St. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD) is one of the better known theologians of the Eastern Church. His writings, though completely profound, are not easy reading. His writing style is completely theological with heavy reliance on Eastern Christian symbolic thinking, apophatic theology and spiritual exegesis. It requires a fair amount of background study to understand.
I want however to take a look at a few comments of his found in THE PHILOKALIA dealing with the nature of Scripture, the Word of God. We do not here have to go into the depths of the meaning he implies when he speaks about the Logos (the Word) of God. What I want to draw attention to more is what St. Maximos presents as the relationship between the Logos/Word of God and the scriptures as they are not identical nor coterminous.
For Maximos the actual letters and words of scriptures are not the Word of God, but rather the they are things in which God inscripts His Word so that we can actually encounter the Logos/Word in a manner understandable to us. The Logos as God by nature is beyond our understanding, yet because of His love for us He finds the ways for us to encounter and understand Him. The alphabet/letters and words of scripture are thus symbols to help us see and encounter the Word. Take your time and contemplate what St. Maximos is saying in the quote below.
“So long as we only see the Logos of God as embodied multifariously in symbols in the letter of Holy Scripture, we have not yet achieved spiritual insight into the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Father as He exists in the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Son, according to the saying, ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father . . . and I am in the Father and the Father in Me’ (John 14:9-10). We need much knowledge so that, having first penetrated the veils of the sayings which cover the Logos, we may with a naked intellect see – in so far as men can – the pure Logos, as He exists in Himself, clearly showing us the Father in Himself.” (Kindle Loc. 15419-15426)
The scripture text (the letters and words) are “the veils of the sayings which cover the Logos”. We have to penetrate these veils, get beyond the written script in order to find our way to God who has clothed Himself in this language so that we can come to an understanding of God Himself. It is always God we are trying to know to the full extent He makes possible for us. We are not just trying to understand the scriptures, but the Logos who is both concealed in and revealed by the biblical text. St. Maximos continues:
“Hence a person who seeks God with true devotion should not be dominated by the literal text, lest he unwittingly receives not God but things appertaining to God; that is, lest he feel a dangerous affection for the words of Scripture instead of for the Logos. For the Logos eludes the intellect which supposes that it has grasped the incorporeal Logos by means of His outer garments, like the Egyptian woman who seized hold of Joseph’s garments instead of Joseph himself (cf. Gen. 39:7-13), or like the ancients who were content merely with the beauty of visible things and mistakenly worshipped the creation instead of the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25).” (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15427-32)
The Word of God is not to be confused with the scriptures which are only “His outer garments.” The Word of God is Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity. The written text of scriptures are in other words things about God, but not God Himself. The text is very valuable, and unfortunately we can be so taken with the literal text that we never get beyond it to come to God. We accept the gift but never bother to know the Giver. [And when we read the footnotes in our bibles and rely on them rather than on the scriptures themselves to understand the text we are reading, we both move ourselves a further step away from the Logos/Word of God and make understanding the text as the goal rather than as the way to come to God’s Word!]
Take that imagery of a gift received: Let us say we are given a gift and it is beautifully wrapped in expensive, gold foil wrapping paper with a handcrafted ribbon tied around it. We may carefully unwrap the ribbon and paper so as not to damage them and to preserve them, but still they are not the gift, but a beautiful presentation of the gift. Then we encounter a box which must be open and only then in the box do we find the gift. All the externals however much attention has been put into crafting them, are still the presentation of the gift. And the gift itself, however valuable is still not the giver, though the gift may perfectly express the giver’s relationship to us and tell us a great deal about the giver. Maximos sees the scriptural text in a similar way: the scriptures themselves are the beautiful wrapping, but the Logos/Word of God is the actual gift. Again, carefully read his words below.
“It is by means of the more lofty conceptual images that the inner principle of Holy Scripture can be stripped gradually of the complex garment of words with which it is physically draped. Then to the visionary intellect – the intellect which through the total abandonment of its natural activities is able to attain a glimpse of the simplicity that in some measure discloses this principle – it reveals itself as though in the sound of a delicate breeze.” (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15433-42)
St Maximos uses the imagery not of a gift being unwrapped but rather of God’s Logos/Word being draped in complex garments, perhaps like we might imagine a king in all of his imperial regalia wearing. The garments though beautiful conceal a mystery. We are endeavoring to get beyond the draped garments to encounter the mystery. We might call to mind the Divine Liturgy’s Great Entrance with the chalice draped with its vestment covering. The chalice cover conceals what is in the chalice – the wine, not yet consecrated, but already capable of containing the mystery, and so it is concealed from our eyes.
For Maximos it is the words (the scriptural text) which are complex, but the Logos is clear and simple. When we get beyond the text and encounter God we realize the simple beauty and love which is God. He says it so poetically: “it reveals itself as though in the sound of a delicate breeze.” The sound of a delicate breeze – not a roaring wind, but that breeze of which we are ever so faintly aware.
St. Maximos continues in his heavy yet precise theological manner:
“When our intellect has shaken off its many opinions about created things, then the inner principle of truth appears clearly to it, providing it with a foundation of real knowledge and removing its former preconceptions as though removing scales from the eyes, as happened in the case of St Paul (cf. Acts 9:18). For an understanding of Scripture that does not go beyond the literal meaning, and a view of the sensible world that relies exclusively on sense-perception, are indeed scales, blinding the soul’s visionary faculty and preventing access to the pure Logos of truth.” (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15451-56)
The text, the alphabet and the words of scripture are all created things – used by God to reveal Himself, but still are things of this earth. We have to shake them off in order to come to that inner principle of truth. The physical text prove themselves as symbols to be scales covering our eyes which have to be removed for us to see spiritually what is before us. We have to get through the symbols and beyond them to come to the reality they represent. One might say in Genesis 3 when Adam hides himself from God, it is because he can no longer tolerate that encounter with God and he is afraid and wants sensible/worldly things put between himself and God. Adam hides himself by a tree and with leaves to cover his nakedness. He is doing the opposite of what St. Maximos describes as the needed process to strip away those physical things which separate us from God. Ultimately in the Torah, God still wishing to reveal Himself to fallen humanity, uses the commandments and the Torah itself as the words, letters and symbols for us to encounter Him. It is Christ who comes to remove all of the veils with which the Word/Logos had been covered, so that once again we can encounter God the Giver of every good and perfect gift.