The apostle Paul, writing to the church at Thessalonica, urged the followers of Jesus Christ to “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). Similarly, the apostle exhorted Timothy, his apostolic legate, to “keep . . . the pattern of . . . teaching” (2 Tim. 1:13 NIV). The history of Christianity is best understood as a chain of memory. Our effort in this study guide and in this entire series is to introduce our readers to the great tradition of Christian thinking, which reflects the recognition that we need to reconnect aspects of that memory chain.
Wherever the Christian faith has been found, there has been a close association with the written Word of God, with books, education, and learning. Studying and interpreting the Bible became natural for members of the early Christian community, having inherited the practice from late Judaism. Virginia Stem Owens has suggested that studying literature developed from the practice of studying and interpreting the Bible:
We in fact got the whole idea of literature as something to be taught and studied because we had already developed the habit with the Bible, the central text of Western civilization. At least ever since that category of teachers called rabbis sprang up in the Midrash, a collection of rabbinical commentary on the Hebrew scripture, we have been gnawing away at texts, chewing the gristle, sucking the marrow from the bones that are words.
The Christian intellectual tradition has its roots in the interpretation of Holy Scripture. From the church’s earliest days, Christians inherited the approaches to biblical interpretation found in the writings of both intertestamental Judaism and the contemporary Graeco-Roman world. From this dual heritage, there is an observable continuity with the hermeneutical methods of the rabbis and Philo as well as of the followers of Plato and Aristotle. Yet, a discontinuity is also clearly evident as early Christianity established its own uniqueness by separating itself from Judaism and the surrounding Graeco-Roman religions.
Building on Jewish Tradition
Jewish interpreters, no matter how diverse their perspectives, found agreement on several points. First, they believed in the divine inspiration of Scripture. Second, they affirmed that the Torah contained the truth of God for the guidance of humanity. The biblical texts for the Jews of the first century were understood to be extremely rich in content and pregnant with plural meanings. Third, Jewish interpreters, because of their view that the biblical texts contained many meanings, considered both the plain or literal meaning and various implied meanings. Lastly, they maintained that the purpose of all interpretation involved translating the words of God into the lives of people, thus making them relevant for men and women in their own particular situations.
Building on these common commitments, the New Testament writers, by the use of numerous themes, images, and motifs, emphasized that the Scriptures find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The note of Philip’s jubilant words, “We have found him” (John 1:45), was echoed by the Gospel writers as the way to interpret the Old Testament events, pictures, and ideas. The teachings of Jesus and the interpretive models of the apostles became the direct source for the trajectory that would become the Christian intellectual tradition.
The Bible as Primary Source for Shaping the Christian Tradition
From the earliest days of Christian history, Christians have used the Bible in various ways. This rich heritage has shaped the Christian tradition in both individual and corporate practices. Some of these include:
- the Bible as a source for information and understanding of life;
- the Bible as a guide for worship;
- the Bible as a wellspring to formulate Christian liturgy;
- the Bible as a primary source for the formulation of theology;
- the Bible as a text for preaching or teaching;
- the Bible as a guide for pastoral care;
- the Bible as the foundation for spiritual formation; and
- the Bible as the model for literary and aesthetic enjoyment.
Beginning in the second century, some of these uses of the Bible started to shape the early stages of the Christian intellectual tradition, which was shaped by a shared faith in the uniqueness and significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition – Great Tradition of Christian Thinking, The: A Student’s Guide.