Cover page

Table of Contents


Challenges in Contemporary Theology

Title page

Copyright page


Preface and Acknowledgments

Editions and Translations

Works by Basil

Works by Other Early Christian Authors


Works by Basil

Works by Other Early Christian Authors

Series Titles


Part I: Basil of Caesarea

Part II: Contemporary and Constructive Theology

Summary of the Argument

Part I: Basil of Caesarea

1 The Reader – A Little Lower than the Angels

Angels: Perfect upon Creation

Humanity: Perfected over Time

2 The Text – Scriptural Paideia

Anthropological Context


Theological Account of Scripture

The Utility of Scripture

3 Reading – Eschatological Interpretation

Theological Analysis of Reading

The End of Reading

4 Ecclesial Setting – Exegesis and Ecclesial Dogma

A Concise History of Reception for De Spiritu Sancto 27

Background to De Spiritu Sancto: The Notion of Craft

A Reading of De Spiritu Sancto 27

Conclusion to Part I: Basil’s Theological Account of Scriptural Interpretation

Part II: Contemporary and Constructive Theology

Introduction to Part II: The Contemporary Debate

5 The Reader – Restoring a Sense of the End

The Critique of Modernity

Narrative and Human Nature

6 The Text – Scripture in the Flow of Time

Revelation and Generativity

A Text in Time

7 Reading – Interpretation and the Time of Learning

Reading as Shaped by Models of Scripture

The Contour of the Time of Learning

8 Ecclesial Setting – Practices Performed in Community

The Ecclesial Framework

Interpretation Situated in a Web of Practices

9 A Constructive Account of Scriptural Interpretation




Ecclesial Setting




Challenges in Contemporary Theology

Series Editors: Gareth Jones and Lewis Ayres

Canterbury Christ Church University College, UK and University of Durham, UK

Challenges in Contemporary Theology is a series aimed at producing clear orientations in, and research on, areas of “challenge” in contemporary theology. These carefully co-ordinated books engage traditional theological concerns with mainstreams in modern thought and culture that challenge those concerns. The “challenges” implied are to be understood in two senses: those presented by society to contemporary theology, and those posed by theology to society.


These Three Are One: The Practice of Trinitarian Theology
David S. Cunningham
After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy
Catherine Pickstock
Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology
Mark A. McIntosh
Engaging Scripture: A Model for Theological Interpretation
Stephen E. Fowl
Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ
William T. Cavanaugh
Sexuality and the Christian Body: Their Way into the Triune God
Eugene F. Rogers, Jr
On Christian Theology
Rowan Williams
The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature
Paul S. Fiddes
Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender
Sarah Coakley
A Theology of Engagement
Ian S. Markham
Alien Sex: The Body and Desire in Cinema and Theology
Gerard Loughlin
Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology
Matthew Levering
Faith and Freedom: An Interfaith Perspective
David Burrell
Keeping God’s Silence
Rachel Muers
Christ and Culture
Graham Ward
Theology in the Public Square: Church, Academy and Nation
Gavin D’Costa
Rewritten Theology: Aquinas After His Readers
Mark D. Jordan
God’s Companions: Reimagining Christian Ethics
Samuel Wells
The Trial of the Witnesses: The Rise and Decline of Postliberal Theology
Paul J. DeHart
Theology and Families
Adrian Thatcher
The Shape of Theology
David F. Ford
The Vietnam War and Theologies of Memory
Jonathan Tran
In Adam’s Fall: A Meditation on the Christian Doctrine of Original Sin
Ian A. McFarland
Divine Illumination: The History and Future of Augustine’s Theory of Knowledge
Lydia Schumacher
Towards a Jewish-Muslim-Christian Theology
David B. Burrell
Scriptural Interpretation
Darren Sarisky
Title page


Now to this [i.e., the other life] the Holy Scriptures lead the way, teaching us through mysteries.

Basil of Caesarea, Ad adolescentes 2

Preface and Acknowledgments

This book is aimed at a number of different audiences. To scholars of early Christianity, I offer a synthetic interpretation of some important theological themes in the work of Basil of Caesarea, together with a constructive appropriation of Basil’s theology. The use of patristic material by contemporary theologians has often been criticized for not being based upon a close reading of the patristic figures. Although this book concerns itself with a range of matters, and is not solely concerned with Basil, it does aspire to draw upon him responsibly. Reading him intensively is well worth the work, for he has a significant contribution to make to contemporary theology.

To Christian theologians, I provide an assessment of a couple of major current English-language theologians, Stanley Hauerwas and Rowan Williams, as well as a theological perspective on the practice of biblical interpretation. Extended works that view reading from a doctrinal point of view are rare today. But thinking theologically about interpretation has the potential to explain the significance within the Christian life of the very practice that it brings into focus: that is, my argument sheds light on why Christians read the biblical text in the first place.

To all of those interested in the lively current debate about theological interpretation of Scripture, regardless of their particular subdiscipline, I offer analysis of some proposals presently on offer, and make a serious effort to appropriate a theological position from the patristic period with a view toward enriching the current debate. This book is distinctive in its intention not only to delve into the fourth century and the present day, but also to bridge the gap between the two periods.

I have been stewing on the ideas around which this book revolves for some time, and what follows is a story of how the book came to be. It is a significantly revised version of my University of Aberdeen doctoral thesis. I am grateful to two bodies for defraying the cost of that research. The Overseas Research Students Award Scheme provided the majority of the financing for my degree. A grant from the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Aberdeen also provided generous financial support.

My doctoral research grew out of the master’s work I did at Duke University. At Duke, Geoffrey Wainwright encouraged me to pursue my interest in theological exegesis by looking at the example of Basil of Caesarea. After taking an excellent course on the Cappadocians from Warren Smith, I wrote a brief thesis on Basil’s use of the Bible in De Spiritu Sancto. The present book centers on a different set of questions, but there is, nevertheless, a continuity of approach between it and my master’s thesis. In both, I presuppose that productive theological thought can proceed on the basis of a tradition, and that intensive reading of classic texts can provide a way forward in contemporary debates.

I have been privileged to learn from many excellent teachers, but my deepest intellectual debt is to John Webster, who directed my doctoral work. John suggested putting Basil in conversation with some important contemporary theologians, and he led me to think about all the texts I was reading from a new vantage point. I appreciate the amount of time he gave me, the range of skills he possesses, and his unstinting encouragement. He is certainly a master of his craft, and it was my privilege to be his apprentice. Of all the things I have learned from John, it is his robust confidence in the potency of Christian theology that has inspired me most and that animates this book.

My examiners, Lewis Ayres and Don Wood, gave the thesis a close, sympathetic reading, and asked many tough questions about the design of the project. Their trenchant but constructive criticism forced me to rethink my argument and to recast it in this book. My reading of Basil is significantly indebted to Ayres’s scholarship, especially to what Sarah Coakley deems one of his most significant contributions to the discussion of the Nicene period: not so much the historical narrative he offers as “his methodological and theoretical framing of the narrative.”1 This includes the ways in which he draws attention to the role of Scripture in theology and his outline of the cultural matrix within which theologians like Basil worked. Don Wood assisted me in thinking through how to undertake revisions after the oral examination.

While I was working on this manuscript, many other faculty members helped me at critical junctures. Matthew Levering, Morwenna Ludlow, Walter Moberly, Joachim Schaper, and Francis Watson all took time to discuss the ideas I was developing. Stephen Hildebrand, Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, and Frances Young graciously sent me their work before it was published. Kevin Vanhoozer and Dan Treier sparked my initial interest in theological interpretation. Dan also read the entire manuscript closely and offered insightful critical feedback, as did Jake Andrews.

When I joined the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge as a Teaching Associate, David Ford and Sarah Coakley offered helpful advice and plenty of encouragement as I continued to work on the book. Both read portions of the manuscript and offered the sort of feedback that only people with their redoubtable skills and extensive experience are able to provide. I finished writing the text as I took up another post in Cambridge, a Junior Research Fellowship at Homerton College.

I have benefited from meeting with my two contemporary interlocutors. I especially appreciate the time that Hauerwas took to read one of my chapters and to respond to my interpretation of his work. In addition, I am grateful that Archbishop Williams stepped away from what he wryly referred to as his “day job” to answer a set of questions I posed to him during a visit to Cambridge.

I would like to thank both Rebecca Harkin and Lewis Ayres for accepting my book into the Challenges in Contemporary Theology series at Wiley-Blackwell. It is a pleasure to work with them.

I thank Studia Patristica for permission to reuse, in Chapter 3, parts of articles previously published in the journal: “The End of Interpretation in Basil of Caesarea’s De spiritu sancto,” Studia Patristica 47 (2010): 91–95; and “Who Can Listen to Sermons on Genesis?” (forthcoming 2012).

I appreciate the interest my family continues to show in my work. My parents’ emphasis on education early in my life laid the necessary groundwork for me to take on an ambitious project like this one. More recently, their technical expertise has proven invaluable as I have formatted the manuscript. My brother-in-law, Matt McKendrick, read the manuscript and encouraged me to clarify a number of points.

I dedicate this book to my wife, Colleen. She discussed many of the ideas in it with me, and her sharp editorial eye helped me to bring the manuscript into final form. Her reading of the various recensions of this material was nothing short of heroic. More than that, I appreciate the many sacrifices she made as I completed my education. Without her, I simply could not have finished this project. I am continually thankful for the life we have made together, and I look forward to many more years together with her and our little boy, Jamie.


1 Sarah Coakley, “Introduction: Disputed Questions in Patristic Trinitarianism,” Harvard Theological Review 100 (2007): 130. Emphasis original.

Editions and Translations

I have used the following editions and translations for the works of Basil of Caesarea and other early Christian authors. The translations are modified where necessary, either to bring out a nuance present in the original language, or in an effort to use inclusive language. Biblical texts are cited according to the New Revised Standard Version, unless the quotation is embedded in a work from an early Christian author, in which case I have not altered the scriptural quote (except as noted).

Works by Basil

Ad adolescentes. Discorso ai Giovani (Oratio ad adolescentes), con la versione latina di Leonardo Bruni. Edited by Mario Naldini. Florence: Nardini editore, 1984. The Letters. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari and Martin R. P. McGuire. Vol. 4. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Contra Eunomium. Contre Eunome, suivi de Eunome, Apologie. Edited by Bernard Sesboüé, with Georges-Matthieu de Durand and Louis Doutreleau. 2 vols. Sources chrétiennes 299, 305. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1982, 1983. Against Eunomius. Translated by Mark DelCogliano and Andrew Radde-Gallwitz. The Fathers of the Church. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2011.

De Fide. Patrologia Graeca 31 (676–692). Edited by J. P. Migne. Paris: 1857. Ascetical Works. Translated by M. Monica Wagner. The Fathers of the Church. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1950.

De Spiritu Sancto. Sur le Saint-Esprit. Edited by Benoît Pruche. Sources chrétiennes 17 bis. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 2002. On the Holy Spirit. Translated by David Anderson. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980.

Epistulae. Lettres. Edited by Yves Courtonne. 3 vols. Collection Guillaume Budé. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1957, 1961, 1966. The Letters. Translated by Roy J. Deferrari. 4 vols. The Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926, 1928, 1930.

Hexaemeron. Homélies sur l’Hexaéméron. Edited by Stanislas Giet. Sources chrétiennes 26 bis. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1968. St. Basil: Letters and Select Works. Edited by Philip Schaff. Vol. 8 of A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second Series. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1895.

Homilia in illud: “Attende tibi ipsi.” L’Homélie de Basile de Césarée sur le mot “Observe-toi toi-même.” Edited by Stig Y. Rudberg. Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis, Studia Graeca Stockholmiensa 2. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1962. On the Human Condition. Translated by Verna E. F. Harrison. Popular Patristics Series. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005.

Homiliae. Patrologia Graeca 31 (164–617). Edited by J. P. Migne. Paris: 1857. Baptism: Ancient Liturgies and Patristic Texts. Edited by A. G. Hamman. Vol. 2. Alba Patristic Library. Staten Island: Alba House, 1968. On the Human Condition. Translated by Verna E. F. Harrison. Popular Patristics Series. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2005. Ascetical Works. Translated by M. Monica Wagner. The Fathers of the Church. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1950.

Homiliae in psalmum. Patrologia Graeca 29 (209–494). Edited by J. P. Migne. Paris: 1857. Exegetic Homilies. Translated by Agnes Clare Way. The Fathers of the Church. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1963.

Moralia. Patrologia Graeca 31 (700–869). Edited by J. P. Migne. Paris: 1857. Ascetical Works. Translated by M. Monica Wagner. The Fathers of the Church. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1950.

Regulae fusius tractatae. Patrologia Graeca 31 (890–1051). Edited by J. P. Migne. Paris: 1857. Ascetical Works. Translated by M. Monica Wagner. The Fathers of the Church. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1950.

Works by Other Early Christian Authors

Augustine. De Doctrina Christiana. Edited by G. M. Green. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesias­ticorum Latinorum 80. Vindobonae: Hoelder-Pinchler-Tempsky, 1963. On Christian Teaching. Translated by R. P. H. Green. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Eunomius. Fragmentum. Eunomius: The Extant Works. Edited by Richard Vaggione. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987.

Gregory of Nyssa. De Beatitudinibus. Patrologia Graeca 44 (1193–1302). Edited by J. P. Migne. Paris: 1863. The Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes. Translated by Hilda C. Graef. Ancient Christian Writers. Mahwah: Paulist, 1954.

Gregory of Nyssa. De Vita Mosis. Patrologia Graeca 44 (298–430). Edited by J. P. Migne. Paris: 1863. The Life of Moses. Translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson. The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist, 1978.

Gregory of Nyssa. In Cantica Canticorum. Patrologia Graeca 44 (755–1119). Edited by J. P. Migne. Paris: 1863. Commentary on the Song of Songs. Translated by Casimir McCambley. Archbishop Iakovos Library of Ecclesiastical and Historical Sources. Brookline: Hellenic College Press, 1987.

Gregory of Nyssa. In Hexaemeron explicatio apologetica. Patrologia Graeca 44 (61–124). Edited by J. P. Migne. Paris: 1863. “Hexaemeron.” Translated by Casimir McCambley and David Salomon. Saint Pachomius Library. (accessed June 3, 2011).

Origen. Commentarius in Cantica Canticorum. Edited by W. A. Baehrens. Die Griechischen Christlichen Schriftsteller 33. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1925. The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies. Translated by R. P. Lawson. Ancient Christian Writers. Westminster: Newman Press, 1957.

Origen. Philocalia. Origène, Philocalie, 1–20: Sur les Écritures et Le Lettre à Africanus, Sur l’histoire de Suzanne. Edited by Marguerite Harl and Nicholas de Lange. Sources chrétiennes 302. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1983. The Philocalia of Origen. Translated by George Lewis. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1911.


I refer to Basil of Caesarea’s texts by title only, and I use Paul Fedwick’s system of abbreviations in doing so.1 There are only two divergences from Fedwick’s scheme: the epistles, which I cite by number (for instance, Ep. 22) rather than by the recipient’s name, and De fide, which Fedwick groups together with other ascetical writings. Throughout the book, I have avoided referencing any of the works Fedwick lists as either dubious or spurious.2 For early Christian authors other than Basil, who are cited much less often, I specify both the author’s name and the work’s title using the abbreviation system of Geoffrey Lampe’s Greek lexicon.3

Works by Basil

Ad adolesc. Ad adolescentes
C. Eun. Contra Eunomium
De Fid. De fide
De Sp. S. De Spiritu Sancto
Ep. Epistula
HAtt. Homilia in illud: “Attende tibi ipsi”
HBapt. Homilia exhortatoria ad sanctum baptisma
Hex. Homiliae in Hexaemeron
HHum. Homilia de humilitate
HIra. Homilia adversus eos qui irascuntur
HMal. Homilia quod Deus non est auctor malorum
HPs. Homiliae in psalmos
Mor. Moralia seu Regulae morales
Reg. fus. Regulae fusius tractatae

Works by Other Early Christian Authors

Apol. Eunomius’s Liber Apologeticus
Beat. 1–8 Gregory of Nyssa’s De Beatitudinibus
Cant. Origen’s Commentarius in Cantica Canticorum
De Doc. Ch. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana
Frag. Eunomius’s Fragmentum
Hex. Gregory of Nyssa’s In Hexaemeron explicatio apologetica
Hom. 1–15 in Cant. Gregory of Nyssa’s In Cantica Canticorum
Philoc. Origen’s Philocalia
V. Mos. Gregory of Nyssa’s De Vita Mosis

Series Titles

I cite these texts by volume and page number.

PG Patrologia Graeca, ed. J. P. Migne
SC Sources chrétiennes


1 Paul J. Fedwick, “Abbreviations,” in Basil of Caesarea: Christian, Humanist, Ascetic, ed. Paul J. Fedwick (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1981), xix–xxxvii.

2 In the decades since Fedwick published his symposium on Basil, scholars have come to reconsider the status of only one extended text associated with Basil. This is the commentary on Isaiah. Since the time that Erasmus raised questions about a commentary on Isaiah that bears Basil’s name in many ancient manuscripts, most Western scholars have doubted that the Cappadocian actually wrote it. Yet one scholar has recently argued that the commentary probably does belong among the genuine works of Basil: Nicolai Lipatov, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah: St. Basil the Great (Cambridge: Edition Cicero, 2001). If Basil did write this commentary, that would not significantly alter the interpretation of him advanced in this book. In fact, my reading of Basil dovetails remarkably well with the themes of the commentary, especially with the reflections on interpretation found in the work’s introduction. Either way, the commentary receives no mention in this book, given the lack of a clear consensus on its authenticity among the broader scholarly community.

3 G. W. H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), ix–xliii.


Scripture is so central to the life of Christian communities that it would be easy to take its presence for granted. Reading the Bible during worship forms a standard part of the services of every major Christian tradition. These readings may come as part of a regular cycle stipulated by a lectionary, or they may be selected as part of a sermon series on a particular topic or biblical book. For both liberal and conservative churches, deli­berations on doctrinal issues require some form of engagement with pertinent biblical texts as well as reflection on their present implications. The Bible also shapes the perspective from which believers understand and navigate the world: the text informs the thinking and shapes the lives of those who habitually read it. A wide range of interpretive practices mark Christian communities as such, but why do Christians make such frequent recourse to the text of Scripture? Just what is it about biblical interpretation that gives it such importance? The present book seeks to gain some purchase on these issues by asking what is happening, theologically speaking, when Christians read the Bible. What doctrinal language is necessary in order to depict the dynamics of interpretation and the situation in which readers find themselves? This book proposes a theological analysis of reading, an interpretation of biblical interpretation sub specie divinitatis, and it attempts to locate the act of reading in a larger doctrinal context, relating reading to theological understandings of the reader, the biblical text, and reading’s ecclesial setting. This decidedly theological focus is not altogether common in the present, yet it promises to shed considerable light on the practice of biblical interpretation. The overall project is a theology, not a phenomenology, of reading: in a sense, it deals with the church’s experience of reading; however, the conclusions on that topic are theological in character and derive from a theological metaphysics of the reader and of the biblical text.

Another way to delimit the topic of the book is to say that it is about interpretation, though not primarily about the techniques that are properly applied to the Bible. The drive of many discussions of biblical hermeneutics is to delineate procedures for reading, answers to the question of how one should read. This book puts the issue of technique in the background, and focuses instead on where interpretation takes place and what is happening when Christians read Scripture: it thereby seeks to broaden the scope of the hermeneutical question. In doing so, I follow Charles Taylor, who uses his notion of “moral space” to expand the context of ethical questions. Taylor insightfully observes that in modernity, ethical questions are usually framed in terms of what is right to do, not what the nature of the good is.1 Just as Taylor tries to sketch out the “background picture”2 that lies behind our moral intuitions and makes sense of them, this book is an effort to explore theologically the situation of those reading Scripture. It does so on the assumption that an understanding of interpretation and its norms flows from a construal of the space in which reading occurs. “Space” is Taylor’s heuristic for addressing the topics of identity and ontology: “To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space, a space in which questions arise about what is good or bad, what is worth doing and what is not, what has meaning and importance for you and what is trivial and secondary … . We are only selves insofar as we move in a certain space of questions … .”3 In focusing on the variant notion of hermeneutical space, this book concentrates, first, on the nature of Scripture and the identity of its reader and, second, on how the notion of space orients interpretation. It is from this angle that the book approaches a theology of reading.

The metaphorical notion of hermeneutical space has a particular utility that allows it to guide the argument of this book. Metaphors, and not just propositions, have the power to shape one’s thinking.4 The specific advantage that attaches to thinking about the space in which interpretation takes place is that the image links together and coordinates a number of topics relevant to hermeneutics. When Taylor says, “To know who you are is to be oriented in moral space,”5 he is stressing the interconnection between natures and ends in the context of ethics. The space image is useful for this purpose, since it is easy to imagine that if a person does not know where he is, it would be impossible to chart a course to his destination. Adapting the space metaphor for a discussion of hermeneutics assists in making the point that a theological view of reading makes sense against the background of a theological account of the reader and the biblical text. The metaphor thus brings into focus the nexus between natures and ends. With the category of ends, “The sphere of the entity, of ‘there is,’ of frozen ontological concepts, is thawed into motion … .”6 It is no objection to this strategy to protest that the notion of space derives from a philosopher and is therefore not theological. For what it is worth, Taylor does have obvious theological interests and declared theological commitments, but neither of these points is finally decisive. What is critical is the use this book makes of the metaphor, in particular, the substantive theological claims that depict the situation of Scripture’s reader.

It is easy enough to find examples of accounts of interpretation in which theology plays only a modest role, and I offer this counterproposal against that backdrop. For example, David Tracy proffers an account of interpretation that exploits the terminology of phenomenological hermeneutics more so than traditional theological categories. His account is like mine in one respect: he analyzes the reader, the text, and the activity of reading. Doing so is inherent in the task itself, as he rightly comments: “Any act of interpretation involves at least three realities: some phenomenon to be interpreted, someone interpreting that phenomenon, and some interaction between these first two realities.”7 I am adding a further component to the account: the community in which reading occurs. Yet Tracy’s account differs fundamentally from the one I propose to the extent that he shies away from interpreting theologically the loci to which he draws attention. He is theologically minimalist and observes that his account “can be read as one more footnote to the modern revolution of Western historical consciousness.”8 Here is how Tracy expounds his three topics in a historically conscious manner. The reader is no autonomous mind, but is rather a person marked by her context, possessed of a preunderstanding that has been shaped by centuries of history as well as her own race, class, and gender. Paradigmatic texts, or classics, bear a per­manence of meaning and have the potential to speak far beyond their circumstances of origin. Reading then becomes a conversation between the reader and the text, a chance to put one’s preunderstanding at risk in an encounter with the text; this exchange is a dialogue about the text’s subject matter, in which the reader meets a new horizon of thought that can enrich her own. All of this applies to biblical interpretation as much as it does to interpretation of other texts. Thus, Tracy’s view includes a depiction of hermeneutical space – just not a robustly theological one.

While there is definite value to accounts such as Tracy’s, something more theological is ultimately needed. It is true, no doubt, that readers approach texts with presuppositions that influence their readings. Depicting the reader and the text in historical terms, however, is necessary but not sufficient for a satisfactory account of scriptural interpretation. Theological categories are also needed and should become fully operative. When they are minimized or absent, the resulting notion of reading becomes problematic. The advantage of seeing reading as a conversation is that it recognizes the active role readers undeniably have in interpretation, yet, if the notion of conversation has a place in an account of interpretation, it must receive careful qualification. At least when it comes to Scripture, reading is a special kind of dialogue, not one between equal parties. The interpretive conversation ought to include an element of confrontation, as when the prophet Nathan told a story to reprimand David for his dalliance with Bathsheba.9 The biblical text is the chief partner in the conversation, and it deserves the reader’s deference. A theological account is able to provide a rationale for this. There is, in addition, another difficulty for Tracy. The more biblical interpretation is assimilated to a model of textual interpretation in general, the more challenging it becomes to understand why Christians give the prominence they do to Scripture. Insofar as what is distinctive about Scripture is muted, the reasons for reading this text in particular become harder and harder to articulate. Again, a more overtly theological depiction of interpretation can help here.

In addition to an account of hermeneutical space, this book proffers a position on what might be called the time in which the text is read. If interpretation is an activity that human beings undertake – if it is a practice in this minimal sense – then it clearly happens not only in space but in time as well.10 That is, hermeneutical space is the sphere of a history, a domain in which human beings understand their situation and direct their movement toward the good over time. This point is a strong, even pervasive, emphasis in the theological writing of Rowan Williams. In an essay reflecting on Augustine, he comments, “There is indeed a requies promised to the people of God, the ‘presence’ of heaven and the vision of God’s face; but by definition this cannot now be talked about except in the mythological language of future hope.” Rather: “It is the presence of God at our own end, our death, the end of time for us, and in some sense the end of desire in fruitio; not, therefore, for possession now in the language of belief, or any other language.”11 Time is thus a sphere of continual, ongoing learning; to say otherwise is to risk premature closure. Williams is right to worry about the specter of fundamentalism that is unmistakable in overly ambitious claims to certainty and in the desire “to know and have done with knowing.”12 Accordingly, this book seeks to depict the temporal setting of reading. What is crucial is to see how the spatial construal conditions the temporal perspective: this is the “essential link between identity and a kind of orientation.”13 The orientation takes a twofold form: first, a theological analysis of the practice of reading and, second, a social context for interpretation, namely, the church, the people who read the text between the times. Space and time are two intertwined red threads that run throughout the book. They are heuristic tools for getting at my basic query: what is the nature of the wider field in which Scripture is read, and what implications does this have for interpretation?

Part I: Basil of Caesarea

Part I of this book turns to a Greek patristic theologian, Basil of Caesarea (c.330–379), and sets forth his view of the context in which the Bible is interpreted. Together with his friend Gregory of Nazianzus and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, Basil is known as one of the Cappadocian fathers, the three most significant theologians of late fourth century, who together played a major role in the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Scholars group the Cappadocians together because the lives of the three men were intertwined, and because they had similar theological concerns, but it is important not to impose a contrived unity upon their writings. This book focuses on Basil alone in the belief that he is sufficiently important to treat in his own right.

Basil was born to a prosperous family and received an excellent education in rhetoric and classical Greek literature, culminating in studies at Athens. After his schooling, he went on a tour of ascetic communities in the Mediterranean world, subsequently received baptism, and then dedicated himself to live an ascetic life at his family’s estate. Basil asked Gregory of Nazianzus to join him there, and the two compiled a collection of Origen’s writings, called the Philocalia, which deals especially with biblical interpretation and freedom of the will. The impulse to withdraw from the world, which was embodied by Basil’s retreat, was one that he balanced against the responsibility he ultimately assumed to lead the church. He was ordained in Caesarea and went on to become bishop there. Basil’s career as a church leader fell between the councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) and was dedicated, in large part, to articulating and developing a distinctively Christian doctrine of God. Many of the elements mentioned above in this brief sketch of Basil’s life – his intimate knowledge of Greek high culture, his countervailing commitment to check the power of the world over himself, the influence of Origen in shaping his spiritual vision, his role as a leading spokesman for a set of theological ideals – have importance for Part I and will be revisited in due course. Basil’s pneumatology is, though, probably his most significant contribution to Christian theology and constitutes a major reason for his inclusion in this project.14

Basil’s theology has a certain cogency, and his writings are relevant to the issue at hand in a couple of respects. First, Basil’s work contains significant reflection on pneumatology; more specifically, the Cappadocian includes the work of the Spirit within God’s self-revelation in the economy of salvation. That is, God the Father is known through the Son and in the Holy Spirit: the “divine generations are themselves regarded as being … revelatory functions in the divine economy.”15 What this implies for biblical interpretation is that the reader of the Bible understands the text by means of, and not apart from, the action of the Spirit. It is not that the Holy Spirit magically imparts an understanding of biblical language to the reader. Of course this is not the case. Rather, as the Spirit indwells the reader, or, when the human subject participates in the Spirit, the Spirit conforms the interpreter of the Bible to the res of the text. Basil refers to the Spirit as the agent who perfects rational creatures because of the Spirit’s role in imparting knowledge of God to them.16 The Cappadocian’s teaching at this point arguably reflects that of Scripture itself. It makes good sense to explore Basil’s account of the Spirit, for it constitutes his most significant contribution to the history of Christian doctrine. One scholar describes the achievement of Basil and his contemporaries in this way: “Pro-Nicene pneumatology makes a vital contribution to the history of pneumatology in its clarity that the work of sanctification is the unmediated work of God.”17 The Spirit’s work of conforming the reader to the subject matter of the biblical text is of a piece with the reader’s sanctification. Neither Basil nor any of his fellow pro-Nicenes is able to formulate in a compelling way the difference between the Son’s generation and the Spirit’s procession.18 Yet that does not constitute a problem for this book. Since the argument concentrates on the Spirit’s role in the economy, it is not necessary to explore fully the Spirit’s precise place in the Godhead. What is crucial is the inclusion of the Spirit in the divine revelatory processions, rather than the exact difference between the Spirit and the Son’s work.

Why look to Basil specifically in this book, even if it can be taken for granted that the period in which he wrote was an especially fertile and formative one for Christian theology? A couple of closely related criticisms of Basil’s pneumatology raise this question. Patristic scholar Christopher Beeley finds fault with Basil’s understanding of sanctification and suggests that Gregory Nazianzen is a superior theological model.19 As Beeley reads him, Basil minimizes the Spirit’s role in believers’ sanctification: believers are responsible to master the passions themselves before they can approach the Spirit. The Spirit thus serves as little more than an assistant to Christians, an agent who finishes work that human beings start of their own accord, not the real cause of sanctification. This problem has its roots in Basil’s doctrine of God. While Beeley sees value in Basil’s critique of modalism, and in his corresponding effort to distinguish the persons from one another, the scholar thinks that Basil fails to achieve clarity regarding the obverse point, the unity of the Trinity. The allegation is that Basil seems not to believe that the Spirit is fully divine. In light of this revisionist interpretation of Basil, Beeley prefers the pneumatology of Gregory of Nazianzus, whom he sees as clearer and more insistent regarding the crucial points. I do not take up Beeley’s objection concerning the place of the Spirit in the Godhead. But to the degree that my discussion in Part I demonstrates that the Spirit is more than simply a helper for Christians, it casts doubt indirectly on Beeley’s interpretation of theology proper in Basil, and on the sharp contrasts he sees with Gregory, although surely those issues are sufficiently important to deserve full discussion by others.20 Working along similar lines, classicist Werner Jaeger interprets Basil as a Semipelagian theologian who assigns human beings all too substantial and active a role in their own sanctification.21 Jaeger reads Basil as slavishly following non-Christian philosophers in framing his view of how human beings relate to the divine. Chapter 1 seeks to rebut Jaeger’s charge and to vindicate Basil’s view of the Spirit’s role in the economy of salvation. If this is accepted, Basil’s pneumatological insights are still well worth retrieving today. Chapter 1 deals primarily with the objection to Basil’s view of sanctification in the form that Jaeger articulates it, since he develops more fully the aspect that bears on the topic at hand in that chapter, namely, the Spirit’s role in the Christian life.

Basil’s work is relevant for a second reason, too, one that builds on the point just made above about pneumatology. His writing offers not only an impressive pneumatology but, in addition, a description of the situation of the reader in terms of this doctrine, or what I have called a theological understanding of hermeneutical space. Part I makes the case that the Cappadocian operates with a specifically theological understanding of the Bible and its readers. These beliefs are not suspended when he comes to consider the practice of interpretation, but he puts them to use by following through on their implications. Basil differs here from paradigmatically modern thinkers, who call for theological beliefs to be bracketed out when considering interpretation and related topics. The general trend in modernity is to frame procedures for reading without reference to “the unresolved disputes of the metaphysicians,” especially the theological metaphysicians, and instead “to travel light.”22 By contrast, Basil’s understanding of hermeneutical space determines his view of reading: his understanding of what is happening theologically when the Bible is read, and his conception of the aim of reading are both intelligible against the backdrop of his other theological commitments. Likewise, his views of the reader and the text lead him to locate interpretation in the context of the church. These topics – the theological construal of reading, its aim, and its ecclesial location – are the ways in which Basil situates biblical interpretation in time, specifying reading’s function in the economy of redemption and its social location. It is well known that Basil makes regular recourse to a whole range of biblical texts throughout his corpus: he stands out even among the fathers for the degree to which his writing is based on Scripture.23 Yet he is of interest for this project not primarily for this reason, but due to his theological view of reading. Because of Basil’s pneumatology, and because he declines to bracket out theology, involving him in this dialogue project has the following advantage: “By including the dead in the circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation.”24

The Transition to Modernity and the Fate of Hermeneutics

Robustly theological accounts of the reading subject and the scriptural text are rare in modernity, and this is a more general rationale for examining patristic theology. The history of theology and biblical hermeneutics between the fourth century and the twenty-first is obviously complex, being tied up with many of the major shifts in intellectual history that occurred during that time. This introductory chapter cannot cover all of that material. There are, however, a number of synthetic studies that are helpful at this point: they bring to light some of modernity’s founding assumptions, they set these ideals in relief by comparing them with the ideas of previous eras, and they consider criticisms to which modern principles have been subjected recently. These studies set this project in a larger context by giving an account of the marginalization of theology in modernity.25 There is at present some distance from modernity and an awareness that the narrative by which it depicts the transition from past to present in terms of progress has begun to falter.26 Technology has developed over time; however, this expansion has proven to be both a blessing and a curse for human life and the world humans inhabit. The progress narrative is also problematic in that it often obscures history from view: it tends to depict the history leading up to modernity as something like an earlier stage in the progressive advance of evolution, sometimes failing to understand the past on its own terms. This is not to say that progress is never made: “It is, of course, good,” David Hart says with a hint of sarcasm, “to acknowledge that the geocentric view of the universe is incorrect, or that the spheres of the heavens do not physically separate the realm of the Most High from the world below.”27 But, when pushed hard, the progress narrative can “deprive past periods of their autonomy in such expressions as ‘premodern.’”28 Because the principles of modernity and their attendant narrative are no longer always considered self-evidently true, there is greater momentum behind effort to retrieve historical resources.

Louis Dupré argues that one of the most important changes that marked Western culture’s transition to modernity was the loss of a transcendental component for both the cosmos and the human subject. That is, in modern culture, neither the world nor the human beings who inhabit it were seen as having their origin and destiny in a reality beyond the universe but present within it; they became, instead, autonomous entities cut off from a supernatural realm above them.29 According to Dupré, these sweeping changes were propelled by the early humanist notion of creativity and the advent of nominalism. Further developments, such as the rise of a natural philosophy that attempted to prove God’s existence without theological premises, meant that the concept of nature became even more independent. The tragic irony of these apologetic maneuvers is that they represent the self-negation of Christian theology, theologians feeling as if they must operate according to a framework that cedes a tremendous amount of ground to their opponents.30 While well intended, this strategy did not bring good results. As these shifts began to take hold over time, theological categories took on a diminished role in describing the nature of reality. Although something like the old synthesis remained in the realm of private devotion, theology itself came to play a greatly restricted role: in the modern period, the dominant theological systems “settled in for a long sleep.”31 It is not possible here to evaluate Dupré’s proposal in all of its historical detail, yet the gist of what he says about theology is surely right. In Western culture overall, theology does not play a major role in providing the categories by which modern people understand what is real, especially regarding the world and the human subject. Moreover, Dupré’s suggestions regarding how these modifications in culture occurred are plausible and would surely need to be incorporated into a satisfying explanation for the sea change in Western culture. Basil’s work preceded these intellectual-historical shifts, and his use of doctrine is relatively free and untrammeled, even if “the early Church does not give us a pattern of perfect life and language … .”32 It would be too much to claim that the patristic period was a pristine golden age. It was, however, a time in which theology was relatively unencumbered and vigorous.

The dual themes of self and world also come in for discussion in Charles Taylor’s rich and nuanced account of the onset of secularization in modern Western culture. His narrative depicts how the “eclipse of the transcendent”33 that was constitutive of secularization transformed these two notions: the world became “disenchanted,” and the construct Taylor refers to as “exclusive humanism” took shape. By disenchantment, Taylor does not mean to evoke “light and fairies.”3435