While incorrect biblical interpretation and false images of God are older than Christianity, Benedictine Father Mark Sheridan focuses on how Early Church writers wrestled with the problem. In his latest book, Language for God in Patristic Tradition: Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism, Sheridan describes how the ancient Church dealt with problematic images of God in the Bible as jealous, angry, or vindictive, citing heavily biblical commentaries from the Church Fathers.
“Origen of Alexandria says people have dreadful ideas about God, because they read passages too literally,” Sheridan said. The American-born monk is a former professor and rector at the Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo in Rome. Now based in Jerusalem, he sought to write this book, after a years-long interest in the history of biblical interpretation.
The problems Sheridan treats in his book are not simply theoretical. He also addresses how misinterpretations of Scripture have been used to justify violence. “The Scriptures have been used and abused for centuries to justify all sorts of things that are not really justifiable,” he said in an interview with Vatican Radio. “So I wanted to show that it is possible and necessary to justify the Scriptures theologically.”
Sheridan cites the example of John Cassian, where the ancient Christian writer comments that, “People, even in the monastic life, use these texts to justify anger. That of course means spiritual downfall.”
Sheridan said his book also speaks to the recent violence globally, often linked to religion and specifically with religious texts. “There is a great deal of discussion these days about a connection between religion and violence…and texts and violence, usually in reference to Islam,” he said. “I think we need to look at our own Scriptures in the West and see how these can have a dangerous effect on society.”
Sheridan said he hopes the Fathers perennial contribution can help set guidelines as to how to interpret the Scriptures in a manner “worthy of God” and “useful” to mankind.