Review: Language for God in Patristic Tradition by Mark Sheridan

Language for God coverSheridan, Mark. Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015. 254 pp. IVP Academic | Amazon

In this book, Mark Sheridan examines how early Christians came to terms with the portrayal of God in Scripture with human characteristics (anthropomorphism) and emotions (anthropopathism). Chapter one, “God is Not Like Humans,” sets the stage for the rest of the book. Here, Sheridan points out two Scriptural texts that were significant for how early Christians dealt with anthropomorphisms: Numbers 23:19 and Deuteronomy 1:31. As Origen quotes them (and this Sheridan admits differs from modern translations working from the Hebrew text) these verses read “God is not as man to be deceived nor as the son of man to be threatened” (Num. 23:19) and “As a man he takes on the manners of his son” (Deut. 1:31). Taken together, these verses were seen as pointing to the distinction between theologia (God in himself) and oikonomia (God as he relates to us) (27). A related verse, Deuteronomy 8:5, reads (again, as Origen quotes it) “For the Lord your God has taught you as a man teaches his son” (29). This, Origen says, reveals the manner in which God speaks to us in Scripture, condescending (synkatabasis) or accommodating (tropophoreo) to us like adults do to children (30–32). Most of the chapter is a demonstration of these exegetical principles in the works of Origen. Near the end, Sheridan demonstrates the same principle at work in the writings of the John Chrysostom, adding another principle that guided early Christian exegesis: what is befitting of God (theoprepōs) (41). Thus, anthropomorphic or anthropopathic elements in Scripture that are not befitting of God should not be taken literally because they are part of the oikonomia and represent a form of divine condescension or accommodation to human language.

Chapter two takes a step back and looks at the history of some of these ideas in the philosophical critique of the traditional Greek gods, and the philosophers justification of Homer through allegory. Sheridan notes that the term allegory itself does not appear until Cicero (107–44 BCE) (46). Instead, hidden meanings were spoken about with “the word group associated with the root ain-: ainow, ainigma, ainittesthai, ainigmatodes” (46). These words are important because they were utilized by those in the “Antiochian” school in their fight against allegory (46). Beginning with the famous criticism of Xenophanes (e.g., that if animals had gods, they would look like them), Sheridan quickly summarizes how Plato, the Stoics, and Cicero interpreted the presentation of the gods in Homer in a more worthy manner by looking for the meaning underneath the letter (hyponoia) (49). Sheridan highlights Cicero because he also addresses the issue of anthropopathisms when he argues that the gods are never angry because they are free from passion (apatheia) (57). This chapter is important, not because he tries to proffer a Harnack-ian Hellenization thesis, but because the Christian writers he looks at later in the book would have been familiar with these criticisms through their philosophical and rhetorical education (59).

Chapter three concentrates on a very important figure for early Christian thinkers, Philo of Alexandria. He was heir to the Hellenist Jewish tradition that can be seen a century before him in the Letter of Aristeas (c. 170 BCE) (62). Sheridan provides many examples how Philo treats anthropomorphic and anthropopathic passages (a term Sheridan says originates with Philo, cf. 66). Repeatedly one sees the ideas of what is fitting or appropriate for God: “theoprepēs (‘what is fitting to or suited to the deity’), and hieroprepēs (‘what is fitting to the holy’), anoikeion (‘inappropriate’), and so on” (66).

Chapter four moves into the realm of New Testament interpretation. This is a particularly important—though probably contentious—chapter because one repeatedly finds within early Christian writers the justification of their hermeneutical practices in the New Testament writers themselves. While I am sure many would debate these particular interpretations, Sheridan clearly and charitably explains how early Christian interpreters read these passages. The bulk of this chapter is taken up by Pauline texts: Galatians 4:22–26 (probably the most important text), 1 Corinthians 9:8–10, Corinthians 10:1–11, 2 Corinthians 3:15–18, and Hebrews 8:4–5 (thought to be Pauline). Sheridan correctly notes that in Origen’s interpretation of Galatians 4:22–26, “that Origen, who is often accused of neglecting or denying the literal level of the text, is here insisting on its reality [that Isaac was born according to the flesh]” (89). He also notes an odd feature of Antiochian exegesis of this passage where, in their attempts to argue against allegory, they had to redefine the word allegory as “type” (90). This distinction between allegory and typology—which did not exist until then—was later read back in condemnation of past writers (90).

After establishing this important background, chapter five provides many examples of early Christian handlings of anthropomorphisms from a wide survey of early Christian literature. While this might seem pedantic, it goes a long way to show that Origen’s approach to Scripture (chapter one) is not particular to him. Similar methods can be found in Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Didymus of Alexandria (the Blind), the Antiochian school (Diodore of Tarsus, John Chrysostom, Theodore of Mopseustia, and Theodore of Cyrrhus), and the Latin writers Tertullian, Augustine, and John Cassian. In particular, one sees early Christian interpreters wrestling with anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms (especially anger) by having recourse to God’s considerateness, “his adapting himself to human ways of speaking” (125).

Chapters six and seven turn to a more detailed examination of some of the most problematic passages for early Christian interpreters, namely Genesis 1–4, Genesis 16, the conquest narratives (chapter six), and the portrayal of God in the Psalms (chapter seven). Genesis 1–4 were thought to be particularly anthropomorphic (God planting a garden, regretting creation, etc.), Genesis 16 was feared to be condoning immoral behavior (which God did not condemn), and the conquest narratives were thought to be too cruel (not just by modern interpreters!). Again, the principles helpfully laid out in chapter one reappear as early Christians wrestled with these texts. Finally, the psalms are particularly problematic as it was the prayer book of the Church. How could Christians rightly pray psalms 7:7–8(6–7); 57(58):11; 62:10–12(63:9–11); 82:14–19(83:13–18); 108(109):1–16; 109(110)5–6; and 136(137):8–9? Here Sheridan demonstrates the variety of interpretive methods used by Christian writers, from identifying the speaker of the psalm, reading it as a prophecy that was already fulfilled in the New Testament, or allegorically, i.e., the babies to be smashed upon the rocks are demons or vices (164).

Finally, in chapter eight, Sheridan survey’s some modern attempts to deal with the three passages examined in chapter six as well as the imprecatory psalms of chapter seven and compares them with the early Christian interpreters. For Genesis 1–4, he finds that the problems modern interpreters have with the text (i.e., scientific accuracy) are not the same that ancient interpreters had. For Genesis 16, he says that modern interpreters either excuse (i.e., it was a common custom in Abraham’s day) or condemn his actions. For the conquest narratives and the imprecatory Psalms, Sheridan sees modern interpreters as being unwilling to let go of the literal meaning of the text in the way ancient Christian writers did, and so find other ways of addressing these issues.

Two appendices bring Sheridan’s book to a close. The first is a helpful summary of early Christian hermeneutics (through the lens of Origen) for those who are unfamiliar with the topic. At the beginning of the book he suggests that such a reader skip to that appendix first. The second appendix is a biographical sketch of early Christian writers.

I was disappointed to see very little talk about the role of rhetoric for those early Christian writers who received a rhetorical education. For example, while he mentions interpreters trying to determine the speaker of a text in the Psalms, he does not mention that this is a common interpretative practice that one would have learned in basic grammatical education, and that students practiced composing speeches set in the voice of another person (prosopoiia) when they advanced into rhetoric. For writers like John Chrysostom or Gregory of Nazianzus (discussed little in the book), rhetoric played an important part in their interpretive methods (cf. Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture), and questions about identifying a speaker were just one of many tools for interpreting a text. Moreover, by focusing on the philosophical critique of divine anthropomorphism—important as it is—some might see this as just another example of pagan philosophy distorting Scripture. In no way does his book attempt a Hellenization thesis, but I do wish rhetoric would have been factored in more to balance the factors that influenced Christian interpretive methods.

One question that was continually on my mind while I was reading the book was how the early Christians came to the idea of what is fitting for God. I realize that Sheridan is focusing on the method of early Christian interpretation, and so I can see how his emphasis would be on the fact of fittingness being used as an exegetical method. Nevertheless, it does leave me wondering how early Christians came to the conclusion of fittingness. From the arrangement of the book, one might think it was just the influence of pagan Greek philosophers (directly or mediated through Philo), as many have argued. It was not until the very end that Sheridan made explicit what I then realized he had demonstrated with all of his examples in the previous chapter: “Origen and other early Christian authors sought not to ban the texts but to interpret them in a way fitting to God and consistent with the belief that the Word of God in the fullest sense is Jesus Christ” (215). Whatever the role of philosophy may have been the process, it was Christ who provided the material for the early Christian understanding of what is fitting for God.

I was also disappointed after reading his excellent summary of early Christian interpretations of anthropomorphism and anthropopathisms to come to the last chapter and read the first sentence: “Although many of the presuppositions of ancient interpretation are no longer tenable in light of our historical knowledge and many of the rules used by ancient Christian interpreters may no longer be viable, their theological interpretation of the texts still has value for us today” (193). At the end of this chapter, statements like this one multiply, leaving me wondering why I had read two-hundred pages of what is now effectively excluded by modern scholarship. All that we can learn from their example, it seems, is that Jesus Christ is the means by which we overcome the difficulties of the literal sense which is, according to him, no longer normative (215). This solution is ultimately unsatisfying as it seems to rest on a false dichotomy between choosing either a modernist “literal” sense and the untenable methods of the Church Fathers, and seems to ignore the recent developments in the theological interpretation of Scripture. More especially, it seems to write off the challenge that early Christian interpreters can pose to modern methodological assumptions, which I think have more to do with differing beliefs about the ontology of Scripture than with the progress that’s been made in philology.

Despite these criticisms, I still think that this is an excellent introduction to a fascinating, provocative, and relevant topic. It is ideal not only for the student, but the pastor or anyone who is interested in early Christian hermeneutics. This work will help to erase some old prejudices against the interpretive methods of Origen (i.e., allegory for him necessarily meant that the event didn’t happen) which one can still finds in popular portrayals of him. The book also raises the question of what in principle is different between anthropomorphism and anthropopathism. While it seems that some modern interpreters have less of a problem with God having emotions, I don’t see many who are willing to say that God had legs to walk in the Garden, or lungs to breath air into Adam’s nostrils. Early Christians interpreted them in the same manner, and I think rightly so.

Thank you IVP Academic for the review copy!

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