One of the common concerns for devout Orthodox Christians is the desire to read the Scriptures in an Orthodox manner. Especially many converts are concerned about this – they learned the importance of the Scriptures in the Christian tradition from which they came, but now that they have become Orthodox Christians they want to know how to read the Scriptures within Orthodox Tradition. They embraced Orthodoxy welcoming its understanding of Christ, the Holy Trinity, and salvation but now want to make sure they also read the Bible through an Orthodox perspective rather than retaining perspectives on Scripture learned from their days in other Christian traditions.
While Orthodoxy claims to understand the Scriptures through the Patristic Tradition that does not readily translate to a quick and easy interpretive trick or exegetical method. For the Fathers saw the Scriptures as a treasury of the richness of God’s revelation and wisdom, and they used many interpretive tools to reach their understanding of what God is revealing to us.
There is an interesting passage in the writings of St. Isaac the Syrian (7th Century) in which he describes reading the scriptures as one of the ministries of the Church which is also an ascetical path to which some Christians are called. He points out, however, that this ministry of interpreting Scriptures is to be done within the spiritual tradition of the Church. Reading Scripture for St. Isaac is not the same discipline as studying other literature.
“… and if there is someone with the ability, the reading (of Scripture) too, though this person cannot, and is not permitted at all to, perceive the (full) sense of what he is reading, even though he may be very learned and highly educated in the habit of ordinary reading and in the exact rendering of the words. As for the exact meaning, corresponding to the spiritual significance, this is something which, in accordance with the growth of the inner person in the ascetic life and (his) hidden progress, the divine power will cause him to taste—that power which acts as a guide to him on the great and extensive ocean of stillness.” (St. Isaac the Syrian, ISAAC OF NINEVEH: THE SECOND PART, p 138)
St. Isaac equates the reading of Scripture for its exact meaning with finding the spiritual significance of the text. Discovering this exact meaning of what God has placed in the words/text of the Scriptures comes about only as there is spiritual growth in the inner person who is following an ascetic discipline. Understanding the Scriptures cannot come about just by learning the right hermeneutic or exegetical method – it requires one to be growing spiritually and to be following the discipline of a Christian community. Understanding the Word of God is not a matter of getting university degrees, but of becoming a disciple of Christ the Teacher.
Finding the spiritual significance of any text of Scripture is an Orthodox interpretive goal. Following that line of thinking we might consider what spiritual significance St. Andrew of Crete (d. 712AD?) found in some of the early chapters of Genesis. St. Andrew was writing about the same time as St. Isaac or a decade or two after him. St. Andrew’s reading of Scripture comes through in his famous Great Canon of Repentance which is sung in the 5th and 1st weeks of Great Lent in the Orthodox tradition. We can look at a few of the poetic verses which St. Andrew composed to get a sense of his understanding of the spiritual significance of Scriptural narratives.
“Alas, wretched soul! Why are you like the first Eve? For you have wickedly looked and been bitterly wounded, and you have touched the tree and rashly tasted the forbidden food.”
“The place of bodily Eve has been taken for me by the Eve of my mind in the shape of a passionate thought in the flesh, showing me sweet things, yet ever making me taste and swallow bitter things.”
In the two hymns above, St. Andrew contemplates Eve, the first woman created by God according to Genesis 2, and the human tempted by the talking serpent to disobey God. St. Andrew does not spend much time wondering whether or not Eve was a real person – he probably accepted her historical existence. Her spiritual significance resides in how we are like her (the Eve of our minds!) – we behave as she did, disobeying God’s commandments and pursuing things which are not good for us. The exact deed of Eve – what she ate – is not what is important, but how we imitate her and grasp for things which God does not wish us to have. Whatever the forbidden fruit is, does not matter, for we are just like her taking things not intended for us. The first Eve (bodily Eve) has been replaced by each of us thinking just like her (Eve of my mind). The spiritual significance of Eve is she is a prototype of all human beings – we all behave like her so end up in the same spiritual condition as her: exiled from God!
In the three hymns below, St. Andrew offers the spiritual significance of Cain and Abel. Their historical reality is not in question, but St. Andrew again treats them as models of behavior and compares and contrasts himself (and us) to them. This is their significance to us.
“I have willfully incurred the guilt of Cain’s murder, since by invigorating my flesh I am the murderer of my soul’s awareness, and have warred against it by my evil deeds.”
“I have not resembled Abel’s righteousness, O Jesus. I have never offered Thee acceptable gifts, nor divine actions, nor a pure sacrifice, nor an unblemished life.”
“Like Cain, we too, O wretched soul, have likewise offered to the Creator of all foul deeds, defective sacrifice and a useless life. Therefore we too are condemned.”
St. Andrews sees the people of the Scriptures as models for him – to emulate or to avoid. Their importance is not in being persons of ancient history, but rather their spiritual significance is that they offer us living examples of people who were faithful to God, who repented when the failed God, or who wickedly rejected God’s ways. They are each and always examples for us to consider, learn from their mistakes, or to imitate their holiness. They are part of the living scriptures, not just dead figures from ancient history.
This way of reading the Scriptures (very much like the Pesher method of of interpretation of the Jews in Qumran about the time of Christ for example) is affirmed in Mark 12:24-27 by the Lord Jesus.
Jesus said to them, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? … have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living…”
The spiritual significance of the heroes and saints of the Old and New Testaments is lost if we treat them as the dead of bygone ages. Their spiritual significance is that they are alive in Christ, and in Him and His Gospel teachings we find their real meaning.