In the previous blog, Textual Variations, we saw that there is a parallel between the incarnation of God the Word in Jesus Christ and the idea that the Scriptures are also considered the Word of God. Just at Jesus’ human body hides His divinity and yet reveals the self-emptying nature of God, so in the written words of the Scriptures is hidden the revelation of God in the letters and words on the pages and yet in them we can encounter God. For example, Origen in the 3rd Century says of the Scriptures:
“The treasure of divine wisdom is hidden in the baser and rude vessel of words. “ (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 1892-93)
The letters and words written on a page of Scripture use the same alphabet and grammar as any other written document. The same words that are found in secular or profane writings are also used in the Bible. It is not the written letters or words themselves which are holy, but rather the written word is made holy by the message conveyed through “the baser and rude vessel of words.” The holiness is hidden in the text, and revealed to the one who reads the text or hears it proclaimed. This is the synergy between God and us humans. It is in our reading of the Scriptures that the meaning becomes manifest.
Thus we see that the incarnation of God’s Word is experienced in many ways in our lives – not only in the holy Scriptures but also including through the sacraments as well as all the life in the Church. We physically experience divinity in and through the material world of the written text, in the material elements of the sacraments, and in the life of the Church which is the Body of Christ.
The texts of Scriptures are full of hidden meanings – if one delves into the Scripture getting beyond their literal reading, one encounters layers of meaning which speak to us about God’s revealing Himself to us. We see this thinking already in the New Testament’s reading of the Old Testament in which the obvious literal meaning of a text is superseded by a spiritual reading of the text.
But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:39-41)
The Evangelist Matthew understands Jesus to teach that the very point of the story of Jonah is not so much a history lesson as is it is a prophecy of the death and resurrection of the Messiah. [Which is also why Jonah’s prophecy is read on Holy Saturday in the Orthodox Church.] Thus we see in prophecy the incarnation of the Word of God is hidden yet also revealed in Christ. St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444AD) writes:
“The word of the holy prophets is always obscure. It is filled with hidden meanings and is in travail with the predictions of divine mysteries. ” (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. Loc. 4960-61)
The early Christians took their cue from the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament to see there are hidden meanings in the most obvious of texts. St Paul proclaims to the Christians at Corinth:
For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? (1 Corinthians 9:9-11)
Such a Scriptural interpretation of older scriptures led the Patristic authors to conclude that the reading of the Old Testament needs to be done in Christ or the meaning hidden in the text will never be revealed.
“For there are many mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures, and we do not know God’s meaning in what is said there. ‘Do not be contemptuous of our frankness’, says St Gregory the Theologian, ‘and find fault with our words, when we adroit our ignorance.’ It is stupid and uncouth, declares St Dionysios the Areopagite, to give attention not to the meaning intended but only to the words.’ But he who seeks with holy grief will find. This is a task to be undertaken in fear, for through fear things hidden are revealed to us.” (St Peter of Damaskos, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 29489-502)
The Patristic writers realized one could easily misread the Old Testament text if one only literally read the words and didn’t seek the Christological meaning of the text. Even St. Paul reads the Scripture seeking its hidden meaning:
Tell me, you who desire to be under law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. (Galatians 4:21-25)
So St Peter of Damaskos says:
“Let him who understands take note. For the Logos wishes to transmit things to us in a way that is neither too clear nor too obscure, but is in our best interests. St John Chrysostom says that it is a great blessing from God that some parts of the Scriptures are clear while others are not. By means of the first we acquire faith and ardor and do not fall into disbelief and laziness because of our utter inability to grasp what is said. By means of the second we are roused to enquiry and effort, thus both strengthening our understanding and learning humility from the fact that everything is not intelligible to us. Hence, if we take stock of the gifts conferred on us, we will reap humility and longing for God from both what we understand and what we do not.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31210-16)
Some of the texts in Scripture are easy to understand – they are written to help bring us to faith in God and love for the Creator. Other texts are hard to understand, and intentionally so to make us stop and read and reread a text in order to reflect on it to see its real meaning.
But there are some things about God which remain a mystery for us – things which are too great and too marvelous for us.
If, therefore, even with respect to creation, there are some things [the knowledge of] Which belongs only to God, and others which come within the range of our own knowledge, what ground is there for complaint, if, in regard to those things which we investigate in the Scriptures (which are throughout spiritual), we are able by the grace of God to explain some of them, while we must leave others in the hands of God, and that not only in the present world, but also in that which is to come, so that God should forever teach, and man should for ever learn the things taught him by God? . . . If, for instance, any one asks, “What was God doing before He made the world?” we reply that the answer to such a question lies with God Himself. For that this world was formed perfect by God, receiving a beginning in time, the Scriptures teach us; but no Scripture reveals to us what God was employed about before this event. The answer therefore to that question remains with God, and it is not proper for us to aim at bringing forward foolish, rash, and blasphemous suppositions [in reply to it]; so, as by one’s imagining that he has discovered the origin of matter, he should in reality set aside God Himself who made all things. (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 3153-57, 3164-69)
Additionally, while the Scriptural texts themselves can be clear in their meaning, or might contain a hidden meaning, the spiritual life of the reader of the text also affects what the person will be able to understand from the text. The 11th Century monk Nikitas Stithatos points out:
The reading of the Scriptures means one thing for those who have but recently embraced the life of holiness, another for those who have attained the middle state, and another for those who are moving rapidly towards perfection. For the first, the Scriptures are bread from God’s table, strengthening their hearts (cf. Ps. 104:15) in the holy struggle for virtue and filling them with forcefulness, power and courage in their battle against the spirits that activate the passions, so that they can say, ‘For me Thou hast prepared a table with food against my enemies’ (Ps. 23:5). For the second, the Scriptures are wine from God’s chalice, gladdening their hearts (cf. Ps. 104:15) and transforming them through the power of the inner meaning, so that their intellect is raised above the letter that kills and led searchingly into the depths of the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6; 1 Cor. 2:10), In this way they are enabled to discover and give birth to the inner meaning, so that fittingly they can exclaim, ‘Thy chalice makes me drunk as the strongest wine’ (Ps. 23:5. LXX). Finally, for those approaching perfection the Scriptures are the oil of the Holy Spirit (cf. Ps. 104:15), anointing the soul, making it gentle and humble through the excess of the divine illumination they bestow, and raising it wholly above the lowliness of the body, so that in its glory it may cry, ‘Thou hast anointed my head with oil’ (Ps. 23:5) and ‘Thy mercy shall follow me all the days of my life‘ (Ps. 23:6). (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 38302-38331)
Thus it is not only the text which has meaning – the reader interacts with the text and then based upon the reader’s own spiritual maturity is able to draw meaning from the text. People who have progressed further in the faith might also receive greater enlightenment from any one text. So St Peter of Damaskos notes:
This is especially true of the person who has made some progress in the practice of the moral virtues, for this teaches the intellect many things related to its association with the passions. Nevertheless, he does not know all the mysteries hidden by God in each verse of Scripture, but only as much as the purity of his intellect is able to comprehend through God’s grace. This is clear from the fact that we often understand a certain passage in the course of our contemplation, grasping one or two of the senses in which it was written; then after a while our intellect may increase in purity and be allowed to perceive other meanings, superior to the first. As a result, in bewilderment and wonder at God’s grace and His ineffable wisdom, we are overcome with awe before ‘the God of knowledge’, as the prophetess Hannah calls Him (cf. 1 Sam. 2:3).” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31791-801)
Any text of Scripture has meaning, but not all meanings are accessible by any one reader. God gives to each reader as they are capable of understanding. Thus our spiritual growth and progress shapes what we are capable of learning from the scriptural text. Scriptures are the living Word of God and do interact with the reader. The synergy between the reader and the text opens meanings to the reader, each given the meaning according to their ability just as each person in the parable received the talent from the Master (Matthew 25:15).
Next: Interpreting the Scripture (I)