A Feature Review of
The Bible in the Early Church
Justo L. Gonzalez
Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon
I can open a Bible app on my phone and scroll through dozens of different translations with a couple of clicks. I can find custom packaged Bibles for everyone from patriots to caregivers to archaeology buffs. Easy, convenient access to Scripture makes it easy to forget the complex journey that the Bible has had over the last two thousand years.
Justo Gonzalez wants us to remember the first centuries of that journey so we can better appreciate how the Christian Bible we hold in our hands – or read on our phones – came to be. The Bible in the Early Church is a work in three movements discussing the shape of the Bible, the use of the Bible, and the interpretation of the Bible by our forebears in faith.
The book opens with a discussion about the discernment process used by early church leaders to determine which writings would be recognized as inspired and authoritative additions to the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures. Gonzalez reminds us that this took place over time, and this process was shaped by both persecution from outside the church and the need to stand against false teachers and other “gospels” emerging from within the church.
He goes on to describe the development of the early Christian Bible over time, including the addition of chapters and verses, and the technology that moved from scrolls to Gutenberg’s printed version. (The fact that the book’s narrative takes us through the development of the printing press does raise a small question for me about the book’s title: Gutenberg’s printing press dates to the mid-1400’s, which doesn’t exactly fit the time frame promised by the title The Bible in the Early Church. But that is a small quibble in this otherwise excellent book.)
The second section of the book tackles the use of the Bible in the primitive church through the medieval period. I found the chapter about the private reading of Scriptures especially interesting, as most of us today are encouraged to develop a habit of daily devotional Bible study. Most people in the early church only heard Scripture read in their congregational gatherings. The lack of literacy, the cost and scarcity of texts, and social structures that kept less-powerful members of a household from reading Scripture for themselves (if the household’s head was not supportive of the practice) made personal reading a rarity. There was no marked rise in literacy or in the private reading of Scripture in the home even after Constantine and his successors embraced Christianity, though anecdotal evidence demonstrates that a shift occurred over time. Gonzalez notes:
In Augustine’s narrative of his own experience of conversion in the garden in Milan, he says that on the bench in that garden there was a codex of the Epistles of Paul, and that it was this that he read when he heard the famous words, “Take and read.” Thus, at the very heart of Augustine’s experience of conversion, and therefore of his devotional life, stood the private reading of Scripture – although we should not forget that such reading was normally done aloud, and that Augustine was astonished when he saw Ambrose reading without pronouncing what he read. Likewise, Chrysostom, Jerome, and many others repeatedly call followers to read the Bible – in several cases, to read at home.
The command to take and read placed the Bible at the center of both educational development and cultural change throughout the following centuries. Gonzalez suggests that movements in both areas, particularly as the Reformation took hold across Europe, “…focused on what they considered doctrinal deviations (such as idolatry and ‘papism’) or personal immoralities (such as debauchery and licentiousness), often leaving aside the emphasis of the ancient church on obedience to Scripture regarding the social and economic order.”
The third section of the book highlights how the Bible was interpreted in the young church. Gonzalez offers a vigorous discussion about the various approaches used by the early church in understanding the Law, the Prophets, and the poetic and prophetic writings in the Old Testament. He includes a helpful discussion about the dominance of typological/analogical interpretation as the preferred method of harmonizing the Old Testament with the New. He then traces the way in which crucial texts about creation, the Exodus, and the Word were interpreted by primitive through early Medieval church leaders and scholars. The history of those interpretative lenses stands as a reminder that we moderns are prone to rely on our own approaches to Scripture as “the right way,” just as our ancestors in the faith believed their interpretations, some of which have fallen by the wayside today, were the only way back in their day.
The Bible in the Early Church is a readable, accessible introduction to the Bible we keep on our nightstand – or the one we reference on our phone. Gonzalez notes, “…if the entire history we have so rapidly reviewed tells us something, it is first of all that the shape of the Bible has been undergoing numerous changes through the centuries; and that, through all these transformations, it is the same Bible, with the same power to transform us, to transform the church, and to transform society.” Gonzalez’s worthwhile work reminds us of the trustworthiness of our Bible’s text, and the goodness of the Bible’s ultimate Author.