This is the 3rd blog in this series which began with Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology. The previous blog is Christ is the Key to Reading Scriptures. While reading the Scriptures “in Christ” is the Orthodox way to come to a full understanding of the text, through history the Patristic writers and theologians of the Church used a number of methods for interpreting the Bible. In this blog and the ones to follow, we will consider some of the terminology Orthodox writers have used to allow themselves to read the Scriptures in a Christocentric manner. To see the Scriptures as pointing to Christ, revealing Christ or being explained and interpreted by Christ who shows their full meaning is to read the Bible in this Christocentric manner. But there are several different specific methods of reading the text which enable the reader to maintain the Christocentric interpretation. And yes, there is an assumption that the texts do and are supposed to speak of Christ.
“When we think of the doctrine of the senses of Scripture we commonly think of them as consisting of three or four: the literal, first, then the moral or tropological, the mystical or allegorical, and finally the anagogical. Reduced to three, they become the literal, the moral and the mystical… The literal sense teaches what happened, allegory what you are to believe, the moral sense what you are to do, anagogy where you are going. … the movement to allegory is not at all a movement away from history, but we might say a movement into history, into the significance of the sacred events that are the object of our faith. The literal sense is the object of faith: this is what we are to believe, to believe in, in a God who meets us in history, becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth. The allegorical sense represents our attempt to understand the mystery we discern here.” (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY, pp 112-113)
The different ways of reading the Scriptures – for their moral teachings (tropological), their mystical sense (allegorical), or for their higher meaning (anagogical) – are all different ways of reading the text to discover the divine meaning which God has placed in the text. To find the meaning which God has placed in the text – the revelation God intends us to find – is to read the text literally even when we are not reading the text merely for its historical or factual sense. Going beyond the literal is the proper reading of the text if it gets us to the meaning God placed in the text, and when it helps us to see the Christological purpose of the Scripture. Many early church theologians believed God placed in the text clues to lead us beyond the literal reading of the Scriptures to find the revelation which was in the text if we have the eyes of faith to see it.
“Origen (d. 254AD) several times remarks that inconsistencies in the historical narrative presented in 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.” (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY, pp 112-113)
“Chrysostom (d. 407AD) expresses his own deep appreciation of scriptural koinonia. For him the biblical authors are the means by which communication (omilia) with God occurs, a communication which can be withheld… The Scriptures, like the Incarnation, come to us as a gesture of divine considerateness, synkatavasis, a loving gesture… nothing to suggest ‘condescension’… The Incarnation, after all, does not represent a patronizing gesture on God’s part towards human beings – only love and concern. … (Chrysostom writes -) ‘remember that with the patriarchs as well, when he was sitting by the oak tree, he came in human form as the good man’s guest in the company of the angels, giving us a premonition from on high at the beginning that he would one day take human form to liberate all human nature by this means from the tyranny of the devil and lead us to salvation.’” (Robert Hill, READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH, pp 36-37)
God takes on forms or speaks to us in words that we can understand, but then does it in such a way as to lead us beyond the literal and the obvious to the divine meaning and purpose which is at first glance hidden from our view. The Patristic writers used
“… a hermeneutic that viewed the entire history of Israel as foreshadowing events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. The words of the prophets were said to have been written not for their own day, but for ‘the time of the end’; the voice of the preincarnate Jesus was heard echoing throughout the Psalms. The underlying principle was summed up by the Apostle Paul in Rom. 15:4: ‘For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.’” (Christopher Stanley in EARLY CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION OF THE SCRIPTURES OF ISRAEL, (eds) C. Evans and J. Sanders, p 18)
Scriptures were recorded not for the sake of biblical characters, just to preserve their story, but for our sake, the readers of the Scriptures in every generation, to instruct us in God’s way and revelation. The Scriptures are thus written not just to preserve history and fact, but to give us God’s revelation. This is why they must be read not merely literally, but Christocentrically.