Faculty Publication

Dr. Papandrea’s New Book

Dr. James (Jim) L. Papandrea, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology, recently published Reading Scripture Like the Early Church. This book is now available in the library.


Recently, we had the opportunity to ask Dr. Papandrea a few questions about his newest book. We hope that you find these helpful as you explore this wonderful resource.


Why did you write this book?


I had the opportunity to do a second edition of my Church history textbook, Reading the Church Fathers, and it was while I was updating the chapter on the New Testament and the development of the Christian canon, that I started to get the idea of doing a whole book on the subject of the way the early Christians read the Bible. After all, why not let the same people who decided which documents would become the books of the New Testament inform the way we read those documents? As a historian and biblical scholar, I know that there is a cultural gap between ourselves and the historical context of the New Testament writers – and this makes interpreting the New Testament (not to mention the Old Testament) tricky. But no such gap exists between the authors and their original audiences. They were writing for people with the same worldview and cultural contexts as their own. So it only stands to reason that we should consult those earliest Christians to see how they understood the documents that were written for them, or for their closer descendants. Not that we always have to come to the same conclusions they did about the application of Scripture, but we can let their methodology – their hermeneutics, though they didn’t call it that – guide us in learning how Scripture was meant to be understood, because before we can talk about application, we have to talk about original meaning and authorial intention.


Who is your intended audience?


I cover a lot of what I’m talking about in my textbook, but I wanted to write a version that would be a self-contained book, which would be very accessible to the lay person or non-scholar. So for example, this book doesn’t have footnotes. I tell the readers that if they are interested in the footnotes or other scholarly background, they can consult the chapter in the textbook, but for the present book, instead I give examples of how (and how not to) read the Bible, using the methods of the early Christians. So this book is written for anyone to read – with no prior knowledge or experience required. It helps if the reader is familiar with the Bible, but not even that is required, as I do what I usually do when I write, which is bring the reader along so that someone starting from scratch can catch up. On the other hand, even those who are veteran Bible readers will find new insights, and a few surprises, by going back to the way the early Christians read the Scriptures.


Why should seminary students read this book?


In many ways Seminary students are in the same place as the non-specialist, especially those who are not specifically concentrating on the Bible. Even though many students come into seminary with a lot of experience reading, and even teaching, the Bible, they often read the Bible one certain way without realizing that there are different ways to read the text, and they often interpret the Bible in ways that take passages out of context, as though these passages were written to address the reader’s situation. Also, it’s easy for seminary students to get caught in a kind of tunnel vision, restricted by the concerns of the 19th and 20th century historical-critical method, and it’s helpful for them to broaden their vision of the biblical texts. In our concern for cultural competency, we often forget that the ancient world is a culture all its own, and that we need some cultural competency to study the texts from that culture – and after all, Christianity itself is not a western religion; it is the product of another culture (or cultures) and it’s important to understand that cultural context. This is why it’s so important to study Church history alongside the Scriptures. Studying the Scriptures without an understanding of the historical context out of which they come would be like reading any historical documents, and trying to understand them from their internal content alone, without learning about the people who wrote them, and to whom they were written.


If you could share one key insight, what would it be?


It is sometimes said that Scripture interprets Scripture, and that is something that the Church fathers believed. There is an internal consistency to our Bible that allows us to compare one text with another, and use clearer texts to help us interpret more obscure ones. But if that’s all we have – in other words if we read the Bible with a doctrine of sola scriptura strictly applied – then we lose out on the wisdom of that great cloud of witnesses who came before us, and who also help us interpret Scripture. In other words, we also need Tradition to help us interpret the Bible, and to give us the checks and balances we need to avoid going off on a tangent that leads us into heresy, or schism. One of the really important things that Church history teaches us is the value of Tradition. For example, at the Council of Nicaea, in the year 325, the bishops concluded that in order to faithfully interpret Scripture, they had to take into account how the previous generations of Christians had interpreted Scripture, and that meant that they had to explain the Scriptures using words that are not in the Scriptures. They had to use words like consubstantial – which is not in the Bible – to be able to teach (correctly) the doctrine of the Trinity and write the Nicene Creed. Those who denied the full divinity of Christ, however, (we refer to them in hindsight as “Arians”) they were the sola scriptura faction at the council, demanding that only words actually found in the Bible could be used to interpret the Bible. But this myopia led them to deny the doctrine of the Trinity itself. They tried to read the Bible without the guidance of prior Tradition, and they went off the rails. But the majority of the bishops at the council understood the role of Tradition (that is, Church history) in the interpretation of Scripture, and they clarified for the future that most primary doctrine which defines Christianity itself.


What are your hopes for the book?


I hope that people will see that the early Christians did not read the Scriptures the way that fundamentalists do. Their interpretation was not what we would call hyper-literal. For example, they did not think Genesis should be interpreted as presenting a literal seven-day creation, as though the Bible is a science textbook. On the other hand, they did not read the Scriptures as modernists do, as though it is only an example of human literature, like any other document. They did not dismiss concepts like the supernatural and divine providence as merely the product of unenlightened ancient cultures. They approached Sacred Scripture with a humility that did not allow them to pretend to be masters over the text and dissect it with the scalpel of skepticism. Somewhere between these extremes of fundamentalism and modernism is the method of the early (and medieval) Christians – recognizing both the divine and human origins of the holy writings of our faith. I hope that this book will help people take Scripture more seriously, learn to read it as a revelation from God, and through it, come to be in closer union with their Creator.


More about the Book


According to the publisher, Sophia Institute Press, Dr. 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…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….


In addition, Dr. Papandrea provides tips for biblical interpretation and advice on how to choose the most accurate Bible translation. Most significantly, you will recognize how reading Scripture is a relational exercise….”

Unboxing My New Book! Reading Scripture Like the Early Church, by Dr. Jim Papandrea