Regardless of the tools and methods used in interpreting the Scriptures, the Fathers had a common assumption – they agreed that the truth was hidden behind the letter of the text. They believed that something was hidden and that it was God Himself who had done the hiding. There were a variety of methods employed for revealing what was hidden, some more concerned about the text itself than others.
Many modern believers and scholars see such methods (allegory, typology, etc.) as somehow suspect. Today, if there is something hidden behind the text – it is the historical event that gave rise to the text. Modern studies are almost all geared towards the discerning of the historical record. It is assumed by these studies that historical is the same thing as real, and therefore the same thing as true. And so we have all sorts of Jesus books: The Real Jesus, The Jesus Nobody Knows, etc. All of these works treat the Scriptures as material to be mined in order to reveal the truth about Jesus.
There is also a championing of the “plain sense” of Scripture by some. Occasionally this comes with great disdain for others who seem to be needlessly complicating the reading of God’s word. This plain sense reading is marked by a deeply democratic sense of humanity and its relationship with God. The argument is that since God has come to save every person, then He would surely have made His word available and accessible to each. Any assertions that obscure the meaning of Scripture (or make it unnecessarily complicated) are thus contrary to God’s plan of salvation.
It is interesting to note that among the plain-sense readers are those who subscribe to Dispensationalism, a belief that there are different periods in history and that God has spoken and acted in different ways according to those periods of time. The great common man’s resource for this reading is the Schofield Bible (J.I. Schofield’s annotated commentary edition of the King James Version). Dispensationalism is the home of the “Left Behind” Rapture teachings popular in Evangelical circles (as well as the source of modern Israel’s support within the Evangelical world – making it one of the few, perhaps the only, hermeneutical method influencing American foreign policy).
Though the method of Dispensationalism is a complicated pattern for reading, it remains quite accessible even to those with little formal education. It has the added advantage of providing explanations for all apparent contradictions within the Scriptures themselves. The violence expressed by the God of Israel contrasted with the virtual pacifism of Christ is relegated to different periods of time. Most alarming (for me) is the relegation of Christ’s commandments to a “kingdom period” rather than the present. The demands of forgiveness and radical generosity will some day be fulfilled, but not now (conveniently).
The democratization of interpretation dates back to the Protestant Reformation and its desire to overthrow the Catholic Church (or any Church) as the locus of teaching authority. If the Scripture is to be the source of authority, then it has to be universally available. If the Scriptures were to have a voice of their own, only their plain sense could speak to all.
It is necessary within this view to remove layers of mystery and hidden meanings. Meanings that are hidden and made known only to a few create a spiritual hierarchy and suggest that all believers are not spiritually equal.
But, of course, democracy and the spiritual equality of all believers is not supported within the Scriptures themselves. They are assumptions of the modern period that force the Scriptures into a role they were never supposed to play. It is the Church that is called the “Pillar and Ground of Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
The requirements of a plain sense of Scripture have also contributed to a “plain sense” of the world, the desacralization of reality that is a hallmark of modern secularism. The world has become a text, readable by all in its plain sense. And though tools such as microscopes and telescopes may be required to see the plain sense of all things, and though mathematical skills may be required to expound that plain sense, nevertheless, the world remains inert. It is a stable text without mystery.
Among the most important aspects of spiritual equality presumed in the plain sense reading, is that the inner state of the reader makes no difference. The reader does not need to change in order to see the plain sense. Seeing the truth is an objective experience, open to all, regardless of their inner state.
This, of course, is deeply contrary to the account within the Scriptures themselves. It is not only clear that not all of Christ’s hearers understand what He says to them, but that He purposefully obscures what He says:
And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says:’Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’ (Mat 13:10-15)
Even the disciples do not understand until after the resurrection (and it should be noted that it required a miracle):
Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. (Luk 24:44-45)
The disciples of Christ are given an understanding that does not automatically (or objectively) belong to all. This, of course, is highly undemocratic. This same hierarchical view persisted, as evidenced in the creation of the diaconal ministry:
Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” (Act 6:2-4)
The Christian meaning of the Scriptures is hidden beneath their plain sense (though it certainly can agree with the plain sense). That meaning requires, even of Apostles, that they “give themselves continually to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
It is deeply worth noting, if only for the sake of honesty, that the notion of the “plain sense” of Scripture, open to all believers, is a modern fiction. It serves to underwrite a modern theory of democratic Christianity that has never been more than a notion ventured forward in argument – for even the staunchest Protestants admit some level of training for their ministers and repeatedly create hierarchies despite their best efforts to the contrary.
But it is also worth admitting, for the sake of our salvation, that the Scriptures are often opaque and refuse to yield their treasure. We need teachers and those who have given themselves “continually to prayer.” The work of the Fathers is a living testimony to treasures given to us by God. More than that, their transfigured lives are a revelation of the very work of salvation God means to accomplish within us.
It makes plain sense to acknowledge this.