Clearly the Church Fathers saw all of the Scriptures as essential. The Old Testament bore witness to Christ. The New Testament was hidden in the text of the Old Testament. The New Testament revealed the meaning of the Old Testament. Christ who was but a shadow in the Old Testament, now is fully revealed in the New. You cannot completely understand either Covenant without the other.
We have already encountered how Jesus read and understood the Old Testament:
Jesus said: “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from men. But I know that you have not the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5: 39-47)
And he said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. . . . Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:25-27, 44)
Our Lord Jesus Christ had no doubt that the Old Testament was written about Him, and that Moses and all the prophets were writing about the Messiah when they presented the prophecies and promises of God. So too, St. Cyril of Jerusalem writing in the 4th Century says:
“Pass from the old to the new, from the figure to the reality. There Moses was sent by God to Egypt; here Christ is sent from the Father into the world. Moses’ mission was to lead a persecuted people out of Egypt; Christ’s, to rescue all the people of the world who were under the tyranny of sin. There the blood of a lamb was the charm against the destroyer; here, the blood of the unspotted Lamb, Jesus Christ, is appointed your inviolable sanctuary against demons. Pharaoh pursued that people of old right into the sea; this outrageous spirit [i.e., Satan], the impudent author of all evil, followed each of you up to the very verge of the saving streams [i.e., your baptisms]. That other tyrant is engulfed and drowned in the Red Sea; this one is destroyed in the saving water.” (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. Loc. 3540-45)
The stories and history of the Old Testament prefigure Christ, to make the Messiah visible and recognizable. The narrative of the Old Testament helps us to understand who Jesus is and how He is bringing about the salvation of the world. St. Maximos the Confessor who like all Fathers expounded on the Scriptures said:
“The Law is the shadow of the Gospel. The Gospel is the image of the blessings held in store. The Law checks the actualization of evil. The Gospel brings about the realization of divine blessings.” (The Philokalia, Loc. 14659-62)
St Maximos reads Zechariah 4:1-4 –
“And the angel who talked with me came again, and waked me, like a man that is wakened out of his sleep. And he said to me, “What do you see?” I said, “I see, and behold, a lampstand all of gold, … And there are two olive trees by it, one on the right of the bowl and the other on its left.”
I think that the olive tree on the left side of the candlestick signifies the Old Testament, in which the emphasis is mainly on practical philosophy; while that on the right signifies the New Testament, which teaches a new revelation and brings each believer to a state of contemplation. The first supplies the qualities of virtue, the second the principles of spiritual knowledge to those who meditate on what is divine. The first clears away the mist of visible things and raises the intellect to realities that are akin to it when it is purged of all material fantasies. The second purifies the intellect of its attachment to materiality, with resolute strength knocking out as though with a hammer the nails that rivet will and disposition to the body.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19193-99)
Both Covenants are needed to understand either of them. The Old and the New are vitally linked together for our salvation. St. Maximos continues:
“The Old Testament makes the body obedient to the intelligence and raises it towards the soul by means of the virtues, preventing the intellect from being dragged down towards the body. The New Testament fires the intellect with love and unites it to God. Thus the Old Testament makes the body one in its activity with the intellect; the New Testament makes the intellect one with God through the state of grace. So close is the likeness to God which the intellect acquires, that God, who is not known as He is by nature in Himself to anyone in any way at all, is known through it just as an archetype is known from an image. Since the Old Testament is a symbol of the practice of the virtues, it brings the body’s activity into harmony with that of the intellect. Since the New Testament confers contemplation and spiritual knowledge, it illumines with divine intellections and gifts of grace the intellect that cleaves to it mystically. The Old Testament supplies the man of spiritual knowledge with the qualities of virtue; the New Testament endows the man practicing the virtues with the principles of true knowledge.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19199-209)
We only can grow spiritually when we properly read and comprehend both Testaments together. The Old can be properly understood only in and through the New Testament. The New not only fulfills the Old but also explains its purpose and mission. The New Testament however does not point back to the Old, but rather in Christ points to the eschaton – to the Kingdom of Heaven yet to come
“Just as the teachings of the Law and the prophets, being harbingers of the coming advent of the Logos in the flesh, guide our souls to Christ (cf. Gal. 3:24), so the glorified incarnate Logos of God is Himself a harbinger of His spiritual advent, leading our souls forward by His own teachings to receive His divine and manifest advent. He does this ceaselessly, by means of the virtues converting those found worthy from the flesh to the spirit. And He will do it at the end of the age, making manifest what has hitherto been hidden from all men.” (St. Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia, Loc. 15042-50)
“You hate your enemy? You are foolish. Why? Because if your enemy persecutes you, you also inwardly persecute yourself; for say, is it not persecution, and the most cruel persecution, to torture yourself by your hatred towards your enemy? Love your enemy, and you will be wise. O, if only you knew what a triumph, what blessedness it is to love your enemy, and to do good to him! So did the Son of God, so did God in the Holy Trinity, triumph, and still triumphs, through His love, over the ungrateful and evil-natured human race; so also did God’s saints triumph over their enemies, by loving them and doing good to them. ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…If when we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life‘ (Rom 5:10).” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp 62-63)
The amazing thing about God is that God reconciled Himself to us while we were still sinners. God did not wait until we had repented or changed before working to establish peace with us. If we are to love others as Christ loved us (John 13:34), then we aren’t to wait until others repent or change before forgiving them or being reconciled to them. That is to love as Christ loved us.
When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape. (1 Thessalonians 5:3)
“Paul understood that God’s messiah was not to be the exclusive king of the Israelites, but he was meant to be the world’s king, a light to the Gentiles, and as such his kingdom must include Gentiles from throughout the empire. […] In 1 Thessalonians 5:3 Paul seems to be making a scathing critique of those whose hope is in the peace (pax, eirene) and security (securitas, asphaleia) of Roman rule.” (Aristotle Panaikolaou, Thinking Through Faith, pp 33 & 35)
Interesting that at a time when Christians were an insignificant minority in the Roman Empire that they might have been relying on the stability of the Empire to give them peace and security. It was this very Empire that had crucified the Lord Jesus and would eventually turn its imperial power against the Christians.
But through the centuries Christians have often relied on worldly power to be the sign of God’s Kingdom on earth and to insure that there would be stability on earth. The Byzantine Orthodox certainly did it with their Byzantine Empire. Russian Orthodox in the old Russian Empire had a similar hope. Some think Russian Orthodox today are looking to Putin and the Russian state to again provide stability to the world for Christians. Even a few American Evangelicals have apparently thought modern Russia might be the last defender of Christian family values. Certainly some American Christians have believed the United States, up to this point in history, has been the guarantor of peace, prosperity and stability in the world for Christians. They fear that changes in American culture will mean God will no longer protect America or Christians.
St. Paul would probably still have the same message for us today as he had for Christians in the first century – beware of putting your trust in worldly rulers, empires and powers for providing you peace and security.
Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish. (Psalm 146:3-4)
For no worldly power is defending the Kingdom of God and none can prevent the Kingdom from coming.
Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.” (John 18:36)
Jesus apparently wasn’t a proponent of God and country. All worldly empires and nations belong to the world which is passing away and which will be replaced by God’s kingdom.
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.” (Matthew 25:31-33)
All of this is why we pray at our services for our nation, our president, all civil authority and the armed forces. It is our nation which needs the protection of the Kingom of God not the Kingdom which needs the nation to protect it.
“But if we accustom ourselves to praying eagerly for our enemies, and loving them, peace will always dwell in our souls; whereas if we feel hatred toward our brethren, or find fault with them, our minds will be clouded and we shall lose our peace and the confidence to pray to God. […] The man who carries the peace of the Holy Spirit in his heart spreads peace around him, too; but he who has a malevolent spirit in him spreads evil. […]
It is a great thing in the sight of God to pray for those who hurt our feelings and injure us; and for this the Lord will accord us grace, and by the Holy Spirit we shall come to know the Lord, and bear every affliction with joy for His sake, and the Lord will give us love for all the world, and we shall ardently desire the good of all men, and pray for all as for our own soul. The Lord bade us love our enemies, and the man who loves his enemies is like to the Lord.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, pp 316-317)
“And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.” (Hebrews 4:12-13)
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews gives us an insight into the Word of God which is what so many of the Church Fathers wrote about. The Word of God is living – we don’t simply read it and then read a meaning into it. Rather the Word of God discerns our thoughts and out intentions and opens our understanding of the Scriptures based upon what we are capable of receiving from Him. There is a true and living interaction between the Scriptures and the one who is reading them. Reading the Scriptures properly is to have a full relationship with the Word of God. We bring our thoughts, faith, hope and love to the Scriptures and the Word of God interacts with us, relating to us those things about Himself which we are prepared to receive. This is why the reading of the Scriptures is also combined in Orthodox Tradition with fasting and prayer. The Word of God is not print on a page, the Word of God is Jesus Christ. This is part of the mystery revealed in the incarnation.
In the previous blog we encountered how the Patristic writers saw the interaction between the Scriptures and readers of the Bible when those reading held false or distorted ideas about God. In the end, their interpretations of the Scriptures were also distorted. To have the right relationship with the Word of God, one must have right faith, and have a heart and mind committed to serving God. In this post, we will look at some other issues Orthodox teachers have noted about relating to the Word of God – not the Bible text, but to the living Word who interacts with us.
First, a comment from St. Augustine admitting that it is possible that some texts in the Bible may have had a specific meaning to the author of the text and to those to whom the text was originally written, but we no longer know, or even can know that meaning. History now separates us from those in the original discussion and we don’t know (and can’t know) all of the circumstances, meanings and nuances of those texts. Scholarship cannot uncover some things which have been lost to history. Augustine writes:
The words, “And now you know what is restraining”—i.e., you know what hindrance or cause of delay there is—“that he may be revealed in his own time” [2 Thess 2:6], show that he [St. Paul] did not make an explicit statement, since he said that they knew. But we who do not have their knowledge wish, but are unable even with great effort, to understand what the apostle referred to, especially since his meaning is made still more obscure by what he adds. For what does he mean when he says, “The mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed” [2 Thess 2:7–8]? I frankly confess I do not know what he means. ” (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5909-14)
St. Augustine was willing to acknowledge, what many pastors and biblical commentators today will not admit, that the meaning of a passage is beyond us. Today, many biblical commentators fear that to acknowledge there are things in the Scritpures we do not know, or even cannot know, might cast doubts on their interpretation of things. And the reason is because truthfully it is their personal interpretation of the Scriptures, rather than what the Scriptures actually say. These commentators really are saying that God is not smarter than they are, that is why they understand everything the Scriptures say. But if the Word of God is active and alive, the Word may interact with some people, some who are no longer with us, revealing His full meaning. But that meaning is no longer ours to have. It means we have to stand silent in the face of certain Scriptures. We must be humble before God and neighbor recognizing that the Scriptures really do contain the mysteries and revelation of God, yet we might not be the people to fully understand them.
Acknowledging that the Scriptures might still have hidden in them the Word of God but that we cannot access the meaning of those texts takes away from all of us the arrogant claim that we alone know the full meaning of all the Scriptures. The saints through the centuries realized there are many reasons why we might not fully understand some passages of Scripture. Just because we are able to discern the meaning of a word or name or thing in Scripture at one point in the text, means we fully understand that word or name every time it is used in the Bible. The Word is living, and consequently, the Word may have different connotations in different passages and in the minds of the different authors using the words. St Maximos the Confessor expounds:
“Not all persons and things designated in Holy Scripture by the same word are necessarily to be understood in exactly the same way. On the contrary, if we are to infer the meaning of the written text correctly, each thing mentioned must clearly be understood according to the significance that underlies its verbal form. If always understood in the same way, none of the persons, places, times, or any of the other things mentioned in Scripture, whether animate or inanimate, sensible or intelligible, will yield either the literal or spiritual sense intended. Thus he who wishes to study the divine knowledge of Scripture without floundering must respect the differences of the recorded events or sayings, and interpret each in a different way, assigning to it the appropriate spiritual sense according to the context of place and time.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19118-26)
All scriptural texts have a context in which they were written, a context in which they were originally understood. And every reader of the text also has a context which shapes the reader’s understanding of the text before them. St. Maximos reflecting on the Gospel comments:
“Pilate is a type of the natural law; the Jewish crowd is a type of the written law. He who has not risen through faith above the two laws cannot therefore receive the truth which is beyond nature and expression. On the contrary, he invariably crucifies the Logos, for he sees the Gospel either, like a Jew, as a stumbling-block or, like a Greek, as foolishness (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23).” (The Philokalia, Loc. 14473-78)
The reader of the Bible must be as inspired as the original authors in order to comprehend the message intended in the Scriptures. St Peter of Damaskos in a more lengthy discourse gives us further insight into this living relationship between the reader of the Bible and the Word of God.
“I am not speaking here about the mere act of listening to a passage of Scripture or to some other person; for this does not by itself involve purity of intellect or divine revelation. I am speaking about the person who possesses knowledge but distrusts himself until he finds another passage from Scripture or from one of the saints that confirms his spontaneous knowledge of the scriptural passage or of some sensible or intelligible reality. And if instead of one meaning he should find many as a result of giving attention to either the divine Scriptures or the holy fathers, he should not lose faith and think that there is a contradiction. For one text or object can signify many things. Take clothing, for example: one person may say that it warms, another that it adorns, and another that it protects; yet all three are correct, since clothing is useful alike for warmth, for adornment and for protection. All three have grasped the purpose assigned by God to clothing; and Holy Scripture and the very nature of-things themselves confirm it. But if someone whose intention is to rob and pilfer should say that clothing exists in order to be stolen, he would be an utter liar, for neither the Scriptures nor the nature of things suggest that it exists for this purpose; and even the laws punish those who do steal it. The same applies to everything, whether visible or invisible, and to every word of the divine Scriptures. For the saints neither know the whole of God’s purpose with regard to every object or scriptural text, nor on the other hand do they write down once and for all everything that they do know. This is because in the first place God is beyond comprehension, and His wisdom is not limited in such a way that an angel or man can grasp it in its entirety. As St John Chrysostom says with regard to a certain point of spiritual exegesis, we say about it as much as should be said at the moment, but God, in addition to what we say, knows other unfathomable meanings as well. And, in the second place, because of men’s incapacity and weakness it is not good for even the saints themselves to say all that they know; for they might speak at too great a length, thus making themselves offensive or unintelligible because of the confusion in their reader’s mind. As St Gregory the Theologian observes, what is said should be commensurate to the capacity of those to whom it is addressed. For this reason the same saint may say one thing about a certain matter today, and another tomorrow; and yet there is no contradiction, provided the hearer has knowledge and experience of the matter under discussion. Again, one saint may say one thing and another say something different about the same passage of the Holy Scriptures, since divine grace often gives varying interpretations suited to the particular person or moment in question. The only thing required is that everything said or done should be said or done in accordance with God’s intention, and that it should be attested by the words of Scripture. For should anyone preach anything contrary to God’s intention or contrary to the nature of things, then even if he is an angel St Paul’s words, ‘Let him be accursed’ (Gal. 1:8), will apply to him. This is what St Dionysios the Areopagite, St Antony and St Maximos the Confessor affirm.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31801-59)
How we read a text – what meaning we derive from it, is thus not merely found in scholarly research. The meaning of the text appears to us to the degree we are faithful to Christ as Lord, have a pure heart, and have entered into Church, the Body of Christ. The contemporary Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth summarizes this understanding of God’s Word this way:
“What does all this add up to? It suggests to my mind an attitude to Scripture that sees it not as some flat collection of infallible texts about religious matters, but rather as a body of witness of varying significance – some clearly crucial, as witnessing very directly to Christ, others less important (though never of no importance), as their witness to Christ is more oblique. And the criteria for importance are bound up in some way with the way the Church has taken them up into her experience. There is a hierarchy, a shape: the Gospel Book at the centre, the Apostle flanking it, and then a variety of texts from the Old Testament, generally accessed not through some volume called the Bible, but from extracts contained in the liturgical books, along with other texts: songs, passages from the Fathers and so on. The Scriptures then have a kind of shape, a shape that relates to our experience of them. (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. Loc. 395-401)
The Fathers of the Church recognize that the written Scriptures require interpretation. The written texts occasionally are self- evident in their meaning and can be read at face value, but often they contain within them the prophecies and revelations of God hidden in familiar images, events, and in the language of the text. First, one has to have godly wisdom to realize there is more to the text than meets the eye. Second, one needs the proper context in order to interpret the texts correctly. Unbelieving Jews misread the Scriptures and so failed to see Jesus as Messiah.
The Church Fathers also knew that because the written Scriptures existed, anyone could pick them up and read them and interpret them. It was obvious to all that not all interpretations of the texts were correct. Wrong beliefs in the first place would result in an incorrect reading of the texts. Some others might have nefarious reasons for intentionally misreading the texts. The Fathers of the Church offered many images about what happens when people holding wrong beliefs endeavor to read the Scriptures. The Scriptures are sometimes portrayed as a mosaic – all the pieces of the correct picture are there, but they still must be assembled correctly to get the image intended by God from the pieces. The mosaic pieces can in fact be put together in many different ways, but some of the ways are incorrect and some are even offensive to God.
“They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavor to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions.
Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skillful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skillful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavor, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma. (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 423-36)
Reading the Scriptures, searching not just for meaning, but for the Truth, means understanding what one reads. We have to be able to properly assemble the texts in the light of Christ to understand them. It is possible to assemble them wrongly as St. Irenaeus warns. One needs guidance to recognize the proper template for assembling the words, prophecies and poems. The template is Jesus Christ. One needs Christ in order to know what it is the Scriptures are portraying to us.
So one can have the Scriptures, all the precious pieces of the mosaic, but not know how to assemble them correctly. One can have the Scriptures but if one lacks the proper key to understanding them, then one will not come to the proper interpretation of them. When that happens one creates the wrong image with the mosaic pieces. One’s own faith, moral life, relationship to Jesus Christ, all shape how one reads the texts and uses them. A purity of faith and a purity of heart are needed to see the true picture being offered by the Scriptures.
“For that there is nothing whatever openly, expressly, and without controversy said in any part of Scripture respecting the Father conceived of by those who hold a contrary opinion, they themselves testify, when they maintain that the Savior privately taught these same things not to all, but to certain only of His disciples who could comprehend them, and who understood what was intended by Him through means of arguments, enigmas, and parables. They come, [in fine,] to this, that they maintain there is one Being who is proclaimed as God, and another as Father, He who is set forth as such through means of parables and enigmas. But since parables admit of many interpretations, what lover of truth will not acknowledge, that for them to assert God is to be searched out from these, while they desert what is certain, indubitable, and true, is the part of men who eagerly throw themselves into danger, and act as if destitute of reason? And is not such a course of conduct not to build one’s house upon a rock which is firm, strong, and placed in an open position, but upon the shifting sand? Hence the overthrow of such a building is a matter of ease.” (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 3115-24)
Many passages in Scripture invite interpretation – the parables for example. St. Irenaeus argues that it is dangerous to form dogma from passages like the parables which are so open to interpretation when there exists plenty of passages in Scripture which have unambiguous passages with absolutely straight forward doctrine. It is a warning that while there may be many ways to interpret certain passages (such as parables), not all interpretations are correct – one has to rightly divide/define the Word and apply the appropriate scripture to its appropriate use. The key to interpretation is found in the apostolic community of believers, in and through Tradition, the canon of Scritpure, the apostolic succession. This is the context created by Jesus Christ. St Symeon the New Theologian comments:
“Many read the Holy Scriptures and hear them read. But few can grasp their meaning and import. For some what is said in the Scriptures is impossible, for others it is altogether beyond belief. Some again interpret them wrongly: they apply things said about the present to the future, and things said about the future to the past or else to what happens daily. In this way they reveal a lack of true judgment and discernment in things both human and divine.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 35392-95)
The Church is the Body of Christ, and only in the Body of Christ do we faithfully interpret the Scriptures of God.
In this blog series, we are exploring what it means that Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate (John 1) while simultaneously we also refer to the Bible, the written text as the Word of God. Orthodoxy in its hymns certainly places an emphasis on Jesus being the Word of God incarnate. The Word is a person rather than a book. We understand that the Scriptures witness to Christ (John 5:39-40). The Scriptures as the Word of God have many peculiar elements to them (such as being subject to scribal error, see Textual Variations) that would certainly tell us that they can be considered the Word of God only in a particular way. They can be translated into many languages with all the linguistic and cultural nuances that introduces to the text, and yet still be considered the same Word of God. And as every English speaking person knows, the number of different translations into one language can be many and they can have so many variations in the translations as to make one wonder if the same original text can have so many different possible meanings.
Modern scholars point out many facts about the Scriptures’ composition and development some of which question the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. These insights of modern scholarship however are often not new but were well known in the ancient Christian world. St. Irenaeus of Lyons (martyred in 202AD) for example is aware that the each of the four Gospels were written for differing audiences and for different purposes. He writes:
“The Gospel according to Matthew was written to the Jews. For they laid particular stress upon the fact that Christ [should be] of the seed of David. Matthew also, who had a still greater desire [to establish this point], took particular pains to afford them convincing proof that Christ is of the seed of David; and therefore he commences with [an account of] His genealogy.” (Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 9161-67)
St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) is keenly aware that some Christians in his day doubted that the Letter to the Hebrews was written by St. Paul and believed rather that it was written pseudonymously. Peter rejects the claim but the point here is these things were disputed long before modern scholarship came along.
“Again, some say in their lack of experience that the Epistle to the Hebrews was not written by St Paul, or that St Dionysios the Areopagite did not write one of the treatises ascribed to him. But if a man will pay attention to these same works, he will discover the truth. If the matter pertains to nature, the saints gain their knowledge of it from spiritual insight, that is, from the spiritual knowledge of nature and from the contemplation of created beings that is attained through the intellect’s purity; and so they expound God’s purpose in these things with complete accuracy. Searching the Scriptures, as St John Chrysostom says, like gold-miners who seek out the finest veins. In this way they ensure that ‘not the smallest letter or most insignificant accent is lost’, as the Lord put it (Matt. 5:18).” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31860-75)
As St. Peter notes, St. John Chrysostom was interested in every tiny mark or unusual twist in the texts of the Scriptures. Everything was significant since the writings were considered to be God’s Word and not merely human endeavors. Though indeed the written texts belong to human effort and a spiritual need, the authors were inspired by God to write. So, Scripture is always a work of synergy between God and humans – not only between those who wrote them and God but also between the reader of the texts and God. So St. Justin Martyr admits there may appear contradictions in the scriptural texts when we read them literally, but this is dealt with by the way we read/interpret the text. The problems is in our understanding of differing texts, not in what God is saying to us.
“I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another. I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory to be of the same opinion [about Scripture] as myself. “ (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Loc. 867-69)
St. Augustine who wrote voluminous comments on the Scriptures was aware that the texts of the Scriptures were troublesome to interpret. He believes the Scriptures to be true and grants that any one text can have different interpretations. After all, Scripture is God’s Word, and so one would expect that at times we humans might realize God’s Word is much deeper than we can comprehend.
“What more liberal and more fruitful provision could God have made in regard to the sacred Scriptures than that the same words might be understood in several senses, all of which are sanctioned by the concurring testimony of other passages equally divine?” (St. Augustine, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5578-80)
“But the truths which those words contain appear to different inquirers in a different light, and of all the meanings that they can bear, which of us can lay his finger upon one and say that it is what Moses had in mind and what he meant us to understand by his words?” (St. Augustine, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5820-22)
“For all the differences between them, there is truth in each of these opinions. May this truth give birth to harmony, and may the Lord our God have pity on us so that we may apply the law legitimately, that is, to the end prescribed in the commandment, which is love undefiled.” (St. Augustine, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5829-31)
“When so many meanings, all of them acceptable as true, can be extracted from the words that Moses wrote, do you not see how foolish it is to make a bold assertion that one in particular is the one he had in mind? Do you not see how foolish it is to enter into mischievous arguments which are an offense against that very love for the sake of which he wrote every one of the words that we are trying to explain? ” (St. Augustine, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5824-27)
Augustine understands the Scriptures are rich and deep and a divine treasury, so if we approach them imagining them to have one and only one meaning, we are imposing on them human limits and concerns, but God’s Word is not limited by human imagination or intelligence. It is possible that we will never know exactly what the original author of the Scriptures meant as we are separated by many centuries and by differing languages and cultures. That still doesn’t mean God can’t or won’t speak to us through the text. There is inspiration in the reading as well as in the writing of Scripture.
“Prophetic diction delights in mingling figurative and real language, and thus in some sort veiling the sense. (20:16) No doubt, though this book [Revelation] is called the Apocalypse [“the unveiling”], there are in it many obscure passages to exercise the mind of the reader, and there are few passages so plain that they assist us in the interpretation of the others, even though we take pains; and this difficulty is increased by the repetition of the same things, in forms so different, that the things referred to seem to be different, although in fact they are only differently stated. ” (St. Augustine, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 5904-8)
St. Augustine admits that in Scripture at times God intentionally veils His purpose and meaning in figurative language. God wants us to seek out His will, and gives us opportunity to work with Him by using language and images in the Scriptures that we must work with God to understand. Sometimes God uses several incompatible metaphors to give us the same message. We have to realize that the multiple different images don’t mean there are many differing messages but only that God is emphasizing one message using several different images.
St. John of Damascus commenting on Genesis 1 notes that earlier church fathers had interpreted Genesis 1 differently from each other and had come to various beliefs about the nature of the heavens and the earth. He accepts all of these interpretations as possible and perhaps with the limits of the science of his day as probable. He is acknowledging that we do read the Scriptures with and through the lens of our own knowledge, and that it is possible to come to different conclusions from the text of Scriptures based upon the assumptions we begin with. But these differences are not about the doctrine of God, but only about an understanding of the earth or all of creation itself. Thus, following his reasoning, we understand how it is that now modern science in studying the created order has come to some conclusions different than any of the earlier saints might have thought. But this is OK . We are using the scientific knowledge that God has given our generation to study and understand the created world. This doesn’t in anyway compromise the nature of God. God is the Creator, no matter how we understand science or the creation. The ancients for example thought all created things were made up of one of 4 elements, or that human body was governed by the humors. We now think about atoms and sub-atomic particles as making up all things and we know the relationship between energy and matter which the ancients didn’t know. So, St. John tells us:
“But further, God called the firmament also heaven, which He commanded to be in the midst of the waters, setting it to divide the waters that are above the firmament from the waters that are below the firmament. And its nature, according to the divine Basilius, who is versed in the mysteries of divine Scripture, is delicate as smoke. Others, however, hold that it is watery in nature, since it is set in the midst of the waters: others say it is composed of the four elements: and lastly, others speak of it as a filth body, distinct from the four elements.
Further, some have thought that the heaven encircles the universe and has the form of a sphere, and that everywhere it is the highest point, and that the centre of the space enclosed by it is the lowest part: and, further, that those bodies that are light and airy are allotted by the Creator the upper region: while those that are heavy and tend to descend occupy the lower region, which is the middle. The element, then, that is lightest and most inclined to soar upwards is fire, and hence they hold that its position is immediately after the heaven, and they call it ether, and after it comes the lower air. But earth and water, which are heavier and have more of a downward tendency, are suspended in the centre. Therefore, taking them in the reverse order, we have in the lowest situation earth and water: but water is lighter than earth, and hence is more easily set in motion: above these on all hands, like a covering; is the circle of air,and all round the air is the circle of ether, and outside air is the circle of the heaven. (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc Loc. 767-780)
The thinking of the Church Fathers is that the Scriptures are not so concerned with what we today would call science. The Scriptures can be read literally, but that is not their main purpose. They are opening heaven to us. They are revealing the divine life to us, and we need to see the Scriptures exactly in that light and having that purpose. The Scriptures are not revealing the scientific nature of creation but rather are revealing the Creator of the universe to us. So Symeon Metaphrastes writing in the Makarian Homilies makes this commentary on a text of the Pentateuch:
“Moses indicates figuratively that the soul should not be divided in will between good and evil, but should pursue the good alone; and that it must cultivate not the dual fruits of virtue and vice but those of virtue only. For he says: ‘Do not yoke together on your threshing floor animals of a different species, such as ox and ass; but yoke together animals of the same species and so thresh your corn’ (cf. Deut. 22:10). This is to say, do not let virtue and vice work together on the threshing floor of your heart, but let virtue alone work there. Again he says: ‘Do not weave flax into a woolen garment, or wool into a linen garment’ (cf. Deut. 22:11); and: ‘Do not cultivate two kinds of fruit together on the same patch of your land’ (cf. Deut. 22:9). Similarly, you are not to mate an animal of one species with an animal of another species, but to mate like with like. All this is a concealed way of saying that you must not cultivate virtue and vice together in yourself, but you must devote yourself singlemindedly to producing the fruits of virtue; and you must not share your soul with two spirits – the Spirit of God and the spirit of the world – but you must give it solely to the Spirit of God and must reap only the fruits of the Spirit. It is for this reason that the psalmist writes: ‘I have prospered in all Thy commandments; I hate every false way’ (Ps. 119:128).” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 32528-45)
The reading Symeon uses and his reasoning for reading the text in this particular way is exactly that of St. Paul:
For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop. (1 Corinthians 9:9-10)
The Fathers often saw the Scriptures as refuting the pagan legends of the creation of the world.
But their interpretation of the Scriptures also shows us that they were not intending to read the Bible to refute modern science. Modern scientific ideas were not on their radar screens at all. Their refutation of pagan ideas of creation was to bring all people to the knowledge of the one true Creator of the universe. We are to read the Scriptures for the same reason today.
The Lord told this parable: “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. ’And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, ’for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31)
Jesus starts the parable by describing a chasm that exists between the worlds of the two main characters of the story. The nameless rich man lives in the world of luxury, gourmet cooking, wealth, excess, and being waited on for his every wish. Lazarus, the poor man, lives in an entirely different world, one of poverty, wasting illness, filth, malnutrition, homeless neglect. There is a chasm between these two worlds, but that chasm is human made, and could be bridged if someone chose to do it. Nothing except human choice separates these two worlds. But the rich man chooses to keep that chasm between himself and his fellow human. The rich man has the resources to cross the chasm and aid Lazarus, who is not asking for the man’s riches, but just for crumbs from the rich man’s table!
Then both the main characters of the parable die, and after death their roles are reversed. Now Lazarus lives with the angels in Abraham’s bosom and is comforted. The rich man finds himself in torment in hell.
The parable does not tell us why or how the rich man got to his most favored status in life on earth, nor why or how Lazarus was in such miserable poverty. The luck of the draw apparently. Jesus does not praise either of the characters for being virtuous, nor does He portray either as vile, vice-filled men. Today, because we’ve heard the parable so often that we make assumptions about what happens and why. We read into the parable virtues and vices but the parable never explains why the rich man ends up in hell after death or why Lazarus is in heaven. Perhaps some sort of Karmic justice?
But none of that is really the point of the parable.
Only in hell, when he is now the victim of suffering, does the rich man care about crossing the chasm between himself and Lazarus. Only in hell does he suddenly become concerned about those who suffer. Only in hell does he recognize that one human can alleviate the suffering of another. But now only in hell does he learn that the chasm in the next life between people – the haves and the have nots – can’t be bridged. It’s too late to benefit from a fellow human being. The unrighteous rich man learns that he cannot in this afterlife benefit from the good fortune of another, nor does all the wealth he accumulated in the world benefit him in the afterlife. [Nor for that matter does all his accumulated worldly wealth benefit Lazarus or anyone else in the afterlife!]
There was a time when the chasm could have been bridged and crossed over – when the blessings one has could be used to meet the needs of another. There was a time on earth when it was in the rich man’s power to cross over the chasm and use his blessings to meet the need of another. He could have reached out to Lazarus who wallowed in poverty. He wouldn’t have had to bankrupt himself to do this. He obviously had such an overabundance that he could have given away a great deal without suffering even the slightest inconvenience. Had the rich man done so, the chasm between them would have been eliminated and they would have been together as fellow human beings, brothers. Lazarus is not the protagonist of the parable. Only the rich man had the resources to be the hero of the story. Lazarus really has nothing to offer anyone, except that had the rich man cared for the impoverished Lazarus, the rich man would have found his path to heaven.
There is a lesson here about the chasms we create in our lives between ourselves and others who we recognize might need or benefit from something we have. We protect ourselves and make self-preservation into a virtue. Sometimes we invest a great deal in making sure these self-created chasms are maintained and are impassible and impregnable. It is possible that we will make those chasms permanent and impenetrable and unbridgeable … all the way into the life of the world to come. Then, belatedly, we will know that we made for ourselves an eternal hell.
The antithesis of the rich man in the parable is not the poor Lazarus. As even some church fathers noted, Lazarus is nowhere commended for any virtues.
The rich man of the parable is being contrasted with the righteous believer, which is made obvious in the Epistle reading which is linked by the Orthodox Church to the Gospel lesson of Lazarus and the rich man. In that epistle, 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, St. Paul writes:
This I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, have abundance for every good work. As it is written: “He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness remains forever.” Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God
The foil to the rich man is the righteous person who generously gives to the poor. That person is described in the Psalm 111 from the Septuagint from which the 2 Corinthians 9 quotes (in both the Scripture above and below the emphasis is not in the original text, but is mine).
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord; He will delight exceedingly in His commandments; 2 His seed shall be mighty on earth; The generation of the upright shall be blessed; Glory and riches shall be in his house, And his righteousness continues unto ages of ages. For the upright, light springs up in darkness, For he is merciful, compassionate, and righteous. A good man is compassionate and lends; He will manage his words with judgment, For he shall be unshaken forever; A righteous man shall be in everlasting remembrance. He shall not be afraid because of an evil report; His heart is prepared to hope in the Lord. His heart is established; he is not afraid As he surveys his enemies. He dispersed; he gave to the poor; His righteousness continues unto ages of ages; His horn shall be exalted with glory. The sinner shall see this, and be angry; He shall gnash his teeth, and be consumed; The desire of sinners shall perish.
The rich man of the parable perishes not because he is rich but because he fails to be righteous. Specifically he fails to be merciful, compassionate, generous and righteous. All of these are activities within our power on earth, and all build a bridge that spans the entire chasm not only between earth and heaven, but even that chasm which separates hell from heaven.
“This I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, have abundance for every good work. As it is written: ‘He has dispersed abroad, He has given to the poor; His righteousness remains forever.’ Now may He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness, while you are enriched in everything for all liberality, which causes thanksgiving through us to God.” (2 Corinthians 9:6-11)
“It is more blessed to give than to receive. More blessed than the poverty of the receiver is this generosity of the giver, which does not come from money that has been stored up through lack of faith or confidence, and which is not dispensed from the accumulated hoards of avarice, but which is offered from the fruit of one’s own work and from loving toil. And ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’ because, although the person who has given may be as poor as the one who receives, he nonetheless strives by his own effort to procure not only a sufficiency for his own needs but also, with loving solicitude, something to give to the needy. In this way he is adorned with a twofold grace, both because he possesses the perfect poverty of Christ through his renunciation of all his goods and because by his labors and his disposition he exhibits the liberality of a rich man. He it is who honors God from his righteous labors and gives to him from the fruits of his righteousness.” ( The Institutes, p 230)
In the Gospel lesson of Luke 16:19-31, we are challenged by Christ to think about of what true wealth consists and what human poverty is.
There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.
The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. ’And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, ’for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’
“…If we are to tell the truth, the rich man is not the one who has collected many possessions but the one who needs few possession; and the poor man is not the one who has no possessions but the one who has many desires. We ought to consider this the definition of poverty and wealth. So if you see someone greedy for many things, you should consider him the poorest of all, even if he has acquired everyone’s money. If, on the other hand, you see someone with few needs, you should count him the richest of all, even if he has acquired nothing. For we are accustomed to judge poverty and affluence by the disposition of the mind, not by the measure of one’s substance. Just as we would not call a healthy person who is always thirsty, even if he enjoyed abundance, even if he lived by rivers and springs (for what use is that luxuriance of water, when the thirst remains unquenchable?), let us do the same in the case of wealthy people: let us never consider those people healthy who are always yearning and thirsting after other people’s property; let us not think they enjoy abundance. For if one cannot control his own greed, even if he has appropriated everyone’s property, how can he ever be affluent?
But those who are satisfied with what they have, and pleased with their own possessions, and do not have their eyes on the substance of others, even if they are the poorest of all, should be considered the richest of all. For whoever has no need of others’ property but is happy to be self-sufficient is the most affluent of all.” (Anthony Coniaris, Daily Reading from the Writings of St. John Chrysostom, pp 41-42)