The Meaning of Scripture

What is the meaning of Scripture? Where do we look for it and how is it found?

It is interesting to listen to the disarray of voices on this subject. My early training, in college and later in a liberal protestant seminary, was to look, first, to “authorial intent” (to use a constitutional interpretive phrase), and to the “Sitz im Leben” (the “life situation” or “context”) and through a host of various critical matrixes to break a section down in various ways. Often unacknowledged was the range of meaning that was simply “not allowed.” Most miracles, etc., were simply out of bounds, as miracles.

Of great importance was the fact that the Scriptures consisted of a collection of books, written at different times in different places by different authors. And, of course, with a basic historical orientation to the “meaning” of Scripture, the “meaning” sort of falls apart.

I found a small statement in Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery that I liked:

This, perhaps, enables us to bring into sharper focus…the point, referred to earlier, that the spiritual meaning of the New Testament is the literal meaning…. The spiritual meaning of the New Testament is the history of the Incarnate One, a history which is ‘a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh’ (Heb. 10:20) – a way which we are all to enter upon and tread.

The difficulty with the modernist approach (and many of the historicized approaches of evangelical protestantism) is the failure to understand what the Canon of Scripture means. The Canon is not simply a collection of books authorized for use in the Church. The Canon is not simply those books which the Church considered “inspired of God” (though both statements are true). Instead, the Canon is a collection of books in which the Church finds the witness of Jesus Christ (both Old and New Testament), and its only purpose as Canon, is to reveal Christ.

Some, even conservative readers, have detached the proper meaning of the Canon from the Scriptures, and simply see them as a collection of “inspired” Scripture. The key (Christ) is forgotten and the “authoritative” writings are used for all sorts of things for which the Church never had any particular concern. The Bible is not the book with all the answers to any question – it is the book, which when read rightly – points both to the right questions to ask, as well as the right answer.

Genesis, properly read, is not a science text book. It is about Christ and reveals Him as the very meaning and purpose of creation – as well as explicating His Pascha. If you don’t see that when you read the first chapter of Genesis, then no one ever taught you how to read Scripture as the primitive Church read Scripture (which according to the New Testament was taught by the Risen Lord).

The quote from Louth was not to say that the “literal meaning is the spiritual meaning” but that the “spiritual meaning is the literal meaning.” Only when the Scriptures are read in their spiritual meaning – that which is witnessed to by the Church – are they read in their proper meaning and as Canon.

Those who misuse the Canon as simply a stamp of “authority,” turn the Bible into a Christianized Koran, which is as serious a distortion as is possible. The failure of many generations of Christian teachers to know and understand the spiritual meaning of Scripture has also resulted in a distorted Christianity – one which is moving further away from Christian Orthodoxy and gradually becoming something entirely new.

To say that the “spiritual meaning is the literal meaning” (a play on words) is to understand that Scripture functions as a verbal icon – and like an icon requires an understanding of its spiritual grammar to see it correctly. Probably the most important element of that grammar is the dynamic of Holy Week and Pascha, the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. Of equal importance and informing the Paschal meaning is Christ as the revelation of God and the revelation of God as Trinity made known to us through Christ.

Even the structure of the stories in the New Testament have this character about them. There are “iconic” similarities between the New Testament account of Christ’s Nativity and his Decent into Hades, just as there are similarities between the icons of those two events. And this is not accidental – one informs and explicates the other.

The use of Scripture in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church frequently brings these elements together. It is in such moments (for me) that “mental epiphanies” occur – when I suddenly see a connection and a meaning that had never been clear before.

Those who “Canonized” the Scripture are also those who gave us the liturgies and preserved in the life of the Church a living liturgical dynamic that is the spiritual meaning of Scripture. Much of this is missed if the only liturgical experience of an Orthodox Christian is the Sunday liturgy. Ultimately the fullness is found in the liturgical experience of the monasteries where the most complete round of the services are prayed.

But by faithfully attending feast days and vigils, much of this “spiritual meaning” will become increasingly evident. Good teaching also helps. But nothing substitutes for those moments in which the risen Christ is made known to us in the Scriptures and in the breaking of the bread.

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