Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism  -     By: Mark Sheridan O.S.B.
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Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism

IVP Academic / 2015 / Paperback

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Product Description

There was widespread disagreement among devout Christians and Jews in the ancient world about how to understand the metaphors, symbols, and pictures of God in the Bible. Relying on extensive documentation, Sheridan outlines the presuppositions, the criteria, and the rules of ancient Christian hermeneutics.

Product Information

Format: Paperback
Number of Pages: 256
Vendor: IVP Academic
Publication Date: 2015
Dimensions: 9.00 X 6.00 (inches)
ISBN: 0830840648
ISBN-13: 9780830840649

Publisher's Description

Criticism of myth in the Bible is not a modern problem. Its roots go back to the earliest Christian theologians, and before them, to ancient Greek and Jewish thinkers. The dilemma posed by texts that ascribe human characteristics and emotions to the divine is a perennial problem, and we have much to learn from the ancient attempts to address it. Mark Sheridan provides a theological and historical analysis of the patristic interpretation of Scripture’s anthropomorphic and anthropopathic language for God. Rather than reject the Bible as mere stories, ancient Jewish and Christian theologians read these texts allegorically or theologically in order to discover the truth contained within them. They recognized that an edifying and appropriate interpretation of these stories required that one start from the understanding that "God is not a human being" (Num 23:19). Sheridan brings the patristic tradition into conversation with modern interpreters to show the abiding significance of its theological interpretation for today. Language for God in Patristic Tradition is a landmark resource for students of ancient Christian theology. Wide-ranging in scope and accessible in its analysis, it demonstrates that those engaged in theological interpretation of Scripture have much to gain from studying their forebears in the faith.

Author Bio

Originally from Washington, DC, Mark Sheridan is a Benedictine monk of Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem and professor emeritus in the Faculty of Theology of the Pontificio Ateneo S. Anselmo, Rome, where he served as dean of the Faculty of Theology (1998-2005) and Rector Magnificus (2005-2009) of the Athenaeum. Among his publications are in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series, , and . He is a specialist in Coptic language and literature.


Language for God in Patristic Tradition has the distinction of being both a marvelously clear introduction and a sophisticated exploration of the intellectual world and work of early Christianity in relation to one of the thorniest problems in Scripture: the use of human language - often violent language - to describe God. The book is suitable for students, scholars and thoughtful inquirers alike. It is lucid, interesting and instructive - illuminating a clear description of the history of the problem with fascinating examples of ancient, learned interpreters at work in a conversation that continues today.
-Robin Darling Young,
The Catholic University of America

How do we speak about God in human language? Mark Sheridan's Language for God in Patristic Tradition takes a historical and hermeneutical approach to answer this question. Using the patristic hermeneutical principles that the meaning given to a biblical text must be worthy of God and useful to people as guiding motifs, he deftly leads the reader through a multitude of patristic texts dealing with problem passages in the Bible. Those unacquainted with patristic exegesis will be introduced to and guided in the reading of these texts.
-Ronald E. Heine,
Northwest Christian University

While there are a number of books written on the ancient Christian use of the early Fathers, Sheridan's offers critical insights on the theological background for early Christian exegesis that places it among the more balanced and erudite volumes on this subject.
-D. H. Williams,
Baylor University

One major obstacle modern people face in comprehending patristic literature is the ideas and language ancient Christian writers employed as they read the Bible and interpreted the Bible's statements and stories about God. In Language for God in Patristic Tradition, Mark Sheridan explains clearly and cogently both the "why" and the "how" of the church fathers' language of biblical anthropomorphism. He employs plenty of primary source material as he does so. Sheridan's immense learning is expressed in lively, accessible prose that will encourage and educate readers new to patristic exegesis while refreshing - and likely deepening - the perspectives of those more familiar with the world of the church fathers. Highly recommended.
-Christopher A. Hall,
Eastern University

At its core this masterful introduction to the patristic language about God by Mark Sheridan is about interpreting Scripture in a manner worthy of God. This was the primary concern and challenge of the ancient Christian interpreters who interpreted Scripture primarily in a theological sense - which is what language about God should do. Our modern concern has always had more to do with a historical consciousness of the text of Scripture and so we find much of the ancient approach to Scripture unintelligible and enigmatic. This text brings us into the mindset of the Fathers' approach to interpretation in order to help us read with them the mind of the divine author of Scripture. This text should be required reading for anyone interested in the history of interpretation in the early church.
-Joel C. Elowsky,
Concordia Seminary

Editorial Reviews

"A superb study that sheds new yet ancient light on both the early Church Fathers and the cruxes and crises of modern biblical interpretation. A must for academic libraries and thoughtful readers."
"Mark Sheridan has truly given the world a gift with his recent publication, Language for God in Patristic Tradition, published by IVP Academic. . . . With this book, Sheridan expertly navigates the reader through the interpretive strategies of the early church Fathers as they wrestled with our sacred texts."
"How do we speak about God in human language? Mark Sheridan's Language for God in Patristic Tradition takes a historical and hermeneutical approach to answer this question. Using the patristic hermeneutical principles that the meaning given to a biblical text must be worthy of God and useful to people as guiding motifs, he deftly leads the reader through a multitude of patristic texts dealing with problem passages in the Bible. Those unacquainted with patristic exegesis will be introduced to and guided in the reading of these texts."
" Language for God in Patristic Tradition is clearly written, well organized, and easy to follow. While it is best suited for undergraduate and seminary courses on early Christian interpretation, scholars and interested laypeople alike also stand to benefit. Sheridan includes a helpful glossary of terms as well as an appendix outlining general ancient Christian hermeneutics. . . . This work is a helpful introduction to theology and interpretive methods of the church fathers."

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  1. Becancour, QC
    Age: 25-34
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    5 Stars Out Of 5
    May 13, 2015
    Becancour, QC
    Age: 25-34
    Gender: male
    Quality: 5
    Value: 5
    Meets Expectations: 5
    Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism. By Mark Sheridan. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015. 254 pp. $20.80. ISBN 978-0-8308-4064-9.

    As the authors of the recently published book, Reformed Catholicity, point out in the introduction to their book, there is a growing interest in the writings and theological ponderings of early church theologians. This book is another example of that interest, and will most likely contribute to maintaining that interest. For many Protestants the writings of the early church fathers are seen as corruptions of the gospel, or as the useless writings of old and overly mystique thinkers. It should be kept in mind, however, that many of the early church fathers were disciples of the followers of Christ himself, and many of the early church fathers grew up in similar cultural and historical environments as those to whom the apostles where witnessing and ministering. This fact would seem to imply that they, more than us, where better qualified to understand and interpret the writings of the New Testament. Perhaps it would be best, prior to passing judgment on their interpretations, to consider their way of approaching sacred scriptures, in light of their historical and cultural environment, and their particular concerns. In this book review we will consider the purpose of this book, provide a brief overview of the contents of the book, and consider the relative worth of this book.

    The Bible contains many different types of descriptions of God, some of them predicate seemingly human characteristics of God, others predicate emotions of God, others predicate qualitative or quantitative change of God. For ancient thinkers, Christian and non-Christian alike, these predications were unworthy of God as they did not accurately describe Gods nature, as it was understood by ancient thinkers. The goal of this book is to show how ancient writers perceived the problem and how they dealt with it. (p. 17) In other words, Sheridan seeks to consider how the early Christian theologians interpreted biblical descriptions of God that seemed to attribute human characteristics, change and emotions to God. His claim is that they interpreted the scriptures theologically (p. 19). Sheridan distinguishes theological interpretation from allegorical interpretation and from the literal-historical method of interpretation; though he recognizes that theological interpretation does use allegory (p. 212, 233-236.). He notes that the word theological is being used here in the original sense of the word theology, which is composed form the Greek words theos (God) and logos (discourse), that is, a discussion of the nature of God or of divinity. (p. 19-20) In other words, the Bible is interpreted in light of what is known about the nature of Godand the scriptures are explained based upon the interpretative principle that could be named that which can be appropriately said of God. (Cf. p. 213-215, 224-226.) According to this understanding, theological interpretation may require the use of analogy to interpret a text which is also understood to have a literal meaning.

    The book is divided into 8 chapters and an appendix. It also contains some very useful reference tools: short biographical sketches of the main theologians that are being considered in this work, a bibliography, an index of authors and names, a subject index, and a scripture index. In the first chapter the author introduces the reader to the fundamental notions that the early church fathers used when interpreting what the Bible says of God. He explains that they interpreted the bible theologically, by noting, first of all, that God is not at all like men, and secondly, that he condescends to mans weakness by describing himself and his actions in ways that are easily understood by man (analogy, symbolism, etc.). Though it is not pointed out in this chapter, the only way to be able to recognize that a description is a symbolic/anthropomorphic accommodation, and not a literal description, is to already possess prior knowledge of the natures of both the description and of the thing described. As such, in order to properly interpret biblical descriptions of God one must already possess prior knowledge of the divine nature.

    In chapter 2 the author explains how the notion of allegory was developed in Greek philosophyin order to explain the tales of the gods that did not agree with what was known of the nature of God. The author gives examples from numerous commentators of Homer, including Pseudo-Heraclitus, Pseudo-Plutarch, and Theophrastus. He also gives examples from Cicero and Varro. Of particular interest is the note that Both Jewish Hellenistic writers such as Philo and the early Greek Christian writers such as Clement, Origen, Didymus of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus had studied Homer as a normal part of their education and were also well acquainted with the interpretation of Homer using allegorical methods. (p. 55) He also explains the early use of the doctrine of impassibility in interpretation, and the primary principle of interpretation as the concept of what is fitting, worthy or appropriate to divinity (p. 55). He claims, or seems to claim, that this type of interpretation was the source of this doctrine, however, as noted above, it seems that in order to interpret as they did, they must have already known that God was X, Y, Z, and this knowledge is what drove their interpretation.

    In chapter three the author shows how early Hellenistic Jewish Commentators interpreted the teachings of the Old Testament about God. He demonstrates that they interpreted the Old Testament in the same way as the Greek thinkers interpreted Homeraccording to the principle of what is appropriate, or fitting, to say of God, based upon their knowledge of Gods nature. Sheridan considers three different Hellenistic Jewish authors, one of which is Philo; and takes the time to note the early Jewish views of Gods immutability and impassibility (p. 76-77). In chapter 4 Sheridan explains the way in which the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament, and how the early church understood various New Testament texts to provide fundamental principles for the proper interpretation of the Old Testament. Sheridan notes the principles of (1) Scripture interpreting Scripture (p. 82), as well as the principle of what is fitting or appropriate for God in Pauls writings (p. 88). He notes that the New Testament interprets as allegorical that which is unfitting for God. We are also shown the passages that are used to support allegorical and theological interpretation (cf. principle of allegory, p. 98).

    In chapter five the author surveys a number of early (Greek and Latin) church fathers and demonstrates that the notions of that which is fitting or worthy of God, anthropomorphism and divine condescension were the common interpretative tools used by these theologians. He explicitly notes, in his section on Augustine, that ones understanding (concept) of God is a principle tool in a proper understanding of scriptures (p.123). In other words, one must already know something of God in order to properly interpret the scriptures (that is, to know that some biblical description of God is, or is not, worthy of Godthat is anthropomorphic, symbolic, etc.). In chapter six Sheridan considers three sample texts of the Old Testament which posed difficulties (because they predicated change and/or emotion of God, or because they described God approving seemingly horrible things) for the early Christian theologians (the Genesis creation narrative, the Abraham & Sarah Narrative, and the narrative of the conquest of the Promised Land). The author shows how a great majority of early Christian theologians applied the principles of interpretation mentioned above in order to explain these texts. We see how their understanding of God, as immutable, impassible, perfect, good and just drove their interpretations of these texts and others. In chapter seven the author does the same thing as he did in chapter six, but with a different set of sample texts: the imprecatory Psalms.

    In chapter 8 the author contrasts and compares the interpretative methods of the early church fathers with the interpretative methods of contemporary theologians. He points out that some of the methods and interpretative practices of the early church theologians are no longer valid (such as trying to find a secret sense in the different biblical names). He also points out that the main concern of the early church no longer seems to drive contemporary hermeneutics: the principle of explaining those texts that predicate of God things that are not worthy of God. He points out that most contemporary interpreters seems to pass over the difficulties in the texts that the early church fathers sought to explain. He concludes by noting that explaining the original meaning of these texts usually leaves the problems that concerned the early church theologians unresolved. As such, he concludes by positing that the theological interpretation of the text is no less relevant today than it was in the early centuries of the churchIn this sense [interpretation in light of what is known of the nature of God] the theological question should be primary in the interpretation of Scripture today. Perhaps the most enduring and fitting solution remains that of Philo, Origen and John Chrysostom with which we began: God spoke then like a father to his children. That should not be confused with the way he really is in himself. God does not behave like humans. (p. 215) The appendix is a helpful outline and organized explanation of (1) the primary presuppositions of the early church theologians, and (2) their primary hermeneutical principles. At the end of the appendix he corrects some unfortunate misunderstandings concerning just what allegory is, and what an allegorical interpretation is.

    This book is a wonderful introduction to the hermeneutical methods of the early church father. Sheridan does a great job of drawing out the primary interpretative principles that drove the early church fathers in their understanding of scripture: (1) scripture interprets scripture, (2) What is fitting or appropriate to say of God, (3) that Christ is that to which all scripture points, and (4) divine condescension. He shows that the ancient interpretations of scripture (both Jewish and Christian) were driven by their understanding of the nature of God as immutable, impassible and transcendent. The one question that he does not answer, and it seems to be a very important question, is: How do we arrive at that proper understanding of the nature of God which becomes the norm for proper biblical interpretation? This question is not answered. Sheridan does not even hint at the fact that it is a problem. The idea that we get, from this book, is that all of these interpreters inherited, from nowhere, an idea of the nature of God, which was then used as the norm for all biblical interpretation. This critique aside, this book is very good, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to properly understand the scriptures. I concur with Thomas Odens evaluation of this book, from the Foreword, This book will keep the preaching pastor out of a whole lot of trouble. Constantly in biblical teaching we use human language to speak of God, knowing very well that God transcends human speech. We may stumble over the Bibles words if we are unaware of how profoundly the classic Christian tradition has examined this question. (p. 7)
  2. 5 Stars Out Of 5
    Worth the Read
    March 18, 2015
    Steve Bricker
    Quality: 4
    Value: 5
    Meets Expectations: 5
    When reading the Church Fathers, there are times when they are befuddling. Why did they suddenly take this turn or that, which seemingly has nothing at all to do with the passage at hand? Why did they go to such great lengths to explain themselves? Many times we need a road map. Mark Sheridan has provided just such a map, uncovering for the reader the mindset of the patristic writers in their wrestling and explanation of Gods self-revelation. The author gleans primarily from Origens body of work to demonstrate how the Alexandrian father influenced exegesis for centuries afterward, even to today.

    The author begins by examining the early writers as they wrestled with God's transcendence in communicating with mankind. How could someone so completely other express himself in human terms? Could a self-limiting language accurately convey the expanse of divine meaning? What has been left unsaid that can only be extracted through the work of the Holy Spirit? These questions are not those readily considered by the modern reader of Scripture, but to one such as John Chrysostom, this was paramount:

    "Chrysostom seems constantly to be concerned that his hearers will take the text too literally, and he frequently (several hundred times) introduces this distinction between Gods 'considerateness' in formulating things in a human way and what is 'a sense befitting God'" (Sheridan, 41).

    The literal meaning of a text was never in doubt, and we see the great care with which they mined the depths of Scripture in order to correctly expound the spiritual meaning and application. Knowing their reverence for the Bible, we can understand how writers like Origen earned a reputation for overly spiritualizing in his commentaries and homilies. We can readily admit that he overstepped the typology and figures the inspired writers used.

    Alexandrian homileticians were not the only group to attempt to a spiritual extraction from their sacred text. Philo, a Jew living at the time of Christ, was noteworthy in his use of allegory to explain the Hebrew Scriptures. Also, a chapter is offered to the Greek and Latin philosophers who attempted the same rhetorical device to explain their concepts of divinity. Perhaps this might be the weakest aspect of the book, since the intent is to explain biblical rather than pagan anthropomorphism, but it does lend an historical background to the patristic practice.

    After this background information, Sheridan turns his attention to specific passages of the Hebrew Scriptures: first, by gathering patristic comments on Jesus and Pauls use of Torah in teaching; second, by engaging three classic cases from the nation of Israel; and third, by reviewing the imprecatory portions of Psalms. Each of these requires its own chapter to properly establish how the Fathers interacted with these in light of the New Testament. These chapters of applying what has been presented in the prior chapters and developing the exegetical sense of the early church, especially as it relates to the Alexandrian school. Lastly, we are offered a comparison of modern with patristic understanding of the problem texts mentioned in the previous chapters.

    Overall, this book is worth the read and is not beyond most readers. Preachers and teachers would do well to take up this work and learn how the Early Church addressed the Bible. Plus there is bonus material. As good as this book is, I found the appendix to be absolute gold. Sheridan summarizes Christian hermeneutics during the first centuries of the church. The three major points addressed are:

    1. Presuppositions about the Nature of the Text of the Scriptures

    2. Criteria for a Correct Interpretation

    3. Some Rules of Interpretation

    This summary information from the Church Fathers is as applicable to today as it was 1700-1800 years ago and demonstrates that these early expositors were taking greatest care. I dare say that if the modern Church took the same level of care in their attention to holy things, much exegetical nonsense would be avoided.

    Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from IVP Academic. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.
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