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“When you read Holy Scripture, perceive its hidden meanings. ‘For whatever was written in past times was written for our instruction’ (Rom. 15:4).” (St. Mark the Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2997-98)
St. Mark, writing in the 5th Century, reflects an attitude common in the ancient Church about reading Scripture. He calls us to look for its “hidden meanings.” The obvious, literal meaning is there and is true, there was no question about that. What was also believed is that because the manuscript really contained a divine meaning, there was more to the text than its most obvious reading. God is revealing Himself to us through the Scriptures and we need to be aware of this and to look for it. The “hidden meaning” exactly would not be immediately obvious to us, but if our hearts were pure and prepared we would recognize the revelation hidden in the obvious. God is the Lord who reveals Himself to us in nature as well as in the Scriptures, but we have to have the heart ready to see in order to become aware of the revelation. The Patristic writers certainly believed that is how the authors of the New Testament read the Old Testament. They saw this, for example, in how St. Paul interprets the Jewish scriptures (see 1 Corinthians 9:9-11 or Galatians 4:21-25). As many of the Fathers understood it, the Transfiguration of Christ (Mark 9 and parallels) is about the apostles being transfigured so that they could see Christ as He always is. Christ’s divinity remained hidden in His humanity, but in that moment of the transfiguration, their eyes were opened and they saw the revelation of God which had been hidden from them. The apostle’s eyes were opened, and so can ours be as we read the Bible and move beyond the literal text to the revelation contained in them.
We have to put the effort into fully understanding the Scriptures, which also means understanding how the early Church fathers read the biblical narrative, how they interpreted the text and used them in their own explanations and argumentation. St. John of Damascus offers this:
“If we read once or twice and do not understand what we read, let us not grow weary, but let us persist, let us talk much, let us enquire. For ask thy Father, he saith, and He will shew thee: thy elders and they will tell thee (Deuteronomy 32:7). For there is not in every man that knowledge. Let us draw of the fountain of the garden perennial and purest waters springing into life eternal. Here let us luxuriate, let us revel insatiate: for the Scriptures possess inexhaustible grace. But if we are able to pluck anything profitable from outside sources, there is nothing to forbid that. Let us become tried money-dealers, heaping up the true and pure gold and discarding the spurious. Let us keep the fairest sayings but let us throw to the dogs absurd gods and strange myths: for we might prevail most mightily against them through themselves. (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc. 3199-3204)
In the above quote, I first note the use of the Deuteronomy 32:7 passage. It gives us a sense how the Fathers made use of all Scriptures sometimes very creatively using what otherwise is a text completely understandable in its original context, to further their own arguments. They saw the Scriptures as speaking to them and not just historical texts whose meaning was limited to its original use. St. John is putting into practice what he read in Romans 15:4 that the ancient scriptures were written for our instruction. The Scripture is not so much history but instruction in how we should live today. That is part of the hidden message we had to discern in the manuscript.
When we meditate wisely and: continually on the law of God, study psalms and canticles, engage-in fasting and vigils, and always bear in mind what is to come – the kingdom of heaven, the Gehenna of fire and all God’s works — our wicked thoughts diminish and find no place. (St. John Cassian, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 2530-32)
Cassian reveals another common thought in the Patristic mind – the Scriptures should not be read as ancient texts revealing past history. They really help prepare us for what is coming – the eschaton, the Kingdom of God and the final judgment. So to try to milk from the Scriptures ideas about how God created the world, is to read the Bible badly and for the wrong purpose. Those old texts point to Christ and to the future Kingdom of God. We should read them accordingly.
We read the Scriptures to come to know our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. When we truly understand the Scriptures, God begins to write on our hearts. We become His scriptures!
St. Maximos the Confessor proclaims:
“When God comes to dwell in such a heart, He honors it by engraving His own letters on it through the Holy Spirit, just as He did on the Mosaic tablets (cf. Exod. 31:18).” (Kindle Loc. 15522-24)
As St. Paul has it:
You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3;2-3)
St. Maximos continues:
“A pure heart is perhaps one which has no natural propulsion towards anything in any manner whatsoever. When in its extreme simplicity such a heart has become like a writing-tablet beautifully smoothed and polished. God comes to dwell in it and writes there His own laws.” (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15528-30)
The Word of God comes to dwell in us and we become the living Scriptures bearing witness to Christ in us. The Word becomes written on our hearts, and the printed text of the Bible is superseded by the human fulfilling the role that God always intended for us. We are created in the image of the Word, created to bear the Word in our hearts. In the beginning, God did not write Scriptures. Rather God created us humans to be the living Scriptures. It was a role in creation which lost through sin. The written manuscripts became necessary to remind us of what we are to be.