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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Later Theological Polemic and Scriptural Interpretation

It was not only in struggles with Gnostics, pagans, and Jews in the second and third centuries that exegesis was important: the doctrinal debates of the fourth and fifth centuries about God, Christ, sin, and ethics all proceeded by means of exegetical debate over particular Scriptural verses. Some verses became veritable “prooftexts” for one or another side of a controversy. Passages that earlier had been deemed useful for “orthodox” theological argument now became the site of embattled exegeses when the so-called “heretics” appropriated them to support their cause. Take the case of Prov. 8.22–31 , a testimony to Wisdom's cooperative role alongside God in the production of the universe. In second-century exegesis, these verses were quoted to prove that the Son or the Holy Spirit, interpreted as “Wisdom,” was always with God the Father. By the early fourth century, however, the verses had become highly suspect, since Arians used them to argue that the Son of God was a secondary and created being, not metaphysically equal to God the Father. Those who championed the decision of the Council of Nicaea in 325, on the other hand, held that the Father and the Son were “of one substance.” Accordingly, for Nicaean orthodoxy, Prov. 8 could not be used to describe the relations of Father and Son within the Trinity; rather, they referred only to the period of Jesus' incarnation, when the eternal Son of God took on a created body that could hunger, thirst, and suffer.

Another notable controversy, this time waged among Latin Christians, concerned the proper interpretation of Rom. 5.12 : “It was through one man that sin entered the world, and through sin death, and thus death pervaded the whole human race, inasmuch as all have sinned.” In the early fifth century, Paul's words regarding the universality of human sinfulness were given a sharper edge in the battle between the followers of Pelagius and those of Augustine. Pelagius was a champion of human free will, God's gift lavished on human beings at creation and retained despite sin. Augustine, in contrast, thought that our free will (i.e., the freedom to choose the good) had been brought to an end by Adam's sinful deed. Augustine, reading a Latin translation of the verse, took Paul to mean that because of Adam's sin, sin and death passed to all other human beings through the mechanism of the lust that attends sexual intercourse. Pelagians preferred to interpret the verse to mean that Adam set a bad example in sinning that other human beings followed. And a Pelagian author of the 420s, Julian of Eclanum, went even further to challenge Augustine's interpretation: Augustine had no Scriptural grounds for claiming that it was through sexual intercourse that the sin passed to the fetus being conceived, for Rom. 5.12 reads, “through one man”—and everyone, even the foggy-headed Augustine, must know that sexual reproduction takes two!

Not all struggles over the use of Scripture involved human combatants. The desert ascetics, whose Christian commitment led them to staggering feats of bodily renunciation, believed that the ultimate Christian struggle lay against demons who, as agents of Satan, were old masters of Scriptural manipulation. Evagrius Ponticus supplies examples of the monks' struggles with demons who both quote Scripture and are defeated by Scripture. Thus the demon of lust could whisper verses from 1 Timothy on the goodness of marriage and childbearing, or the demon of gluttony might counsel you to drink a little wine “to help your digestion” (1 Tim. 5.23 ). Against these demonic Biblical experts, the desert monks armed themselves with verses of Scripture, much as Jesus is represented as withstanding the Tempter in Luke 4 and Matthew 4 . Entire catalogs of Scriptural verses were drawn up corresponding to the vices that the monk must combat: gluttony, lust, avarice, and so forth. Thus a monk given to anger could repeat to himself, among many other verses, Eccles. 7.9 , “Do not be quick to take offense, for it is fools who nurse resentment.” A monk tempted by avarice when he recalled his parents' fine home, compared to his present miserable cell, was advised to repeat Ps. 84.10 , “Better to linger by the threshold of God's house than to live in the dwellings of the wicked.” Armed with these and hundreds of other verses, the desert ascetics employed Scripture they had memorized to fight the supreme enemy—much as Catholic polemicists used specific verses to defeat their “heretical” opponents.

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