Literalism and Another Word

There are many who speak about literalism and see it where it does not exist. The trees of modern theories and habits hide the forest of ancient understanding and use of texts. It is necessary to back away from details and look at a larger context to see what we are actually seeing. In cultural terms, it is possible to say that no one was a “literalist” until the modern period.

In the early Church, the use of “allegory” was quite popular. St. Paul uses it without apology. It was a common literary understanding that was shared by Christian, Jew and Pagan. Greek civilization had its sacred texts. The writings of Homer were particularly held in great regard. However, they were generally ignored as history. Educated Greeks would have been embarrassed by any literal treatment of the stories involving the gods. They assumed that the stories had a meaning. Wisdom was required to see or understand that meaning. Allegory was the tool for extracting it.

St. Paul’s use of allegory (cf. Gal. 4:22-25) would have come as no surprise to his readers. It holds a very prominent place in the Letter to the Hebrews. Some of the most popular works within the early Church were highly allegorical. The Epistle of Barnabas is perhaps the best example. Apocalyptic literature, such as Revelation, utterly depends on allegorical assumptions.

It’s worth thinking for a moment about the meaning of allegory. The word is a combination: allos and agoreo, words meaning “other” and “speak publicly,” respectively. Allegory means to speak “in another word.” Whether it takes the form of typology, symbolism, or otherwise, the fathers used the term allegory to contain all such forms of speech.

Allegory assumes that there is “another word” under or within the word that one is seeing or hearing. A prominent example would be St. Paul’s treatment of Adam and Christ. Christ is a “Second Adam.” This also means that Christ is somehow present within the First Adam. In that manner, the Fathers will read of God taking Eve from the side of Adam as he slept and see the Church being birthed from the side of Christ as He “slept” on the Cross in death. Christ is the “other word” within the word “Adam.” Melchizedek gets treated in a similar manner (cf. Hebrews 7).

This presence of “another word” beneath or within a text extends to the world itself. The sacramental understanding of the world is, at its heart, an allegorical treatment of reality. There is something beneath and within everything that we see. This “other word” can be known and perceived. There are levels of realism within this allegorical treatment of the world. In the case of the Eucharist, the “other word” is utterly real. That which is made present, which can be known and perceived (by faith), is the very truth of the thing itself: “This is my body…” In the case of an icon, we say that what is pictured is hypostatically present, a somewhat weaker treatment than the sacraments. That all trees somehow participate in the wood of the Cross is yet a different thing – and so forth.

This allegorical treatment of texts (and of reality itself) suggests that the world we encounter is larger and deeper than it might appear at first. Think of a pot on a stove. On its surface (its literal level) we can see a pot. We can describe its color, shape, even consider what material was used in its construction. But we do not reach out and pick up a pot by its sides rather than its handle. The heat that might be present does not always appear. We approach the pot with respect.

In the same manner, we approach the world as sacrament, mindful of the “other word” that dwells in each and every thing. And this brings us back to the text and to literalism. Modern literalism does not accept allegory in anything other than a mental trick. The connection between Christ and Adam, between Christ and Melchizedek, between Bread and Body are thought to be purely mental. They exist only in the mind. To examples of allegory, we are likely to respond, “Yes, but. What is it really?”

“Literal” is the only reality for modernity. It is in this sense that it is possible to say that no one was a literalist until the modern period.

This is a reason why it is so difficult to have a proper conversation about things such as the early chapters of Genesis and other things within the Scriptures. The modern mind falsely imagines that its own flat, inert and emptied literalism is shared by the ancient world. If a particular early father or commentator treats Adam and Eve in a historical manner, they are said to be examples of a “literal” understanding of Genesis. In point of fact, they are examples of allegorists using a text. The “plain sense” is not absent within an allegorical/sacramental worldview. When we speak of “bread” in the Liturgy, prior to its consecration, it is not “merely” bread. It already has a relationship with what it will become (the “antitype” in St. Basil’s language). That relationship is expressed as the “Gifts,” or other such language.

Years ago, when I was first received into Orthodoxy, my late Archbishop (Dmitri of Dallas), insisted that in our beginning mission, I was to wear my cassock and be addressed as “Father.” Mind you, I had been an Episcopal priest but a week before but was no longer. It would be another 13 months before I was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood. I was blessed by the Bishop to lead Reader’s services and to preach, and to do pastoral care. But, he insisted on the cassock and the title. “Priests are born,” he said. “Ordination simply reveals them.” It was a staggering revelation.

When we approach the Fathers (and the Scriptures themselves), we must remember that these are thorough-going sacramentalists and allegorists. The level and amount of allegorical (figurative) treatment will vary from time to time and person to person. But even the fiercest example of the Antiochian School (often contrasted with the famously allegorical practices of Alexandria) are still allegorists. The world they inhabit is an allegorical/sacramental world.

To this number belong all of the writers of the New Testament as well as Christ Himself. Indeed, Christ is the chief allegorist, having given us a world whose reality is always more than meets the eye. He puts Himself forward as the “other word” that is within every word of the Old Testament (“these are they that testify of me” Jn 5:29). He is the Other Word reflected and made present in every created thing. He has given us creation that we might know Him.

 

 

 

64 comments:

  1. Interesting thoughts Father. I never really bought into literal interpretation of everything in Scripture but I did not really think about why. I am coming to know why and your post is helping me to know better.

  2. Father,
    Your last words, “He has given us creation that we might know Him,” make my heart ache. We are driving through Northern Nevada on a blue highway. What beauty given in stark contrasts of color, lines, forms–of azure sky, billowing clouds hanging gentle on the breeze, granite rock, golden hills punctuated with blue sage, bulging boulders…just noting what I see as my wife drives. St. Paul notes in Romans that the whole of creation groans awaiting the revealing of the sons of men. My heart joins creation in its groaning as I (we) await our final redemption. Thank you Father for taking us from this flatlander way of seeing to the wonder and beauty of the Word behind, infusing, and sustaining the whole created world.

  3. Interesting to me – the person I know who has the most sacramental worldview — is a charismatic Protestant.

  4. One thing that comes to my mind is to ask: why? Why use allegory, rather than say precisely what we mean?

  5. One thing that comes to my mind is to ask: why? Why use allegory, rather than say precisely what we mean?

    Thomas, I believe what is being said is that “saying precisely what we mean” is a modern concept that allows for few, or more likely, no layers of meaning. It is simply not how people communicated in the ancient world; they were not excessively utilitarian in their communication. They could see layers of meaning in Creation itself and lived and shared their lives in the same manner. Father, please correct me if I have mis-spoke.

  6. Thomas,
    I think it’s a great question – even the most obvious question. I’ve thought about this for years. I think it has to do with the nature of noetic perception – or seeing with the heart. What we call “precisely what we mean” (literal) – is something that is often not expressible, or requires something more than “precisely what we mean” to express it.

    Why do we speak in poetry? What art? They do something that prose and non-art cannot do.

    Christ spoke in parables – intentionally. On one occasion He explained it as allowing those who could hear (with the heart) to hear and others not to hear. As I noted in the previous article, there is a quality involved in the so-called objective world – it does not require anything of the heart (in the sense of the nous) that actually reduces what it is to be human.

    We use allegory and such for the same reason we sing when we could speak, for the same reason we use poetry, for the same reason we are often silent. From God’s side – it is about healing us. If we lived in a proper “noetic” state, we would speak very little, I think, and sing a lot. Oddly, it’s what they do in monasteries.

  7. Dee
    Thank you for the poignant story of you and your grandmother. Wonderful that she asked what it was singing to you. Sadly, my grandmothers were much more prosaic.

  8. I may have mind thats shaped wrong for this sort of thing. Ive sometimes been frustrated by poetry. Sometimes it seems that it’s intentionally vague as if that has some sort of merit in itself . I’m also not ignorant of St. Porphyrios’s first advice on what it takes to be a Christian. Ive considered learning lojban a few times, although – as Randall Munroe has pointed out – I’d only be able to speak with the sort of people who learn lojban.

  9. Allegory also allows for multiple meaningful and truthful interpretations. In other words, you get more work done with fewer. And in many ways, what you see in the allegory is indicative of your spiritual perception.

  10. David, rather than indicative of one’s spiritual perception I think rather that what one sees in Christian allegory, if the heart is open even a crack, is what God’s grace reveals and what needs to be seen.

    Having had my soul abused by purveyors of “spiritual attainment” great care has to be taken by even hinting at such things. After all what can mud possibly perceive?

  11. Fr Stephen,
    Thank you so much for giving us another gem! I’m so grateful that my spiritual father suggested that I read your blog. Its the only one I do read. This additional elaboration is another explanation that I sorely need. If anything but to help me not to doubt what my own rather noetic eyes see dimly. As you mention, allegory helps us to convey the multiple layers of our reality in language, and yet to understand, also, that there might be something to “hear” in the silence of our hearts.

    Wow what an amazing picture you found!!!!!

  12. sorry for the crazy verbiage: I meant to say ‘what my noetic eyes see rather dimly’. That is if I see anything at all.

  13. Michael, David
    “Seeing” is such in interesting thing. It moves far beyond understanding. It belongs to the category of that which truly becomes who we are – we live it, we walk in it, we become it. Apart from that we understand nothing – certainly not in the noetic sense. St. Paul writes, “You are my epistle, written on the fleshy tablets of the heart…” One of the fathers mused that if all Scripture were to disappear, it would be reconstituted by the life of the Church. I would say that the Scriptures are actually best read precisely in that place – on the fleshy tablets of heart as it is actually embodied in human lives. It is among the reason that I have extolled figures such as my father-in-law. Not being Orthodox, he, nevertheless, embodied much of its teaching. He would not have “understood” this was so. The same has been true in countless simple lives – most remain hidden – which is quite common for great treasures.

  14. Father, I know a bit of what you say. My brother and I became Orthodox, once we found it due to what our parents knew and lived and taught though they would never have understood that. They taught us, formed us so that the Church was the only viable destination.

  15. Father, isn’t this whole line of thinking (the Bible being just allegory) what lead the Episcopalians (among many others) to conclude the virgin birth, the Deity of Christ, the Resurrection, etc are just fairy tales?

  16. Alan, I’ll preface this answer with the observation that I was an Episcopal priest, trained in one of their seminaries. We were certainly taught to question everything. My NT professor did not believe in the Divinity of Christ. I could cite a lot of such problems. It certainly made me have to think a lot about the nature of the problem. What was offered (or so it seemed) was to be a literalist in the manner of Evangelical Fundamentalism (Bob Jones University), or a liberal historical/critic where doubt would slowly eat away everything, or certainly weaken everything. I saw something different in the Fathers. I saw that they not only spoke about the surface of a text (the “literal”) but depths and layers. At first I thought this was just a “technique” for finding meaning in a text. Over the years I came to see that it was actually their whole worlview – a sacramental worldview. That is what I have been describing in the article.

    “Just allegory” is a statement that is a modern/literalist statement – let me explain. “Allegory” as used by the Fathers, is a description of the nature of reality, and is reflected in the text. When we’re reading about the Ark of the Covenant – it certainly refers to the gold-covered box carried by the Hebrews that was in the tabernacle, etc. It is also (more deeply) the Virgin Mary – that is certainly how we sing about it and interpret it in the Liturgy. This is not a literary trick, but a deeper understanding (some would, perhaps, call it the mystical interpretation).

    The Episcopalians were/are historical/literalists. They simply came to question the value, literally or otherwise, of certain passages of Scripture. The historical critic thinks things must be proven in order to be “real and true.” In time, he discovers that he can doubt and not prove more and more (when it comes to Scripture). After that, Scripture loses all power and authority and the culture takes over.

    I would say that the first false step was to assume that things must be “proven” (in the historical/literal sense) in order to be true. The Bibilical literalists, such as Fundamentalists (the real ones), work very hard continuously to prove the Scripture is literally true and (generally) ignore any evidence that suggests otherwise. It tends to become a spiritual cul-de-sac. After a while, fundamentalists can only talk with other fundamentalists because they’ve created their own version of a literal-Biblical world.

    There are obviously plenty of things in Scripture that fit the mold of “literal.” But “literal” by itself is insufficient. The NT, as I pointed out in the article, uses allegory in interpreting the OT many times. It’s pretty much the preferred means of reading it. The world is more than literal – it has levels and layers of reality. Allegory (in the sense of layers of meaning) reflects reality in a way that “merely literal” (how’s that for a turn of the table?) does not.

    A Fundamentalist sees the Eucharist and says, “It’s just bread. It’s literally bread.” But it’s not. It’s the Body of Christ. The problem is not with the bread – it’s with the Fundamentalist’s categories. He has no way to speak about the Eucharist that is adequate to its reality. So, he makes the “Body of Christ” to be just an idea, something we think. “Merely allegorical.”

    The Eucharist is not an allegory. It is really and truly the Body of Christ. But, I would suggest that the sacramental reality and understanding should also help us understand the nature of the Scriptures. I am not taking anything away (denying Scripture) but saying that there is much more there, layers and layers, than meets the eye. And the layers and layers are real and true and can be known.

    One way we know these deeper meanings is through Tradition. They begin with Christ Himself who “opened their understanding” (in St. Luke 24). Christ taught the Apostles how to read the OT and see Him in it and the Spirit continues this same work through the ages.

    It’s actually miles away from what the Episcopalians and others do/did. Let me be very clear, lest I be misunderstood, in no way do I mean to suggest that the Virgin Birth, the Deity of Christ, the Resurrection are in any way not true. The Theotokos was a Virgin in the most “literal” manner – etc. But even her Virginity has layers and depths of meaning than are frequently described and discussed in the services of the Church.

    The Burning Bush in Exodus is her virginity. The Eastern Gate in Ezekiel’s vision of the New Temple is her virginity, etc. And the nature of her virginity is also reflected in how God treats us. He does no violence to our humanity in order to unite us to Himself (and there is much more to be said).

    The problem with the Episcopalians was the same as Bob Jones University – the all believe too little – literally, too little. Their arguments about what literally did or did not happen are the problem. Such a concept is inadequate for dealing with the world and reality.

    “Literalism” – the belief about the nature of what constitutes “real and true” is the problem. It creates false questions and assumptions. When literalism begins to fail – and it always does – the result is either a doubting liberal Churchman, or an ex-believer. The doubting liberal is probably as far away from the truth as the ex-believer. They have something in common, however: they are all literalists. They believe that the nature of reality itself is best described in a literal way. Anything else is “fairy-tale” or “fable” or “literary imagination.” Or some such term of denigration.

    If literal is the sum-total of reality – then we have a problem. Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. But the literalist can ultimately only talk about that as history. Did it happen or not? And that is the end of the matter.

    A more complete understanding, as in the Fathers use of true allegroy, not only says that Christ was really and truly raised from the dead but that we can know it even if we were not historically there. He is present in the Church, in the heart, etc. We know the risen Lord. We are also witnesses of the Resurrection. Literalists really never can be. They can only offer their opinions about what they think or believe.

    Literalism, I think, is a road to unbelief. It puts on a pair of glasses that reduces the world in such a way that it will ultimately lose all meaning, or that ultimately comes to destroy the very concept of meaning itself.

    I hope I’m explaining myself well-enough. It’s easy for what I’m saying to be misunderstood – we so commonly speak in the terms created by literalism that it’s hard to say anything differently.

    Thanks for the question!

  17. This knowing of the truth of the Scriptures–the Resurrection, etc.–in an immediate, experiential and personal way, and not simply theoretically as a historical fact we believe in our mind as an opinion based on arguments from Scripture, is the gift of genuine Othodox sacramental faith. I just listened to a wonderful talk about Met. Anthony (Bloom) that recalled his conversion experience as a skeptical and atheist teenager, which was through an experiential encounter with the risen Christ. Wonderful stuff!

  18. Karen, Alan, et al
    In my experience over the years, I would say that those who hold to a literalist version of the faith (based on mere history, mere facts) are largely captive to reason. Every reasonable doubt (which our culture nurtures in us all the time) has to be answered. One way to answer these things is to sort of shut down – to ignore them. But, I’ve observed that the result tends to be a lot of emotional energy focused on keeping such questions shut down. You get very angry, hard Christians usually. Everyday feels like you’re under attack and outnumbered.

    Others just lose the battle and gradually give up.

    And then, there is a faith that is ultimately grounded in a true experience of Christ and growing experience in the sacramental reality that is God’s gift of communion with Him in all things. Met. Anthony Bloom’s story was outstanding. We could add many others. I think we have to pierce through the merely literal and make our way into the depths of things if we are to find ourselves in the “cleft of the rock.”

    St. Paul: I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that Day.

  19. Father Stephen,
    Thank you for this great explanation to Alan.
    I grew up a literalist. At 18 I read a double issue of Life Magazine devoted to “understanding” the Bible and it’s history. Well, it must have been written by one of your professors, lol.
    At the conclusion, it said that believing in the Bible was fine for little old ladies, but anyone with intellectual integrity would toss it out , as you said, as fairy tales. Well, little old Assembly of God boy me did just that. Tossed it out. I did not go to church for 4 years. I considered myself an agnostic. During those 4 years, I had married. My wife was a Christian. One evening she had gone to bed early, feeling sick. A book she was reading by Billy Graham, World Aflame, was on the coffee table. I picked it up and started reading. I read for a long while. I yearned to believe, but just could not. I then put it down and prayed, “God, I don’t know if you are even there. But if you are, please let me know.” I then went to bed. However, when I awoke, God had obviously done something to my heart. I went to bed agnostic, but awoke a believer. From that moment of awakening, I knew that Christ was real, I believed that He was God. He had condescended to my earnest heart cry and had softened my heart while I slept. Well, long story short, I became a Christian but it was a long, torturous road before Christ finally allowed me to see the truth of Orthodoxy. And even now scales continue to fall from my spiritual eyes as I see the world with, as you say, layer upon layer of truth and meaning. Thank you, dear Father.

  20. Just a word of thanks, Father Stephen, for your words. Very helpful to the battle between faith and doubt I find in myself so regularly. May God bless and keep you.

  21. Is it just me, but we’re a lot of comments removed from this thread – comments about the place of science in the tension between allegory and literalism? A pity they removed – I was looking forward to Fr. Stephen’s responses.

  22. Stephen,
    Yes, I removed some comments from several people. It was a direction of the conversation that I thought was a distraction of sorts – at least for what I wanted the conversation to be. I do remove comments from time to time for various reasons. It is, after all, just a blog, not a public forum, and I work at giving freedom but also managing things a bit.

    The science stuff is of interest to a number of people and it comes up from time to time. It’s not my topic and it easily gets out of hand. A limit I put on myself a long time ago was to write only about what I “know” and to stay within that. At least it’s a conversation in which I might be useful. Obviously nobody knows everything – and I’ve got lots of limits. I hope what we do is useful.

    The “place of science in the tension between allegory and literalism.” In short (this is what I think): Science (as it seems to be practiced these days) has a pretty “literal” take on the world and the nature of its work. It reinforces the cultural notions of the historical-literal worldview.

    I think of science as “dashboard knowledge” to borrow a phrase from Owen Barfield. I know how to use the dashboard in my car, but I don’t really understand what’s under the hood. In science, everything is a dashboard. The most extreme regions of sub-atomic particles is still dashboard knowledge. If there is a true noetic reality – what the Fathers describe as the “logoi” of created things – they cannot be studied rationally, scientifically, or literally. They are “beneath the dashboard.” It is a teaching of the Church that it is possible to know the logoi of things. But this is not a scientific knowledge – it’s deeper. It cannot be tested, weighed, measured, compared, etc. At most, it can be shared in the greater conversation that is the Tradition of the Church (which is how we first ever heard about it).

    One aspect of such noetic knowledge is that it cannot be known at all like the rational knowledge of science and literalism. First, it cannot be used to manage things. The things it knows do not have the inert, passive character of “things.” The logoi are not particles or rocks or something. They have a reality that is more akin to the Logos, for whom they are named. They can be known relationally – and the very knowing changes the one who knows them. To seek to manage them would be to plunge into ignorance. As such, they are of no “scientific” purpose.

    The purpose of modern science is to know, manage, use, control, etc. It’s what you do with a dashboard. For some, the study of science can be a gateway into things that are beneath (things that are noetic in character). But it comes by faith, by wonder, by worship, by thanksgiving – ultimately by repentance and communion with God and others.

    Hope that’s of some use.

  23. Father, is it possible do you think for science to be iconic in nature? That is to say instead of a control board it is a window into a deeper experience of “things”. There inter-relationship with each other with God and our connections to each. In short to be allegorical?

  24. Dean, what a wonderful blessing. I said a very similar prayer in a very similar manner with a very similar result including the long torturous road to the Church. I am beginning to think of that prayer as the real “Believers Prayer”.

  25. Father, Karen,
    I could not find the testimony of Met. Anthony Bloom. Please can you provide a link?

  26. Thank you.
    By the way Father, I think there is something wrong that should be checked by your IT team: when the number of comments exceeds a certain limit, and we want to read them, we keep being redirected to either ” older comments” or “newer comments” with no access to the newer comments. Whenever we press on “newer comments” we are automatically redirected to “older comments”. I don’t know if anybody else has noticed this glitch.

  27. Cassiane,
    That’s a glaring mistake on my part. I’ll redo the article sometime tomorrow. Lazy scholarship on my part… the agoreuo still means to speak but to speak publicly…in the agora. I’ll rework it tomorrow. Thanks!

  28. By the way Father, I think there is something wrong that should be checked by your IT team: when the number of comments exceeds a certain limit, and we want to read them, we keep being redirected to either ” older comments” or “newer comments” with no access to the newer comments. Whenever we press on “newer comments” we are automatically redirected to “older comments”. I don’t know if anybody else has noticed this glitch.

    Theodosia, I have also noticed this but when I go back to the “older comments” it has all of the comments listed (both old and new).

  29. Byron,
    I still cannot access the newer ones…. Keeps redirecting me to the older stuff. But thanks anyway

  30. Father,
    How much of our tilting toward Literalism do you think is a symptom of the technical age we live in? The Technological Revolutions that occurred since the Reformation were probably an ideal soup pot for literary change- not only the introduction of new words, but demanding economy and precision in every day language that was new. I read the scripture, and can hear “other words’ in them, see other stories, bigger stories. I just need to slow down and develop that ability, follow and listen. Bless you for all that you do.

  31. Jim,
    No doubt, technology and the march of modern culture have tended to magnify the concept of literalism. With it can be seen the steady decline in literature. We are buried in prose – in 140 character bursts.

  32. Father, thank you for your reply to me.
    You said (in your reply) that literal is insufficient. You also talked about a deeper meaning. All of that makes sense, and I get that. But I must ask, how can there be a “deeper meaning” to something that doesn’t exist in the first place?
    Let me try to make an analogy. I’m married. For the purpose of this comment, I’ll call my wife Jane (that’s not her real first name but I wish to protect the innocent 🙂 ). Someone could do some research on Jane. They could review hospital records from when she was born, they could review birth notices in the local newspaper from her hometown, they could review the high school yearbook from her HS and without ever having met her, they could conclude and could tell everyone else….”Jane is an actual person. She’s a historical figure.” But if they told me that, I might laugh and say “OK, but all of that doesn’t really matter to me, as I actually KNOW Jane!” I might even take your words Father and say that the researcher’s literal knowledge of Jane is insufficient to me and that I have a fuller, deeper knowledge of Jane. But here’s the catch, and I really think there’s no way around this. If in fact Jane was never a real person and didn’t ever actually exist, then by definition, it would be impossible for me to have this deeper knowledge of her. So do we want a deeper knowledge than just literal facts? Yes, I agree. But if the facts in question never happened then it seems that a deeper knowledge is not only impossible, but totally unimportant.

    Secondly, in Jim’s question from yesterday and in your reply to him, are you suggesting then Father that prior to the modern / technological age, that nobody believed in a historical Adam and Eve?

    And finally, if Adam didn’t exist, then Icons with Adam don’t seem to make much sense. It would seem that you can’t venerate someone who never existed.

    Thanks for your patience with me Father. I appreciate it.

  33. Alan, Firgive me because I’m pitching in at this point not so much to answer your question directly but to add more ideas to your reflections.:

    In our ‘literalist’ society we say things like this: “there is no such thing as the future–it doesn’t exist” and yet despite ourselves we make plans “for the future”. When we say this what ‘exactly’ are we saying? And what are we doing?

  34. Dear Fr. Freeman
    I “discovered”, more or less by accident, the website for the Ancient Hebrew Research Center . It reveals some interesting differences between Eastern and Western thought and philosophy. I’m not sure how I can apply it to my own life – it’s enough to be involved, even unwillingly, in the culture war at hand let alone in the fairly radical differences between the two mindsets mentioned. but it does make reading of the Bible’s “white pages” (the Old Testament) richer.

    I was wondering if you had also seen the site.

  35. Alan, very good questions, quite fair and proper. I’ll do my best to answer in a straightforward way. I’ll begin, however, with a couple of general observations. This is a long, long answer.

    It is difficult for us who live in a secular/literalist world to not assume that this alone constitutes what’s real. “What else could be real,” we wonder. For one, God is real. But God is not part of the secular/literalist world. He is utterly beyond it. Of course, without Him, nothing in the secular/literalist world would exist, even they can’t see Him or prove Him.

    Just as God is real, so there is a “reality,” a depth, an unseen reality that is directly related to what we think of as merely “literal” reality, or things within merely literal reality. Now in the modern secular/literalist view, any “deeper” things are nothing more than ideas associated with things – and the ideas have no existence. Those imaginary things, mere ideas, are what I call the “second storey” in a two-storey universe.

    So, I have had a primary purpose in helping people (who were born in our secular/literalist world) come to see that there is more than merely literal reality, and that the something more is as much or more real. This is the one-storey universe of a sacramental world view.

    Now, regarding the Scriptures and our faith:

    There are clear statements that point towards a single moment in history in the most concrete possible way that are non-negotiable and at the very heart of the Christian faith. We must remember, as well, that those concrete, historical single moments also have a transcendent depth to them that includes more things than just the purely historical single moment.

    Examples:

    The primary examples are stated in the Creed: Creation, Incarnation, Virgin Birth, Crucifixion and Death, Resurrection. The Second Coming is hardly to describe (on this side of things).

    That is a core and we confess it regularly. These things do not depend on prior things. Everything is relative to them.

    Let’s tackle Adam. Was Adam, as described in Genesis, historical or not? Regardless of how we think of it, if we insist on Adam as in Genesis, we have to insist on a human existence no more than 7,000 years in length. On the Byzantine Calendar, this September 1 will be the year 7526 from the beginning of Creation. If we do not accept that (and very few people do), then we must think a bit differently about the early chapters of Genesis.

    You suggested that if Adam in not historical then Christ is not historical. Adam is not the cause of Christ. Christ is the cause of all things. The problem with a statement that states the Adam story as a necessity without which the rest of the gospel fails, is that this is not the Tradition of the Church. Only St. Paul in the New Testament employs the story of Adam theologically (Luke mentions him in the genealogy, Jude in a description of the prophetic line). That is to say, that all of the other writers were quite comfortable giving us the plan of salvation without mentioning Adam.

    It is clear that most ancient writers of the Church thought about Adam and Even in pretty historical terms – and probably thought of the earth as around 7000 years old. There was no good reason not to. As stories of the beginning go, it was far superior to any of the creation myths of surrounding cultures.

    But there are also rather interesting uses of the Creation story. St. Maximus, for example, describes the “Fall” has happening almost instaneously. Origen, who was condemned for this, thought that Adam and Eve fell out of a perfect paradise into this material world. St. Basil still uses the language of “expelled him from paradise into this world.” Origen’s thought was rejected, but not for a couple of centuries. During his lifetime he was thought of as the greatest Christian teacher of his time. This does not make him right or a model – but it points to a range of thought and treatment that were not considered strange in themselves. Indeed, if Origen had not said such weird things about Adam and Eve’s existence before the Fall, he would likely not have been condemned. He got pretty spacey. But, in a variety of ways, he remained extremely influential long after his condemnation.

    But, if St. Maximus, perhaps the greatest of the Fathers on the question of anthropology (what it means to be human) sees Adam as falling, almost instaneously, then what about all of the walking and talking in the Garden, etc.? St. Maximus clearly, at points, speaks about the Genesis text in a less than literal manner (or more than literal).

    When I speak about Adam and Eve in a sermon, anyone listening to that alone might well ascribe a literalist interpretation to me. I would say that I have a “literary” interpretation. When I speak about them, I speak within the story – and that story is the story given to us by God that the Tradition has set as the grammar for speaking about the meaning and purpose of human origins.

    Was there a historical, literal figure of one man and one woman who had no progenitors who were literally formed from the dust and breathed into and set in a garden and talked to a snake? And that about 7,500 years ago?

    I think that if the question is asked that way, the answer would be no (at least from me). I think the universe is about 13 billion or so years old. I think the earth is around 4 billion years old. I think human beings, in our present form, have been around for a very long time – certainly in excess of 100,000 years.

    I would say that in literal/scientific/secular terms, we cannot say much about a literal Adam and Eve or any story about human origins other than the science story – which is only about fossils and the sort and not about any real, single individuals.

    What we have in Genesis’ early chapters is the authoritative story of human origins in its theological content. It certainly draws on creation accounts that were older and highly mythological. But this one has an economy and perspicacity that continues to work. In this text, the early Church saw the lineaments of Christ – the story of the First Adam makes best sense when read through the lens of the Second Adam. If there is a historical link between the Adam story and the historical/literal advent of human beings in this world, we certainly haven’t been given anything in the Tradition to understand it. The Tradition is silent about such a question (and many other questions). We may posit a historical Adam within the dim mists of time. But trying to mix the secularist/historical/science story (which is also mythic in many ways) with the Genesis story creates little more than confusion.

    A problem arises, I think, if we impose a literalist/historical insistence on the Genesis’ Adam stories. First, there’s the young earth problem. It flatly denies every rational observation that we know of. I think that would be a mistake. And if people then rush to explain that the young earth is not a necessity – then they are admitting that the story, as given, is not to be taken in its purest, most literal form (as the Byzantine Calendar does).

    The account in Genesis serves as authority for understanding human origins. It is poetic in its structure with imagery that reveals the true nature of our existence and our relation with God, the earth and each other, but does so within the language of a certain time. If you will, it is the true story of our origin, incarnate in the language of bronze age Mesopotamia.

    Do we demand that a faithful Orthodox Christian reject any account of human origins that puts us here 100,000 years ago or more? I think that would be a tragic mistake. It makes of Orthodoxy something bordering on a cult, afraid to examine the evidence of its own eyes. I also think that, (apart from some minor circles who mostly speak with each other and hang out in certain corners of the internet) most Orthodox thinkers would consider such a demand to be preposterous.

    Origen obviously went too far in the direction of Plato. But we must remember that few noticed a problem for nearly 300 years. Today, many parse every paragraph, every nuance, and find some sort of deviance to be dangerously lurking. They patrol the borders with great care. I think that if you spend too much time on the borders, you will never reach the depths of the Kingdom.

    So, is there a way to think about this that remains within the bounds of the Tradition? I think so. I think that I cannot speak about Adam and Eve on the literalist level and mean it the same way a scientist means it when he speaks about human origins. But I can certainly speak about them on the level and meaning of the Tradition. Adam (which means “the Man”) is humanity itself. Adam is “we.” This story is our story. And there is ever so much more to say about this story. Was there a historical first human being? In a finite world, there is always a first of everything. However, the story of science can actually only speak about change and becoming – it has no real stories of the first anything.

    Christianity has a story about the first. The story is important and has been assumed into the story of Christ who is the second Adam. Apart from Christ, Adam is not very important. The Old Testament only mentions Adam twice outside of Genesis – and in one of those cases, the Greek does not treat its meaning as the man, Adam.

    This in no way reduces its importance for Christians. It is our grammar. The Genesis creation, as understood through Christ, forms the rule for how we speak about human origins. What we say of Adam is true of us all in some manner.

    What about icons with Adam? Icons have interesting things in them. The Pentecost icon has a figure named “Cosmos” down at the bottom. He is “the world.” He is “all of us.” And he’s in the icon. When I reverence Adam, I reverence every human being who ever lived, including whomever God would call “the first” if He were speaking to us in a literalist/modern meaning.

    I think God did not speak to us that way for good reasons. No such account would ever have given us what we have in this story. No other “Adam” would really work.

    Is it wrong to believe in a literal/historical Adam. Of course not – lots of Christians have through the centuries. But if it is demanded that other Orthodox Christians must declare a fealty to such an interpretation or fall into heresy – then first try finding it in the Creed or the Councils. It’s not there for a good reason. The Church has always had a latitude about things that are not utterly necessary.

    So, what things are necessary? I cited some above. Many things in the Scriptures are historical, even lots of the really old stuff. But we also have highly literary accounts of those events. For example, I certainly believe in Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. But what we have is a highly literary account. Some of the varying accounts of the Sinai event, for example, differ in details, showing that they have some latitude as literary treatments of real events.

    But what we have been given of these historical things are literary accounts (not science accounts – nor newspaper clippings). Some of the stories tell us what God is thinking, or about conversations that take place between God and Satan. No eye witness reporter to the events could possibly have said such things. But these are the ways the stories are told and given shape so that they are of theological use. We are believers – not a historical society.

    The problem in the modern world is that there developed two types of new Christians. Both groups came to believe that the modern description of the world was true. The world was nothing more than historical/literal/cause/effect/etc. Not just that, but they decided that it could be studied in that way in order to come to the truth. The rise of historical studies began in the Reformation where they were used to attack the authoritative claims of Catholicism (and Orthodoxy had they bothered). Authority rested in history – and, they thought, the Bible is true because it is historically accurate.

    But after the split occurred, during the Enlightenment, the very tools that these modern Christians had used at first to attack the historical claims of the Catholic Church were turned against the Bible and began to assault its historical reliability. The notion was that if anything was not exactly as the Bible described it – then the Bible had no authority. The split became liberal against conservative (or whatever labels we want to use).

    This modern historical/literalist project was always going to fail because it’s a false model. The Church does not posit the Bible as authoritative because of its literal/historical value. We accept it as authoritative as it bears witness to Christ. It bears witness to Christ when it is read in accordance with the Tradition as received by the Church. You cannot separate the Scriptures from the Church and claim an independent authority for them. That is the modern error.

    The Church is not based on the Scriptures. It is founded on the Apostles and the Prophets, Christ Himself being the cornerstone. The Scriptures, as we are taught to read them, have authority only as it is given in the Tradition. There’s plenty of history there – but that history is read according to the Tradition and not vice-versa. Vice-versa would only take you to the false conclusions of the modernists.

    There are some among the Orthodox who are caught up in this battle between the two modern groups and do not know anything else. They side with one or the other and call one another names and believe each to be the enemy. Neither reads the Scripture rightly, as far as I can see.

    There is a third way, as I have described it. I believe this to be faithful to the Tradition and probably the only approach that will serve the gospel over the long haul.

  36. Regarding literalism… I am reminded of the statement in your April 2, 2012 blog, The Intuition of Narnia: “The weakness of literalism is its acute limitation to itself.” I am still digesting this.

  37. It might help the discussion of Adam to know that his name also means “man” as in “mankind” in Hebrew. I have always wondered if this was the subtle way that allegory was referred to in the Creation story.

  38. As someone who was trained to think historically, it is important for me to note that “facts” are not as solid as most think they are. Facts can change in importance, meaning and veracity depending on the context, bias, intelligence and knowledge of those who assemble them.

    Thus when Father, speaking from the Church says that the Bible can only understood rightly from within the Church, he speaks volumes. It is not just the narrative that is interpreted and understood differently, it is every last jot and tittle.

    Looking at the Scriptures as a revealing Jesus Christ requires the Christ revealed in the Church as the Creed describes, the Apostles witness and we experience in the Divine Liturgy.

    Understanding that has brought me to accept that there is only one Church. Grace is everywhere, but only one Church and the fullness of Grace. Also much sin BTW. It could not be otherwise.

    The Scriptures themselves strongly testify to this oneness even when read outside her.

    It has taken me thiry years to begin to cast off the modern notion of egalitaianism and not replace it with the equally modern notion of ideological purity.

  39. Father, the problem with what you say about the Genesis account is this: regardless of how we take the Genesis story- symbolic, literall, alegorical etc. the essence is one and the same: primordial man was in a superior state from which it fell into a lower state. Regardless of how we take the story, if we allow words to mean anything, a “fall” means simply that- you are in a higher place and from there you abruptly find yourself in a lower one.
    Regardless how you want to take this, it is flatly at odds with any evolutionist premise.
    The attempt to try to combine evolutionism and Christian anthropology takes all the doublethink in the world.

    The problem here arises from the fact that few people really know the history of the modern mentality and the real origin of certain ideas and hence are intimidated by cheap propaganda that would want to posit darwinism as a scientific fact on the same level as the law of gravity which is patently absurd. In reality darwinism (and the whole evolutionist mindset) is just an ideology through which certain scientific facts are interpreted. Its origin has nothing to do with real scientific investigation but with occult lodges and ideologies- see this article:
    http://en.kalitribune.com/contingent-divinity-the-golden-calf-of-the-universe/

    Having said this, I think that in your treatment of Genesis you fall into the same literalist/alegorist dichotomy which you criticize. Regardless of how the primordial paradise should be understood and viewed, it cannot be said to have no “literal” connection to the post-lapsarian world, or that it is just the story of “us all” in an allegorical sense. It is certainly an archetypal story and as such can be related throughout the whole span of history and to each individual person, but it must also be a real event that happened somewhere and somewhen (again, regardless of how we would understand “when” and “where”).
    Otherwise we would just fall back into the same dichotomy of “archetype” vs “historical fact”, where “archetype” is meant as nothing more than an abstract idea of some sort with no concrete existence in the “objective” world.

    It is quite blatantly obvious that if the secularist account of history and anthropology is to be taken as true, then the whole Christian account can be thrown to the waste bin. What would remain of St Paul’s statement, for example, that death was introduced by man and that the whole creation was subjected to futility because of this, if according to the evolutionist narrative “death” is just a natural process that has been occurring since the beginning of the world?
    What remains of the traditional Orthodox teaching on the Logos and the logoi of all created things, if- according to the evolutionist ideology- everything is subjected to flux and there exist no such things as “nature” or “essence”?

    I don’t remember exactly where is that saying of St Maximos to be found (which you cite, about the fall being instant), but it more likely has to do with time being experienced differently in the two states (though I would have to see the whole context in order to be sure).

    What I wrote above should not be understood as some kind of anti-science attitude. On the contrary, Christians who desire to do so should go in-depth into actual scientific study that would reveal quite a different animal than the vulgarized secularist ideology that is presented in school and mainstream accounts, disguised under the phony label of “science”. In this way Christians will not become so intimidated by these narratives so as to be driven towards all sorts of mental gymnastics and doublethink.

    Other than that I completely agree that the most important understanding of Scripture is in its symbolical aspect. The reason I have written this lengthy comment is that I usually agree with the majority of things you have to say about the sacramental view of Scripture and the world.
    As such, your treatment of Genesis (which I have witnessed on a number of other occasions as well and is quite common among many Christians today) is, in my opinion, quite a big concession to some of the most fundamental tenets of the modern mentality.
    The question of Eden and the primordial state of man is not a secondary or unimportant issue, because how we view the beginning logically determines how we view everything else after that.

    Please forgive if I offended and bless,
    Mihai

  40. One more thing I want to add in support of what I said above.

    You mention several times that Adam is not the cause of Christ and that the Incarnation, Virgin Birth, the Cross etc. are the cause of all things to which everything else is related.
    Yes, this is true from a transcendent perspective and one must understand the relativity of what one usually views as “linear time” and the world of cause and effect.

    But the chronological perspective of cause and effect and of what comes later being caused by that which came earlier also has certain degree of truth on a certain plane and cannot be completely thrown outside the story as being completely irrelevant. There is a certain sense in which we can say that Adam “caused” Christ’s history.
    That is: Saint Maximos, in one answer to Thalassius, clearly states – in his interpretation of the Biblical passage of the Lamb being slain from the foundation of the world- that the Son of God would have become man regardless of the fall, because the world and man were created precisely for this purpose: for the created to be united with the Uncreated- something which could have only been accomplished by a direct action of God. Father Dumitru Stăniloae (Romanian Philokalia) provides an interesting note on this occasion: he says that it can be conceived that the whole story of Incarnation- Crucifixion- Russurrection would have happened in a bloodless, mystical form and that the Fall was what gave these a violent character.
    So we could say that Adam’s fall did certainly not “cause” Christ and everything surrounding Him according to essence, but according to mode. Or that God’s plan cannot be stopped or spoiled by any action of any created being, but that the mode in which this plan is implemented can be influenced by the actions of those being endowed with the possibility of freedom of choice and action. We do speak of synergy after all.

    It is my opinion that your treatment of these problems here tends to disregard the soteriological perspective, which even though is on a lower level than the ontological one, it is nonetheless quite essential and important to the whole of Christian doctrine.

  41. Father,
    Sorry for this late comment…I have been reading your related articles on this topic ever since this article was posted. I wish I could express how very helpful they are. As others have said, it takes a lot of determination to begin to break away from such concrete, literal thinking. It seems like it only happens in spurts. But the more I read about it, here and in the books you recommend, it begins to slowly sink in. Almost unnoticeable, the mind begins to “see” things differently than before. Speaking of books, I finally purchased your book “Everywhere Present”. I received it yesterday. I think the reason why I didn’t purchase it sooner is because it took this long to begin to understand the depth of your thoughts. Much of it I just didn’t understand. I thought I did…I wanted to…but it just takes time.
    Thank you Father. Thank you very much.
    Forgive me for my impatience and frustration in some of my posts over the past year. And to all whom I’ve offended, forgive me.

  42. Mihai,
    It is precisely because the literal cannot be utterly dismissed that I have suggested some nuance (mystical or otherwise) regarding human origins and the Fall (not a word commonly used in the Fathers of the East). There are arguments to be had viz. details of evolutionary theory – far outside the scope of this blog and conversation. But that the universe is quite old (billions of years) and that the earth is quite old (some billions) and that the human race has been around for many, many times longer than 7500 years is, I think, patently obvious within the realm of conversation that would include science. Any denial of that will simply go nowhere other than obscurity. I do not think that science (well done) should in any way make our faith (rightly taught) obsolete or false.

    You are bringing a version of evolutionary theory into the conversation – that’s your contribution, not mine. I utterly believe in a directed creation – the Providence of God directs all things. I think it is also hidden from the methods of science – they will not find a “logos particle.” It doesn’t mean there are no “logoi” nor that I should rail against science because it can’t see it. I can argue, rightly, that science cannot see the fullness of what is and that it has overstepped itself when it proposes a theory that seeks to say more than science can or should say.

    Obviously the “Fall” is a fact – although it must be noted that the Scriptures do not use this word. Nor do the Scriptures ever say that creation is “fallen.” Creation “was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope;”(Rom 8:20)

    St. Paul does not say when creation was subjected to futility (not willingly). But he does not say that human beings caused creation to fall. Instead, he says it was made so by God. My own thought is that creation, in view of the “fall” that was to happen, was made “subjected to futility” from its very beginning. Paradise has always been seen as somehow “fenced off” from this world. The paradisial existence is something we leave and come “into this world” (in St. Basil’s language). That we were expelled from paradise – and that paradise itself was not made “subject to futility” should be quite suggestive. At least, this is a way I have come to think of things for myself after reading St. Maximus. I think it is well within the realm of the Tradition.

    I have essentially said two things: First, that whatever the “historical” connection of the primordial human beings is – it is unknown to us in a historical manner. It is hidden.
    Second: What we have, instead, is a divinely inspired story of our origins, that, when read through the lens of Christ’s Pascha, says what we need to know for the purpose of salvation.

    I think we are on shaky ground when we decide to utterly oppose science – ground which the Fathers themselves never occupied. Now, that science has married itself to certain cultural forces of modernity (the Modern Project) is a different argument and one that we do well to be involved in – unless we want to continue marching towards a dystopian “Brave New World.”

  43. Father,
    I for one do not think that the age of the Universe or of human origins or of human history is in any way a big concern for us. For example, if Abraham lived 5,000 years ago or that his age is far more remote than that is of no big concern to our faith- indeed we are in no way obliged to take the genealogies in Matt. and Luke as we would take some historian’s chronicle.
    But although I have no opinion on the age of our history, of the world and of the universe, I do want to point out that what you say “patently obvious” is in no way such. The 13 billion years-old universe is just an assumption made on a load of other assumptions and speculations starting from standpoints that have nothing to do with empirical science- evolutionism being one of them.
    But if the age of the world is of no concern to the faith, evolutionism is (regardless if the Christian thinks that everything is ok as long as he adds God as directing the process). Evolutionism is a complete inversion of Christian theology and metaphysics and theistic evolutionism- if followed from premise to logical conclusion- can only end up in something along the lines of Teilhard de Chardin.

    And my whole point vis-a-vis science was this: like I said, not to rail against science, but to point out that many things we take for granted as unassailable facts are just secularist ideologies who take science as a cover and nothing more.
    I do encourage anyone to read Dr. Wolfgang Smith’s “Science and myth” and “Cosmos and transcendence” in order to get a wider view of what science is and can do and where science ends and mere speculation starts.

    Now I realize that I have led this conversation off-topic and I apologize for that. I promise that this will be my last such post inside this topic.

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