Interpreting the Scripture (I)

Previous: Hidden Meanings in the Text

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.

St. Justin the Martyr
St. Justin the Martyr

“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)

St. Augustine
St. Augustine

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.

Creation dragons
Creation dragons

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.

Next:  Interpreting the Scripture (II)

3 thoughts on “Interpreting the Scripture (I)

  1. Pingback: Hidden Meanings – Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: Interpreting the Scripture (II) – Fr. Ted's Blog

  3. Pingback: Father Ted on the Holy Scriptures | Impelled by the Scriptures into the Orthodox Church

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