The Transfiguration and the Church Fathers

In David Steinmetz’s famous article, The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis, he states “the medieval theory of levels of meaning in the biblical text, with all its undoubted defects, flourished because it is true, while the modern theory of a single meaning, with all its demonstrable virtues is false.”[1]

Some balk at this statement. Can this really be the case? When they read the Church Fathers they struggle to understand why they make the exegetical moves they do. Others might think multiple meanings sounds like a form of postmodernism.

However, in studying the transfiguration, it became clear to me that Steinmetz was right. There was a superiority to pre-critical exegesis. The Church Fathers’ homilies on the transfiguration were rich biblical reflections. When I reflected on why this was the case, I realized they were not afraid of reading symbolically and theologically. To show the superiority of their exegesis, I will compare and contrast how moderns verse premoderns approached the texts describing the transfiguration.

Ascending Mountains

The transfiguration narrative begins with three disciples ascending a mountain with Jesus on the seventh day (Matt 17:1; Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28). Modern interpreters generally debate precisely which mountain this occurred on, Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon. They do make some comments on the importance of mountains in the Scriptures, but they rarely speak of the importance of this being on the seventh day.

Pre-critical interpreters on the other hand press deeply into all these images. The seventh (or eighth) day was a rich symbol. John of Damascus writes that in six days God brought out the sum total of things, and he takes the “eight” in Luke to signify the coming age.[2] Gregory Palamas likewise says the eighth day represents the coming age, an eternal day not measured in hours, never lengthening or shortening.[3] Anastasius of Antioch says the number six corresponds to the present world, but then comes the seventh day, which is representative of the new creation.[4]

The mountain was also significant for its symbolic meaning rather than the precise location. Anastasius of Antioch correlated the mountain with Sinai. “There [Sinai] we encountered mist, here the sun; there darkness, here a cloud of light, there the Law of the Decalogue, here the eternal Word who exists before all words; there fleshly riddles, here divine things. There, on the mountain, the tablets were broken because of impious behavior, here hearts are made wise for their salvation.”[5]

Finally, they all pressed deeply into the reality that we must ascend the mountain to see God. The transfiguration’s setting becomes a cipher for what it means to “seek the things above” (Col. 3:1), ascend God’s mountain (Exod. 19:3; Isa. 2:3; Ps. 24:3; Mic. 4:2), and reach for the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). For example, the seventh day theology, according to Origen, indicates we need to overcome worldly things and move from the things that are seen (temporal) to the things unseen (eternal).[6] Leo the Wise admonishes us to waste no time on lowly, earth-centered considerations but to lift our eyes to this great vision.[7]

Light, Face, Clothes

The transfiguration also recounts how Jesus’s face and clothes shine with light. Modern commentators are hamstrung when they come to the transfiguration because they don’t associate the mission of the Son with his eternal procession. Such a move is too “theological” for them. John Heil is representative of this view when he asserts that “the depiction of Jesus’s transfiguration in all three versions as an external change, a transformation from the outside of Jesus effected by God, does not support those interpretations that speak in terms of a ‘revelation,’ or ‘disclosure,’ or ‘unveiling’ of an inner, permanent glory or heavenly status which Jesus already possesses.”[8]

In contradiction, the Church Fathers almost unanimously state the light that emanates from Jesus is divine light and thus supports Jesus’s divinity. Anastasius of Sinai pronounces the disciples saw sparks of the divine sunshine, and they were gazing on divine power.[9] Andrew of Crete says the disciples saw the glory and radiance of Jesus’s divinity, more brilliant than lightning.[10] John of Damascus affirms this light was naturally his own, the brilliance of divine glory and of the Godhead.[11] Leo the Emperor states it was the radiance of his divinity.[12] All the pre-critical interpreters saw the brightness of the scene as pointing to the reality that he is Light from Light.

The Bright Cloud

Another disjunction between modern interpreters and precritical interpreters is how they speak of the bright cloud. Many modern interpreters make little comment about it. If they do, they connect it to the glory cloud that descended upon the tabernacle and temple and therefore an emblem of God’s presence. According to the Church Fathers, this is a step in the right direction, but there is much more to say.

For them, the bright cloud signifies the Holy Spirit and therefore the transfiguration is a trinitarian scene. Origen says that the bright cloud signifies the glory of the Holy Ghost, which covers the saints as a tent.[13] Andrew of Crete affirms that the shining cloud is the same as the dove who came at the Jordan River.[14] Gregory Palamas upholds that the Father and the Holy Spirit were invisibly accompanying the Lord. The Father bore witness with his voice; the Holy Spirit joined his brilliance to Christ’s in the cloud, and showed that the Son was of one nature with the Father and Himself united in their light.[15] The Church Fathers were not afraid to read symbolically and theologically.

This is My Beloved Son, Listen to Him

One of the climaxes of the transfiguration is certainly when the voice from heaven declares Jesus is his beloved Son and the disciples are to listen to him (Matt 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35). Modern interpreters do better here. They rightly connect it to the Old Testament. Joel Green is representative here. He celebrates this pronouncement as a “virtual choir of intertextual voices whose presence is so forceful that they threaten to drown out the narrator’s own voice.”[16] The slight variations form a majestic harmony of the Law (Deut. 18:15), the Prophets (Isa. 42:1), and the Psalms (Ps. 2:7). However, they still are hesitant to see this statement as affirming Jesus’s eternal begotenness. They view it simply as stating that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the king of Israel, the human son of God in the same way that David was (Ps. 2:7; 2 Sam. 7:14).

The Church Fathers, on the other hand, see this as affirming Jesus’s divine sonship. Timothy of Antioch is representative when he affirms the following based on the Father’s declaration.

[Jesus] is unique. . . . This who is of one substance with me, his Father, in every way—he is not like those whom some heretics have reduced to a slave! This one pre-existed along with me, before the ages. This one put the world together by his Spirit. This one shaped Adam, when he and I together planned to make human beings. This one took mud from the earth and formed the human person. This one transported Enoch in a marvelous way from human company. This one is seen and understood. This one exists with me, and stands on the mountain. This one has walked in your company, and is not separated from the one who begot him. This one is without time, without beginning, without successor, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, ineffable beyond thought. This one is; he did not come to be, he was not created. He is by nature, not by grace. He is, without having his being in time. He is, for he also was and existed before. For I did not become Father in time, but I always exist as Father. And if I am always Father, then this one is always Son, and the Holy Spirit also always is—who is adored along with me and with the Son, and glorified along with us, always and to the unending ages of ages. Amen.[17]


Steinmetz’s assertion about pre-critical exegesis is a wakeup call for modern interpreters. We don’t have to affirm that their analysis of the text is superior in every way, nor do we always need to agree with their decisions, and we must recognize their homilies are different forms of literature than our modern commentaries.

However, this article has attempted to show you that the Church Fathers were more comfortable with symbolism and theological readings. They were not afraid to press into the details of the text and look canonically for clues as to how to interpret them. This produced rich exegesis that served the church.

They interpreted this way because they believed the essential element of Christian exegesis was the unfolding of the Scriptures, as Jesus did, by relating all of it to him (Luke 24:44; John 5:39). While “symbolic and theological readings” might make you think there is a lack of control to exegesis, their interpretation was ultimately limited because there is one Meaning of Scripture––Christ himself.

Patrick Schreiner’s The Transfiguration of Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Reading is available from Baker Academic now.

Patrick Schreiner (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at Emmaus Church in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of numerous books, including Matthew, Disciple and Scribe, a commentary on Acts, The Ascension of Christ, The Mission of the Triune God, The Visual Word, Political Gospel, and The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross.

  1. David C. Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” Theology Today 37.1 (1980): 27–38.

  2. John of Damascus, “Oration on the Transfiguration,” in Light on the Mountain: Greek Patristic and Byzantine Homilies on the Transfiguration of the Lord, trans. Brian Daley, Popular Patristics 48 (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013), 216.

  3. Palamas, Saving Work of Christ, 41, 48.

  4. Anastasius of Antioch, “Homily on the Transfiguration” [Daley, 135];

  5. Anastasius of Sinai, “Homily on the Transfiguration” [Daley, 166]

  6. Origen, “Commentary on Matt 12.36–43” (Daley, 55).

  7. Leo the Wise, “Homily 11” (Daley, 255).

  8. John Paul Heil, The Transfiguration of Jesus: Narrative Meaning and Function of Mark 9:2–8, Matt 17:1–8 and Luke 9:28–36, AB 144 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2000), 78 (emphasis mine).

  9. Anastasius of Sinai, “Homily on the Transfiguration” (Daley, 169, 171).

  10. Andrew of Crete, “On the Transfiguration of Christ” (Daley, 182).

  11. John of Damascus, “Oration on the Transfiguration” (Daley, 219–20).

  12. Leo the Emperor, “A Homily by Leo the Emperor” (Daley, 238, 251).

  13. Origen, Commentary on Matthew 12.42 (ANF 9:473).

  14. Andrew of Crete, “On the Transfiguration of Christ” (Daley, 197).

  15. Palamas, Homilies, 268.

  16. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 377.

  17. Timothy of Antioch, “Homily on the Cross and Transfiguration” (Daley, 152–53).


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