“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
“Accordingly, if we make St. Paul our leader in these two understandings, we shall have the safest guide to the plain truth of what we are seeking. For he, most of all, knew what Christ is…this man knew the significance of the name of Christ for us, saying that Christ is ‘the power of God and wisdom of God.’ And he called Him ‘peace’ and ‘light inaccessible’ in whom God dwells, and ‘sanctification and redemption,’ and ‘great high priest,’ and ‘passover,’ and ‘a propitation’ of souls, ‘the brightness of glory and the image of substance,’ and ‘maker of the world,’ and ‘spiritual food’ and ‘spiritual drink and spiritual rock,’ ‘water,’ ‘foundation’ of faith,’ and ‘corner stone,’ and ‘image of the invisible God,’ and ‘great God,’ and ‘head of the body of the Church,’ and ‘the firstborn of every creature,’ and ‘first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep,’ ‘firstborn from the dead,’ ‘firstborn among many brethren,’ and ‘mediator between God and men,’ and ‘only-begotten Son,’ and ‘crowned with glory and honor,’ and ‘lord of glory,’ and ‘beginning’ of being, speaking thus of Him who is the beginning, ‘king of justice and king of peace,’ and ‘ineffable king of all, having the power of the kingdom,’ and many other such things that are not easily enumerated.(Saint Gregory of Nyssa Ascetical Works, THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH, Vol. 58. pgs 96-97)
Each Christian is to be an Evangelist – not writing new scriptures in books, but transferring the Word of God to one’s heart. Though many American Christians argue strenuously to have the scriptural Ten Commandments engraved in stone tablets to be placed in courthouses, the real place where we need to engrave God’s word is in our hearts. Then by our lives, how we live and treat others, people can read the Gospel in us. “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
“One can not just keep the Word of God in his memory. Men must preserve the Word of God, above all, in a living and burning heart. The Word of God is preserved in the human spirit as a seed which sprouts and brings forth fruit. This means that the truth of divine Revelation must unfold within human thought, must develop into an entire system of believing confession, into a system of religious perspective…” (Georges Florovsky, CREATION AND REDEMPTION, pp 26-27)
The learning of the Scriptures through constant reading and rote memory is not to dull the mind, but to set the heart on fire! Orthodox Christians pray before reading the Gospel, “Illumine our hearts, O Master Who loves mankind, with the pure light of Your divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Your gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Your blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto You.” We study the Scriptures in order to fill our hearts with the warmth of faith, the illumination of the Gospels, and the knowledge of God.
“If you wish to achieve true knowledge of Scripture you must hurry to achieve unshakable humility of heart…Then, having banished all worldly concerns and thoughts, strive in every way to devote yourself constantly to the sacred reading so that continuous meditation will seep into your soul and, as it were, will shape it to its image. Somehow it will form that ‘ark’ of the Scriptures (cf. Heb 9:4-5) and will contain the two stone tablets, that is, the perpetual strength of the two testaments. There will be the golden urn which is a pure and unstained memory and which will preserve firmly within itself the everlasting manna, that is the eternal, heavenly sweetness of spiritual meaning and of that bread which belongs to the angels…Therefore the sequences of holy Scripture must be committed to memory and they must be pondered ceaselessly. Such meditation will profit us in two ways. First, when the thrust of the mind is occupied by the study and perusal of the readings it will, of necessity, avoid being taken over by the snares of dangerous thoughts. Second, as we strive with constant repetition to commit these readings to memory, we have not the time to understand them because our minds have been occupied. But later when we are free from the attractions of all that we do and see and, especially, when we are quietly meditating during the hours of darkness, we think them over and we understand them more closely. And so it happens that when we are at ease and when, as it were, we are plunged into the dullness of sleep, the hidden meanings, of which we were utterly unaware during our waking hours, and the sense of them are bared to our minds.”(John Cassian Conferences. The Classics of Western Spirituality. pgs. 164-165)
We read the Bible to ignite that light of faith in our hearts which guides us through the darkness into the Light.
In the next several blogs I will be looking at the comments of Orthodox saints, contemporary Orthodox scholars and some non-Orthodox biblical scholars, regarding their ideas of how to read and study the Scriptures. I return to the theme of the very first blog in this series that the Bible is a Treasury, which we open to discover the riches of God’s love and power.
“Reading the Holy Scriptures is like a treasure. With a treasure, you see, anyone able to find a tiny nugget gains for himself great wealth; likewise in the case of Sacred Scripture, you can get from a small phrase a great wealth of thought and immense riches. The Word of God is not only like a treasure, but is also like a spring gushing with everflowing waters in a mighty flood… our forebears drank from these waters to the limit of their capacity, and those who come after us will try to do likewise, without risk of exhausting them; instead the flood will increase and the streams will be multiplied.” (DAILY READINGS FROM THE WRITINGS OF ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, p 48)
St. John Chrysostom (d. 407 AD) is part of the Antiochian “School” of Patristic writers. Relatively speaking, they were not as attracted to an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures as were the saints of the Alexandrian “School” of the Patristic age. Their focus was on accurately discerning the precise meaning of Scripture and they often rejected a purely allegorical reading of the Bible. Nevertheless, the Antiochian School saw the Scriptures as containing God’s revelation to the world, and as such understood the biblical texts to be deep and rich with the revelations and hidden mysteries of God. The texts are not merely human texts, though they were written by men inspired by God. Their true content is the revelation of God Himself, which is why the meaning of the scriptural text might be much deeper than its most obvious meaning.
“The Apostle says: ‘The letter kills, but the spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6). Those are killed by the letter who merely wish to know the words alone, so that they may be esteemed as wiser than others and be able to acquire great riches to give to their relatives and friends. In a similar way, those religious are killed by the letter who do not wish to follow the spirit of Sacred Scripture, but only wish to know what the words are and how to interpret them to others. And those are given life by the spirit of Sacred Scripture who do not refer to themselves any text which they know or seek to know, but , by word and example, return everything to the most high Lord God to Whom every good belongs.” (St. Francis of Assisi, FRANCIS AND CLARE, p 30)
Knowing the Scriptures for Christian saints throughout the ages are not for only the learned and biblical scholars. One memorizes and lives by the Bible, not to impress others with one’s education, nor to get others to think highly of you, nor to become famous and sought after for one’s erudition. One learns the Scriptures to order one’s life, to live the evangelical life, to know how to be a disciple of the Son of God. In the Patristic Age, congregations were to take note of those who knew the Scriptures by heart – this was evaluated not by how many verses they could spout from memory, but by how they lived their lives. This is how a bishop candidate might be recognized: have they memorized the Psalms. It was not that the man who wants to be bishop should go about memorizing Psalms, but when the community recognizes that a man truly has the Psalms in his heart that one recognizes who the episcopal candidate should be. It is a lifetime pursuit of knowing God’s Word that is a sign of one’s commitment to Christ.
This pursuit of the knowledge of God’s Word was not just for those interested in becoming priests or bishops. St. Jerome (d. 420 AD) wrote in his day about the widow Marcella:
“And because my name was then especially esteemed in the study of the Scriptures, she never came without asking something about Scripture, nor did she immediately accept my explanation as satisfactory, but she proposed questions from the opposite viewpoint, not for the sake of being contentious, but so that by asking, she might learn solutions for points she perceived could be raised In objection. …whatever in us was gathered by long study and by lengthy meditation was almost changed into nature; this she tasted, this she learned, this she possessed.” (quoted in READING SCRIPTURE WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 44)
Those who learn the Word of God, who hide it in their hearts, become formed by that Word, they become living icons of God the Word in their lives and life styles. This is the goal for every Christian, not just those few who choose to be professional Christians, namely the paid clergy and hierarchs.
“Meditations on the scriptures teaches the soul the discourse with God.”
(St. Isaac the Syrian, in ORTHODOX PRAYER LIFE by Matthew the Poor, p 52)
The witness of many Orthodox saints is that the Christian should lead a life, not without purpose, but always directed to God. The goal of the Christian life is union with God, what the Orthodox saints term theosis or deification. Part of the means given to humanity to attain this goal is the listening to the Word of God. Through hearing God’s Word, the prophets told what God is doing in the world, and the Virgin Mary conceived the Son of God and Messiah in her womb. She attained a union with God becoming truly Theotokos by hearing God’s Word and freely agreeing to obey it.
For the saints, the Scriptures contain the revelation which God Himself wanted His creatures to know about theology: that divine life which has become hidden from our eyes due to sinfulness. The Scriptures for the saints are rich and varied, a treasury and a deep well from which a wealth of wisdom and the quenching of the thirst for knowledge come. St. John Chrysostom offers a rich description of what the believer will find in the Bible:
“Let us…put our soul in at the reading of the Scriptures as though into some peaceful harbor. It is, after all, a harbor without billows, an impregnable wall, an unshakeable tower, imperishable glory, invulnerable armor, imperturbable satisfaction, undying enjoyment and whatever else you class a good—such is the communion with the divine Scriptures. It repels discouragement, preserves good spirits, makes the poor person richer than the affluent, bestows security on the rich, makes the sinner righteous, sets a secure guard on the righteous, snatches away ill-gotten gains, makes goods that are missing spring up, drives out wickedness, leads on to virtue—or does not so much lead on as even roots deeply and makes it last without end, being a spiritual remedy, a kind of divine and ineffable incantation which eliminates ailments, rooting up the thorns of sin, making the furrow clean, casting the seeds of piety and bringing the crop to fruition.” (OLD TESTAMENT HOMILIES Vol 3, pp 105-106)
We can read in his comments the fulfilling of what St. Paul told Timothy about the Word of God: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The reading of scriptures is not meant just to benefit “me” personally, it also prepares me for Christian service, witness, mission and ministry.
“This, after all, is the object of our earnest effort, that you would know precisely the power of the Scriptures so as not merely to understand them yourselves but also to become teachers of them to others, and so be in a position, according to blessed Paul, to edify one another.” (St. John Chrysostom, HOMILIES ON GENESIS 1-17, p 105)
We are after all to become doers of the Word, not just hearers of the Word. We are to lead by example.
As we move out of the Patristic Age and more into the modern world, Post-Guttenberg, in which the availability of God’ Word for personal reading or hearing is made possible through books and MP3s, we encounter even more incentive to read the Scriptures. If we are literate, we should read the Bible which is so easily available to us.
“If you read worldly magazines and newspapers, and derive some profit from them, as a citizen, a Christian, and a member of a family, then you ought still more and still oftener to read the Gospel and the writings of the Holy Fathers; for it would be sinful for a Christian, who reads worldly things, not to read divinely-inspired ones.” (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 2, p 137)
“O brethren, read more of the Gospels, the Epistles of the Apostles and the works of the holy Fathers! Through such reading does the soul come to know God, and the mind becomes so occupied with the Lord that the world is quite forgot, as if you had never been born.” (ST. SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 416)
An encounter with God is made possible through the Scriptures.
“…the Fathers of the Church declared that the ultimate purpose of reading Scripture is to acquire theoria, an inspired ‘vision’ of God and His truth. … Yet we never really grasp it, understand it and take it into ourselves until we can ‘see’ it—that is, until the words become in some sense icons, sacred images that enable written words to become a living Word.” (John Breck, LONGING FOR GOD, p 221)
We come to see the Scriptures in the lives of the saints: those men and women who endeavored to live by the Word of God and who incarnated them in their own lives. They became living icons of God’s Word. Thus meditating on icons and reading the lives of the saints should lead us to seeing the scriptures embodied in the lives of Christian men and women made holy by their relationship with God through their living the evangelical life.
“Whensoever a man reads the Divine Books, the devils are afraid.”
(THE PARADISE OF THE HOLY FATHERS Vol II, p 24)
“’Once I saw the devil lying in wait outside the cell of my disciple,’ said a sagacious elder. ‘So I cast an eye inside to see what my disciple was doing. He had the Holy Scriptures open in front of him and was plunged deep in study. As soon as he closed the book and ended his reading, the devil rushed in to tempt him.” (THE ANCIENT FATHERS OF THE DESERT, p 32)
There is little doubt that in the writings of the Desert Fathers, the reading of, the reciting of, and the listening to the oral proclamation of the Scriptures were all seen as one way that the Holy Fathers had direct contact with the Divine. The recitation of the Scriptures aloud drove demons away from those listening to the Word, according to the beliefs of the desert mothers and fathers. The words of Scriptures have spiritual power to drive away evil which is why the monks and nuns were encouraged to read then continually.
Modern people tend to assume that it is only in rationally apprehending Scriptures can they possibly have any power – the desert experience smacks too much of superstition. Yet, the ancients relied heavily on repetition as the mother of learning, and the constant recitation of and listening to the Word was understood to permeate one’s mind with God’s Word. It wasn’t simply reading aloud, but that hearing also caused the Word to hide in one’s heart, and was the only way that one would have any chance of obeying God. One’s heart and mind were to be shaped by the scriptural messages: truly catechesis was not just about gathering information, it was about formation of one’s heart and very life. The very term “catechesis” implies that the sound goes down into our ears (catechesis has the same root word as “echo”). It was a repetitive form of learning by listening to the words again and again. The belief was that rote learning did allow the word to penetrate into and form the heart, becoming one with the heart and natural to the mind.
“A brother said to an old man, ‘See, abba, I frequently ask the Fathers to give me an earnest reminder for the salvation of my soul, and I do not remember a thing of what they tell me.’ Now the old man had two empty vessels, and he said to the brother, ‘Go, bring one of the vessels and pour water in it: rinse it, pour it out, and put it back in its place, all shiny.’ The brother did this several times, and the old man said to him, ‘Of the two vessels, which one is cleaner?’ The brother answered, ‘The one I put water in and cleaned.’ Then the old man said to him, ‘son, thus it is with the soul that frequently hears the word of God; though the soul remembers nothing of what she asked, she is nonetheless cleansed more than the soul that did not inquire.’” (Lives of the Fathers, in SPIRITUAL DIRECTION, Irenee Hausherr, p 248)
So the Church lectionary repeats the same biblical passages each year, through the course of a life time one would hear the same lessons repeatedly, hopefully so that they become so familiar to the listener that they can begin to unravel the mysteries contained in the scriptural lessons. Like peeling an onion, each hearing of the Word brings new depth and meaning from the text.
“The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our hearts are hard, but those who hear the word of God often, open their hearts to revere the Lord.” (Abba Pimen, IN THE SPIRIT OF HAPPINESS by the Monks of New Skete, pp 137-138)
For the early Christians who left the civilized life of the Roman Empire behind to allow themselves to hear the Word of the Lord by silencing the din of society, going into the quietude of the desert, to enable themselves to hear God, rather than all the clamor of the world, the constant listening to the Scriptures was the way to salvation.
St. Gregory of Nyssa (d. ca 384AD) described the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis as “not so much history as ‘doctrines in the guise of narrative” (Kallistos Ware, HOW WE ARE SAVED: THE UNDERSTANDING OF SALVATION IN THE ORTHODOX TRADITION). St. Gregory was very comfortable with reading Genesis as narrative, but a story with deep meaning, for the Bible in its narrative teaches us the doctrines about God. We however have to look into the meaning of the narrative to discover these doctrines, planted in the Scriptures, sometimes plainly visible and sometimes hidden.
The Bible is not written as a systematic theology, with dogmas annunciated one after another in neat outline form. Nor is the Bible written as a catechism with a series of questions logically arranged to help guide the reader to a pre-determined understanding. Rather, the Bible which often takes on the form of narrative (among other literary forms – poetry, history, prophecy, typology, allegory, proverbs), requires the reader to discern through these literary forms what it is that God is revealing to humankind. It is a narrative that requires some guided study, and someone to help us understand the text. The fullness of God’s revelation was recorded in the Scriptures which were entrusted by God to His Church; His Church – His people- are entrusted by God with interpreting the revelation contained in the Scriptures. As we read in the Acts of the Apostles when the Apostle Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch:
“So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless some one guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him” (Acts 8:30-31).
The Bible provides a framework, a context, in which for us to answer such questions as “Who is this God?” and, “What does it mean to be human?” But the answers are not always self evident, rather they require the reader to develop a patiently acquired wisdom and a persistent desire to know the truth. The narrative of the Scriptures is long, but also it is a path that leads to somewhere, even to someone, for it leads us on a sojourn with a purpose.
“For the most characteristic way of speaking within the Bible itself is historical narrative: it is an account—or, rather, many different or even disparate accounts—of things that were said and done at various junctures in the historical career of the people of God.” (Jaroslav Pelikan, WHOSE BIBLE IS IT?, p VII)
The Bible is a written record of God’s revelation, and we need to read it as such: not just to discover what we already know and believe, but to encounter the truth even which is unknown to us, hidden from us, or which is itself an entry into the divine life. We might think the Bible’s sole purpose is to take us from darkness into the light, but it is also taking us from the known to the unknown, for it brings us into the presence of and the mystery of God.
“Our study of the Bible, in other words, should lead us from the literal sense to the spiritual sense: from the original meaning of a passage to its significance as the Word of God for the salvation of those who receive it with faith.”
“The ancient Fathers, and particularly the early Greek theologians, shared a certain vision of the place and meaning of Scripture… this vision which perceives the presence and activity of God in every aspect of Israel’s history and in every facet of the Church’s life. Theirs was an inspired vision, a God-given perception which they termed theoria. This vision enabled them to discern the deeper meaning of the biblical message and to interpret that meaning for their flock. Avoiding the pitfall of ‘verbal inerrancy,’ they knew that every word of the text was produced by a ‘synergy’ or cooperative effort between the human author and the Holy Spirit. Whether or not they found a ‘spiritual’ sense in every phrase of the text, they were convinced that every word was inspired by God for the purpose of guiding the faithful along the way toward life in the Kingdom of Heaven. To their mind, exegesis has one purpose only: to enable the people of God to hear his Word and to receive it for their salvation. … The Eastern Church Fathers stressed the fact that the Bible is not sui generisbut that it was born and shaped within a community of faith.” (John Breck, SCRIPTURE IN TRADITION: THE BIBLE AND ITS INTERPRETATION IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH, pp XI, 2-3)
“Thus, the Church is founded on Christ. It is His Church, the response to His call, the obedience to His will. It is important to keep this in mind, because Christians themselves often forget and begin to view the Church as ‘theirs,’ as an organization essentially called to serve them, to satisfy their spiritual and non-spiritual needs and demands. Yet the very word Church shows above all that it is the union of those who are called to serve Christ, and to continue His work. It is service not to self but to God. What is this service? Or rather, what is the purpose, the task for which Christ founded, or as He says, ‘built’ His Church? The answer to this question is given by the Symbol of faith in the four adjectives preceding the word ‘Church’: ‘I believe,’ we each say, ‘in One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.’” (Alexander Schmemann, Celebration of Faith: I Believe. Sermons, Vol. 1. pg 116)
“Paul never describes the church’s mission in terms of a specific task that it is to perform, but in terms of a character of life that it is to exhibit. It is to ‘walk worthily of its call’ (Eph. 4:1). At the most obvious level, this involves a life of righteousness before God (Rom. 6:13,18).” (The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul, pg 203)
One of the most beautiful encounters in the Gospel takes place between Jesus and Peter on the occasion when Jesus walks on the water. Peter, sitting in the boat, shouts out into the darkness: “‘Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.’ So, He said, ‘Come.’ And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, ‘Lord, save me!’ And immediately Jesus stretched out Hishand and caught him” (Matthew 14:28-31). Peter relies on Jesus when he initially climbs out of the boat, and again when Jesus catches him at the end of the story. It is only in the middle, when he realizes what he is doing, that he relies on his own abilities, and starts to sink. (Fr. Meletios Webber, Steps of Transformation: An Orthodox Priest Explores the Twelve Steps, pg 124)
Origen acknowledge there is a literal sense to the scriptures, and he often felt that literal sense was most important to those who were just beginning their faith sojourn as disciples of Christ. But Origen was most concerned about what St. Paul tells Timothy scripture is for: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The literal truth of Scriptures is not so much their “factualness” but the truth they convey to us about God, His plan of Salvation, and how we should live in His world. This was the deeper meaning, or hidden mystery, which Origen felt all Christians should strive to discover from the Bible.
What Origen acknowledged first was that a literal reading of the Scriptures will make the reader aware that the biblical narratives do have inconsistencies in them. This is true of the Gospels as well as the Old Testament.
“Origen points out, there are so many discrepancies in the accounts presented by the Gospels, that one must admit that their truth does not lie in their literal sense.” (John Behr, THE WAY TO NICEA, p 177)
While some patristic writers went to great length to try to harmonize the varied biblical narratives and their apparent contradictions, Origen was willing to accept that since all Scripture is inspired by God, the inconsistencies must be put in the text for a purpose – to remind us that there are deeper mysteries and so we shouldn’t get stuck on the literal inconsistencies but rather should strive to discover the deeper truths that must be found by getting beyond the literal reading. Origen understood that as the early church accepted four Gospel accounts, they didn’t accept those efforts that tried to harmonize all the inconsistencies into one problem free text (such as Tatian’s Diatessaron in the 2nd Century). Harmonizing the text did not lend to the credibility of the text but rather made it an artificial construction. The differing and even contradictory accounts of the Scriptures are part of what the men inspired by God recorded for the benefit of future believers to edify the Church.
“…Origin several times remarks that inconsistencies in the historical narrative presented in the Scriptures are there to alert us to the fact that the true meaning of Scripture is not to be found at the level of the historical narrative (or literal meaning) at all. … ‘he aimed not so much to depreciate the events of Biblical history as to proclaim that their significance was richer and fuller than an uncomprehending analysis would allow…” (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY, pp 112-113)
“…Origen did regard Adam as a historical figure, as the first man and the ancestor of the human race. The story of the garden of Eden and the fall does include details which cannot be taken literally even on the narrative level, but it none the less really happened, while at the same time, like other Old Testament stories, pointing to hidden mysteries and containing deeper levels of meaning as well.” (C. P. Bammel, in THE MAKING OF ORTHODOXY: ESSAYS IN HONOR OF HENRY CHADWICK, p 63)
“Origen, however, is continually waving his theological antennae over the literal sense of the biblical text. And if a text fails to satisfy or make sense to him on a literal reading, Origen will employ the larger symbolic field he has culled from Scripture as a whole to discern a deeper, allegorical sense. Greek philosophers had done so for years in studying Homer, and in what Heine calls ‘one of Origen’s most significant borrowings from Greek philosophy,’ Origen does the same with the Bible itself.” (Christopher Hall, READING SCRIPTURE WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 154)
It is because Origen and the Patristic writers understood the Scriptures to be God’s Word and not merely human composition and conjecture that they looked for greater meaning in the biblical texts. They were searching to encounter the Divine, not merely human words and ideas.
Because they believed the Scriptures to be inspired, they believed they need to look beyond the mere literal meaning of the words, in order to encounter God Himself. Especially in Origen’s thinking, the literal meaning was the human meaning of the text, but they believed the Scriptures also pointed beyond the mere human, beyond what human reason could conceive, to the divine revelation in which God revealed to us the mystery hidden from all eternity, namely, the Word become flesh, even Jesus the Christ (Romans 16:25, Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:26).
There is little doubt that Christians shared with Jewish rabbis a strong belief that all Scriptures were inspired by God and that the reader of the biblical text needs to mine from the text all of the wisdom, power and knowledge which God has put into the text. In the 3rd Century, the famous Christian biblical commentator, Origen, was a prolific exegete, commenting on a vast array of scriptural texts. He certainly was part of that well established tradition which sought to discover all the wisdom and knowledge which God may have put in the Scriptures. Origen was a brilliant expositor of the meaning hidden in the words of the scriptural texts. Unfortunately he also held some beliefs which were not accepted by the Church as a whole, and those unconventional teachings were eventually condemned by the Church and the faithful were discouraged from reading his works. Nevertheless, Origen’s methods and his prolific work to comment on the Christian Scriptures were imitated by others for generations in Christian history. His influence in getting bishops and teachers to look beyond the mere literal reading of the text is seen in the number of modern biblical scholars who write about him. For example, Peter Bouteneff in his BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT CHRISTIAN READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL CREATION NARRATIVES (pp 98-118) writes:
“For Origen, Scripture’s usefulness and importance are not primarily historical but moral, pastoral, and, finally, soteriological. … He states that the belief that Scripture ought to be interpreted according to the bare letter is tantamount to saying that it was composed by human beings alone, without inspiration. … The purpose of allegory, then, is to uncover Scripture’s latent sense, the embedded rule of faith. As we will see again farther on, this rule, Scripture’s inner sense, is ultimately distilled in the person of Christ himself. … describing the pitfalls of a bare, literal reading of Scripture, for example, in the prophecies found in both Moses and the Prophets. (He calls such a reading Jewish because it fails to find Christ.) The further hazard of an overly literal reading (or one unguided by good teachers) is that it will be insensitive to the awesome mystery behind the words and thus produce an anthropomorphic portraiture of God.”
In other words, for Origen, the importance of the Scriptures lies not in the factual recounting of past historical events, but how the Bible can and does speak to current believers about salvation, about how to live in this world morally, about how to guide us in our every day thinking and behavior, and in shaping our understanding of God. Origen is concerned literally about what St. Paul tells Timothy scripture is for: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The literal truth of Scriptures is not so much their “factualness” regarding history but rather the truth they convey to us about God, His plan of Salvation, and how we should live in His world. Bouteneff continues with an example:
“The aim of the Holy Spirit is ‘to envelop [clothe] and hide secret mysteries in ordinary words under the pretext of narrative… [i.e.] an account of visible things.’ Origen’s example …is the biblical account of the creation of the world and the first human being…Origen believes that the Holy Spirit even inserts what he calls…stumbling blocks…things that could not possibly have occurred in history—in order to shake people out of an overly simplistic or literal reading. … (Origen argues) The Genesis account “enshrines certain deeper truths than the mere historical narrative,…and contains a spiritual meaning almost throughout, using ‘the letter’ as a kind of veil to hide profound and mystical doctrines” … (Origen writes:) “To what person of intelligence, I ask, will the account seem logically consistent that says there was a ‘first day’ and a ‘second’ and a ‘third,’ in which also ‘evening’ and ‘morning’ are named, without a sun, without a moon, and without stars, and even in the case of the first day without a heaven? And who will be found simple enough to believe that like some farmer ‘God planted trees in the garden of Eden, in the east’ and that he planted ‘the tree of life’ in it, that is a visible tree that could be touched, so that someone could eat of this tree with corporeal teeth and gain life, and further, could eat of another tree and receive the knowledge of ‘good and evil?’ Moreover, we find that God is said to stroll in the garden in the afternoon and Adam to hide under a tree. Surely, I think no one doubts that these statements are made by Scripture in the form of a figure… by which they point toward certain mysteries.” … [Origen] concluded that Scripture had indeed been dictated to Moses by the Holy Spirit, to the very last letter…Yet the Holy Spirit dictated not history but stories that contained complexities and difficulties, with the intention of inviting readers into the deepest and most serious engagement.” (pp 98-118)