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LANGUAGE FOR GOD IN PATRISTIC TRADITION: A BOOK REVIEW

Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism. By Mark Sheridan. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015. 254 pp. $20.80. ISBN 978-0-8308-4064-9.

            As the authors of the recently published book, Reformed Catholicity, point out in the introduction to their book, there is a growing interest in the writings and theological ponderings of early church theologians. This book is another example of that interest, and will most likely contribute to maintaining that interest. For many Protestants the writings of the early church fathers are seen as corruptions of the gospel, or as the useless writings of old and overly mystique thinkers. It should be kept in mind, however, that many of the early church fathers were disciples of the followers of Christ himself, and many of the early church fathers grew up in similar cultural and historical environments as those to whom the apostles where witnessing and ministering. This fact would seem to imply that they, more than us, where better qualified to understand and interpret the writings of the New Testament. Perhaps it would be best, prior to passing judgment on their interpretations, to consider their way of approaching sacred scriptures, in light of their historical and cultural environment, and their particular concerns. In this book review we will consider the purpose of this book, provide a brief overview of the contents of the book, and consider the relative worth of this book.

            The Bible contains many different types of descriptions of God, some of them predicate seemingly human characteristics of God, others predicate emotions of God, others predicate qualitative or quantitative change of God. For ancient thinkers, Christian and non-Christian alike, these predications were unworthy of God as they did not accurately describe God’s nature, as it was understood by ancient thinkers. “The goal of this book is to show how ancient writers perceived the problem and how they dealt with it. (p. 17)” In other words, Sheridan seeks to consider how the early Christian theologians interpreted biblical descriptions of God that seemed to attribute human characteristics, change and emotions to God. His claim is that they interpreted the scriptures “theologically” (p. 19). Sheridan distinguishes “theological interpretation” from allegorical interpretation and from the literal-historical method of interpretation; though he recognizes that theological interpretation does use allegory (p. 212, 233-236.). He notes that the word theological “is being used here in the original sense of the word theology, which is composed form the Greek words theos (‘God’) and logos (‘discourse’), that is, a discussion of the nature of God or of divinity. (p. 19-20)” In other words, the Bible is interpreted in light of what is known about the nature of God—and the scriptures are explained based upon the interpretative principle that could be named “that which can be appropriately said of God.” (Cf. p. 213-215, 224-226.) According to this understanding, theological interpretation may require the use of analogy to interpret a text which is also understood to have a literal meaning.

            The book is divided into 8 chapters and an appendix. It also contains some very useful reference tools: short biographical sketches of the main theologians that are being considered in this work, a bibliography, an index of authors and names, a subject index, and a scripture index. In the first chapter the author introduces the reader to the fundamental notions that the early church fathers used when interpreting what the Bible says of God. He explains that they interpreted the bible “theologically”, by noting, first of all, that God is not at all like men, and secondly, that he condescends to man’s weakness by describing himself and his actions in ways that are easily understood by man (analogy, symbolism, etc.). Though it is not pointed out in this chapter, the only way to be able to recognize that a description is a symbolic/anthropomorphic accommodation, and not a literal description, is to already possess prior knowledge of the natures of both the description and of the thing described. As such, in order to properly interpret biblical descriptions of God one must already possess prior knowledge of the divine nature.

            In chapter 2 the author explains how the notion of allegory was developed in Greek philosophy—in order to explain the “tales” of the gods that did not agree with what was known of the nature of God. The author gives examples from numerous commentators of Homer, including Pseudo-Heraclitus, Pseudo-Plutarch, and Theophrastus. He also gives examples from Cicero and Varro. Of particular interest is the note that “Both Jewish Hellenistic writers such as Philo and the early Greek Christian writers such as Clement, Origen, Didymus of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus had studied Homer as a normal part of their education and were also well acquainted with the interpretation of Homer using allegorical methods. (p. 55)” He also explains the early use of the doctrine of impassibility in interpretation, and the primary principle of interpretation as “the concept of what is fitting, worthy or appropriate to divinity (p. 55)”. He claims, or seems to claim, that this type of interpretation was the source of this doctrine, however, as noted above, it seems that in order to interpret as they did, they must have already known that God was X, Y, Z, and this knowledge is what drove their interpretation.

            In chapter three the author shows how early Hellenistic Jewish Commentators interpreted the teachings of the Old Testament about God. He demonstrates that they interpreted the Old Testament in the same way as the Greek thinkers interpreted Homer—according to the principle of what is appropriate, or fitting, to say of God, based upon their knowledge of God’s nature. Sheridan considers three different Hellenistic Jewish authors, one of which is Philo; and takes the time to note the early Jewish views of God’s immutability and impassibility (p. 76-77). In chapter 4 Sheridan explains the way in which the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament, and how the early church understood various New Testament texts to provide fundamental principles for the proper interpretation of the Old Testament. Sheridan notes the principles of (1) Scripture interpreting Scripture (p. 82), as well as the principle of “what is fitting or appropriate for God” in Paul’s writings (p. 88). He notes that the New Testament interprets as allegorical that which is unfitting for God. We are also shown the passages that are used to support allegorical and theological interpretation (cf. principle of allegory, p. 98).

            In chapter five the author surveys a number of early (Greek and Latin) church fathers and demonstrates that the notions of “that which is fitting or worthy of God”, anthropomorphism and divine condescension were the common interpretative tools used by these theologians. He explicitly notes, in his section on Augustine, that one’s understanding (“concept”) of God is a principle tool in a proper understanding of scriptures (p.123). In other words, one must already know something of God in order to properly interpret the scriptures (that is, to know that some biblical description of God is, or is not, “worthy of God”—that is anthropomorphic, symbolic, etc.). In chapter six Sheridan considers three sample texts of the Old Testament which posed difficulties (because they predicated change and/or emotion of God, or because they described God approving seemingly horrible things) for the early Christian theologians (the Genesis creation narrative, the Abraham & Sarah Narrative, and the narrative of the conquest of the Promised Land). The author shows how a great majority of early Christian theologians applied the principles of interpretation mentioned above in order to explain these texts. We see how their understanding of God, as immutable, impassible, perfect, good and just drove their interpretations of these texts and others. In chapter seven the author does the same thing as he did in chapter six, but with a different set of sample texts: the imprecatory Psalms.

            In chapter 8 the author contrasts and compares the interpretative methods of the early church fathers with the interpretative methods of contemporary theologians. He points out that some of the methods and interpretative practices of the early church theologians are no longer valid (such as trying to find a secret sense in the different biblical names). He also points out that the main concern of the early church no longer seems to drive contemporary hermeneutics: the principle of explaining those texts that predicate of God things that are not worthy of God. He points out that most contemporary interpreters seems to pass over the difficulties in the texts that the early church fathers sought to explain. He concludes by noting that explaining the original meaning of these texts usually leaves the problems that concerned the early church theologians unresolved.  As such, he concludes by positing that the theological interpretation of the text is “no less relevant today than it was in the early centuries of the church…In this sense [interpretation in light of what is known of the nature of God] the theological question should be primary in the interpretation of Scripture today. Perhaps the most enduring and fitting solution remains that of Philo, Origen and John Chrysostom with which we began: God spoke then like a father to his children. That should not be confused with the way he really is in himself. God does not behave like humans. (p. 215)” The appendix is a helpful outline, and organized explanation, of (1) the primary presuppositions of the early church theologians, and (2) their primary hermeneutical principles. At the end of the appendix he corrects some unfortunate misunderstandings concerning just what allegory is, and what an allegorical interpretation is.


            This book is a wonderful introduction to the hermeneutical methods of the early church father. Sheridan does a great job of drawing out the primary interpretative principles that drove the early church fathers in their understanding of scripture: (1) scripture interprets scripture, (2) What is fitting or appropriate to say of God, (3) that Christ is that to which all scripture points, and (4) divine condescension. He shows that the ancient interpretations of scripture (both Jewish and Christian) were driven by their understanding of the nature of God as immutable, impassible and transcendent. The one question that he does not answer, and it seems to be a very important question, is: How do we arrive at that proper understanding of the nature of God which becomes the norm for proper biblical interpretation? This question is not answered. Sheridan does not even hint at the fact that it is a problem. The idea that we get, from this book, is that all of these interpreters inherited, from nowhere, an idea of the nature of God, which was then used as the norm for all biblical interpretation. This critique aside, this book is very good, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to properly understand the scriptures. I concur with Thomas Oden’s evaluation of this book, from the Foreword, “This book will keep the preaching pastor out of a whole lot of trouble. Constantly in biblical teaching we use human language to speak of God, knowing very well that God transcends human speech. We may stumble over the Bible’s words if we are unaware of how profoundly the classic Christian tradition has examined this question. (p. 7)”

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