Basil the Great: Reading Scripture and Creation

Image 1…in the Bible to bless God is not a “religious” or “cultic” act, but the very way of life. …All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. “Homo sapiens”, “homo faber”…yes, but first of all, “homo adorans”. The first and basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands at the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God…”  (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, For The Life of the World)

Fr Schmemann saw the human as basically a worshiping creature.   Yes, we are ingenious at fabricating things, we are sentient and capable of wisdom.  But for Schmemann the human was created by God to be a priest, to worship  the Lord and that is partially what we lost when we humans decided we don’t need God to know our universe.  As soon as we desired to approach the cosmos in a role other than as priest in service of God, when we stopped seeing creation as a means to our maintaining our relationship with God, we lost our unique role as humans in the cosmos and lost our communion with our Creator.

St. Basil the Great saw humans as  ‘homo legitur‘ – the literary beings – the ones, as theologian Stephen M. Hildebrand notes in his biography of the Saint, created by God to be able to read not only the scriptures but the cosmos itself.  Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins writes this ability to read is what sets humans apart as a species: “Our ability to understand the universe and our position in it is one of the glories of the human species.  Our ability to link mind to mind by language, and especially to transmit our thoughts across the centuries is another.  Science and literature, then, are the two achievements of Homo sapiens that most convincingly justify the specific name” (THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 3).  Modern science agrees with St Basil that we are gifted to read.  However, a difference between modern science and St Basil would be that Basil believed God gave us two sets of scripture – the Bible and creation, both written to reveal God to  us.  We need to learn to read both while modern science only wants to focus on the empirical cosmos which it does not see as revealing divinity to us.   Hildebrand writes:

Basil sees man as a reader, but a reader must have a text. Man’s texts, for Basil, are principally two, the Scriptures and the whole of creation, including the human body. The author of man’s two books is God himself. One important implication here is that both the Scriptures and creation, being texts, are full of meaning and significance. The posture that the French poet Paul Claudel took before reality expresses well St. Basil’s too. Claudel in front of a piece of reality—a flower, a mountain, a woman—always felt the need to ask, “Qu’est-ce que ça veut dire?”‘  We might typically translate this as ‘What does it mean?’ but literally it is rendered ‘What does it want to say?’ For Basil, the Scriptures and the world want to say something, or God wants to say something through them.

So man is the reader, and creation and the Scriptures are the texts, the books. Basil tells his flock, ‘This whole world is as it were a book that proclaims the glory of God, announcing through itself the hidden and invisible greatness of God to you who have a mind for the apprehension of truth‘ (Hex. 11.4; 51).  The text, whether creation, the Scriptures, or the human body, calls for a response from the reader.”  (Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc 657-667)

Basil believed the cosmos, creation, including the human body were a text to be read by humans to understand what God has done, is doing, is going to do.  In every sense of the word, Basil looked beyond the literal to find the meaning and for him the meaning always had to do with discovering the Creator through God’s activity in the cosmos.  “Glory to You [O Lord] spreading out before me heaven and earth, like the pages in a book of eternal wisdom” (from the Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things”).

I would suggest that St Basil would have been impressed with exactly how much modern science and technology has been able to read from the text of creation including the human body.   Just think about all the things we read in drawing blood samples from people or through pathology, chemical analysis, and especially now through DNA which is literally a language that has been recording all that God has been doing in and through humans for as long as humanity has been on the planet and even in the millions of years before that.  “In the beginning was the word.  The word was not DNA.  That came afterwards, when life was already established … But DNA contains a record of the word, faithfully transmitted through all subsequent aeons to the astonishing present”  (Matt Ridley quoted in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 40).

Just think about ways we read creation today:  paleontology, archaeology, radio waves, molecular structures, laws of physics,  history, anthropology, biological evolution, quantum mechanics, chemical structures and signatures, mathematical equations, binary code,  the remnants of the Big Bang, just to name a few.  Creation has been recording all that God is doing from the beginning, and we are just beginning to learn to read the text which is the cosmos and to understand God’s creation and God’s activity from the beginning of the universe.  God has His hand in creating the cosmos and that cosmos is the record of what God was and is writing.  God’s narrative is God’s creation just as Scripture is – God’s word for those who could read to comprehend what God is willing to reveal.

We can read today so much more from the cosmos and about creation than St Basil ever imagined was possible (as well as countless things he couldn’t imagine at all).  As we sing in the Akathist “Glory to God for All Things”: “The breath of Your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists. The power of Your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Your laws, who reveal the depths of Your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of You. How great are You in Your creation! How great are You in man!

Of course, just like in scriptural interpretation there is the danger of reading what we believe into the text rather than seeing what the text reveals.  Eisegesis instead of exegesis is a risk for scientists as it is for biblical scholars.

We are the creatures who have learned not only to read, but also to write, to create literature.  This is part of what Dawkins says sets humans apart.  But in creating  literature, we also are not only using our reading skills, we are participating in creation and in the creative process.  Chemist Peter Atkins who says all creation is moving toward chaos and collapse notes that literature, as well as music and architecture really are ways in which we slow down nature’s slide into chaos.  “The emergence of consciousness, like the unfolding of a leaf, relies upon restraint.  Richness, the richness of the perceived world and the richness  of the imagined worlds of literature and art – the human spirit- is the consequence of controlled, not precipitate, collapse”  (quoted in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 16).

The Genesis creation account has God working against chaos, against entropy, to create [Greek: Poetry] order and bring life into existence.  This is a miracle in the midst of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.   Humans have an ability as God does to bring restraint to the universal move toward entropy.  Our ability to read and write are part of our creative abilities which put restraint, even if only temporarily on the slide to chaos.  God as the original writer or poet of creation gives to us what we can read – God brings restraint to entropy.  We humans can share in that creativity by exhibiting restraint!  And when we are truly creative, we put restraint on entropy as Atkins noted.  ‘Art’ that yields chaos is simply doing what the cosmos does naturally -move toward entropy which in the end is not art at all.  True human genius is restraining to entropy and controlled.

The second law of thermodynamics

Hildebrand continues:

“As Basil says about Genesis 1:26, ‘We have, on the one hand, you see, what looks, in its form, like a story, but is, on the other hand, at the level of power, a theology’ (Hex. 10.4).  God, then, is not concerned merely to communicate so much information, even useful information, about himself or about us. The Scriptures are not just informative, but, if you will, performative, and here the action that God wishes us to perform is the worship of him as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As a reader, man is constantly called to relate to God and to his own salvation what he finds in the two great books, Scripture and creation, that have been given to him. This is why Basil is never interested in mere history or mere observation.”  (Basil of Caesarea, Kindle Loc  673-678)

Science will only be interested in the informative part of creation, but believers are called to the performative part – knowing the truth, how are we to behave?  This is where St Basil is not so much interested in history or the ‘facts’ as he is in what does it mean, especially in our understanding of God and God’s will.   Basil sees Genesis as story but as a narrative with a message: the revelation of God also known as theology.  It is the message which we ultimately want to know.  To turn Genesis into science or facts or to reduce it to history is to look at creation through the eyes of science rather than the eyes of faith.  Scripture is to open the eyes of our heart to the depths of meaning which God is revealing to us.  The study of creation can have the same purpose which is why Christians should pay attention to nature and science as St Basil recommended.

The Annunciation (2019)

Two thoughts about the Annunciation from the Patristic era.  First, Origen (d 254) taught that “Mary’s holy confession in Luke 1:38 (“I am a handmaid of the Lord”) should be taken to mean “I am a tablet on which to be written.” (Elizabeth A. Clark, Reading Renunciation, p. 59).  Mary as Scripture is a beautiful image not only of her but of how Scriptures are an incarnation of the Word, and Mary is the living Scriptures on whom the word is written: “ … 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 3:3).   Not only does she keep God’s word written in the Law with all her heart (see Deuteronomy 30:10; 2 Kings 23:3; 2 Chronicles 34:31), her heart becomes the Scriptures on which God’s Word is written which enables the Word to become flesh (John 1:14

St Ambrose of Milan (d 397) commenting on Luke 1:41 writes:

And it came to pass that, when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb.

Note the distinctness of each of these words, and their particular significance. Elizabeth was the first to hear her voice; but John was the first to be aware of the divine favor. She heard in the natural manner; he leaped for joy because of the Mystery. She sees Mary’s coming, he the Coming of the Lord. (The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, p. 412)

Jesus Christ, The Word of God, and Scriptures

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)

10238317573_b823f50cc4_n

The Evangelist John, known in the Orthodox Church as John the Theologian, proclaimed Jesus to be the incarnate Word of God.  John is very clear WHO the Word of God is: Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God to whom the Scriptures bore witness.

You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me…”  (John 5:39)

Thus the written revelation of God, the Scriptures bear witness to the Word of God.  As Jesus teaches, Moses inspired by God to write the Torah, was actually writing about the Word of God who was to become incarnate.

“If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.” (John 5:46)

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

Not only Moses but all the prophets and all the authors of Scripture were inspired to write about the coming Messiah, the Word of God.

“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures…” (Luke 24:44-45)

29635316263_c9ea4d3f93_n

In this blog series I intend to explore the relationship between our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, and the Scriptures, the written record of God’s revelation.  As in all my blog series, this is not a scholarly researched paper.  I am simply drawing upon quotes that I tagged from books I read over the past 30 years and am now assembling together into this blog series.  The quotes are  ideas I came across  in my reading over several decades which stood out in my mind when I read the books.  I am now bringing the quotes together to explore the relationship between the Word of God and the Scriptures.  Obviously if Jesus is literally the Word of God, then the Scriptures are the Word of God in some other way.  They are the written record of God’s revelation, but Jesus is the full revelation of God.  The Scriptures bear witness to Him.  It is of Jesus that all the Scriptures speak.   In this blog series we will look at various aspects of how the Scriptures are related to the Word of God.

Even when we think about the Word of God as being a written text, which we call the Bible, we have to realize the Bible is a collection of books written over hundreds of years by different authors.  Some of the books show signs that there were several different authors/editors involved in bringing together the texts of a book.  The Church still considers the texts inspired – whether one author or several had a hand in writing the book, or whether a book was edited by several different people, or even if we don’t know who the author(s) of a book are, we still consider the Scriptures to be inspired by God.  Absolute certainty about the authorship of a text, or total knowledge of the history of a book of the Bible, does not determine its inspiration.   Even when the books of the bible show several different versions of the same story, sometimes placed side by side within one book of the Bible, the Church accepts the received texts and all its variations as being inspired.  The Church in history accepted as inspired the Septuagint translation into Greek of the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic texts, as well as the original texts from which they were translated.

5512468401_a1e7080270

The first thing I will mention about our Bible, and the books accepted by the Church as being part of our Scriptures, is that not only was the Bible written over many centuries, but the bringing together of all the texts and deciding which texts exactly belong to the canonical Scriptures also took centuries.  We see in the historical documents clear evidence that inspired saints, the Fathers of the Church did have at times slightly different ideas about which books constituted the official scriptures of the Church.  Additionally, there is a great deal of literature which compares and contrasts even the differences in the official texts of the Bible in the various Christian traditions (Latin, Greek, Syriac, Ethiopian, Coptic, etc) .  Here I will only mention a few quotes that gives us a sense some of the differences in the Church Fathers through the centuries about what is officially in the bible.  In the 2nd Century we find one attempt at establishing what books belong in the Bible (the fact that this has to be established shows us that there was not exact agreement on what books officially belong in the canonical Bible).

Melito  (d. ca 180ad) visited the Holy Land with a view to establishing the list of the canonical books of the Old Testament. According to Eusebius (EH 4.26) (d. 339AD), his list does not contain the book of Esther, which incidentally is also missing from the biblical remains of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran.”   (Geza Vermes,  Christian Beginnings, Kindle Loc. 3424-26)

Melitio’s Bible agrees with the Qumran community’s “canon”.  That community was a dissident group of Jews outside of mainstream Judaism in Jerusalem.

A 4th Century Document, The Apostolic Constitutions (written ca 375AD), says this about the Canon:   “Let the following books be esteemed venerable and holy by you, both of the clergy and laity. Of the Old Covenant: the five books of Moses— Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; one of Joshua the son of Nun, one of the Judges, one of Ruth, four of the Kings, two of the Chronicles, two of Ezra, one of Esther, one of Judith, three of the Maccabees, one of Job, one hundred and fifty psalms; three books of Solomon— Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs; sixteen prophets. And besides these, take care that your young persons learn the Wisdom of the very learned Sirach. But our sacred books, that is, those of the New Covenant, are these: the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the fourteen Epistles of Paul; two Epistles of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude; two Epistles of Clement; and the Constitutions dedicated to you the bishops by me Clement, in eight books; which it is not fit to publish before all, because of the mysteries contained in them; and the Acts of us the Apostles.”  (The Apostolic Constitutions, Kindle Loc. 4894-4900)

5121464454_727110b5a4_n

That 4th century canon of Scripture has many more books than officially ended up in the Bible of today.  It gives us a sense that there was not one canon accepted by all Christians in the 4th Century.  In the 8th Century, St. John of Damascus (d. 749) wrote a book that many consider authoritative in the Orthodox world for delineating doctrine.   Note in his comments especially what he considers to be the canonical books of the New Testament.  He is writing 400 years after many think the Christian canon had been closed.  St. John says:

 …  The New Testament contains four gospels, that according to Matthew, that according to Mark, that according to Luke, that according to John: the Acts of the Holy Apostles by Luke the Evangelist: seven catholic epistles, viz. one of James, two of Peter, three of John, one of Jude: fourteen letters of the Apostle Paul: the Revelation of John the Evangelist: the Canons of the holy apostles, by Clement.”  ( Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Kindle Loc.3180-3221)

St. John includes in the Bible as he knows it the letters of Clement but also those canons of the Holy Apostles mentioned from the 4th Century.  He includes as Scripture even more than the 4th Century Apostolic Constitution did.

Finally, in the 12th Century St Peter of Damaskos says this of the Canon of Scripture which he accepted:

 “These books include first of all the Old and the New Testaments, that is, the Pentateuch, the Psalter, the Four Books of Kings, the Six Books of Wisdom, the Prophets, the Chronicles, the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Gospels and the commentaries on all these…”  (St. Peter of Damaskos – 12th Century, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 25654-56)

OSB

St. Peter seems almost to have an open canon of Scripture for he includes all of the commentaries (supposedly the Patristic ones) on the Scriptures.  The issue of Canon had to do with what writings people believe bore witness to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God.  The Scriptures are those writing which bear witness to Christ, and so in different centuries they had differing ideas about what bore authentic witness to the Word of God.  All of these lists would have the common theme that the Scriptures – whatever books are included in the Bible – bear witness to the truth and help us recognize Jesus Christ as Lord.

Next:  Scriptures: The Written Word of God

The Scriptures Bear Witness to the Word of God

“For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me: ‘And He was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.”   (Luke 22:37)

Christ Himself in the Gospels states that the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) find their fulfillment in Him.  He offers an interpretive principle for reading the Old Testament: the prophecies will find their fulfillment in Christ.  In order to understand the Old Testament prophecies, we have to read them Christologically  or Christocentrically.  We will only understand them in Christ.  And as we shall see, Christ saw Moses as writing prophetically.  Even the book of Genesis is meant more as prophecy than history.

This blog series will look at a few of the claims found in the New Testament about interpreting the Jewish scriptures.  The goal will be to gain an understanding of the how the New Testament authors made use of the Old Testament and how they interpreted them.  If we reflect on how the New Testament uses the Old and interprets it, we can see that some of the current debates among Christians about how to understand the Scriptures can take on a new perspective.  For instead of debating how literally to interpret the Genesis creation narratives, we can come to see that the real issue for the early Christians was to read them Christologically.  The Jewish scriptures are claimed to be about Christ and so only in Christ can we come to understand them

For example, in Luke 4:16-21, Jesus Christ in the synagogue reads the text from Isaiah 61, and then proceeds to appropriate the text to Himself.  The Prophet Isaiah says God’s spirit is “upon me” but Jesus becomes the speaker and claims that He Himself is the fulfillment of these words.

“So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read.  And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.’

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Christ is laying claim to these Scriptures in a very unique way – not just that He fulfills them, but He is the speaker of them.  Christ is the “Me” of the prophecy, speaking the words hundreds of years earlier and now fulfilling them.  In the Orthodox Church, this interpretive principle is essential to how we read any of the texts of the Jewish Scriptures.  We are not reading the Old Testament to learn history, or science, we are reading them to help us see Christ at work since the beginning of the world in the world.  Jesus challenges his Jewish contemporaries to rethink what their Scriptures do.  Christ says to them:

“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; if another comes in his own name, him you will receive. How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 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)

According to Christ, “the Scriptures” – the Jewish Tanakh – bear witness to Him personally.  If people want to quote the Old Testament, Jesus says they need to understand those scriptures are leading the reader to Christ.  Jesus says quite plainly that Moses wrote about Him (Jesus).  This is an incredible claim, but Jesus claims to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies and so says the Scriptures need to be read as leading to Him.  Moses in writing Genesis and Exodus wasn’t so much writing history as he was writing a prophecy about the Messiah.  The Genesis creation story is not written as science to understand the material creation, but is written as prophecy about the coming of the Messiah.  The significance of Genesis is not the factual science it presents about the creation of the world, or the history of the first humans, but what it has to say about the Messiah.

We encounter a very similar message at the end of the Gospel according to St. Luke in which Jesus helps two disciples on the road to Emmaus to understand the Jewish Scriptures and how they are about the Messiah – Christ Jesus.

And Jesus said to them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

Christ begins again with Moses the Prophet and then goes through all the prophets all of the Jewish texts concerning himself.  He is interpreting the entire Old Testament to His disciples to help them understand what the Old Testament says about the Messiah.  A little while later, Jesus speaks to the entire group of disciples:

“These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-46)

The theme is the same, that the Old Testament foretold what was going to happen to the Messiah.  Christ specifically mentions the writings of Moses – the Torah – as containing these prophecies.   According to our Lord Jesus, the Jewish Scriptures were written to testify to the Messiah and should be read in that way.

The puzzlement is that while Jesus teaches that the Scriptures are clear about the suffering and resurrection  of the Messiah and that repentance and forgiveness should be proclaimed in His Name, it is harder to find direct quotes in the Old Testament that clearly and unambiguously make these claims.  The New Testament authors were quite convinced that the prophecies were unambiguous but the story of Christianity shows the Jews themselves were not so easily convinced.  There is the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecy but then it is surprising what use the New Testament makes or doesn’t make of some of these passages.   Christ’s teachings are far more based in His reading of the Scriptures and he does on several occasions challenge his listeners about how they read (meaning how they interpreted)  the Scriptures.  Christ Himself becomes the key to unlocking the treasure hidden in the Scriptures.

Jesus’ unique claim to having the authority to explicate the Jewish Scriptures and the prophecies is based in his claims and that of His disciples concerning His relationship to God the Father.   It is because of who He is – the incarnate God, the God-man, the Word of God become flesh – that He has authority to interpret the Scriptures.  In John 6:45, Jesus proclaims:

It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.

The implication is that God is teaching us in and through Jesus Christ, for Jesus is in fact God in the flesh, the incarnate God who has come to save the world which He made.

Next:  Applying the Scriptures to the Word of God

Scriptures: Garments for the Word of God

MaximosConfessorSt. Maximos the Confessor (d. 662AD) is one of the better known theologians of the Eastern Church.  His writings, though completely profound, are not easy reading.  His writing style is completely theological with heavy reliance on Eastern Christian symbolic thinking, apophatic theology and spiritual exegesis.  It requires a fair amount of background study to understand.

I want however to take a look at a few comments of his found in THE PHILOKALIA dealing with the nature of Scripture, the Word of God.  We do not here have to go into the depths of the meaning he implies when he speaks about the Logos (the Word) of God.  What I want to draw attention to more is what St. Maximos presents as the relationship between the Logos/Word of God and the scriptures as they are not identical nor coterminous.

For Maximos the actual letters and words of scriptures are not the Word of God, but rather the they are things in which God inscripts His Word so that we can actually encounter the Logos/Word in a manner understandable to us.  The Logos as God by nature is beyond our understanding, yet because of His love for us He finds the ways for us to encounter and understand Him.    The alphabet/letters and words of scripture are thus symbols to help us see and encounter the Word.  Take your time and contemplate what St. Maximos is saying in the quote below.

“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.”   (Kindle Loc. 15419-15426)

The scripture text (the letters and words) are “the veils of the sayings which cover the Logos”.  We have to penetrate these veils, get beyond the written script in order to find our way to God who has clothed Himself in this language so that we can come to an understanding of God Himself.  It is always God we are trying to know to the full extent He makes possible for us.  We are not just trying to understand the scriptures, but the Logos who is both concealed in and revealed by the biblical text.  St. Maximos continues:

“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 worshipped the creation instead of the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:25).”  (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15427-32)

OSBThe Word of God is not to be confused with the scriptures which are only “His outer garments.”   The Word of God is Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity.  The written text of scriptures are in other words things about God, but not God Himself. The text is very valuable, and unfortunately we can be so taken with the literal text that we never get beyond it to come to God.  We accept the gift but never bother to know the Giver.  [And when we read the footnotes in our bibles and rely on them rather than on the scriptures themselves to understand the text we are reading, we both move ourselves a further step away from the Logos/Word of God and make understanding the text as the goal rather than as the way to come to God’s Word!]

Take that imagery of a gift received:  Let us say we are given a gift and it is beautifully wrapped in expensive, gold foil wrapping paper with a handcrafted ribbon tied around it.  We may carefully unwrap the ribbon and paper so as not to damage them and to preserve them, but still they are not the gift, but a beautiful presentation of the gift.  Then we encounter a box which must be open and only then in the box do we find the gift.  All the externals however much attention has been put into crafting them, are still the presentation of the gift.  And the gift itself, however valuable is still not the giver, though the gift may perfectly express the giver’s relationship to us and tell us a great deal about the giver.  Maximos sees the scriptural text in a similar way:  the scriptures themselves are the beautiful wrapping, but the Logos/Word of God is the actual gift.  Again, carefully read his words below.

“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.”   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15433-42)

St Maximos uses the imagery not of a gift being unwrapped but rather of God’s Logos/Word being draped in complex garments, perhaps like we might imagine a king in all of his imperial regalia wearing.  The garments though beautiful conceal a mystery.  We are endeavoring to get beyond the draped garments to encounter the mystery.  We might call to mind the Divine Liturgy’s Great Entrance with the chalice draped with its vestment covering.   The chalice cover conceals what is in the chalice – the wine, not yet consecrated, but already capable of containing the mystery, and so it is concealed from our eyes.

For Maximos it is the words (the scriptural text) which are complex, but the Logos is clear and simple.  When we get beyond the text and encounter God we realize the simple beauty and love which is God.  He says it so poetically:  “it reveals itself as though in the sound of a delicate breeze.”   The sound of a delicate breeze – not a roaring wind, but that breeze of which we are ever so faintly aware.

St. Maximos continues in his heavy yet precise theological manner:

“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.”   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 15451-56)

The text, the alphabet and the words of scripture are all created things – used by God to reveal Himself, but still are things of this earth.  We have to shake them off in order to come to that inner principle of truth.  The physical text prove themselves as symbols to be scales covering our eyes which have to be removed for us to see spiritually what is before us. We have to get through the symbols and beyond them to come to the reality they represent.   One might say in Genesis 3 when Adam hides himself from God, it is because he can no longer tolerate that encounter with God and he is afraid and wants sensible/worldly things put between himself and God.  Adam hides himself by a tree and with leaves to cover his nakedness.  He is doing the opposite of what St. Maximos describes as the needed process to strip away those physical things which separate us from God.  Ultimately in the Torah, God still wishing to reveal Himself to fallen humanity, uses the commandments and the Torah itself as the words, letters and symbols for us to encounter Him.   It is Christ who comes to remove all of the veils with which the Word/Logos had been covered, so that once again we can encounter God the Giver of every good and perfect gift.

The Beginning and the End of History

“Because Jews have always understood their God to be a God who acts, their beliefs about him were expressed in the form of narratives. The story of Israel came to be seen as part of an even bigger story, which began at the beginning of time, when YHWH created the world, and everything he made had been good.   […]  The end of this story still lies in the future, but it will arrive only when God once again established his rule on earth. When rebellion is finally crushed, and all creation is obedient to God, then Paradise will be restored. The change envisaged by the biblical writers was so dramatic that it could be described as the creation of a new heaven and a new earth.” (Morna D. Hooker, Paul: Beginners Guide, pgs. 36-37)

St. Paul and the Gospel Tradition

“But it is noteworthy that, except for the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper themselves, Paul does not in any of his epistles quote the exact words of any of the sayings of Jesus as we now have them in the Gospels. Nor does he mention a single event in the life of Jesus – again except for the institution of the Lord’s Supper – between his birth and death on the cross. From the writings of Paul we would not be able to know that Jesus ever taught in parable and proverbs or that he performed miracles or that he was born of a virgin. For that information we are dependent on the oral tradition of the early Christian communities as this was eventually deposited in the Gospels, all of which, in their present form at any rate, probably appeared later than most or all of the epistles of Paul. Everyone must acknowledge, therefore, Christian tradition had precedence, chronologically and even logically, over Christian Scripture; for there was a tradition of the church before there was ever a New Testament, or any individual book of the New Testament.” (Jesus and Mary Through the Centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan, pg. 10)

Scripture and the Word of God

When any of the authors of the New Testament mention the Scriptures, they are referring to what Christians today think of as “the Old Testament.”  That was the only Scripture for the Christians of the New Testament times.  The New Testament as a collection of writings did not exist during the time of the apostles

The early Christians saw their Scriptures because they revealed Christ to the world.   The centrality of the Torah and the Temple had been replaced by the Incarnate Messiah as the sign of God’s presence with His people.   God’s Word became flesh in Jesus Christ and this incarnation of God revealed the purpose of the Scriptures.

“When John declares that ‘in the beginning was the word,’ he does not reach a climax with ‘and the word was written down’ but ‘and the word became flesh.’ The letter to the Hebrews speaks glowingly of God speaking through scripture in time past, but insists that now, at last, God has spoken through his own son (1:1–2). Since these are themselves ‘scriptural’ statements, that means that scripture itself points—authoritatively, if it does indeed possess authority!—away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God himself, now delegated to Jesus Christ. It is Jesus, according to John 8:39–40, who speaks the truth which he has heard from God.”   (N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, Kindle Loc. 407-12)

It is the person of Jesus Christ, not a book, who speaks the truth from God.  The book – the bible – bears witness to Him.  As Jesus Himself said to His fellow Jews:

“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.”    (John 5:39-40)

Christ Himself said that Moses, who is credited with writing Torah, wrote about Christ.  The purpose of the Scriptures is to lead us to Christ.

“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 5:46-47)

In Jesus’ own reading of the Old Testament,  He interprets the text of the Torah, including the Genesis creation story which Moses wrote, not mostly to be history but even more so a witness to Christ, a prophecy of  Christ, and a testimony about Christ.  This is how we should read these Old Testament Scriptures as well.

We encounter the same idea in Luke’s Gospel in the account of how on the day of Christ’s resurrection, two of His disciples are walking to Emmaus troubled by the execution of Jesus on the cross and mystified by reports from the women that Jesus had risen from the dead.  They don’t know what to believe.  As they are walking, Jesus joins them, yet for unknown reasons they don’t recognize their Master.   Jesus listens to their sad tale of woe and then,

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

Jesus explains to them what Moses and the other prophets wrote about the Christ.  So, too, when we read the Old Testament we should be reading with a mind toward recognizing Christ.  If we read Genesis mostly to learn about creation science, we miss the most important aspect of Moses’ writing, namely that he was writing about Jesus!  The Torah is most significant to us not as a scientific text, nor even as a historical text, but because it bears witness to Christ and we too can come to Him through these Scriptures.  Moses didn’t write to confound modern science, he wrote to bear witness to Christ.  And how did the disciples react to these revelations about Moses and the Jewish Scriptures?

“They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?’” (Luke 24:32)

Their hearts were opened to the truth about Scriptures and to Jesus as well.  The Scriptures of the Jews and of the first Christians, that part of our Bible which we now call the Old Testament, contains laws, history, poetry, narrative, theology, wisdom, prophecy and inspiration.  Christ sees its importance not at all in its literal reading, but in how it bears witness to Him.   Again, following His resurrection Jesus said to His disciples:

“’These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.’” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.’”  (Luke 24:44-48)

We need Christ to open our minds to the understanding of the scriptures, to discover in them what Moses, the prophets and Psalms had to say about Christ.  This is what Christ wanted His disciples, including us, to understand from Torah and the entire Old Testament.

“… the Bible itself declares that all authority belongs to the one true God and that this is now embodied in Jesus himself. The risen Jesus, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, does not say, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to the books you are all going to write,’ but ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me.’ This ought to tell us, precisely if we are taking the Bible itself as seriously as we should, that we need to think carefully what it might mean to think that the authority of Jesus is somehow exercised through the Bible.”  (N.T. Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today,  Kindle Loc. 78-82)

Jesus is the fullness of the revelation of God, not the Scriptures.  The Scriptures bear witness to Christ.  The Bible alone cannot give us the full revelation of God.  Only Christ can do that, and only He fully and rightfully interprets the Scriptures and reveals to us their meaning as well.  The Evangelist John tells us that Jesus did many other things not written in the Gospel (John 20:30, 21:35).   The Scriptures alone are not the full revelation and do not tell us everything that can be known about Christ Jesus the Son of God.  The Scriptures however bear witness to Christ, and if we believe in Him, listen to Him and follow Him as disciples, He will reveal their full meaning to us.   The significance of the Scriptures for us, as it was for those disciples on the road to Emmaus is that in them we find Christ and our way to recognize Him.  Those original disciples have not advantage over us.  Even walking with Christ didn’t help them recognize Him – He was revealed to them through the correct interpretation of the Scriptures and in the breaking of the bread.

The Word, The Information, The Bit (III)

This is the 3rd blog in this essay series reflecting on James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   The first blog is The Word, The Information, The Bit (1) and the immediately preceding blog is The Word,  The Information, The Bit (II).

The 20th Century saw in science an increased understanding of the importance of entropy and randomness in physics.  The concept of randomness had implications for other fields as well including biology and the emerging science of encryption and information theory.  It became clear that the standard for science – Newtonian physics – did not accurately describe the atomic and sub-atomic worlds.   At the atomic level the universe did not function like a predictable machine, but rather there existed a randomness in motion, and a tendency for all things to move toward entropy – a total randomness.

Living things actually survive by undoing the randomness apparent in the atomic world.  “In other words, the organism sucks orderliness from it surroundings.”  Or, as Erwin Schroedinger (d. 1961) described it:  “To put it less paradoxically, the essential thing in metabolism is that the organism succeeds in freeing itself from all the entropy it cannot help producing while alive.” (p 283)  In many ways, living things are computing information from their surroundings, turning randomness into life with its ordered cells.

The world of physics and mathematics and the study of biology and even human language was becoming more clearly the same study, all of it having a measurable mathematical and logical basis.  Randomness it was realized may not mean blind chance, since it to contained measurable information.

“’Chance is only the measure of our ignorance,’ Henri Poincare famously said. ‘Fortuitous phenomena are by definition those whose laws we do not know.’ … such phenomena as the scattering of raindrops, their causes physically determined but so numerous and complex as to be unpredictable.  In physics—or whatever natural processes seem unpredictable—apparent randomness maybe noise or may arise from deeply complex dynamics.”   (p 326)

It reminds me a great deal of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s  (d. 1881) argument that the apparent randomness of world events which caused some to disbelieve in God caused him to think that there is an orderliness to the world and a logic which is beyond human rationality.  It thus spoke to him that there was a God whose logic and rational is simply beyond our capacity to comprehend.    We think we can know all there is to know and thus can understand everything.  Even modern science says this is not true.  That there is mystery in the universe is not merely a mystical thought of religion.

Modern information theory and quantum physics emerge from this history of information – from the spoken word, to the printed word, to the electronic word.  All of the inventions related to the word – from writing to printing thus have shaped the very way we understand the universe.  That is why it is somewhat amazing to me that Gleick only gives honorable mention to Gutenberg’s printing press.  Johannes Gutenberg (d 1468) doesn’t even make the index though he does acknowledge that Elizabeth Eisenstein in her two volume THE PRINTING PRESS AS AN AGENT OF CHANGE places “Gutenberg’s invention at center stage: the shift from script to print.”  (p 399)  (And many know already that the state of Ohio no longer requires the teaching of script writing for students – typing has totally replaced the use of script.  Will we soon be meeting literate people who no longer can sign their name?)

“As a duplicating machine, the printing press not only made texts cheaper and more accessible; its real power was to make them stable.  ‘Scribal culture,’ Eisenstein wrote, was ‘constantly enfeebled by erosion, corruption, and loss.’  … Before print, scripture was not truly fixed.”  (p 400)

“Scribal error” which is thought to have introduced into the text of Scriptures the variations which modern scholar’s debate can possibly be eliminated by the printing press which produces many exact same copies.   Now as never before people around the world can read the exact same text without variation.  But it has introduced into biblical scholarship an anachronistic thinking – we now read the text as if it has always been exactly like the one we are reading.  It makes us rethink the text as if the physical words are sacred rather than the ideas which they simply and symbolically mimic, reflect or capture.  We create (not re-create!) what we think is the most perfect text of Scripture only to realize that no ancient interpreter of Scripture had the exact text we have since ours is now a hybridization of all the “best texts” available to us.

Next:  The Word, The Information, The Bit (IV)

The Word, The Information and the Bit (I)

I did like James Gleick’s book THE INFORMATION: A HISTORY, A THEORY, A FLOOD.   It’s all about something essential to my own life, but which I hardly understand at all:  information.   I hope to share in this Blog Series some things I learned, and also to share information about what I don’t understand.   Much of this latter part has to do with the science of how voluminous information is converted mathematically to signs and symbols which can then be readily transferred to distant points.  Thus huge files – photographs I send over the internet – can be converted to a format that enables their wireless transfer from one destination to another.

As Gleick says, it is probably nigh unto impossible for us to understand what it is to live in a pre-literate culture.  Our lives are so shaped by words and the logic which words allow, even for the illiterate among us.  Even pre-schooled three-year olds recognize the signs and symbols of their favorite fast food restaurant.

Symbols additionally allow increasingly abstract thinking, and greater analysis of the data and ideas they represent.

“Logic might be imagined to exist independent of writing—syllogisms can be spoken as well as written—but it did not.  Speech is too fleeting to allow for analysis.  Logic descended from the written word…   Only with writing does narrative structure come to embody sustained rational argument.”  (pp 37-38)

Cuneiform

As Gleick points out in pre-literate culture, the spoken word has no permanency.  It dissipates quickly and can’t be analyzed very well.  The meaning of the spoken word is also not completely fixed and though ideas can be shared with those who speak the same language, between languages there is even more difficulties in communication.   Words are understood in context; the spoken word has no text to contextualize.

John’s Gospel introduces the idea of information with: “In the beginning was the word…”  (John 1:1).  Yet at that beginning point spelling did not exist, an alphabet did not exist, so the Word is nothing like what we moderns imagine, shaped by our literate culture.  “The Word” in that context of “the beginning” denotes something completely different than we imagine: more idea or reason than printed letters.  That original “Word” did not have form – letters, a beginning letter and a last letter with other letters between in a particular order.  It had no beginning or end, it was a divine spoken word: a Word to be vocalized and heard, more like music to the ear than a score upon a page.

God said, “Let there be light…”   (Genesis 1:3), and the miracle occurs that the spoken word – a sound produces light which is something to be seen.   Words still do that in our minds when we hear someone say something, we understand because ideas and images form in our minds from what we hear.   They do become “incarnate” in the synapses of our brain, but still they are not printed letters.

Of course in Genesis 1 there were no hearers, no seers, to give form to the Word.  The “Word” – “let there be…” – simply IS  the Greek  “o On.”

The Word was eventually translated into writing, the Scriptures.  Now the message became less ethereal and more material.  Writing became the first “artificial memory” which enabled words and meaning to be studied and observed and restructured.   The ancients worried about this.

Plato ( channeling the nonwriter Socrates) warned that this technology (writing – my note) meant impoverishment:

‘For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.  Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.  You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.’”  (p30)

Next:  The Word, The Information and the Bit (II)