There is a fundamentalist anxiety that I hold in great sympathy. My sympathy is driven by the fact that I lived for many years under the burden of that very anxiety. It is the hidden fear that possibly, despite all faith exercised in the opposite direction, the Bible may not, in fact, be true. A great deal of energy is spent in maintaining the integrity of the dike that withstands this anxiety.
I grew in the shadow of Bob Jones University, one of the most prominent bastions of American fundamentalism. The ideas of that university permeate not only the students who study there, but in many ways the surrounding culture of Christianity in the area. The fear is pointed towards Darwin and any possibility of his evolutionary theory. It drives biology students at the university to reach strange conclusions, regardless of the science. I was taught at age ten by a biology student from Bob Jones, in a Baptist summer camp, that blacks were simply biological inferior to whites based on false information that he shared with a group of young, impressionable kids. Perhaps his biology was not the product of his university classes. But it was as baseless as much of the science that was done there.
The same fear drives the concern for the Flood of Noah and the age of the planet (not to mention any possible hint of evolutionary science). Thus the earth must be young, the flood must be literal (with perhaps a still existing Ark on Mt. Ararat). Science has an answer that it must prove, rather than a question to be answered. The agenda of such fundamentalist science is set by the need to refute anything that possibly undermines a peculiar view of Scripture. One flaw and the entire house of cards comes tumbling down.
It makes for bad science and even worse Biblical interpretation.
I am no friend of liberal Biblical studies. I suffered under such oppression for a number of years and can say that fundamentalism also has a liberal form. I was punished (intellectually) for believing all of the articles of the Nicene Creed as much as a Darwinist would suffer at Bob Jones. But that is its own story.
The history of literalism is a checkered affair. Some of the early fathers leaned in a literalist direction for many parts of Scripture, though leaving room for other, more symbolic approaches, where appropriate. The great battles over the historical literalism of Scripture arose in the 18th and 18th centuries in Europe and America (battles over certain scientific matters versus literalism began even earlier).
Part of the tragedy in these battles was that the battlefield itself was a fairly newly-defined area and failed to take into account the full history of Biblical interpretation. For a young believer in the midst of America’s own intellectual religious wars in the late 20th century – my question was whether the choices presented were the only choices available.
I should preface my remaining remarks with the simple affirmation: I believe the Bible is true.
Having said that, I must add that the Scriptures do not stand as an independent work of literature or a self-contained Holy Book. The Bible is not God’s revelation to man: Jesus Christ is God’s revelation to man. The Scriptures bear witness to Him and are thus “true” as a true witness to the God/Man Jesus Christ.
As others have noted, the Scriptures are true as they are accepted and understood by the Church that received them. They are Scripture as recognized by the Church and cannot be removed from the Church only to turn them against the Church. They are unique writings, and must be read in a unique way. That way is found in the liturgies of the Church and the commentaries of the Fathers.
It is also true that within the writings of the Fathers there can be a variety of opinion on a number of Scriptural matters. The essential agreement is their testimony to Christ. Genesis is about Christ. Exodus is about Christ, and so forth. Read any other way, the books are interesting, but they will not be read in a manner that has been received by the Orthodox Christian Church.
Of course, the historical method (whether literal or historical critical) represents only two possibly ways of reading the text of Scripture. There are assumptions behind both that are problematic from an Orthodox perspective. For many, the notion of “salvation history” has become so dominant that they cannot think about history in any manner other than that which they have been taught. I can think of a number of problems:
First – the traditional modern view (whether fundamentalist or otherwise) of history, is a matter of chronology. It sees a beginning at some point in the past and a progression to some point in the future. This same chain of events is generally viewed as reality, or the ground of reality, and championed above all other things. God acts in history, they will argue, but history is somehow the reality with which God has to deal.
This is highly problematic for an Orthodox theological understanding. Not only does Scripture treat history as quite relative (Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, He is also the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth”), it in fact makes history subject to the end of things – making history simply one aspect of lived eschatology.
Thus time and chronology do not govern reality – God governs reality.
By the same token, Holy Scripture is a Divine account of reality, not itself explained by chronology nor subject to historical validation, but subject to the Truth as it is made known to us in Jesus Christ. Thus the New Testament is Scripture, though the writings of Josephus or Tacitus are mere history.
There is a nervousness that runs through the body fundamentalist when phrases such as “mere history” are uttered. It is a nervousness that is born of the attempts of liberal modernists to dismiss as “myth and fiction” what are seen as events essential to our salvation in Christ. No one who is a believer could treat such anxiety with anything but sympathy. In many ways, with the tools at hand, conservatives in Western Christianity have fought a valiant fight to defend the faith against a serious contender. But that fight does not justify every argument advanced by fundamentalism. Orthodoxy offers a different approach.
I recognize a nervousness that occurs among many conservatives if “truth” is approached in any manner other than literal. Liberals have played games with words for so many years that believers are rightly wary of word-games. On the other hand, for theological accuracy, it is necessary to speak of truth and its character in Christian revelation. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ Himself is the Truth. This is not to say that He is the Truth as compared to some external criterion of truth, but rather that He Himself is the criterion and definition of what is true. Things are true and false only as they are compared to Him. He may be compared to nothing else.
By that token, it is problematic to define “truth” by some particular standard of “historicity.” I understand the importance of saying, “This is really true,” and would never want to deny such a thing. The tomb on Pascha was empty, Christ is truly raised from the dead by every standard and then transcending every standard. His resurrection is the true ground of all reality.
Having said that, it must also be said that the Scriptures are true (as Scriptures) only inasmuch as they reveal Christ as the risen Lord and what that means for all creation. The witness of the Church is that these writings do precisely that and are thus Scripture. But it is the resurrection of Christ that undergirds the Scriptures and not vice versa. The disciples did not understand the Scriptures until they understood the risen Lord. And this remains the case.
Thus the import of Noah’s flood is to be found in Holy Baptism and not the other way around. Creation as shared in the first chapter of Genesis is an unfolding of the Paschal mystery and it is from that mystery that it derives its value. I could multiply such examples. When this principle is forgotten, Christians find themselves arguing over points of geology or archaeology and not over the triumphant resurrection of Christ. If Christ is risen from the dead, everything else becomes moot. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then all Christian statements become moot.
Christ is risen from the dead.
What can we say to these things? The Scriptures are true because Christ is risen from the dead and this is their message. The faith of the Orthodox is that all things find their beginning and their end – their meaning and their fulfillment in the Pascha of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the good news. What other good news could there be?
A big part of the problem of the interpretive approach both liberals and fundamentalists embrace is the undermining (often a complete elimination) of the role of tradition, the community of the faithful, the Church as she reads, understands and lives the Scriptures. So the Bible is read as from a vacuum (as if this were possible!), which ends up favoring the reader as the ultimate arbiter of truth. This then results in either an interpretive approach which becomes unhinged from the text (veering towards the liberal spectrum), or a literal, ‘text only’ defensive approach (towards the conservative spectrum). Both miss the mark, as you point out, Fr. Stephen.
I should add that fortunately there has been a recovery of sorts, a recovery of valuing the integral role tradition plays in the interpretation and application of the Scriptures. This would seem to me to push the issue away from the questions about the text and towards the question as to nature of the tradition. What makes one tradition more or less valid than another? What criteria shall we use to establish this?
I spotted a typo.
“arose in the 18th and 18th centuries”
Wow, Marc really hates this blogsite!
Fr. Stephen, if a Protestant Christian was hungering for guidance in just this sort of reading of Scripture – as a means to open him up further to the Church and to encounter the living and risen Christ – where would you direct him for such guidance?
Marc, I’m not sure what you mean, but my comment here
as well as several other comments in the discussion on that post seem to me to disconfirm the notion that any deleted comments are merely “not to [his] liking,” not to mention that your comment complaining about it also remains.
I respectfully disagree with you. I am an Old-Calendar Orthodox Christian – not that our bona fides are to the point – and I love this blog. I think Fr. Stephen is doing very important work for Orthodoxy in America, in his own small way, and I pray that God will continue to bless it. I would sincerely regret its disappearance. If you don’t like it, you are absolutely free to go elsewhere for your dose of Tradition.
My first comment, I have been reading this blog for a while now
Fr. Stephen, your articles are a great source of wisdom and thoughts for contemplation. You never fail to amaze and inspire. Thank you for what you do.
Can you tackle this fundamentalist concept of “having a personal relationship with Jesus”. What does the Orthodox faith say about it?
“…the Scriptures do not stand as an independent work of literature or a self-contained Holy Book. The Bible is not God’s revelation to man: Jesus Christ is God’s revelation to man.”
Having been raised in a culture (American Evangelical) that treated the Bible precisely as God’s self-contained revelation to man, I found the above quote to be the most compelling. I would ask, though: What of the Bible as God’s WORD? If Christ is the Word of the Father, and the Bible also is the Word of the Father, is there not some validity in treating them almost equally, as a self-contained salvific message (as I was raised to do)?
I realize the point of the post is more about a literal vs. a Christ-centered reading of the Scriptures. I have just long been butting my head up against the problem that I can either read the Bible as God’s Word (in the self-contained, fell-from-heaven sense), or in a way that makes Scripture no different than the writings of the Fathers and Saints of the Church. Where is the (Orthodox) middle ground?
I’m not sure where you are taking issue with Fr. Stephen, but I find his thoughts rather helpful, and am grateful that he cares to share them.
John, I suspect that Fr. Stephen will have a better answer but I do recall from my stint at seminary (SVS) Fr. John Behr speaking about this notion of the Bible as “God’s word.” If memory serves he said he couldn’t trace that expression, in the sense that you use it, back more than a couple hundred years. Unlike the Gospel phrase “Word of God” which is written about Jesus it certainly isn’t a scriptural phrase. I believe that Fr. John Behr’s conclusion was that it was better not to use that phrase at all in reference to anything or one but Christ. Hope that helps.
Fr. John Cox
I am very appreciative of your blog and the importance of the issues you raise through it. I recall when you posted something on this theme a few years back. It provoked some anxiety within me then and still does. To be sure some of my anxiety is related to my own insecurities but I think that part of it is related to the fact that when it comes to wrestling with historicism as a disorder particular to our time, the response of the Church is incomplete, not fully articulated.
The thing feels tied to our age in a way similar to how any major heresy was tied to a conciliar moment. If we get this wrong then we part ways with the truth of the Incarnate, Resurrected one. You are very right in saying in response to such questions that “Christ is risen from the dead.” What I am anxious to do is unpack the anthropological assumptions behind historicism and its associated liberal and conservative fundamentalisms in a way that does not leave us prey to postmodern eternal deferrrals of meaning. I think the meaningfulness of typology is threatened when all the types have been reduced to parable. I am not accusing you of this but I am hoping to introduce the question and have your thoughts on it.
A concrete example: If Moses never lifted up the serpent in the wilderness then what do we make of a statement like “Even as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of Man be lifted up?” If everything that points toward something is slavishly fictionalized as liberal historicists would have it, then is the thing itself not likely to be considered a fiction, leaving us with the idea of resurrection instead of Resurrection?
I am sorry for the muddiness of my thoughts and hope you can bring some clarity to my ramblings.
Marc, not sure where you’re coming from, brother, but I suspect you mistake Fr. Stephen’s intended meaning or do not understand the context into which he is attempting to communicate aspects of the Tradition, which amounts to the same thing. What is your background, I wonder, that qualifies you in particular to be able to make such a definitive pronouncement that Fr. Stephen “ignores the Holy Orthodox Tradition”–he is, after all, an ordained Priest of the Church and has been for over 10 years. I’m not saying here that you cannot possibly be correct in your opinion (although, admittedly I have a much different take on Fr. Stephen’s message)–I’m certainly not qualified, in any event, to make that kind of definitive statement with regard to you.
A word just with regard to blog technicalities–you should also understand that sometimes it appears comments have been blocked by Fr. Stephen when in fact they have just been automatically sidelined into the spam filter and have not yet been viewed by him. I don’t know if that is the case with your first comment or not, but it certainly is a possibility because Fr. Stephen has not posted any responses in the comments here yet.
I love your blog and agree with most of what you say.
Nonetheless, a literal interpretation and sacramental understanding of Scripture are not incompatible.
Christ died to destroy death and rose again to raise us to new life. I Corinthians chapter 15 states that death is the final enemy that will be destroyed. As well, at the last day, death shall be destroyed (“O death, where is thy sting; O grave, where is thy victory”).
Theistic evolution states that millions of years of death of animals were required to produce man. As well, because “Adam” (the first human, however defined by theistic evolution) was produced from animals, he was going to die anyway, even if he did not sin. Nevertheless, the Christian faith has always taught that death only entered the world through sin, as can be seen from these verses from the book of Wisdom:
1:13 For God made not death: neither hath he pleasure in the destruction of the living.
2:23 For God created man to be immortal, and made him to be an image of his own eternity.
2:24 Nevertheless through envy of the devil came death into the world: and they that do hold of his side do find it.
As well, the Council of Carthage (419 A.D.) says this: “That whosoever says that Adam, the first man, was created mortal, so that whether he had sinned or not, he would have died in body— that is, he would have gone forth of the body, not because his sin merited this, but by natural necessity, let him be anathema.”
Evolution makes God’s originally good creation less than good, and states that God used death (what Christ died to destroy) to create a “good” creation:
The Church Fathers also believed in a literal creation. St Ambrose of Milan says: “He (Moses) did not anticipate a late and slow creation from combinations of atoms” but “wanted to express the unthinkable rate of the action”. St Athanasius the Great testifies: “All kinds of animals were created at once all together at the same command”. And St. John Damascene writes “The earliest formation (of man) is called creation and not generation. For creation is the original formation at God’s hands, while generation is the succession from each other made necessary by the sentence of death imposed on us on account of the transgression.” (On the Orthodox Faith, II, 30). St Ephrem the Syrian says “No one should think that the Creation of Six Days is an allegory”.
From my experiences, many agnostics have great difficulty believing in the dignity of human nature because they do not believe in a distinct human nature (because of their belief in evolution).
Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner.
Marc, you have yet to substantiate your case how your intellectual ponderings have any more of a basis in truth as do those of Fr Stephen. You fail to hold your own ponderings to the same standard and scrutiny to which you hold someone else’s. Epic fail!
very good article. in ‘foolishness to the greeks’, lesslie newbigin shows how the historical-critical method and fundamentalist exegesis both stem from a secular worldview which has accepted certain premisses that are not christian (chapter 3, ‘the word in the world’). The fundamentalist view of scripture shows one weak spot of the ‘sola scriptura’ idea…
These simple statements, such as:
“Christ is the Truth”,
“God governs reality”,
“Jesus is God’s revelation to man”,
“He Himself is the criterion and definition of what is true…
things are true and false only as they are compared to Him”.
– these words make my heart nearly burst with joy!
Thank you for sharing.
I used to be a firm ‘theistic evolutionist’ back when I cared more about these things. After becoming Orthodox I became quite uncomfortable with my former inclination, largely for the reasons you state: death before the fall is a real problem!
I wonder however if part of the answer is in the ‘non-chronology’ theological point that Fr Stephen refers to?
In some sort of evolutionary history of the world, where death predates the human person, I wonder if there can still be a sense in which it is human sin that is the *cause* of this death? Given our role as priests of creation, ADAM’s fall pulled the whole creation down with him/them into bondage to death and decay. Could this be a spiritual truth while not a ‘chronological’ truth? Just as as Christ was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world… in anticipation of death and the need to conquer it?
There would be far more to think about here.
My spiritual father, a radiant monk, saind about the Genesis story once, “every word of it applies to you, and to us, and to Christ. God is not interested in writing history, he is interested in saving lives. Read scripture to commune with God, not to study.” (paraphrasing him).
He was in no way speaking directly about evolution or creationism (he wouldn’t care about those things). He was simply telling me how to read my bible for profit.
Marc, you mentioned that “this scroll, or book, is what we know as the Holy Bible.”
I recall a lecture by Fr. Thomas Hopko in which he said that the book or scroll contains the deep hidden mysteries of God and ‘everything.’ According to Revelation 5 only the slain lamb was found worthy to break the seven seals.
Forgive my polemic. It just doesn’t make sense to me that the sealed book of Revelation is the Holy Bible.
Apophatically Speaking……when you say “You fail to hold your own ponderings to the same standard and scrutiny to which you hold someone else’s. Epic fail!” I fear that this is the very place where we all fail epicly . All of us!
St. Athanasius wrote:
“Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ; and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked-namely, the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree, they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. But since the will of man could turn either way, God secured this grace that He had given by making it conditional from the first upon two things-namely, a law and a place. He set them in His own paradise, and laid upon them a single prohibition. If they guarded the grace and retained the loveliness of their original innocence, then the life of paradise should be theirs, without sorrow, pain or care, and after it the assurance of immortality in heaven.”
He clearly believes that men are animals and essentially impermanent. Immortality is a conditional grace. Even if Adam and Eve had avoided sin, they would have “died,” but not “remained in death.” That is, dying would have been a seamless transition from one reality to another, as opposed to total non-existence.
St Theophan the Recluse says this:
“It is possible to know the faith well and be zealous for it, but in actual life to serve the passions, to dress, that is, in the shameful clothes of a sin-loving soul.”
Lord have mercy we are all prone to this one way or another…
Phillip Jude the infallible Fathers disagree all the time
Marc, thanks for your response. With regard to your comment about the title of this post, I would just offer the following observation. Fr. Stephen often uses provocative phrases or titles as a pedagogical device to attract the attention of the particular mindset into which he wishes to speak–perhaps to help dislodge those of us who can benefit from his message and experience from some “certainties” of what we think we know and put us a little off-balance to prod us to a deeper level of reflection and understanding of Truth. In my perspective, Fr. Stephen’s posts are most definitely not mere intellectual exercises–he has a very spiritual and pastoral intent. I find him a rather astute discerner of the souls and issues of those to whom his ministry is primarily addressed (me being one of them!). Jesus also used some very provocative stories and language as a pedagogical device, so I think this can also be a useful tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit.
I am aware of that, of course. I just wanted to point out that this idea that humans are transient animals is not a totally novel idea specific to the modern era.
The bible is true because an Ecumenical Council of the church decided it’s canon. I’m not certain but I don’t think Mount Athos had been populated by monks yet to the properly ratify the council however it seems to have stood the test of time.
Well folks, this question of Truth is liminal – we are teetering between the old western worldview here in America, and Fr. Stephen’s older eastern worldview… or between Modernism and Pre-modernism, right? This is a long slough, but necessary, and we need the good Fr. Stephen as guides along this journey, especially for former Protestant Evangelicals like myself. Fr. Stephen: keep on interpreting for all of us who are caught between worlds.
My husband and I are newly Orthodox enquirers, and I cant express enough how enlightening I have found this blog and in particular this post. Coming from a protestant background, Orthodoxy can seem such a dense place and it gets easy to miss the forest for the trees. Thank you. (Now if you could only convince my husband there isnt something inherently wrong with iconography…)
What an odd world we live in. What strange times! Who could have foretold even 10 years ago that I would now (even loosely) be a part of a flock that cared about each other and grew together, just by listening to a regular “homily” on a website?
I’m not complaining, just amazed at the number of ways God continually reaches into our world and seeks to have a relationship with us….
No problem, Marc, I understand. With regard to ill-considered late night postings or reacting before giving yourself time to fully digest others thoughts: I’ve caught myself in that position many a time. It’s a hazard that comes with liking to read blogs. 🙂
The rich wisdom of Fr. Stephen’s commentaries, coupled with the wisdom and brotherly love of his readers’ responses, bear witness to the Spirit’s work in the body, and prompt praises toward its Head, Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” -Matt. 5:9
Leonard – I agree we all can fail in that respect, but that cannot serve as a valid excuse. Failing to engage the actual position, claims and ideas is just plain old sloppy. It appears Marc has admitted as much to this now. 😀
apophaticallyspeaking- it appears to me that Marc indeed has repented!
Wow! I should have been online yesterday instead working at Church…The headline is intentionally provocative (as is often the case). Who wants to read an article entitled, “The Bible is True”? But “Is the Bible true? raises curiosity. I was trained to write like that.
Marc, I never found your missing comment, not in the spam, or in the email inbox (where all things are recorded). Didn’t trash it. However, considering that you have freely posted comments a number of times, it was leaping too quickly to a false conclusion, especially to accuse me of Anglicanism, of the Holy Spirit having nothing to do with the site, etc. and demanding that I shut it down (just because your own comment did not appear). I accept your apology, and encourage you to guard your temper. I’m a human being too, and words wound me as much as anyone else.
I write with the blessing of my bishop and Metropolitan. I have written for Orthodox magazines, both in America and Europe. By invitation my articles are often reposted on the OCA website. I will soon be posting articles to a web magazine maintained by Vatopedi monastery on Mt. Athos. Apart from my ordination to the Sacred Priesthood in 1999 by Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, I don’t know what other credentials to trot out.
I do know that I’ve received (literally) hundred of emails through the past few years in which readers have shared the role that reading here has played in their conversion to Orthodoxy. I am deeply grateful for such notes, and deeply encouraged. I ask for prayers, for patience, for questions, for correction. I’m not a Church father, nor some sort of elder. I’m a priest who likes to write and seemed to have been occasionally blessed in that effort.
I suggest some articles that say what this blog is about:
What Matters one of the first articles I wrote for the blog.
Some thoughts on ignorance (mostly my own)
Finally, the groundrules for posting on the blog (first posted in 2006).
Thank you so much for this site. I am new to Orthodoxy and it is invaluable.
I’ve wrestled for some time with the problem of the chronology of death and sin, believing both in evolutionary biology and the truthfulness of Scripture, in which I believed was taught the chronology of “sin first, then death.”
I think your point about the “non-chronological” aspect is well worth considering. I came across an essay by a Russian deacon once in which the deacon suggested something of this, but also that, to St. Paul, “death” (as in Romans) refers to something distinctly human, as it entails a spiritual-material complexity not experienced by lower animals created without the image of God. (I believe the title was “Orthodoxy and Creationism” …. by Deacon Andrew Kuraev…. you can find this link and other helpful essays on the Orthowiki entry on “Evolution”).
I also think that, in pre-modern times — as in the days Scriptures were written — there was much less a chronological emphasis placed on describing cause and effect relationships.
A good example of this is in John 9 and the story of the blind man, it appears to me. In 9:2, the disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Because the point is the answer given by Christ, the “non-chronological worldview” of
the disciples is easily missed. We can understand how his parents sins (predating his birth chronologically) could cause his infirmity. But, to the disciples, the man’s own sins (which would post date his birth and congenital blindness) could have been the “cause” of his blindness. They seem to have had no problem with a “literal” or “chronological” logistics of how this might be.
This is not an argument that they were right, just an observation that your suggested “non-chronological view” certainly is not merely a post modern attempt to figure out a way to reconcile science and faith.
I understand your objections. God clearly is our Creator – but precisely how to understand what that means, other than “creation ex nihilo” is not readily apparent. I have in mind, not science problems, but rather statements such as that of St. Maximus the Confessor that “the Incarnation is the cause of all things.” Proper Christian eschatology (in contrast to the end-time nonsense we hear in our culture) is very comfortable with such statements. As to the Fathers, there is a variety of opinions expressed. Bouteneff’s work on the fathers in the first 4 centuries and Creation is worth a read, as is the work on Allegory by Fr. Andrew Louth.
Courtney – if I may, don’t try to convince yourselves or each other anything about the Holy Icons. Let this article sync in – let the Orthodox vision of Christ sync in deeply. If the Orthodox vision of Scripture as witness to Christ takes root, icons will find a place too – The Holy Icons are another way we bear witness to the Incarnate God-man: we declare the Gospel in word and image, but everything is about the Person of Christ.
I think you’re probably going in the right direction. If we are to believe the promise of God, Adam “died” the day he ate the fruit of the tree: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Considering the long life he lived after the fall, “death” must refer to some other manner or mode of corruption.
St. Athanasius’ distinction between dying and ‘remaining in death’ has helped me reconcile deep time and Scripture. Ultimately, all Biblical truth is Christological truth, anyway, so we should be worried primarily about what the first Adam means in relation to the last Adam.
Good explanation. I like to push the envelope a little (sometimes a lot). It’s not the credentials (I think I was feeling a little defensive). But I seriously want people (both Orthodox and non-Orthodox) to examine their faith a little out of the box. The reason for that is that many Orthodox are still appropriating their faith in a very Westernized manner, not aware of the rich tradition of Hesychasm, and Apophatic theology that genuinely sees things in a radically different way. Occasionally I get the feel that some have converted to Orthodoxy because it would seem to offer a safer and more defensible haven than the constantly changing world of Protestantism, etc. But the Tradition should not be read as a more secure history. History is the wrong grounding of the faith (both liberal protestants and conservative protestants generally live in a historical trap). But St. Irenaeus said, “Our teaching agrees with the Eucharist and the Eucharist agrees with our teaching.” A very odd statement at first. But the nature of the Eucharist (which clearly has historical elements) is that it is also out of time (the Alpha and the Omega).
That same sort of thing is replete in Maximus the Confessor, and in the writings of many of the fathers. It’s this challenge of Orthodoxy, that draws us towards the Kingdom of God and away from idea and argument, that seem to interest me most. It’s trying to find ways to say this in a manner that even the non-Orthodox might understand (at least to some extent) that feels like the challenge of writing (or preaching, etc.).
Sometimes I do push too far, or push in a way that is not helpful. The geography of heaven and hell, actually, is one of my favorite pieces – though there may be other ways to say the same thing better.
I lived too many years off the reservation to want to leave it now… Your prayers for mine!
Thank you Father Stephen, Mark Basil.
Certainly, the creation narrative contains deep spiritual truths above and beyond any scientific explanation. The question is whether it is literally true as well as spiritually true, rather than whether it is literally true instead of spiritually true.
If the consequence of the fall was purely a “spiritual death”, how can we be assured of more than a “spiritual” resurrection? (“for since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection from the dead”). An only “spiritual” resurrection (e.g. as espoused by full preterism) is not consistent with the teaching of the church.
The corruption of the spirit destroyed the integrity of the body, as well. Our resurrected selves will be neither physical nor spiritual as we understand those terms. It is a new mode of reality that transcends both categories. Christ ate fish but appeared at will. He had the wounds of crucifixion but walked through walls. We’re clearly talking about the different realm of being here altogether, wherein the body and soul work in perfect harmony, “electrified” by the Holy Spirit, so to speak.
Of late, Fr. Jonathan’s writing (Second Terrace) on the account of Evolution vs. Genesis by Fr. Seraphim Rose has tweaked my understanding. Sometimes, the absolutism and fundamentalism of “scientism” (and the demand that we accept unquestioning whatever it is that “scientists say” until they reverse it next week) often becomes so over the top that one almost feels inclined to embrace the Genesis account as Fr. Seraphim gives it (I’ve only seen a thumbnail sketch) just as a sort of antidote to enable some freedom in one’s perspective before thinking on these issues. It’s almost a counter culture issue these days! But in truth, I don’t think on them much because I look at Genesis as salvation history rather than literal… and still find it wonderful.
But I find I am intrigued to know more about the Fathers views as reportedly Fr. Seraphim was rather clear they were different from ours. If they did differ, does it make a difference? Can’t say that at this point it would make much of a difference in my faith, but back the curve, perhaps. And so it raises the old eyebrow. One wonders whether to your knowledge the Church has thought much about, “Does this matter? and if so, how? and what to do?”
Dear Fr. Stephen,
Thank you for this article. I have always said of myself that I am a “converted cradle” – and reading your blog affirms that – and so I read and learn more, every day! So, yes, “Glory be to God for all things!”
Have you ever heard of +Fr. Athanasios Mitilinaios? Here, in Cyprus, many monastics refer to his homilies as their “daily vitamins”. When you touched briefly on Orthodoxy’s theological approach to chronology and history, I was reminded of how he spoke of how both a cyclical and a chronological approach are concurrently used to understanding Revelation. His 100 homilies on Revelation are in Greek; however English translations (by Constantine Zalalas) of them are available online. There is 1 English translation currently available: Homilies on the Book of the Revelation by +Geronda Athanasios, which covers +Geronda’s exegesis of the first seven epistles. I hope that the rest will be forthcoming!
To Marc: According to +Geronda, the white horse is the triumph of the Kingdom of God; and the horseman is the Gospel.
Great blog! Comments I really liked:
1) I believe the Bible is true…Having said that, I must add that the Scriptures do not stand as an independent work of literature or a self-contained Holy Book. The Bible is not God’s revelation to man: Jesus Christ is God’s revelation to man. The Scriptures bear witness to Him and are thus “true” as a true witness to the God/Man Jesus Christ.
2) It is also true that within the writings of the Fathers there can be a variety of opinion on a number of Scriptural matters. The essential agreement is their testimony to Christ. Genesis is about Christ. Exodus is about Christ, and so forth. Read any other way, the books are interesting, but they will not be read in a manner that has been received by the Orthodox Christian Church.
3) …time and chronology do not govern reality – God governs reality.
4) Christ is risen from the dead.
When it comes to literal interpretation of the Scriptures, especially regarding the creation/evolution battlefield with all of the theistic evolution/intelligent design arguments I tend to remain moot. I find “creation ex nihilo” to be sufficient much to the frustration of both fundamentalism’s literalists & agnostic/atheistic skeptics that I encounter.
Personally speaking, I have issues with evolution not for religious reasons, but rather for practical reasons. My husband & I both come from a long line of farmers & ranchers. Over the generations our families have learned that mutations are bad. Occasionally a mutation may appear to be beneficial, but the overall impact on the animal/plant breed is bad.
For those troubled with the idea that death could occur before the fall as evolution would imply, I say this: If Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion & Resurrection can bestow life to those in the Old Testament before Christ, then so too can death & corruption reign retroactively before & because of the fall in the same manner. The sciences of Quantum Physics & mechanics have long shown that affects really may precede their causes chronologically, although this is illogical to our minds.
Proponents of evolution early on knew the value of essentially throwing time out of the equation for their arguments (i.e., given 13-14 trillion years, evolution can work out by means of beneficial mutations) & cannot therefore be disproven. For the Orthodox Christian, we do this as well by reminding the world that the Holy Trinity is eternal & beyond all time (i.e. we speak of the 2nd Coming as already past in the Liturgy & time as we experience it as part of creation) & neither can He be disproven.
As you said, God governs reality; & the reality is: Christ is risen from the dead. Now let’s get about the business of working out our salvation with fear & trembling.
Thank you Fr. Stephen. To your centrality of the Resurrection of Christ I would add the Incarnation of Christ. A very good article. I find that both Liberals and Fundametalists use similar hermeneutics to different conclusions. No one bothers to question the hermeneutic.
Is the Bible True? An excellent and well thought through title Father. For it is not the Bible that is true, but the One of Whom it speaks about.
Steven — The undivided Trinity is the only reliable exegesis (and exegete) of Scripture. It follows too that He is also the true signgiver (Isaiah 7:14).
This is not to deny that the Church should not properly exercise the sacraments (Eph 4:1-10) — but rather, to ascribe them always to their rightful source.
Good point too on the Resurrection of Christ. Trying to recreate the chronology of the Resurrection risks portraying it as an event that is merely historical — and one that can somehow be manipulated to suit a different purpose to that intended by it’s Originator.
Marc writes: “Although the Holy Spirit guided the Church Fathers to include the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, there has never been a consensus among the Fathers and teachers of the Church regarding how to interpret it…The Book of Revelation has remained shrouded in mystery primarily because none of its previous interpreters have fully understood its unique sequential structure.”
G.K. Chesterton once remarked that “though St. John The Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”
Supposedly for 1900 years no one had “properly translated” the Holy Scriptures, until the Jehovah’s Witnesses came along with their New World Translation, that is (I speak very fasciously here) & their modern form of the heresy of Arianism.
In the 1800s Mr. Darby was again the first one to “properly interpret” the book of Revelation. So began the ensuing western Protestant divide involving Rapture Theory (a very “sequential” as well as very “literal” interpretation) & a perpetual cycle of failed End Times date setting (the heresay of Chiliasm). I am still being fascious.
Let’s use these examples to remind us to refrain from finding fault with the Church Fathers with their lack of consensus. If these great writers & theologians–great men who were no doubt much wiser & far more intelligent than any of us here–were unable to interpret & come to a consensus regards Revelation, then how can we dare to find fault with them & promote our own interpretations? I am no longer being fascious.
Let’s cease treading where the Church Fathers & the Church Herself don’t. Instead let us continue as followers of Christ & working out our salvation. Then the wild interpretations of Revelation which ultimately result in equally wild End Times scenarios become irrelevant as long as we are in communion with the Holy Trinity.
That’s my understanding too, Marc. There can be no private interpretations of Scripture though, only God can reveal it’s true meaning (Gk =”apocalypsis”).
“Thus time and chronology do not govern reality – God governs reality.”
Dear Fr. Stephen,
It is the above declaration that so reminded me of +Geronda. I am however, sorry to see that my further comments touched off a discussion that veers away from the subject.
Truly, God is above time, beyond time and beyond any human understanding of the “true” reality of the world to come.
“But I seriously want people (both Orthodox and non-Orthodox) to examine their faith a little out of the box.” – This, Fr. Stephen, says it all for me…I like the way you get us all to “examine [our] faith a little of the box.” Thank you.
Although I was born and raised in the US, I now live in Cyprus – blessed to live in a (mostly) Orthodox country, where I can see the “rich tradition” you refer to alive and well in the daily lives of so many here. So, when you wrote: …many Orthodox are still appropriating their faith in a very Westernized manner, not aware of the rich tradition of Hesychasm, and Apophatic theology that genuinely sees things in a radically different way. – I believe that this, Fr. Stephen, is the reality of where I think a great many of us – Orthodox of the West -are.
Thanks be to God for your charisma of writing!
Marc, unity more than consensus I would say…
Dear Fr. Stephen,
After reading some of the above comments, I fear, when I had written earlier, referring to +Geronda Athanasios’ exegesis/homilies, that I may have misled you (and other readers) into thinking that +Geronda’s work is individual. As you of course know, no true Geronda (There have been many that have scandalized.) would present his work without prayer and a great deal of faith and “leaning” on others. This is also true in +Geronda Athanasios’ work…his homilies are based (in part) and filled with references to three saints – St Andrew (6th C); St Arethas (9th C) and St Ecumenios (6th C) and most importantly, they are based on the Bible itself – OT, NT, plus Apocrypha – +Geronda uses all of it.
Revelation is a book that is still unfolding – and as +Geronda himself said, no one is to approach reading it, interpreting it, without faith, fear, and love…like the Eucharist. To see things these gerondes see is to “see things in a radically different way”.
Dear Fr. Stephen,
Oops. I forgot to add:
To bring this back to Fr. Stephen’s query: Is the Bible true? The same may be asked of all parts of it: Is IT all true, icluding Revelation – which many early Church Fathers/interpreters/writers saw as allegorical? Much of which those (centuries earlier) had thought to be allegorical has become real today. Makes me wonder how much more – that we today see as allegorical – will become real at a later time?
To be clear: I, too, believe that the Bible is true.
I very much doubt that reaching a consensus about the meaning of the book of Revelation is high on the priority list for the Orthodox Church, we have many important and more urgent things to consider. 😀
Is the Bible true? Sure. But this warrants unpacking.
What do we mean by “true”? True as in logically sound, or as to its historicity, or as to scientific verification, or veracity, or trustworthiness, or meaning, or purpose?
Depending how one answers the above, questions about allegory, historical narrative, typology, prophetic literature, and so forth, are then also understood differently.
All this to say that we must be careful and be aware of the assumptions we ‘bring to the table’ when we attempt to interpret the Scriptures. So for instance an approach which favors historicity will put us at odds with the Fathers at times when they take a typological or allegorical approach. What we mean by ‘true’ or ‘real’ greatly affects our understanding of Scripture and the nature of our existence.
If I may. The Fathers who encounter the divine person of God always speak of union as completion (not process). It is the completion of a “pilgrimage” that began in the Garden (itself, an allegory for Paradise), and ended in the New Jerusalem (when Paradise came “down” from heaven)…
There was nothing to forgive. This is a discussion initiated by Fr. Stephen and woven by all of his readers into the fabric of the love that is Christ.
I am glad to see that you found the treasure trove of +Geronda Athanasios’ work…how I wish it could all be translated into English!