Recent conversations on the blog have revolved around the word “mystery” and the notion of a “literal” or “plain” meaning of the Scriptures. This reprint might be of interest.
The trouble with reading Scripture is that almost everybody thinks they can do it.
This idea is rooted in the assumptions of Protestant thought: only if the meaning of Scripture is fairly obvious and more or less objective can it serve as a source of unmediated authority for the believer. If any particular skill or mastery is required, then the skillful masters will be the mediators of meaning for all the rest. The concept of any intervening authority is anathema to the Protestant project. It is equally unsuitable to the assumptions of the modern world. For the modern world, born in the Protestant milieu, is inherently democratic. The individual, unaided, unbridled, and unsubmitted, is the ultimate authority.
These assumptions are greatly removed from the thoughts of the fathers of the Church. No matter how “literal” a father’s treatment of Scripture might be, he never assumed the meaning of Scripture to be obvious and universally accessible. The clear consensus of the fathers is found in the words of the Ethiopian Eunuch: “How can I [understand the Scripture] unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31).
Andrew Louth, writing in his book, Discerning the Mystery, says:
If we look back to the Fathers, and the tradition, for inspiration as to the nature of theology, there is one thing we meet which must be paused over and discussed in some detail: and that is their use of allegory in interpreting the Scriptures. We can see already that for them it was not a superfluous, stylistic habit, something we can fairly easily lop off from the trunk of Patristic theology. Rather it is bound up with their whole understanding of tradition as the tacit dimension of the Christian life: allegory is a way of entering the ‘margin of silence’ that surrounds the articulate message of the Scriptures, it is a way of glimpsing the living depths of tradition from the perspective of the letter of the Scriptures. Of course the question of allegory in the Fathers is complex (and often rendered unduly complicated by our own embarrassment about allegory): but whatever language the Fathers use to describe their exegetical practice (and there is no great consistency here), they all interpret Scripture in a way we would call allegorical, and allegoria is the usual word the Latin Fathers use from the fourth century onwards to characterize the deeper meaning they are seeking in the Scriptures.
At issue here is something far greater than the interpretation of Scripture. The fathers search for a “deeper meaning” was nothing less than the search for salvation. For ultimately, the deeper meaning is revealed and discerned because it is being read by a “deeper me.” The rational self, regardless of the method being employed, cannot discern the truth of the Scriptures.
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)
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)
As deeply frustrating as it may be, rationality is simply unable to take us where we are meant to go.
This is one of the root problems of various “literalisms.” All literalisms seek to rid Scripture of its mystery. The “plain sense” in the hands of a modern reader is simply the “modern sense.” And though such literalisms may yield readings that are deeply opposed to certain modern conclusions (such as those common in modern science, etc.), they are not therefore ancient and traditional. Such conclusions yield nothing more than a modern man with odd opinions. They do not transform or transfigure anyone or anything.
The debate about the interpretation of Scripture, particularly on the level of most argumentation, is a strikingly modern debate. At stake are modern issues born of the modern era. But they are not the issues of salvation.
Whether evolution is true or not, whether the earth is young or not, and whether the Scriptures lend any clue to such questions is, frankly, beside the point. I had such conversations when I was a child (as did others around me). And though the conversation has become more complex, littered with far more arguments, citations, facts and counter-facts, it is still the same conversation, rooted in the same assumptions and in no way more deeply engaged in the transfiguration of the human person.
But consider this short hymn (typical of the Orthodox understanding of Scripture):
O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all, O Ark of the Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which Divinity resides (Homily of the Papyrus of Turin).
That Mary is the true Ark, containing the true Manna, is more than a mental exercise in theological exegesis. If truly and rightly perceived, it is the utterance of a heart that is being pierced by the mystery of the gospel. For the gospel is made known to us in a mystery – it is hidden.
The New Testament teaches, and the Church affirms, that Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. This is an utterly central teaching of the faith. And yet, you will search in vain to find a single prophecy in the Old Testament that predicts such an event, if the Old Testament is to be read in a literal, historical manner. The only Scriptural reference to Christ’s three days in the tomb is the one He Himself cites: Jonah in the belly of the whale. The single most important and foundational tenet of the Christian faith, which we confess is according to the Scriptures, can only be seen if the Scriptures are read in an allegorical manner.
This is not to deny that the Scriptures have a value on the literal level, but it is to say that the hiddenness of the gospel is precisely that – hidden beneath the literal level.
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1Co 2:7-8)
Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began but now made manifest, and by the prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, for obedience to the faith–to God, alone wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. (Rom 16:25-27)
In this last passage, St. Paul clearly equates the “gospel” and the “mystery kept secret since the world began.” Further, he says it is now made manifest “by the prophetic Scriptures.” But it is obviously the case that the mystery would not have been kept secret had it been discernible with a mere literal/historical reading. The interpretation of Scripture is not available to just “any fool.” It has been hidden, purposely by God. And it is hidden in a figure.
So what should we say about the letter of the word? Is it of no value? If those who wrote it did not see what was hidden in their writings, what did they see?
I recently commented on a question concerning certain statements within the Old Testament that they represented the understanding of those who wrote them, and not necessarily the fullness of the mystery (and hence the truth). The question was then raised as to whether this constituted “progressive revelation,” an evolution within human understanding.
To this I should say, “Categorically no!” Human understanding has not evolved, nor will it evolve. For what we mean by “human understanding” is precisely the very thing we mean by “mere rationality.” The manna, the jar, the ark, the lampstands all clearly refer to manna, the jar, the ark and the lampstands. They do not evolve into the Theotokos. They already and always were the Theotokos, but she was hidden beneath the letter of their description, ready to be revealed in the last days and now made manifest.
So what did the writers and speakers of the Old Testament know?
But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear; for assuredly, I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it. (Mat 13:16-17)
They didn’t see what we can see. They may have longed for it. And indeed that which was figured in their speech, in their writings and in their thoughts was always present (since the world began). And they may very well have loved what they did not see. What they saw and wrote is not of no value, for it is the figure and shadow of the truth (in the words of St. Maximus and St. Ambrose). By God’s grace, we now see both the figure and what was hidden.
However, still today, there are many Christians who cling to the letter, and even consider themselves as the defenders of the Scriptures and as “Bible believers.” But these same refuse to see the Theotokos (and many other things) hidden within these figures. They ask, “Where in the Scriptures does it teach that she was ever-virgin?” Despising the Eastern Gate of Ezekiel’s temple “which no man may enter for the Lord God has entered there.”
But these modern literalists are not the fathers of the Church, nor the fathers of Orthodoxy. There are even some among the Orthodox who have yet to grasp the clear import of allegory within the fathers. It is not a peculiar technique, an ancient oddity to be tolerated because, well, the “fathers were saints” (and thus the fathers’ allegory becomes a new literalism). It is rather a means by which God makes known the mystery. And He does so, both to hide it from the wicked, but also to transform those who would be righteous. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” And the mystery hidden from the ages in the prophetic Scriptures are equally revealed to the heart, and draw us towards purity and the cleansing fire of the Divine Energies.
And so, before the reading of the gospel in the Divine Liturgy we always pray:
Illumine our hearts, O Master, Lover of mankind, with the pure light of Your divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Your gospel teachings. Instill also in us the fear of Your blessed commandments, that trampling all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things that are well-pleasing to You,
So, if one finds it difficult to accept a literal interpretation of, let’s say, Noah’s Ark, but that person still seeks to grasp the deeper mystery or the allegory of the tale (and/or is willing to be instructed), that person could still be Orthodox?
This an excellent summation of discussion in the last blog article and all its comments. I am reminded that on the road to Emmaus the disciples, who had read scripture and most probably had it explained to them in Synagogue had to have the Scriptures opened unto them to see how they referred to the Lord. Oh that we could have had that walk we would not be having some of the issues as Christians that we do.
I am also reminded that Scriptures have a purpose that guides the Meta Narrative and it is NOT a literal history book filled with facts and dates.
It is a spiritual book that reveals God, prophesies of The Son’s Incarnation and then testifies to Him, Jesus, as the Messiah. The truths revealed are eternal not temporal and our salvation is not dependent on a history test either. In all of what the Lord said and taught, it is our character that matters and our character is formed into holiness by our actions. Being forgiven is a great gift but the better gift is to have our souls healed and made right again.
Without the deeper understanding of allegory it is far too easy to use Scripture like a Law Book and become modern day Pharisees. I cannot pretend to even be learned enough to read allegorically and all I can do is read the Fathers and be obedient to what they say about Scripture as they are the “Cloud of Witnesses.”
In my Protestant ministry days I often found myself trapped into arguments about what “I” believe (in the modern sense.) The argument always revolved around two personal opinions about literal meaning that degenerated into “yes it does, no it doesn’t” arguments. It is so much more peaceful to simply know what is taught by the Church and live with that.
If this was an attempt at responding to my criticisms, you have misunderstood the point. The question is about higher criticism and the historicity of the texts and how the New Testament interprets the Old. So a textual issue and the veracity of the texts is different issue from hermeneutics. You have confined the issue to hermeneutics of “literal” versus typological – which is not even in debate, as everyone interprets the texts in some form, based on their nature – prophetic, historiographical, poetic, etc. In the Middle Ages, both East and West, it was normative to use the four-fold sense, and if you’re aware of that, your response misses the mark. Furthermore, even the Alexandrian School of allegorization retains the validity of the literal sense except in the case of Origen. For the Great Hierarchs or St Athanasius, you will not find a rejection of the historicity of the texts – this is why they consistently say the texts are infallible, inerrant and authoritative. You will never find St. Maximos denying the historicity of the texts or their general validity. In St. Paul’s allegory in Galatians 4 the allegory is *based* on the historicity of Hagar and Sarah – not on their non-existence. Anyone familiar with the medieval fourfold sense would know this.
There is no requirement in Orthodox to treat a story such as Noah’s Ark in a literal manner. There are obvious “facts” of our salvation that are non-negotiable – pretty much as summarized in the Creed. How each an every story is treated in the OT, particularly the early chapters of Genesis, is something that has a very long history of being handled in a variety of manners. Nothing of our salvation hangs on interpreting Noah in a literal manner. Indeed, the NT uses it in an allegorical manner (cf. Peter), where Christ uses it in the so-called “tropological” manner (making a moral point).
What goes without saying, but which I will nevertheless state is I’m very grateful for this article and your efforts on this blog and elsewhere.. I’m sure I speak not only for myself when I say those of us who thirst for an ever-deepening communion with the Lord and better understanding of the Tradition we have received in the Church appreciate it more than words can express.
Amazing. Thank you so much, Fr Stephen, for these posts. I’ve only been Orthodox a few years, and rely heavily on blogs like yours to guide me.
Outstanding! God Bless you Father and your amazing blog!
The New Testament teaches, and the Church affirms, that Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. ~ Hosea 6:2, But only because we studied it today at All Saints in Hartford.
I would be interested to see if Hosea is cited anywhere in the late first or second century. It doesn’t come up in the NT, whereas Jonah does. I could see using the verse, but I’m curious whether it has much of a standing as a citation. Did any use of it come up in the study at All Saints?
I did a search and turned up some later interpretations in the fathers that saw it as speaking of Christ’s resurrection. Of course, my point would remain. Even this verse has another meaning within its context, as does the passage cited for the Virgin Birth in Isaiah – and pretty much the entire corpus of OT citations associated with Christ. The fathers (and Jesus as well) engage in constant allegorical and typological interpretation, and almost no historical treatment.
My point is certainly not to question the reality or veracity of the Virgin Birth or Resurrection on the Third Day. It’s rather to note how the NT (and thus the Church) reads the OT. The “historical” approach is pretty much a later thing. There is a bit of a reaction to the Alexandrian school – but there was far more allegorical (in the broadest sense) treatment in the early centuries than historical.
Indeed, it wasn’t even unusual to see allegorical treatments of gospel stories in some of the early fathers. They loved it.
If the Theotokos can not be seen in the Old Testament by a reader or exegete, you can be certain they are blind in their knowledge of Scripture: seeing, yet seeing not; they confess their own ignorance or blindness and count it as a badge of honor and boast in their ignorance as wisdom.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Literal fulfillment of the purpose of the Old Testament and it’s Scripture.
The Scripture was not the Testament or the Will of God, but a record of the Will of God; The Ark of The Covenant was so named because it held: the Stone Tablets, the manna and Aaron’s budded staff. It did not contain the books of the Bible; rather, the Children of Israel lost the Literal Ark (more than once) and in its place the (accumulating) Scriptures became of greater value and elevated by Protestants to the same stature as the Literal Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament.
The Protestant exegesis of the Word of God refers not to the Person of the God-man, but to the Scriptures,. “All Scripture is inspired by God”, wrote the Apostle Paul, thus placing the Scriptures in a relationship to the Word of God Incarnate, whose Literal Incarnation is only known to One person directly, of whom we sing “she is higher than the heavens, more luminous than the Sun”.
The Inspiration of the Scriptures originates from the Virgin, of whom the Apostle wrote , “sacrifices and offering you have not desired, behold in the Scroll of the book when coming in to this world the Word declared “a body hast thou prepare for me.”
And so we declare that attempting to exegete the Scriptures away, apart or separate from her is to cease to exegete the Word of God; for we Know The Word of God only through the Incarnation.
Thank-you Father Stephen for writing this Orthodox Apologetic for our benefit.
One of the greatest joys of being a Reader for me, was when I began to open the Scriptures and see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears the Theotokos in the Scriptures.
All exegesis of the Old Testament to find Christ in the OT, which is not founded upon the manifestation of God with Us in the Incarnation; which begins with the literal Election of the Virgin (as recorded by the inspiration of God) reveals a different Christ than whom we Orthodox know.
Thank you, John Dunn. Beautifully said!
You point out that the doctrinal and Messianic foreshadowings of Christ’s coming we’re “hidden” until experienced. Yet Matthew’s Gospel describes contemporary figures who identified significant features of the Holy Birth from prophetic writings. Are these just pious additions or what?
Please note that I am not trying to be argumentative but only to place the knowledge of the pure in heart in contradiction to the knowledge of the academy or temple of that time.
I would not call these “pious additions.” The gospels are a “doctrinally shaped narrative,” one scholar said. They are a verbal icon of Christ, according to Florovsky. The 7th Council said that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I understand that to also mean that the Scriptures, and the gospels, have an “iconic” character to them. Icons do very interesting things with “history.”
I do not think the gospels should be seen in “newspaper” form or in the sense of “pure historical” writing, complete with footnotes. The disciples do not understand these things (the OT prophecies) until after the resurrection. That much is utterly clear in the gospels. There are figures – prophetic figures – such as Simeon the Elder, or even the Theotokos, who do clearly see what was hidden to others. There is ever so much information we do not have about the precise nature of the writing of the gospels – which leaves some questions unanswered and unanswerable. I assume that if a question cannot be answered, it’s because it’s the wrong question.
In truth, I just don’t think very much about the question of “is this exactly how it happened?” It would be a distraction for me. I take the text at its face-value – I cannot sort out the exact nature of every particular detail. It’s a question that, in the wrong hands, becomes a roadblock to faith.
In my own life, I have never been able to make the leap to “the Bible says it, that settles it.” I accept it as God’s word, but its literary character (which is varied) is also present. I occasionally wonder about certain details – but have generally come to the place where instead of trying to get behind the text to “what really happened” (that’s the dead end of the historical-critical method) I look at what the author wants me to see. So, I suppose there are some questions that I long ago put a parenthesis around and let them be.
There is a kind of modern Christian anxiety, born of the historicization of all so-called knowledge, in which anything other than pure, factual historical writing becomes a source for doubt and worry. I had the crisis a long time ago and worked past it. It was a dead end.
Over the years I’ve been amazed to see the variety of ways various patristic authors handled Scripture – ways most of us would never dream of. I long to acquire their “mind” and find the riches God has given us.
Father, I concur. The Gospels were written to a purpose; to show that Jesus is the Christ. The Gospels are not a news cast of the “facts” of the Incarnation and ministry of the Lord. Ancient Jews were interested in the spiritual meanings of things far more than accurate historical accounts that match other eye witness testimony. They are not the lead story of the five O’clock news cast.
Each word and sentence had to be scrubbed and made as short and concise as possible. Why? The Gospel of Matthew in Uncial text, with no spaces between words and no punctuation (certainly not chapter or verse marking not section headings) the scroll (book) of Matthew is 32 feet long. It is the largest size scroll a man can carry when rolled up.
Not long ago I saw an ancient Gospel Codex from Ethiopia. It has the same content as our Gospel Books we have on the altar and used like we use ours. It was nearly three feet thick because it is hand written. Can you imagine doing the Great Entrance with that?
I think that a place you go to extreme is when saying that it doesn’t really matter if certain events of the Old Testament are historical or not.
This is wrong.
For example, I think it makes a world of difference whether Abraham (and Sarah and Hagar) are historical figures, who actually lived in the flesh or they are mythical figures…Jesus and everything surrounding him is the eternal Logos, but he was also a flesh and blood Person in history. If you admit that the Resurrection is the center of everything (and it would make an extreme difference if it was just a myth) so these many events on which the New Testament is based. I know you are not saying this, but you seem to imply that there is no importance if behind the events described in the OT there is any actual historical reality. It is simply disproportionate to say that everything in the Creed must be believed to have actually occurred in history, but that it is of no importance if Moses, the Exodus, the events surrounding the conquest of the Holy Land etc. were actual events or not- the New Testament writers base many of their teachings on the actual covenant made by God with a flesh and blood being named Abraham.
I think it is correct to say that what the Scriptures narrate are real, actual historical events, but presented, as you say, in an iconic fashion. For example: we look at the Nativity Icon. It is not a photographic picture of what actually transpired there, but a representation of the logos of said historical event- the event itself seen in the light of the Eighth Day. But even if the empirical details of said Event did not look as represented in the icon, nonetheless the Event in itself and even almost all of its aspects taken individually- the magi, the shepherds, the angels singing, the cave- all these have an actual historical reality, they really did happen.
Joseph being tempted by Tyrrus, the devil-disguised-as-a-shepherd, is apocryphal, it may have no literal reality but, still, it is based on something real- Joseph was really tempted not to accept the Virgin Birth.
So too, perhaps the events of Exodus- they may not have transpired as they are related in the Scriptures, the dialogues between Moses and Pharaoh may not be literal transliterations (maybe they were not 10, but only one, or who knows?) but the Scriptures relate the hidden essence of this event- the spiritual state of Pharaoh, the hidden logos of the escape from Egypt etc. but at the same time the narration is based on a historically veridical event- that is, the jews really were in Egypt, they were really led out by a prophet called Moses etc.
Some details in the Scripture may even be completely allegorical, with no literal reality behind them, but introduced for the sake of a better understanding of the hidden, spiritual meaning of the event. But even so, they do correspond to a reality of some kind and have some connection to history. (some events in the lives of the Saints as well may be interpreted in this way, I think)
Anyway- if we literally believe in the bodily Resurrection of Christ in the third day, the Virgin Birth- and I know you believe in all these- why have such a hard time to believe some of the miracles related in the OT? Why go so much out of our way to sideline the question of veracity? Yes, the Scriptures were compiled over many years and, from the point of view of “flesh and blood” they do contain mistakes or contradictions- but don’t we trust God to have preserved the truth, in spite of the vicissitudes of history and the affairs of men?
Also, as I’ve objected in the past, some of the things you say are not important, are actually quite crucial. The question of evolutionism (which has nothing to do with science) vs the Genesis account (again in its essence, not in its details) is something of utmost importance, as the two doctrines describe rival anthropologies…
I will end by saying that it is quite difficult to find anything in the Fathers that even speak about some errors or mistakes (from the human side) present in the revealed texts. I don’t know much, though, perhaps you can contribute with some examples here?
I think your point is not only well-taken but correct. It’s also stated clearly and in a balanced manner. I’ll agree that it matters pretty much in every case – particularly as you state it – that there is something actual and historical to which the accounts refer. I have just reread the article, however, and I don’t see where I actually say that the history doesn’t matter. If you can point that out, I’ll see what I can do with it. I suspect that there were some among the fathers who were less concerned about history than we might imagine. I ran across this in Van Balthasar’s work on Maximus last night:
Perhaps it would be more accurate for me to say that it’s not a matter of whether the event is purely historical, because it’s meaning and understanding are not found precisely in the historical setting of cause and effect. The account we have in the OT would, in some cases, be this “bitter skin” to which Maximus refers. Though, I think the accounts are absolutely essential, every “jot and tittle.” But not because every jot and tittle has preserved a perfect relating of a historical event, but because the account itself is inspired, regardless of its precise connection with what might or might not have happened.
We cannot get behind the text to find “what happened.” That’s the goal of historical-critical work. We can, however, get beneath the text to find that sweetness that God is giving to the Church through Christ.
I suppose my “going to extreme” is driven by the Lordship accorded to history by various modern methods. It is a primacy that I do not find in the Patristic witness, even when they acknowledge the historical nature of an account. They simply don’t think about it in the manner we do.
But I appreciate the point – very much.
As a longtime close reader of Fr. Stephen’s blog (since about 2008), I have never taken Fr. Stephen to actually believe or mean anything other than he has clarified here in his comment to you with regard to the historicity of the OT. I really appreciate your question, too, though (and the careful way you have presented it). It was very helpful to me to read your excellent articulation of the issue and Father’s response. As noted, there are statements Fr. Stephen has made from time to time when this subject comes up that taken on their face value (and out of context of his whole life story which he has shared at least in general terms over the years on this blog) can occasionally come across as seeming to say whether the OT narratives are historical *in any sense at all* doesn’t matter *on any level.* I have always known that is not what he believes or means to teach, but because I have run across criticisms of his work here in comments and in some other places on the Internet, I can see where quite possibly in a few cases his pushing against as he put it the “Lordship” of the secular view of the authority and nature of “history as fact” (i.e., as the only true or real meaning of a narrative or events that is germain to consider) has triggered the spiritual PTSD of a few who are perhaps casualties of the culture wars with liberalism, and once triggered, they seem to be able to see nothing other in Fr. Stephen’s teaching than what these few extreme statements seem to say on their face. (At least that is how I interpret some of what I read.) Sadder still to me is when I find fellow Orthodox slandering Fr. Stephen or other faithful Orthodox teachers on the Internet and being completely closed to accepting any other interpretation of what the person who is the object of their slander really means to say in full and proper context from those who are in a better position to know this.
Well said, and appreciated.
There is a kind of historical insistence that has driven more than one good person out of Christianity into agnosticism and worse. My life experience has made me very sensitive to that perspective – and to try and articulate how Orthodoxy can, at many times, avoid such a black and white insistence.
Mihai is correct – that it’s easily possible for me to be heard saying something extreme that I don’t mean to say. That’s why Jesus put more than one of us in the Church. We need each other.
I had to go through this battle, partly here and just a few years back, though with prayer it was a comparatively light struggle. So here are a few more thoughts. First, what do we mean by historical? And just how historical is historical enough? Start digging into those questions and you’ll see things quickly fall apart. For example, take the story about some of the disciples fishing in John 21. I am not so disinclined from trying to get more historical information as some may be (e.g., what fish where they after, what kind of nets were they using, and so on) but that quickly gets us away from the point of the story, as understood by St. John under inspiration of The Holy Spirit. That is not to say that similar inspiration couldn’t be given to make sense of these minutiae—I rather enjoy learning about such things, even when they are challenging for one reason or another—but that there was a good reason it isn’t part of the text. Now, does that lack of context and detail make the story lose some historicity? Some would say yes, believe it or not. We would say “That is not the point.”. Or take the detail of Peter and the rest being out “that night”. Was that really the case? What if they got in the boat as the sun was setting—does that invalidate the whole story, or even the specific point? What if this was the night when the ancient peoples adjusted their atomic clocks (wink wink!) and they had to drop a second to stay in sync with the orbit of the earth? Would something like that invalidate the historicity of the night itself? Or take the name Peter—that is Anglicized, and not actually how he would have spoken it. Does that call the whole story into question? (Some groups would say so, if the question were to be modified into “What is the name of God?”, so that is another area where people really do fight—and since you brought up “Abraham” in one of your examples and made a point about his name, I think it is is not unfair to point out that, no, these are actually *not* their names, if you want to be literal.) These may seem like silly questions to us, but that is exactly where the focus on literal historicity takes us. Sure, each person is able to tolerate a different amount of non-literal interpretation and forgive different kinds of “slip ups”, but that is completely arbitrary. What is and isn’t a “flesh and blood” mistake is, literally speaking, a completely arbitrary distinction, too. Indeed, if we take literalism to its ultimate end, the only way to see things as they were would be to actually be there. (And interestingly, this is exactly what The Church gives us, not through literalism but through The Eucharist.) But even then, which perspective do we take? What if one of the disciples was red/green colorblind and “literally” saw something different—is that less true? Literalism chokes on these questions because it is fundamentally based on heretical assumptions: it supposes some objective, independent truth. But that is the kind of teaching we find in Greek paganism (Platonism, etc.), in Protestantism, and so on—not in Orthodoxy. All truth is relative and personal. There is not some truth or true perspective apart from God—He Is Truth! And that is how we must use history: its purpose, as is the case for all other forms of inquiry, is ultimately to draw us deeper into Mystery, into Christ. It *cannot* and *does not* stand on its own.
Second, it is interesting to me that you are worried about history and yet in the very same post say some words about “evolutionism”. I am not sure if you are lumping evolutionary biology and science together with the various proponents of modernism who try to appropriate everything—from evolution to Patristic commentary—into their project, and so I won’t get too much into that and what I am going to write isn’t necessarily directed at you. But that brings up two other points that I think are worth noting. Science, like history, has its ultimate end in Christ. Science can be misused, sure, but it is just as much a tool for good and, so used, really says nothing in conflict with Orthodoxy. Yes, it has a limited scope—as does history, or any other tool that we use—and many of its pursuits are not so conspicuously linked to Christ, but He Is there. Thus, we shouldn’t get bent out of shape when a scientist makes no obvious reference to Christ in a specific statement, especially when we turn around and read a historical account about some tribe, deliver a presentation at work, or talk to a friend about the weather without launching into a criticism of how they need to “Put Christ back into [flint knapping/widget sales data/cyclogenesis/whatever]!”. Not to say that we couldn’t be more careful about how we speak, but we need to be sure we don’t have different standards. I also want to note that [good] science is not only not opposed to Orthodoxy, but quite the enemy of the modern project. For unrelated reasons, I was looking around for a really thorough but basic primer on evolution and found one, Understanding Evolution, from UCB. In their excellent Evolution 101 series, they hammer on modernism quite a lot—more than any Orthodox person I’ve met besides Fr. Stephen, actually, and this is coming from Berkeley, CA! For example, they write that “Because natural selection can produce amazing adaptations, it’s tempting to think of it […] constantly pushing [organisms] in the direction of progress — but this is not what natural selection is like at all.” and “The problem is that we humans are hung up on ourselves. We often define progress in a way that hinges on our view of ourselves, a way that relies on intellect, culture, or emotion. But that definition is anthropocentric.” and even more statements to that effect. The theory of evolution and the idea of “progress” are not only not connected, they are not compatible. Having known many Orthodox scientists, even biochemists, we need to realize that they are frustrated with modernity as well and that those who aren’t yet Christian (many already are!) are still hungering for truth and putting themselves at its mercy in a way that pales in comparison to almost any other profession.
But back to the bigger picture: our hermeneutic can’t be history, or science, or any of these other things. They are tools, and they work only within a larger framework—you don’t just pick up a hammer and out pops a house, you have to have other tools, blueprints, materials, and so on. If we think that we are being “purely scientific” or “purely historical” or some such things, we’re just taking our own culture’s (or our own even more idiosyncratic) ideas and assumptions as our hermeneutic, as our blueprint. And when we put such tools into the service of the modern project, well…look around: disaster. Our hermeneutic must be Christ. It sounds tautological (because it is) but this really is the case: if we only ever use the tools and ideologies of this world, then we will never be able to overcome the world. We’ll be stuck in the created, alienated from The Uncreated. We can’t base our belief in Christ on something else (even history) because that really mean that the “something else” is our god, our ultimate truth. Rather, we submit every “something else” (history included) under Him. Christ Is The Way.
? “We can’t base our belief in Christ on something else (even history)” ?
Response: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and Forever.
History is prominent in this acclamation of Eternal Praise.
Joseph Barabbas Theodorus,
Could you put these little gems you have dropped in comments on this blog in a published form somewhere and link us? Or have you published anything already? You clearly have a gift for sorting out these things and communicating them so even babies like me can understand what is being said. (Glory to God for that.) What is your day job if I may ask?
It seems to me it’s a matter of perspective: to me (and perhaps to Joseph’s point) Christ is prominent in that acclamation of praise. History is merely present (not that this is unimportant in its own place).
Re historicity: the truth in history is never solely based on what happened when, why, how and to whom. The truth in history is dependent on context, interpretation and impact.
Scientific history is a product of the late 19th century. It tends to be myopic and far more subject to ideological bias than it’s proponents believe, especially the bias of presentism. Scientific history is really an oxymoron as history can be governed as much by Hiesenberg’s uncertaitity priciple as the sub-atomic world.
It is impossible to know all of the facts but that in no way means we can not know the truth.
There is so much to think about in the notion of “history” and “text.” For some, I think I have drawn my points too loosely, such as to create an anxiety of sorts. I’m working on a much more careful treatment that I hope will be of use, both as correction of myself and as a response to others. But later…
It is also quite easy and much more common to draw the bondaries too tightly. You are right that either way can lead to a distoration. It does matter that specific things happened in specific times with specific people in a particular order.
Joseph Barabbas Theophorus,
Thank you for your answer to Mahai. I can’t help but appreciate your response as I am an Orthodox scientist and sense that the anxiety about ‘evolutionism’ is one of many issues Protestants and/or modernity has with science. It does saddens me when Orthodox Christians pick up the same notions, which undoubtedly comes about from living in this culture., or residual effects or baggage from former Protestant beliefs.
And specifically thanks for referring to UBC’s course.
We never ascend beyond history, for we ourselves are bound by history from conception in that we are “woven” with life for our entrance into this world.
We are history incarnate, a point scientific research has verified genetically. When our Lord entered into the Womb, he clothes himself with Human History.
St, John Chrysostom in his homily on St. Matthew’s genealogical expounds this, though he doesn’t use the scientific term “history”.
“Wherefore the birth was twofold, both made like us, and also surpassing ours. For to be born of a woman indeed was our lot, but to be born not of blood, nor of the will of flesh, nor of man, but of the Holy Ghost, John 1:13 was to proclaim beforehand the birth surpassing us, the birth to come, which He was about freely to give us of the Spirit. And everything else too was like this. Thus His baptism also was of the same kind, for it partook of the old, and it partook also of the new. To be baptized by the prophet marked the old, but the coming down of the Spirit shadowed out the new. And like as though any one were to place himself in the space between any two persons that were standing apart, and stretching forth both his hands were to lay hold on either side, and tie them together; even so has He done, joining the old covenant with the new, God’s nature with man’s, the things that are His with ours”
Elsewhere, our Lord said to Peter, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father which is in Heaven.”.
“Thou art Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
Certainly the beginning of our belief originates outside of history in Heaven, but our knowledge is always “woven”into history, however, (and this is how I comprehend Fr. Stephen’s “churning” the term or concept called history.
There is a false history constructed on the Lie spoken at the entrance into the garden of Paradise to Eve and perpetuated continually in the race of mankind: called Death. This false History of Death has been openly exposed by the Resurrection of Christ.
A new history of mankind was begun…
New, not as never having existed, but new in that it is re-written, and the Resurrection re-written human History.
“Evolutionism” is not history and can reveal no truth about history. If it is possible to make an absolute genetic link between man and a “pre-man” that might be a historical link, but it is not history.
We never know God beyond History or apart from History for God is with Us! We always know the Father through the Son, and the Son is knowable to us through His History.
How do we go beyond that?
Believe Me, thatI am in the Father and the Father is in Me…
or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.”
Thus providing an Eternal platform for our Historical-earthly foundation for
@Joseph Barabbas Theophorus: Many things of what you are saying are correct, but that was not actually my point.
If you look carefully to what I wrote what you say about the different details and what would make a historical account true or not is not far removed from what I said, quite the contrary. My point, however, is that the accounts themselves must be based on something real. See once again this passage that I wrote:
[i]”So too, perhaps the events of Exodus- they may not have transpired as they are related in the Scriptures, the dialogues between Moses and Pharaoh may not be literal transliterations (maybe they were not 10, but only one, or who knows?) but the Scriptures relate the hidden essence of this event- the spiritual state of Pharaoh, the hidden logos of the escape from Egypt etc. but at the same time the narration is based on a historically veridical event- that is, the jews really were in Egypt, they were really led out by a prophet called Moses etc.”[/i]
What I said about the Nativity Icon also points to this very thing.
And of course I don’t mean to say that Abraham’s real name was the same as it sounds in English, that’s silly. I don’t even read the English Bible, but that’s not the point. The point is to say that it makes a very big difference if the one who in the English Bible is called “Abraham” was an actual historical being like you and me are or if he was only a myth or a simple story. (and I’m not saying that anyone here necessarily says that). Remember that what separates Christianity from analogical myths found in other religions is precisely that the “Myth” was made flesh and dwelled among us.
A short word as to what I said regarding evolutionism. My claim was not directed against science- the true thing which goes by this name. I am, on the contrary, quite interested in some of its branches, especially some of the latest physics, precisely because I believe that it mirrors some of the great metaphysical truths.
But, a point I made in some other post, evolutionism has nothing to do with science. And I see this happening all the time: people confusing “natural selection”- which is perfectly intelligible as an adaptation mechanism- with the theory that one species of animal transforms over vast periods of time into a different species, by way of the above mentioned mechanism (or some other way, as they have it these days- see the theory of panspermia and aliens). This latter is completely ideological, having absolutely no scientific basis. People make this confusion because they do not know the history of this idea- it didn’t originate with Darwin, nor with any other type of empirical enterprise. Many scientists accepted this idea because it fits the mentality of the times and because it offers what for this mentality is a plausible narrative of the genesis of the world and man- completely naturalistic.
Evolutionism understood in this way- as transformation of one species into another- is indissolubly tied in with the idea of progress. The fact that some today deny this is only an adaptation of this idea to the relativistic standards of postmodernity. Thus, for them, there is absolutely no difference between a being endowed with intellect and one without. But the supposed “chain of evolution” remains firmly in place. This is also an idea about the world and about man which is entirely opposed to that of Christianity. It basically says “in the beginning there was Death”. While in Christianity death is the result of sin, of rupture in the balance of creation, not a natural thing which help bring about more complex organisms….
I have written more at length on this topic, because it seems to me that many Orthodox don’t think too carefully about this, or think that the matter is simply a trifle. It is also not “protestant”. We, as Orthodox, have an obligation to understand the premises on which an idea is based and also the ultimate conclusions to which it leads. It is also very necessary to distinguish between what is truly science and what is the spirit of the times or simply an ideological suprastructure. We need to have discernment.
By the way, to be clear for myself, I agree that a historical account in the Scripture is not pure fiction by any means. There is an event beneath it – maybe even largely as described – though the describing is theologically shaped for God’s divine purposes. I do not mean to deny that in the least. I think there is an open question viz. the early chapters of Genesis – whether they have any historical intent or not. I do not think that can be insisted upon – and there is a variety of treatments on that in the Fathers. All agree and treat Adam as historical – but deal with the event in a very theological manner rather than historical.
I’m working on an article after Christmas/Theophany to explain more precisely what I’m trying to say viz. the role of the historical in the Scriptures. The heart of my point has been that, as far as the OT is concerned, the Church does not see its primary meaning (and thus its use and importance) as lying in its historicity. That doesn’t mean to say that it’s not historical, only that the NT and Patristic use of the OT is placed in its Christological meaning – not in its historical meaning.
In that manner, actually, the Church made deep, deep use of the OT – for almost everything. Moderns place the meaning in its historicity, and have reduced it to a book of the past – a curiosity about other people. For the NT and the Fathers – the OT is about us.
So, when I’ve written or inferred that the history is unimportant, I did not mean to say it was not historical, or that the history made no difference, only that the history was not and is not the primary place of meaning. The notion of Heilsgeschichte (“Sacred History”) as a thing, is an invention of mid-20th century German Protestant theology. The Protestant movement rejected the Patristic interpretation of the OT, as they rejected most of the Tradition.
My intention has only been to bring our attention back to the interpretive usage of the NT and the Fathers – a method largely unknown to moderns, and explain its importance, and the theological significance. It’s not a literary technique – it’s a true discernment of something that is actually there.
Gotta go for now. Blessings!
I know that most modern historians (whether Bible historians or other histories) want to attribute to their profession ‘evidence-based’ methodology. Using Fr Stephen’s father in law’s expression, “I don’t know about that” regarding such attribution. And I also fail to hold the term ‘history’ as a scientific term.
I appreciate your careful and thoughtful comment to me. I agree with you that as long as we remain on this side of the veil, so to speak, history will be inextricably intertwined with the Gift and Revelation given to us in the Incarnation of our Lord and, as I said, it is not at all unimportant in its place. It’s place is essential and has been hallowed by God’s entry within it. To condense it down to a single element of
Creation in our faith, I would say this is why the Theotokos has the place that she does in the Tradition. You cannot have an Incarnation without God, the Eternal Word, but you can’t have one without the humble Jewish Virgin girl, the Lord’s Mother, either. So, I do take your point.
I suppose what I was trying to say, if symbolized in some common element in our faith, would be the placement of the hands of the Theotokos in Her Icons as she holds her Son as her Sacred Offering to us, as she enthrones Him, or as she directs them and us in prayer toward her Son.
In complement to the Scriptures you have offered, I had in mind what is communicated in passages like these:
“Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. 1 Corinthians 13:8-10,12
“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” Colossians 3:1-4
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.”
“And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.” 1 John 2:17
Both the immanence of God within history and His transcendence of it comprise the Reality of our faith. These are not mutually exclusive, just that in all Christ is preeminent and we look forward to our “Telos,” the never ending Day when our Lord will be completely manifestly “all in all” and history, time and space as we know it now will no longer constrain our vision.
Wonderfully stated Karen. Thank you for your comment.
Joseph Barabbas Theophorus,
As Dee said above, I also want to thank you for having mentioned the UCB course on Evolution. You referred to it to make a point about historical interpretation. Yet perhaps unbeknownst to you, it turned out to be as helpful (for me) as the point of the thread itself. As Dee mentioned (@ 8:39, 12/19), we are influenced by the teachings we carry with us from our days in the Protestant church, I was militant about these things, including the literal seven days of creation. Evolution was an anathema. But there was one thing which caught my attention…I could not ignore the fact that many of the (Christian) authors whose work I read and admired were evolutionists! Finally, coming to Orthodoxy, in its forthright, non-militant approach, my attitude began to change. (it is changing about a lot of things…salvation, heaven and hell, the atonement….and Father Stephen, I have to say once again, if it weren’t for your blog, I would not be able to say this. It was here where I was led to further read and learn.) ) Last night I “enrolled” in that Evolution 101 course! In the introductory pages right away it prefaces the evolutionary “tree” as opposed to Aristotle’s “ladder”. If I remember anything I learned in Catholic grammar school, it was that ladder! Well, it stuck…but thank God not permanently. Anyway, Joseph Barabbas, I just want you to know that what you mentioned by happenstance (the course) was a great blessing! Glory to God…and thank you again!
When considering history or science, and what either endeavor might uncover about the world, we as Orthodox Christians are encouraged to see the world not as pure object but as icon.
The practice of objectification of the world results from a modernist approach to life. It is also an approach which has a tendency to divide and parse rather than ‘bring things together’ or hold a wholistic viewpoint. The modernist approach tends to view time, history and science theory in a linear structure or ‘story’, and maintains such stories as if they are authoritative when favorable to their world view and will construct an argument (because competing stories are false objects) if competing stories are unfavorable to their world view.
The reality of Christ and the history of Christ’s life is not an argumenand and it is not a theory.. The reality of Christ doesn’t arrive in our hearts by method. We see our selves growing older (mainly because we have old photos to show us that) and yet our memories are mosaics and icons of our lives. Hopefully, we are participants (not objectifying observers) in our lives, in communion with Christ and with our brothers and sisters and with the world.
Dee, I think I understand your point….to be aware of the modernist approach in everything we learn, including evolution. You say it well … to see the world as not as pure object but as icon.
I appreciate your warning. I understand that the reality of Christ is not a theory. Understand that I am aware of the “narrowness” of my thinking…like I said, it is an attitude, pervasive and not very appealing. I want that to change. One way I seek to do that is to learn about the things I refused to learn about in the past. I do not in anyway want to argue with those of an opposite persuasion. My motive is, as you say, to come to an understanding of reality in Christ. Just want to clarify that.
My words were meant as a warning as much for myself as anyone else. And not at all directed to you. It’s easy for me to fall into it in this culture. And I’m curious about how you might learn from the course, whether it helped you as you have already described.
I already had the impression you see the world in the way that you say you do (as icon) because of your wonderful family of animals. I believe that they might speak to you in communion , and if that is the case, glory be to God. St Anthony the Great had said the world was his teacher (about Christ) (I’m paraphrasing he said the world was his ‘book’) which i take to mean that the world was an icon of Christ to him and he was in communion with it.
Warm regards to you and your family. And blessings to you in the coming feast days!
I would draw readers’ attention to the comment posted earlier by Jay Dyer. I deleted it when it first appeared in moderation, not understanding what it was referring to. That removed an important voice in the conversation and I apologize.
Given the way you prefaced your comment, it’s not too surprising to me Fr. Stephen found it a bit strange and incomprehensible when he discovered it in moderation and deleted it. As I mentioned, I’ve been reading him closely since 2008, as well as having some personal correspondence with him over the years, so I know enough about him and the bigger context of these articles to understand the kind of work you do wouldn’t really be much on his radar or something he intended to address here. It seems to me in terms of the different context each of you is coming from and also the different audiences each of you are intending to reach and for what purposes, the assumptions you seem to have made here and in your podcast strikes me as a perfect set-up for talking past each other. It doesn’t seem to me busy Orthodox Priests with parishes, families, and neighbors to care for as well as their own spiritual needs, and something of a public speaking and writing ministry to manage as well, who really are intent about being about the Lord’s business as best they know how have a whole lot of time to devote to deeply investigating your kind of work, nor should they in my opinion (the exception being, perhaps, your own Bishop or Priest). I was the one who gave Fr. Stephen the heads up about your video yesterday when it came across my YouTube feed.
Could I make a respectful suggestion? Next time you see a public statement from a fellow Orthodox that strikes you as off, maybe check it out privately first. Get to know the person if possible and barring that at least do a little more research if they have a wider body of work to get a better feel for the context of their statements before launching a public critique that tempts strangers, even those far outside the fold, to litigate the Orthodoxy of a brother and Priest of the Church in the court of public opinion. We do have proper biblical and canonical due processes for these sorts of issues for good spiritual reasons, after all.
O my…forgive me! Since your response came so quickly after mine I assumed it a reply. I should have took note that the lack of an address meant it was for all. See what I mean about my “narrow-mindedness”,,,,I am sorry!
You mention my animals as a means to view creation as an icon…that we may share in such communion. Yes Dee, that is pretty much the case. Since they have had very little contact with anyone else and since I spend a lot of time with them (the elders have been here 30 odd years) we all have “bonded” as a family. We all depend upon each other. Paige, the matriarch of the horses, taught me all about the horse world. But first she had to gain my respect. At first we just hung out and did simple things. Here I began to learn how to communicate with her. In turn, she had to learn what was acceptable and what was not, for both our safety. The horse trainer who’s books and video’s I followed was a Christian man . (Now, this was many years before I was back in church, mind you) His approach was gentle…his methods did not involve pain, even down to the bits that were used. At the end of the lessons, he’d always have a Scripture quote. Sounds stupid…but inevitably I’d come to tears! Much later, upon returning to church, I saw God’s precious hand in all this. The story is long, but one thing I will say…There is no way I would have ever made it without them. I just am not strong enough to have gone through life living here alone. So yes, we definitely communicate…they know my every move, my words and voice tone…and I, theirs. That goes for all my animals. I can not help but see Christ in them, in their innocence and perfection (they will not be anything more or less than who they are).
Yes, I do recall that saying from St. Anthony…the world is his teacher. And also I recall the Saints who used to commune directly with the animals…St Herman of Alaska (your Saint!) used to feed an ermine that lived underneath his cell !
I will be glad to let you know how the Evolution 101 course goes too. Lots of new terms to learn, so it’s going to take some time!
Dee, thank you so much for your kindness. And you and your family as well have a blessed Nativity season.
After reading Jay Dyer’s comment above, his About/Contact webpage and his refutations to your work, I wonder what you mean by “an important voice in the conversation”. Is it for the sake of understanding another point of view? or allowing another voice to be heard, even if it in no way lines up with your teachings?
I think I found the answer to my question, Father. It is in today’s post “Put the Dickens Back in Christmas” :
“But, more than this, would be the moral of Dickens’ story: Christmas is well-kept by a life of generosity and kindness. That dear story is one of profound repentance, the healing of relationships and the righting of wrongs. Dickens’ Christmas was synonymous with a life lived in accordance with the gospel.”
I should have known……
Jay Dyer’s criticism appears to be very narrow in it’s focus. Essentially he argues that the historical passages of the OT must be historically true (and he goes on to site Frs. Rose and Cyril). Given Father’s rather clear explanation(s) concerning the nature of history and allegory in Patristic thought (I recall him going to lengths to explain that the Church Fathers did believe in the historical reality of Adam, etc…, why would they not?), it’s not clear to me why he is upset over that particular thought….
*thought* should be *subject*. My apologies.