Moses and Simeon: Seeing God

The hymns of the Orthodox Church offer us not only a rich theology but also insight into the Orthodox and Patristic way of reading Scripture.  Taking a look at a few hymns from Matins for the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (February 2), we encounter the treasury of theology afforded to us in our hymnology.











In Exodus 33:20-23  God tells Moses that He intends to let Moses see God, but with the mystical notion that Moses may only see God’s back but not God’s face.  The idea expressed here is again rich in theology but also gives us insight into the depth of Scripture’s meaning and purpose.  This is especially true since in Exodus 33:11 we are told that Moses conversed face to face with God as a man speaks with his friend.  Literal readings of these texts are confounded by the texts themselves – they require interpretation to be understood, which is what Tradition is.

The Feast of the Meeting brings in a new aspect of this story – Moses, God’s friend, was denied permission to see the face of God, but with the incarnation of God in Christ, Simeon the Righteous is now able to look into the face of God in the form of the Christ child whom Simeon is holding in his hands.    Thus the Exodus account of Moses’ own encounter with God illumines the depth of the revelation which is found in the incarnate Christ.

Simeon was amazed when he beheld incarnate

the Word that is without beginning,

carried by the Virgin as on the throne of the cherubim;

the Cause of all being, Himself become a babe;

and he cried aloud to Him:

The whole world has been filled with Your praise!

The hymn above credits, poetically yet anachronistically, Simeon with a complete knowledge and understanding of who the Christ child is – the incarnate Son of God.  Simeon in the Scriptures (Luke 2:22-40)  is credited only with being granted the privilege of seeing the Lord’s Messiah before he (Simeon) dies.  In this sense Moses serves as a type of Simeon or Simeon is like Moses who was able to see the promised land from a distance but not allowed to enter it.  Simeon proclaims in seeing the infant Jesus that he has seen the Lord’s salvation.   Yet Simeon like Moses is allowed only to see the potential of what God’s plan is and does not live to see Christ’s active ministry as Moses was not allowed to enter into the promised land which was the destination all along of the 40 year wandering in the desert (Deuteronomy 34).  Both Simeon and Moses experienced an anticipatory drought before being allowed to glimpse what God had planned as the fulfillment.

Another theological aspect of the Feast of the Meeting mentioned in the hymnology comes from Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly throne (Isaiah 6 – which is also one of the Old Testament readings for the eve of the Feast).






In this hymn we do encounter a particularly Orthodox hermeneutic.  Isaiah’s vision of God is cast first of all as a typology or a foreshadowing.  Isaiah is said to have seen God “in figure.”   The hymn is suggesting Isaiah doesn’t fully or clearly see God but his vision is some sort of foreshadowing of a direct vision – like the “vision” Simeon receives when he is holding the Christ in his arms and looking into the face of the incarnate God.  Isaiah in the hymn acknowledges that he is being given a vision of “pre-incarnate” God.  Much of Orthodox interpretation of the Old Testament assumes that visions of God are actually visions of the pre-incarnate Christ.  The prophets in seeing God are actually being given a shadowy insight into the incarnation – they are seeing Christ thus God is left without image – invisible, inconceivable and ineffable, as the priest prays in the Divine Liturgy.

Joshua and Jesus

“And afterward Joshua read all the words of the law, blessings and curses, according to all that is written in the book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the aliens who resided among them.”  (Joshua 8:34-35)

Jean Danielou in his book FROM SHADOWS TO REALITY: STUDIES IN THE BIBLICAL TYPOLOGY OF THE FATHERS notes that for Origen (The most prolific biblical commentator and theologian of the 3rd Century –  some of his teachings were condemned in later centuries by the Church as heresy) there is a typology in the Joshua 8:34-35 passage.   This typology if very obvious in the Septuagint which refers to Joshua as Jesus, using the same name that is applied to the Christ:

“Joshua reading the law is the type of Jesus explaining the Law and the Prophets to his disciples at Emmaus, and it brings home to us that we understand the Law only when Jesus himself explains it and we find him in it: ‘I think that when Moses is read to us, the veil of the letter is lifted by the grace of the Lord and we begin to understand that the Law is spiritual…’” (p 282).

Origen understands Joshua’s “reading” not as simply reading aloud but as explaining the meaning of the text for the people to enable them to actually keep Torah.   Reading Torah – explaining its meaning and offering help for keeping Torah – was the didactic purpose of rabbis.  The conflict of Jesus as rabbi with the other rabbis comes over Christ’s interpretation of Torah.  [Jesus asks the teachers of Torah:  “have you not read…?  (Matthew 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31).   He is not asking them about reading aloud, but rather is asking ‘how do you understand and what do you teach about the text….?”].   Christ is ‘reading’ to His disciples Torah whenever He teaches them.   Origen accepts the typology  already common in his day which sees Joshua being a type of Christ:

Jesus and Moses

“Jesus it is who reads the Law, when he reveals the secrets of the Law.  We, who belong to the Catholic Church, do not reject the Law of Moses, but receive it if and when it is Jesus who reads it to us. For it is only if Jesus reads the Law in such wise that through his reading we grasp its spiritual significance, that we  correctly understand the law.  Do not think they have grasped the meaning who could say: ‘Was not our heart burning within us when he opened to us the Scriptures, and, beginning at Moses and the Prophets and expounding them all show that they wrote of him.’ … By linking Joshua’s reading of the Law with Jesus’ reading to the disciples of Emmaus, Origen … emphasizes the profound continuity of the Old Testament, the Gospel and of the interior Christ who instructs each disciple.”

It is Jesus who reveals to us the meaning of the Old Testament texts.  We cannot understand the Old Testament apart from Christ.  To be faithful disciples of Jesus we must read His Gospel teachings Christologically and Christocentrically.    Those denominations and scholars who advocate reading literally the Old Testament without any reference to Christ are in fact emptying the Old Testament Scriptures of their full power.  We have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and should use it!

St. Paul with Old Testament Teachers of the Law

The Burial of Christ

Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women

Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. And Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead.  And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.  And he bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Josesh saw where he was laid. And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they went to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the door of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back; —it was very large. And    entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going     before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.   (Mark 15:43-16:8)

The death of Christ, as is the death of every human being, is related according to Genesis to mortality becoming part of the human condition due to human sin.  Death has spread to all humans, since all humans sin (Romans 5:12).   Death, the separation from God, led to the physical decomposition of the human body – the return of the vivified matter back to the dust of the ground.

We read in Genesis 3:17-19: “To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it’, Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

“The ground becomes cursed as a result of Adam’s sin. St. Cyril of Jerusalem saw Christ’s burial in the ground as undoing the curse. ‘[…] Jesus was buried in the earth to reverse the curse on the ground and he cursed the fig tree for the sake of the fig leave, which acted as types.’” (St. Cyril in Beginnings-Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives by Peter C.Bouteneff, pg.122)

Christ was understood by the early church Fathers as having undone all of the effects of the Fall.  This understanding of salvation also assumes the narrative of Adam and Eve is not merely a historical account, but is also a typology.  Adam comes to represent all of humanity, and his Fall is the Fall of humanity.   So too Christ typologically represents all of humanity, and His death and resurrection is on behalf of all and for all.

Christ the New Adam

This is the 25th blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is Adam, Being Human and Biblical Scholarship (C).

“The first Adam is not the key to the New Testament.  The second Adam, however, is the key to the Old Testament.”  (John Romanides, THE ANCESTRAL SIN, p 124)

Orthodox Christians have read the Bible through a Christocentric lens.  This is based in the faith that Jesus is the Christ and the Incarnate God.  We have accepted Jesus’ own words from John 5:39-40:   “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.” We have accepted Jesus’ own method of interpreting the Scriptures as described in Luke 24:25-27:   “And he 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.” It is Christ who gives us the means to understand the scriptural lessons of Adam and Eve found in Genesis 2-3.  Adam is a type of the true human, Jesus Christ; we come to understand the first Adam not by reading Genesis 1-3, but by understanding Christ and then studying the Genesis account of the first humans.

“The Fathers saw salvation embedded in the creation narratives…  But some of them take the ‘type’ or ‘prefiguration’ still further.  Leaving behind chronological time, they say, we may conceive of the first Adam as being created because of, and according to the model of, and in the image of Christ, the New Adam.  ‘It was not the old Adam who was the model for the new, but the new Adam for the old’, wrote St Nicolas Cabasilas; ‘The first Adam is the imitation of the second.’” (Peter Bouteneff in THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY, p 95)

Christ is the true human (the incarnate Son of God!) and in Him we understand what the first Adam lost through sin.

Commenting on Romans 5:  “Paul is denying a direct and balancing contrast between the gift and the single act of sin…  Christ did not begin where Adam began.  He had to begin where Adam ended, that is, by taking on to himself not merely a clean slate, not merely even the single sin of Adam, but the whole entail of that sin, working its way out in the ‘many sins’ of Adam’s descendants, and arriving at the judgment spoken of in 1:32; 2:1-6; 3:19-20.  … He had not merely to replace Adamic humanity with true humanity.  He had to deal with the ‘many trespasses,’ and the consequent judgment, which had resulted from the sin of Adam.”    (N.T. Wright, THE CLIMAX OF THE COVENANT, p 37)

Paul “presents Christ as one who reverses Adam’s sin, and who sums up all that man ought to be: if Adam is disobedient, then Christ is obedient (Rom.5); if man fails to give glory to God (Rom.1), Christ is the one who does not fall short of God’s glory (Rom.3:23); if men and women are faithless, we may expect Christ to be faithful.  …  we may expect the Second Adam to be obedient, to give glory to God, and to be faithful.  Moreover, what the Christian becomes depends on what Christ is; if the Christian is a son of God, it is only because Christ is Son of God (Rom. 8; Gal. 4); if righteous, this is dependent on Christ’s righteousness (2 Cor.5:21); our holiness is also dependent on his (1 Cor 1:30); spiritual gifts—including the gift of faith—depend on life in Christ (Gal 5:22).  If Paul appeals to his converts to be obedient on the basis of Christ’s obedience (Phil. 2:8,12), is it not likely that their faith also will be dependent on his?”   (Morna Hooker, FROM ADAM TO CHRIST, p 168)

Next:   John Romanides THE ANCESTRAL SIN (A)

Free will and Freedom

This is the 15th blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is Free Will.

“In other words, ‘Paradise is the state of being in which there is no valuation or distinction’ between good and evil: likewise, the kingdom of God is ‘beyond’ good and evil.  … One can say, Berdyaev continues, that  ‘it is bad that the distinction between good and evil has arisen, but it is good to make the distinction once it has arisen; it is bad to have gone through the experience of evil, but it is good to know good and evil as a result of this experience.”  (John Witte & Frank Alexander (eds), THE TEACHINGS OF MODERN CHRISTIANITY, p 583)

The effects of Eve and Adam having exercised their free will are obvious in the Book of Genesis.  Keeping in mind that Adam’s story is also a typology, and that Adam represents all who are human, we recognize that Eve and Adam’s use of free will to reject God’s lordship is the story of each of us.  We each behave this way.  We make choices which are self serving rather than loving God and neighbor.  The effect of our choices breeds even more choices, each of which also can lead us further away from God, or not.  That choice, that exercise of the free will, is still ours.  Though admittedly now with the image and likeness of God in us being buried under the mud of sin, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize let alone choose the good.   Melitio of Sardis (d. ca 170AD) notes:

“But when Adam tasted of the tree… His legacy is ‘not chastity but promiscuity, not imperishability but decay, not honor but dishonor, not freedom but slavery, not royalty but tyranny, not life but death, not salvation but destruction.’”  (Peter Bouteneff, BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL CREATION NARRATIVES, p 67)

Humans now must navigate their way through a world in which no choice we make might necessarily lead us to God.  Torah for the Jews was one answer to this dilemma – simply obey the Law rather than making choices and one can find one’s way back to God and to following God’s will.  Christianity recognized a further difficulty with this – something was still wrong with human nature.  Whether or not humans follow Torah, humans still die, and the effects of sin, namely death, are not dealt away with by either obedience to Torah or by repentance.  Something more needed to be done to save humanity from its own sinfulness and from death.

“For we must always remember this—neither the world nor the devil can violate our freedom; they can only subject us to temptation.” (Jack Sparks, VICTORY IN THE UNSEEN WARFARE,  p 75)

Even following Torah completely did not automatically regenerate in humans a love for God and for one’s neighbor.   Humans might follow Torah selfishly – to get God’s favor or even to try to manipulate God into “having” to bless the person.  Humans might use Torah to condemn others who they feel don’t live up to Torah’s standards.  Humans might use Torah to argue that they have nothing to repent of or change in their hearts.

“We were not created by our heavenly Father to sin but to share in His goodness and life.  Therefore, sin is profoundly unnatural!  Sin is a distortion of living that is especially beneath the dignity of those who are called to follow Christ. … Yes, the gift of freedom can be abused.  The story of the fall in the Book of Genesis points to the tragic consequences of the abuse of freedom.  When Adam and Eve chose to disobey the commandment of God, they sinned.  Their action expressed a self-centered desire to live apart from God, to live autonomous existences.  Unfortunately, their sin- their abuse of freedom—has consequences that effected their relationship not only with God but also with each other and the whole of creation.  The story points to the danger of seeking to live apart from God.  As such, it is a story that has a profound significance for everyone.  … Sin can distort our identity and can harm others as well.  As St. Gregory of Nyssa says, sin creates ‘an ugly mask over the beauty of the image.’”  (Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, PERSONS ON COMMUNION, pp 32-33)

Christianity understands Christ as not simply forgiving past sins, but restoring humanity to the glory God had given it from the beginning.  Christ brings an end to all that separates humans from God – to healing what was distorted in the human heart.  Christ also ends death’s tyranny over humanity.  Death no longer holds humans captive, for Christ is risen from the dead, destroying death and Satan.

Next:  Sin and Death

Adam and Eve (2)

This is the 8th blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is Adam (and Eve).

Christ the True Vine

Our purpose in this blog series is to understand Adam, the first man as he is presented in the Scriptures and understood in Christian tradition.  Adam is not merely a historical figure, for he also is presented in scripture and understood in Orthodox tradition as a type or representative of all of humanity.   Since we all share the same human nature as Adam, we all share the common problems of humanity including sin and the effects of sin on us all.   For example we learn about St. Gregory Nazianzus (d. 391AD):

“Adam in Genesis functions as both an individual character in the story and a representative who sums up all of humanity.  In a way, Adam is both singular and plural.  Gregory (Nazianzus) may have sensed this ambivalence when he chose to cite Genesis 1:26 in this passage, because he is saying that the one man Adam signifies all humankind.”  (Nonna Verna Harrison, GOD’S MANY SPLENDORED IMAGE, p 174)

The notion that Adam is a type of all humans, and thus a representative of each of us is expressed in many ways through the Patristic period.  For example, St. John of Karpathos (d. ca 7th Century) wrote:

“Suppose you have ordered yourself not to eat fish: you will find that the enemy continually makes you long to eat it.  You are filled with an uncontrollable desire for the thing that is forbidden.  In this way you can see how Adam’s fall typifies what happens to all of us.”  (St. John of Karpathos in THE PHILOKALIA Vol. 1, p 307)

What happened to Adam is typical of how we humans behave.  It is not because Adam was the first human that his actions impact us all, it is because he is typical of all humans.  His story is the story of each of us, and we read about him in Genesis not so much to learn the history of humanity, as to learn what it is to be human, and to understand our personal relationship to God and to the rest of creation.

While Adam is most often pointed out as the first human to sin and thus introduce the effects of the Fall to all humanity, the Genesis story has Eve actually sinning first.  “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Timothy 2:13-14) .  But Adam is referenced often even in the Patristic writers as the example of humanity even more than Eve since Adam is the first formed human.  We do occasionally however encounter references to Eve, such as this from St. Diodochos (d. 486AD):

Expulsion of Eve and Adam

“Eve is the first to teach us that sight, taste and the other senses, when used without moderation, distract the heart from its remembrance of God.  So long as she did not look with longing at the forbidden tree, she was able to keep God’s commandment carefully in mind; she was still covered by the wings of divine love and thus was ignorant of her own nakedness. But after she had looked at the tree with longing, touched it with ardent desire and then tasted its fruit with active sensuality, she at once felt drawn to physical intercourse and, being naked, she gave way to her passion.  All her desire was now to enjoy what was immediately present to her senses, and through the pleasant appearance of the fruit she involved Adam in her fall.  Thereafter it became hard for man’s intellect to remember God or His commandments.”   (St. Diadochos in THE PHILOKALIA Vol. 1, p 269)  (d. ca 486AD)

Eve the senuous is drawn ever more into the bodily existence and away from God. Of course the above passage also reflects some neo-Platonic and dualistic tendencies.  But there is also a continuation of a common theme that Adam and Eve became victims of their own appetites and passions.  They had no example to learn from, but we are given their example to study and to learn how to become fully human.  We don’t learn to be human by indulging every passion, but we learn through self control of our passions.  This of course is the theme of the fasting of Great Lent.  Great Lent itself however is a season in which we sojourn to our destination:  Pascha and the eternal Kingdom of God.

“In Cosmic terms the process of salvation began with the death and resurrection of Christ, the last Adam, whose obedience has undone the disobedience of the first Adam.  Salvation thus completes what creation began. … Adam yet lives.  And until all have died in Adam, the equivalent ‘all’ cannot become fully alive in Christ.”  (James Dunn, THE THEOLOGY OF PAUL THE APOSTLE, p 493)

Next:  Adam’s Fall

Adam in Paul’s Letter to the Romans

This is the 6th blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is Adam in the Writings of St. Paul.

In much current discussion on St. Paul and St. Augustine, Romans 5:12 plays a prominent role when contrasting what is cast as the more Western understanding of ‘original sin’ versus the Orthodox preference for using the term ‘ancestral sin.’    Whether one looks at the human condition and human problem as more related to sin or to death shapes how one understands the role of Adam in history.  I do not intend to debate here the merits of ancestral sin thinking versus original sin thinking here.   My intention is to just briefly consider St. Paul’s thinking on Adam in Romans.

“Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned—sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.  (Romans 5:12-14)

In Romans 5:12, St. Paul clearly pins the entrance of death into the human condition on Adam’s sin.  God is not to be blamed for human mortality.  Death spreads to all humans, not because Adam sinned or because we are descendants of Adam, but because each of us sins.  Adam did sin, even before Torah existed.  So though sin is the cause of death, death is the problem which infects human nature and which is spread to each human.  Of course the problem with this thinking is that even babies and fetuses die, so is there death related to someone else’s sin?

Even if Torah did not yet exist, death reigned over humanity, despite the fact that sin is not counted where there is no law.   Death has gained some hold on humanity regardless of whether individual sinful culpability existed.  All humans will die.

Note:  Adam is a type of the one to come –  not a type of all humanity but of Christ.  We find our humanity either only in the first Adam (and thus subject to sin and death) or in the new Adam, Jesus Christ (and thus both righteous and having overcome death’s reign in us).

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.   (Romans 5:15-21)

Adam serves as a type for Christ – whatever Adam is or represents, so too Christ is and represents.  Our lives are all connected in some way to Adam’s life – his story is not ancient history, but is the story of each of us in our relationship to God.  We experience existence through Adam and his sin and death, but also through Christ and His righteousness and resurrection.  Our relationship to God is thus determined by whether we are merely sons of Adam or whether we have become sons through Christ Jesus.   Adam’s sin does not condemn us in God’s eyes, but participating in Adam’s life does.  Similarly being in Christ and living through Him makes us righteous in God’s eyes.

Paul is talking in very broad terms about humanity, humans, humankind, about types, and about people capable of sinning.   To take his words and then apply them to specific cases of innocent children or unborn babies is to stray away from his main point.  St. Paul is defending the goodness of God, and clearly blames the existence of sin and death on human choices and behavior.  Unlike the author of 2 Esdras, St. Paul does not see God working out His plan through imposing death on humans.  When humans choose away from God, they bring death into the world.  The creation is not faulty either – humans are in God’s image and likeness, but we have a free will to choose away from God.

St. Paul’s contention is that the Torah in the end failed to make us righteous in God’s eyes, because it ends up defining more and precise ways in which we fail and sin.  The Law thus didn’t stop sin or death, but increased unrighteousness because human failure and sin became all the more obvious.  God finds a different way to make humans righteous – the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ proves righteous in God’s eyes.    God saves us, we cannot save ourselves, though we can embrace His salvation and live accordingly.

Thus Adam as that type of human who sins and dies is overcome by Christ that type of human whose faithfulness to God causes Him to die to overcome sin.  Believers live in Christ and through His faithful obedience to God.  This is what defeats death.

Next:  Adam (and Eve)

Prophecy in the Ancient Church

This is the 10th and final Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   The immediate preceding blog is A Christian View of Prophecy.

This final blog in the series looks at how a few Christian writers from the Post-Apostolic and Patristic periods understood prophecy, especially that found in the Old Testament.  Because the ancients Christians tended to read the Old Testament as typology or a prefiguring of Christ, they actually read much of the Old Testament as prophecy.  They called Moses and King David prophets, and tended to view the importance of both Torah and Psalms as prophecies of Christ.  They got their cue from Jesus Himself who in his Post-Resurrectional appearance interpreted the Jewish Scriptures precisely in this way:   “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself”  (Luke 24:27).    

First, we can consider the view of the Second Century Christian apologist St. Justin the Martyr (d. ca 166AD).

 “One will remark the complexity of the very notion of prophecy in St. Justin’s  view:  it is the eternal Word himself who, through his Spirit and through a human instrument, announces in advance the mystery which he will himself accomplish later in time.  Christ is at once both the supreme Prophet and the reality prophesied: the supreme Prophet as eternal Logos, the reality prophesied as incarnate Logos.  He gives in prophecy a sign that makes it possible for one to recognize him when the prophecy is fulfilled.”  (Bertrand de Margerie, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE HISTORY OF EXEGESIS V 1, p 37)

St. Justin holds to a very sophisticated view of prophecy:  it is God’s Word who speaks to the prophets through the Holy Spirit.   The prophets are thus giving form, though in shadow and foretype, to the Word.  This was done so that when God’s Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ, He (His voice – that of the Good Shepherd) would be recognizable.   Many of the Fathers believed that the Old Testament descriptions of the saints and prophets encountering God were actually encounters with the pre-incarnate Word, namely, the Son of God.  God used this method of revelation to help the people of God recognize the incarnate Word when the fullness of time had come.

“Justin also uses Scripture differently in his two works.  As the APOLOGY is written for pagans, he does not appeal in it to the Scriptures as an authoritative source of truth.  Rather he appeals to them to provide evidence that the Gospel believed in by Christians is not simply the latest claims, but ancient prophecies, written in publicly available books, which have now been fulfilled in Christ.” (John Behr, THE WAY TO NICEA, p 94)

Thus prophecies show that God’s plan of salvation was being revealed throughout the history of the Jews.  Jesus claiming to be God incarnate was thus not unexpected but had been revealed through the prophets.   St. Irenaeus (d. 202AD), a generation after Justin, acknowledges God was revealing his plan through the prophets, yet before its fulfillment a prophecy remains in the shadows, not fully understood until the revelation comes to light when it happens.

“For any prophecy, before it is fulfilled, is nothing but enigmas and ambiguities.  But from the moment that the prediction is fulfilled, it finds its proper interpretation.”  (St. Irenaeus  quoted in BEGINNINGS: ANCIENT CHRISTIAN READINGS OF THE BIBLICAL CREATION NARRATIVES, Peter Bouteneff, p 74)

Two Centuries later, the archbishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD), offered some thoughts on his own understanding of prophecy and inspiration.

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) says: ‘a thinker speculates on the future out of his great wisdom and personal experience.’  And he goes on to say that speculation is one thing and prophesy is another.  The prophet speaks in the Holy Spirit ‘contributing nothing of his own’; whereas the thinker employs his own understanding.  Thus there is a great difference between the Prophet and the thinker, ‘as much difference there is between human wisdom and divine grace.’”  (Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos,  THE ILLNESS AND CURE OF THE SOUL IN THE ORTHODOX TRADITION, p 43)

A contemporary and antagonist of Chrysostom’s, St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444AD) understood Christian prophecy to be one who properly interprets the Old Testament in the light of Christ.

 “Prophecy means for Cyril the divinely given capacity to interpret the Old Testament. Indeed the Christian prophet is one who has received the charism of recognizing the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies in the New.”  (Brevard Childs, THE STRUGGLE TO UNDERSTAND ISAIAH AS CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURE, p 125)

The ancient Christian theologians saw Old Testament prophecy as a foretelling of Christ.  But not all prophecies predicted future events; many prophecies occur in the form of typology, prefiguring, or foreshadowing the coming of Christ.  So the Old Testament as a whole is largely prophecy, even though many of the Old Testament authors were not aware that they were being prophets.  As the author of Hebrews says of the saints of the Old Covenant:   “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth”  (11:13).   They could not see Christ clearly, He was distant and they were in shadow, but they remained faithful to the hope.   This is the sense of  prophecy held by the ancient Christians.   As St. Peter writes: 

“The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory.  It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things which have now been announced to you by those who preached the good news to you through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”  (1 Peter 1:10-12)

Prophecy, forth telling God’s Word, has to do with Christ, God’s Word become flesh.   Thus the Old Testament, whether Law or history or Psalm, is prophecy.  It all points to Christ, was all written by those inspired by God to be prophets.  The faithful reader of the Old Testament is also a prophet whenever he or she recognizes Christ in the words of the Old Testament.   Thus the Old Testament is inspired by God in order to reveal Christ, and it inspires those who read it in Christ to recognize God’s Word.

Reading the Scriptures with the Early Church: In Christ

This is the 3rd Blog in this series which began with Reading Scripture: the Old Testament, the Torah and Prophecy.   The immediate preceding blog is Reading the Scriptures in the Earliest Christian Communities.  In this Blog Fr. John McGuckin offers a glimpse at how early Christians read the Scriptures – and read them differently from how we read them today.

 “A modern reader, used to interpreting the Bible according to its sequential narrative content, and its historical or ethical significances, is singularly ill-equipped to realize that throughout the vast majority of Christian history this is not how the bible was generally read.  In earlier Christian ages (and the style still applies predominantly to most of the bible as it appears in Church in the form of liturgical poetry) the scripture was read in fragmented pericopes, each one turning around a Type (tupos): namely a figure or symbol or story from the old text that was reworked symbolically in line with the evangelical mystery. 

So, for example, the old story of Abraham and Isaac’s sacrifice becomes, by reference to the inherent symbols of the ‘Beloved Son’ carrying ‘the wood’ (the Cross) of his own sacrifice ‘up the hill’ (Calvary), for the establishment of ‘a new covenant’ of grace (the foundation of New Israel) … Type, in this case, means that this reference to the passion-covenant theology is ‘really’ what the Abrahamic story is all about.  Its ‘other meaning’ (what one might call the literal or first-sight meaning, as something to do with the patriarchs and the establishment of the covenant with Israel) was understood as a level of revelation on the surface, meant to be passed through by the enlightened reader (the one who had been given the key to the mystical interpretation through the acceptance of the Gospel story).

Our Father among the Saints: John Chrysostom

The mechanism of this form of interpretation was based upon three central notions common among the Fathers of the Church namely: that (a) all scripture was a single inter-related text telling the same story of the Incarnate Word; (b) that all scripture had superficial levels of meaning that deepened in a mystical significance made visible according to the initiation possessed by the disciple of Christ; and (c) that there were clues within the text, at surface level, that gave signs to the initiate reader who would read the old story (the Old Testament) ‘back from the new,’ not forward as if reading historically.*  Like the ‘type’ of an old machine-press, which was reversed so that its impression on the paper would render the letters in their correct readable alignment, so too the biblical ‘type’ was an enigmatic symbol, or story, hidden in the Old Testament whose ‘real meaning’ became apparent to the careful (initiated) observer only in the light of the Gospel, and only according to the degree of the illumination which the Divine Spirit of God gave to the heart of the faithful reading it ‘In Christ.**’”

[Notes:  *”Mar Theodore of Mopsuestia, described the issue succinctly in his argument that if the scripture is a sacred literature that transcends historicity, being of the eschatological moment, then it cannot be exegeted solely by linear historical methods of interpretation.”


The Word of God

**”Reading the text, en christo (1 Cor 4:10; 2 Cor 5:17; Eph 1:9) or with the ‘mind of Christ’ phronema Christou, (cf. 1 Cor 2:13-16), it passes from simple textual reading to become a sacrament of divine revelation.  The Church Fathers, then, believed that the Scripture really only became ‘sacred revelation’ when it fulfilled that function in Christ, and through Christ.  His was the presence that sanctified the literature and made it revelatory for the purpose of salvation.  It was in this sense that Origen called the scripture, the ‘sacrament’ of the body of the Logos….”] 

(John McGuckin,  HARP OF GLORY, pp14-15)

 Next: Reading the Scriptures with 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