Let’s start with a principle that can be observed throughout the whole history of the Church, and which drives the way I teach Church history and doctrine. As I tell my students, the truth is always “in the middle” – which is to say, the truth is always to be found in a place of balance between the extremes. These extremes are the heresies – the ways that well-meaning but misguided people have denied one important truth to emphasize another.
For example, in the time of the early Church (and still to this day), some people could not believe that Jesus Christ was really the divine Son of God. They denied his divinity, and emphasized his humanity. Others had no problem with the idea that Jesus was divine, but they could not believe that a divine being could become human. Therefore, they emphasized His divinity to such a degree that they denied His humanity. Both extremes are considered heresies because they limit themselves to half of the truth. These early groups had tried to simplify Jesus into only one nature or the other. They said He had to be either divine or human. But the Church Fathers knew that no matter how mysterious or hard to understand it might be, we cannot be satisfied with the “either/or” answer to the question of who Jesus is. The truth is that He is not either divine or human, but He is both divine and human.
As you probably know, Jesus Christ is referred to as The Word in John’s Gospel (for example, John 1:1, and 1:14). Well, it’s not a coincidence that the Scriptures are also called the Word of God. The life, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus is the most powerful communication of God to humans. He is the Living Word of God. But secondary to that is the written Word of God. And it turns out that just as Jesus Christ has His two natures, divine and human, the written Word of God – the Scriptures – also have their divine “nature” and their human “nature.” What this means is that the Church Fathers understood the Scriptures to be both inspired by the one perfect and omniscient God, and also written by fallible humans with limited understanding. Every text of Scripture has two authors: the divine Author, and a human author. The divine Author speaks through the pen of the human author.
Just as there are extremes (heresies) of christology that emphasize one of Christ’s natures over against the other, there are also extremes in how we might think of the Scriptures. If we imagine the possibilities for understanding what Scripture is as a spectrum, one extreme would involve a kind of divine dictation, where God has taken over the human author’s consciousness, and created a text in which the human author contributed nothing from his own perspective, personality, or experience. The other extreme would assume that the text is not really divinely inspired at all, but is entirely a human invention, no different from any other human literature or ancient myth. The Church Fathers would see both extremes as wrong. In fact, they would see them as heresies, because each misses an important part of the truth. For the Church Fathers, the truth is in the middle of the spectrum, trusting that the text is divinely inspired, but also acknowledging the contribution of the human author. It’s the “both/and” answer to the question. Are the Scriptures really the Word of God? Or are they the words of humans? The answer is: both.
And so it must be pointed out that there are a lot of people who live on these extremes, even to this day. Christian fundamentalists, and for that matter many evangelicals, tend to assume that the Scriptures are the product of divine dictation, while modernists tend to think of the Scriptures as so much the product of the human authors and their cultural contexts that they diminish or deny the divine authority of the text entirely. Both of these extremes are missing part of the truth.
The Church Fathers believed the Scriptures to be divinely inspired, which means that what is written in the Bible cannot mislead or deceive us. The text of Scripture is infallible for teaching and living the Faith. In fact, when St. Paul wrote, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16), he was using a Greek word (that we translate “inspired”) which literally means something like, “God-breathed,” or perhaps, “God-spirited.” In other words, God has breathed his message into the minds of the biblical writers, through the agency of the Holy Spirit.
But of course, when St. Paul wrote that, the documents of the New Testament were brand new, and mostly written (thus far) by Paul himself, so his definition of “Scripture” was the Old Testament. It was probably not until after Paul’s death that his own writings were considered Scripture (see 2 Peter 3:16). Fundamentalists and other evangelicals often use this passage from 2 Timothy to argue for the “divine dictation” view of Scripture. They read the passage as though it means that Scripture is “inerrant,” which it does not say, or that only Scripture is inspired, which it also does not say. What Paul is actually saying in this passage is that there is something called “Scripture,” which is defined as a divinely inspired (infallible) writing, and which is “useful” – that is, reliable, in that it will not lead one astray when used to inform the Church’s doctrine and discipline.
So when the Church Fathers read Scripture, they did not lean toward either extreme. They did not read it like fundamentalists (as divine dictation), nor did they read it like modernists (as a purely human creation). The Church Fathers rejected both of these extremes. They treated the documents with reverence, as divinely inspired and with divine authority, but they understood that not everything in the Bible can be read as though the divine message is plain and on the surface. They also understood that one could not have a relationship with God through Scripture alone, without the mediation of the Church. Jesus Christ Himself always remained the Living Word and the primary revelation of God, and the normative way that Christians were meant to remain connected to Jesus (cf. John 6:56 and 15:4) was always through the Church and the sacraments.
This article is an adapted except from Dr. Papandrea’s newest book, Reading Scripture Like the Early Church Seven Insights from the Church Fathers to Help You Understand the Bible. In this brief yet penetrating book, Dr. James Papandrea reveals what the early Church Fathers actually taught and believed about the Holy Scriptures as well as how they read, understood, and interpreted the Word of God. He explains the process by which the books of the Bible were selected and demonstrates the harmoniousness and complementarity of the Gospels.
With Dr. Papandrea’s guidance, you will see how Scripture attests to the truth of the sacraments, Catholic doctrines, and the hierarchy of the Church founded by Christ. You will come to understand how the Church Fathers differentiated the “literal” and “figurative” interpretations of Scripture (it will likely surprise you!). You’ll come to appreciate as never before the multiple layers of biblical meaning, from the historical and prophetic to the allegorical, apocalyptic, eschatological, and typological.