Consider the lilies of the field,
how they grow;
they neither toil nor spin;
yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.
Sermon notes for Sunday, July 9, the 5th Sunday After Pentecost
A question that is suggested in the book WHEN HEARTS BECOME FLAME by Stephen Muse: What is my question for Jesus?
The question I would ask tells a great deal about my relationship to Him, who I imagine He is, what role He plays in my life.
The Scripture readings for the day also have questions in them. They however suggest wrong questions. St. Paul (Romans 10:1-10) contrasting those who live by faith with those who try to attain righteousness through their own strict adherence to Torah suggests there are questions we should not ask because they are the wrong questions:
. . . But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).
The person who believes that they can attain God’s righteousness by their own ability perfectly to keep Torah imagines that he/she can ascend to heaven, and to bring the Christ to earth. Or, they imagine by their own ritual and moral perfection that they could even raise the Messiah from the dead.
St. Paul says the questions are wrong. It is not by our own righteousness that we can accomplish God’s will. We cannot by our good works ascend to heaven, nor would we by our own righteous behavior be able to escape the depth of hell.
The questions are wrong because they reflect a total misunderstanding of the Christ, of who He is, why we need Him, what He does for our salvation. Christ does not come from heaven to earth because of the righteousness of some on earth. Nor does Christ rise from the dead because of the goodness of God’s people. It is while we are sinners and because we are sinners that Christ descends to earth and becomes incarnate and then descends into Hades and rises from the dead.
So, “What is my question for Christ?”
The Gospel lesson for the day is Matthew 8:28-9:1, Christ’s encounter with the Gergesene demoniacs. They too have a question for Christ:
“What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?”
St. John Chrysostom in his commentary on this Gospel notes the real difference between Christ and the demons. The demons are terrified of Christ – they have a real fear of God. But it does them no good, for they aren’t motivated by their fear of God to do good.
Christ, for His part, is not but gentle with the demons. He doesn’t threaten them, though they obviously feel threatened. Christ does not torment them, but actually grants them their request. They want out of His presence. Obviously they don’t even have the power to flee from Christ. They are powerless in His presence. They have to ask His permission to leave. This story is used in the prayers of exorcism at a baptism. We remind Satan, even taunt him, that he has no power when Christ is present and can only do what Christ allows him to do. Satan cannot even flee without asking Christ’s permission!
Christ treats the demons with kindness and respect, as only their creator could do. Christ is not threatened by them and clearly not afraid of them.
The demons might have recognized the even-keeled temperament of their Creator, but they don’t. They don’t ask the right question. They don’t ask Christ if they could serve Him. They may represent some kind of chaotic, uncontrolled power and evil, but they also are shown to be powerless and inconsequential by Christ.
Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10; c.f. Psalm 111:10). The demons have the fear of God as is shown in their attitude toward Christ. It does them no good, as it doesn’t lead to wisdom. They want to flee His presence rather than embrace His goodness. Their question for Jesus doesn’t help as it doesn’t put them in a right relationship with Christ. It is no doubt because their relationship to Christ is wrong that they ask the wrong question.
Each of us should think about what is my question for Christ?
If I say something like, “Will He help me?” – that is not a question directed to Christ but a question for our self to answer. I need to change the question and ask it directly to Christ. I need to talk to Him. I need to orient my life so that I can so directly talk to Him.
If I ask, “Can you help me, Jesus?” – the answer is yes, of course He could, but whether the help I want is in accordance with God’s will is another issue. To ask that question seems to reflect some doubt in my heart about his ability/power or about His goodness and love.
To ask the right question, I need to think about who Jesus is, what His will and intention is, what is He capable of? And who am I in relationship to Him? Depending on who I am in relationship to Him determines what I can ask of Him.
If I am His servant, and He really is my Lord, I can ask, “How can I serve You?” “What is your will for me?”
My ability to hear His response will depend on my relationship to Him. I need to know who He is before I can relate to Him, or ask the right question of Him.
St. Isaac the Syrian offers us reasons to study Scripture daily:
Meditation on the scriptures teaches the soul the discourse with God.
Without the perusal of holy scriptures, the mind can never approach God.
The gate through which man finds access to wisdom is meditation on the scriptures.
(Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, Matthew the Poor, p. 52).
“The issue is not that we are taught by the advent of Christ to read the Scriptures retrospectively, but that the Christ in whom Christians place their trust and now worship is the same Christ who long ago revealed the ways of God in the Scriptures. The Venerable Bede, commenting on 1 Peter 1:12 early in the eighth century, put it this way:
He had said previously that the Spirit of Christ had foretold his sufferings and subsequent glories to the prophets, and now he says that the apostles are proclaiming the same things to them by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.
Hence it is evident that the same spirit of Christ was formerly in the prophets as was afterwards in the apostles, and therefore each was preaching the same faith in the suffering and subsequent glory of Christ to the peoples, the (prophets) that it was still to come, the (apostles) that it had already come; and because of this (they preached) that there is one Church, part of which preceded the bodily coming of the Lord, part of which followed (it). Interpretively, then, Israel’s Scriptures testify to the Christ (and no other) who first inspired them.”
(Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth, pp 38-39)
The take-away is that the entire Bible – both the Old and New Testaments – bear witness to the same Lord Jesus Christ. It is the same Holy Spirit who inspires the authors of both covenants.
“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.” (John 5:39, 46)
“‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ (Isaiah 40:13) But we have the mind of Christ.” (I Corinthians 2:16)
“Indeed, it is quite astonishing how Paul uses Old Testament texts, speaking of Yahweh with clear reference to Jesus (e.g. Rom. 10:13, 1 Cor. 2:16). Most striking of all is the application of one of the sternest monotheistic passage of the OT (Isa. 45:23) to the exalted Jesus in Phil. 2:10 – a hymn already in circulation before Paul took it up. Here quite clearly ‘Jesus is Lord’ has become a confession not just of divinely given authority, but of divinity itself.” (James Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p 56)
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’ (Isaiah 45:21-23)
The recent blog series reflecting on the relationship between Jesus who is the incarnate Word of God and the Scriptures which are the written Word of God is now available in one PDF document. You can view the document at Jesus Christ, The Word of God, and Scriptures (PDF).
You can view all my blog series as PDF documents at Fr. Ted’s PDFs.
In this blog series we explored the relationship between Jesus the incarnate Word of God and the Scriptures as the written Word of God. Whereas Protestant Christians treat their Bibles as The Word of God, the history and Tradition of Orthodoxy Christianity shows the Church as celebrating Jesus Christ as the incarnate Word of God, to whom the written texts of the Scriptures bear witness. Indeed, Christ is found clothed or hidden in the texts of the Scriptures, even in the Old Testament. This is what makes the Scriptures so beautiful. They are essential for the revelation which occurs through those texts which clothe and hide the Christ. One could say they are the majesty with which Christ clothes himself (Psalm 93:1). Yet, we come to Christ the personal Word, and realize the Scriptures point beyond themselves to Him – as Jesus Himself taught in John 5:39.
The Word of God is divine, but is not a book. The Scriptures bear witness to whom the Word is -the Second Person of the Holy Trinity who became incarnate as human. Jesus is the living Word, by whom all things visible and invisible were created. The Word of God is not a thing but a person who acts in all creation and throughout history. It is He who entered into history in the incarnation of the Word.
For the Creator of the world is truly the Word of God: and this is our Lord, who in the last times was made man, existing in this world, and who in an invisible manner contains all things created, and is inherent in the entire creation, since the Word of God governs and arranges all things; and therefore He came to His own in a visible manner, and was made flesh, and hung upon the tree, that He might sum up all things in Himself. (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle 8134-37)
The Scriptures are indeed a type of incarnation of the Word – they make visible to us words about God. They make visible to us in printed form the words which God speaks. Yet, still they are bearing witness to Christ and not coterminous with Him. The Scriptures witness to Christ, and Christ reveals God the Father to us. The physical world is thus revealed as capable not only of bearing witness to God but of bearing God and being the very means by which we encounter God. The material world is not that which separates us from God or prevents us from encountering Him. The material world ever more miraculously is capable of union with God and of being the means for us to attain theosis. The written manuscripts of Scriptures can convey us all the way to the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity.
“So long as we only see the Logos of God as embodied multifariously in symbols in the letter of Holy Scripture, we have not yet achieved spiritual insight into the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Father as He exists in the incorporeal, simple, single and unique Son, according to the saying, ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father . . . and I am in the Father and the Father in Me’ (John 14:9-10). We need much knowledge so that, having first penetrated the veils of the sayings which cover the Logos, we may with a naked intellect see – in so far as men can – the pure Logos, as He exists in Himself, clearly showing us the Father in Himself. Hence a person who seeks God with true devotion should not be dominated by the literal text, lest he unwittingly receives not God but things appertaining to God; that is, lest he feel a dangerous affection for the words of Scripture instead of for the Logos. For the Logos eludes the intellect which supposes that it has grasped the incorporeal Logos by means of His outer garments, like the Egyptian woman who seized hold of Joseph’s garments instead of Joseph himself (cf. Gen. 39:7-13), or like the ancients who were content merely with the beauty of visible things and mistakenly worshiped the creation instead of the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25).” (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15419-32)
The written Word of God is a gift to us, however, the Giver of the gift makes Himself fully accessible to us. The gifts don’t stand between us and God but are the very means by which we enter into communion with God. We are in the spiritual life moving from the visible to the incomprehensible, from the texts of the bible to the ineffable God. However beautiful the words and expressions and texts of the Bible are, their Creator is even more so. Those written texts lead us to beyond themselves to the Truth. They are but signs of the reality of God.
St Paul most accurately and lucidly revealed to every believing soul the perfect mystery of the Christian faith, showing to all how to attain experience of it through divine grace. This mystery is the effulgence of celestial light in the vision and power of the Spirit. He did not want anyone to think that the illumination of the Spirit consists simply in enlightening us through conceptual knowledge, and so to risk falling short of the perfect mystery of grace through ignorance and laziness. To indicate the true character of spiritual knowledge St Paul therefore gives as an example the glory of the Holy Spirit that shone from the face of Moses. ‘If the ministry of death,‘ he says, ‘engraved in letters on stone, was accompanied by such glory that the sons of Israel could not bear to gaze at the face of Moses because of the glory, transitory though it was, that shone from it, then how much greater must the glory be that accompanies the ministry of the Spirit? If the ministry of condemnation is glorious, the ministry of righteousness must greatly excel it in glory. Indeed, what once seemed full of glory now seems to have no glory at all, because it is outshone by a glory that is so much greater. If what was transitory came with glory, what endures will be far more glorious’ (2 Cor. 3:7-11). He says ‘transitory’ because it was Moses’ mortal body that shone with the glory of light. And he continues: ‘Having such hope as this, we can proceed with great confidence’ (2 Cor. 3:12). A little later he affirms that this everlasting and immortal glory of the Spirit shines even now with immortal and indestructible power in the immortal inner being of the saints: ‘With unveiled face we all’ – all, that is to say, who through perfect faith are born in the Spirit – ‘reflect as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, and are transfigured into the same image from glory to glory through the Lord who is the Spirit’ (2 Cor. 3:18). The words ‘with unveiled face’ indicate the soul; he adds that when one turns back to the Lord the veil is taken off, and that the Lord is the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 3:16-17). By this he dearly shows that from the time of Adam‘s transgression a veil of darkness has encroached upon mankind and has covered the soul. But we believe that through the illumination of the Spirit this veil is now removed from truly faithful and saintly souls. It was for this reason that Christ came; and to those who truly believe in Him God has given the grace to attain this measure of holiness. As we said, the effulgence of the Holy Spirit is not merely some kind of revelation on the level of conceptual images, or merely an illumination of grace. It is the true and unceasing effulgence of God’s own light in the soul: ‘The God who said, “Out of darkness let light shine”, has made His light shine in our hearts, to give us the illumination of the knowledge of Christ’s glory’ (2 Cor. 4:6). (St Symeon Metaphrastis, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 34467-506)
We come to Christ, not just to the words about Him. In Him we find life. The scriptures point to Him and thus show us the way beyond this world to life in the world to come.
“According to St John’s Gospel, all things were made through the Logos, or Word of God (John 1.3). The term logos is in Greek a key term, difficult to translate into other languages, because it has such a wide range of connotations: it can mean word, reason, meaning, principle, definition. So the Logos of God, through whom the universe has been created, is both the word, utterance, of God the Father, and also the meaning of the universe, and the meaning of everything in the universe. To say that the cosmos was created by the Logos of the Father is not just to say that it was created by God, but also to suggest that the meaning of the cosmos is to be found in the Logos.” (Andrew Louth , Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 886-91)
The Word of God does not merely inform us about God. The Word encounters us and engages us and gives us full experience of God the Trinity. The Word of God forms us in God’s image. The Word of God reforms us when we are fallen in sin and conforms us to God’s will. The Word of God does all of this because of Who the Word is.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. (John 1:1-4, 14)
Previous post in this series: The Living Word, Not Literalism
And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. And he said to me, “Son of man, go, get you to the house of Israel, and speak with my words to them. (Ezekiel 3:1-4)
So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. (Revelation 10:9-10)
Though in the Bible in a few narratives a saint is commanded to literally eat the scroll on which words are written, we have no problem understanding these commands as having a metaphorical or spiritual meaning. Indeed, we know that the Bible is for reading, and it will do us little spiritual good to tear out and eat the pages of our bibles. The Word of God which we encounter in the text of our Bibles, has to be lifted from the text in our minds and souls for us to appropriate the Word and for that Word to become written on our hearts. This cannot be accomplished by literally chewing and swallowing the paper pages of our Bibles. Literally eating the pages of the Bible would no doubt lead to John’s stomachache which he describes in the Revelation passage above.
We experience in our spiritual life the need to distinguish the Word of God from the manuscripts upon which they are written with ink. We do consume the Word, but in a spiritual manner, exactly as the Church Fathers taught. We experience in our lives how the Word of God who is Jesus Christ is different from the Bible as the written Word of God. “…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). Christ manifests himself now beyond the text printed in the manuscripts. We encounter Christ also both hidden and revealed in the sacraments, in the liturgies and in the Church which is His body. The Scriptures bear witness to Christ, but Christ is not limited to their words and pages. We must get beyond the literal word to come to the Word of God. God’s revelation is fully there, hidden in the text, and the text is essential for our encounter with Christ, and yet as we encounter the incarnate Word of God, we move beyond the printed text not just to the virtual reality of Christ, but to The Word of God Himself.
For by means of the creation itself, the Word reveals God the Creator; and by means of the world [does He declare] the Lord the Maker of the world; and by means of the formation [of man] the Artificer who formed him; (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5377-79)
Not only in Scripture but the hand of God is always at work in history, in nature, in the laws of physics, in our DNA. God “writes” His Word in so many ways that become visible to us, and readable to us if we have the eyes to see. In them we can encounter God, but we have to move beyond them to truly see God and not just be aware of God’s activities.
But by the law and the prophets did the Word preach both Himself and the Father alike [to all]; and all the people heard Him alike, but all did not alike believe. (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 5380-81)
The pre-incarnate Jesus Christ spoke to the prophets and to the people of God. The Old Testament scriptures use the very words of the pre-incarnate Christ to bear witness that Jesus Christ is Lord. We use the Scriptures as a door into the reality of the Word of God. Just like an icon is a window into heaven, so too the texts of Scripture are a door by which we pass into the heavenly realms. The Bible is an interface between God and creation, so it is essential to our knowing Truth. Yet the ink and paper cannot contain or limit God. Rather we have to move beyond them to know the living Word.
In Scripture the Logos of God is called and actually is dew (cf. Deut. 32:2), water, spring (cf. John 4:14) and river (cf. John 7:38), according to the subjective capacity of the recipient. To some He is dew because He quenches the burning energy of the passions which assails the body from without. To those seared in the depths of their being by the poison of evil He is water, not only because water through antipathy destroys its opposite but also because it bestows a vivifying power conducive to well-being. To those in whom the fountain of contemplative experience is continually active He is a spring bestowing wisdom. To those from whom flows the true teaching about salvation, He is a river copiously watering men, domestic animals, wild beasts and plants.” (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15358-65)
In the words of Scripture – not only through the ink and paper which record the message but also in the very metaphors, parables, images and events – we come to God the Word living in the texts. Only in moving beyond the literal words can we enter into that relationship with God.
The divine Logos of God the Father is mystically present in each of His commandments. God the Father is by nature present entirely and without division in His entire divine Logos. Thus, he who receives a divine commandment and carries it out receives the Logos of God who is in it; (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15397-99)
God is found by us not only in the printed word but in and through the meaning of these printed manuscripts. God has hidden Himself in the text, but in that encounter with the text, the pure in heart do come to the Giver of the Law, the Speaker of the words, to God our Father and Creator. God is mystically present in the Scriptures but our full encounter with Him takes us beyond the limits of the text, of the manuscripts, of the paper, and even beyond the metaphors and meaning of those sacred words.
“It is by means of the more lofty conceptual images that the inner principle of Holy Scripture can be stripped gradually of the complex garment of words with which it is physically draped. Then to the visionary intellect – the intellect which through the total abandonment of its natural activities is able to attain a glimpse of the simplicity that in some measure discloses this principle – it reveals itself as though in the sound of a delicate breeze.” (St Maximos the Confessor, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15433-42)
It turns out that the printed text of the Scriptures are like garments, which cover us. Those garments can be beautiful. They can say something about us. But they also clothe us and hide us. They are not literally us. That is what we discover in the spiritual reading of the Scriptures. We move beyond the clothes, the coverings, and we come to the One who made the garments, to the one who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift. God.
Without natural contemplation no one can appreciate the disparity between the symbols through which the Law is expressed and the divine realities which these symbols represent. Further, if through such contemplation a man has not first discerned this disparity and, denying his sense-perception all access to the hidden realm of divine and intelligible realities, does not long to penetrate with his intellect into its beauty, he cannot be liberated completely from the external diversity to be found in the symbols. So long as he cleaves to the letter, his inner hunger for spiritual knowledge will not be satisfied; for he has condemned himself like the wily serpent to feed on the earth – that is, on the outward or literal form – of Scripture (cf. Gen. 3:14), and does not, as a true disciple of Christ, feed on heaven – that is, on the spirit and soul of Scripture, in other words, on celestial and angelic bread. I mean that he does not feed through Christ on the spiritual contemplation and knowledge of the Scriptures, which God gives unstintingly to those who love Him, in accordance with the text: ‘He gave them the bread of heaven; man ate the food of angels’ (Ps. 78:24-25. LXX).” (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 19610-36)
The beauty of the garments which clothe the Word are wonderful. The gifts given by the Creator are life-giving. Yet, we are able to move beyond those wonders and beyond that beauty to the Giver of the Gifts, to the One who is clothed with the garments of salvation.
“When our intellect has shaken off its many opinions about created things, then the inner principle of truth appears clearly to it, providing it with a foundation of real knowledge and removing its former preconceptions as though removing scales from the eyes, as happened in the case of St Paul (cf. Acts 9:18). For an understanding of Scripture that does not go beyond the literal meaning, and a view of the sensible world that relies exclusively on sense-perception, are indeed scales, blinding the soul’s visionary faculty and preventing access to the pure Logos of truth.” (St. Maximos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15451-56)
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)
Previous post in series: Christ in the Old Testament
“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.