Learning to read the Bible (since we now have them so readily available) is a difficult thing. We pray always for the Bishops of the Church that God will “grant them to the Churches, long lived…rightly dividing the word of Truth.” Rightly dividing the word of Truth, or properly interpreting the Scriptures is quite difficult.
The modernist approach of the historical critical method can be useful for some things, but has never been used for the purpose of creating doctrine. In many cases that I know of here in the West so-called “higher criticism” has robbed people of their faith. No longer feeling secure about what is found in the Scriptures, they declare themselves agnostic or worse.
Many modernists are beginning to show their hand, simply attacking the Scriptures as “culturally biased” and in some cases to be “evil.” Those are the words of modern scholars (not Orthodox) and show how far many Christians have drifted from the Truth.
At the same time we have fundamentalists (of many varying hues) who insist on the “plenary verbal inspiration” and proceed to read the Bible in a literal, historical manner. They create doubt in believers as well leaving people thinking, “If that’s what I must believe in order to be a Christian, then I can’t be a Christian.”
Virtually unknown in our day is the proper reading of the Scriptures. We hear this “proper reading” all the time in the Orthodox liturgical cycle, hearing how scripture is used and what sense is made of it.
As I noted in my previous article, the Seventh Ecumenical Council declared that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” We could turn this saying around and say that what the Scriptures does with words it does “iconicly.” When we read the Scriptures we are reading more than an historical narrative (as in the gospels or many other books) we are instead reading the Good News of Jesus Christ which is presented to us in an icon-like form.
This method of reading can only be done as part of a community where we are initiated into a reading of Scripture by hearing it over and over again, presented in its proper form. The key to this form is the “Apostolic Hypothesis” as described by St. Irenaeus. This is simply the belief we can find generally summed up in such things as the “Apostles’ Creed.” These short summaries of Christ’s work reveal the framework on which all New Testament writing is built, and by which all the Old Testament is read properly.
If we are reading the Old Testament properly, then we are looking for Christ (not that there isn’t much other kinds of information to be found there). Other information in the Old Testament might be of interest to us, but it is not “saving” information. It does not lead to Christ.
We must also learn to “read backwards,” that is, to see everything in the light of “that which is to come.” The Scriptures are, like icons, also eschatological. The One who is born in Bethlehem, is also the One “through whom all things were made.” And He is also the One who is to come. Indeed, it is in knowing Him as the “One who is to come” that we begin to be able to rightly divide the word of Truth.
The Christian community, when it exists and lives as it has been taught, is itself a witness and testament to the last things. We literally live as though there were no tomorrow, for the Truth is, there is no tomorrow. There is ever only today, and this day is the day of salvation. People who know the End of all things can begin to live in that End (which is Christ). Because He is the end (and He will be my end as well), I do not have to live as if I were in charge of history. I do not have to see to it that everything turns out fine. To do so usually means that we have to agree to do violence in order to bring about a just society (in then those societies are never just).
I can turn the other cheek, because it doesn’t matter, in light of the End of all things, that I should be insulted.
I can forgive my enemies because the End of all things means to reconcile them to Himself.
My life is not being formed and shaped by my past (except where I am still an inveterate sinner). Instead, my life is being shaped by Him Who is to come. I am being changed, from glory to glory, into the image of Christ, the coming One.
The gospels are clearly written “backwards.” The gospels know from the very beginning that Christ would be crucified and that this was the fulfillment of Scripture. But the apostles did not know this, not at the time of the resurrection itself (John 20:9). “They did not yet know the Scriptures how he must rise again on the third day.” But the gospels know this throughout and do not keep it secret. It presumes the reader knows the One who is to come already. Thus the telling of the story of Jesus, like a good icon, is arranged in such a way that we will see what it means. In these “icons” we see the Truth of who Jesus is, was, and is to be.
By the same token, the Old Testament, which is a “shadow” of the New, is read backwards. We read Christ in writings by people who never knew Him. But these are not ordinary people, but people whose role as the chosen is to represent Christ incarnate, crucified, ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father and sending us the Holy Spirit. Whether any of those who were writing/acting in that setting knew what they were writing is doubtful and not necessary. The meaning of the Old Testament as Scripture is not to be found in the intent of the author, but is to be found in Christ Himself, for He is its meaning.
Thus Christ in the belly of the whale prays:
The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!
This is not Jonah praying from the belly of a whale (except in some sense) but Christ praying from the Pit of Hades. It is Christ who is the perfect image of the Father, not Adam. Adam and Eve never fulfill their creation as image and likeness of God, until that created promise was fulfilled in Christ. He is the Second Adam, the True Adam, for He is the beginning and the End.
I heard some “preacher” on television today say that 75% of prophecy in the Old Testament has already been fulfilled. Of course he was a Darbyite fundamentalist who is reading his newspaper everyday believing that Biblical prophecy is being fulfilled before our very eyes.
Far more the 75% have been fulfilled – but virtually nothing that this man would think of as a fulfilled prophecy is actually any such thing. He is looking for Armegeddon, not Christ.
God give us grace, under our Holy Bishops, to rightly divide the word of Truth.