St. Paul and the Literal Truth

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is Reading the Bible Literally.

“I sometimes marvel that God chose to risk his revelation in the ambiguities of language.  If he had wanted to make sure that the truth was absolutely clear, without any possibility of misunderstanding, he should have revealed his truth by means of mathematics.  Mathematics is the most precise, unambiguous language we have.  But then, of course, you can’t say ‘I love you’ in algebra. …     The fixity of the word on paper, removed from the nuances and ambiguities of the living voice, gives an illusion of preciseness and seems to invite matching preciseness in the reader.  … If we don’t understand how metaphor works we will misunderstand most of what we read in the Bible. … for the word on the page gives the impression of being literal, composed as it is of letters fixed on the page in indelible ink.  And of being unchanging—if we return to a page that we left off reading three days ago and re-read it, it is exactly the same as when we left it.  That cannot be said of a voiced conversation.”  (Eugene Peterson, EAT THIS BOOK: A CONVERSATION IN THE ART OF SPIRITUAL READING, pp 93-94)

Gutenberg Bible

In every sense of the word, modern notions about the literal truth of the Bible are very much shaped by the existence of books and printing presses.   A book gives us the impression that the words are fixed, and so their meaning must be fixed as well.  We have to remember however that books and printing presses didn’t exist at the time of Christ, nor for 14 centuries after the time of Christ.  So the ancient sense of the truth of biblical text was not shaped by the unchanging nature of the printed word.   Language and words were alive, not dead letters on a page, and so the ancient Christians were comfortable with notions of truth which included varied meanings for the biblical text.

 “The church fathers, however, took it as self-evident that the words of the Bible often had multiple meanings and the plain sense did not exhaust their meaning.”  (Robert Louis Wilken, THE SPIRIT OF EARLY CHRISTIAN THOUGHT, p 70)

St. Paul

Just for the sake of example, Genesis 2:24 says that a man leaves his parents and is joined to his wife as one flesh – perfectly understandable in its literal form.  St. Paul however makes very specific use of this text.  After quoting Genesis 2:24, he wrote, “This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church…” (Ephesians 5:32).  St. Paul takes the text of Genesis and says its real meaning is figurative not literal.   God’s revelation recorded in Genesis finds its fulfillment and meaning in Christ and in the Church.   The literal reading of Genesis would never get you to that truth – to the fullness of the text’s meaning – only a Christocentric reading can.

Because of the way St. Paul interprets the Old Testament, St. Augustine in his LITERAL COMMENTARY ON GENESIS declared, “No Christian would dare say that the [words of Scripture] are not to be taken figuratively.”   He cites in defense of his idea the interpretation of the Old Testament that St. Paul himself uses in 1 Corinthians 10:11 (“Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come.”   The RSV’s “as a warning”  is the Greek word “typikos” –  a type or as Augustine’s latin said, “figuratively”) and also in Ephesians 5:31-32 (where Paul figuratively interprets Genesis 2:24 – about a man leaving his mother to cling to his wife – to refer to Christ and the Church rather than interpreting it literally).  Augustine like most of the Patristic writers assumed scriptures have a meaning which is deeper than any plain reading of the text can reveal.  He assumed that scripture has multiple levels of meaning and the believer’s task is to discover those meanings.  The Patristic Writers could point to the many texts in the New Testament where the Old Testament is read and interpreted by non-literal methods.

Next:  Patristic Literalism: Read for the Full Meaning