on 15 March 1999
The ACCS is a unique achievement in the world of biblical scholarship. In an age in which legitimate scholarly commentaries seem to be limited to the "current" and "relevant," the ACCS reaches back to the roots of not just biblical scholarship, but biblical piety, and it is there where it makes its mark. With the ACCS, we read of the role of scripture in the lives of faith of great men such as Augustine and Chrysostom, and we thus come to realize that any "scholarship" done on the bible in their day was done out of faith. Anyone current in modern biblical scholarship can see how this is a far cry from the detached scholarship coming out of so many seminaries and graduate schools today. As a catechetical tool for parish religious education programs, the ACCS comes highly recommended as a means by which the believer can come into contact with the Christian past. However, the merits of the ACCS stop here, in the face of more than a few criticisms and obstacles which it ignores.
First of all, the commentary on Mark, and I might suspect the whole series, over-simplifies the Christianity which it seeks to present, giving the impression that the "Patristic period" was a time of consensual thinking void of serious conflict. Often, certain passages of Mark will be commented upon by church fathers who did not even consider each other as "orthodox" (a loaded term in need of qualifying), or who were only considered by many to be orthodox in their own time, or only years after their deaths.
The less critical reader may come away with the idea that patristic theology was a school of thought not unlike reformed or existential theology, which we know is not the case. By offering examples from third century fathers like Origen (deemed a heretic after his death and hardly an example of "consensual thinking"), fifth century fathers like Augustine, and eighth century fathers like John of Damascus, there is a tendency toward anachronism in the ACCS, which can only paint an artificial picture of ancient Christianity, a picture which seeks to ignore (and I would wonder why) the diversity and conflict so common in the church during late antiquity. Also, given the method by which certain texts of the fathers were chosen (and not chosen) for the ACCS, I would wonder at the criteria: do we only hear from the texts of the fathers which agree with the agenda of the editors, or do we really get a full picture of the ancient church?
Second, I would question the editors' choice of sources, of examples which are supposed to serve as representative of patristic thought. Many of the sources cited were not even biblical commentaries, and thus any examples of what a church father said about a biblical passage runs the risk of being taken out of context in the ACCS. More often, the writings which the ACCS editors present as a father's comments on a biblical passage were from mere letters, or treatises on topics other than the particular biblical passage at hand. Usually, when a father did quote scripture in such non-biblically focused works (such as catechetical lectures, apologetics, etc.), his goal was to proof-text from scripture in order to make a point, his goal was certainly not scripture commentary. However, in presenting such passages out of context as if they were solely commentaries on scripture, the ACCS again paints an artificial picture of ancient Christianity. You would think that the doctoral students who worked on this project with Professor Oden would know better.
Finally, I would question which biblical manuscripts the fathers were commenting upon when they wrote the works which serve as the sources for the ACCS. As Professor Oden should know, there was no single Greek (or Latin, or Syriac, etc.) manuscript of the New Testament in the age of the fathers which could have served as the only basis for commenting upon scripture (consider here the codex vaticanus, sinaiticus, etc.). However, in presenting all the varied comments by the fathers on these passages of Mark, giving only the English RSV as a referent, the reader again gets the false impression of a mushy "consensuality" among those who only later came to be called fathers of the church, a "consensuality" which is supposed to span centuries as well as cultural/linguistic/geographic boundaries.
The questions the ACCS does not answer are how we are to reconcile the disparity among the manuscripts of the NT used by the fathers, and the basis upon which can we use a ready-made English translation whose underlying Greek text was quite unlike that used by the men whose comments are employed in the ACCS. These ultimately come down to a question of method. These questions are not answered because (conveniently perhaps?) they are not addressed, but shouldn't they be, in the spirit of scholarly inquiry? It is this lack of variant readings and clear articulation of method which, I feel, calls the "scholarly" legitimacy of this work into question.
In conclusion, I would have to add that it is the perspective of the reader which will determine the usefulness of the ACCS. If one's goal is merely to refer to what some of the fathers said about a passages of scripture, in order to find a link between the church's past and present, then the ACCS is a fine reference. However, if one's goal is to probe the methodology and presuppositions behind what has come to be known as patristic exegesis, the ACCS can only serve as a convenient starting point for one unfamiliar with other sources on the subject. Even in that case, the usefulness of the ACCS cannot be expected to last long for those with the deeper questions.