“For in no other way could we have learned the things of God, unless our Master, existing as the Word, had become man. For no other being had the power of revealing to us the things of the Father, except His own proper Word. For what other person knew the mind of the Lord, or who else has become His counselor? (Rom 11:34). Again, we could have learned in no other way than by seeing our Teacher, and hearing His voice with our own ears, that, having become imitators of His works as well as doers of His words, we may have communion with Him…”
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
“Let no one, therefore, who is living in vice despair of himself, know that, as agriculture changes the properties of plants, so the diligence of the soul in the pursuit of virtue can triumph over all sorts of infirmities.” (St. Basil, The Fathers of the Church, p. 78)
“‘Truth is truth, wherever it is found, and while Orthodox Christianity does claim uniquely to teach the fullness of truth, it does not claim a monopoly on truth. On that basis, Orthodox Christians are open to mutual learning and mutual transformation. This step may sound radical. But once we admit that truth exists outside our own faith, and especially if we say that everything that is true is true because it reflects Jesus Christ (who is Truth), then we must be open to the ways in which God’s truth has been found even in faiths that do not share our belief in Christ.’ (Peter Bouteneff)”
“‘[Justin] says that all truth belongs to Christians because God, through the Word, is the source of all truth, and the Word who took on human flesh in Christ is the fullness of all human truth. But those who even unwittingly have participated in this truth are in some sense in communion with it however imperfectly, and this is because ‘seeds of the Word (logos)’ [logos spermatikos] are found everywhere.’ (John Garvey)”
(Andrew M. Sharp, Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age, p. 50 & 60)
“The all-too-frequent pitfalls of speculating on the nature of God helped make the option of saying nothing a desirable one. Within the heart of the Godhead itself some early Christian writers had discovered a profound silence, that of the Father, from out of which the Word, the second person of the Trinity, was spoken. Ignatius of Antioch was a pioneer in this respect. Writing at the very beginning of the second century, he says, ‘There is one God, who manifested himself through Jesus Christ, his Son, who is his Word, coming forth from silence, who in all things was pleasing to the one who sent him.‘
Two and a half centuries later the idea was still alive in the poetry of Ephrem the Syrian:
‘Glory to the One who came to us by his First-Born.
Glory to that Silent One who spoke by means of his Voice.'”
(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 44-45)
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you … (1 Samuel 15:23)
The political polarity and party spirit which so divides America is becoming so deeply ingrained in the minds of some as to cause them even to judge the Scriptures as being too liberal or too conservative. When Christians view Christianity or the Scriptures through a political lens they lose sight of God’s Word as being literally above partisan politics. God’s word is meant to challenge us in our thinking so that we consider things not just from an earthly or human point of view but to also take God’s own viewpoint into consideration.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself … (2 Corinthians 5:16-18)
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
Today even Orthodox Christians can be heard commenting on and judging the Scriptures or a prayer of the Church or a message from Church leadership not from the point of view of God but from that of a political party. We begin to hear people say that scripture sounds liberal or conservative acting as if the American political viewpoint is the standard for measuring God’s word. When we “hear” the Scripture as sounding liberal or conservative, we have already adopted a worldly mind about the Word of God.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. (Isaiah 55:8)
We have to listen to God’s word and allow it to come deep into our hearts and minds in order to either live it or wrestle with it. Otherwise we are at risk to do and to become exactly what the people were in the days when Jesus walked on earth and He warned them that they had ears but could not hear and eyes but could not see.
When we come into the church, we need to lay aside our political prejudices and allow God to speak to us so that we hear God’s word and do it or begin to wrestle with it. But if we accept as a filter for reading the scriptures a political party’s point of view then we have stopped our ears with partisan politics and we will never hear God’s word.
Roman Emperor Theodosius issued an edict in 431AD at the Church Council in Ephesus. Emperor Theodosius was an Orthodox Christian, an Orthodox emperor and is even listed as an Orthodox saint. The Emperor said:
Although we are always surrounded by the lawful imperial weaponry, and it is not fitting for us to be without weapon-bearers and guards; when, however, entering the churches of God, we shall leave our weapons outside and take off the very diadem, emblem of our imperial dignity.
The Emperor said he and his entourage were to leave their weapons and emblems of the imperial dignity outside the church. They entered the church just like everyone else – as sinners in need of salvation. The only way they could truly hear God was to lay aside all their political thinking, their earthly status and even the signs of their political power.
Today we need to do this by laying aside our ideological weapons when we enter the church, so that we can hear the Gospel. We should Leave our ideological attacks and political grenades and partisan weapons outside the church so that we don’t look at God’s word from an earthly point of view, but rather we enter the church with open hearts and minds to hear God fully.
Whether we are on the political left or on the political right, whether we are politically right or wrong, we need to hear the Word of God and to take it home with us and to judge ourselves based on God’s word. We need to pull the liberal and conservative plugs from our ears and remove the conservative and liberal lens from our eyes so that we can see the world as God proclaims it.
For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them. (Matthew 13:15)
Jesus told us that we cannot serve God and mammon. We cannot serve God if we come to the Scriptures or to the Church to judge God by a political ideological point of view. Listen to God first. Don’t react to what God says until you understand His teachings and comandments.
St. Paul said: For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10:3-4)
In Acts 4:15-31, the Apostles were arrested by the temple authorities and told not to speak about Jesus any more. They replied: “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Political parties love it if we take their point of view in order to measure and judge the Scriptures and the Church. We however are not to see the world from that human point of view but rather are to view every human point of view from the perspective of God’s own will.
In the Church we must speak the word of God and hear it whether we like it or not. Listen to what God says and allow it to enter into your mind and willful choices. Obey it if that is in your heart, and if not, then wrestle with it and ask God why He says things that you find so difficult to do. Carry His Word in your heart so you can take it into your life and home to become a doer of God’s word.
“As for Ephraem’s own attitude to the scriptures and their interpretation, there is a passage in the commentary on the Diatessaron which, even if it may not have come from his pen, is nevertheless an apt expression of his point of view. The text says,
Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. [God] has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it. His utterance is a tree of life, which offers you blessed fruit from every side. It is like that rock which burst forth in the desert, becoming spiritual drink to everyone from all places. [They ate] spiritual food and drank spiritual drink. (1 Cor. 10:3-4)
Therefore, whoever encounters one of its riches must not think that that alone which he has found is all that is in it, but [rather] that it is this alone that he is capable of finding from the many things in it. Enriched by it, let him not think that he has impoverished it. But rather let him give thanks for its greatness, he that is unequal to it. Rejoice that you have been satiated, and do not be upset that it is richer than you…Give thanks for what you have taken away, and do not murmur over what remains and is in excess. That which you have taken and gone away with is your portion and that which is left over is also your heritage.”
(Sidney H. Griffith, ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’ Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian, pp. 16-17)
As we honor the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, we have to consider how they struggled so much with finding a vocabulary to express the revelation of God. They were trying to put into human words the divine: God’s self-revelation. This issue of finding a vocabulary to adequately express what God reveals exists in the Scriptures as well. Scholar Terence E. Fetheim notes:
Thus, for example, one needs to ask what speaking of God’s eyes and ears (2 Kings 19:16) adds to the understanding of the relationship of God to the world that living, seeing, and hearing do not. Such language makes the idea that God receives the world into himself vivid and concrete. God’s experience of the world is not superficial; God takes it in, in as real a way as people do who use their eyes and ears. At the same time, in ways that people do not, God takes it all in (Jer. 32:19), and not with fleshly eyes (Job 10:4).
Nevertheless, while examining each metaphor in its specificity is important, the general conclusions drawn continue to be significant. In addition to revealing God as living and personal, they testify to the intimate relationship between God and the world. ( The Suffering of God, p. 9)
The vocabulary we use in speaking about God is born from our experience of of God. God’s revelation is received by us, we encounter this revelation who is Christ and we are changed by it. The revelation is not ideas about God nor words about God, but rather the experience of God the Word.
The Christian doctrine of Trinity, in Gregory’s estimate, is therefore not an exercise in speculative metaphysical language, but an exposition of how the Church has experienced God within salvation history and, as such, how it prays. (John A. McGuckin, Seeing the Glory, p. 188)
“If we proceed further into the Sacred Scriptures – not in the historical order that the books have been arranged, but in a more spiritual manner – we shall discover the name of Wisdom, which is mystically ascribed to Christ. And thus Solomon cries to the Father: Give me the Wisdom that sits by Your throne (Wis 9.4). And who sits next to God, at the right hand of the Father (cf. Heb 1.3; 10.12; 12.2), exalted above all created things, if not the Lord Jesus Christ? For He is indeed the Power and the Wisdom of God (1 Cor 1.24). Elsewhere Solomon says: I determined to take Wisdom to live with me, knowing that She would be a counselor for me (Wis 8.9).
Wisdom, then, is clearly a Person, and not simply an attribute. It is the Son of God, who is also God’s Word; His Wise Word, as the Fathers say. From ancient times, Solomon points beyond time, and reveals the Person of the Son, Who sits by the throne of the Father, a situation which expresses their inseparable relationship, since there can be no Father without a Son, and no Son without a Father. Each one, at all times, points to the other. In this way we have a common, mutual revelation, which is, in essence, a self-revelation.” (Archimandrite Aimillianos, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 271-272).
In the previous blog, Textual Variations, we saw that there is a parallel between the incarnation of God the Word in Jesus Christ and the idea that the Scriptures are also considered the Word of God. Just at Jesus’ human body hides His divinity and yet reveals the self-emptying nature of God, so in the written words of the Scriptures is hidden the revelation of God in the letters and words on the pages and yet in them we can encounter God. For example, Origen in the 3rd Century says of the Scriptures:
“The treasure of divine wisdom is hidden in the baser and rude vessel of words. “ (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 1892-93)
The letters and words written on a page of Scripture use the same alphabet and grammar as any other written document. The same words that are found in secular or profane writings are also used in the Bible. It is not the written letters or words themselves which are holy, but rather the written word is made holy by the message conveyed through “the baser and rude vessel of words.” The holiness is hidden in the text, and revealed to the one who reads the text or hears it proclaimed. This is the synergy between God and us humans. It is in our reading of the Scriptures that the meaning becomes manifest.
Thus we see that the incarnation of God’s Word is experienced in many ways in our lives – not only in the holy Scriptures but also including through the sacraments as well as all the life in the Church. We physically experience divinity in and through the material world of the written text, in the material elements of the sacraments, and in the life of the Church which is the Body of Christ.
The texts of Scriptures are full of hidden meanings – if one delves into the Scripture getting beyond their literal reading, one encounters layers of meaning which speak to us about God’s revealing Himself to us. We see this thinking already in the New Testament’s reading of the Old Testament in which the obvious literal meaning of a text is superseded by a spiritual reading of the text.
But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:39-41)
The Evangelist Matthew understands Jesus to teach that the very point of the story of Jonah is not so much a history lesson as is it is a prophecy of the death and resurrection of the Messiah. [Which is also why Jonah’s prophecy is read on Holy Saturday in the Orthodox Church.] Thus we see in prophecy the incarnation of the Word of God is hidden yet also revealed in Christ. St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444AD) writes:
“The word of the holy prophets is always obscure. It is filled with hidden meanings and is in travail with the predictions of divine mysteries. ” (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. Loc. 4960-61)
The early Christians took their cue from the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament to see there are hidden meanings in the most obvious of texts. St Paul proclaims to the Christians at Corinth:
For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of a share in the crop. If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? (1 Corinthians 9:9-11)
Such a Scriptural interpretation of older scriptures led the Patristic authors to conclude that the reading of the Old Testament needs to be done in Christ or the meaning hidden in the text will never be revealed.
“For there are many mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures, and we do not know God’s meaning in what is said there. ‘Do not be contemptuous of our frankness’, says St Gregory the Theologian, ‘and find fault with our words, when we adroit our ignorance.’ It is stupid and uncouth, declares St Dionysios the Areopagite, to give attention not to the meaning intended but only to the words.’ But he who seeks with holy grief will find. This is a task to be undertaken in fear, for through fear things hidden are revealed to us.” (St Peter of Damaskos, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 29489-502)
The Patristic writers realized one could easily misread the Old Testament text if one only literally read the words and didn’t seek the Christological meaning of the text. Even St. Paul reads the Scripture seeking its hidden meaning:
Tell me, you who desire to be under law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. (Galatians 4:21-25)
So St Peter of Damaskos says:
“Let him who understands take note. For the Logos wishes to transmit things to us in a way that is neither too clear nor too obscure, but is in our best interests. St John Chrysostom says that it is a great blessing from God that some parts of the Scriptures are clear while others are not. By means of the first we acquire faith and ardor and do not fall into disbelief and laziness because of our utter inability to grasp what is said. By means of the second we are roused to enquiry and effort, thus both strengthening our understanding and learning humility from the fact that everything is not intelligible to us. Hence, if we take stock of the gifts conferred on us, we will reap humility and longing for God from both what we understand and what we do not.” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31210-16)
Some of the texts in Scripture are easy to understand – they are written to help bring us to faith in God and love for the Creator. Other texts are hard to understand, and intentionally so to make us stop and read and reread a text in order to reflect on it to see its real meaning.
But there are some things about God which remain a mystery for us – things which are too great and too marvelous for us.
If, therefore, even with respect to creation, there are some things [the knowledge of] Which belongs only to God, and others which come within the range of our own knowledge, what ground is there for complaint, if, in regard to those things which we investigate in the Scriptures (which are throughout spiritual), we are able by the grace of God to explain some of them, while we must leave others in the hands of God, and that not only in the present world, but also in that which is to come, so that God should forever teach, and man should for ever learn the things taught him by God? . . . If, for instance, any one asks, “What was God doing before He made the world?” we reply that the answer to such a question lies with God Himself. For that this world was formed perfect by God, receiving a beginning in time, the Scriptures teach us; but no Scripture reveals to us what God was employed about before this event. The answer therefore to that question remains with God, and it is not proper for us to aim at bringing forward foolish, rash, and blasphemous suppositions [in reply to it]; so, as by one’s imagining that he has discovered the origin of matter, he should in reality set aside God Himself who made all things. (St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies and Fragments, Kindle Loc. 3153-57, 3164-69)
Additionally, while the Scriptural texts themselves can be clear in their meaning, or might contain a hidden meaning, the spiritual life of the reader of the text also affects what the person will be able to understand from the text. The 11th Century monk Nikitas Stithatos points out:
The reading of the Scriptures means one thing for those who have but recently embraced the life of holiness, another for those who have attained the middle state, and another for those who are moving rapidly towards perfection. For the first, the Scriptures are bread from God’s table, strengthening their hearts (cf. Ps. 104:15) in the holy struggle for virtue and filling them with forcefulness, power and courage in their battle against the spirits that activate the passions, so that they can say, ‘For me Thou hast prepared a table with food against my enemies’ (Ps. 23:5). For the second, the Scriptures are wine from God’s chalice, gladdening their hearts (cf. Ps. 104:15) and transforming them through the power of the inner meaning, so that their intellect is raised above the letter that kills and led searchingly into the depths of the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6; 1 Cor. 2:10), In this way they are enabled to discover and give birth to the inner meaning, so that fittingly they can exclaim, ‘Thy chalice makes me drunk as the strongest wine’ (Ps. 23:5. LXX). Finally, for those approaching perfection the Scriptures are the oil of the Holy Spirit (cf. Ps. 104:15), anointing the soul, making it gentle and humble through the excess of the divine illumination they bestow, and raising it wholly above the lowliness of the body, so that in its glory it may cry, ‘Thou hast anointed my head with oil’ (Ps. 23:5) and ‘Thy mercy shall follow me all the days of my life‘ (Ps. 23:6). (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 38302-38331)
Thus it is not only the text which has meaning – the reader interacts with the text and then based upon the reader’s own spiritual maturity is able to draw meaning from the text. People who have progressed further in the faith might also receive greater enlightenment from any one text. So St Peter of Damaskos notes:
This is especially true of the person who has made some progress in the practice of the moral virtues, for this teaches the intellect many things related to its association with the passions. Nevertheless, he does not know all the mysteries hidden by God in each verse of Scripture, but only as much as the purity of his intellect is able to comprehend through God’s grace. This is clear from the fact that we often understand a certain passage in the course of our contemplation, grasping one or two of the senses in which it was written; then after a while our intellect may increase in purity and be allowed to perceive other meanings, superior to the first. As a result, in bewilderment and wonder at God’s grace and His ineffable wisdom, we are overcome with awe before ‘the God of knowledge’, as the prophetess Hannah calls Him (cf. 1 Sam. 2:3).” (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 31791-801)
Any text of Scripture has meaning, but not all meanings are accessible by any one reader. God gives to each reader as they are capable of understanding. Thus our spiritual growth and progress shapes what we are capable of learning from the scriptural text. Scriptures are the living Word of God and do interact with the reader. The synergy between the reader and the text opens meanings to the reader, each given the meaning according to their ability just as each person in the parable received the talent from the Master (Matthew 25:15).
St. Ephrem of Syria offers us some insight regarding how Scriptures might be the Word of God. The question is how can God who is invisible, incomprehensible, inconceivable and ineffable still be able to communicate with us creatures? Isn’t God so transcendent as to be beyond our capabilities for communicating with the Divine? For Ephrem the answer is that “God speaks to humanity through the biblical text, allowing himself, as it were, to become incarnated into human language.” As the Evangelist John tells, “The Word became flesh” (J0hn 1:14). The incarnation of God is the key – creation is capable of bearing God, thus God can become incarnate in ways which make divinity accessible to us. The biblical text is one such way in which God chooses to reveal Himself to us.
“God, stirred by love for his creation, has himself crossed this gap and entered the created world, allowing himself to be described in human terms and in human language in the Bible. Thus, before becoming incarnate in the human body, he first became incarnate in human language, or, in Ephrem’s own homely metaphor or clothing, God put on names.’ or metaphors, in the Old Testament, just as subsequently he ‘put on a body’ at the incarnation. Of great importance for Ephrem in all this is the fact that God is not forcing himself on humanity; rather, he is deliberately encouraging the use of his gift to humanity of free will. …
The very fact that the biblical text moves from on metaphor for God to another should be a sufficient warning against any such misconception. Thus, instead of fixing one’s mind on the literal meaning of the metaphors, one should allow these metaphors to act as pointers upwards, as it were, towards the hiddenness of God, whose true nature cannot be described by, let alone contained in, human language.” (Sebastian Brock & George A. Kiraz, Ephrem the Syrian: Select Poems, pp 16-17)