Scripture, Icons, and the World We Know

I ask for grace in writing this, lest I go beyond my ability. It seems to me well worth saying as discussions of the relationship between Scripture, dogma and science have surfaced. I offer this as food for thought as well as a ground of discussion.

First, I will note an American Protestant tradition (somewhat thin these days but still present in plenty of places within our culture). What I have in mind was once known as a “Common Sense” reading of Scripture. If was built philosophically on Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which held that we knew things directly and that any person of common sense was, if without prejudice, able to come to agreement with other persons of common sense. It was popular in parts of America and at one time (19th century or so) held absolute sway at Princeton and a number of other institutions, and was associated with such names as B.B. Warfield, et al. With the gradual demise of the formal fundamentalist movement after the 1920’s, this method became more of an interesting bit of historical knowledge, though many parts of it remained within the common treatment of Scripture among conservative Protestants. Among its assumptions was the “perspecuity” of Scripture – that is – it was perfectly understandable and interpretable by a person of common sense who approached it with good will and a desire to know the truth.

Much of this philosophy and theology of Biblical interpretation were a necessary part of Protestantism. If the Scriptures did not have such a quality of “perspecuity,” then some authority would be in charge of interpretation – all of which looked like an inevitable return to “Romanism.”

For a history of Fundamentalism in America and its philosophical underpinnings as well as its various schools of Biblical interpretation, I highly recommend George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture: the Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870-1925. Marsden currently teaches at Notre Dame, though he was at Duke at the time I studied there. His scholarship on American religion is among the finest available.

All of this is stated as a prelude to the Orthodox approach to Scripture. First, it is only fair to say that modern Orthodoxy has more than once had tremendous influence from both Protestant and Catholic scholarship, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Much twentieth-century work has been to firmly build Orthodox scholarship on the foundation of the fathers and the Tradition as received within Orthodoxy. I think the study of Scripture is one of those areas where much work remains to be done (as do many other areas). That’s to say (to my dear readers) – just because you read a book by somebody who is Orthodox and you like a lot, does not mean you are necessarily reading definitive Orthodoxy. It’s never that easy.

I will offer a quote which I have used before:

“Man,” says St. Maximus, “has the absolute need for these two things, if he wants to keep the right way to God without error: the spiritual understanding of Scripture and the spiritual contemplation of God in nature.”

The spiritual understanding of Scripture is a permanent tradition of Eastern spiritual writing. In this context, St. Maximus also has the sternest words for those who can’t go beyond the literal meaning of Scripture. Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way:

He who doesn’t enter into the divine beauty and glory found in the letter of the Law falls under the power of the passions and becomes the slave of the world, which is subject to corruption… he has no integrity but what is subject to corruption.

The exact understanding of the words of the Spirit, however, are revealed only to those worthy of the Spirit; in other words, only those who by prolonged cultivation of the virtues have cleansed their mind of the soot of the passions receive the knowledge of things divine; it makes an impression and penetrates them at first contact. This is from Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality.

A “so-called” Common-sense interpretation of Scripture, or even the “literal” reading, if you will, though sometimes correct, is in many instances not the reading of the Church or of the Fathers and simply leads us into incorrect conclusions.

I think this is particularly the case when treating the early chapters of Genesis and seeking to bring them into current scientific dialog. It is insufficient to say that the “world is now different than God created it,” thereby attempting to rescue a literal reading of Genesis. In terms of the creation of the world, St. Maximus tells us that the “Incarnation is the cause of all things.” This pretty much undermines a literal, chronological treatment of Scripture as in the common-sense tradition.

Genesis certainly tells us much about the condition of humanity – of our turning away from God – but a spiritual reading of that book is certainly required. particularly in the first few chapters, replete as they are with messianic reference, etc. To make of those chapters a “common-sense” description of the creation of the universe and the precise metaphysics of our fall from grace, is probably to miss most of what those chapters have to say to us.

The Fathers (and I think particularly of St. Maximus the Confessor here) in the East really began to tackle the questions of human sin, free will, etc., primarily as they thought about Christ and what was revealed to us in Him about the truth of being human (Jesus was not only fully God, but also fully man, and thus could alone serve as the example of what it means to be “fully human”). And this work was not done until the 5th century. Interestingly, they started there rather than from some sort of systematic theology of the early chapters of Genesis.

In modern times, Fundamentalists, working within the Common Sense tradition, saw Darwin’s work as the complete undermining of the authority of Scripture. The entire modern battle between science and the Bible has largely been a Protestant concern. The terms of that battle have been created largely on that playing field. When Orthodox step onto the field they are like David wearing Saul’s armor. Something just doesn’t fit.

We have interesting verses in Scripture regarding creation. For one, we are told by St. Paul,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God (Romans 8:18-21).

Thus St. Paul makes it quite clear that God made the creation subject to the same futility and bondage to corruption which we know as human beings and that the creation will take part in the same redemption that is ours in Christ Jesus.

When God looks at what He made in Genesis and says, “It is good,” is the statement a comment on things as they are, as they were, or as they shall be? (or some combination thereof). We know, theologically, that nothing is “good” except God alone. How could He describe the universe as “good” except as it comes to be in the finality or completion of its creation when it is fully united with Him (Ephesians 1:10)?

It was certainly common among the Eastern fathers to see Adam and Eve as “adolescents” rather than fully completed, already having achieved perfect image and likeness. St. Irenaeus holds this teaching and it is fairly common among the Eastern fathers. They do not tend to focus on Genesis and “original sin” to the extent that became common in the West.

Why do I include icons in the title of this piece? I do so because of the marvelous theological hint given us in the Seventh Ecumenical Council: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” This is a clear recognition both of how icons work, but also of how Scripture works. Icons are windows – they make it possible to see beyond them to something else. They do not necessarily (in fact rarely) depict anything in a strictly historical manner and yet what they depict is true. I see in Genesis a rich icon of the creation. Knowing how to read that icon, how to see what is shown us by God, requires far more than common sense. It requires a purer heart than I know I have – it requires a relationship with both God and with creation that I do not yet have. But I do know that it is pointing me beyond myself and further than my “common sense” would ever take me.

As for science – it has its own rules and ways of reading the universe. Sometimes science and the faith cross paths. Inasmuch as we both want to know the truth, we share a common journey. Inasmuch as science seeks to control the universe, we part ways. But the assumption that there is all one big truth to which Bible and science both belong – this is part and parcel of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, not exactly a part of Orthodox Tradition. There is much to be discussed by Orthodox in our modern world. Some of that discussion requires a deeper appropriation of the Tradition. Some of that discussion requires that we speak about things that science is making known. But everything requires that we find the Truth at it is revealed in Christ – wherever and however that is so. Glory to God.