enormously enriching in terms of reading the Bible as the Word of God. It follows the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. And that’s part of what gives early Christian sermons such power.
If I were to suggest one set of books for a pastor to buy, it would be the recent eleven-volume translation of the Sermons of Augustine (st. Augustine Press); they give you the very, very best.
So you can learn how to preach as well as learn to read Scripture from reading sermons such as these?
You learn to read Scripture in a whole new way that is much more attentive to words of the Bible. Words remind you of words, words carry overtones, images are conjured by words. In effect what the church fathers do is get you to read the Bible as a whole, not just as individual authors as modernity has taught us.
Which brings us to how we can read the Bible with the Fathers, given how many pastors are trained to read the Bible with only the historical-critical method in mind.
I had good, sound, historical, biblical training at seminary years ago, at a time when the historical-critical approach to the Bible was in its ascendancy. I went through all the steps and methods, had my Synopsis of the Gospels all underlined. All of that was enormously valuable. But I found after preaching for ten years that it became less and less satisfying. It provided in some cases good building material, good historical background. But basically I found that the Bible was much more interesting on its own terms, and much deeper. About that time I began to discover the writings and commentaries of the Church Fathers. So I think the only answer to that is not to mount some kind of critique of the historical study of the Bible, because it has its place. But we must also recognize the Church reads the Bible differently than it reads other books. it reads it as a unified whole through which Christ speaks. And the Church Fathers can teach us how to do that with much greater understanding. This is a way of reading with spiritual sensitivity and wisdom. As to how one learns to do this I say: “Go to the sources! Read the Church Fathers; read Augustine.” You then begin to read the Bible differently. Remember, this kind of reading has to be accompanied by reading the Bible itself. As I said in the introduction to my book, I can’t read anything in the Church Fathers without my Bible open there in front of me.
With my students, I am sometimes astounded when we are reading the writings of the Church Fathers in Greek or latin, and I ask, “What Biblical text is he thinking about here?” and they don’t know. Unless you know the Bible, a lot of these things don’t make sense. You have to read the Bible and discover for yourself.
How does a pastor trained in the historical ways of reading Scripture deal with it, then, when he comes across some of the allegorical ways the Fathers read Scripture?
Well, allegory is another whole topic. The thing to keep in mind here is that there is a lot of mis-understanding about this. Allegory is primarily a way of understanding. It is rarely used to interpret the gospels, of course; one does see it. for example, when Jesus curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit: that tree has no significance in its own right. It is only there to transmit some other message. But allegory has primarily to do with reading the Old Testament. Allegory is a way of making the Old Testament our book, a book for Christians. As Origen says, “Without allegory, the book of Leviticus is very unpalatable food.” Of course, what happened is that Leviticus was not read, and is not read today. Why? Because it seems to have nothing to do with Christian faith or life. It seems unpalatable. How often have you heard Leviticus read in church? Without allegory The most impressive case of this is the Song of Leviticus languishes among Christians.
So that’s the first thing that one has to say- allegory is a way of discerning the Christian character of the Old Testament. The second thing is that the model for how to interpret these books and to use allegory is in Paul. We see this in several passages. One is in 1 Corinthians 10-“Christ is the rock in the desert.” Paul doesn’t say, “The rock points to Christ, or the rock signifies Christ or the rock symbolizes Christ.” but they knew they were doing that! He says that the rock is Christ. He says that all of these things were written for us, and the Greek word that he uses is typikos, which means they are kind of models or examples for us.
We see it in Galatians 4, where Paul tells the story of Abraham’s two wives, and he uses the term “allegory”. Another example is in Ephesians 5, where Paul quotes that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife and they will become one flesh ,” and then he says that he is speaking about the church. There are many other examples like this. One I particularly like is in Romans 10, where Paul is talking about the mission of the apostles and he quotes Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God” and goes on to say, “Their voice goes out to all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” -and applies translation that occurs within the linguistic world that to the apostles’ speech, which is obviously not what the Psalm is talking about. So to interpret the Bible allegorically is simply to interpret it the way the New Testament interprets the Old Testament. I can’t imagine any serious Christian preacher preaching from Isaiah 53, for example, and not seeing it as a text about the passion of Christ.
What would be your theological explanation for this approach to reading Scripture?
What allegory allows you to do is to translate what’s in one part of the Bible another part of the Bible. In other words, instead of translating one part of the Bible into language of another part of the Bible into some current cultural idioms, you interpret the Bible with the images and language of another part of the Bible. The advantage of that is that you get new words, new phrases and new images to talk about something that is very familiar. So you can talk, for example, about priests’ vestments as a way of talking about holiness. You expand your vocabulary.
The most impressive case for this is the Song of Songs. The Church Fathers realized that agape, which we usually understand to be the love of one’s neighbor, is not the right word to speak about the intensity of our love for God. But the Bible only uses – except in very rare cases-the the term agape. It never uses eros. Eros is a deep longing and desire. So what they did was to interpret agape with eros… and where did they get their language? From the Song of Songs! And they knew that they were doing that! In fact, one writer said “Whenever you see the word Agape, read it as eros.”
So what allegory does is give you ways of presenting things that are much more varied, more complex, richer. And also, the words that it gives you are the words of the Bible, so they carry overtones that other kind of language does not. For example, many years ago a group of us were experimenting with Evening Prayer, a liturgy which is a recitation of Psalms. We decided to try using some non-Biblical religious poetry, as well. After a couple of weeks we gave up the poetry. Even though it had good sentiments it did not carry overtones of the Biblical language-David, Jerusalem, Exodus, and all those things. So allegory is a translation of Biblical ideas, words, images, stories into Biblical language. It is a translation of the Bible. So I’m all for it. You can’t get along without it. You can’t read the Old Testament without allegory.
Now that doesn’t mean that the historical sense of the Old Testament isn’t of enormous value. Take the Abraham stories. You can interpret the Abraham stories on the one hand as the story of Abraham and Isaac, as a story of Abraham’s faith. You can also interpret it as a story of Isaac being a type that points to Christ. I think both are valid. There’s no reason you have to choose one over the other. -End