Methodology: How We Read the Bible – St. John Cassian

This is the 7Th   blog in this series which began with Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology.  The previous blog is  Methodology: How we read the Bible – Theodore of Mopsuestia.

St. John Cassian died in 435 AD and so was a contemporary of Theodore of Mopsuestia who was discussed in the previous blog.  In the selection below from Cassian’s writings, we get a clear sense of his own methodology in approaching the Scriptures to study and interpret them.

 “Now there are three kinds of spiritual lore, namely, tropology, allegory and anagoge.  This is what Proverbs has to say about them: ‘Write these three times over the spread of your heart’ (Prv 22:20).

History embraces the knowledge of things which are past and which are perceptible.  The apostle gives an example: ‘It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a servant and one by a free woman.  The offspring of the slave was born in accordance with the flesh; the child of the free woman was born as a result of a promise’ (Gal 4:22-23).

What follows is allegorical, because the things which actually happened are said to have prefigured another mystery. ‘These two women stand for the two covenants.  The first who comes from Mount Sinai and whose children are born to slavery, is Hagar.  For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia , and so she corresponds to the present-day Jerusalem and is a slave along with her children.

Anagoge climbs up from spiritual mysteries to the higher and more august secrets of heaven…

Tropology is moral teaching designed for the amendment of life and for instruction in asceticism.  It is as if by these two covenants we were to mean the practical discipline and the contemplative, or else we could take Jerusalem or Sion to be the human soul…

Revelation is linked to allegory insofar as it explains in a spiritual sense the truths hidden under the historical account.  For example, suppose we wished to discover how ‘our fathers were all beneath the cloud and all were baptized in Moses in the cloud and in the sea and [how] all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink from the rock and that rock was Christ’  (1 Cor 10:1-4).  This way of stating the matter prefigures allegorically the body and blood of Christ which we receive every day.

The telling of things similarly referred to by the apostle is tropology.  With this we prudently discern the value and the worth of everything in the domain of practical judgment.  An example of this is when we are instructed to consider whether ‘it is fitting that a woman should pray to God with an uncovered head’  (1 Cor 11-13).  As has been said, this way of thinking has a moral content.

Then there is prophecy, which the apostle puts in third place.  He means anagoge, by means of which words are moved to the plane of the invisible and the future: ‘Brothers, we do not wish you to be in ignorance with regard to the dead, so that you will not grieve like those others who have no hope…

Doctrine makes plain the straightforward sequence of historical explanation.  In it there is no more hidden meaning than what is in the words themselves, for example, the following: ‘In the first place I handed on to you what I had been taught myself, namely, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried and that He rose on the third day and th)at He was seen by Cephas’ (1 Cor 15:3-5)…”    (St. John Cassian, CONFERENCES, pp 160-161)

St. John Cassian offers examples for the different lessons and meanings he believes we are to seek from the Scriptures.  All of these levels and meanings are ones that are placed in the text of the Bible by God Himself.  Our task remains the careful reading and study of Scriptures to see what God has placed in the text.  When we read the Scriptures for all of the meanings God intended for us to receive, then those scriptures are revealed as inspired and capable of teaching us, exhorting us, training us in righteousness and equipping us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16).

Next:   Methodology: How We Read the Bible – Theodoret of Cyrrus


American Pride and Freedom in the Light of Christ

The Jews said to Jesus: “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?” (John 8:33)

Each Sunday, Christians celebrate the Day of the Lord – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  It is a day on which we joyously celebrate being liberated from bondage and slavery to sin and death.  In this celebration we also acknowledge that we were slaves – not just our ancestors, but we ourselves were slaves to our own passions, to sin, to death itself.   God freed us from this bondage through Jesus Christ just as He led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

American Christians no doubt feel like the Jews in John 8 – we have never been in bondage to anyone, how can Jesus say he makes us free?

Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples,  and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, ‘You will be made free’?”  Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever.  So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.   (John8:31-36) 

Fundamental to being a Christian is the realistic assessment of ourselves that we are in fact slaves to passion, sin and death, and that we need the intervention from God to be liberated from this slavery.  Jesus Christ has in fact already liberated us from enslavement. This is what we celebrate in the Eucharistic (Thanksgiving) Liturgy of the Church. It is the celebration of our willingness to be slaves of God rather than of ourselves.

For Americans, we should be able to relate to the connection between Christ and freedom.  And not just because of our historical fight for independence, but because slavery was a huge part of our own history.   Here is a story from the life of former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who truly understood what deliverance from slavery meant.  (Taken from the NY TIMES “Mose’s Last Exit” by Adam Goodheart):

“Tubman was back in Auburn by Christmas Day, 1860, having conveyed the Ennals family safely to Canada. (Abolitionists often noted the irony of Americans fleeing the “land of liberty” to seek freedom under Queen Victoria’s sheltering scepter.) Her secret missions ended with the approach of war.

But one night in the midst of the secession crisis, while staying at the house of another black leader, a vision came to Tubman in a dream that all of America’s slaves were soon to be liberated – a vision so powerful that she rose from bed singing. Her host tried in vain to quiet her; perhaps their grandchildren would live to see the day of jubilee, he said, but they themselves surely would not. “I tell you, sir, you’ll see it, and you’ll see it soon,” she retorted, and sang again: ‘My people are free! My people are free.’”

The Israelites moved from slavery in Egypt to the promised land, which in turn is the prototype for the Christian understanding of Christ leading us from death to life and earth to heaven.  American slaves had to escape “the land of the free” to get to Canada which was under the Queen of England’s rule in order to be free of slavery!

Christmas is a great celebration for us because on this day we celebrate the birth of the great liberator of humankind.  We now can live as free men and women – exercising self control, self denial, fasting, asceticism, and love for others.  No longer do we have to live in subjugation to our passions and cravings and self centeredness.  We are free to be full human beings capable of loving, forgiving, sharing,  practicing altruism rather than merely being products of or controlled by passions, reactions, genes, emotions, instincts, survival, self preservation or evolution.

At Christmas we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ – so it should be a day of rejoicing and celebration.  And we should use the day to help lift others from enslavement to poverty, suffering and need, just as Christ in His love freed us from our own impoverishment and slavery.