Reading Scripture in the Kingdom

monkreading

 

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (Joh 3:6)

It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. (Joh 6:63)

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. (1Co 15:50)

The convenience of math is its reliability and predictability. No matter how brilliant or dull one might be, one and one are two. The most evil person on the planet and the greatest saint still have the same sums. If an evil man has one apple and steals another, he has two. If the saint has two apples and gives one away, he has one. This, if you will, is the principle of “flesh and blood.” It requires nothing of us. Math is not an inherently transformative science.

But there are other things out there. Five loaves and two fish, divided by 5,000 should not constitute sufficient meals. But, in the hands of Christ the dinner-math collapses. Five and two equal 5,000 plus. The Kingdom of God has just this transcendent aspect. The disciples, those who witnessed the feeding of the 5,000 were on the cusp of change. They did not yet understand what was taking place, but the contradictions were piling up. The impossibility of what they saw from day-to-day, the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, Christ walking on the water, speaking to wind and sea and getting results, water becoming wine, were all building to a critical mass that exploded in their lives with the resurrection of Christ and his “opening of their understanding (nous).”

The transformation that took place within the disciples cannot be exaggerated. A band of relatively uneducated fishermen, tax collectors and the like, become the teachers of an utterly seamless garment of Scriptural interpretation that was completely without precedent. The writings of St. Paul and others give clear evidence that within less than 20 years, the full hermeneutic of the paschal reading of Scripture was in place. No evolutionary process can account for such a development. The New Testament itself is evidence of the resurrection of Christ.

But what we see is not a work of dictation. The apostles wrote and taught out of the abundance of their hearts, having been transformed from fishermen into mystical visionaries of the Kingdom of God. They themselves are purposeful contradictions, no less than water becoming wine. Later teachers would bring that vision into dialog with Hellenistic culture, but they would not see deeper into the Kingdom itself.

What was the mind that could see Christ in the Passover Lamb? Indeed, what was the mind that could see Christ’s death and resurrection as a fulfillment of Passover itself? Beneath the letter of the Old Testament, beneath the surface of its poetry, its historical stories, its prophetic works, the primitive Church discerned Christ Himself and the shape of the story which we now know as the gospel.

The shape of the gospel story is not derived from the Old Testament. It is discerned within the Old Testament, after the resurrection of Christ and His subsequent teaching). St. Irenaeus in the 2nd century, specifically references the shape of the gospel story and calls it the “Apostolic Hypothesis.” It is the framework and fundamental understanding of the work of Christ.

For example, that “Christ died for our sins,” is not obvious. It can be discerned in the Old Testament if one comes to understand, for example, that the “Servant Songs” in Isaiah are actually referencing Christ. Again, this was in no way obvious. However, that Christ “died for our sins” is a specific part of the Apostolic Hypothesis. It is cited as a “tradition” in 1 Cor. 15 (“that which was delivered [traditioned] to me”). When that tradition is accepted and “received” (more about this in a moment), then passages like the Servant Songs begin to open up and yield their deeper meaning.

When a gospel writer shares a story about Christ and adds, “This was done that the saying in Isaiah might be fulfilled…,” we are reading the tradition in its operation. But the passages in Isaiah do not themselves give a clue for their interpretation. That clue, the “Apostolic Hypothesis,” must come first before the others can be seen.

The giving of this tradition is described in Luke 24:44-48:

Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding [nous], that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, “and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. “And you are witnesses of these things. (Luk 24:44-48)

It is important to see that this new insight into the Scriptures is described as a noetic event. It is not described as technique or style of interpretation that is taught and learned. It is specifically referred to as a change of the nous. In the same manner, the continued understanding of the gospel is, properly, a noetic exercise.

That noetic perception is the common thread of the liturgical texts and hymns of the Orthodox faith. The liturgical life of the Church has a two-fold purpose: the worship of God and the spiritual formation of the people of God. As cited earlier, there must be a movement from “flesh and blood” to “spirit and life.” It is this spiritual transfiguration that is operative in the life of the Church.

This is the same reason that I have written against popular notions of morality. The Christian life does not consist of flesh and blood struggling to behave better. Rather, it is the transformation of flesh and blood into spirit and life. Only a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) sees and understands and lives the new life of the resurrected Christ.

This spiritual ability to see beneath the letter and perceive the truth continues in the life of the Church, unabated. It is particularly evident in the dogmatic formulations of subsequent centuries. Only a nous, properly illumined, could learn to profess the Trinity in the fullness of its mystery. The same is true of Christ’s God/Manhood and the nature of our salvation through the Divine Union.

But these habits of the transformed heart have been diminished and replaced over the centuries in many parts of the Christian world. The doctrinal formulations have become dry statements that sound merely antique. The new language of morality and psychology have largely displaced true noetic perception of the truth. The result is a Christianity that, though often using the terms of the Fathers, gives them completely different meanings. It becomes nothing more than a system of interpretation, not actually requiring God Himself at all.

Classical Christianity is not passé, it has simply been replaced by a new religion that borrows its terms and redefines them. It is like the contemporary Christians who take up bread and wine (or their banal substitutes) and engage in some form of ritual partaking, nevertheless professing all the while that, at most, a psychological event has taken place. The language of “Body and Blood,” though invoked in their ceremonies, are (they are quick to tell us) “merely symbolic.” There is no paradox, no contradiction, no depth to be discerned – only the emptiness of modern psychology.

Mere psychology cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.

But mere psychology is indeed the tool of most contemporary treatments of Scripture. Whether the empty historical analysis of biblical criticism, or the various schemes of so-called literalism, all employ discursive reason (hence psychology) to explain what can only be known noetically. The literalist will assert that Isaiah’s Suffering Servant is indeed, Christ. But he has no reason for saying so apart from some reference in the New Testament. He does not see it, nor discern it, but says it like a parrot. And then he will turn his discursive reason away from these divinely revealed mysteries in order to inveigh on how the Old Testament teaches God’s vengeance and His demands of a necessary justice. In neither case has he “seen” anything or “known” anything in the manner of the Apostolic Church, much less in the manner of the noetic fathers. As often as not, the modern literalist will actually disdain “allegory” and its variations when those variations are themselves the very tools of the fundamental dogmas of the faith, used even by Christ Himself.

The noetic life that inherits the Kingdom (that which is birthed in us at Baptism) both hears the wind and sees where it comes from. It enters the gates of hell and walks in paradise. It mines the treasures buried in the field of the Scriptures. Inheriting the Kingdom is a patient work of noetic transformation received through the integral life of the Tradition. This is the true abundant life promised in Christ and given through the Spirit in the Church.

 

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