The Meaning of Scripture

Christ is risen!  Truly He is risen!

And they took Paul and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean.”  (Acts 17:19-20)

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When St Paul is in Athens, he is invited by some of those interested in philosophy and religion to explain the beliefs of Christians.  In pagan or Platonic dualism, the cosmos consists of two interpenetrating realms – the visible/material and the invisible/spiritual.  The two realms are clearly distinct, but overlap and intermingle.  Religion or philosophy tries to reveal the spiritual world in the material world and offer meaning to the spiritual. The philosophers were intrigued by what they thought was some new ideas that the Christians were proclaiming – the resurrection and eternal life. Admittedly, according to the book of Acts, those at the Areopagus loved to discuss and debate ideas, but did it out of a love for ideas rather than because they were seeking to join a new religion.  Christians would not only have to explain their teachings but also defend that their written texts were somehow inspired by the spiritual world and thus were not merely of human origin and thus were worthy of being discussed by the lovers of wisdom and knowledge.

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A couple of centuries after St Paul, Origen (martyred in 254AD) is still defending the Christian scriptures as being inspired, composed by the Spirit of God:

What Origen … “understand to be the Church’s teaching on the nature of Scripture:

Then [we believe] that the Scriptures were composed by the Spirit of God and that they have not only a meaning that is evident but also another that is hidden as far as most people are concerned.  For what has been described are the forms of certain sacraments and the images of divine things.  About this the universal Church is in accord, that the whole law is spiritual [see Romans 7:14].  What the law is full of, however, is not known to all but only to those to whom it is given by the grace of the Holy spirit in a word of wisdom and knowledge.

Origen is primarily speaking here of the Old Testament, ‘the law,’ in which are found the foreshadowings–”forms of certain sacraments,’ ‘images of divine things – of New Testament realities.” (Boniface Ramsey, BEGINNING TO READ THE FATHERS, pp 22)

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St Augustine (d. 430AD), writing almost 2 centuries after Origen, says that he had to change his thinking about the sacred texts – he had to learn to abandon his literal reading of the Scriptures because he realized that was not how the Christians read the text, though originally he thought that was how everyone read the Scriptures.

“I rejoiced when the ancient Scriptures of the law and the prophets were set before me now to be read not in the way in which they previously appeared absurd, when I used to insist that it was thus that your saints understood them, when in fact it was not thus that they understood them.  I listened gladly to Ambrose (d. 397AD) when he would say this in his sermons, earnestly commending it as a rule: ‘The letter kills, but the spirit gives life’ [2 Corinthians 3:6].  For, once the mystic veil had been drawn aside, he would disclose in spiritual fashion things that seemed perverse when taken literally.”     (Boniface Ramsey, BEGINNING TO READ THE FATHERS, pp 25)

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To read the Scriptures as a believer, as a Christian, Augustine realized he had to get beyond a literal reading of the text, for only then would he receive the divine message contained in them.  Augustine famously said: “In the Old Testament the New is hidden, and in the New the Old is revealed.” (BEGINNING TO READ THE FATHERS, pp 27)  It is a truth arrived at from faith, and from the experience of Christian saints.