Book Review – The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us


Review by Timothy G. Harmon

Book cover for The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us

The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us.

By Michael Graves

Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014, viii + 201 pp.
$24.00, paper.



In this work, Michael Graves (PhD, Hebrew Union College), Armerding Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, explores patristic literature concerning the inspiration and interpretation of Scripture, focusing on the second through the sixth centuries AD.

This isn’t merely a book that catalogues and synthesizes pertinent writings of Church Fathers. It does do that, and does so reasonably well. However, in a significant way, the book also casts a fresh vision regarding the nature of and interpretation of Scripture.

To truly grasp this vision, it helps to have some familiarity with the emerging field that undergirds it: the so-called Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS).[1] While there is great diversity among its proponents, common features include the desire to:

1) Move afield from modern exegesis, particularly that bound up with the historical-critical method, and to some extent the grammatical-historical method as well;

2) Give greater weight to pre-Enlightenment voices in general, and patristic readings, creeds, confessions, and the “rule of faith” in particular – including the interpretive lenses and techniques supplied by these;

3) Approach Scripture as a narrative (rather than a set of propositions), in line, to a large degree, with postliberal theology;

4) Emphasize the transformative nature of Scripture, including what God does in the interaction between it and humans, over and above any man-made system of hermeneutics; and

5) Bridge the gap between theological and biblical studies.

While more could be said, I believe that the preceding points give a fair representative idea of the sorts of concerns that correlate with TIS.

Ok then, back to Graves.

The possible entailments of inspiration

In developing his thesis, Graves works to describe, “the network of ideas about inspiration reflected in early Christian writings” (3). This is done not via descriptions of inspiration per se, but rather the possible entailments of inspiration.

An entailment is a statement that necessarily follows another. For example:

A. Bob lives in Seattle.

B. Bob lives in Washington State.

In the above scenario, B is an entailment of A. However, A is not an entailment of B (just because Bob lives in Washington State doesn’t necessarily entail that he lives in Seattle). In a similar manner, the entailments that Graves highlights tend to work in one direction.

Keep in mind that this is no exercise in crafting a systematic definition of inspiration, or of explaining its mechanics. Rather, Graves’ task is a step removed from describing inspiration itself, instead focusing on what follows from inspiration.

As he treks through his historical research, Graves identifies the following twenty possible entailments of inspiration (organized under five larger headings):

Usefulness: 1. Scripture is Useful for Instruction, 2. Every Detail of Scripture is Meaningful, 3. Scripture Solves Every Problem That We Might Put to It, 4. Biblical Characters Are Examples for Us to Follow, 5. Scripture Is the Supreme Authority in Christian Belief and Practice,

The Spiritual and Supernatural Dimension: 6. Divine Illumination Is Required for Biblical Interpretation, 7. Scripture Has Multiple Senses, 8. Scripture Accurately Predicted the Future, Especially about Jesus,

Mode of Expression: 9. Scripture Speaks in Riddles and Enigmas, 10. The Etymologies of Words in Scripture Convey Meaning, 11. God is Directly and Timelessly the Speaker in Scripture, 12. The Scriptures Represent Stylistically Fine Literature,

Historicity and Factuality: 13. Events Narrated in the Bible Actually Happened, 14. Scripture Does Not Have Any Errors in Its Facts, 15. Scripture Is Not in Conflict with “Pagan” Learning, 16. The Original Text of Scripture Is Authoritative,

Agreement with Truth: 17. Scripture’s Teaching Is Internally Consistent, 18. Scripture Does Not Deceive, 19. Scripture’s Teaching Agrees with a Recognized External Authority, and 20. Scripture’s Teaching Must Be Worthy of God.

Which ideas, for Graves, endure?

After unpacking the preceding potential entailments, Graves concedes that there is diversity in the patristic evidence, and that not all of the data has equal contemporary import. So then, which ideas, for Graves, endure? I have summarized his more relevant and-or thought provoking answers in the following bullet points:

  • Ÿ Scripture must be interpreted “in light of its divine purpose: to guide people into knowing and following God” (133).
  • Ÿ The “example and teachings of Jesus serve as a lens through which all interpretations of Scripture must pass” (136).
  • Ÿ Because “proper interpretation of Scripture takes place within the church,” this then “points to the necessity of community and traditions in discovering the meaningfulness of Scripture” (136).
  • Ÿ Proper interpretation stems not from humanly conceived hermeneutic models. Rather, it must draw “on tradition, community, and spiritual insight” (137).
  • Ÿ Proper interpretation cannot occur apart from illumination, meaning “the perception on the part of…readers and hearers of what God is teaching them through the text” (137). This can also be referred to as “inspired intuition” or “mysterious insight” (137).
  • Ÿ The grammatical-historical method can only uncover “past-tense claims,” rather than “contemporary significance” (133). As such, interpreters must move beyond the literal sense to “theological interpretation,” recognizing that “the message of Scripture is not always equivalent to the intention of its human writer” (135). In order to uncover this “theological message,” the church today should listen to “the early church” (135).
  • Ÿ The “interpretive practices that foster the continued meaningfulness of Scripture involve elements of subjectivity” (138).
  • Ÿ The subjective nature of interpretation, however, “is only a major problem if the goal…is to eliminate all subjectivity” (140). However, this need not be so. Rather, in many cases, we can expect “different spiritual readings of the same passage” by different people (143-44).
  • Ÿ The “complex nature of biblical hermeneutics means that the authority of Scripture functions to mediate God’s authority to me as an individual Christian, and does not give me divine authority to exercise over others” (141).
  • When considering the above, “the final locus of interpretive authority rests in the relationship between God and the individual Christian” (141).


All in all, Graves’ work here will be a welcome contribution to many who embrace TIS, and it further has much to offer in terms of its impressive survey of patristic writings on bibliology and hermeneutics. However, among those who are skeptical of TIS, there is bound to be a fair bit of feather-ruffling. Even so, I believe that furthering the evangelical conversation about inspiration and its impact on how Christians approach Scripture is of value – regardless of whether some feathers get bent in the process.

[1] See D.A Carson, “Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Yes, But….”, Theological Commentary: Evangelical Perspectives, edited by R. Michael Allen, (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 187-207. This article is readily available online.

 Tim Harmon is a ThM student at Western Seminary, and the Graduate Assistant to Dr. Jan Verbruggen.  He is a member at Hinson Baptist Church.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us

  1. Thanks for the detailed review Tim. Definitely makes me want to dig into this one. Those last two bullet points seem like they could have some interesting implications for preaching…

    1. Luke, good observation concerning the last two points, and how they might impact preaching. Related to this, there is the tension between upholding the community of faith as the proper place of interpretation, but the individual as the final arbiter of interpretive authority.

    1. Thanks, Patrick…and thank you for bringing this book to my attention in the first place!

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