The Hidden Gospel

revelationThere is a genre of Scriptural writings that are described as “apocalyptic.” The book of Revelation, in Greek, is called “The Apocalypse.” Ezekiel and Daniel also have very strong passages described as apocalyptic. The term is very straightforward: it means “revealing what is hidden.” These books are described as “making known hidden things,” because their message is disguised under rather outlandish descriptions: beasts with ten horns, heavenly cities, and buildings that come down to earth, plagues and angels and solemn warnings. Over the centuries, these books have been the playground for those who claim to understand their “secrets.” Indeed, speculation in apocalyptic literature is a booming industry in contemporary Christianity. But these books are only “apocalyptic” in the most extreme way. It is correct to say that the Christian faith is inherently apocalyptic and that all that went before it was hidden. Understanding this will help make sense, in particular, of how the New Testament treats the Old.

Consider these statements by St. Paul:

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. (1Co 2:7-10)

And

To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, (Eph 3:8-11)

St. Paul characterizes the gospel of Christ as something that has been “hidden from ages and from generations” but is now being made known. He also notes both that the gospel has been purposely hidden from the “rulers of this world” (meaning the demonic rulers of the age) but is now, expressly being made known by the Church “to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” He is not saying that the gospel is hard to understand, but that has been hidden on purpose by God. How has the gospel been hidden?

Generally speaking, the reality of the gospel was hidden beneath the life of Israel and beneath the figures of Scripture. The rulers of Israel, in Jesus’ day, had an expectation of a Messiah. However, they very much expected a Messiah whose coming was of a piece with Israel’s history and direct march through time. As such, they expected a warrior king who would deliver the nation from the Gentiles and set up a kingdom of righteousness in this world. They had no expectation of a hidden Messiah, nor did they expect a Crucified and Risen Messiah. Christ’s own disciples seem to have shared Israel’s expectation until they were corrected by Christ Himself after the resurrection.

These are clear facts, without contradiction.

The prophetic witness to Christ in the Old Testament is characterized primarily by its hiddenness. Christians have become so familiar with the traditional interpretation of certain prophetic passages that they have become unable to hear how they sound(ed) to Jewish ears. The famous Servant Songs of Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 53). We hear in them, prophecies of the very details of Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross and the promise of His victory. But we must remember that we see these things in hindsight. To this day, these passages are interpreted in Judaism as referring to the Jewish people as a whole. They were not verses of unfulfilled Messianic hope that hung over the consciousness of Israel as it longed for its deliverance.

Christ Himself spoke in parables and was berated for it. Moreover, He specifically characterized the Kingdom of God as hidden.

Another parable He spoke to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened. (Mat 13:33)

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Mat 13:44 NKJ)

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Mat 13:44-46 NKJ)

This hidden aspect of God’s work (the mystery from before the ages) is enshrined in parables, allegories, types, shadows, figures, etc. St. Ambrose, writing in the 5th century said: “The Old Testament is shadow; the New is icon, while the ‘heavenly things’ [the age to come] is the truth.’ (Off. 1.238) St. Maximus later repeated this description. The New Testament is not the historical unfolding of the historical Old Testament, it is the revelation in this world of that which was hidden in the Old Testament, but now made known through the Church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.

This approach to the Scriptures came to be dismissed and even despised in more modern times. One strain of thought that clearly fueled this attitude was the rise of Nominalism in the West. Nominalism rejects “inner meanings,” certainly as anything more than ideas in our heads. Things are simply things, and words nothing more than the names we call them. Straightforward moral examples and historical events, interpreted largely in their own historical context, became the preferred way of seeing the Scriptures. Prophetic statements began to be seen as flatly predictive rather than possessed of irony, allegory and paradox. Historical-critical studies that dismantled various historical claims of other Christians, would be unthinkable without the assumptions of Nominalism. The battles between conservative historicists and liberal historical critics, however, take place on a battleground foreign to the world of the Fathers.

The New Testament’s treatment of the Old, and the proclamation of a “hidden” gospel, proclaims as well that reality itself has a “hidden” quality. Only if the truth can be made known in shadow and icon is the world, in fact, as the Orthodox Christian faith says it is. This is also the character of a truly sacramental worldview. Catechesis in the Orthodox Church, as well as the continuing education of its people, should be grounded in the worldview of the Fathers. If the gospel is hidden, then we must know how to find it. This is the path that leads to the Kingdom of God.

 

19 comments:

  1. Thank you Father. Ridding one’s mind of the Nominalism is certainly part of the reforming of the mind which is required to truly have an Orthodox view of the Gospel and the world. It is not easy.

  2. Thank you. One wonders then about homilies … is the “hidden” Gospel to remain hidden? Should our pastors preach about how to find it?

  3. Janine,
    Our task is to make known what is hidden. Christianity is “apocalyptic,” meaning it “reveals what is hidden.” Christ is God’s revelation to the world. Think of this passage:

    12 Therefore, since we have such hope, we use great boldness of speech–
    13 unlike Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the children of Israel could not look steadily at the end of what was passing away.
    14 But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.
    15 But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart.
    16 Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.
    17 Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
    18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
    (2Co 3:12-18)

  4. The biggest problem with today’s Christians in the modern world, is that they essentially have forgotten the core of the message. We are different, singled out by our Faith. The world has tried to rationalize the faith and make it like any other idea. The incredible distractions of our modern life tend to have the same effect. But it is not an idea. It is the true reality.

    For me the core of is all is precisely that NO ONE could understand until Christ told them personally after the resurrection. Since then, the message has spread personally, not through texts but through personal encounter with those who were witnesses. The takeaway from this is that without this personal encounter, nobody can read the Old Testament or even the New and come away with what is hidden. They will not really see.

    Here it is important to explain the difference with Gnosticism. The secret societies today (that are essentially Gnostic) have certain secret teachings that are not revealed to the initiate until they progress through certain levels or degrees. There, information is specifically withheld, and those who advance believe – because of the information they have been given – that they are above all others (and given the right to rule). Of course it is only at the final degree that it is revealed that the true God is Lucifer. But that is another story.

    Unlike the Gnostics, the Grace and Truth of Jesus Christ is open to all. The truth may be hidden, but it is no secret artificially withheld.

  5. Thank you for your reply, Fr. Stephen. You remind me also that those who “have no ears to hear” will not hear anyway. Or perhaps somewhere further down the line — none of us can judge this. “Enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness”

  6. Thank you again, Fr. Stephen.

    Piggy-backing off of Janine’s question, Orthodox theology and practices also allude to sanctifying the objects and environments around us (i.e. blessing water, homes, food, crops, etc.) So it seems we are called to bring the good news to all of Creation, not just the humans. How does that tie in with the apocalyptic nature of the Gospel and evangelism?

  7. Lindsey,
    The late Fr. Alexander Schmemann taught that in the sacraments we do not make things to be something other…we reveal them to be what they are. The blessing of things is the restoration of right relationship in creation.

  8. Oh that’s really interesting, and it reminds me that we look for the age to come when things are revealed as they truly are — *more* life, not something “ethereal.” I once went to a lecture on Chinese tea tradition; “Zen” (or Chan as pronounced in Chinese) is an attempt to get back to true nature and it is considered that tea as part of nature helps one to return or feel this state. All of this kind of makes sense of a sort of twin impulse, although of course theology is theology. But the idea of return to true nature makes sense of our impulse to find restoration nature and beauty I think.

  9. Father Stephen, Thank you for this and the previous article on authorial intent. I’ve been a little shy to comment. I am a catechumen to Orthodox Christianity. You have touched on an experience I have had with the quotes of these passages:

    15 But even to this day, when Moses is read, a veil lies on their heart.
    16 Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.

    I’ve been a student and professonal within the fields of physics and chemistry for several decades. I suspect but didn’t know at the time that what drew me into these fields was Christ. What I knew at the time that I started my studies and work was that I was sincere to understand what ‘reality’ was, at the atomic level, since all the substantive universe is made up of atoms and if not substance, energy. My hunger for understanding and to ‘uncover’ reality in experiement and discovery without hubris and with humilty allowed me to be a ‘good’ scientist. And inevitably led me to ‘realize’ the image of Christ in the ‘mosaic’ within natural phenomena, in the atomic and subatomic levels of our reality.

    As you quoted: 18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.
    (2Co 3:12-18)

    Based on my experience it seems that what the fields of science offers us need not be a veil nor a deterent to understand our reality but can be the mirror the Apostle spoke of.

    Hopefully my spiritual father will not be too discouraged when he reads my comment as I know he reads your articles too!

    Thank you Father Stephen.

  10. Father Stephen, thank you for you enlightening articles on the subject of allegorical reading of the Scriptures. Can you also recommend some books or authors that speak more on this subject. I found something in Father John Breck and Andrew Louth’s writings but I want to read more. Also father, I want to ask your general opinion regarding the books written by N T Wright, if your familiar with his work. Mihai from Romania.

  11. Mihai,
    From all I know of Wright, he seems to be a good scholar. I still think that the study of St. Paul has been too influenced by the Reformation. Louth is where I would have pointed you.

  12. One of the things I was taught by Metropolitan Jonah was transformation by perseverance and simple faithfulness. The understanding of what you write is not an intellectual enterprise but a heart-ful one.

    What he meant and what I now practice is to “knock and knock and knock” and to “seek and seek and seek” with an soul that is open – change-able (metanoia) and receptive to the “mind of Christ” — the scriptural paradigm (the one storey paradigm) — the Mysterious (sacramental) view that is HIDDEN in my heart already. It is not something I need to “get” but what I need to “access.”

    This view is not “a view of reality.” It is reality as it is. The view is simply seeing “what is” using “what is” to view it. So, the reality and the view of it are one and the same.

    My point is that this is excruciating-ly gradual. The accessing what is HIDDEN IN MY HEART already, happens but it is not “measure-able” and I should not attempt to measure it. That hinders the transformation. Rather, I just persevere in trust and faithfulness.

    I find that if I read any one of your blog posts about 15 times with this attitude, I finally access what you are saying !! The need to read it that many times is not because of you but because of the need to find “that place” in my soul — my heart — where the Scriptural way of “seeing” is available to me. Then, I “get it” for a moment…

    All the gears fall into place. Everything lines up. A flash of clarity and peace issues out from deep within me. (“Did not our hearts burn within us?”) Blessed moment, but alas, momentary.

    So, I will keep persevering in faithfulness. Over and over and over again with a right attitude — receptive and open…

  13. Fr. Thomas,

    I like what you say. Sir Francis Bacon, St. Theophan and others all suggest (in their own ways) that this waiting on understanding, on true digestion is important. We all know that food swallowed by not digested is simply passed and therefore not useful to our body. In our greed we would like to hurry up and get it down so we can move on to the next consumption, but in fact it is wiser for us to be patient. Not only are we increasing our ability to be patient but much is learned while we wait – and many of things are under the surface or otherwise invisible to us, as you suggest.

    Thanks for sharing an example of how we find the hidden right under our nose.

  14. Wow Fr Thomas!

    This is what the struggle Is!… not in great feats of asceticism. The saints don’t have Any sense of ‘greatness’ about it, only great effort mixed with ‘great consolation’ (and the effect/awareness is Not of our own doing – St. Paul uses this language – 2 Cor 1:5), this is from a ‘going inward’ if you will; to live hypostatically; i.e., in a one story universe; heaven & earth united in the heart. The greater the struggle the greater the awareness. We are all beginners!

  15. Undeniably to quasi/demonic powers in the heavens (there’s at least 3 levels that we know of). They have various roles they play. But it is clear that they are arrayed against us.

    The Tradition describes 9 kinds of angels – I think they are primarily described in Dionysius’ Celestial Hierarchies. The Wikipedia article is useful.

    It is very unintelligible to our democratic world view – but quite harmonius with a hierarchical view of the universe. These various angelic powers get some sort of mention, one place or another in Scripture. Dionysius simply arranged them.

    Think of the book of Daniel. The angel Michael describes trying to get to Daniel when he is praying, but that he was resisted “by the Prince of Persia.” He certainly was not resisted by an earthly prince, but by a heavenly, fallen principality, that takes as its charge the nation of Persia. All the nations on earth have something of a Principality related to them. Earthly battles also reflect heavenly battles (they don’t get along with each other very well). But Daniel’s prayers and St. Michael’s battles allow him to get through.

    These demonic powers, the real “power behind the earthly thrones” are the ones whom St. Paul credits with “crucifying the Lord of glory.” Our warfare is with them, not with flesh and blood.

  16. ….. “My point is that this is excruciating-ly gradual. The accessing what is HIDDEN IN MY HEART already, happens but it is not “measure-able” and I should not attempt to measure it. That hinders the transformation. Rather, I just persevere in trust and faithfulness.” ….

    Fr. Thomas,
    Thank you for this beautiful comment, I missed it earlier but someone returned here today and Fr. Stephen answered, which allowed me to see your words… I really appreciate them, as they put “in words” something I have been trying to describe myself, mostly to myself anyways….

    And so also, I hope to

    ” keep persevering in faithfulness. Over and over and over again with a right attitude — receptive and open…”

    Thank you.

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