I have written on a number of occasions about the interpretation of the Scriptures and particularly about the problems of Biblical literalism. I have also, on occasion, made a link between Biblical literalism and a sort of “literalism” about the world and the universe about us. I believe that both are deeply connected and share a world-view which is, ultimately, grounded in ideas of the modern world (rather than historic, traditional ideas of the Christian faith). As such, both will yield a false picture – both of Scripture and its meaning and of the world and the nature of its being.
The Scriptures, particularly those of the Old Testament, are frequently misread (from a classical Christian point of view) in a literal manner, on the simple evidence that the New Testament does not read the Old Testament in such a manner. Rather, as is clearly taught by Christ Himself, the Old Testament is “re-read” from a Christological point-of-view. Thus Jonah-in-the-belly-of-the-whale is read by the Church as Christ in Hades. The first Adam in the Garden is but a shadow and antitype of the Second Adam – the One who truly fulfills existence in the “image and likeness” of God. The Passover and the deliverance from Egypt are read as icons of the true Passover, Christ’s Pascha and the deliverance of all creation from its bondage to death and decay. Such a list could be lengthened until the whole of the Old Testament is retold in meanings that reveal Christ, or rather are revealed by Christ in His coming.
Of course, this is a peculiar claim of Christianity – one which accepts the identity of Christ as the Only-Begotten Son of God, who, emptying Himself, becomes man and in this humility destroys death and Hades and unites man to God. Having accepted that Identity, the ability to read the Scriptures according to that Identity becomes possible.
A “literal” reading of the Old Testament would never yield such a treasure. Instead, it becomes flattened, and rewoven into an historical rendering of Christ’s story in which creative inventions such as “Dispensationalism” are required in order to make all the pieces fit into a single, literal narrative. Such a rendering has created as well a cardboard target for modern historical-critical studies, which delights itself only in poking holes in absurdities created by such a flattened reading.
In the same manner, modernity has succeeded in re-reading space and time, creating an historical narrative of the universe, absent God (for some), or at least with an isolated God (for others). Religion becomes subjectivized, a choice or a “lifestyle.” It is little wonder that it has also become synonymous with various political points-of-view, since such a secularized universe can only be affected by the common will of those who inhabit it. Thus, in the name of God, secularized Christianity must rescue the world, even if it must kill in the effort (easily justified by a wrong-reading of the Old Testament).
These renderings of Scripture and the Universe are literally wrong – at least from a classical Orthodox understanding of both.
Scripture is far more than literally true (though in the sense that many people use the word, it certainly teaches what is literally true of God and the universe.) But it does so in a way that is itself Christocentric. In the prologue of St. John’s gospel he writes:
No man has seen God at any time – the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.
Interestingly, St. John’s choice of words here is that the only-begotten Son has exegesato the Father (rendered as declared in the KJV, and interestingly as enarravit in the Vulgate (Latin). Christ has “exegeted” the Father or “narrated” the Father to us – far more than simply “told” us about the Father. The Incarnation of Christ, His ministry, His death and resurrection, provide the primary narration of God, by which we read and interpret everything else. Christ Himself is not interpreted – but is the One Who Interprets. He is God the Logos.
But Christ must not be isolated as an event among other historical events (as would be done in many literal accounts -even though these accounts would readily agree that He is the most important historical event). Though Christ is God become man in such a way that He may be circumscribed (thus we may make icons of Him), He nevertheless deifies the humanity which He takes unto Himself (in a neo-Chalcedonian sense for those of you who are wary of incipient monophysitism). The man, Christ Jesus, walks on water and raises the dead. He stills the storm and pays His taxes with a coin drawn from the mouth of a fish. He raises harlots to the place of sainthood and promises immediate entrance into paradise to a dying thief.
Such a One cannot be confined within the bounds of “literal” for the word is not meant to describe the indescribable. The very coming of Christ into the world declares the world to be a place far different than we might imagine. As was settled in the debates with Apollinarianism in the 4th century – the world is capable of bearing God. Were this not so, the Incarnation would not be possible. We are created in the image and likeness of God and thus, though fallen, are capable of being raised up to that image.
And not only we ourselves, but all of creation is made in such a way that it bears a relationship to the Logos, the Fathers teaching us that everything created has its own logos which bears a unique relationship to the Logos. Or as St. Paul would say, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” Creation, far from being a neutral, natural, self-existing, secular event – is instead something which “groans and travails” in anticipation of the liberty that awaits it when all things are fulfilled (cf. Romans 8).
Thus neither we nor the world should be thought of as “literal,” if by that one means what the modern world thinks of the term. As St. Nikolai Velimirovich is quoted: “A man is not that which can be put into a grave, but is rather that which the universe cannot contain.” I would add to that – that the universe itself is not the sort of thing that can be “contained” by the universe (in the literal sense) but has layers upon layers of meaning and possibility that are only revealed in the presence of Christ.
We are meant for more than we can “literally” imagine. Dumitru Staniloae cites St. Maximus the Confessor when he says:
Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way.
Thus, we pray to understand more – and not be literally wrong.