… God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:5-6)
St Paul sees the new covenant (the Gospel) as not consisting of scriptures but rather of the Holy Spirit alive in Christians. He goes so far as claiming the written letter kills, only the Spirit gives life. It is therefore amazing that Church leaders have tended to put much more emphasis on the written word than on their members as witnesses to Christ. Our Lord Jesus didn’t leave any written words (though He was literate – Luke 4:17-20), rather choosing disciples to be witnesses rather than leaving us any written text. The Protestants emphasize the written bible, Roman Catholics the decrees of the Popes, and the Orthodox have their typikons, patristics, canons and Rudders. In a world of literacy, the written word is important, but then we might remember St Paul’s words that “the letter kills.” Reliance on the written word enforces the unchanging character of religion. It seems more reliable than the members who keep the faith with varying degrees of diligence or laxity. But for St Paul, the members are the best scripture. (See my post Being an Epistle.)
Origen, martyred in 254AD, warns about a danger of overly relying on the written word, especially when it is read too literally. In one of his polemics with the Jews, he blames their over literalness for being the reason they don’t come to faith in Christ. He points out there are many things in the Scriptures that were not literally fulfilled by Christ, but only if you read them in a wooden, literal fashion.
“After having spoken, as in summary, about the inspiration of the divine Scriptures, it is necessary to proceed to the manner of reading and understanding them, since many errors have occurred from the fact that the way by which the holy readings ought to be examined has not been discovered by the multitude. For the hard-hearted and ignorant of the people of the circumcision have not believed in our Savior, thinking they follow the language of the prophecies regarding him, and not seeing him visibly proclaiming release to the captives, nor building up what they consider to be truly a city of God, nor cutting off the Chariots from Ephraim and the horse from Jerusalem, nor eating butter and honey, and before knowing or preferring evil, choosing the good; and thinking it was prophesied that the wolf, the four-footed animal, was to feed with the lamb and the leopard to lie down with the kid, the calf and the bull and the lion to feed together, being led by a little child, and the ox and the bear to pasture together, their young ones growing up together, and the lion to eat straw like the ox – seeing none of these things visibly happen in the sojourn of him believed by us to be the Christ, they did not accept our Lord Jesus, but they crucified him as having improperly called himself Christ.” (ON FIRST PRINCIPLES, pp 246-247)
Origen believes one must get outside of a purely literalist reading to understand the mysteries which God is revealing in the Scriptures. Additionally, the Scriptures report or prophecy things that never happened and things that will never literally happen, even though the imagery is appealing. A literal reading of Scripture may give you some facts, but won’t reveal God’s mysteries which are the real content of the Scriptures. St Cyril of Alexandria, who wrote in the 5th Century (d. 444AD), reinforces Origen’s thoughts. Commenting of the Genesis texts referring to the Patriarch Jacob, he mentions there are some portions of the text that he doesn’t comment on because they are simply literally true (perhaps historically factual) and have no divine meaning to them. While these texts are also valuable, they are not the ones Christians need to focus on to understand the revelation of God found in Jesus Christ.
“… the gospel economy, flying around the most colorful elements of the literal account in the manner of bees, gathering from each what is profitable for interpreting the word. If every matter written about Jacob is not included among the spiritual interpretations, let no one be troubled. One should realize that some things that happened at the literal level are just as they are in themselves. Yet other things indeed allow also for reflection upon inner meanings and figuratively present the import of the mystery.” (GLAPHYRA ON THE PENTATEUCH Vol 1, p 196)