Book Review: Language for God in Patristic Tradition by Mark Sheridan
Publisher: IVP Books
Reading Level: Moderate
“God does not behave like humans.” (215)
How is one to speak of God? The church has often looked at the question of talking about God and arrived at interesting conclusions. In Language for God in Patristic Tradition (henceforth Language for God) Mark Sheridan presents a comprehensive look at how the early church fathers approached passages in Scriptures that contained difficult descriptions of God. Sheridan’s writing is fluid and easy to read. His explication of the fathers provides consistently valuable and historical insights. An appendix is even added for “those unacquainted with ancient methods of interpretations” (26).
Before addressing the Patristic content of Language for God, it is worth noting the expressed opinion of the author. In multiple places Sheridan expresses clear disdain for evangelical literalism (149-151, 200-205, 213-215), and he depicts New Testament revelation as used “to correct, complement or complete Scripture” (104). Despite spending a lengthy amount of time addressing the allegorical methods of the early fathers, these approaches are dismissed on the basis that Hebrew was not the original language of mankind and hidden meanings within words are not real (213-214). After nearly two hundred pages contemplating the details of the early church fathers, their instruction and advice are swept aside within a few paragraphs, aside from retaining a principal idea of “theological interpretation” (215).
Apart from the author’s opposition to evangelical literalism, the patristic elements of Language for God are phenomenal. The early church thrived and excelled on this teaching and instruction and it should come as no surprise that the material is both theologically and philosophically deep. Principal to the evaluation of the fathers’ writing is the definition and introduction to “theological interpretation” which is made early on in Language for God. This hermeneutical concept is simply described as something that “must be ‘useful to men’ and ‘worthy of God’” (24-26). With this concept firmly planted, a periscope approach of how the early fathers came about deriving what was “worthy of God” is supplied discussing Greek philosophers (chapter 2) and Hellenistic Jews (chapter 3). Both of these chapters provide keen insights into why the early fathers responded the way they did to the anthropomorphisms contained in the Bible and especially the “passions” attributed to God. Allegorical interpretation became a defense tool for reading the Old Testament while preserving its content as intended for the church, beneficial for the church, and ultimately worthy of the revelation received in Christ Jesus. Quotations from the fathers abound and dominate the chapters dealing with difficult passages in Israel’s history (chapter 7) and the Psalms (chapter 8). These chapters provide some of the highlights of Language for God and the Christian tradition.
In conclusion, Sheridan’s final words in the Language for God are “God does not behave like humans” (215) but at this point, human definitions of incredulity and right/wrong have loitered the analysis of difficult passages of Scripture (chapter 8). Language for God in Patristic Tradition is an excellent book when the early fathers are permitted to speak. The analysis of Sheridan is profound and essential for people unfamiliar with the early church’s perspective on hermeneutics. However, his conclusions seem to be propped forward with little defense and/or argumentation. It is to be presumed that Christians will agree that certain behavior is “unworthy of God” and thus incapable of being inherently Christian Scripture without rejecting the “original historical meaning” (215). While a valuable experience over all, it would have been better served if author Mark Sheridan has provided less of his contrasting opinions without more time spent explaining his conflicts and concerns. Still, Language for God is valuable for student and pastors seeking different approaches for talking about God and teaching from the Scriptures.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.