Spiritual Exegesis

In the modern Protestant world, much of the discussion on Genesis 1 and 2 is limited to whether or not it is to be read literally.  For the Orthodox Church, whether or not the Genesis creation stories are read literally, they offer to us the understanding of what it is to be human.  They are thus more about each of us and who we are as humans than about merely relating the story of the first human beings.  Adam and Eve are a type of us all and we learn about who we are through their story.

The Orthodox Church has a long history of making use of scriptural texts for all manners of wisdom, spiritual teachings and insight into the very nature of the Word of God.

“All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”  (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Rather than use the above quote for the dubious purpose of proving that scripture must be read literally, the Orthodox have  woven scriptural texts and images into their large collection of hymns to teach, reprove, correct, train and equip.  Take for example the IKOS hymn from Matins for the Holy Apostle Philip (November 14).  Note that the hymn gives clear reference to the creation of the world, but then ties it in to our daily lives.  The text is not seen mostly as ancient factual history, but  a treasury to inspire us in our daily lives.  The Genesis 1-2 creation text is not so much science or history as a spiritual treasury to help us live as God’s children in His world.

Lord, as You created the nature of water,

grant me a flood of teaching!

Strengthen my heart, Compassionate One, as You established the earth by Your word.

Enlighten my mind, as You are covered with light as with a garment,

that I may speak and chant what is fitting to praise Your friend, MOST MERCIFUL CHRIST!

Noah: Teaching us to Look to the Future Not to the Past

During this 3rd week of Great Lent, the daily scripture lessons from Genesis are focusing on the story of Noah and the great flood (Genesis 6:9-8:22).  Modern American Christians are often obsessed with trying to prove the historical accuracy of the flood story, doing archaeological studies to try to find the ark, or even building arks to show it all can be done.

Interestingly the New Testament makes use of the Noah story but shows none of the interest in the Noah narrative that we see in much of fundamentalist or biblical literalist thinking.  We can look at 4 New Testament references to Noah and glean what use the earliest disciples of Christ made of the Noah story.

First, we do have one instance in which the Lord Jesus Himself refers to Noah.  Here we will look at the version from St. Matthew’s Gospel (there is also a parallel version in St. Luke’s Gospel).  Jesus is teaching about the end times and says:

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.  As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left.   Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left.  Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”    (Matthew 24:36-42)

Jesus uses the Noah narrative to teach his disciples to be vigilant – alertly watching for the Lord’s second coming.  Jesus is using the great flood as a prophecy to prepare us for what is going to come.  Jesus is using the Scriptures in the manner advocated in 2 Timothy 3:16-17:    “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”   The Old Testament is profitable for many things, but its most important role is not necessarily to teach history.  Jesus uses the great flood narrative as prophecy to exhort us to be prepared for the end of the world.  The Noah scripture is important because the return of Christ is going to come in the same way that the flood arrived: unexpectedly.   The people of old were not prepared for what happened, but we are forewarned.  We see what happened to them, and we are not to be caught unawares.  Thus Noah is a lesson gearing us for the future and what is coming, not mainly a way to investigate the past.

The second text comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household; by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.”  (Hebrews 11:7)

Here we have presented to us Noah as an example of a man of faith – he was faithful in preparing for what was for him the unseen future:  no great flood had occurred before.  Noah had no idea what was going to happen, but he was faithful to God in preparing for the future eventuality.   Once again the Noah story becomes for us a lesson in faithfulness as we await the future and the coming again of the Lord.  Noah give us an example as to how we are to behave now as we await the end times.

 Third we have a reading from St. Peter:

“For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.   Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.”   (1 Peter 3:18-22)

In this reading St. Peter engages in a form of scriptural interpretation which is called typology.  The flood story is significant because it tells us about something Christians now experience: baptism.  The Noah narrative anticipates the salvation story of Christ and the Church.  It’s significance is not in the past but in what was for it future events, including our own baptism.

Finally, a 2nd reference from St. Peter to Noah:

“For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether gloom to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; if  by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction and made them an example to those who were to be ungodly; and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the licentiousness of the wicked (for by what that righteous man saw and heard as he lived among them, he was vexed in his righteous soul day after day with their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment…”   (2 Peter 2:4-9)

The Noah story is being used by St. Peter again as prophecy – it is a lesson about God  saving and rescuing godly people from the time of trial.  What happened to Noah is a lesson for us to prepare us for current problems and for the future day of judgment as well.  Noah’s story from the past is not there to have us look backwards in time to search more into the past, but rather to teach us how to live in the present and to prepare for the future.  For the New Testament authors, the Noah narrative, inspired by God, prophetically prepares us for the future and turns our gaze not to past history but to the future eschaton.

Throughout Great Lent, the Old Testament scripture lessons are being read to help us anticipate what we are preparing for during the Great Fast: namely, the resurrection of Christ and the establishment of God’s Kingdom.   Great Lent is trying to shake us from a wooden, literal reading of equating historical facts to truth, and making truth co-terminus with these facts, and replacing such thinking with an acknowledgement that Truth is eternal.  Truth encompasses all the facts of the universe, but is not limited by it.  Truth ultimately transforms facts by revealing their place in God’s plan of salvation.   Jesus was making a cosmic claim for the universe when He declared Himself to be “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

I’ve written other blogs on the story of Noah and the great flood, including a long blog series in which I commented on and offered Patristic comments on every verse from the Genesis chapters on the flood.  You can begin reading that blog series at God Questions His Creation:  The Story of the Flood (a).

All of the blogs in the series on Genesis and the flood are also available as PDFs, a few of them are:

Reading Noah and the Flood through the Source Theory Lens (PDF)

The Story of the Flood (PDF)

The Conclusion of the Flood (PDF)

You can find a complete list of PDFs with links to them at  Blog Series available as PDFs.

Methodology: How We Read the Bible – St. John Cassian

This is the 7Th   blog in this series which began with Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology.  The previous blog is  Methodology: How we read the Bible – Theodore of Mopsuestia.

St. John Cassian died in 435 AD and so was a contemporary of Theodore of Mopsuestia who was discussed in the previous blog.  In the selection below from Cassian’s writings, we get a clear sense of his own methodology in approaching the Scriptures to study and interpret them.

 “Now there are three kinds of spiritual lore, namely, tropology, allegory and anagoge.  This is what Proverbs has to say about them: ‘Write these three times over the spread of your heart’ (Prv 22:20).

History embraces the knowledge of things which are past and which are perceptible.  The apostle gives an example: ‘It is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a servant and one by a free woman.  The offspring of the slave was born in accordance with the flesh; the child of the free woman was born as a result of a promise’ (Gal 4:22-23).

What follows is allegorical, because the things which actually happened are said to have prefigured another mystery. ‘These two women stand for the two covenants.  The first who comes from Mount Sinai and whose children are born to slavery, is Hagar.  For Sinai is a mountain in Arabia , and so she corresponds to the present-day Jerusalem and is a slave along with her children.

Anagoge climbs up from spiritual mysteries to the higher and more august secrets of heaven…

Tropology is moral teaching designed for the amendment of life and for instruction in asceticism.  It is as if by these two covenants we were to mean the practical discipline and the contemplative, or else we could take Jerusalem or Sion to be the human soul…

Revelation is linked to allegory insofar as it explains in a spiritual sense the truths hidden under the historical account.  For example, suppose we wished to discover how ‘our fathers were all beneath the cloud and all were baptized in Moses in the cloud and in the sea and [how] all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink from the rock and that rock was Christ’  (1 Cor 10:1-4).  This way of stating the matter prefigures allegorically the body and blood of Christ which we receive every day.

The telling of things similarly referred to by the apostle is tropology.  With this we prudently discern the value and the worth of everything in the domain of practical judgment.  An example of this is when we are instructed to consider whether ‘it is fitting that a woman should pray to God with an uncovered head’  (1 Cor 11-13).  As has been said, this way of thinking has a moral content.

Then there is prophecy, which the apostle puts in third place.  He means anagoge, by means of which words are moved to the plane of the invisible and the future: ‘Brothers, we do not wish you to be in ignorance with regard to the dead, so that you will not grieve like those others who have no hope…

Doctrine makes plain the straightforward sequence of historical explanation.  In it there is no more hidden meaning than what is in the words themselves, for example, the following: ‘In the first place I handed on to you what I had been taught myself, namely, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried and that He rose on the third day and th)at He was seen by Cephas’ (1 Cor 15:3-5)…”    (St. John Cassian, CONFERENCES, pp 160-161)

St. John Cassian offers examples for the different lessons and meanings he believes we are to seek from the Scriptures.  All of these levels and meanings are ones that are placed in the text of the Bible by God Himself.  Our task remains the careful reading and study of Scriptures to see what God has placed in the text.  When we read the Scriptures for all of the meanings God intended for us to receive, then those scriptures are revealed as inspired and capable of teaching us, exhorting us, training us in righteousness and equipping us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16).

Next:   Methodology: How We Read the Bible – Theodoret of Cyrrus


Methodology: How we read the Bible (B)

This is the 4th  blog in this series which began with Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology.  The previous blog is  Methodology: How we read the Bible (A).

We read the Scriptures not just to find their literal meaning, but to discover the full meaning which God has placed in the text and intends for us to discover.

“ All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”  (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Scriptures are profitable for many things not just teaching historical facts or literal truth. They have a moral dimension to them as well as a spiritual dimension.  They correct, inspire, reprove, and train, helping a person to attain righteousness and thus salvation.  Robert Hill who has spent years translating the Antiochian Patristic writers into English, notes that the Fathers use a number of different terms in their own interpretative methods of reading Scripture.  The Patristic writers looked to the Scriptures to give them truth far beyond the mere “literal” meaning of the text.  The Fathers understood the “literal” meaning of the text to be the meaning God intended for us to find in the text, which includes:

skopos (or purpose) of the author in composing his biblical work, its hypothesis (theme, or narrative setting), dianoia (its thrust, or overall meaning), ermeneia (its interpretation), lexis (the biblical text), to istorikon (the factual element), and theoria (discernment by the reader of a further level of meaning).  These are the terms and categories of traditional education, paideia, in the rhetorical schools, and … we shall see the Antiochenes adopting them in their commentaries.” (Robert Hill, READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH,  p 9)

The Fathers adapted the methods they had learned in their own rhetorical education for how to read texts to the reading of the Scriptures.  They understood the methodology they had learned as to be the way to unveil the meaning which the ancient authors had put into their texts.  The Scriptures, whose author they thought of as ultimately being God, were read with the same methods, intending to discover the meaning and the message God had put into the words of the text which the inspired authors of the Bible recorded.  These same methods were used for centuries by Christian theologians as the means by which to read the Scriptures.

After the Protestant Reformation however there was a distrust by Protestants of traditional methods of interpreting the Scriptures.  Many Protestants felt they could simply take the texts of Scriptures and free themselves from any established, traditional interpretation and in so doing would come to the true meaning of the text.  This was the main intention of reading “Scripture alone.”

“But the principle of sola scriptura suggests that the truth of the Christian religion is contained in Scriptures, and that the work of the theologian and exegete is to extract this truth by rightly interpreting Scripture.  ….  The presupposition that lies behind all this … is the principle of sola scriptura, understood as meaning that Scripture is a quarry from which we can extract the truth of God’s revelation: that allied to the more recent notion that the tool to use in extracting meaning from literary texts is the method of historical criticism.  We have an alliance between the Reformation and the Enlightenment…  Scripture is being understood as an arsenal and not a treasury. … The heart of Christianity is the mystery of Christ, and the Scriptures are important as they unfold to us that mystery, and not in and for themselves.”  (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY,  pp 99-102)

Thus the modern Fundamentalist reading of the Scriptures only “literally”  was the result of embracing a “scientific” view of Scriptures and accepting a very narrow definition of truth as having always to deal with the material or empirical universe alone.   Limiting the reading of Scripture to its “literal” sense was related to the historical criticism embraced by the Enlightenment.   It ripped the Scriptures  away from their faith context – the community which had preserved and proclaimed them – and made them a literary document that should be read alone and apart from the faith community which had composed and adopted them.  Scripture alone stripped the text of the Bible from the context of the people of God (the Church) and really came to mean that only whatever meaning each person puts into the Scriptures is what they mean.  “Scripture alone” worked well with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on the individual.  Each individual was to rid himself or herself of any tutelage by tradition and thus each individual alone gave the Bible its meaning.  Simultaneously it denied that the Scriptures have a meaning inherent in them – a revelation from God.

Orthodoxy following the Patristic writers continued to read the Scriptures within the community of the faithful and with the methods of Tradition.  The Old Testament was to be read Christologically.  This required moving beyond a mere literal reading of the text to seek out its deeper meanings.  This doesn’t deny the importance of the literal roots of the text.

Typology, however, is always historical; it is a kind of prophecy—when the events themselves prophesy.  One can also say that prophecy is also a symbol—a sign which points to the future – but it is always an historical symbol which directs attention to future events. “  (Georges Florovsky, CREATION AND REDEMPTION, p 25)

So the events of the Old Testament are based in history, but they point to Christ and to the fulfillment of God’s plan for the world.

Next:   Methodology: How We Read the Bible – Melitio of Sardis

The Saints: Why read the Bible?

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is The Desert Fathers:  Why read the Bible?

“Meditations on the scriptures teaches the soul the discourse with God.”

(St. Isaac the Syrian, in ORTHODOX PRAYER LIFE by Matthew the Poor, p 52)

The Annunciation

The witness of many Orthodox saints is that the Christian should lead a life, not without purpose, but always directed to God.  The goal of the Christian life is union with God, what the Orthodox saints term theosis or deification.  Part of the means given to humanity to attain this goal is the listening to the Word of God.  Through hearing God’s Word, the prophets told what God is doing in the world, and the Virgin Mary conceived the Son of God and Messiah in her womb.  She attained a union with God becoming truly Theotokos by hearing God’s Word and freely agreeing to obey it. 

For the saints, the Scriptures contain the revelation which God Himself wanted His creatures to know about theology: that divine life which has become hidden from our eyes due to sinfulness.  The Scriptures for the saints are rich and varied, a treasury and a deep well from which a wealth of wisdom and the quenching of the thirst for knowledge come.  St. John Chrysostom offers a rich description of what the believer will find in the Bible:

“Let us…put our soul in at the reading of the Scriptures as though into some peaceful harbor.  It is, after all, a harbor without billows, an impregnable wall, an unshakeable tower, imperishable glory, invulnerable armor, imperturbable satisfaction, undying enjoyment and whatever else you class a good—such is the communion with the divine Scriptures.  It repels discouragement, preserves good spirits, makes the poor person richer than the affluent, bestows security on the rich, makes the sinner righteous, sets a secure guard on the righteous, snatches away ill-gotten gains, makes goods that are missing spring up, drives out wickedness, leads on to virtue—or does not so much lead on as even roots deeply and makes it last without end, being a spiritual remedy, a kind of divine and ineffable incantation which eliminates ailments, rooting up the thorns of sin, making the furrow clean, casting the seeds of piety and bringing the crop to fruition.”   (OLD TESTAMENT HOMILIES  Vol 3, pp 105-106)

We can read in his comments the fulfilling of what St. Paul told Timothy about the Word of God:   “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”  (2 Timothy 3:16-17).    The reading of scriptures is not meant just to benefit “me” personally, it also prepares me for Christian service, witness, mission and ministry.

“This, after all, is the object of our earnest effort, that you would know precisely the power of the Scriptures so as not merely to understand them yourselves but also to become teachers of them to others, and so be in a position, according to blessed Paul, to edify one another.”  (St. John Chrysostom, HOMILIES ON GENESIS 1-17, p 105)

We are after all to become doers of the Word, not just hearers of the Word.  We are to lead by example.

As we move out of the Patristic Age and more into the modern world, Post-Guttenberg, in which the availability of God’ Word for personal reading or hearing is made possible through books and MP3s, we encounter even more incentive to read the Scriptures.  If we are literate, we should read the Bible which is so easily available to us.

“If you read worldly magazines and newspapers, and derive some profit from them, as a citizen, a Christian, and a member of a family, then you ought still more and still oftener to read the Gospel and the writings of the Holy Fathers; for it would be sinful for a Christian, who reads worldly things, not to read divinely-inspired ones.”  (St. John of Kronstadt, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 2, p 137)

 “O brethren, read more of the Gospels, the Epistles of the Apostles and the works of the holy Fathers!  Through such reading does the soul come to know God, and the mind becomes so occupied with the Lord that the world is quite forgot, as if you had never been born.”  (ST. SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 416)

An encounter with God is made possible through the Scriptures.

 “…the Fathers of the Church declared that the ultimate purpose of reading Scripture is to acquire theoria, an inspired ‘vision’ of God and His truth.  … Yet we never really grasp it, understand it and take it into ourselves until we can ‘see’ it—that is, until the words become in some sense icons, sacred images that enable written words to become a living Word.” (John Breck, LONGING FOR GOD, p 221)

We come to see the Scriptures in the lives of the saints: those men and women who endeavored to live by the Word of God and who incarnated them in their own lives.  They became living icons of God’s Word.   Thus meditating on icons and reading the lives of the saints should lead us to seeing the scriptures embodied in the lives of Christian men and women made holy by their relationship with God through their living the evangelical life.

Next:  Reading and Studying the Scriptures

Origen: Discerning the Mystery in Scripture’s Treasury

This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues.  It began with the 1st blog:  Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury.  The immediately preceding blog is The Orthodox reading of the Scriptural Treasury.  In this blog I am continuing to consider the comments of some modern biblical scholars on the 3rd Century biblical scholar known as Origen.

Origen acknowledge there is a literal sense to the scriptures, and he often felt that literal sense was most important to those who were just beginning their faith sojourn as disciples of Christ.   But Origen was most concerned about what St. Paul tells Timothy scripture is for:  “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).   The literal truth of Scriptures is not so much their “factualness” but the truth they convey to us about God, His plan of Salvation, and how we should live in His world.  This was the deeper meaning, or hidden mystery, which Origen felt all Christians should strive to discover from the Bible.

What Origen acknowledged first was that a literal reading of the Scriptures will make the reader aware that the biblical narratives do have inconsistencies in them.   This is true of the Gospels as well as the Old Testament.

“Origen points out, there are so many discrepancies in the accounts presented by the Gospels, that one must admit that their truth does not lie in their literal sense.”   (John Behr,  THE WAY TO NICEA, p 177)

While some patristic writers went to great length to try to harmonize the varied biblical narratives and their apparent contradictions, Origen was willing to accept that since all Scripture is inspired by God, the inconsistencies must be put in the text for a purpose – to remind us that there are deeper mysteries and so we shouldn’t get stuck on the literal inconsistencies but rather should strive to discover the deeper truths that must be found by getting beyond the literal reading.   Origen understood that as the early church accepted four Gospel accounts, they didn’t accept those efforts that tried to harmonize all the inconsistencies into one problem free text (such as Tatian’s Diatessaron in the 2nd Century).  Harmonizing the text did not lend to the credibility of the text but rather made it an artificial construction.  The differing and even contradictory accounts of the Scriptures are part of what the men inspired by God recorded for the benefit of future believers to edify the Church.

“…Origin several times remarks that inconsistencies in the historical narrative presented in the Scriptures are there to alert us to the fact that the true meaning of Scripture is not to be found at the level of the historical narrative (or literal meaning) at all. … ‘he aimed not so much to depreciate the events of Biblical history as to proclaim that their significance was richer and fuller than an uncomprehending analysis would allow…”    (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY: AN ESSAY ON THE NATURE OF THEOLOGY, pp 112-113)

“…Origen did regard Adam as a historical figure, as the first man and the ancestor of the human race.  The story of the garden of Eden and the fall does include details which cannot be taken literally even on the narrative level, but it none the less really happened, while at the same time, like other Old Testament stories, pointing to hidden mysteries and containing deeper levels of meaning as well.”   (C. P. Bammel, in THE MAKING OF ORTHODOXY: ESSAYS IN HONOR OF HENRY CHADWICK,  p 63)

 “Origen, however, is continually waving his theological antennae over the literal sense of the biblical text.  And if a text fails to satisfy or make sense to him on a literal reading, Origen will employ the larger symbolic field he has culled from Scripture as a whole to discern a deeper, allegorical sense.  Greek philosophers had done so for years in studying Homer, and in what Heine calls ‘one of Origen’s most significant borrowings from Greek philosophy,’ Origen does the same with the Bible itself.”   (Christopher Hall, READING SCRIPTURE WITH THE CHURCH FATHERS, p 154)

It is because Origen and the Patristic writers understood the Scriptures to be God’s Word and not merely human composition and conjecture that they looked for greater meaning in the biblical texts.  They were searching to encounter the Divine, not merely human words and ideas.

Because they believed the Scriptures to be inspired, they believed they need to look beyond the mere literal meaning of the words, in order to encounter God Himself.  Especially in Origen’s thinking, the literal meaning was the human meaning of the text, but they believed the Scriptures also pointed beyond the mere human, beyond what human reason could conceive, to the divine revelation in which God revealed to us the mystery hidden from all eternity, namely, the Word become flesh, even Jesus the Christ (Romans 16:25, Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:26).

Next:  What is the Bible?