St Hippolytus on Becoming Yourself

I love this description of the Christian life, from St Hippolytus:

The saying “know yourself” means therefore that we should recognize and acknowledge in ourselves the God who made us in his own image, for if we do this, we in turn will be recognized and acknowledged by our Maker. So let us not be at enmity with ourselves, but change our way of life without delay. For Christ who is God, exalted above all creation, has taken away man’s sin and has refashioned our fallen nature.

In the beginning God made man in his image and so gave proof of his love for us. If we obey his holy commands and learn to imitate his goodness, we shall be like him and he will honor us. God is not beggarly, and for the sake of his own glory he has given us a share in his divinity.

“His holy commands” do not distort or enslave our nature, rather they re-form us into who we really are: bearers of the divine image.

How Our Preconceived Ideas Do Violence to Scripture

There is only one God, brethren, and we learn about him only from sacred Scripture. It is therefore our duty to become acquainted with what Scripture proclaims and to investigate its teachings thoroughly [ . . . ] Sacred Scripture is God’s gift to us and it should be understood in the way that he intends: we should not do violence to it according to our own preconceived ideas.”

Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-235 AD)

I’ve written a little bit about the challenge of reading Scripture. It seems to me that many of us postmoderns follow a similar path in our relationship with the Bible:

  1. Reading the Bible in a simplistic way, unaware of the preconceived ideas we are bringing to the Bible which distort our understanding
  2. Realizing that everyone, in fact, does have preconceived ideas about the meaning of Scripture
  3. Believing that since everyone brings their preconceived ideas to the text, that no objective interpretation is possible
  4. Embracing our preferred ideas and interpreting the Bible in whatever way seems best to us
  5. Using the Bible primarily or exclusively as a way of talking about our preconceived ideas

Very early on, in the quote about from Hippolytus of Rome, writing in the third century, we find a warning against such “preconceived ideas”. We postmoderns would argue that no objective reading is possible—in fact, we would argue that so-called objective readings usually mask some sort of hidden political agenda.

But this seems a bit out of step with the tradition. Making biblical interpretation exclusively a power project (whether on behalf of the powerful or on behalf of the oppressed) causes us to use the Bible as a tool, rather than, as Hippolytus would have it, receive it as a gift. A gift can surprise us, challenge us, and delight us; a tool is something we use for whatever we please.

But say we did want to, in the words of Hippolytus, understand Scripture in the way God intends. How would we know when some “preconceived idea” is distorting our understanding?

Hippolytus tells us correctly: preconceived ideas always do violence to the text.

And what does such violence look like—how do we recognize it?

I think that’s pretty easy to recognize: when an interpreter starts pitting one part of the Bible against another, he’s started doing violence. “Preconceived ideas” require us to center certain verses and interpret them in a way that casts other verses into outer darkness. Luther, for example, brought his preconceived idea of “by faith alone” to the Bible, so he centered Galatians and parts of Romans. His misunderstanding of those verses required him to then cast out the book of James entirely, because James speaks directly against Luther’s cherished sola fidei. So Luther trashed James as “an epistle of straw” and relegated it to the appendix of his translation of the Bible into German.

That’s a very recognizable move in biblical interpretation: center the verses that support your preconceived ideas, relegate the ones which go against it to, at best, a secondary status.

By contrast, when we receive the entire Bible as a gift and attempt to understand it as God’s revelation, we search for interpretations which hold together in harmony the various texts within scripture. For example, the Catholic response to Luther was to note how Paul and James both used terms like “faith” and “works” very differently, so that while there may be an apparent conflict between them there’s actually a deeper harmony underneath, once each writer is understood in the correct way. So Paul and James both have their place in the Bible, and neither needs to be denigrated or cast aside.

Where have you seen this same phenomenon—doing violence to the scriptures in support of one’s preconceived ideas—in contemporary biblical interpretation?