Spiritual Exegesis

In the modern Protestant world, much of the discussion on Genesis 1 and 2 is limited to whether or not it is to be read literally.  For the Orthodox Church, whether or not the Genesis creation stories are read literally, they offer to us the understanding of what it is to be human.  They are thus more about each of us and who we are as humans than about merely relating the story of the first human beings.  Adam and Eve are a type of us all and we learn about who we are through their story.

The Orthodox Church has a long history of making use of scriptural texts for all manners of wisdom, spiritual teachings and insight into the very nature of the Word of God.

“All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”  (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Rather than use the above quote for the dubious purpose of proving that scripture must be read literally, the Orthodox have  woven scriptural texts and images into their large collection of hymns to teach, reprove, correct, train and equip.  Take for example the IKOS hymn from Matins for the Holy Apostle Philip (November 14).  Note that the hymn gives clear reference to the creation of the world, but then ties it in to our daily lives.  The text is not seen mostly as ancient factual history, but  a treasury to inspire us in our daily lives.  The Genesis 1-2 creation text is not so much science or history as a spiritual treasury to help us live as God’s children in His world.

Lord, as You created the nature of water,

grant me a flood of teaching!

Strengthen my heart, Compassionate One, as You established the earth by Your word.

Enlighten my mind, as You are covered with light as with a garment,

that I may speak and chant what is fitting to praise Your friend, MOST MERCIFUL CHRIST!


3 thoughts on “Spiritual Exegesis

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. Eric

    Father – Asking your blessing. I enjoy your blog posts and thank you for them. RE: the above – the problem, as I see it, with saying that one need not understand the early books of Geneisis literaly (and here I’m thinking especialy about Gen. 2 and 3, Adam, etc.) is that you are then still left wtih the problem of WHY the universie is fallen and WHY we live lives of sin. If we don’t read the Garden account literaly, how can we accont for sin or say that we are/the world is fallen? If you do read things literaly (and I don’t), you have no problem. If you don’t read these passages literaly, you’re left with a very big question. In essense, we’re left with the questnio of theodicy. No?

    1. Fr. Ted

      At least in my thinking and understanding, no. But this is also dependent on what we mean by the “literal” reading. While modern parlance uses “literal” with Genesis 1-3 to mean mainly things like factual, historical and scientific, many of the Fathers used the word ‘literal’ to mean that which God intended to convey in the narrative. They read Genesis often as theology in the guise of narrative. The narrative in Genesis 2-3 offers us a spiritual account of what it is to be human, why there is death, why the world is ‘imperfect.’ It answers questions like “why didn’t God create a perfect world?” He created a world in which humans could choose perfection, or because we have free will, not. The ancestral sin of Eve and Adam is a story of prototypes – they represent all of humanity and how we behave. The literalness of the story is more necessary if you follow an Augustinian tradition of original sin being transmitted ‘genetically’ down to us all. But if we allow the story to be more of a typology, then we come to see that because we all share the same human nature, their story is our story and we all share in this ancestral sin because we all sin. The result is mortality for all (Rom 5:12). Nothing is lost in terms of the power and meaning of the story and its implications for all of us. We don’t have to read it “literally” and through the lens of original sin being transmitted through sexual reproduction. We share in a mortal nature which is now part of our existence from conception. The child in the womb has not sinned, but it has received mortal nature because it too is part of the world of the Fall.

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