Robert Louis Wilken is widely and deservedly recognized as a leading advocate for patristic theology and its pertinence for contemporary Christian thought (see his The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, 2003). He is the general editor of this impressive series of patristic and medieval reflections on each of the biblical books. In addition to this volume on John, books on the Song of Songs, Isaiah, Matthew, Romans, and 1 Corinthians have also appeared in print. The Gospel of John offers a good opportunity for assessing the series, since this most “spiritual” gospel was, together with Matthew, the most attractive to ancient interpreters, and received the most and closest attention from them.
John: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators is crafted to provide modern readers easy and rewarding access to the ancient authors. After a short essay by Wilken, “Interpreting the New Testament,” Bryan Stewart follows with an “Introduction to John” that clears the way for the subsequent reading of unfamiliar authors on Trinitarian and Christological considerations, sacramental theology, figural readings, John and the unity of Scripture, John and the Synoptics, and moral applications.
Next comes a selection of “prefaces” to John’s Gospel from various ancient writers, which offer the type of introductions—concerning the author and circumstances of the writing—that are found in standard contemporary treatments. The balance of the book is a chapter-by-chapter collection of interpretations of John. Those familiar with such anthologies will be surprised (and pleased) by three things: first, the selections are substantial and sometimes quite lengthy; second, the range of authors is wide, extending from Origen (185–254) to John Scotus Eriugena (815–877) to John Cassian (360–435) to Romanos the Melodist (490–566); third, selections are drawn not only from commentaries—where little of the juice of ancient interpretation is found—but also from homilies, theological writings, and even poetry. The volume concludes with notes on each selection, a biographical sketch of each contributor, and full indices.
Our patristic and medieval ancestors in the faith scarcely require my recommendation. But this volume makes a strong case that, far from being only of antiquarian interest, those whose lives were profoundly and pervasively shaped by Scripture (in a manner none of us today can claim) and whose faithful witness to the One whose Spirit was at work in all of Scripture, have everything to teach us about both Scripture and the faith. Kudos to Eerdmans for investing in such an expensive—and so constructive—an enterprise.
Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators
translated and edited by Bryan A. Stewart and Michael A. Thomas
Eerdmans, $65.00, 684 pp.