A recent conversation on the blog seemed worth a full article. The question centered around the problem of the historical character of the Biblical record. I’ll let the question speak for itself:
I have a question to ask about the historicity of the New Testament, one that’s been gnawing at me for quite some time. Paul was wiling to interpret Scripture allegorically, as his treatment of Galatians makes clear. How, then, do we treat 1 Corinthians 10:1-11? As far as I can see, Paul considers the events of the Exodus as literal history, especially in verse 11: “Now these things [the events of the Exodus] happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (NASV). Isn’t Paul implying there was a literal Israel, who literally left Egypt through a parted sea? And what if there was no Exodus, as some scholars maintain? Or even a period of bondage in Egypt? How would this affect the Christian faith?
This isn’t my field of expertise, but most scholars agree that Jewish writers constructed a ‘mythistory’ around the 6th century BC. Events were reconstructed or even invented to help the Jews understand their current plight. For instance, Shlomo Sand contends the united kingdom of David never existed, that it was a later invention by Jewish writers. Such a theory is is not a problem for me per se; Jewish writers in the 6th century were not doing Oxford history 101! However, Paul seems to believe they did. Do you see the bind I’m in?
Any advice would be appreciated.
St. Paul would have had no reason to question the historical character of an Old Testament story. Those who use such a fact to establish that he “thought” it was historical – and therefore it is historical – are making a primary mistake in logic. What counts as “historical” in the mind of the first century and what counts as “historical” in the mind of the 20th or 21st, are very different things. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the first century mind was not capable of conceiving what we think of as “historical.” And this is a extremely essential part of understanding the Scriptures, as well as acquiring an Orthodox mind.
I’ll expand on that.
We are secularists. We think things are just things and are nothing other than things. We conceive of the world as existing apart from God, even as self-existing. We thing that if things “mean” anything, it’s only because we “think” of them in a certain way, but that “truth” is only a flat, secular, historical thing. It’s “what happened” and nothing more. Protestant (and later modern) thought changes the nature of truth into this secularized notion. It is an objectification of reality, so that it would be independently and scientifically verifiable as true. Thus, when a modern says that something is “historical” he means what “objectively happened” in such a way that it could be proven were there enough evidence. It is true apart from God and is therefore just a “fact.” The truth is thus just a collection of facts. “History” is the collection of the “facts” of the past.
This notion of truth is no older than about the 17th century. It’s a modern version of truth. What this version of truth cannot understand is allegory. And allegory is essential to both the Scriptures (particularly the New Testament) as well as the Christian faith when it is rightly taught. St. Paul writes in Galatians:
But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are an allegory. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar– for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children–but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. (Gal 4:23-26)
Modern readers do not grasp what St. Paul is actually saying. All we can hear in the assertion of allegory is that one thing “mentally symbolizes” something else. Because it is a mental symbol (and nothing more), it only exists in the mind of the reader. However, St. Paul actually means quite the opposite. He means that the truth and reality of Hagar is Mt. Sinai, etc. And he means this in a way that staggers the modern mind.
St. Paul (and all of the New Testament writers) does not think of any “historical” event as “historical” (in our modern way of thinking). Rather, he thinks everything actually is allegorical. And he thinks that this is the real truth of things. There is a sense in which the truth is dwelling within, beneath, and in history and that events, when they are properly discerned, reveal this greater, deeper truth. Again, this is no mere mental exercise. We might say that the allegorical view of reality is a sacramental view of reality.
Modern secular thought (and therefore modern Christian thought) is anxious to know about the “historical” character of a Biblical event, but only in the modern meaning of “historical.” It wants to know this because it thinks that’s how truth is known. Any assertion of something less than this secular, objectivity “facticity” creates doubts about the “truth” of the thing. But this is not how truth is known and never has been. If someone knows the “facticity” of something, they still do not know its truth.
The gospels, for example, make it clear that the disciples do not understand the ministry of Jesus, nor His resurrection (even though they are seeing it with their eyes) until the eyes of their understanding were opened. St. Paul is clear about this:
But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1Co 2:14)
Secular versions of knowledge hold that “objective” things are where truth resides and that they are “objectively” known, meaning anybody who looks at something in a disinterested manner can see its truth. But this is not the Scriptural witness.
What we have in the Scriptures, is a “Scriptural” account, rather than a “historical” account. Sometimes “Scriptural” and “historical” coincide, but not always. Frequently, the story has a theological shape in order to reveal its inner meaning (its <em>allegory</em>). The Exodus, as it is written, reveals Pascha (or Christ’s Pascha reveals the true meaning of the Scriptural Exodus). In point of fact, we cannot get behind the Scriptural account of the Exodus to know “exactly” that the modern “historical” events might have been. What we have is an account given us that we might know the truth.
This kind of thinking makes many people nervous. And that is because they have a modern consciousness. I get attacked, occasionally, by some well-meaning Orthodox who are, in fact, modernists, but don’t know it. They have a modern theory of meaning that they read back into Scripture and into the Fathers, but in doing so they make the Fathers say things they did not mean, nor could not have meant. The Fathers were not modernists and did not hold to a modern theory of meaning.
The word “literal” is an interesting example. We think “literal” is the same thing as “historical.” But, properly, “literal” means “according to the letter,” that is, “What does the text actually say.” A text, that is fully allegorical, always has a “literal” meaning as well. If the text says a “lampstand,” it means “lampstand,” even though the truth of the lampstand might very well be the Mother of God (for example). The relationship between the “letter” of a text and what a modern means by “historical” is often very questionable. Often, the only answer (that is honest) is “we don’t know.”
A primary case of correlation between allegorical, literal, and historical (in every sense), is the resurrection of Christ. St. Paul, in 1Cor. 15, recites a very “historical” account of the resurrection to which the gospels bear some resemblance. It is clearly a very primitive, creed-like recitation of the historical facts of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The gospels, on the other hand, have a clear literary form with regard to these facts, and those literary forms have their given shape in order to reveal the truth of the resurrection. St. John says, “These things are written so that you might believe,” and he means something far greater than merely believing the “facts.”
God is a poet. The world is His poem. It often needs to be read poetically in order to be understood. Protestants and modernists want the world (and God) to be prose. It is not.
The life of an Orthodox believer includes struggling to acquire the mind of the fathers, which includes losing the mind of modernity. In that mind, I would generally say, the “historical” character of the Exodus (or other stories), in a precise, objective form just doesn’t matter, inasmuch as it’s the wrong question asked by a wrongly shaped mentality. That doesn’t mean nothing happened. The assertion that the Exodus is nothing more than pure fiction is both wrong and implausible.
We “believe” the account in Exodus as Scripture – it is the account as we need to know it, so that in the light of Pascha, we might know the truth. Everything(!) is about Christ’s Pascha. Everything is relative to Pascha. The whole universe, rightly understood, is “read” in the light of Christ’s Pascha. It is only in that manner that we know the truth of anything.
(1) This seems like word play. What is the difference between your position and liberal Protestants who say something like “The OT isn’t historical, it’s just about theological meaning”? I hear you saying that in some sense the meaning is “in” the history, but I don’t see that sense spelled out in any way that amounts to a substantive difference from higher critics who say something like “well, this is really literature, not history.”
(2) The tone here seems to undervalue events actually occurring. Events actually occur in my life. That’s kind of a big deal to me-that my son was actually born at a certain time and place, that my wedding occurred in a measurable, empirical way, that my baptism and chrismation were events at a certain time and place during which God acted in my life, etc. It’d be nice to think God did real things in real time and space and that some of those were revealed to OT and NT authors. If not, then why not just read Aesop’s Fables?
Excellent discussion Father. I have found much of what scholars say to be the result of “reasoning” in the modern way. The person who invented the idea that the Jews made up the Old Testament (Herr Welhausen) claimed that there was no way that anyone could write near the time of the Exodus so it had to be written later. He argued out of Hegel’s theory of the Dialectic. Europe bought in and America a Century later even though Archaeologists were, at the time of Welhausen’s arguing, were digging up cuneiform texts in modern Iraq that predated the Exodus. Yet, despite Hegel’s theory of the Dialectic being utterly debunked, modern Scholars still rely upon the work of Hegel and Welhausen to denigrate Scripture. As I wrote in my paper in Seminary concerning the truth of the Old Testament in light of these theories: “If we accept that Jesus of Nazareth is the Divine 2nd Person of the Trinity, then we must accept the Old Testament for He Who Is, not only read, but preached from these Scriptures and declared Himself their fulfillment. There is no higher approving authority than Him.”
Great stuff as usual. Really thought-provoking. The one problem I often have with your writing is that you write ‘Protestant’ when ‘Reformed’ would be more correct. This piece is a perfect example–Lutheran theology is sacramental, whereas Reformed is not.
The tone here seems to undervalue events actually occurring.
Guy, I’m not sure that Father’s post undervalues events actually happening as much as it reflects the Fathers view of the OT events only being seen correctly in the light of Christ.
While one can go “event by event” and debate whether the history (as a set of facts) actually took place as described, to do so it to miss the point of Scripture, which is found in the person of Christ. The Incarnation of God is the defining focus of all Scripture; it grounds everything in a way that denies that “it’s just theology”. Theology, in the view of the “higher critics” you reference, is little more of an abstract manner of viewing the world. But the Incarnation of God in Christ is the concrete event that defines the Truth of Reality beyond either the abstraction of theology or the literal interpretation of facts.
If I have misunderstood or misrepresented your inquiries, please forgive me. Also, please correct me if I have done a poor job of explaining what I believe is the central focus of correctly viewing Scripture.
To perhaps state my point more clearly and succinctly: No “historical” event happens outside of Christ so every event in Scripture must be viewed and understood in the light of His Incarnation. Allegory is simply the requirement for us to see beyond the event to the Truth. But that Truth is actually grounded in a concrete, historical, factual event: God breaking into history and redefining it (and us) via the Incarnation.
i take you to be saying that focusing on the event-for-event nature of this or that passage in the OT misses the point in the sense that the passage in question was not revealed to us by God in order for us to focus on such things; rather, the passages are revealed as they are in order for us to focus on certain theological things–chiefly Christ. If i understand you correctly, this all sounds fine to me. (Did i understand you correctly?) i took Father Stephen to be claiming something different than this though.
Merry Christmas Father. Thank you for this post. It has recalled lessons on the nature of the Scriptural writings, St. Clement of Alexandria on the fourfold interpretation of Scriptures, “The meaning of the Law is to be understood by us in three ways (in addition to its literal sense): as displaying a sign, as establishing a command for right conduct, or as making known a prophecy.” I think you have discussed the role of ‘literal’ and ‘making known a prophecy’. St. Augustine (Blessed Augustine) discussed the literal and allegorical sense of the Scriptures, particularly in his commentary against the Manichaeans – a group of ‘thinkers’ of his time. It seems this ‘fight’ of understand the Scriptures is to be an ongoing dialogue.
St. Augustine also commented on Platonists in his “de doctrina Christiana”, stating that, if they have “anything which is true and consistent with our faith, we must not reject it, but claim it for our own use, in the knowledge that they possess it unlawfully.” Not un-coincidentally regarding the Exodus from Egypt, St. Augustine went on to state, “The Egyptians possessed idols and heavy burdens, which the children of Israel hated and from which they fled; however, they also possessed vessels of gold and silver and clothes which our forebears, in leaving Egypt, took for themselves in secret, intending to use them in a better manner [Ex 3:21-2; 12:35-6].”
Father, I do not presume to raise this as a counter point. Rather, I have thought that the old scientific question, “Why is it so?” has been bumbled by those who are less understanding of language than they are of physics. Rather, the scientist asks, “How is it so?”. The term ‘why’ implies purpose, and as you stated, the “disinterested” are not going to be able to answer why.
P.S. Great term that, “disinterested observer”. Bit of an oxymoron, but so are the modern ‘clever’ people, I guess.
Why must his position be “substantive[ly] differen[t]” from the positions of critical scriptural scholars? Your question assumes that it should be without providing any evidence why such an assumption would be true. Even if scholars are wrong in some things (and they most certainly are, as are all human knowers), that does not mean they are wrong in all things. Indeed, all ancient literary genres (including scripture) are very different from the modern genre of history. The critical apparatus of modern historiography is, quite simply, a development of the last three centuries or so.
Ignoring the assumption that being word play somehow would undermine Fr Stephen’s reflection, it is word play with a deep significance. The writers of scripture and the fathers of the church often make plays on words, one of the most significant and powerful being the word play between suffering, paschein, and passover/Easter, Pascha. The deep connection between Christ’s Passion and his Passover is fundamental to the Christian faith; it’s also word play. This is precisely the kind of worldview that Fr Stephen invokes when he calls God a poet and creation his poem.
The tone here properly devalues mere factual description and direct correspondence between words and facts; the tone here properly elevates the value of meaning and the ways that human beings use language to express the meaning of reality. Such meaning is only hinted at by the factual descriptions of modern journalists and historians. Indeed, to see even modern news stories and histories as only factual is to miss a fundamental insight of the last fifty years: Even the most apparently plain descriptions are always biased in what questions are asked, whose perspectives are allowed, and which facts are considered important and which irrelevant. “Just the facts, ma’am” are never just the facts.
“Those who reject the historical meaning in the God-inspired Scriptures as something obsolete are avoiding the ability to apprehend rightly, according to the proper manner, the things written in them. For indeed spiritual contemplation is both good and profitable; and, in enlightening the eye of reason especially well, it reveals the wisest things. But whenever some historical events are presented to us by the Holy Scriptures, then in that instance, a useful search into the historical meaning is appropriate, in order that the God-inspired Scripture be revealed as salvific and beneficial to us in every way.”
+ St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah 1.4, PG 70.192AB
Thank you for taking the time to respond to me.
I’ll need some time to think about what you’ve said. It seems ancient hermeneutics contradict modern habits of thinking. Philosophy is not one of my strengths. I’m a historian by training, very much concerned with what actually “happened” in the past. Nevertheless, I’ll keep trying to ‘wrap my brain’ around all of this.
God bless you, father. You’ve helped me immensely. I read many of your blogs on hermeneutics. They’ve revolutionised my way of seeing the Bible. I grew up in a fundamentalist home, where the truth of Scripture was intrinsically bound up with historical events. As you can imagine, university was difficult for me. For the first time in my life I was forced to confront questions on evolutionary science and Biblical archaeology. I asked the inevitable question: ‘How do I reconcile all this with what the Bible says?’ I knew that scientists and historians are not concocting an elaborate deception to undermine the faithful, yet I also recognised that what they were saying could not be reconciled with what I was taught. Worry and doubt kept me up many nights, and sometimes made me sick. Looking back on the experience, I now realise why so many Christians from fundamentalist homes turn from their faith.
Reading your blogs has helped me get out of the modernist straitjacket, but they also sadden me, because now I realise I went through all of that worry and depression for nothing. I was saddled with unnecessary burdens. Part of me is frustrated and even a little angry with those responsible for my spiritual education. I feel they’ve robbed me and so many others of the joy to be had in the Christian life.
Keep up the good work, father: we don’t always realise the impact we have on others.
Guy and Byron,
I think that Fr. Stephen is pointing out is that our questions are wrong. As modern people we are trained to see reality and just look at the surface. We don’t even see the fullness of said physical ‘reality’ as the scientist describe it as energy, atoms, etc. ‘Reality’ as we know it through our day to day interactions and life is a communal interpretation. It is a common human interpretation.
As moderns we have forgotten our creativity and curiosity (strangely). We, unlike the ancients, just focus upon the surface ‘reality.’ The ancients, throughout different cultures, looked beyond the surface. They knew there was an underlining meaning that was True, if only they could find it. They of course knew about interpretations and perspectives (opinions) but they saw a sublime beauty, poetry in the world that anyone who reflected or meditated could see. It was a beauty that wasn’t made by them, it was a creation made by the Other.
I think and truly believe that we must discover this poetry again. Just sitting quietly in a park or watching the ants go by, or finding the rhythm in the rain will help us to become more human and perhaps open our hearts to hear God.
Perhaps then we can ask better questions.
Our eyes are blind and our ears do not hear. Lord heal me, the deaf and blind one!
If Christianity isn’t backed up by history or other such proofs, then we are no different than other religions. The mormons make historical truth claims that have been proven false. My friend an ex mormon says that to remain in that faith you have to suspend your rationality. As far as I know Christianity is an evidence based religion. If they found the body of Christ, we wouldn’t just say well it was allegorical anyways and just continue to believe.
Good questions. First, the event-for-event concept is itself an inherently secular perception of the world. I do not deny the event. I’ve witnessed the births of my children, had a wedding, etc. That they “happened” is crucial. However, now that I’m 40 years down the road from my marriage, I see better what that event was – not just what I think about it – but what it actually was when it occurred, and I absolutely did not see it when it happened, nor did anyone else who witnessed it. Its “truth” was hidden. I see much of it now (or more of it). What it shall be will only be made known when all things are made known, at Christ’s appearing (which is also “Christ’s revealing”).
I in no way mean to demean or diminish that something happened in the stories of Scripture. But the Scriptures are not written in order to convey historical, secular understanding. They are written to convey that hidden truth and have what we would sometimes call a “literary” shape. It’s a unique literary shape, itself formed and shaped by Pascha. Pascha is God’s “hidden hand” (cf. Exodus 17:16 in the LXX).
But I would also caution readers that the literary, revealing account is, in fact, a step “removed” (or some such word) from the secular concept of “what happened.” That secular concept fails to convey the truth of the thing. Thus Exodus (to stay with that example) includes lots of references to what God was thinking and doing. But no one (with the possible exception of Moses) would have seen that “hidden hand” as the events themselves were happening. You and I certainly don’t see the events in our lives like that – no even our Chrismations, Baptisms, etc. Only discernment can reveal that – only God can make them known to us. But the Scriptural accounts take at least one step towards that revealing in their shape and formation – how they are told and written.
The difference here, and it is difficult to understand what I am saying, is that the “literary,” the “true,” the “allegorical,” etc., is not a mental exercise, the product of later reflection (and nothing more). I am saying that those things indwell the events themselves. This is a characteristic of the “one-storey universe.” And, I am saying that understanding this is essential to a proper understanding of the Orthodox life. Otherwise, we’re just Orthodox secularists – not people who believe secular things, but people who try to believe Orthodox things in a secular manner.
The weakness, forgive me, in what you are saying is that it tends towards a “flat” thing-for-thing understanding of history and truth, etc. This is a very difficult point for all of us born in our modern world. That Christ cites the stories does not make them into collections of secular facts. It raises everything up into the very Logos Himself. “The words I speak are Spirit.” Christ says nothing in the manner that we say it. If Jesus says, “Give me water to drink…” it’s far more than an expression of a biological necessity. “I have food to eat you know nothing about.” But, He still says, “Give me water to drink.”
We accept the Old Testament, not apart from Christ – and your assertion is that it has a truth by itself, and that Christ’s citing it is proof that its truth-by-itself is true. But that is not the case. It is true as Christ reveals it, and in speaking it, He is taking it even beyond its own letter. It doesn’t destroy the letter, but the letter alone could not reveal.
I understand your view of “high Lutheranism.” It is, I fear, both too kind and too generous for the bulk of what goes by the name of “Lutheran.” But there is indeed a more sacramental Lutheran theology, as there is in Anglicanism as well.
I do not suggest rejecting the historical meaning. However, I suggest that even St. Cyril means by the word “historical” something that no modern actually means. The failure to actually understand such things leads to a wrong reading of the fathers. A radical change in consciousness occurs in the advent of modern thought. But moderns generally don’t recognize this. In doing so, they re-read history and turn everybody into a modern and judge them accordingly. The “mind of the Fathers” isn’t a collection of opinions, is an actual consciousness that modernity does not possess.
Only the spiritual man can read the Scriptures rightly. They cannot be read rightly, even on a so-called “historical” manner by the unspiritual man. Modernity thinks this is false. St. Cyril is not agreeing with modernity.
Well said. I strongly suggest that a good read for “moderns” would be a couple of Owen Barfield’s works: Poetic Diction and History in English Words. Both deal somewhat with the “evolution in consciousness.” We do not think or perceive or speak like people prior to our modern period. Barfield has plenty of problems, but that central point is worth contemplating.
I started my academic life as a Classicist, reading non-Christian authors of the ancient period. The more you immerse yourself in such things, the more you realize that they see the world differently. Occasionally you’ll get an insight. Moderns cannot read ancient writings (including the Scriptures) unless and until they begin to recognize this and start to acquire the mind that wrote them.
It is not the Scriptures that we need to question – it is ourselves.
So what, then, does St. Cyril mean by “historical?” and what evidence is there to suggest that the Fathers could not or did not understand history to mean “things that happened in the past” as we do? We see the Fathers time and again warning us that allegories do not negate the literal, historical meaning of the text. What else could they possibly mean by this? They realize we can run wild with allegories and forget the events actually happened. This is precisely what we moderns also mean by “history.”
St. John of Kronstadt, possessing the same mind of Christ as did St. Cyril writes:
“When you doubt in the truth of any person or event described in Holy Scripture, then remember that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God,” as the Apostle says and is therefore true, and does not contain any imaginary persons, fables, and tales, although it includes parables, which everyone can see are not true narratives, but are written in figurative language. The whole of the word of God is single, entire, indivisible truth; and if you admit that any narrative, sentence, or word is untrue, then you sin against the truth of the whole of Holy Scripture and its primordial truth, which is God Himself. “I am the truth,” said the Lord; “Thy word is truth,” said Jesus Christ to God the Father. Thus, consider the whole of the Holy Scripture as truth; ***everything that is said in it has either taken place or takes place.***”
— My Life in Christ, p. 70 (2000)
One of our most brilliant modern scholars, Hieromonk Irenei Steenberg, addresses this question, specifically in regards to St. Irenaeus:
“But this symbolic or iconic value, far from encouraging Irenaeus to view Adam and Eve and their lives as substantially legend or myth, causes him to endeavor with all the greater urgency to establish the full ‘facts’ of their existence, for therein can be learned the true anthropological reality of present-day man. The symbolic value of the creation account is, for Irenaeus, bound up in its very historicity – a notion evidenced in Irenaeus’ tireless charges of Gnostic modifications or alteration of that very history … There is symbolism to be had in the histories, but the symbolism is lost if the history did not in actuality take place as history.”
— Children in Paradise: Adam and Eve as “Infants” in Irenaeus of Lyons, Journal of Early Christian Studies – Volume 12, Number 1, Spring 2004, pp. 1-22
As far as I know Christianity is an evidence based religion.
Paul, I think that Christianity is more correctly understood as a revealed religion. We could never know God if He did not reach out to us. That is my understanding, anyway.
I think that Fr. Stephen is pointing out is that our questions are wrong.
While I agree to an extent, I was considering this last night and suddenly was struck by the thought that we should be able to see the Angels that guard over us. They are not hidden; we have our eyes closed (2Kings 6:17 came to mind). I think that Father is pointing out that we need to being seeing in a different manner in order to recognize the Truth of things (Scripture being one of those things and the focus of this post).
Please forgive me if I am overstating this!
Also, you said you’re not advocating rejecting the historical meaning, but in the article you wrote:
What we have in the Scriptures, is a “Scriptural” account, rather than a “historical” account. Sometimes “Scriptural” and “historical” coincide, but not always. Frequently, the story has a theological shape in order to reveal its inner meaning (its allegory). The Exodus, as it is written, reveals Pascha (or Christ’s Pascha reveals the true meaning of the Scriptural Exodus). In point of fact, we cannot get behind the Scriptural account of the Exodus to know “exactly” that the modern “historical” events might have been. What we have is an account given us that we might know the truth.
… here you have specifically said “rather than an historical account” and given an example that you believe is not historical.
Father Stephen, while I always appreciate your ability to give us many layers of meaning and not just a one-dimensional look at reality or scripture, I do have concerns regarding any sense that it doesn’t matter whether events provided to us in Scripture actually happened (where it seems to be clear that it is communicating that it did).
I became Orthodox because I chose to go with how the Fathers of the church interpret Scripture, not my own sense. My understanding is that the Fathers believe the events in the scriptures “actually happened.” I would be interested in receiving from you examples from the Fathers where they teach differently.
Here’s one from John Chrysostom that is pretty clear, discussing the four rivers of Paradise in Genesis 2:
“Perhaps one who loves to speak from his own wisdom here also will not allow that the rivers are actually rivers, nor that the waters are precisely waters, but will instill in those who allow themselves to listen to them, that they (under the names of rivers and waters) represented something else. But I entreat you, let us not pay heed to these people, let us stop up our hearing against them, and let us believe the Divine Scripture, and following what is written in it, let us strive to preserve in our souls sound dogmas.”
–St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis, XIII, 4
Father, if I understand you correctly, then you mean to say that everything written in scripture, OT and new, is NOT written from an objective viewpoint, simply stating facts and occurances as they happened, in the most detailed and factually correct manner for the purposes of documentation. But RATHER, written so as to proclaim the gospel of Christ. So instead of bothering with fotons and electrons and gravity and space time and cooling crusts and whatever factually happened at the creation of the world, scripture rather states “and God said” i.e The Word which is Christ. So we may go through every story and narritve in scripture and it is all the gospel. The name of the king of Assyria, the time or place where a battle was fought, whether it was a plague of frogs or salamanders — these are but trifles, it’s all the gospel, it’s all about Christ? 🙂
I recall reading in the 70’s books such as Evidence That Demands a Verdict and others that attempted to prove the veracity of the Scriptures by their logical, and as you state, modern mindset of what is historical. I’m not at all sure that many were/are convinced by such arguments. What greater miracle than Christ raising Himself from the grave, yet many Jews present ran to the authorities in disbelief. Or the words of Jesus, “Even if someone were to arise from the dead, they would not believe,” words spoken to the rich man in Hades. So, miracles in themselves cannot convict, convince nor convert. Neither can simply believing in a set of historical facts. To know God requires trust, a faith commitment, a spiritual understanding that only occurs when our mind (nous) is enlightened by the Holy Spirit. In this way we do see all Scripture sacramentally, and indeed all of life. And it’s through the sacraments themselves, chiefly through Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, that I am truly enabled, at least momentarily, to view all of life through Christ’s Pascha.
Jesse and Dean Arnold,
Yes. I am guilty in that sentence of using “historical” in the modern sense of its meaning. What I am saying is that “historical,” used by moderns, has a subtle, but deeply important different meaning than when used by the Fathers, or in antiquity.
St. Cyril, for example, as well as St. John Chrysostom in the passage quoted, are addressing something very different than modern historical critical questions. Their adversary is an abuse of allegory. That abuse saw meaning where you would never dream of them, not unlike the “gematria” of the Rabbis, in which you could add up the number of letters and try to find things. It was an allegory in which the historical and the literal text completely disappear and are obscured by a profusion of speculative allegory. These interpreters did not hesitate to do this even to very straight-forward stories in the gospels.
Now, mind you, even the fathers do interesting things with the stories in the gospels. The story of Zachaeus, in which he restores “four-fold,” what was taken from him, is taken to mean not just 4 times what he had extorted from others, but also the 4-fold “height, depth, breadth, etc” of spiritual understanding. I use this just as one example.
But as they defend the notion of “historical,” they are not arguing about the pure, secular, “just the facts” notion of historical writing (in its modern, quasi-scientific form). First, viz. the Exodus, there clearly is an event, and the Fathers would say that to comment on the event with no regard for it as an event, but only as a collection of related words that seek to convey some other meaning, is false. But that is their argument.
It is, I think, entirely mistaken, to take statements from that argument and conversation, and put them in the context of a conversation about the modern notion of quasi-scientific history.
What I am alleging, is that there is a wide-spread misuse of this very thing and that it is widespread and misused because those who do so do not understand the nature of the consciousness of the Fathers and antiquity and are largely guilty of creating arguments that are anachronistic. This, I think, demonstrates a lack of historical understanding and can foster a false spiritual consciousness.
I also despair for the large part of convincing those who are deeply and unconsciously married to the modern consciousness. I fear they will always assume that I’m some sort of crypto-liberal. I’ve heard such rumors and accusations. They only tell me that those who make them don’t yet understand what I’m saying. But I guess that’s a reason to keep writing.
At the very least.
This discussion brings to mind the story of William Buckley, an English convict who was transported to Australia in the early 1800s. He managed to escape the penal colony only to end up living among the aborigines for 32 years, during which time the illiterate Buckley acquired their language and customs. What I found most interesting about Buckley is that according to one of his biographers he purportedly saw a “bunyip” – considered by non-aboriginal people to be a mythical creature, but considered by aboriginal people to be “real”. The jury is out on whether or not this is an objective fact – that he observed a bunyip (or whether bunyip actually exist). Aboriginal people must see with their hearts much more than moderns (?), Buckley acquired their “looking glass” – their way of seeing – I make this statement not out of romanticizing aboriginal people but assuming, perhaps incorrectly, that they perceive the world through a different broken glass than we moderns (?)
To get to my point: When I read scripture I need to return to my heart to be able to “see” what is written there, otherwise I am apt to discount those things that are not congruent with the way I am fractured and amplify those things that sound as if they line up with my fractures. What is interesting is how – in the aggregate – humans become fractured differently than others. The root is the same – envy/pride – the manifestation of the brokenness however seems to be unique to each group.
Just thinking out loud here…fwiw. 🙂
Dean (not Arnold),
Historically, in the modern sense of the word, the most important passage on the resurrection of Christ in the NT is St. Paul in 1Cor. 15. He there cites some form of a creed, which he describes as a “paradosis,” something “traditioned.” (And he is saying this in around 55 a.d). What he cites is a creedal description of the resurrection of Christ:
This “Tradition” is older than any of the written gospels, though clearly known by the gospels. I would even contend that something like St. Mark’s gospel is known, word for word in oral form, by the Apostles and the early pre-NT evangelists of the Church. What is written had existed already as “paradosis” from the near beginning of the Church. I think one of the better presentations of the “historical” evidence on the resurrection can be heard in Gary Habermas’ The Resurrection Evidence that Changed Current Scholarship, that can be watched on Youtube. He does a very excellent presentation.
But, back to my point, the gospels, as written, go very deeply beyond that 1 Cor. 15 creed, and give us a more “literary” account that has the purpose of teaching the whole depth and meaning of Christ’s Pascha. St. John’s gospel is the best example. He has a very different arrangement of the stories (for example, the cleansing of the Temple is set at the beginning of Christ’ ministry instead of in Holy Week). He also has many stories not found anywhere in the other gospels, and lacks the frequent references to “Kingdom of God” and many other things. But, St. John says, “These things are written so that in reading them you might believe.” There’s even some evidence that the gospel is arranged as it is for the purpose of mystagogical catechesis (instructing the newly Baptized). It begins with a series of water and cleansing stories, followed by bread stories (eucharist), etc. Introducing the understanding of the sacraments that was not taught until you were baptized at Pascha. And, in the Church even to this day, it is the gospel of John that is read during the Pascha season.
But there is a nervousness, begotten of the modern “historical” attacks on the veracity of Scripture. Many Orthodox have taken the bait and believe that this is where the battle front is. And since some Orthodox have taken the bait and found their faith shaken by the historical attacks, this is not surprising. But what is not recognized is that the attacks on the veracity of Scripture presuppose a modern consciousness. And when we get in the battle within that same consciousness, we fail to see that we have already lost – for what is secured is our own modern consciousness – only in a conservative flavor.
I want to shout from the rooftops, “Change your mind!” Repent (metanoia)! You cannot understand any of these things with a modern consciousness. It is a false mind. Christianity is not a modern mind that believes certain facts versus a modern mind that doesn’t believe or doubts certain facts. The Christian mind has a completely different understanding of what would constitute a fact, or believing it. And there are over 1500 articles here that seek to help people understand this very thing.
Fortunately, I don’t have to succeed in this mission, because what I am saying is true. God will make it known. (Phil. 3:15).
Yes. I think that before any seminarian is allowed to comment and write on the historical/non-historical character of Scripture, he should first be required to study and report on the consciousness and perception of the Fathers versus the consciousness and perception of moderns. And he should be instructed how to examine his own consciousness to see how his own world-view is itself modern and consider carefully whether he should repent and let it go.
Instead, I see tons of material from people who do not understand these things, and they simply multiply modern arguments. Why would an Orthodox consciousness be no different than a very conservative evangelical consciousness regarding the Scripture, other than that he uses the fathers to support his own conservative evangelical consciousness? The reason is because evangelicals are moderns and that many modern Orthodox are moderns as well. But because their “modern” holding of things that “liberals” don’t believe seems “Orthodox” (meaning only “conservative”), they think they are being Orthodox. They are mistaken.
A first question to consider: How is it possible for allegory to be true in a manner that is not merely “in the mind’s eye”? The modern understanding cannot give an answer to this. It is, if you will, a diagnostic tool for the disease of modernism. We are all infected. Myself included.
I will suggest that articles in this present vein are among the most controversial things I ever write. And they are so because they are the most “anti-modern.” They are so anti-modern that they smoke out even the modernity in our own Orthodox minds. It should make our hair hurt. 🙂
I’ll give what I think is a good, concrete example of what Fr. Stephen is talking about from the Scriptures themselves. Archaeologically, only recent has even a shred of evidence regarding the historical existence of David as King been discovered, and even that shred is disputed. Secular histories vary on whether David was an insignificant tribal leader in the southern part of Palestine, or never existed at all. From the perspective of the God who reveals Himself in the Scriptures, however, David is easily the most important king to ever reign over Israel or Judah, and page after page of the Old Testament Scriptures describe his life, his reign, and then use him as a symbol of repentance that leads to salvation on one hand, and of the Christ to come on the other.
Meanwhile, archaeologically, the Omride Dynasty, and particularly Omri himself, are far and away the most important kings to rule over the northern kingdom of Israel. Not only did he have huge military victories, territorial expansions, and building projects, not only did he open trade relations with all of Israel’s neighbors resulting in a massive boom economy, not only did he found the capital city of that kingdom upon buying the hill that became Samaria, but the nation of Israel was historically referred to by neighboring nations as the ‘House of Omri’ for centuries. In the Scriptures, however, Omri is mentioned in III Kingdoms (I Kings) 16 and receives 8 verses dedicated to him that describe him becoming king, buying the hill of Samaria, being evil, dying, and being buried.
The historical books of the Old Testament do not give us history in the sense of modern historiography. More importantly, they do not claim to. It is not that they are attempting to do modern history and somehow failing. They are succeeding perfectly in their task of revealing the divine significance of certain events. From God’s perspective, Omri is insignificant, and David is of great importance. From the perspective of the world’s history, just the opposite.
This is why these books in the Scriptures tell us again and again, as here about Omri, “Now the rest of the acts of Omri which he did, and the might that he showed, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel?” If you want the world’s history, the world has written it. The Scriptures are here to reveal to us what we could otherwise never know, and that is the real spiritual significance of these people’s lives and experiences millennia ago in the Near East, through which we are led to Christ, and can begin to understand the spiritual significance of our own lives, and the events unfolding in our own times.
I’m a scientist and so suffer a particular burden in understanding the ancients’ concept of allegory, historicity, and truth. Yet I receive (and even serve) Holy Communion – the Body and Blood of our Lord. And in the same way that I do not make an issue of trying to find DNA or cells in those precious elements, neither do I seek to find chariot wheels at the bottom of the Dead Sea. Whether they are there or not, misses the point.
Our modern vision of the world – of the Scriptural world – is like a complex scientific problem that lacks a critical data point that brings the entire field of vision into focus. That is Christ.
No one is questioning whether or not the Jews were actually ever slaves in Egypt – to think anyone IS questioning this is again missing the point. Surely missing the point as much as an archaeologist seeking to find an inordinate number of frog skeletons in Egypt dated to the time of Ramesses II.
I’m still figuring this out.
Yes and no. By “historical” is certainly meant “things that happened.” But not precisely in the way we moderns think “things that happened” (quasi-scientific). A primary thing in this lies within allegory itself. They do not think that allegory is merely “in the mind’s eye.” It somehow indwells in the very thing and event itself. Much like the sacraments. The Bread and Wine do not make us merely think about Christ’s Body and Blood, they are indeed and truly His Body and Blood.
Again, in Irenaeus’ refutation of the Gnostics, he is battling a runaway “make-believe” interpretation of Scripture, in which any connection to occurring events is destroyed. That is the nature of the problem he is addressing. He, of necessity, must stress the space-time nature of the events. The “literal” story is a controlling device on the allegory itself. They are writing in a world that had been shaped by Hesiod and Homer, the land of Zeus and Leta and the Swan, etc. In that world, the OT just becomes another set of literary accounts of “pure fiction.” This runs counter to the incarnation and the whole direction of the Christian revelation.
But there easily becomes a false dichotomy: pure myth versus pure fact. That’s a false choice. Even St. Irenaeus recognizes that the stories can only be rightly read by someone formed in the Tradition.
What we have in the modern world is a false dichotomy: inaccurate mythic make-believe versus pure fact. This is just a false choice.
Where in either false dichotomy is there proper room for real allegory? The Gnostics believed in false allegory – that the realities were only in their minds and that reality itself was only a Mind.
The Christian contention is in none of these things. It holds to space-time events (some of which clearly have a literary shape to them) but says that those very events contain a proper and true allegory that actually dwells within the events themselves. Christ is the Rock that followed the Israelites. The Rock was not “like” Christ, did not make us “think about” Christ. The Rock was Christ.
However we explain all of this, however we understand the fathers, we have to give an account of how they could say such things in a manner that was not “mere allegory, fantasy or fable.” That’s the very heart of what I call the “One-Storey Universe.” It is a sacramental/iconic view, not only of Scripture, but of reality itself. The trees I see outside my window right now as I write are not just trees. They are more. The Cross of Christ indwells them. They proclaim the glory of God. They actually proclaim the glory of God whether I know it or think about it. They declare God’s glory independent of a human mind.
I don’t mind that various Orthodox believers have a greater confidence in certain historical details (the Flood, etc.). But, I think they will get lost in endless losing arguments with the modern scientific mind that falsely thinks it knows anything. I think it is an invitation to a waste of time. Obviously, certain historical details are essential as “historical” details.
What is incorrect, I think, is to make of Christianity a house of cards. An “either/or.” Either every detail of every Biblical story is a literal (modern understanding) historical fact, or none of it is true at all. And that everything in the Fathers says this is true, etc. I think this is incorrect and not faithful to the fathers.
What is the “evidence” to suggest that the fathers had a different understanding of history? Well, for one, they ask different questions than we do. Another, they can say allegorical things and mean them in a way we (moderns) do not. The house of cards approach is, I think, a breeding ground for disbelief in our modern period.
I think, by the way, that Fr. Irenei, whom I hold in high regard, overstates the case on “actuality.” I would say that the “actuality” indwells history, and that the Church has a canonical way of speaking about that actuality – it is found in the Scriptures. But the Scriptures do not speak as they do because they are trying to record facts in a scientific/verifiable/objective manner. They speak as they do because they are the very oracles of God. There are dangers in stating this incorrectly. It could, for example, be saying to a Christian that he may not consider any evidence of a different manner of human origins (perhaps involving our having had a form other than what we think of as “human” today) because it’s not in the Bible. That, I think, is a false, modern consciousness. I don’t think Fr. Irenei thinks that. But I would have to have a private conversation with him on the topic. He is a very good scholar and monk.
The test comes back positive for me, as well, father. You mention above that allegory “indwells” events (and I imagine that “allegory” also stands in for other forms of trans-literal meaning, like the classic “spiritual” and “moral” meanings). I recently wrote my thesis on iconicity in Byzantine rite liturgy, and the image I used there (particularly for the mystagogical commentaries of Ss. Maximus and German) was of jazz musicians improvising on an underlying melody. I used that image to appreciate the mystagogical meaning without also idolizing it—an idolatry that becomes particularly problematic when it comes to renewing some of the ancient traditions of liturgy. (I am thinking here of, for example, allegorizing the Great Entrance as the funeral procession with the body of the crucified Lord or the Little Entrance as his incarnation.) How is it possible for allegory to be true “not merely ‘in the mind’s eye’” and also not lead to a passionate and idolatrous attachment to our interpretations (or those we favor of our predecessors)? (I have spoken of liturgical commentary, but the question is equally applicable to scriptural commentary.)
Well, for one, not all allegories are equal. We needn’t fall into an all or everything system here. The liturgy is, on the one hand, what it is. The Great Entrance is clear the bringing of the Bread and Wine into the altar. It is, also, an entrance with holy angels, and a number of other things. The kind of “symoblizing” that began to arise in certain circles actually isn’t true allegory. It is just a form of cheap symbolic acting out – which is not the truth of the liturgy at all. There are layers in this.
But, I would say very quickly for a modern, that it is very, very difficult for us to ever get beyond the literal in anything. And when we do, we tend to be completely gnostic about it, in which the “beyond the literal” is only in the mind’s eye. We think it only to be imaginary.
Everything in the Liturgy is sacrament – just as much as the Body and Blood of Christ is sacrament. For that matter, the whole world is sacrament, only most people don’t know how to receive it. Our modern minds should utterly crash and burn against such an assertion. And then over the ashes, we can begin to bring the truth into realization. But it’s very important to crash and burn.
Indeed Father, this is an Important Conversation. I have struggled to get to the ‘aha!’ in understanding the allegorical view of Scripture. In seminary, this view was dismissed as not worthy of even debating its merits because it was so laughably irrational.
I think I finally made some headway toward understanding in your follow up post here:
“That they “happened” is crucial. However, now that I’m 40 years down the road from my marriage, I see better what that event was – not just what I think about it – but what it actually was when it occurred, and I absolutely did not see it when it happened, nor did anyone else who witnessed it. Its “truth” was hidden. I see much of it now (or more of it). What it shall be will only be made known when all things are made known, at Christ’s appearing (which is also “Christ’s revealing”).”
And then toward the end:
“The difference here, and it is difficult to understand what I am saying, is that the “literary,” the “true,” the “allegorical,” etc., is not a mental exercise, the product of later reflection (and nothing more). I am saying that THOSE THINGS INDWELL THE EVENTS THEMSELVES.” (emphasis mine… and sorry for the all caps, but it is the only emphasis allowed when leaving a reply)
This makes total sense to me. However, I am sure I will have to dwell on it more to get it firmly in place in my understanding.
Having said that, there is something I’d like to add to the conversation regarding the ‘actual events’ of creation. It seems to me the height of secular thinking to presume that God did not/could not actually, literally create the world in six days – the kind of days we know. This is anthropomorphizing God. And further, to quote you Father, “We think things are just things and are nothing other than things. We conceive of the world as existing apart from God, even as self-existing.” It gives a weightiness – a gravitas to matter that I think it doesn’t deserve. I think if God wanted to create the universe in a nanosecond He could.
To my mind, the appearance of age is the answer to the scientific ‘facts’ that indicate the world is millions of years old. God created Adam as a fully grown man – with the appearance of age– not an infant. It is the same with the rest of the world. This is a very simple perspective and maybe even simplistic, but I will hold it until a superior conceptualization takes its place.
Thank you, Father. Your posts frequently make me think of Owen Barfield, so I was delighted to see you mention him here. I have read “Saving The Appearances” and I think he describes the “modern problem” exquisitely. His solution, as I’m sure you know, was Goethe, theosophy and Rudolf Steiner. I frankly don’t see how one can discard modern rationality and end up with anything any saner than Barfield did. Being skeptical and scientific by nature, I struggle with this.
One can, of course, hold the thoughts you describe viz. creation. However, it presents an unnecessary stumbling block for many. We should not insist that a young earth has any necessary standing in Orthodoxy. I live in a town where particle physics are the norm (the National Lab is here). To suggest that science needs an asterisk, so that whenever it’s most obvious observations can’t be true unless they agree with a particular reading of Scripture is simply unworkable.
The creation of a universe with a false appearance is, I think, contrary to the work of God. It would say that the creation is intentionally misleading. That’s a world apart from saying that there is more to things than meets the eye. There’s no spiritual discernment required in what you suggest, only a willful leap of faith that asserts something contrary to reasonable observation (not just deeper than, etc.).
Because God can do something is, in no way, an argument that He has done something.
Father Freeman, I read your blog with great interest, but this piece is especially helpful. I forwarded to a colleague in OT who is radical historicist who points out that there is absolutely no material evidence for the Exodus, and thus thus that if we insist upon conventional “historicity” in reading such events we are sunk. Here is how he replied:
This is very interesting and on target. I have a few terminological quibbles but they are minor. I think Fr. Freeman should use the term “Protestant” with a little more informative nuance or at least write something like “many Protestants…” Thanks for sending Fr. Freeman’s article my way.
I see the world through pictures, and therefore I want to put a few out here in hopes that you or someone confirm/deny/adjust my thinking:
The “literal” view of our 24 hours is that the earth spins one full turn on its access, continually changing which side of it is bathed in the light of the sun, thereby giving us two distinct periods we refer to as “night” and “day”.
But no one talks like that! In our daily lives the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. This is allegory and much of the deeper meaning residing in the sun (and the moon’s) traveling across the sky comes from this *false* understanding – not from a logical thought that our planet has turned round once. Our parents give us such an understanding, but they don’t have to try very hard. It seems quite obvious!
In the same way it is fruitless to argue about whether or not there was an Exodus. God tells us it happened and so it did! I think the downfall here is our desire to control. Foolish pride tells us if we can be certain of historical facts, then in some way we can own them, control them. But getting older has taught me just how little I have control over – certainly not creation, or history, or even my own history.
I appreciated Fr. Stephen de Young’s comparison of the way the world looks at Omri and David and the way God does. I find it very interesting the nothing actually changed in the historical facts of their lives, but rather the viewpoint of the one doing the looking. Neither view changed anything that actually happened, but each one was asking different questions and looking for different things.
I’m reminded of The Great Divorce where Lewis saw a huge procession of an apparently royal woman. When he asked his guide who she was, he was told, “Oh you wouldn’t have known her. Her name was Jane Smith and she was counted as nothing special in her earthly life.” or something to that effect. Once again God sees things differently than we do. She was the same Jane Smith in both places, but if a person was able to see both points of view, they would have a hard time believing that.
I’ve had the experience of going to a funeral of a very dear relative and mourning deeply – and then going to the store for something immediately afterward and hating the strangers moving around me because it seems impossible that the whole world isn’t in mourning and feeling such loss. All stores should close, no happy music should be playing, etc.
When you talk about it being almost impossible for us moderns to look past the literal, I see this parallel: “Why isn’t everyone mourning?” and “Why can’t everyone look beyond the object and see the hidden truth?” I know the answer and yet I lack of understanding of why this should be the case.
In any case thanks once again for persisting with your message. You are correct: your mission doesn’t have to successful in the world’s eyes; you simply have to do what you’re given to do.
Father, thank you for this most recent post.
And, thank you to the commenters.
“The truth is thus just a collection of facts. ‘History’ is the collection of the ‘facts’ of the past. This notion of truth is no older than about the 17th century. It’s a modern version of truth.”
All of this sends my mind and heart reeling in a wonderful way. Makes me dizzy.
So, several things:
1) Certainly humans have always acknowledged the factual occurrence of an event. As you and other commenters have said, things do, “in fact,” occur. In other words, “chronos” is real. Would it be fair to say that the notion that history is “merely the facts” or “flat” is no older than the 17th century?
2) A failure to accept and appreciate the “kairos” nature of reality is a failure to appreciate that meaning is an essential facet of historical reality. A fact can never really be a fact without meaning (identity) and purpose (manifestation).
Reality/truth has a huge number of dimension. What is more, the truth is revelatory in nature not “discoverable.” Seeing/knowing a thing does not make it real/truth. It is, rather, the recognition of reality/truth.
What is more, any given “event” may or may not involve the same set of aspects of reality/truth as others. Reality/truth is not homogenized.
3) Jewish and Christian writers have, for centuries, spoken of our faith as an “historical faith” and the concept of “salvation history” is almost universally accepted as essential to a right comprehension of our faith. What then do these terms mean?
4) In what way do we properly understand the idea that revelation is “progressive” in the chronological sense?
5) I love the mention you make of poetry. That is exactly how I have privately thought of the Scriptures and history in the larger sense. I also think of history and Scripture as a huge, multifaceted conversation in the fullest sense of what a conversation involves – words, posture, physical gesture, meaning/intention/attitude, context, relational quality, over the course of time, etc.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio
I guess I am like Horatio… I am in way over my head… I fully confess the presence of unconscious amounts of “modern presuppositions” in what I have offered. Lord, have mercy … I guess I am, at least, conscious of the fact that I am unconscious about many things… :o)
Therefore, all, some, or none of this may be on target.
Uniquely loved and honored by his father.
Bitterly hated by his own people
Conspired against to be killed by his people out of envy
Sold into the hands of the Gentiles for silver
Of the two beside him in his misery one was saved, the other lost
Yet risen as lord of the kingdom, savior of the Gentiles and of his own people
Is this Christ? Yes. And it is the life of my patron Saint, Joseph the all comely, the son of Jacob. But though Joseph at last saw the hand of God upon his life, saying to his brethren, “Fear not for I am God’s. Ye took council against me for evil, but God took council for me for good…” even he could not have perceived the icon (or allegory) of his own life apart from the revelation of all life which is Christ Himself.
Is this what you mean, Father, when you write of the “secret hand” and of the true meaning of our lives being largely hidden – that all of history, all creation, and all our life even now, as you say, “actually is allegorical?” I don’t hear you necessarily saying that it isn’t real or that it ‘didn’t happen’ (or isn’t really happening now in our lives) but that its true reality is in the sovereign Author of all who is Christ. I could concern myself, for example, with trying to find ‘evidence’ for Joseph’s existence or with whether he said precisely the words he is quoted as saying above, but that would miss the whole point. I have no way of knowing with scientific certainty, nor would having this kind of certainty be of any greater value to me than faith. For the meaning of the life of Joseph, or any other O.T. person, or you, or me, or all the creation… is Christ, the only ‘real’ Reality in Whom we mystically, yet really, live.
The problem, as I see it, is that moderns conceive of “facts” in a manner that differs from the Fathers (and most of the ancients). Fr. A. Schmemann pushed the change in thinking in the West to a much earlier time than I do. I think the most fundamental change should be seen as evolving after the Reformation and coming into a prominence in the 17th century.
A secular world-view conceives of everything as self-existing. A self-existing “fact” is only itself and can only be itself. We could press things a bit and say that this is essentially Nominalism, and not be incorrect. But only with the advent of Protestantism, and an anti-sacramental world-view does Nominalism become the dominant popular way of thinking.
But, if I do not think that anything is self-existing, then a “fact” is never just itself, but always more. The difference this makes can be somewhat minor to completely different. In the OT, not giving the land its Sabbath rest is said to result in the “land casting the people of Israel forth.” It’s not stated as a necessary punishment, but the land itself doing something. The Deuteronomic theory of history (as its called) is also quite different than mere facts.
Moses builds the Tabernacle and directs everything in it “according to the pattern that was shown him on the holy mountain.” They are not self-existing – they are related to something else. Man is not a self-existing fact. He is made “according to the image.”
This is also the problem with those who take the creation accounts in Genesis to primarily be information about God created the world we live in. It would be interesting if our world were self-existing. But since it’s not, the creation story is also a story about what creation allegorizes. And, I would contend, that “something allegorized” is more interesting and more important for the content of the Christian faith.
Thus, Adam sleeps on the 6th day and Eve is taken from his side. Christ is crucified on the 6th day and the Church is born from His side (blood and water flow). God rests on the Sabbath day (not because He is tired) but because Christ rested on the 7th day (Saturday) and defeated the powers of death and Hades. I could go on. This treatment is common throughout the fathers and is hymned in the liturgical hymns of Holy Week.
On point 3. The phrase “salvation history” is a 19th century invention of German theology. It is not a historical Christian expression. It is modern, not ancient.
On point 4. Revelation is not progressive. Christ is, from the beginning, the fullness of knowledge. There is nothing more to be known of Him than has been known from the beginning. There may be increased articulation of what was known in silence (such as the Trinity) but not a progressive revelation.
And Jacob was “buried” and “descends into Egypt” (Hades), etc.
But in toto, yes.
And we can go further still. Christ is also the fulfillment of all things. All myths find their true fulfillment in Him. Every tree, every blade of grass, every particle of the universe finds its fulfillment in Him. Christ is the Truth that is also the truth of everything. Secular thought, things are just things, can make no sense of such a thing.
What would you say about “coincidences” in light of what you are saying about the hidden truth of things? In our family history, a young orphaned teenager visited us from another country 11 years ago and we decided to pursue adoption. The six weeks he was visiting us before that decision were filled with astounding coincidences, all of which seemed to point to something like the universe beckoning us on that path. Those early “ahistorical events” gave us the courage we needed during the many subsequent years of trials and tribulations. The “meaning” of this experience is still unfolding—of course. We have no idea if and when he will experience healing from the early trauma of his life. But, again, the path we have traveled together still has that “aura” of something bigger happening behind the scenes that we cannot discern—but which has given us hope. Frankly, I see “coincidences” all over the place with respect to this young person–even when things on the surface seem very dire. Are those thoughts in some sense dangerous paths to go down or are they helpful?
I see such “coincidences” frequently. I take them to be the hand of God. What is also “hidden” about them is what He might be “up to.” Some quickly jump to conclusions and want to assume they know (and then try to help out, etc.). Ultimately, the hidden hand of God is working towards our salvation. “All things work together for good…” The whole universe is a coincidence.
I won’t pretend to answer for Fr. Stephen, but my own thought would be to imitate Mary: “And she pondered these things in her heart…” The coincidences may indeed be God’s way of providing you grace to do this thing, but it is also easy to start depending on them instead of on God Himself. Ponder them but lay them all before God – and leave them there. In this way all will become clear to you at the proper time.
What a coincidence! Really. Thank you Father and Drewster…I am preparing a talk for our women’s retreat on the subject of Pondering as shown by Mary. I intend to also incorporate some of Fr. Meletios Webber’s insights about our logismoi and how to respond rather than react to their bombardment. Any resources you could share on “pondering” would be much appreciated. How timely…
The only help I can recommend on pondering revolves around a lesson on the topic of humility. The core of it was a series of humility statements. Once you see them you will understand that there are many sources for them. The 2 chief scriptural references were:
Timothy 1:15: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”
Psalm 22:6: “But I am a worm, and no man; A reproach of men, and despised by the people.
In the second one it should be obvious to everyone that the psalmist didn’t really believe that he was a worm. It was a humility statement. The key to understanding them and therefore being able to benefit from them is to know that they are not all 100% true, but that they are a lot closer to reality than usual image we hold of ourselves. It is the ability to contemplate the possibility of them that leads us toward humility. As Fr. Stephen continually reminds us, we need to bear a little shame.
Here are a few sample statements:
–I know very little, and understand even less.
–This life is not about me.
–I am in competition with no one. In fact I am connected to everyone.
–I deserve nothing. Everything I have and everything I am is pure gift.
–I can only do one thing at a time effectively.
–I am a child much more than an adult.
I realize when you asked for pondering material you may have been thinking about the pondering of external things, but I think humility is where it starts. If we don’t see ourselves correctly, it is very difficult to see anything else in the right way.
hope this helps, drewster
“The whole universe is a coincidence” – I love this! It has the quality of a good koan.
Such “coincidences” have played a big part in the growth of my faith – but always at times of crisis. I have to credit several “coincidences” with turning me away from youthful agnosticism – and I’m pretty sure the prayers of others had something to do with those coincidences.
Thank you. So often the temptation is to “do” something with whatever we have thought about/pondered. To be able to have the humility to sit still and wait on the Lord seems sometimes to be almost impossible. I want to fix things, control things (and people), change things (make a difference)… for “pondering” to include “bearing the shame” of being small is something I hadn’t considered before. Although I will say that years ago when I felt so obscure as a new mother, I first began to ponder Mary’s obscurity–and blessedness. Who could be “smaller” than a young girl in a small village whose only “job” was to raise a child? What “difference” could she possibly make? Indeed. Thank you for helping me remember the importance of bearing a little shame in my helplessness–and that pondering needs to include humility.
The linchpin for understanding this article is in how you understand what it means to have a “sacramental view of reality”
Philosophically speaking, to flatten out history (and by extension, truth) as if it were nothing more than an assemblage of details and data in a sterile vacuum apart from a given criterion for assessing significance and meaning – is to assume that such a vacuum can be maintained.
Inextricably, presuppositions will rush into such a vacuum regardless of whether or not they are intended. The quintessential flaw in modernity is that it feigns a lack of predisposition (assuming a blank slate) – whereas the Christian faith openly confesses it’s predisposition to discover the sacred significance and meaning in everything.
Thank you Fr. Stephen for all that you do, seen and unseen.
Christ is Born.
I found Drewster’s insight most germane to both issues discussed here. The All-Holy Theotokos is both the perfect example of pondering and of a historical fact that utterly transcends modernity’s understanding of history.
By the way GF, “to sit still and wait on the Lord” is the ultimate ‘action’ for us in this world. Waiting without expecting anything even, it is such an honour that we can do this even…
To clarify a bit more: to sit still and wait on the Lord, to remain under His gaze, to offer Him our attention without preconditions and expectations, is in itself a great honour for us: we are standing in the Creator’s presense which ‘fillest all things’ (rather than ignoring Him in the presence of creatures and for the sake of any other ‘action’). We are also emulating Him, His unceasing attentiveness upon us, in this unconditional (if only it was…) attention on Him.
Fr Stephen and Commenters,
Thank you all! I am learning much.
Christ is Born!
I have been reading, studying and contemplating history for all of my adult life. My perspective on history has changed over the years but not drastically. The study, articulation and understanding of history was deeply damaged by the attempts, largely successful in the late 19th century to make secular, objective and empirical in the narrowest of meanings. (There is no such thing as pure objectivity BTW. It is impossible to just observe the “facts” of the story we are part of.)
History, if it is any value, must be told and understood as a story-the human story which is a story that is both temporal and by God’s grace eternal. While specific events are anchors in the story none of them are independently discreet and limited to one point in time. All are connected to all, effecting all other events forward and backward in time as the story unfolds. History is impossible to understand in strictly empirical terms. The attempts to do so stem from the demonic desire to control without God. A certain empirical rigor can be useful in keeping one’s bearings and in communicating aspects of the story or at least a facet of an aspect.
However when the focus turns to God’s revelation of Himself to and in His creation, empiricism is a hinderance. The unfolding of that revelation is what the Scripture attempts to communicate. Or at least the very basics of it. Tradition, the distilled and transmitted wisdom and life of those who experience the revelation in, through and beyond time becomes the only reliable guide. We seek out those who have most completely plumbed the heights of that experience and have articulated it in a manner we can hear trusting also the wisdom that tells us NOT THERE, NOT THAT WAY.
I believe Father Stephen is trying to call attention to the disease from which we all suffer and at the same time pointing us in the direction of the cure. A cure we all seek even if we do not know it.
CHRIST IS BORN! ALL IS MADE NEW!
Is a historical event itself an icon? Does a historical event have the nature of an icon? If one were to view an event as an icon, is that to view it sacramentally? Or, does the icon show us the sacramental nature of the event?
From Trampling Down Death By Death, by Fr Spyridon Bailey:
“The resurrection is not merely a historic event, though it is certainly this, but is a profound experience that can continue to have an impact on us. The icon [of the resurrection] is an expression of a spiritual reality that can open itself up to those who look at it with an open heart. The icon does not attempt merely to depict the historic event as it might have been observed by someone on the scene, but something that is beyond a single moment in time.”
I would say that every event is an icon, or that there is an “iconicity” to all of creation and all that happens. First, everything is a gift from the Giver. I could “paint” the icon of Christ creating, Christ giving the gift. What that would look like in my daily life would be depicted yet again differently. But an icon “does with color what Scripture does with words,” according to the Fathers of the 7th Council. In the same manner, everything in creation does with its materiality and action what Scripture does with words. Everything is revelation, icon and sacrament. The purpose of all creation is to make God known, but to make Him known in a manner that allows us to have true communion with Him.
Everything is gift. And because this is true, right living is to dwell in a state of constant thanksgiving, for all things at all times. This right living (thanksgiving) is a key to “opening up” the mystery of the icon of all creation.
Only the grateful heart can ever see the truth of anything.
When someone reads a secular history, seeking the “facts.” They largely separate themselves from God. Much that we do in our secularized lives separates us from God. In most of the things we say and do, we are not seeking communion with God. But history, true history, particular as we find it in Scripture, is given to us that we might have communion with God.
So then, the modern darkened heart asks, “But did it really happen in exactly that way?” And why do we ask this? Do we ask this in order to have communion with God. I don’t think so. Of course, it’s a possible question, but it is largely beside the point. If, as the Church bears witness, Scripture is inspired by God, then it is inspired so that we might have communion with Him, not so that we can smash the naysayers with our divine-inspired facts.
Facts known in the darkness of our hearts only yield the fruit of darkness. I have seen many Christians, utterly convinced of every literal detail in the Scriptures, who were so deeply in darkness that hell itself would have seemed like light. I’m simply not impressed by such questions, much less with such conclusions.
I think this is really hard to understand. The more we try to understand, the more the meaning escapes us, until we fall into total nitwittery of believing the earth is 7000 years old, and that God parted the sea. And insist upon it. This kind of insistent thinking has driven me away from religious marauders. It seems to me that God is better felt than explained. The truth to be found in the Bible is eternal, yet unknowable in total, or at least it seems to me.
It is easy to become tangled and lean either too much to the one extreme, or too much to the other without an authentic experience of God, and with a typical modernist-informed, self-assured reliance on our own rationalizations. This is why we require tradition as a safeguard here, all Scripture is only understood from inside the Church’s tradition of Her interpretation of it, based on the experience of the illumined and glorified ones.
You can overdo the literal or overdo the allegorical, but a illumined God-bearer (and tradition is the live stream of the thought of the God-bearers throughout time) will perhaps coincide with you in both directions yet without your delusion and with a very different way of upholding their position. He, the God- bearer can see that the parting of the seas is an allegory because he sees the parting of the Heavens when his spirit ascends all the way to the Throne of God, but he simultaneously sees that the parting was literal because he just parted the river with a tap of his staff and passed it the day before yesterday, or walked on water a minute ago…
My thought processes outside of their tradition can be ‘doubly’ ignorant in this sense.
It is easy to become tangled and lean either too much to the one extreme, or too much to the other without an authentic experience of God, and with a typical modernist-informed, self-assured reliance on our own rationalizations.
I think this is why humility is so important in Orthodoxy. We have to stop thinking we can know everything if we just “line it all up correctly” (something I tried for many years to do). Instead we need to humble ourselves and simply trust in God. Much, although not all, of this trust will result in silence before these questions and patient forbearance for the ones asking them. I think it is very hard to be silent; something that must be learned over time.
Thanks Dino for reminding us that we can fall off the horse on either side….that of overdone allegory or too brittle literal. Tradition truly is our safeguard for any authentic reading of the Bible, the lens through which the Church interprets her own book.
Once again, after reading your blog, I am like a child who has been seated at the adult’s supper table. Not only are the customs of the table different, but also some of the food is strange (I confess I still have an affection for hot dogs and mac & cheese – Hebrews 5:12 not withstanding!).
To my (modern) mind, allegory is pretty close to fable, that is at best a story invented to convey a moral point. It’s kind of like Narnia. But I’ve come to believe that the events spoken of in the Bible actually occurred…too. The Pascha, the flight from Egypt, the wandering in the wilderness with God’s daily care and especially the entry into a land of promise replete with enemies to be faced all happened. But more importantly they are still happening for each of us. It’s as though the “story” is being repeated again and again. My own life is a land of promise, my struggle is to take it back from specific adversaries. I’ve been given armor and assurances, encouragement and examples.
Nevertheless after reading this blog especially, I’m at a loss. I just don’t “grok” what you’re saying and unfortunately there no one in my parish who consistently stays connected with what you write. Somehow I’m disconnected. Still. I know, this isn’t supposed to happen….
I think that it’s easy to get disconnected around the “did it happen question.” It’s not unimportant, only it’s important for reasons that are different from those supposed by the modern Christian mind. And so, I push a bit against that, which immediately feels that I’m disparaging the reality of what happened. I would say that the telling of the event (Scripture) has a shape that makes its deeper (allegorical, iconic, etc.) reality more clearly present. The Pascha from Egypt is told in a way (though the writer could not have known) so that its relationship with Christ’s Pascha can be discerned. It might have been possible to related the first Passover in a very different manner – and, I suggest that a scientific historian might have recorded it in a very different manner indeed. An ear that is rightly tuned to the Scriptures will also hear its poetry and hear what it is about, which, frankly, will not waste a great deal of concern for its scientific historical nature.
But modernity has elevated the assumptions and practice of so-called scientific historical records and analysis to a place that equates it with “what really happened.” This is false. But that elevation is strong even in contemporary Christian (including many Orthodox) minds. Therefore any questioning of it sounds like you don’t believe it actually happened, or that it doesn’t matter.
We are also in a culture in which liberal Christianity, following the modernist historical-critical path very carefully has made an alliance with a very secularist reading, jettisoning many doctrines and events along the way. Orthodox Christians, for whom those doctrines and events are very much at the heart of the faith, therefore make a strong alliance with conservative contemporary Christianity (which is also modernist in its view of history) and defend doctrines and events in the wrong manner.
Modernity is not our playing field. It is tilted against the truth and if you stay on it too long, you’ll lose the whole match.
What I am doing (and I admit it is hard to follow) is putting us back on our proper playing field and deconstructing the modern playing field and showing why its assumptions are not true. And then we begin to relearn the process and manner of reading that is proper to our Orthodox life and understanding.
I am assuming that a lot of people will misunderstand what I’m doing. But some won’t. Some will find it a drink of cold water in a dry desert.
I have a very strong reading of allegory (which has a very broad meaning when used by the fathers). For deeper reading, I recommend Fr. Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology. It’s a very fine piece of work, a thorough treatment of how the Fathers do theology. Modernity has the most extreme possible weak reading of allegory, “close to fable,” as you say. I even have a much higher view of fables, btw. Another name for allegory, I think, is “the Kingdom of God.” It dwells beneath, within, and through all things, and all events. It is the truth of all things. How any specific thing relates to the Kingdom is its truth. What might seem insignificant to a scientific historian can be the pivotal point in history.
From a scientific historical point of view, Christ’s Crucifixion, and reported resurrection, are only important because of the historical consequences of the followers who gathered around that belief and their subsequent influence on society, economics, politics, etc. However, from the point of view of its truth, and the Kingdom of God, its importance is found precisely where we say it is when we sing: “Christ has trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” But not scientific historian can find any “historical” evidence of Christ harrowing hell and taking captivity captive or raising the dead. He might even argue that it therefore didn’t happen. But it did happen. One of its “proofs” from within the faith are the many “allegories” throughout the Scriptures that point to it. The Passover as told in the Scriptures is the primary one, but we could multiply that. Adam’s sleep and Eve coming from His side is another Paschal allegory. So is Jonah coming forth “like a bridegroom in procession” (what an incredible mix of allegorical metaphors!). We read 15 lessons from the OT during Holy Saturday (the Great and Holy Sabbath). Those readings are all “paschal” readings, and are read because of that reason.
The Church, in its liturgical life, is doing precisely what I am here describing. The reason contemporary Christians engage in the sort of nonsense that surrounds their Easter celebrations is because they are clueless. They would never dream of talking about Jonah at Easter, or realize that they should.
The longer you immerse yourself in the services and language of the Church’s worship, the more evident what I’m saying will become. It is the grammar of Orthodoxy.
I’m reading a lot of “striking a balance” rhetoric here as if historical veracity was in an irreconcilable tension with allegorical truth so we must frame it in terms of either/or balancing. But I see it as far more accurate to frame it in the complimentary terms of both/and. Historical details treated like factoids, gets you no closer to the understanding of the actual meaning of events – you still require a mode of interpretation . . . which is precisely what allegorical truths provide.
156 words arranged in two groupings on a page, may just as well be randomly arranged if you are given no contextual clues as to their meaning. Would this not be a fair correlation to the value of historical details? So then the question is whether the best primer employed for contextualizing them, would be one immersed in the default ethos of modernity, or one preserved through the traditions of divine revelation.
basically you are saying this: all historical events are manifestations of logoi which all point to the one Logos. Nevertheless, given the state of the fallen world the archetype is not always manifested in a clear, transparent manner (especially when God does not act alone, but with the cooperation of humans which are, more often than not, flawed). The Scriptures describe actually occurring events in a manner that brings to light the archetype that is always there, despite the imperfections of our world that obscures it. Is this correct ?
As a side note and balance regarding the historical point of view: Christians who are intimidated by modern scholarship should really do a lot of deeper research, because what is presented as “science” nowadays is more often than not an ideology pushed by very specific agendas.
Example: Some claim that Solomon is just a legend because there is no archeological evident to support his existence. Those who know a little something about historical research know that to claim that the absence of archeological disproves a written claim is absolutely ludicrous.
When examining history the context is everything. That determines how one decides what is factual and what is not; the relative importance given to each selected “fact”; the relation of each fact to other facts.
When one assumes not only the reality of God but that He reveals Himself, became Incarnate, was crucified, died, rose from the dead, Ascended and sent His Holy Spirit an entirely different history is discovered than if one assumes either no God or an irrelevant God.
The critical difference becomes meaning and purpose which leads into how one approaches every aspect of life both personally and in common.
Historical determinism, economic determinism(Marxist and capitalist both), egalitarianism and nihilism are the results of the modern approach to history.
Life, hope and transformation by grace are far more easily embraced within the first approach.
The more humbly one embraces the reality of God’s continuing condescension into and for His creation, the easier it is to see what is real and to reject the ideologies of the modern mind.
Learning the discipline of thanksgiving helps immensely.
Correct. There is clearly a bias in much historical scholarship. It gets much more attention to question the veracity of something than to support it. There’s a lot of ego in the field of religious studies and very little holiness.
For those not familiar with Fr Andrew Louth’s classic “Discerning the Mystery” it is a well worth read on this topic of allegory and the modern bias against it.
This is such an important but difficult subject as it concerns the very meaning of what is signified by “truth”, “fact”, “history”, “evidence”, and the underlying (and mostly hidden) assumptions used to validate, apply and interpret these.
In my evaluation the modern conceit consists by and large in (what it believes is) an unbiased, unmediated, scientific, bare, objective construct of truth, fact, history, events, etc., and consequently, meaning.
In contrast, it is so telling that it required Christ Himself to provide the disciples the correct understanding and meaning of the Scriptures (e.g the Emmaus encounter)! Truth, contra modernity, is not unmediated, objective, bare, scientific, etc.
Happy New Year to all here. To all named Basil, happy feast.
My wife and I met a man at the store last night named Johnny who asked our prayers. He clearly needs them but he did not say why.
Thank you Father for reminding me of reality and opening my heart to appreciate it in new ways. I am grateful for the blessing of this blog and the community who gathers here.
Thank-you for taking he time to write a lengthy reply to my comment.
I can and do accept your use of allegory with no hesitation. (Fr. Louth’s book is on the way). In part I do this understanding that we are limited in that we live in time – at least in a physical sense. God is not so bound. I believe He condescends to deal with us according to our limitation (e.g. His mercies are new every morning).
To know Him even a little is, in a way to enter eternity (not a great deal of time, but rather no time at all) or at least to begin to contemplate it. That meanings reoccur in different form and metaphors abound are the marks of a poet; that there is a recurring refrain suggests that the poet is also a songwriter. This is a oratorio (like Handel’s) and time is simply the pages upon which the music is written.
I’m afraid, however, that I’ve communicated unclearly when I said I felt disconnected. It really wasn’t about the historical problem you have written so well about. Rather it is the disconnect I feel (and yes, I should be skeptical of them) with other believers. I can’t seem to find “home”. A well-meaning brother told me of a Russian writer who has suggested that the day of the spiritual father is past, that we should turn to books and read the Fathers. But I could do that alone.
Some say that we live in a very disconnected age. Belonging is a very difficult thing for all of us in modernity. What the culture calls belonging is quite the opposite. There is a shared participation in the passions – like lining up for Star Wars – what a shallow, banal thing to be excited about (and I had tickets on the first day, lest I be guilty of claiming I have no part in such things). True participation (communion) with others is very difficult.
Pray and ask God for an increase and don’t despair. Use the loneliness as a hunger for God and the Kingdom.
I was in line for 2 hours on the sidewalk in front of what was then Graumann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood (was it 39 years ago?!) for the first episode. And though I thoroughly disagree with the underlying philosophy (dualism), I’ve lined up for all of them since.
Thank-you so much for your kindness.
Mark, I enjoy them. Some more than others. But, I recognize it as a fairly banal pursuit. The most recent film seemed quite empty to me.
Flashing action sequences coupled with a diversified cast substitute for good storytelling. I’ll see it at the $1 theater in town and enjoy the popcorn while I watch.
I basically go to movies in order to eat the popcorn, which is good since the popcorn costs more than the movie.
Thank you Father for your kind words. I think that an education should be grounded in the Classics so that we see humanity as it truly is without the cover up of nihilism or niceness that penetrates modern society.
Oh, and I am really looking forward to the new Star Wars film as well. I’m in China and it only comes out this Friday!
Thanks to your work and some other Orthodox related postings on Youtube and Ancient Faith Radio and the website http://www.Biologos.org I have grown comfortable seeing the old testament scriptures in a new light . . . or should I say in an old light . . . no longer forcing them into a historical reading. So when I ask this question I hope you will realize how far you have brought me.
Do you know if the following kinds of thinking points or something like them have been thought through to a conclusion and where I could find them?
1. The first complete man in the evolutionary chain was Adam.
2. Adam was the first man that God wanted to begin communing with.
3. Mankind wasn’t ready for communing with God until Adam.
Something along these lines?
There is no way to have historical knowledge about this. What we have is the Genesis account that speaks of our creation by God and of our fall. It is worth noting that some, such as St. Basil the Great, were comfortable with a kind of paradise-not-in-this-world existence for Adam and Eve and the “fall into” this world. But that’s yet another thing.
What we have is the theological account in Genesis that is very deep, rich and fruitful for doctrine and understanding. Reasoning from there to the historical has apparently not been a path that is given to us. I made my peace with that a long time ago.
I believe in a very old universe because all of the physical evidence points to that, and I think it is pernicious to believe that God would create something with the “appearance” of things old. That is bibliolatry. The relationship with the theological account of man and the historical account of man is beyond me. Many will rush to this passage in a Father or another and suggest otherwise, by I think they are standing in mid-air.
The theological account is sufficient for me. Since the soul leaves no archaeological/paleontological evidence, I don’t see how it can be spoken of scientifically.
We have the theological account of our creation because it is written from the point of view of Christ’s Pascha, according to which image we were and are created. A historical account would leave that knowledge hidden. Genesis, instead, is apocalyptic, revealing the truth.
I can highly recommend Connor Cunningham’s “Darwin’s Pious Idea” in which he deals with the issues related to biological evolution and Christian theological claims. The author is not Orthodox, but he has much wisdom and offers valuable insight. A recommendable Orthodox book on the subject is by Alexei Nesteruk “Light from the East”, but it is a bit denser.
Thank you Father Stephen and Robert.
I too see the world as very ancient.
I sense doubt in my children’s minds (ages 18, 22, 26).
When the conversation turns New Testament references to Adam, you’re not going to be standing there next to me, so I am preparing.
The conversation is coming.
I can feel it.
Young people often dwell in a very flat land.
These words bring an ineffable sense of relief to me. Thank you Father!
As for me, I cultivate in my heart the disposition of the venerable Paula, about whom St. Jerome wrote: “The holy scriptures she knew by heart, and said of the history contained in them that it was the foundation of the truth; but, though she loved even this, she still preferred to seek for the underlying spiritual meaning and made this the keystone of the spiritual building raised within her soul” (Epistle 108, 27).
Bearing in mind the peculiarities of genre and the conventions of ancient writing, and allowing for the limitations of language and culture, I accept with docility the letter, while searching diligently for the Spirit, who is always and everywhere revealing the face of our Lord Jesus, the icon of God.
Arm yourself and your children as much as you can (prayer, study, being involved in the church community, etc.)
Another wonderful book which I can highly recommend is “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith” by Stephen M Barr. He’s is a professor of physics and speaks intelligently about issues which are often used to sow doubts into our minds. A must read for all Christians.
Fr. Stephen, you have finally put the pieces together for me. I’ve been struggling with this for years. The pieces have fallen into their places and it is all clear … almost. I can’t explain in my own words, yet. For now I’ll borrow your description of the world as God’s poem, as opposed to prose (and as opposed to the Bible as poetry, in a world of prose, which should be the liberal -for want of better word – version).
The most important book on my journey so far has been Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. I had tried to explore Christianity, naturally having a very modern view of truth. I wanted to find that Christianity is true, but couldn’t. And so I dropped that project. Armstrong’s book was the starting point of my way back towards Christianity – towards, not to, because I have never felt I was “there” quite yet. Never joined anywhere. Never settled.
Armstrong uses the history of religions to explore themes she thinks we need in our time, to understand religion. The whole book tries to explain what modernity is. Apophatic theology is one of the book’s themes, since she thinks that is a key element we are mostly lacking.
She spends four or five pages explaining the Cappadocian fathers’ description of the Trinity, saying that it is not supposed to make sense intellectually, it is not a puzzle to solve but something to be meditated over. That was where she caught my interest. (She did add that the West never had this accompanying practise, and never really understood the Trinity. I didn’t get the cue. Not back then.)
I wanted to get rid of modernity, or to understand the problem with modernity and religion so it wouldn’t bother me. Armstrong got me thinking “I wish I could go back and experience early Medieval Christianity” and “if only there was a Christianity that is somewhat more like the Greco-Roman mystery cults”. More experience based, not just “in the head”, operating with other concepts than this emphasis on historicism which somehow to me just destroys the religious notions and subverts it, changing it to a mere intellectual exercise.
This spring I finally for the first time put my foot in an Orthodox church. It’s been a long process where I’ve pretty much outruled everything else. And now you explain pretty much my main issue, just like that! in a way that clearly resonates with my old Armstrong book.
I have seen others addressing the issue. I’ve been vaguely on the track. But your contribution here settles the matter. Not sure if yours is just outstanding, or simply the last nail in the coffin. A little bit of both, perhaps.
… and so it seems I’ve been travelling towards the Orthodox Church for half a dozen years, not knowing it. Oh the irony. Why did it have to take so long …
(“Liberal” Christianity is a loose term with many meanings. Here I refer to those who do not focus on “the historical Jesus” but rather explains that the Bible should be understood as poetry. It is the opposite of “the meaning is in the historicity”. The opposite and, at the same time, a variant on the same theme. To them everything about their faith is symbolism. And still they treat their symbolism with no reverence at all. They are on to something but IMO they lose it halfways.
Tou may refer to other “brands” when you say liberal, fine with me.)
Welcome! Fr John Behr’s “The Mystery of Christ,” might be a nice confirmation of Fr Stephen’s blog as well as Dr. Peter Bouteneff’s book “Sweeter than Honey.” Behr’s more scholarly version would be his introduction to Origen’s “On First Principles,” and Bouteneff’s would be his “Beginnings” book on the Church Father’s readings of the Genesis creation narratives.
Before Diodore of Tarsus, the early Church seemed to believe that ALL scripture had a spiritual meaning or allegorical meaning and MOST BUT NOT ALL scripture had a literal meaning. Diodore flipped this on its head, so all of scripture had a literal meaning but only some passages had an allegorical meaning. This seems to be the mode in which most of us still dwell today.
All that being said, Origen nevertheless saw scripture as a whole as having an historical backbone. So if we look at the exodus, you will find the majority position within OT scholarship is that SOMETHING DID INDEED HAPPEN, but Exodus is nevertheless written as a glorified account of what may have been a smaller event or many events (many exoduses). This is perfectly compatible with the understanding of scripture put forward by many Church Fathers, myself, Fr Stephen, etc.
This understanding makes it much easier to accept rather than argue with the findings of OT historical critics, while seeing their job as provisional and not in the same category as the Christological interpretation of the scriptures. On the NT front, once again, we see the findings of many scholars confirming what is essential to the faith (an early high Christology, an inexplicable early faith in the Son of God being raised from the dead), while the secondary details (when and how many times did Christ cleanse the Temple?) being not so clear (though NT scholarship wasn’t always as friendly to orthodox faith as it is now).
Anyways, I hope you continue to make your way into Orthodoxy.
This blog is another good post on the meaning scripture as well. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2018/09/04/a-conversation-with-st-paul-on-exegesis-and-authorial-meaning/
I echo the recommendation of Behr’s The Mystery of Christ. I labored in a seminary in which the historical/critical approach to Scripture was standard. It assumes history as the point, but deconstructs the history as written in the Bible. Fundamentalists, of varying stripes, assume that history is the point, but assumes that the Bible is literally true. I found both to be inadequate. The tradition of the Fathers, broadly understood, pointed to a different way. History is not unimportant, but it is also approached in a manner that differs from modern literal notions of the historical. I’m glad you found the article to be helpful.
John Behr gives nice popular lectures, as seen on Youtube, so I know he can explain for layfolks. The book isn’t long. Thanks! I’ve put it in my reading list, maybe for next time I order books.
semi-fundamentalist, literacist of some stripe, was probably my assumption of what Christianity was when I first started out on this journey. It was also the first version I scrapped.
There’s an old church nearby with weird wall paintings from 15th century. Like Jonah coming out of the whale, side by side with a painting of Christ. Nobody understands why or cares about it, except as cultural history. Old, odd, outdated, not relevant today *sigh* Maybe actually the easiest way to get those pics explained is consulting the churches of the East! We have lost so much.
I certainly hope so. I’ll try to stay in the first parish I stumbled into. It’s far from perfect but dunno, I usually don’t like talk like being led someplace, but … we’ll see.
Stanley Hauerwas, indeed.
Thank you for that link.
I appreciate your concern to get away from sterile modernist approaches to the scriptural texts and to retrain ourselves to read the text in the way the Holy Fathers did.
That said, I am wondering why we have to choose between historical fact-based reading of scriptural texts vs. allegorical or sacramental readings? Does it have to be either-or, or can it be both/and? Does the use of fact-based modernist historiographical methods and tools (i.e., archaeology, textual analysis, contemporary historiographical tools, etc.) for uncovering the historical context for the Bible (say to better appreciate Second Temple Judiasm for contextualizing the gospel accounts, or to better appreciate the ANE for understanding Genesis) necessarily imply that one has colluded with a worldview in which the universe exists independently of God?
One of the reasons I’m struggling with this is because the Holy Fathers themselves seem to embrace the legitimacy of a variety of interpretive schemas. Theodore Stylianopoulos, in his book “The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective,” explains about an “exegetical pluralism” that pervades the Fathers, which includes allegorical, moral, analogical, historical, and many other ways of reading texts. This being the case, why do we have to choose between allegorical ways of looking at truth vs. modern fact-based ways of looking at historical truth? In the spirit of the church fathers, can’t it be both?
To give one example, when St. Gregory the Dialogist said that the three steps leading up to the altar are representative of faith, hope, and love, this doesn’t seem to necessarily preclude the legitimacy of historical ways of reading the same text, in which the three steps are viewed as an historical fact. To me, it the two approaches can be complimentary. Allegorical and historical readings can exist side by side. This seems to also be what Fr. Stephen De Young is saying in his recent post “Scripture: Myth or History?” https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2019/07/04/scripture-myth-or-history/. He writes, “This dichotomy forms a sort of historiographic Nestorianism that severs the Jesus of history from the Christ of faith. If this cannot be argued without destructive results in the case of this central piece of mythic history then it is likewise invalid and destructive when applied to any other element of mythic history from Genesis to Revelation. The nature of allegorical interpretation then becomes deformed by those who hold to an ahistorical interpretation of scripture or portions thereof. Allegory becomes a means of partially bridging the gap which they themselves have created between the text and history. Because there is no objective referent to the text, allegory becomes untethered and can be used to derive nearly any proposed lesson, thought, or teaching. This is not how the fathers used allegory.”
Would you agree with that quote from De Young?
I think Stylianopolis’ point to be well-taken. There is, and properly should be, an exegetical pluralism. It is also the case that allegory can be abused (and has been rather famously so in certain places). St. Irenaeus, most helpfully, wrote of the “scope” of Scripture. We would probably say “over-arching narrative,” as a controlling factor in interpretation.
The relationship of the text to history is sort of the problem that I’ve tried to wrestle with. Every “fact” that can be known is a legitimate part of interpretation. What is difficult to ascertain is the relationship between a narrative and pure, historical fact. That is the rock upon which Protestantism has crashed repeatedly. Fundamentalists suggest that historical fact and narrative are the same thing while the Liberals say that historical fact (as they suppose) is alone authoritative and they seek to judge the narrative.
I don’t think we should uncouple the text entirely – there is a literal reading that is proper. But, when many of the Fathers would say “literal,” they meant “what the text literally says.” If it says “rock” it means rock, not hubris or melancholy, etc. The question of that literal reading to what we would call factual history remains a problem.
I’m just trying to be intellectually honest (because we have to live with whatever we do). The primary thrust of every narrative in Scripture is theological – and I take that to be the case. I can ask questions about Joseph in Pharaoh’s court – and seek for archaeological understanding, etc., but the text stands as authoritative Scripture regardless of what archaeology does or does not find.
I generally agree with Fr. De Young, though I think I understand the problem differently. Oddly, in my own life, the central question became, “How can the allegorical/typological, etc. interpretation of Scripture be true? I became persuaded that it is true because that meaning is actually within the Scripture itself – what I suppose Fr. De Young is describing as a “sacramental” relationship – though I prefer (following the 7th Council) to speak of it as “icon.” For me, allegory (in its largest sense) and its use is not about solving the history problem – its about revealing the very nature of things – the iconic/sacramental character of all existence: the One-Storey Universe. The Two-Storey Universe is a supreme example of Nestorianism of a sort.
So, in that sense, I think Fr. De Young is describing what allegory would mean when he uses it (if he did). What I’m doing, or attempting, is to use allegory in the method of the Fathers – discerning the mystery that is actually, truly, and really beneath the letter. That mystery is Christ.
But, that said, Stylianopolis is right – there is a pluralism in exegesis.
Robin, your post reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ observation in his (pre-conversion) discussions with Tolkien; that Jesus is the “myth that became true”. I think there is a lot to unpack in that understanding.
Yes, Tolkien’s famous conversation with C.S. Lewis that led to the latter’s conversion was about the confluence of myth and fact within Christianity.
Fr. Stephen, thank you for that thoughtful answer. I must admit that I’m still a little confused though. How does your acceptance of the principle of exegetical pluralism square with the binaries set forth in the paragraph above that begins “St. Paul (and all of the New Testament writers)”?
Or again, the paragraph above that begins “We are secularists” seems to associate a fact-based approach to history with the type of functional atheism whereby the universe exists independently of God. But why do we have to choose between what you call a “modern theory of meaning” (in the paragraph beginning “This kind of thinking makes”) and an allegorical approach? If Scriptural texts can be approached in a variety of legitimate ways, then isn’t it a matter of both/and rather than either/or?
I think there can be an exegetical pluralism of sorts. I don’t think you’re getting what I’m saying about the nature of allegory (and I’ve long suspected that I’ve failed to make the point as clearly as I should). First, I’m saying that the modern understanding of the world (as a self-existing thing) is simply not true and is never, properly, the basis for anything. You could hold to what I’m describing as an “allegorical” or “sacramental” understanding of reality and speak and describe in a manner that a modernist might think is saying what he’s saying – but it not be so. “Jack fell down and broke his crown,” to a modernist describes an accident – a guy fell down and broke something. But, for the modernist, Jack falling down cannot be anything else – there is only Jack and fall, etc. This is never true within the mind of the NT writers (or the mind of Church in general) because that is not the nature of reality – ever.
If allegory/sacramental/typology, etc. are actually and really true and not mere literary conventions, then reality is never what modernity thinks it is and the text is never what modernity thinks it is. Modernity cannot say that the Bread and Wine on the altar become the Body and Blood of Christ. It can say that people believe it to be so, and that this should be respected, etc. But modernity cannot say that it is so – because Bread is just bread and wine is just wine. However, after the change, we do not say it is Bread and Wine – and even when we speak of bread and wine on our home tables – they are never merely bread and wine (not if we understand the world rightly). Some Orthodox cultures, for example, never throw bread away into the garbage – any bread!
So, primarily, I’m speaking about the nature of reality, of which the Scriptures have a particular and singular place. I hope that’s of some help.
That makes a lot of sense: the modern materialistic worldview is diametrically opposed to the spiritual understanding of reality that we find in the Orthodox church. I like your example about the bread.
But I’m still a little confused. If what you wrote in this article is addressing the nature of reality, rather than specific hermeneutical schemas, then I don’t understand the relevance this has to the opening question that your article was a response to (the one beginning, “I have a question to ask about the historicity of the New Testament”), which related to exegesis.
Moreover, if you are simply observing that the modern understanding of the world (as a self-existing thing) is false, then no Orthodox Christian would dispute that. And yet, in this article (specifically the paragraph beginning “This kind of thinking makes many”) you have presented this understanding as a controversial approach within the Orthodox world that has set you apart from some of your interlocutors. Are there really Orthodox Christians (or any type of theist) who thinks that material events (i.e., Jack falling down and breaking his crown) are all there is to reality?
What, specifically, is the approach to reading Biblical history that forms the wrong side of the binary set up in your paragraph beginning “St. Paul (and all of the New Testament writers)” and the paragraph following it?
Robin – you certainly press the questions on a now 4 year-old post. However…
Essentially, the “nagging” question from modern believers, including many Orthodox, is a concern (when asking about the “historicity” of something in the Scriptures) is, “Do you think it actually happened? Are we supposed to think it actually happened? Does it matter if it actually happened? Are you saying it doesn’t matter if it actually happened?” That line of thought is born from a modern anxiety about the Scriptures and their relationship with history. The answer to the question is not simple. For one, what we have in the Scriptures are theological narratives for the most part that, regardless of their relationship to historical fact, are giving us a theological rendering of the matter. In some cases we simply can’t be sure about the nature of the historical event that is being described (theologically), at least, not in the way the modern historiography means to look at things.
For myself, I think there are things that clearly matter historically – such as the death, burial and resurrection of Christ – St. Paul is so adamant about this that he cites eyewitnesses, etc. He knows how to argue for a very factual event. I believe the facts of Christ’s life – virgin birth, miracles, etc. – but we have a theologically shaped account that also has concerns that are greater than mere history – hence the stories are arranged in a different order, or differ in various details. These are not troubling things – unless you’re a John Shelby Spong who thinks that the Scriptures are only true if an American Fundamentalist literalism is actually true. Otherwise, he has no use for them. In that sense, he doesn’t have a clue as to what Scripture itself is.
My contention is that the historical question, per se, is often put in the wrong way and thus obscures the nature of Scripture – reducing it to a newspaper-like history thing or nothing.
Many Orthodox today, find themselves largely in a modern treatment of Scripture – and mostly a conservative version of that. What I have discussed is not controversial in a true Orthodox sense – it’s just neglected or misunderstood by many.
To try and get specific (if I understand your question) about the approach to “Biblical” history – is the modern approach, in which the truth of things lies in a surface/factual (“this is what happened”) sort of reportage, with the same relationship of a newspaper account. “Does this story accurate report what actually happened?” It’s simply the wrong question – especially if it’s the first question.
Take Adam and Eve. It is the story of “the beginning” as it is given to us. To try to take that as a road map to fossils, paleontology, etc., is a misuse of Scripture and leads us away from Scripture as Scripture. I’ve seen Orthodox teachers of good repute attacked as heretics because they do not hold to a “literal” Adam and Eve. That, I think, is a mistake. It is, however, a major question in a modern approach to “history.” I do not think it would have been the primary issue in the New Testament mind.
Again, I think that even the term “history” is problematic. Strictly speaking, we believe in “providence,” not history. The causes of history do not lie solely within the things that happen. We cannot rightly see history as an independently existing thing.
The questions of the exact nature of events in various narratives is interesting – and worth thinking about and studying to the degree that it is possible. However, if that were the primary issue, all of Scripture would read like St. Paul’s defense of the events of the resurrection in 1Cor. 15. Instead, we are given Scripture – as Scripture. It is the authoritative revelation of God to the Church, as understood in the Church. Depending on what part of Scripture is being read, there are lots of germane questions.
Don’t know if I’m getting any closer to answering what you want to know.
The Mystery of Christ is not the easiest book I’ve read. The statement in the foreword, where Behr says he is regaining a premodern perspective through carefully applied post-modernism, which possibly could solve the crises of theology, makes me jump up and down. “Yes! This is what I want! This is what I’ve been looking for!” (except for that post modern stuff seeming a tad bit scary)
And then I don’t actually understand it all. Phew! Rereading half a chapter makes it more clear. I’ll have to reread the whole book, later. I’m struggling … it aint easy. I’m getting it, then losing it again. I feel silly because this isn’t quantum physics. It shouldn’t be difficult, really. It is just different. Unbeaten tracks in my brain. Easier to fall back in well used ones.
I have seen the inside of a Protestant school of theology/seminar. It would be very interesting to know how they study in Orthodox seminar. How much biblical criticism they learn, and how. What the students learn about Scripture.
From what I hear, Orthodox seminaries are not really great on the topic of Scripture. Certainly when compared to what is done in Protestant schools. That said, the simple fact that Scripture holds a different place for us may explain a lot. Some of our seminaries introduce students to historical-critical approaches, some do not (or not much). Behr, to my mind, is introducing students to Scripture from a theological perspective.
To some degree, I would agree with this approach. The Scriptures should be read theologically.
The Old Testament, according to my Archbishop, has been sadly neglected. He (Abp.Alexander Golitsin) is a patristics scholar, a monk of Mt. Athos, and Archbishop of the South. He taught for years at Marquette, having done his doctorate at Oxford. He and his grad students have done tremendous work on OT stuff, particularly as found in the monastic writings and tradition. He does a lot with Jewish thought in the 2nd Temple period. He’s worth checking out.
Then how does one teach the Bible theologically in academia, where everything is supposed to be science?
An Orthodox seminary would not make any pretense that it is doing Bible study as “science.” It’s certainly possible, no doubt, to study what academia calls the “science of biblical criticism.” Stanley Hauerwas, at Duke University, used to say that he was trying to “put the Bible boys out of business,” by making them see that they were actually doing theology (even under the pretense of “science”).
The difference in Orthodoxy is the ability to be quite straightfoward about the fact that the Scriptures are theological documents and are to be read through the theological understanding of the Tradition.
Of course, you can do the other stuff, but it cannot be presented as the Orthodox faith, per se.
Father, I did a quick search for Abp. Alexander Golitsin but found nothing. Do you have any recommendations? I would especially like to read some OT works.
I am not sure if you were looking for the Marquette site, but if so here is the link:
Some of the links are broken, but some could be found by doing a search for the article itself. Also I found some on Internet Archive Wayback Machine.
Use Paula’s link to the Marquette stuff. Also, there are some good lectures on Youtube by Archbishop Alexander (by the way, I think it’s Golitzin with a “z”) my bad.
Fr Stephen, but certainly St Vladimir’s give academic degrees. Although perhaps not in Bible studies.
The word exegesis has somehow changed meaning over the centuries, it seems.
Yes, of course it gives academic degrees. But academics doesn’t imply that everything must be a science.