By Trevin Wax
Many years ago, I worked alongside a Sunday School teacher who insisted that he didn’t need any curriculum or study helps. He just wanted to take his group through the Bible without any guidance.
“Who needs a commentary or study notes?,” he said. “I just pray for the Holy Spirit to lead me to the right interpretation, and then I read it for myself.”
Eventually, this teacher decided to tackle the last book of the Bible, Revelation. I wasn’t a member of his class, but from what I heard, those sessions on the Bible’s famous apocalyptic letter elicited some strange predictions.
Members expressed frustration with the incoherence of the weekly study, as the teacher’s “interpret as I go” approach led him frequently to revise things he’d taught in previous weeks.
The idea that Bible interpretation is only about “me and the Holy Spirit” is widespread in our time—and worrisome. It sounds super-spiritual on the surface, but it ignores the fact that Bible interpretation is never just about “me” but also about the Church.
Likewise, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just illuminate us today but has been at work in guiding Christians to understand and apply the biblical text for millennia.
What’s more, none of us approach the Bible as a “blank slate,” without having first been formed by various influences to read the Scriptures in a certain way.
We all have our biases, our prejudices, and our interpretive approaches even if we don’t think we do. In fact, the most biased Bible readers are probably those who believe they have no biases!
Thankfully, many readers of the Bible recognize the need for guidance. For this reason, we consult study Bibles and commentaries or listen to preachers and scholars who have done extensive work in the original languages.
But even here, it is possible to adopt a tunnel vision approach to the Bible, where we only consult contemporary commentators and preachers. Many of the leaders we listen to share our same cultural moment.
Without intending to, we succumb to what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the idea that Bible interpretation of an earlier era is inferior simply because it is older. We unconsciously look down on ancient Christians, without realizing that it’s on their shoulders we stand.
Engagement with the generations that have gone before us helps us recognize that we aren’t alone in our struggles today. We must not fall for the false idea that we face spiritual and cultural challenges on our own.
In a fallen world, we may sometimes feel like we’re embattled and pressed from all sides. But Hebrews 12 would have us see the world differently, to recognize that we’re indeed surrounded, but not just by cultural challenges or the gospel’s enemies, but by the great cloud of witnesses.
We stand in a long line of saints who have gone before us, who now are seated in the heavenly coliseum, cheering us on as we run the race before us.
1. They lift our eyes from our current moment.
This helps us to listen to the words of the psalmist, hear the laments of the prophets, recall the stories of our ancestors, visit our church fathers, read and learn from our missionary mothers, and realize that we are not the first to struggle in our walk with Jesus. We belong to God’s people throughout the ages.
Many oft-quoted ancient Christians were brilliant thinkers, but they weren’t mere academics. These writers were immersed in the life of the local church. Their involvement with God’s people and their study of Scripture went hand in hand, influencing each other.
2. They remind us we’re not the first to encounter tough biblical texts.
The roots of our biblical interpretation go deep. By listening carefully to ancient church leaders, we come to understand that our faith is relevant not because it’s “modern” but because it’s rooted.
The Holy Spirit isn’t stingy with spiritual insights. He has been at work for thousands of years. We see this truth clearly when we read ancient saints.
Reading the words of ancient saints will challenge you with a depth of biblical knowledge. When you read a classic book like Confessions by Augustine, you’ll be amazed to see how much it abounds in phrases and words and pictures that come from Scripture. Augustine immersed himself in Scripture until it poured out of him in his prose.
We need to be challenged by the diligence of the earliest students of Scripture. They had far fewer of the study tools that we do but yet knew the Old and New Testaments so well that biblical insights poured from their pens.
3. They challenge us exegetically.
There were several communities of biblical interpretation in the early centuries of the Christian Church.
Two dominant schools, the Alexandrian and Antiochian, emphasized different truths about the biblical text, with the Alexandrian steering closer to an allegorical emphasis and the Antiochian steering more toward an historical approach. Neither community was exclusively to one side or another.
All the early church fathers believed the Scripture had layers of meaning, especially as it relates to seeing Jesus Christ in all the Bible, even in obscure Old Testament narratives.
Irenaeus wrote, “If anyone reads the Scripture carefully, they will find some word, some hidden treasure in the field, which is Christ.”
Differing approaches to Scripture were at work back then, just like they are now. When Basil the Great finds application in a text that I would never see, I want to know why.
It’s not that I adopt the hermeneutical approach of the fathers in every case or that I agree with all of their interpretations.
Still, the depth of their convictions, the worshipful feel of their exposition, and the passion they bring to their preparation challenge my 21st century narrow-mindedness.
Room for disagreement
There are times when we’ll disagree with the Christians in previous generations, who had their blind spots just as we have ours.
The church fathers aren’t inspired, but they’re wise. Seen in this light, church history is a treasure box, not a map.
We err if we look to the past in order to chart the precise path of faithfulness for the future. We’re marching to Zion, not retreating to Constantinople.
But we do look to the past in order to retrieve the resources we need to fortify and renew our faith in the present as we discern with wisdom and prudence the way forward.
This is how we best honor those who have gone before us: learning from both their strengths and also their sins, and praying that we’ll be faithful today.
Timothy George calls this “retrieval for the sake of renewal.” Today’s church can be renewed by listening to yesterday’s saints.
We aren’t the first to encounter these texts. So, join us as we encounter a Christianity that stretches back through the ages, where a tomb is still empty.
TREVIN WAX (@TrevinWax) is the Director of Bibles & Reference at Lifeway.