Handbook of Patristic Exegesis: The Bible in Ancient Christianity

By Shelton, W. Brian | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2006 | Go to article overview
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Handbook of Patristic Exegesis: The Bible in Ancient Christianity


Shelton, W. Brian, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Handbook of Patristic Exegesis: The Bible in Ancient Christianity, 2 vols. By Charles Kannengiesser, with special contributions by various scholars. Boston: Brill, 2004, xxxiv + xx + 1,495 pp., $339.

Works such as this validate the expression, "We stand on the shoulders of giants." This two-volume set captures the patristic use of Scripture that helped the Church to define its doctrines, structure, practice, and very culture during its formative years. Set up in a handbook format, the work functions as a ready reference tool on the exegetical contributions of certain figures or schools of thought, in addition to the specific works associated with them. The size and technicality of the work demonstrate the complexity of a topic that continues to be a favorite among scholars of early Christianity.

Charles Kannengiesser is professor at Concordia University in Montreal and was successor of the late Cardinal Daniélou at Paris's Institut Catholique. Most recently authoring a work on the quest for Origen's spirituality, he has long been noted for his contribution to the field of patristics. Brill sponsors this fifteen-hundred page set on patristic exegesis as part of their new "The Bible in Ancient Christianity" series, the principal aim of which is to look at how Scripture texts functioned in all aspects of the early Church. One can hardly look at the early Church era without observing the high priority on scriptural exegesis; from doctrine to practice, "patristic exegesis is at the very core of the cultural legacy of the early church" (p. 13). Christians throughout the empire did not hesitate to appropriate their different interpretations into their own tradition, whether strongly rabbinical, pagan, Hellenistic, Arian, Persian, Syrian, or African. From neophyte to bishop, "Scripture never failed to satisfy the needs and to respond to the expectation of early Christians" (p. 13).

The work begins with an introduction defining readership, purpose, and method of the set. The justification for this large work lies in the revolution of the field of patristic exegesis that has only recently come into its own. Prior to the 1950s, early interpretation of Scripture "was relegated to the realm of erudite curiosities, irrelevant for any form of creativity in contemporary thought, and dispensable for serious theology" (p. 4). Kannengiesser reports several factors that helped to liberate the discipline: more critical thinking beyond "sectarian prejudice and confessional apologetics"; an increased appreciation of cultural, political, and social studies; a renewal of historically neglected periods; recovery from the Enlightenment's detachment of exegesis from church life; and an increase in innovative thinking-all of which have come together to develop the field of patristic exegesis. The enduring appreciation of the church's use of Scripture can be seen through increased interest in early Church studies among so many evangelical graduate students.

This work is unmatched by other patristic exegetical studies for several reasons that are laid out early. It surveys all of the exegetical writers and their works from the entire patristic era. It offers bibliographies of modern editions in addition to secondary materials that analyze them. It also considers the field of patristics itself as it seeks to study the history of interpretation. Kannengiesser specifies its goal: "Through analyzing relevant scholarly contributions, to attempt a coherent understanding of scholarly achievements within the whole field of patristic exegesis for almost a century" (p. 3); thus, it is a work on patristic exegesis and a work about patristic exegesis. Meanwhile, this study displays insight when it investigates several pivotal exegetical figures and trends in technical detail. These studies augment its analysis of the essential issues surrounding patristic methodology and antiquity's mindset in studying Scripture. No project on this topic has been done with such breadth and depth.

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