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Helpful Description of Patristic Reading via Francis Watson

In Francis WatWatson Gospel Writingson’s Gospel Writing: A Canonical Perspective, he provides a wide-ranging, deeply thoughtful and very detailed argument for the origins of the Gospels and the relationship of canonical and apocryphal Gospels in the reception history of the Jesus Traditions. There are many insights and much to be appreciated about Watson’s work, though at times I was confused on how certain chapters contributed to the whole and what exactly he was saying. I also have some disagreements, particularly about the inherent difference between canonical and non-canonical texts.

But this is not a review of Watson. Rather, I wanted to reproduce here what I think is a very helpful way to describe Patristic appropriations of Scripture, something that most modern readers, even trained biblical scholars, have little exposure to and understanding of.

Watson’s comments here come in the context of his discussing how the Fathers regularly connected the four images of the Evangelists/Gospel Writers with the four beasts of Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4. His point, which I think is well stated, is that Patristic readings certainly understand and do value wha4 Symbols modernisht I would call the “excavational” work on the sensus literalis of a text (something similar to but not identical with modernist grammatical-historical readings) but they also recognize the constructive and figural usefulness of Holy Scripture in making connections with the divine economy and canon.

That’s my way of saying it; enough from me. Here is how Watson describes it:

“It is certainly true that neither the seer John nor the prophet Ezekiel could have associated the four living creatures they beheld in their visions with four gospels. Yet the patristic authors all assume a hermeneutical distinction between literal-historical and allegorical modes of interpretation. In the allegorical mode, points are no longer read out of the scriptural text (‘exegesis’), but nor does one merely read into it (‘eisegesis’). Allegorical interpretation may often be understood pragmatically, as a way of using the biblical text to address a theological problem — here, the problem of the coexistence of four gospels in their similarity and difference. The patristic hermeneutic rightly recognizes that the function of a scriptural text is not just to generate a literal sense that reproduces its latent meaning but also [emphasis mine] to provide tools that further the community’s work of self-construction. Patristic theologians use the visionary texts [Rev 4 and Ezekiel 1] to think through the fourfoldness of the canonical gospel, and they do so because these texts provide them with striking images or parables of fourfold difference within a common orientation towards Christ.”     (Francis Watson, Gospel Writing, pp. 554-555)

I would prefer the term “figural” to allegorical now because of the baggage that comes with the latter. I would also want to emphasize what Watson is saying — this is not an either/or within Patristic interpretation, but a both/and, valuing close textual-intent reading AND figural inter-connectedness.
What I like about Patristic reading is that it keeps together two things that Christians have always valued: (1) the voice of the text and (2) the texts’ connection with the whole canon toward the end of theological construct, application, and spiritual formation; something that unfortunately is often put asunder in modern hermeneutical strategies.

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