This is the 8Th and final blog in this series which began with Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology. The previous blog is Methodology: How We Read the Bible – St. John Cassian.
In reading through some of the Patristic Biblical commentators, we do see the variety of meanings they felt were put into the text by God Himself. Their goal was always to come to the full revelation of God – to completely understand the text as God intended us to comprehend it – and to get all the possible meanings that God had put into the text. Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457AD) was a bishop in the Antiochian tradition of biblical studies. Generally the Antiochians downplayed the use of allegory in their interpretation of Scripture, but in their writings we also can see that the differences between a typological reading and an allegorical reading can sometimes be slim. They knew full well that St. Paul himself used both typology and allegory in his own reading of interpretation of the Jewish scriptures. Here is Theodoret commenting on the Epistle to the Hebrews:
“While he seems to conduct his treatment in narrative style, he is laying the groundwork for his thesis. The reason, you see, that he showed Abraham giving a blessing and offering a tenth of the spoils was to show the patriarch yielding precedence even in type. Then he brings out his importance also from the names: In the first place his name means King of righteousness; then he was king o f Salem which means peace. This name, Melchizedek, in the Hebrew and Syriac language means King of righteousness; he ruled over Salem, and the world Salem is translated peace. His intention, therefore, is to present him this way as a type of Christ the Lord: according to the apostle he is our peace, and according to the Old Testament author he is our righteousness.” (Theodoret Commentary on St. Paul, Vol 2, p 163)
Theodoret does look for the meaning in words and names in their original languages. He understands that there are many ways that God’s message and intent might be ‘hidden’ in the text. The very purpose of interpretation (hermeneutics) is to uncover all of the meanings God has placed in the text to inspire and instruct us. In the above text, Theodoret simply follows what he considers to the natural reading of the text – reading it for the obvious meanings.
A little later in his commentary, Theodoret shows that the spiritual meaning may not be stated literally in the text but must be discerned from the text. Here he offers what we would consider to be much more an allegorical interpretation, but Theodoret would have said is typology but ultimately a literal reading of the text because it is discovering the meaning God intended us to receive from the Scripture:
“The water was a type of baptism, the blood of brute beasts the saving blood, the heat of the hyssop the grace of the divine Spirit, the scarlet wool the new garment, the piece of cedar (being a wood that does not rot) the impassable divinity, the ashes of a heifer the suffering of humanity.” (Theodoret Commentary on St. Paul, Vol 2, pp 174-175)
How do we know if these other readings of scripture are the real meaning of the passages? Protestantism generally has moved in the direction of insisting that a literal reading of the text is the only meaningful reading, and thus they claim they can avoid eisegesis. But any modern reading of the text makes certain assumptions that may not have been in the inspired mind of the original author. What we have as aid to the reading of Scriptures are the vast commentaries on the Scriptures from the early Church and Patristic periods. They serve as a guide to us to help prevent us from making the Scriptures conform to our ideas. We can look at how biblical scholars of earlier church times interpreted and made use of the scriptures in their own teaching and preaching.
“A literalist, on the other hand, is content to take a statement or work at face value without attempting or managing to divine the author’s intention… … Chrysostom:.. “There is a great treasure stored up in the Scriptures, concealed beneath the surface … so there is need of study so that we can learn the force hidden beneath the surface.’ … He likewise has no difficulty with a talking serpent, and though ‘in the narrator’s mind it is scarcely an embodiment of a “demonic” power and certainly not of Satan,’ Chrysostom readily makes that identification in the course of his moral treatment of the Fall.” (Robert Hill, READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH, pp 152-153)
The Fathers of the Church were not mere literalists in their reading of the Scriptures. They did seek out the moral implications of various texts as well as the other spiritual meanings they could find in the text. Ultimately they always were looking to find Christ. They saw the Scriptures as a great treasury which needed only the key to make it accessible to all believers. Jesus Christ is that key which unlocks all the treasures of the Bible. They also accepted as principle the words of the Apostle Peter:
“First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
The Fathers accepted a notion of Tradition as a guiding principle for interpreting the Scriptures. They were not afraid to disagree with one another, nor did they think that only one interpretation of a scriptural passage was valid. They plumbed the depths of the meaning of Scriptures, and then through their own interactions established boundaries for the possible meanings of Scripture. Ultimately it is Christ who establishes the boundaries for the meaning of the Scriptures, for they all bear witness to Him.
“If there only existed a single sense for the words of scripture, then the first commentator who came along would discover it, and other hearers would experience neither the labor of searching, nor the joy of finding. Rather, each word of our Lord has its own form, and each form has its own members, and each member has its own character. Each individual understands according to his capacity and interprets as it is granted to him.” (St. Ephrem the Syrian, COMMENTARY ON THE DIATESSARON).
We each are given the treasury of Scripture to do the labor to discover its meaning and to experience the joy of that discovery. Each reader doesn’t add to the treasury, the treasury is already there, we discover what is valuable, and it is through the Patristic witness that we are taught the difference between gems and costume jewelry.
To read this blog series on hermeneutics and reading the bible in PDF format go to: https://frted.wordpress.com/2010/12/23/reading-the-bible-hermeneutics-typology-pdf/
For links to other blogs I’ve written on reading the scriptures with the Fathers, go to https://frted.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/pdf-reading-the-bible-means-opening-a-treasury-12-3/