Patristic Literalism: Read for the Full Meaning

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 St. Paul and the Literal Truth.

“When you read Holy Scripture, perceive its hidden meanings.  ‘For whatever was written in past times was written for our instruction.’”  (St. Mark the Ascetic, PHILOKALIA,  Vol 1, p 112)

St. Augustine

When reading the first book of the Bible, we might also remember the words of St. Augustine  (d. 430AD) who in his own commentary on that book warned against pitting Genesis against science and reason, “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received.  In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines that position, we too fall with it.”   Long before the modern debate between science and religion, Augustine almost presciently can imagine that progress in the human understanding of things might show us truths that contradict a literal reading of scripture.   He warns Christians not to rush into that trap and to be cautious when speaking about things (like science) that may through further observation and reason be shown to be true yet are not taught by the Scriptures.  

St. Clement of Alexandria (d.211 AD) argued that meaning of scriptures is hidden intentionally so that we are forced to seek out their meaning.  He takes what Jesus says about parables in Mark 4:11-13 (“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.”), and applies the teaching of Christ to the entirety of the Bible.  We either are going to be dull and tired of God’s Word, or we are going to work hard to try to understand its meaning even when it is hidden from us.   Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457AD) acknowledges there is meaning concealed in the text of the scriptures, but he believes it is God Himself who will reveal the meaning of the text to us:

Previous scholars have promised to resolve apparent problems in holy Scripture by explicating the sense of some, indicating the background of others, and, in a word, clarifying whatever remains unclear to ordinary people. …  trusting not in myself, of course, but in the one who dictated this manner of composition for the Scriptures, as it belongs to him to bring to the fore the meaning concealed in the text.  He it was, after all, who in the sacred Gospels presented his teaching in parables and the provided the interpretation of what had been in riddles.  My appeal, therefore, shall be to gain illumination of the mind from him, so I may endeavor to penetrate the innermost sanctuary of the most Holy Spirit.”  (THE QUESTIONS ON THE OCTATEUCH  Vol 1, pp 3-5)

St. John Chrysostom

The Patristic authors saw clearly in Scriptures that the use of symbolism and metaphor was very common.  This made them comfortable with what we might call more “spiritual” rather than literal readings of Scriptures.  For example, St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) writes:

“For Isaiah himself said that wolves and sheep would share the same pasture [Is.11:6 and 65:25]… If someone were to take all of these expressions literally, much of it would be meaningless.  It is necessary to understand that the ideas are symbolized in this way for the sake of embellishment.  What is symbolized here? Wolves and sheep refer to types of people: the savage and the gentle.”   (quoted in Gus Christo’s THE CHURCH’S IDENTITY, p 244)

In the Next blog I will look at the specific influence and contribution of the 3rd Century’s greatest Christian expositor of the scritpures, Origen,  in shaping the Orthodox reading of the Scriptural Treasury.

2 thoughts on “Patristic Literalism: Read for the Full Meaning

  1. Pingback: St. Paul and the Literal Truth | Fr. Ted’s Blog

  2. Pingback: The Orthodox reading of the Scriptural Treasury. | Fr. Ted’s Blog

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