In Orthodox Tradition, one way we enter into a relationship with the living Word of God is through the Scriptures. Jesus Christ who is the Word of God is found hidden and then revealed in these written texts. The Word of God, Jesus Christ, then lives in us and the Word becomes written on our hearts. Because of the living nature of the Word, the Tradition of the Church has various warnings against an overly literalist reading of the Scriptures. In this post we will look at a few comments that we find in our Tradition which address the issue of biblical literalism.
The Jewish biblical scholar, Geza Vermes, notes:
“Neither in the inter-Testamental period, nor in earlier biblical times, was the recording of history as we understand it a strong point among the Jews. Chroniclers are concerned not with factual information about bygone events, but with their religious significance. In Scripture, the ‘secular’ past is viewed and interpreted by the prophets as revealing God’s pleasure or displeasure. Victory or defeat in war, peace or social unrest, abundance of harvest or famine, serve to demonstrate the virtue or sinfulness of the nation and to forecast its future destiny.“ (The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Kindle Loc. 1344-48)
The fact that Christians did not read the Scriptures first and foremost for historical/factual information is a hermeneutic already found in Judaism. Scripture is less concerned about bygone events than it is about where God is to be found today and where God is leading us. Limiting Scripture to its most basic, literal meaning, meant for the Church Fathers not comprehending the God who is outside of human history and not bound by it. So Tertullian says in the late Second Century:
First of all, in Genesis, it says: “Adam and Eve heard the voice of God walking in the garden in the cool of the evening. And Adam and his wife hid from the face of the Lord God in the midst of the trees in the garden” (Gen 3.8). To those who are unwilling to enter the treasury of the passage, who will not even knock at its door, will I put this question: can they demonstrate that the Lord God, who fills the heaven and the earth, who uses heaven as a throne (in a material sense, they must presume) and the earth as a footstool for his feet (Is 66.1), is contained by a place which, by comparison with the heaven and the earth, is so narrow, and yet that this garden (which they must suppose to be corporeal) is not filled with God but is so much greater in its size than he that it can contain him walking in it, so that the sound of his footfalls is audible?
It is yet more absurd that, on this interpretation, Adam and Eve should, out of fear of God through their transgression, hide themselves “from the face of God in the midst of the trees in the garden.” For it does not say that they simply wished to hide, but that they actually hid. How then is it, according to their view, that God speaks to Adam and asks: “Where are you?” (On The Lord’s Prayer, Kindle Loc. 3286-96)
Tertullian says even logic tells us we cannot read the Scriptures completely literally, the anthropomorphic images of God simply are inconsistent with what we know about God. We have to adjust our thinking and imagination in order to make sense of these passages. The text doesn’t make literal sense, but we can make sense of the text and accept its truthfulness when we adopt the proper interpretative framework.
St. John of Damascus considering the many passages in the Bible which ascribe to God physical body parts (the hand of God or God’s eyes) writes:
Since we find many terms used symbolically in the Scriptures concerning God which are more applicable to that which has body, we should recognize that it is quite impossible for us men clothed about with this dense covering of flesh to understand or speak of the divine and lofty and immaterial energies of the Godhead, except by the use of images and types and symbols derived from our own life. So then all the statements concerning God, that imply body, are symbols, but have a higher meaning: for the Deity is simple and formless.
Hence by God’s eyes and eyelids and sight we are to understand His power of overseeing all things and His knowledge, that nothing can escape: for in the case of us this sense makes our knowledge more complete and more full of certainty. By God’s ears and hearing is meant His readiness to be propitiated and to receive our petitions: for it is this sense that renders us also kind to suppliants, inclining our ear to them more graciously. God’s mouth and speech are His means of indicating His will; for it is by the mouth and speech that we make clear the thoughts that are in the heart: God’s food and drink are our concurrence to His will, for we, too, satisfy the necessities of our natural appetite through the sense of taste. And God’s sense of smell is His appreciation of our thoughts of and good will towards Him, for it is through this sense that we appreciate sweet fragrance. . . His anger and fury are His hatred of and aversion to all wickedness, for we, too, hate that which is contrary to our mind and become enraged thereat. His forgetfulness and sleep and slumbering are His delay in taking vengeance on His enemies and the postponement of the accustomed help to His own. And to put it shortly, all the statements made about God that imply body have some hidden meaning and teach us what is above us by means of something familiar to ourselves, with the exception of any statement concerning the bodily sojourn of the God-Word. For He for our safety took upon Himself the whole nature of man, the thinking spirit, the body, and all the properties of human nature, even the natural and blameless passions. (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc 464-74, 481-85)
For St. John of Damascus any anthropomorphizing of God – mentioning God’s body parts or human emotions – automatically tells us that text is to be read in some symbolic or mystical fashion. Those texts are referring exactly to some hidden meaning about God. The anthropomorphic images are used to help us understand God, but they in no way give us a actual portrayal of God. To read them literally would be to misunderstand the text completely. The only exception to this rule for St. John is when reading about Jesus Christ in the Gospel for there God is truly incarnate and that truth is expressed precisely in the Christ’s human body and human behavior.
St Maximos the Confessor in two passages offers us the same teaching.
When a man sticks to the mere letter of Scripture, his nature is governed by the senses alone, in this way proving his soul’s attachment to the flesh. For if the letter is not understood in a spiritual way, its significance is restricted to the level of the senses, which do not allow its full meaning to pass over into the intellect. When the letter is appropriated by his senses alone, he receives it Judaic-wise merely in the literal sense, and so lives according to the flesh, spiritually dying each day the death of sin on account of his forceful senses; for he cannot put his body’s pursuits to death by the Spirit in order to live the life of bliss in the Spirit. ‘For if you live according to the flesh, you will die,’ says St Paul, ‘but if through the Spirit you put to death the body’s pursuits, you will live’ (Rom. 8:13).” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19141-51)
For St. Maximos to read the Scriptures purely literally is to live according to the flesh, not the spirit. It is the way of death.
“Everyone who does not apply himself to the spiritual contemplation of Holy Scripture has, Judaic-wise, also rejected both the natural and the written law; and he is ignorant of the law of grace which confers deification on those who are obedient to it. He who understands the written law in a literal manner does not nourish his soul with the virtues. He who does not grasp the inner principles of created beings fails to feast his intellect on the manifold wisdom of God. And he who is ignorant of the great mystery of the new grace does not rejoice in the hope of future deification. Thus failure to contemplate the written law spiritually results in a dearth of the divine wisdom to be apprehended in the natural law; and this in its turn is followed by a complete ignorance of the deification given by grace according to the new mystery.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19567-75)
Reading the Scriptures purely literally explains for Maximos exactly why the Jews misunderstood Christ and did not recognize him as Messiah or as God. The literal reading of Scripture fails to lead a person to Christ or the Kingdom of God.
A person who does not penetrate with his intellect towards the divine and spiritual beauty contained within the letter of the Law develops a propensity for pleasure – that is, an attachment to the world and a love of worldly things; for his knowledge derives merely from the literal expression of the Law. (St. Maximos, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19489-91)
It is not only a failure to see the incarnate Word that results from an overly literal reading of Scripture. Such a literal reading of Scripture has an impact on daily life and behavior. So we see in the desert fathers this story of misreading the Scriptures because of being overly literal.
A certain brother went to Abba Poemen on the second Sunday in the Fast of Forty Days and repeated unto him his thoughts, and sighing over what the old man had told him, he said unto him, “I had almost kept myself from coming here today”; and the old man said, ” Why?” Then the brother said, ” I said in my mind, peradventure during the fast the “door will be closed against thee“; and Abba Poemen said unto him, ” We do not learn to shut a door made of wood, but to close the door of the tongue.” (The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers, Kindle Loc. 80-83)