Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 6. Alexandria and Antioch

by | Apr 25, 2011 | Hermeneutics, Historical Theology

Introduction: Our study of the Patristics has set the stage for a brief discussion on the schools of Alexandria and Antioch. In one sense, they are a natural development of things already in place. In fact, Bradley Nassif claims, “Origen did not invent his interpretive techniques but borrowed them from a complex hermeneutical environment [Christian and non-Christian] that was already present in his day.”[1] Both Christian allegory and Christian typology pre-date these schools of thought. These two schools have sometimes been pitted against each other. Silva says:

This description, however, leaves out a series of interesting and suggestive bits of information. It is simplictic, for example, to view Origen and the Antiochenes as representing two opposite approaches more or less exclusive of each other. As we shall see, Origen used and defended literal interpretation on a number of occasions. Moreover, certain exegetical features that we would quickly dismiss as in some sense “allegorical” were consciously adopted as legitimate by the Antiochene exegetes.[2]

Silva goes on to give two examples of allegory by Antiochenes – Chrysostom and Theodoret. Chrysostom interprets Jesus’ making wine from water as “changing wills that are weak and inconsistent.” Theodoret takes the dew from heaven and the fatness of the earth of Genesis 27:39 this way: “…according to the higher interpretation they depict the divinity of the Lord Christ by means of the expression dew; and by the fatness of the earth, his humanity received from us.”[3]

More recent studies have uncovered less discontinuity in their hermeneutical methods. What used to be seen as an antithetical pendulum is now seen as a sort of mini-pendulum with more continuity than previously thought. Whereas the Alexandrians were seen as primarily allegorists and the Antiochians were seen as primarily literalists further study has shown that the two schools, though certainly not one and the same, have more in common than a first glance approach might conclude. Both schools developed in similar historical, theological, and philosophical contexts and were, as are we, affected by those contexts. As stated above, both Christian allegory (Alexandria) and Christian typology (Antioch) had the same goal – the Christian use of the Old Testament.

[1] Bradley Nassif, “Origen,” in DMBI, 793.

[2] Silva, “Has the Church Misread the Bible?,” 47.Cf. Christopher A. Hall, Reading the Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 157.

[3] Silva, “Has the Church Misread the Bible?,” 47.

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