Review: The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture

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The occasion for this review is a special sale by IVP, for the complete paperback edition of its Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This 30-volume set, normally listed at $1500, is on sale for $600 through July 31st (use code ACCS60 at checkout).

The Fathers at Your Fingertips

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS) is an edited collation of Biblical commentary from the early Church Fathers. The total set of Fathers included is too long to list, for it includes not only figures from the first two centuries, such as Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, but also Fathers through the 8th century, writing in both Latin and Greek. Familiar Latin Fathers include Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Bede, while the Greek Fathers include Origen, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, and John of Damascus.

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But the real value of this series is that the Fathers are organized by Biblical passage, and not chronology or language. In other words, rather than having to look up 10 or more primary sources to explore a single Biblical text, the ACCS selects key passages by multiple Church Fathers for each Biblical passage. Thus, the series gives you ‘the fathers at your fingertips’, such that you can open to any passage of scripture, and immediately access an ancient perspective across multiple voices.

Patristics for Preaching

Practically speaking, the series offers an ideal resource for Bible study of any kind, and especially preaching preparation. Once you have a Biblical text, you can quickly look up the text in the ACCS, and read through the commentaries for that passage in just a few minutes.

How can this help your sermon?  In at least 3 ways:

  1. By drawing an idea or a quotation from the Church Fathers, you can bolster your argument with ancient authority and give a living witness to the communion of the saints.
  2. The Fathers will draw your attentions to textual details that we give less focus in modern interpretation, and also offer sacramental and practical applications.
  3. Because the Church Fathers love typology, you can often find new ways of connecting a given passage to Christ, especially from Old Testament texts.

Case Study: The Holy Spirit

Let’s say that you are doing a study on the Holy Spirit. And perhaps you are considering a few different passages. The Spirit at Creation (Genesis 1), the Spirit at Jesus’ Baptism (Matthew 3), the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2), and our life in the Spirit (Romans 8). What can you learn from the ACCS?

Below are selected commentaries on each passage. Note that the ACCS includes initial headings for each passage to give a sense of its meaning, together with a citation after each commentary, so that you can look up the entire primary text if desired.

The Spirit in Creation (Genesis 1)

Created By The Spirit. Ambrose: The Spirit fittingly moved over the earth, destined to bear fruit because by the aid of the Spirit it held the seeds of new birth which were to germinate according to the words of the prophet: “Send forth thy Spirit and they shall be created and thou shalt renew the face of the earth. (Hexaemeron 1.8).

Creation Initiated Through The Spirit. Ephrem the Syrian: The Holy Spirit warmed the waters with a kind of vital warmth, even bringing them to a boil through intense heat in order to make them fertile. The action of a hen is similar. It sits on its eggs, making them fertile through the warmth of incubation. Here then, the Holy Spirit foreshadows the sacrament of holy baptism, prefiguring its arrival so that the waters made fertile by the hovering of that same divine Spirit might give birth to the children of God. (Commentary on Genesis I).

The Spirit at Jesus’ Baptism (Matthew 3)

The Meekness of the Dove. Origen: Christ was baptized for our sake, in order to sanctify the waters. The Spirit descended in the form of a dove, since wherever there is reconciliation with God there is a dove, as in the case of Noah’s ark…announcing God’s mercy to the world and at the same time making clear that what is spiritual should be meek and without wickedness, simple and without guile (Fragment 56).

The Steady Allegiance of the Dove. Theodore of Mopsuestia: The Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove, being kindly, affectionate and a lover of humanity. Although frequently pushed aside, the dove nevertheless comes again to be possessed by us and does us good according to its own goodness. For the dove is an affectionate creature, a friend of humanity, who, even though mistreated by people who snatch away and eat its nestlings, does not depart from those it is accustomed to live with but remains no matter what (Fragment 15).

The Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2)

The Spirit Makes One Burn And Speak. Bede: Now the Holy Spirit appeared in fire and tongues because all those whom he fills he makes simultaneously to burn and to speak – to burn because of him and to speak about him. And at the same time he indicated that the holy church, when it had spread to the ends of the earth, was to speak in the languages of all nations (Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles).

Unity and Diversity. Augustine: Therefore, when he sent the Holy Spirit he manifested him visibly in two ways – by a dove and by fire: by a dove upon the Lord when he was baptized, by fire upon the disciples when they were gathered together…The dove shows that those who are sanctified by the Spirit should be without guile. That their simplicity should not continue cold is shown us by the fire. Nor let it trouble you that the tongues were divided: for tongues are diverse…Do not be afraid of separation in the cloven tongues, but in the dove recognize unity (Tractates on the Gospel of John 6.3).

Life in the Spirit (Romans 8)

Led by the Spirit. Chrysostom: Note the great honor here. For as believers we do not merely live in the Spirit; we are led by him as well. The Spirit is meant to have the same power over us as a pilot has over his ship or a charioteer over his horses. And it is not only the body but the soul also which is meant to be controlled in this way…(Homilies on Romans 14).

The Spirit Intercedes According To His Nature. Ambrosiaster: Our prayers are weak because they ask for things contrary to reason, and for this reason Paul shows that this weakness in us is helped by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. The Holy Spirit helps because he does not allow anything we ask for before the proper time or against God’s wishes to happen…For the Spirit given to us overflows with our prayers in order to make up for our inadequacy and lack of foresight by his actions and to ask God for the things which will be of benefit to us. (Commentary on Paul’s Epistles).

Layout & Binding

The ACCS is attractively formatted in double columns, with a highly readable typography (especially in comparison to other reference materials). There are even some margins if you’d like to take notes. Each volume includes a short introduction and helpful bibliographies and indices.

Before reviewing the complete ACCS in paperback, I did own a few volumes in hardcover. The size and layout are exactly the same. If cost is no consideration, I would prefer the hardcover with its smyth-sewn pages, which does better at laying flat and will last for a longer time. But at $75 per hard-cover volume, most will prefer the value of the paperback box-set, especially at the present discounted rate.

Final Thoughts

Anglicanism is a catholic and a reformed tradition, and both sides of this equation point to the value of the ACCS. As catholic, we value the witness of the historic church, and look to the early church as a foundational source for doctrine and interpretation. Plus, one of our own (Bede!) is included in the set.

As reformed, we evaluate every interpretation against the authority of scripture, for which reason the Biblical organization of the ACCS is especially useful for us. Moreover, our English reformers were especially keen to go back to the Church Fathers when engaged in theological controversy. They endeavored to show that Anglican doctrine was consonant with the scriptures and the witness of the early church.

We will be greatly blessed as we return again to the wisdom of our Fathers in the faith.

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is now on sale, for $600 through July 31st (use code ACCS60 at checkout).

Published on

May 29, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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