Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 2. Patristics

by | Mar 4, 2011 | Hermeneutics, Historical Theology

Brief survey of the history of hermeneutics – 1. Intro.

 Introduction: The Apostolic Fathers are those church leaders who wrote between A.D. 90 and 150.[1] Subsequent to that several other church leaders are identified as the Church Fathers. Two things happened in the era of the Apostolic Fathers: 1) the fathers continued the hermeneutical methodology of the New Testament and 2) they introduced a moral usage of Scripture or functional hermeneutic.[2] Dockery explains the moral use of Scripture as “…the readers appl[ying] the text to their own context and situation without attention to its original context and situation.”[3]

The moral use of Scripture approach was soon partially eclipsed, however, probably due to heretical views of the Old Testament. Gnostics denied continuity between the testaments, arguing that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the God of the New Testament. Marcion (circa A.D. 85-160) argued on these lines. He was an early leader in the church at Rome. Excommunicated for heresy about A.D. 144, four years after he went to Rome, he rejected the entire Old Testament as Christian Scripture.[4] He believed that law and grace were incompatible and that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the God of the New Testament.[5] The Old Testament was “not for Christians, but for Jews only.”[6] He insisted on interpreting the Old Testament literally, which, in fact, lead him to reject it altogether.[7] Marcion created his own canon, which  included Luke (except chapters 1 and 2, which he viewed as too Jewish) and Paul’s letters (except the Pastoral Epistles). Though Marcion accepted 10 of Paul’s letters, he edited them to “remove remnants of Judaism.”[8] Marcion’s 11 book canon is the earliest known. Just as much of the material in the epistles of the New Testament was occasional, brought on by circumstances experienced by the recipients of the New Testament books, so Marcion’s canon helped create an occasion for orthodox believers to declare themselves on the issue of the canon.[9] Both Gnosticism and Marcion forced the Apostolic Fathers to justify the Old Testament as Christian Scripture. The functional hermeneutic was eclipsed by a typological hermeneutic more in line with Christ and the New Testament authors.[10] Dockery says, “Soon a typological interpretation of the Old Testament became a standard way of expounding the Scriptures.”[11] In the discussion of Patristic hermeneutics below, we will see several examples of this method of interpretation which, by the way, is basically consistent with the New Testament’s use of the Old.


[1] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 48.

[2] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 45.

[3] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 45.

[4] Thiselton notes that upon excommunication “Marcion established his own “church.”” Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 94. The quotation marks are Thiselton’s.

[5] Patzia & Petrotta, PDBS, 76. Cf. Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 94.

[6] Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 94.

[7] Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 94.

[8] Thiselton, Hermeneutics, 94.

[9] Though this is not the whole story behind the formation of the New Testament canon.

[10] More on this later.

[11] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 48.

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