Christ as Hermeneutic: Moses Wrote of Me

A theme regarding the interpretation of Scripture which I have frequently mentioned is that for Christians, Christ is the hermeneutic or interpretive key for understanding the Old Testament texts.  Unlike what some modern Christians like to claim, that literalism is the principle by which we read the Old Testament, the New Testament itself gives us the clue for reading the Old Testament.  We find this interpretive principle in John’s Gospel, Chapter 5.   It is an idea I have presented in many blogs as the Orthodox principle for reading the Old Testament.  (see for example my blogs:  Jesus the Key to Understanding TorahChrist is the Key to Reading ScriptureChrist is the Key to Open the Scriptural TreasuryReading the Old Testament with JesusReading the Old Testament to Reveal the Truth).   Today, one of the scheduled Scripture Lessons is John 5:30-6:2.  It is the very passage in which Jesus offers a hermeneutic for reading the Scriptures.  Jesus is in a dialog or debate with His fellow Jews discussing the messiah, who Jesus is and the purpose of the Scriptures.  Jesus says (the emphasis is mine and is not in the original text):

“And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness to me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen;  and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe him whom he has sent.   You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me;  yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.   I do not receive glory from men.   But I know that you have not the love of God within you.  I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me; . . .  Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope.  If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.  But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”  (John 5:37-47)

Jesus makes a very bold claim that Moses wrote about Him (Jesus).  Moses is credited with having written Torah, the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible.  Jesus says Moses was writing about Him (Jesus)!   To read the Genesis text literally to discover history and science is to misread and misunderstand the text.  We read Genesis and all of Torah and the entirety of the Old Testament in order to come to faith in Christ.

St. Luke in his Gospel offers a very similar lesson as Jesus explains to the two disciples walking to Emmaus the prophecy of and the purpose of His (the Messiah’s) own suffering, death and resurrection:

And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.     (Luke 24:27)

Jesus says according to St. John that the very way the texts of Moses are to be read is in and through Him.  It is Moses, not Jesus, who will judge whether or not the Jews (and all of us) have been faithful in reading and obeying Scriptures.  Jesus says if you really believe Moses, if you read his writings with faith and understanding, then you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah.  If you read Moses incorrectly – without faith – you won’t understand what he was purposefully saying and so you won’t believe Jesus either.

The real debate according to Jesus is not whether the Genesis creation story is literally true or not.  The real debate is whether you read Moses with faith and recognize that Moses was writing a prophecy about the Messiah.  If we understand that even Genesis is about Jesus, we will rightly understand its importance in our lives.  For Jesus believing Moses’ writings means recognizing that they are written about Jesus, the Messiah.

Jesus asks His fellow Jews, “if you do not believe Moses’ writings, how will you believe my words?”   Jesus is saying there is a right way to read Moses and the Torah.  That way requires the understanding that Moses wrote about Jesus the Messiah.  This way of reading Torah is very much in line with the many competing views of the proper way to read Scripture that existed among Jews in Jesus’ day.  Jesus offers a particular interpretation of Moses, a particular hermeneutic.  If you believe what Moses wrote you will agree with what Jesus teaches.  Only if you disbelieve Moses will you not believe in Jesus as Christ.

Reading the Old Testament with Christ

This the conclusion to the blog, Jesus the Key to Understanding Torah.

Some scholars and some Christians want to read the Old Testament as if it has no relationship to Christ and to proclaim the Law of God without Christ. But the basic understanding of Christians from the beginning was you cannot understand the Old Covenant without Christ.  As the Lord Jesus said to the Jews, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf” (John 5:39). Christians claim the Old Testament is understandable and interpretable only in Christ, for the Old Testament speaks about Him, not just literally, but in symbols, shadows, prophesy, poetry, history, foreshadowing, spiritually, anagogically, allegorically, prototypically and in every way that the Scriptures can be properly understood.

 But to read or proclaim the Old Testament without Christ is to deny Christ and His role in salvation.  Thus the Orthodox don’t subscribe to “sola scriptura” as believe the Scriptures are not to be read alone, but rather in and through Christ, the Word of God.  We read the Scriptures with Christ, in Christ, through Christ, and by Christ. Of course Old Testament scripture can be read literally, but in doing so we may not see Christ in them. For if one can read the Old Testament only and exactly the same (literally or legally) with or without Christ, then perhaps we have not really understood Christ or the Old Testament, and perhaps we have embraced neither.

Christ has come and opened our hearts and minds to the scriptures – showing us how they witnessed to Him, not just literally, for some of what Christ claimed the Old Testament says about him cannot be found in a purely literal reading of the Old Testament.  But when one reads the Old Testament believing in the promises of the Messiah and the Kingdom, recognizing Jesus as the promised Messiah and the fulfillment of the prophecies and the promises, accepting Christ’s interpretation of the Scriptures because He is God’s Messiah and Son and the Rabbi par excellence, one realizes the entire Old Testament Scriptures were pointing to the One who would fulfill them and in so doing replace them with something entirely new. He opened us to the new revelation, what God had hidden previously but had prophetically hinted at and promised.

See also my blog series Reading Scripture:  The Old Testament, the Torah, and Prophecy, which is also available as one PDF file  Reading Scripture: The Old Testament, the Torah, and Prophecy (PDF).

Methodology: How We Read the Bible – Theodoret of Cyrrus

This is the 8Th  and final  blog in this series which began with Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology.  The previous blog is  Methodology: How We Read the Bible – St. John Cassian.

In reading through some of the Patristic Biblical commentators, we do see the variety of meanings they felt were put into the text by God Himself.  Their goal was always to come to the full revelation of God – to completely understand the text as God intended us to comprehend it – and to get all the possible meanings that God had put into the text.  Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457AD) was a bishop in the Antiochian tradition of biblical studies.  Generally the Antiochians downplayed the use of allegory in their interpretation of Scripture, but in their writings we also can see that the differences between a typological reading and an allegorical reading can sometimes be slim.  They knew full well that St. Paul himself used both typology and allegory in his own reading of interpretation of the Jewish scriptures.  Here is Theodoret commenting on the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“While he seems to conduct his treatment in narrative style, he is laying the groundwork for his thesis.  The reason, you see, that he showed Abraham giving a blessing and offering a tenth of the spoils was to show the patriarch yielding precedence even in type.  Then he brings out his importance also from the names: In the first place his name means King of righteousness; then he was king o f Salem which means peace.  This name, Melchizedek, in the Hebrew and Syriac language means King of righteousness; he ruled over Salem, and the world Salem is translated peace.  His intention, therefore, is to present him this way as a type of Christ the Lord: according to the apostle he is our peace, and according to the Old Testament author he is our righteousness.”    (Theodoret Commentary on St. Paul, Vol 2, p 163)

Theodoret does look for the meaning in words and names in their original languages.  He understands that there are many ways that God’s message and intent might be ‘hidden’ in the text.  The very purpose of interpretation (hermeneutics) is to uncover all of the meanings God has placed in the text to inspire and instruct us.  In the above text, Theodoret simply follows what he considers to the natural reading of the text – reading it for the obvious meanings.

A little later in his commentary, Theodoret shows that the spiritual meaning may not be stated literally in the text but must be discerned from the text.  Here he offers what we would consider to be much more an allegorical interpretation, but Theodoret would have said is typology but ultimately a literal reading of the text because it is discovering the meaning God intended us to receive from the Scripture:

“The water was a type of baptism, the blood of brute beasts the saving blood, the heat of the hyssop the grace of the divine Spirit, the scarlet wool the new garment, the piece of cedar (being a wood that does not rot) the impassable divinity, the ashes of a heifer the suffering of humanity.”  (Theodoret Commentary on St. Paul, Vol 2, pp 174-175)

How do we know if these other readings of scripture are the real meaning of the passages?  Protestantism generally has moved in the direction of insisting that a literal reading of the text is the only meaningful reading, and thus they claim they can avoid eisegesis.  But any modern reading  of the text makes certain assumptions that may not have been in the inspired mind of the original author.  What we have as aid to the reading of Scriptures are the vast commentaries on the Scriptures from the early Church and Patristic periods.  They serve as a guide to us to help prevent us from making the Scriptures conform to our ideas.  We can look at how biblical scholars of earlier church times interpreted and made use of the scriptures in their own teaching and preaching.

 “A literalist, on the other hand, is content to take a statement or work at face value without attempting or managing to divine the author’s intention… … Chrysostom:..  “There is a great treasure stored up in the Scriptures, concealed beneath the surface … so there is need of study so that we can learn the force hidden beneath the surface.’   …  He likewise has no difficulty with a talking serpent, and though ‘in the narrator’s mind it is scarcely an embodiment of a “demonic” power and certainly not of Satan,’ Chrysostom readily makes that identification in the course of his moral treatment of the Fall.”  (Robert Hill, READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH,  pp 152-153)

 The Fathers of the Church were not mere literalists in their reading of the Scriptures.  They did seek out the moral implications of various texts as well as the other spiritual meanings they could find in the text.  Ultimately they always were looking to find Christ.  They saw the Scriptures as a great treasury which needed only the key to make it accessible to all believers.  Jesus Christ is that key which unlocks all the treasures of the Bible.  They also accepted as principle the words of the Apostle Peter:

“First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21).

The Fathers accepted a notion of Tradition as a guiding principle for interpreting the Scriptures.  They were not afraid to disagree with one another, nor did they think that only one interpretation of a scriptural passage was valid.  They plumbed the depths of the meaning of Scriptures, and then through their own interactions established boundaries for the possible meanings of Scripture.  Ultimately it is Christ who establishes the boundaries for the meaning of the Scriptures, for they all bear witness to Him.

“If there only existed a single sense for the words of scripture, then the first commentator who came along would discover it, and other hearers would experience neither the labor of searching, nor the joy of finding.  Rather, each word of our Lord has its own form, and each form has its own members, and each member has its own character.  Each individual understands according to his capacity and interprets as it is granted to him.”  (St. Ephrem the Syrian, COMMENTARY ON THE DIATESSARON).

We each are given the treasury of Scripture to do the labor to discover its meaning and to experience the joy of that discovery.  Each reader doesn’t add to the treasury, the treasury is already there, we discover what is valuable, and it is through the Patristic witness that we are taught the difference between gems and costume jewelry.

To read this blog series on hermeneutics and reading the bible in PDF format go to: https://frted.wordpress.com/2010/12/23/reading-the-bible-hermeneutics-typology-pdf/

For links to other blogs I’ve written on reading the scriptures with the Fathers, go to https://frted.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/pdf-reading-the-bible-means-opening-a-treasury-12-3/

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 – Theodore of Mopseustia

This is the 6Th   blog in this series which began with Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology.  The previous blog is  Methodology: How we read the Bible – Melitios of Sardis.

In the previous blog we saw a little of how Melitios of Sardis who died in 180AD read the Old Testament as a typology – it is a preparation for the Messiah in a similar way that a sketch or a model is the preparation that an artist, sculpture or architect does before making the reality represented in the preliminary sketch or work.  Theodore of Mopsuestia who died in 428AD gives us some sense about how Christians in the 5th Century approached the Scriptures.  For though Theodore was condemned for his teachings long after his death by the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553, his methods in interpreting Scriptures were shared by St. John Chrysostom and others in the Antiochian tradition of interpretation.

“In this work (Commentary on the Psalms) it is evident, first, that Theodore  is almost entirely concerned with the istoria of the biblical text rather than its theoria.  By istoria I mean the narrative meaning of the text, not its literal or historical meaning.  On the other hand, theoria refers to the spiritual meaning of the Scripture in Antiochene theological circles.  Thus the istoria of any given text may also provide the theoria, since the narrative meaning on occasion can and does supply the spiritual sense.”   (Harry Pappas in SACRED TEXT AND INTERPRETATION, Ed. Theodore Stylianopoulos, p 59-60).

Theodore thus reads the Scripture keeping the text in its context as a necessary element for truly understanding the Bible.   It was sometimes the concern of the Antiochian biblical interpreters that reading the text allegorically led to removing passages from there context in order to impose an interpretation that suited the needs of the interpreter.   Fr. Harry Pappas continuing his comments on Theodore notes the concerns that guided Theodore in his reading and interpreting of Scripture:

 “I would agree that for Theodore of Mopsuestia, hypothesis essentially designates the subject matter or topic of a biblical passage whose limits are determined by exegesis.  …  it is instructive to list the categories of hypothesis….: moral  … dogmatic… historical….  In summary, for Theodore the task of interpretation involves the following elements:

Identifying the prosopon, the role assumed by David (who);

Identifying the hypothesis, the topic addressed by the speaker (what); and,

Defining the akolouthia, the logic that connects prosopon and hypothesis (how).”

(Harry Pappas in SACRED TEXT AND INTERPRETATION, Ed. Theodore Stylianopoulos, p 67-69)

To understand the meaning of the text, a literal reading is not sufficient, for the context of any passage may themselves give clues that the text also has moral and dogmatic meanings which are beyond the literal reading of the text.  In reading the Psalms, Theodore does make careful inquiry into who is actually speaking the text, and even what role or purpose the speaker has in saying what is in the text of the Psalm.   This is of course a very important and interesting study since we claim the Bible to be the Word of God and yet within the various passages it is clear that it is often humans, not God who are speaking.  Thus to discover in what sense a text containing human conversation, human points of view, human prejudices and emotions is the Word of God requires great spiritual wisdom.  Thus the Patristic writers endeavored not only to read the literal words, but also understood the importance of discerning the intent of the text, or the logic of the Bible which goes beyond a mere reading of the literal words.

“Overwhelmingly, akolouthia refers to the continuity or sequence of the biblical narrative.  … At the most basic level, akolouthia simply refers to unpacking the logic of the Bible.  … In reality, akolouthia stands midway between the text of the Scripture and its interpretation, functioning as a transition from one to the other.”  (Harry Pappas in SACRED TEXT AND INTERPRETATION, Ed. Theodore Stylianopoulos, p 61).

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

Methodology: How We Read the Bible – Melitio of Sardis

This is the 5Th   blog in this series which began with Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology.  The previous blog is  Methodology: How we read the Bible (B).

We get a sense of the Patristic reading of the Old Testament as Typology   in the writings of St. Melitio Bishop of Sardis (d. ca 180 AD).  St. Melitio sees the Old Testament (OT) as a sketch or model of what was to come – Christ is the reality which the Jewish scriptures sketch for us to recognize the reality when God fulfills His plan.  The sketch is an imperfect image, but is helpful for us to know what is coming.  When the reality which the sketch portrayed finally exists, the reality is valued while the role of the sketch is diminished since it no longer is needed to help prepare us for the reality.

“At the same time Melito… suggests that the words and events of the OT are, in effect, a rough draft, a sketch, for something that would appear later in its realized form, ‘taller, stronger, beautiful.’  He echoes Ecclesiastes: ‘To each belongs its proper season: a proper time for the model [typos], a proper time for the material [yle], a proper time for the reality [aletheia]. … Later he adds:

The people [o laos] was a model by way of preliminary sketch, and the law was the writing of a parable; the gospel is the recounting and fulfillment of the law, and the church is the repository of the reality.

The model then was precious before the reality, and the parable was marvelous before the interpretation; that is, the people was precious before the church arose, and the law was marvelous before the gospel was elucidated.

But when the church arose and the gospel took precedence, the typos was made void, conceding its power to the aletheia, and the law was fulfilled, conceding its power to the gospel.

The typos was abolished when the Lord was revealed, and today, things once precious have become worthless, since the precious things have been revealed.”  (Peter Bouteneff, BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT CHRISTIAN READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL NARRATIVES, pp 65-66)

In St. Melitios’ own words:

“This what occurs in the case of a first draft; It is not a finished work but exists so that, through the model, that which is to be can be seen. Therefore a preliminary sketch is made of what is to be, from wax or from clay or from wood, so that what will come about, taller in height, and greater in strength, and more attractive in shape, and wealthier in workmanship, can be seen through the small and provisional sketch.

When the thing comes about of which the sketch was a type, that which was to be, of which the type bore the likeness, then the type is destroyed, it has become useless, it yields up the image to what is truly real.  What was once valuable becomes worthless, when what is of true value appears.

To each then is its own time: the type has its own time, the material has its own time, the reality has its own time. …

So then, just as with the provisional examples, so it is with eternal things; as it is with things on earth, so it is with the things in heaven.  For indeed the Lord’s salvation and his truth were prefigured in the people, and the decrees of the Gospel were proclaimed in advance by the law.”  (Meltio of Sardis,ca 190Ad, ON PASCHA, pp 46-47)

Next:  Methodology: How We Read the Bible – Theodore of Mopseustia

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

Methodology: How we read the Bible (A)

This is the 3rd  blog in this series which began with Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology.  The previous blog is  Christ is the Key to Reading Scriptures. While reading the Scriptures “in Christ” is the Orthodox way to come to a full understanding of the text, through history the Patristic writers and theologians of the Church used a number of methods for interpreting the Bible.  In this blog and the ones to follow, we will consider some of the terminology Orthodox writers have used to allow themselves to read the Scriptures in a Christocentric manner.  To see the Scriptures as pointing to Christ, revealing Christ or being explained and interpreted by Christ who shows their full meaning is to read the Bible in this Christocentric manner.  But there are several different specific methods of reading the text which enable the reader to maintain the Christocentric interpretation.  And yes, there is an assumption that the texts do and are supposed to speak of Christ.

“When we think of the doctrine of the senses of Scripture we commonly think of them as consisting of three or four: the literal, first, then the moral or tropological, the mystical or allegorical, and finally the anagogical.  Reduced to three, they become the literal, the moral and the mystical…  The literal sense teaches what happened, allegory what you are to believe, the moral sense what you are to do, anagogy where you are going. … the movement to allegory is not at all a movement away from history, but we might say a movement into history, into the significance of the sacred events that are the object of our faith.  The literal sense is the object of faith: this is what we are to believe, to believe in, in a God who meets us in history, becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth.  The allegorical sense represents our attempt to understand the mystery we discern here.”  (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY,  pp 112-113)

The different ways of reading the Scriptures –  for their moral teachings (tropological), their mystical sense (allegorical), or for their higher meaning (anagogical) – are all different ways of reading the text to discover the divine meaning which God has placed in the text.  To find the meaning which God has placed in the text – the revelation God intends us to find – is to read the text literally even when we are not reading the text merely for its historical or factual sense.  Going beyond the literal is the proper reading of the text if it gets us to the meaning God placed in the text, and when it helps us to see the Christological purpose of the Scripture.  Many early church theologians believed God placed in the text clues to lead us beyond the literal reading of the Scriptures to find the revelation which was in the text if we have the eyes of faith to see it.

Origen (d. 254AD) several times remarks that inconsistencies in the historical narrative presented in 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.”  (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY,  pp 112-113)

Chrysostom (d. 407AD) expresses his own deep appreciation of scriptural koinonia.  For him the biblical authors are the means by which communication (omilia) with God occurs, a communication which can be withheld…   The Scriptures, like the Incarnation, come to us as a gesture of divine considerateness, synkatavasis, a loving gesture… nothing to suggest ‘condescension’…  The Incarnation, after all, does not represent a patronizing gesture on God’s part towards human beings – only love and concern. …  (Chrysostom writes -) ‘remember that with the patriarchs as well, when he was sitting by the oak tree, he came in human form as the good man’s guest in the company of the angels, giving us a premonition from on high at the beginning that he would one day take human form to liberate all human nature by this means from the tyranny of the devil and lead us to salvation.’” (Robert Hill, READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH,  pp 36-37)

God takes on forms or speaks to us in words that we can understand, but then does it in such a way as to lead us beyond the literal and the obvious to the divine meaning and purpose which is at first glance hidden from our view.  The Patristic writers used

“… a hermeneutic that viewed the entire history of Israel as foreshadowing events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers.  The words of the prophets were said to have been written not for their own day, but for ‘the time of the end’; the voice of the preincarnate Jesus was heard echoing throughout the Psalms.  The underlying principle was summed up by the Apostle Paul in Rom. 15:4:  ‘For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.’”  (Christopher Stanley in EARLY CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION OF THE SCRIPTURES OF ISRAEL, (eds) C. Evans and J. Sanders, p 18)

Scriptures were recorded not for the sake of biblical characters, just to preserve their story, but for our sake, the readers of the Scriptures in every generation, to instruct us in God’s way and revelation.  The Scriptures are thus written not just to preserve history and fact, but to give us God’s revelation.  This is why they must be read not merely literally, but Christocentrically

Next:  Methodology: How we read the Bible (B)

Reading the Bible: Hermeneutics & Typology

During this past summer, I wrote a blog series on reading and interpreting Scripture which began with the blog Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasure.  To a large extent the series was based in quotes from Patristic writers, saints of the church, modern Orthodox theologians and biblical scholars.   This blog series will be another look at the Scriptures focusing on some methods and means by which the Patristic writers interpreted our Scriptures.  The goal here as in the earlier series, and in the long Genesis 4-11 Commentary Blog series (God Questions His Creation), is to expand and enrich our reading of the Bible in conformity with how Orthodox teachers and saints have read the Scriptures throughout the history of the Church.  Rather than a mere literal reading of the text, Orthodox Patristic teachers relied on a Christological reading of the text to open its meaning to all believers.

The great teachers of the Orthodox Church, whose writings to a large extent amount to a continuous commentary on the Scriptures saw the Bible as a great Treasure which has been given to us by God as a gift.  The Treasure is kept in a beautiful chest, the written words of the Bible.  The key to opening this treasure is Christ, who not only is the key, but is also the greatest Treasure Himself, as all of the riches of Scripture reveal Him to us.

If any one therefore reads the Scriptures in this manner, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a prefiguration of the new calling.  For Christ is the treasure that was hidden in the field (Matt 13:44), that is, in this world—for ‘the field is the world’ (Matt 13:38).  [Christ is] a treasure hidden in the scriptures, since he was signified by means of types and parables that, humanly speaking, could not be understood before the fulfillment of the things that were prophesied – in other words, before the coming of Christ…

When read, on the other hand, by Christians, [the law] is indeed a treasure hidden in a field, revealed and interpreted by the cross of Christ.”   (Peter Bouteneff, BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT CHRISTIAN READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL NARRATIVES, pp 74-75)

“Chrysostom:..  ’There is a great treasure stored up in the Scriptures, concealed beneath the surface … so there is need of study so that we can learn the force hidden beneath the surface.’”  (Robert Hill, READING THE OLD TESTAMENT IN ANTIOCH,  pp 152-153)

The Orthodox teachers throughout the Patristic period were in fact interested in the literal meaning of the text, but they did not limit themselves to this literal meaning, which they often felt was the simplest meaning but not necessarily the most profound meaning of the text – that was a treasure that had to be sought.  Additionally even when they did speak about the literal meaning of the text, they often assumed that the deeper meanings of the text were in fact what the original author inspired by the Holy Spirit meant and thus a spiritual reading of the text was a literal reading of the text.

Hugh of Rouen said, “…’by history and parables we are nourished; by allegory we grow; by morality we are perfected’…      The literal meaning is the fundamental meaning: it is this that we are seeking to understand.  Indeed the literal meaning of the New Testament is itself spiritual … the readings from Scripture, combined with the liturgical year which concentrates successively on different aspects of the mystery always celebrated, draw out of the mystery the wealth and variety of it signification.”  (Andrew Louth, DISCERNING THE MYSTERY,  pp 120-122)

 “In their exegetical method, the Antiochians paid more attention to the literal and historical sense than the Alexandrians, who used an allegorical method.  This does not mean that the Antiochians limited themselves to the literal meaning.  They did not reject reasonable speculation and they did admit spiritual meaning of the text, beyond the literal or historical meanings.  As an example, the Antiochians borrowed from the Platonic tradition the term theoria to designate the sublime sense of a text, the meaning that is not obvious from the letter; yet, unlike allegory, it takes for granted the literal meaning as well.  … The Antiochians regarded the Old Testament as a preparation for the New: as a sketch is to a finished picture.  This preparation implied a promise to be fulfilled.  In contrast, the Alexandrians emphasized the prophesies as prefiguration, not necessarily preparation, of the new event: the future reality prefigured in the Old Testament text is already present.”  (Veselin Kesich, FORMATION AND STRUGGLES: THE BIRTH OF THE CHURCH AD 33-200)

This blog series will continue to look at the Orthodox interpretation of our Scriptures, and the hermeneutics (the method of interpretation) which was employed by the Fathers of the Church.

Next:  Christ is the Key to Reading Scriptures

God Questions His Creation: The Story of the Flood (c)

See:  God Questions His Creation: The Story of the Flood (b)

Source Theory cannot explain to the satisfaction of modern scientific thinkers in what sense the text is true – literally, historically, and scientifically.   Source Theory only helps us deal with some of the literal contradictions and inconsistencies by showing that there appears to be more than one literary source from which the final editor of the Bible drew.

As is noted in the reflections, even the ancient pre-scientific Christians of the 4th Century had difficulties with believing every literal details of the story.  The Holy Bishop John Chrysostom in the 4th Century cautioned his flock against overly trying to rationalize about the text.  He felt there are some things that do not make logical sense but we have to just accept them in order to get to the real purpose of the story which is to teach us both about the God who is the Savior of the world, and the coming day of Judgment.  Theodoret of Cyrus, a bishop of the Antiochian tradition a generation after Chrysostom, notes at several points in his commentaries that interpreting scriptures in different ways is completely acceptable when the issue is not about the doctrine of the Trinity.  He sees no harm to religion occurring in instances where different interpretations can be determined, and even allows for the readers of the text themselves to determine which interpretation seems closer to the truth to them.

None of this is to say that it is wrong to believe the texts are literally true.  My reflections however do not rely on a literal interpretation of the texts to point out their eternal truths.   However, I will read the texts literally in that I will deal with each and every word of the text and will not gloss over the fact that the literalist reading presents us with certain contradictions in the text itself.   A literal reading of the text is one way to approach the text, but the literal reading of the text is not even the primary way that the New Testament writers read and understood the Old Testament texts.  The reflections point out how the New Testament made use of these Old Testament stories – as allegory, as prophecy, as typology, and as a moral teaching. 

While the Source theory helps us to understand the inconsistencies within Genesis 6-9 by unwinding the two stories which were woven together, both stories are completely monotheistic in their message.  There is only one God who is the main actor in either story, and both stories are about this same one God whether He is referred to by Name (YHWH, the Lord) or simply as God.  But different people were inspired to write differently reflecting their own understandings of God the LORD.  This is part of the beauty of inspiration.   God is so different than any one mind can imagine or grasp.  And so God reveals Himself in story and narration, in figurative images, to help us realize the limits of our ability to describe the incomprehensible God.   The story of the Great Flood is theology in narrative form – it is both theology and story and we should not lose sight of that fact.  God did not choose to reveal Himself through a dogmatics textbook.  While reading the narrative of the flood leads us to some clear ideas of doctrine and dogma about God, the text is sacred in that it points beyond itself to the truth about God.   In the New Testament, the story of the Flood is more important for offering us a way to approach the coming future than it is for teaching us about past history.  The story is referred to in order to exhort us to prepare for the future rather than to get us to focus on the past.

Having more than one story forces us to think beyond the plain sense of the Scriptures and to seek out the deeper meaning which God chooses to reveal to us in more than one way.    We do not have to explain the differences in the stories, but we must come to understand the depth of their revelation.   As St. John Chrysostom said, “Pay precise attention, however: the reading out of the Scriptures is the opening of the heavens.”  Orthodox in later generations will also refer to icons as windows into heaven.   Obviously the revelation of God, in whatever form it comes to us – scriptural or iconic — gives us a view into heaven itself. 

Remember, deciding to read the Scriptures literally means making literalism your method for interpreting the text.   Reading the text literally will force the literalist to interpret the text so that the 40 days of the flood do not contradict the 150 and 340 days of the flood also mentioned in the text.   The literalist must interpret what it means that God “came down” to Ba’bel to see the tower – couldn’t He see it from where He was?  Is God near-sighted?   Or is the text saying or implying something other than its plain meaning?   Literalism is a form of interpretation of Scriptures, it is not the only way to read the text for its meaning and purpose.

Next:  God Questions His Creation: The Story of the Flood (d)