Evolution, Creation and the Hidden Cause

wmapRecent pop culture presented a debate between a scientist and a fundamentalist Christian over evolution and creation. The Christian, a Biblical literalist, holds to the idea of a “young creation,” a universe that is roughly 6,000 years old – this – based on calculating from the Biblical record. It is the most extreme form of Biblical literalism – one in which the appearances of the universe to be much older must be themselves understood as “effects” of how God created the world. God created a universe that only looks 14 billion years old.

There is a strong strain within some Orthodox circles that is deeply skeptical of evolutionary theories. Any account of the world that dismisses the existence of God, or seeks to disregard God as Creator, feels like an attack on the most basic tenets of the faith. Thus, it is not unusual to see sympathy for anti-evolutionist efforts.

There are deep theological flaws in all of this – both in the anti-evolutionist Christian positions and in the ill-informed attempts by scientists to undermine the Christian Scriptures.

A Tutorial on Creation

Classical Christianity holds that God created the universe from nothing. The universe had a beginning – it has not always existed. It’s existence is not necessary. The fathers are quite clear that all things that are not God Himself are created: space, time, matter, energy, all beings, etc.

The Biblical account of creation portrays God speaking all things into existence with the words: “Let there be light!”

And now we begin to engage in theological reflection. What does it mean to say that God created? How did He create? How did God cause the universe? It is at these questions that theological reflection enters into silence. For the nature and work of God’s causation cannot be known. They are not objects or works within the universe that can be observed and studied. We can see the effects of causation, but not causation itself. In the language of Orthodox theology we may say that God causelessly causes. 

It is the teaching of the Church that God cannot be known. He is utterly transcendent, beyond observation and all knowing. It is also the teaching of the Church that the God-Who-Cannot-Be-Known made Himself known in the God-Man, Jesus Christ. What we know of God, we know through Christ.

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him. (Joh 1:18 NKJ)

But saying that Christ has made God known, is not the same thing as saying that Christ has now brought the nature of God’s causation into the world of phenomena. The God who cannot be known remains hidden, except as He chooses to reveal Himself in Christ.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

This renders the creative work of God opaque to His creation. We may see its effects but cannot pass beyond those effects to gaze at the cause, for the Christian teaching is that God Himself is the Cause.

An early Soviet cosmonaut famously announced from orbit that he did not see God. Nor will any work or effort of science. It would be perfectly consistent for human science to study and research, theorize and “prove,” and do so without a necessity of mentioning God. Perhaps unique within the opaque universe is the simple fact of its beginning.

That the universe has a beginning is perhaps the greatest “discovery” of modern science. And this was achieved by fairly simple observation. Prior to the 1920’s, it was generally accepted that the universe was static and had “always” existed. The universe was the definition of “what is.” But through the work of Edwin Hubbell and other physicists, it was established that the universe is not static – it is moving – and it is moving in all directions – expanding. The simple arithmetic of this movement is that the universe was moving from a single point, a beginning. And again by simple math, that single point can be calculated at roughly 14 billion years in the past.

This was deeply problematic for some. Here was straight, clear, observable evidence of a beginning. And, as work has continued in physics, a beginning from nothing! There have been many efforts to posit models other than “universe from nothing,” but they remain (and will remain) within the realm of pure theory.

But Christians cannot point to a point of origin as evidence of the Cause, only as evidence of an origin. At that point, we must stand shoulder to shoulder with those who do not believe and simply wonder. For it is in our wonder that we encounter Jesus to whom the Apostles bare witness that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

We meet the Cause within history itself and only know about the Cause because He Himself has told us. We report the story of His resurrection, and His continual presence among us, but never in such a way that He becomes a mere cause, an inert effect with which we may convince those who do not see. God will not be argued.

There are many who want a God who will be argued, a God who will take His place on the playing field of human debate. God as a cause among the causes becomes useful for the human project (whatever we imagine it to be). But ultimately such a God is no God at all, just a god surrounded by the many gods, not the One, but one of many.

For the literalists, God is the cause of the Bible and the Bible is the great effect by which all causes may be explained. But even here they err, making of the Bible what the Church never received. The Word became flesh (not paper). And the Word is to Scripture what He is to the universe. Even in the Scriptures He remains hidden, the Causeless Cause. Documents, stories, poems, legends and tales, histories, doctrinally-shaped accounts, letters and apocalypse, all revealing their very human hands, and yet His word.

You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. (Joh 5:39 NKJ)

And they testify much like the Big Bang. We stand even at the edge of the Scriptures and wonder.

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 NKJ)

And this is the true character of theology. We know the unknowable God. This both makes us shout from the rooftops and remain mute. For we proclaim the Causeless Cause, who has come among us. And because we know Him we see Him and proclaim Him. But you cannot see Him until you know Him. The universe and creation reads like a parable.

And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. (Mat 13:10-13 NKJ)

 

 

 

 

Literally Wrong

I have written on a number of occasions about the interpretation of the Scriptures and particularly about the problems of Biblical literalism. I have also, on occasion, made a link between Biblical literalism and a sort of “literalism” about the world and the universe about us. I believe that both are deeply connected and share a world-view which is, ultimately, grounded in ideas of the modern world (rather than historic, traditional ideas of the Christian faith). As such, both will yield a false picture – both of Scripture and its meaning and of the world and the nature of its being.

The Scriptures, particularly those of the Old Testament, are frequently misread (from a classical Christian point of view) in a literal manner, on the simple evidence that the New Testament does not read the Old Testament in such a manner. Rather, as is clearly taught by Christ Himself, the Old Testament is “re-read” from a Christological point-of-view. Thus Jonah-in-the-belly-of-the-whale is read by the Church as Christ in Hades. The first Adam in the Garden is but a shadow and antitype of the Second Adam – the One who truly fulfills existence in the “image and likeness” of God. The Passover and the deliverance from Egypt are read as icons of the true Passover, Christ’s Pascha and the deliverance of all creation from its bondage to death and decay. Such a list could be lengthened until the whole of the Old Testament is retold in meanings that reveal Christ, or rather are revealed by Christ in His coming.

Of course, this is a peculiar claim of Christianity – one which accepts the identity of Christ as the Only-Begotten Son of God, who, emptying Himself, becomes man and in this humility destroys death and Hades and unites man to God. Having accepted that Identity, the ability to read the Scriptures according to that Identity becomes possible.

A “literal” reading of the Old Testament would never yield such a treasure. Instead, it becomes flattened, and rewoven into an historical rendering of Christ’s story in which creative inventions such as “Dispensationalism” are required in order to make all the pieces fit into a single, literal narrative. Such a rendering has created as well a cardboard target for modern historical-critical studies, which delights itself only in poking holes in absurdities created by such a flattened reading.

In the same manner, modernity has succeeded in re-reading space and time, creating an historical narrative of the universe, absent God (for some), or at least with an isolated God (for others). Religion becomes subjectivized, a choice or a “lifestyle.” It is little wonder that it has also become synonymous with various political points-of-view, since such a secularized universe can only be affected by the common will of those who inhabit it. Thus, in the name of God, secularized Christianity must rescue the world, even if it must kill in the effort (easily justified by a wrong-reading of the Old Testament).

These renderings of Scripture and the Universe are literally wrong – at least from a classical Orthodox understanding of both.

Scripture is far more than literally true (though in the sense that many people use the word, it certainly teaches what is literally true of God and the universe.) But it does so in a way that is itself Christocentric. In the prologue of St. John’s gospel he writes:

No man has seen God at any time – the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.

Interestingly, St. John’s choice of words here is that the only-begotten Son has exegesato the Father (rendered as declared in the KJV, and interestingly as enarravit  in the Vulgate (Latin). Christ has “exegeted” the Father or “narrated” the Father to us – far more than simply “told” us about the Father. The Incarnation of Christ, His ministry, His death and resurrection, provide the primary narration of God, by which we read and interpret everything else. Christ Himself is not interpreted – but is the One Who Interprets. He is God the Logos.

But Christ must not be isolated as an event among other historical events (as would be done in many literal accounts -even though these accounts would readily agree that He is the most important historical event). Though Christ is God become man in such a way that He may be circumscribed (thus we may make icons of Him), He nevertheless deifies the humanity which He takes unto Himself (in a neo-Chalcedonian sense for those of you who are wary of incipient monophysitism). The man, Christ Jesus, walks on water and raises the dead. He stills the storm and pays His taxes with a coin drawn from the mouth of a fish. He raises harlots to the place of sainthood and promises immediate entrance into paradise to a dying thief.

Such a One cannot be confined within the bounds of “literal” for the word is not meant to describe the indescribable. The very coming of Christ into the world declares the world to be a place far different than we might imagine. As was settled in the debates with Apollinarianism in the 4th century – the world is capable of bearing God. Were this not so, the Incarnation would not be possible. We are created in the image and likeness of God and thus, though fallen, are capable of being raised up to that image.

And not only we ourselves, but all of creation is made in such a way that it bears a relationship to the Logos, the Fathers teaching us that everything created has its own logos which bears a unique relationship to the Logos. Or as St. Paul would say, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” Creation, far from being a neutral, natural, self-existing, secular event – is instead something which “groans and travails” in anticipation of the liberty that awaits it when all things are fulfilled (cf. Romans 8).

Thus neither we nor the world should be thought of as “literal,” if by that one means what the modern world thinks of the term. As St. Nikolai Velimirovich is quoted: “A man is not that which can be put into a grave, but is rather that which the universe cannot contain.” I would add to that – that the universe itself is not the sort of thing that can be “contained” by the universe (in the literal sense) but has layers upon layers of meaning and possibility that are only revealed in the presence of Christ.

We are meant for more than we can “literally” imagine. Dumitru Staniloae cites St. Maximus the Confessor when he says:

Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way.

Thus, we pray to understand more – and not be literally wrong.

The Seat of Mercy and the End of the Legal View

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Among the more problematic words in the New Testament is the Greek hilasterion. It is translated as “propitiation” in some of the older English Bibles, and “expiation,” in newer ones. It’s actual meaning is neither. The word literally means “the place of mercy,” and is the Greek word used in the Old Testament (LXX) to describe the “Mercy Seat” on the Ark of the Covenant.

In Leviticus, the ritual for atonement is described, as an anointing of the mercy seat with the blood of a bull. The details are not terribly important for this article. But the question to consider is simply, what is going on in such an act of atonement? Many contemporary Christians have a long habit of describing such primitive actions with abstract concepts of symbolism. “This represents that…” is the typical run of things. Or, everything that happens is seen as taking place in the mind of God such that “and God considered this suitable for the forgiveness of their sins…” Despite all of the claims of “literalism,” very few ever seem to take texts at their face value, particularly if it forces them to abandon their own worldview.

The best way to understand such things as the Mercy Seat and the rituals of the atonement that surround it, is to see it for what it actually is. The sins of the people are placed there on the Mercy Seat and the priest destroys their sin by anointing the Seat with blood. Think of this passage in Leviticus:

And he shall go out to the altar that is before the LORD, and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel. And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness. (Lev 16:18-22)

The passage describes a very concrete, almost magical, scenario. The “uncleanness” of the people is cleansed through the sprinkling of blood, and then their sins are spoken over a goat thus “putting them on the head of the goat,” and the goat is sent away – taking their sins with him.

First, I suggest that readers note that there is not a hint of contractual/legal imagery here at all. Sins are not abstract infractions of the law in the modern legal sense but are quite concrete. They cause people to be unclean; they can be cleansed by blood; they are put on the head of a goat and sent away.

Such imagery, particularly if treated in a literal manner, simply baffles the modern mind. As I have noted repeatedly, the modern mind has somehow made abstractions its reality, while treating its true concrete existence as a metaphor, something that, at best, only gives rise to abstraction.

Hebrew is a decidedly concrete language – abstractions are fairly rare. This is difficult for modern readers to grasp, since we frequently take very concrete words and assume their meaning to be an abstraction. Among the greatest injustices done to Hebrew thought has been the modern Christian idealization of its concrete realities. The modern world prefers abstractions, whether psychological, legal, contractual or the like. Reading those concepts into the words of the Old Testament, however, is simply anachronistic.

The Law is itself a primary example. Here is a primary question: Is a law true because there is something inherent within it, or is it simply a law because someone says it is? The modern world has come down firmly on the side of voluntarism – a law simply expresses a will. As such, a law is nothing more than the guarantee of force and violence. It is a statement of the principles by which and on account of which force and violence will be exercised against someone.

In the Old Testament, however, the Law of God seems to have something quite substantive about it within itself:

The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul; The testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; The commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than much fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
Moreover by them Your servant is warned, And in keeping them there is great reward. (Psa 19:7-11 NKJ)

In the modern mind, such a passage only means that God did a good job in willing His law, and those laws reflect the goodness of His will. But the laws remain abstractions, simply the expression of His will. And, true to voluntarism, they only gain their power through the force and violence with which God backs them up.

“…by them is Your servant warned…and there is great reward.”

Up until the Middle Ages, the notion of law, whether Hebrew, Greek, etc., was generally grounded in a notion of realism, that is, the truth of a law was inherent in how things are and how they are made. The law can be discerned because it is not simply the product of a will. God’s will is expressed in how He created the world, but not by arbitrary rules enforced through sheer acts of force or violence.1

However, in the Middle Ages, in the rise of nominalism (cf. William of Ockham), a new theory of law came into the discussion, one in which law is simply the arbitrary act of a will. Modernity has seen the steady erosion of realism (as well as the notion of natural law) and its replacement with a radical nominalism. The most extreme statement of this latter view can be seen in Anthony Kennedy’s famous dictum in a Supreme Court decision regarding abortion:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

This extreme expression of voluntarism reveals the element of absurdity in pure voluntarism. Some might argue that the flaw in Kennedy’s statement lies in his attribution of this possibility to human beings, when it belongs to God alone. But it is the nominalists of modernity, including the Christian nominalists, who taught modernity how to reason in such a manner.

The Old Testament speaks of the Law in very substantive terms, much the same way that later Old Testament writings speak of Wisdom. The Law is far more than a commandment. The commandment describes something very concrete, something that reveals how the world actually is as well as how human beings and all creation works. It is no more arbitrary than DNA is arbitrary. It is, if you will, the DNA of the universe.

Sin is thus not primarily a willful breaking of Another’s will. It is not a transgression of something external to us, enforced only through the threat of violence or force. It is a violation of the very constitution of our being and of the world around us. In the language of Pavel Florensky, it is “disintegration.” St. Athanasius and a number of other fathers described it as a movement towards non-being. Sin is substantial. It can be healed and washed, excised and destroyed.

Sin is not a “legal” construct in the modern sense of legal nominalism.

And this brings us back to the Mercy Seat. Christ is indeed the “Mercy Seat” for our sins. It is incorrectly translated as propitiation or as expiation. Both terms tend to abstract what is actually taking place as if the Cross changes something somewhere else, something external. Our sins are literally placed on Christ. And as our Mercy Seat, He destroys them, cleanses them, remits them, carries them away, etc. It would be a frightful death were it meant to accomplish something in the abstract. But sin is not an abstraction. Christ’s bearing of our sin is the bearing of our disintegration, our drive towards non-being. It is the recreation of His creation.

Those who grasp at words that have root “legal” meaning, must be careful to consider their full meaning. Forensic applications, such as the modern Penal Substsitution theory of the atonement ignore the nature of law within the Biblical time period. The realist/organic nature of the law should probably not be described as having a “legal” meaning in order to distinguish it from the modern nominalist concept. My own writing has been directed by an effort to make this distinction. The Divine Solidarity, described so eloquently by St. Athanasius and many of the fathers requires remembering that nominalism has no place in their worldview. For my money, it has no place in ours either.

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Reading Scripture in the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mere psychology cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.

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

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

 

Creation and Evolution

18c_russiaThe crucifixion, death and resurrection of Christ is the proper beginning point for all Christian theology. Christ’s Pascha should be the source for all Christian reflection. It is clear that the disciples themselves did not understand the Scriptures nor Christ Himself until after the resurrection (Luke 24:45). We cannot approach Pascha as a midpoint in a historical narrative. It is the beginning. That which came before is only understood by reading backwards from Pascha (even though Pascha was before all things – Rev. 13:8). Everything subsequent to Christ’s resurrection is also understood only in the light of Pascha. Pascha is the meaning of all things. I offer this brief reminder of the true nature of theology as I continue my reflections on evolution and creation.

As I noted in the previous article, the age of the universe presses the question about the nature of the Biblical creation narrative in Genesis. Advocates for a 6,000 year-old earth based in a strict literalism find themselves having to resort to notions of a universe created in a manner to only “appear” old. A single, flawed reading of Scripture is preferred to the reliability of simple observation. With such caprice as dogma, Christianity would be embracing a literalist tyranny. Nothing in the world is reliable, only a narrow reading of the text. This narrow reading is a product of a false use of the notion of history

How did history come to triumph over all things? The answer is not far removed from Genesis and Adam.

The early chapters of Genesis were treated in a variety of ways by the early fathers. They by no means held universally to a literal interpretation. The Old Testament mentions Adam but once (other than a geneology) outside the book of Genesis. Adam as the progenitor of sin is nowhere an idea of importance (or even an idea) within the Old Testament. St. Paul raises Adam to a new level of consideration, recognizing in him a type of Christ, “the Second Adam.” But St. Paul’s Adam is arguably much like St. Paul’s Abraham (in Galatians), a story whose primary usefulness is the making of a theological point.

Nevertheless, St. Paul’s lead eventually becomes the pathway for history’s ascendancy. For while it is true that man’s breaking communion with God is the source of death, this is reduced to mere historical fact in the doctrine of Original Sin. For here Adam, as the first historical man, becomes infinitely guilty and deserving of punishment, and pays his juridical debt forward to all generations. This historical understanding of the fall, with inherited guilt, locks the Fall within historical necessity. It is among numerous reasons that Original Sin, as classically stated in the West, has not found a lasting place within Orthodox tradition.

Written into a diminished doctrine of the atonement, Adam as the historical source of the fall becomes a theological necessity. He also becomes an easy target for the enemies of the Christian faith. For even if the resurrection is beyond the reach of unbelief, a 6,000 year-old Adam is child’s play for those who would reduce the need for Christ’s redemption to the ridicule of a few ancient bones and Carbon-14 dating.

Some would reduce this historical danger by pushing Adam back in time. How long? And in what way? C.S. Lewis, wonderful Christian thinker, but still a man of his Western heritage, offers an account of an older Adam, merged with an evolutionary tale:

For long centuries, God perfected the animal form which was to become the vehicle of humanity and the image of Himself. He gave it hands whose thumb could be applied to each of the fingers, and jaws and teeth and throat capable of articulation, and a brain sufficiently complex to execute all of the material motions whereby rational thought is incarnated. The creature may have existed in this state for ages before it became man: it may even have been clever enough to make things which a modern archaeologist would accept as proof of its humanity. But it was only an animal because all its physical and psychical processes were directed to purely material and natural ends. Then, in the fullness of time, God caused to descend upon this organism, both on its psychology and physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say “I” and “me,” which could look upon itself as an object, which knew God, which could make judgments of truth, beauty and goodness, and which was so far above time that it could perceive time flowing past…. We do not know how many of these creatures God made, nor how long they continued in the Paradisal state. But sooner or later they fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods…. They wanted some corner in this universe of which they could say to God, “This is our business, not yours.” But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives. We have no idea in what particular act, or series of acts, the self-contradictory, impossible wish found expression. For all I can see, it might have concerned the literal eating of a fruit, the question is of no consequence. (C.S. Lewis, Problem of Pain, 68-71)

This requirement to salvage some literal Adam somewhere, somehow, is not shared by the universal opinion of the fathers. Indeed, the treatment of the early chapters of Genesis is “all over the map,” sometimes even within the writings of a single father. The primary fathers of the East (if I may use such a term), Basil, the two Gregories, etc., are quite free with both historical and ahistorical treatments of Adam. Bouteneff, citing both Behr and Balthasar, notes that Gregory does not envisage a historic pre-fallen immortal state.

[Gregory] alludes twice in the Catechetical Oration to the fact that Moses is speaking through a story, or an allegory. The implication of this is that God’s addition of mortality is a part of his creation of humanity from the beginning, in foreknowledge of the ongoing fall. However, Gregory does not care to make this plain here. Nor does he ever develop a portraiture of an idealized pre-fallen Adam or Eve who would not have been subject to death and all that it entails for human life (Bouteneff, 164).

There is even an on-again-off-again treatment of paradise as a non-material existence. St. Basil uses the very interesting phrase: “In your righteous judgment, you, O God, sent him [man] forth from paradise into this world…”

St. Basil is far removed from the later Western account of Adam as the progenitor of sin. He wrote: “Evil has no other origin than our voluntary falls. . . . Each of us is the first author of his own vice; . . . you are the master of your actions” (In Hex. 2.5).

Bouteneff writes:

So strong was his sense of human free choice that Basil did not even consider an action sinful unless it was done consciously and voluntarily. He thus has no interest in blaming Adam for our sin, because freedom—a part of the divine image itself—trumps all determinism (138).

This does not deny humanity’s complicity in death. Rather, it is similar to Dostoevsky’s words: “Each man is guilty of the sins of the whole world.”

But does this mean that God created a world that has held death from the beginning? It would not be strange to say so, since Pascha was before the beginning. St. Paul states that creation was made “subject to futility” in view of man (but not with man as the cause). Creation is clearly “subject to futility” by God’s action.

What is damaged in such an account is the apparent integrity of a time line. But it has never been part of the Christian gospel that history is a closed system. That the faith redeems history is one thing, but it is not subject to it. Pascha triumphs over all things.

Adam’s breaking of communion with God brings death. Death as the “last enemy,” however, is not revealed until Christ’s resurrection. For though human beings have always died, death was by no means seen as the central point of the Old Testament faith. Indeed, death and life-after-death were handled in a variety of manners before Christ.

Just as Christ’s resurrection reveals life to the world, so His life also reveals death as the enemy. It is only in light of Christ’s death and resurrection that the story of Adam becomes interesting and universal in its meaning. Christ’s resurrection liberates the early chapters of Genesis from possible obscurity as Jewish creation myth into the most profound account of the crisis of human existence.

Death is a fact of our existence, thus the Fall is a fact of that existence. But the significance of our death is only made known to us in Christ. I personally remain skeptical of the efforts to describe the historical character of the Fall, even as I remain utterly aware of its reality in my life. Biological death, well known throughout our existence, is not yet the “fullness” of death revealed in Christ/Adam. We do not know death until Christ.

Science

There is a conflict between Christian believing and certain versions of evolutionary theory. Biology itself holds no contradictions for the Christian faith. However, meta-theories of biology are often grounded in ideologies that have no place within science. As theories of meaning, they are more “religious” than scientific in nature.

Biology can describe change, but the meaning of change, the purpose of change remains beyond its scope. Creation as the unfolding of “random chance” is the best that can be offered without reference to God (even if some chances are more likely than others). But this brings us to the same question that is confronted daily by believers (and others). God’s work remains opaque, we cannot see behind its results and watch the process of divine action. But the results are often so startling that randomness would seem absurd. And this applies profoundly to the unfolding of our universe.

Believers need not argue about the absurdity of a universe that some think to be random. For the resurrection is that one moment that shatters the silence of God and the opacity of His work. It is the voice of God explaining Himself (John 1:18).

We rightly hear in the language of “survival of the fittest” nothing more than the 19th century Christian heresy of Progress. Progress is a mere ideology, a secularized version of Christian eschatology. The 20th century endured the catastrophe of various brave new worlds. Progress, as an idea, belongs in the dustbin of history. History and evolution do not carry within them their own meaning. If a comet takes out human existence tomorrow, then all of the “progress” of the human race will have been a moot point. “Progress” begs the question: “progressing towards what?”

But there is a movement (kinesis) within creation and it is revealed in Christ/Adam. The created Adam, the significance of whose story is made known in Christ, is created as image and likeness of God. The fathers note that this creation is only fulfilled in Christ Himself, the Second Adam. For the first Adam does not become what he was made to be. Only the Second Adam is able to say on the Cross, “It is finished,” for man in the likeness of God is only revealed in the suffering and self-emptying of the Cross – the death-that-becomes-life.

Just as Christ’s resurrection reveals the meaning of Adam, so the resurrection reveals the meaning and purpose of creation itself. The resurrection alone offers transcendence and eternity to a universe of seeming chance and randomness. The movement of Creation is towards Christ’s Pascha, though we do not call that movement “evolution” nor imagine it unfolding through biology. But we do not imagine that the unfolding of the universe has nothing to do with the resurrection, for Creation shares a destiny with man:

…the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. (Rom 8:19-21 NKJ)

This is indeed the glory of God!

Reading the Real Bible and Notes on the Real Hell

prosphora13This post began as a comment – a response to serious questions about the nature of hell (Is Hell Real?) and recent treatments of Scriptural literalism. I offer this edited version as a new post for the sake of those who don’t follow comments closely…

Dear Reader, I want to state immediately that you should be at peace about the state of Orthodoxy. My earlier post (Is Hell Real?) is not meant to question the “reality” of hell in the sense that you are using the word – though it is meant to make us think a great deal more about what we mean when we say “real” – about which I’ll say more in a moment.

And, on matters of Biblical interpretation, I utterly reject the nonsense of liberal Christianity and its handling of Scriptures (much as I reject their handling by Protestant fundamentalists – they are two sides of the same coin). But, again, I want to press the point of our understanding of the Scriptures beyond the flat literalism of modern Protestantism (whether fundamentalist or liberal). Some may find my pressing of this point to be less than helpful. If so, they should ignore these posts.

On What I Mean by “Real”

Modern thought, including modern Protestant thought, tends to think of “reality” as consisting of only one kind of thing. So, if we say “real,” we mean “true,” “actual,” not “make-believe,” not an “imagination.” And this is the way the word is used whether it is referring to green dragons, God, heaven, hell, what I ate last week, etc. It is this singular, univocal meaning and singular understanding of “real” that I am challenging. I think of this “singular” meaning for “real” as false and misleading. I often refer to it as “flat,” or “literalistic.” My goal is to help readers, on a popular level, understand better the Orthodox teaching on the nature of things – on the world as sacrament – on the character of truth and reality – and thus the nature of our salvation.

The fathers, when addressing this topic, understand that truth and being (and thus “reality” and what is “real”) are qualities that belong to God alone. As St. Gregory the Theologian said, “Inasmuch as we say ‘God exists,’ we don’t exist. Inasmuch as we say, ‘We exist,’ God does not exist.” What he meant by this is that the character of God’s existence is such that no other “existing” thing can be compared to the existence of the true God. The Baptismal prayer calls God, hyperousia, “supersubstantial,” or “beyond being.” St. Basil the Great calls God, “the only truly existing…” St. Athanasius notes that everything created was created out of nothing, and is thus “nothing” by its nature. If we were left utterly to ourselves, we would simply cease to exist because we were and are created “out of nothing.” According to St. Athanasius, the kind of existence we have is utterly a gift. It is sustained by the good will of the good God. But such an existence cannot be compared with the existence and being of God. It is not self-existence, but gift.

However, the good God who brought us into existence out of nothing, also intends for us the gift of union with Himself, which is the gift of eternal life, a participation in the Divine life. Thus the fathers use the language of the created participating in the uncreated (God). St. Maximus the Confessor even says that we become “uncreated” by grace. This is the doctrine that is called “theosis,” divinization.

If divinization is thought of in terms of “being,” then it can be described as a movement from created existence (by nature) towards uncreated existence (by grace).

I have used the word “real” in the sense and meaning of the statement,”God alone is real,” i.e. “God is the only truly existing one.” Those things are real that have participation in God and only insomuch as they have participation in God. Those things that resist such participation, that rebel are not “not existing” (or else we couldn’t even speak of them), but they are moving in a direction that is opposite from true existence, and are moving towards what they came from (nothing). In the fathers there is thus a distinction between things that do not exist (ouk ousia) and things that are tending toward non existence (me ousia). Because existence is the gift of God, and God does not take back the gift He has given, the most we can do in our rebellion is move towards me ousia (relative non-existence, a “not real” reality).

When I suggest that hell is “not real,” I do not mean that there is no such thing, but that the nature of what we call “hell,” is at heart a movement away from reality (God), a choice towards non-existence, something that is essentially inauthentic. C.S. Lewis’ imagery of hell as the “gray town” in The Great Divorce, is a very rich play on this thought.

On the Biblical Stories

There are many kinds of stories in the Bible. Protestant fundamentalism has, more or less, decided that there is only one kind of story in the Scriptures and only one kind of truth that has any usefulness and that is a literal, historical kind of story or truth. Thus the story of Adam and Eve is seen as only having value and only being of use if it is a description of a “factual” event. It would understand a “factual” event to mean that if I were present as an observer on the day of Adam’s creation, I would see the event of the clay being formed into the first homo sapiens, etc. This same kind of literalism is applied across the board to all OT stories. Either they are true in that way (it is reasoned), or they are lies, fictions and worse.

Protestant liberalism (in its most extreme forms) agrees with this kind of singular reading. Liberalism, however, uses this singular approach to discredit anything that seems to be questionable as a “factual,” newspaper kind of event. And it uses these attacks to undermine the authority of the Church, the faith, etc. This allows liberalism to proceed to create its own “truths” and build the fantasy world of its own private dreams and continue to create misery in the name of God.

When this topic of “factuality” (in the sense propagated by Protestant fundamentalism and liberalism) is addressed in the Fathers (which is rarely the case when any particular OT story is being invoked), it is clearly understood that the stories in Scripture have a number of “levels” of meaning, a number of possibilities, a variety of uses. The story of Adam and Eve and the Creation is handled more literally by some of the fathers, and quite figuratively by others (I’ve referenced Peter Bouteneff’s work on the patristic use of the Creation chapters and recommend it again). The issue of Adam and Eve and history is not a debate within the historic Orthodox Church. It was and is a debate between Protestant fundamentalists and Protestant liberals that arose with special vehemence in response to Darwin’s theories. It is their battle, not ours. Many Orthodox, living here in the West, have decided that the Orthodox should take sides in that debate – but I suggest that they are mistaken. The debate is a non-issue because both liberals and fundamentalists have a wrong understanding of Scripture and history.

For some, Orthodoxy can seem simply like a more defensible version of conservative Christianity, with sacraments).  Orthodoxy is neither conservative nor liberal – it is Orthodoxy. It need have no reference to the conversations that are happening outside. Orthodoxy was Orthodox when there were no denominations. The only measure of Orthodoxy is its participation in the Truth. Too many people bring the baggage of their former Christianity(ies) with them and try to graft it onto the trunk of the Orthodox tree.

I have written numerous articles on the interpretation of Scripture. Many of them make the comparison between Scripture and icons (a comparison made by the 7th council). Icons are clearly not photographs and they are not photographs for a reason. They depict what is true – in the sense of God, heaven, true existence, etc. – and not simply meaning “whatever we might see.” Christ makes it quite clear that many people “see,” but “don’t see.” There is obviously more than one way of seeing. In that sense, there is more than one way of portraying “what happened.” Icons seek to portray the “truth,” of things. Obviously, many people saw Christ hanging on the Cross but failed to see the truth of Christ hanging on the Cross. An icon does not make that mistake. It shows the truth of Christ on the Cross. In that sense, an icon is more “real,” than a photograph, because the ultimate truth of the event is clearly depicted whereas a photograph might miss it.

What is the “truth” of the story of Adam and Eve? Fundamentalists think it is their photograph-style interpretation. But Christ says that He himself is the meaning of the OT Scriptures (Jn. 5:39). Surely <em>Christ </em>is the <em>truth </em>of the account of Adam and Eve in a manner that transcends the newspaper-like interpretation. The Pharisees could have seen the newspaper account as clear as anyone, but they did not see Christ and so crucified Him – and – ironically – fulfilled the truth of the creation of Adam.

For the fathers are clear, the Woman taken out of Adam’s side, is the Church, His bride. Adam rests (sleeps) on the 6th day (Friday), and from His side God takes a rib and forms the Woman. And on Friday, Christ slept (died), and “one of the soldiers pierced His side, and from His side flowed forth blood and water…” The fathers see this as the Eucharist and Baptism, that which births and creates the Church.

You may take this simply as a “commentary,” an allegorical way of reading the “historical account.” But the mistake is the same as that of the Pharisees. When we make the newspaper-style reading the primary and and so-called real reading, we invariably fail to see that the other is the primary and true. Christ’s Pascha is the true reading of all things. Nothing has any truth except as it relates to Christ’s Pascha. That is the beginning of creation as well as its end and fulfillment.

My writing means to “pound” on the problematic handling of Scripture by the Protestants and help others come to a more proper Orthodox understanding and way of reading. It occasionally jars and upsets, because most people are still stuck in the world-view of modern Protestantism.

The Sacraments Are Real

The newspaper-style understanding of truth is one of the reasons that Protestantism generally does not understand the sacraments (and is mostly non-sacramental). “Things are things,” they reason. Bread can remind us of Christ’s Body and His sacrifice, but it can only BE bread. And this is true for newspapers. But it is not the Truth. “I believe that this is truly Thy most pure Body,” the Orthodox say before receiving communion.  When we say, “This is truly,” do we mean that there is a lump of human flesh lying on the diskos on the altar? Does it mean that a photograph would show a lump of meat?

Of course not. But Orthodoxy clearly thinks that we “see” a reality that is more real than that of a photograph. The bread is truly His most pure Body. The “Kingdom which is to come” is truly present now. “Thou <em>hadst </em>raised us up to heaven…” All of these outrageously non-newspaper ways of speaking are true and only those who are truly in Christ can say them, mean them, see them, and thus, through them, be saved.

Adam and Eve raise interesting historical questions…but the history parts of that particular story are not what matters about it.

The history of Christ’s crucifixion is important, too, and in a way that is not the case of the Creation account. First, that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried… are also true in the newspaper-sense of the word, and are attested to in that manner, independent of the Scriptures.

But, like an icon, the gospels reveal His death, burial and resurrection (which certainly has every kind of truth – newspaper and otherwise) in their ultimate and truest way. They show us Christ’s Pascha as the New Creation, the Passover, Jonah from the Whale, the Bridegroom coming forth from the Bridal Chamber, the 3 young men in the fiery furnace, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, etc. And our Baptism plunges us into Christ’s Pascha and His Pascha becomes our new creation and life in Him.

This is the Orthodox faith. It is not a private opinion or a decision about what I would like to believe. It is larger than me or you and we may be plunged into it. But it will not be managed like the newspapers of the fundamentalists or the fables of the liberals. It is the faith of the fathers – the Mystery hidden from before all ages…

Within A Mandorla

There is a small class of events within the gospels that are treated in a special manner by iconographers. This special treatment reflects the language of Scripture as well. In the icons of the Transfiguration, Pascha and the Ascension, there is a particular artistic device used called a Mandorla. Sometimes circular, sometimes almost star-shaped, it serves as something of a “parenthesis” within an icon. What is being set in the parenthesis is an event which somehow transcends what most of us think of as normal. Revealed in the context of a mandorla is that which we know by the revelation of Scripture but which might not have been witnessed by the human eye – or – if witnessed – somehow transcended the normal bounds of vision.

In the icon of the Transfiguration, the transfigured Christ stands within the mandorla. The Church’s hymns remark on this in their own manner:

You were transfigured on the mount, O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners,
through the prayers of the Theotokos.
O Giver of Light, glory to You!

In this text for the Troparion (Hymn) for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Christ’s glory is described as having been revealed to his disciples “as far as they could bear it.”

The Kontakion of the Feast carries the same message:

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world, That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!

The disciples are described in the Scriptures as having been “afraid.” St. Peter speaks of building three tabernacles, “because he did not know what to say.” The experience is more than even the words of Scripture can express.

The depiction of the Ascension in iconography has this same artistic device. Some would perhaps wonder why an event that is described in a prosaic manner “a cloud received him from their sight” should need to be framed within the parentheses of a mandorla. Of course, this description is given only in the book of Acts. Mark and Luke simply say that he was “carried up into heaven.” We are at a place where language has a limit. Indeed, Mark says that he was “carried up into heaven and seated at the right hand of God.” This last formula is a creedal confession – but not an eyewitness description. That Christ was taken up and that He is seated at the right hand of the Father is the faith and dogma of the Church. But the Church knows this in a mystical manner and not in the manner of a newspaper reporter.

To acknowledge this is not to weaken the witness of Scripture or to make a concession to the historical uncertainty of liberalism. It is simply to recognize the nature of the Biblical witness. The iconographic witness of the Church affirms this – placing the Ascension of Christ within a mandorla – recognizing that this will only be known and understood by the mystical knowledge of faith (and by faith I do not mean an intellectual leap of judgment). I will return to this matter of faith shortly.

Very similar to this event is Christ’s Descent into Hades, the traditional icon of Christ’s Pascha. In this icon we see what is referenced in several places within the Scriptures and upheld in the Church’s dogma – that Christ descended into Hades and “trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” But when we confess this cornerstone of our faith we are not reciting what is known by eyewitness account. Eyewitnesses see Christ’s crucifixion and eyewitnesses place Him in the tomb. Eyewitnesses return to the tomb on early Sunday morning and find the tomb open and empty.

The resurrected Christ appears to his disciples. In St. Paul’s recitation of the “tradition” (for that is the word he uses to describe his recitation, we hear:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

There are interesting descriptions that accompany the Scriptural witness of Christ’s resurrection appearances. St. Mark says:

After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them (Mark 16:12-13).

This, of course, is St. Mark’s brief account of the encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus, described in detail in St. Luke’s gospel. We could add to that St. Mary Magdalen’s mistaking the resurrected Christ for “the gardener” until he speaks her name.

Such statements are not accidental “slips of the tongue” in which the gospel writers leave clues that indicate doubts about the reality of the resurrection. This is a silly conclusion drawn by some modern, liberal scholars. The gospels are carefully written. It is absurd to assume anything accidental within their pages.

What we have instead is a “verbal mandorla,” a description that points to a reality that impinges upon our reality but which has a depth that transcends anything we could imagine. This is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

This brings me back to the question of faith. There is a form of Christian literalism which belongs to a secular culture. The world is rendered only in a secularized, objective manner. Nothing is ever set within a mandorla. There is no perception of the mystery which has come among us in our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. In such a form of Christianity, faith is simply a description of what someone accepts as a set of “facts” in the same manner that we accept or reject what we read in a newspaper, etc. The facts are as static and empty as our perception. No change need happen in the witness of such facts. Either it happened and you saw it, or it did not happen. But the Scriptures themselves indicate that the nature of the witness has a radically different character:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

If Christ appears to them, how is it that some doubted? The Biblical witness would never have allowed such a statement if it was trying to defend the modern literalism of secularized Christianity. Instead, the witness of Christ points us towards the depth of the mystery that is the truth of our relationship with risen Christ. We know Him and perceive Him not simply through a set of intellectual arguments, or even simply through our trust in reliability of historical witness. A “faith” which is founded on argument, no matter how sound the argument, still fails to change the one who accepts it. The result of such “faith” is opinion, not true faith.

True faith ultimately requires a union, a participation, in the very life of the risen Christ. Thus, we are not Baptized into opinions, but into the very death and resurrection of Christ. To use the language of icons, our life is plunged into a mandorla which is nothing other than the Kingdom of God. We are called to live within that parenthetical state – where our lives constant refer and point to the reality which has now filled us. Such a life transcends the literalism of doubt and opinion and enters into a union with God that is itself a witness to the coming of the Kingdom. It is the banishment of secularism and affirmation of the living truth of Christ.

I would not dare to shake the faith of any nor suggest an element of doubt with regard to the events of Christ’s Transfiguration, Ascension or His Descent into Hades. Instead I want to push us towards a deeper perception and participation in those realities – for this is the very root of the Christian life.

The Fathers taught us: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” The iconic grammar of the mandorla, points us to the great mysteries made known to us in Scripture and make it clear that such mysteries may be known and entered into. Glory to God!

Is the Bible True?

There is a fundamentalist anxiety that I hold in great sympathy. My sympathy is driven by the fact that I lived for many years under the burden of that very anxiety. It is the hidden fear that possibly, despite all faith exercised in the opposite direction, the Bible may not, in fact, be true. A great deal of energy is spent in maintaining the integrity of the dike that withstands this anxiety.

I grew in the shadow of Bob Jones University, one of the most prominent bastions of American fundamentalism. The ideas of that university permeate not only the students who study there, but in many ways the surrounding culture of Christianity in the area. The fear is pointed towards Darwin and any possibility of his evolutionary theory. It drives biology students at the university to reach strange conclusions, regardless of the science. I was taught at age ten by a biology student from Bob Jones, in a Baptist summer camp, that blacks were simply biological inferior to whites based on false information that he shared with a group of young, impressionable kids. Perhaps his biology was not the product of his university classes. But it was as baseless as much of the science that was done there.

The same fear drives the concern for the Flood of Noah and the age of the planet (not to mention any possible hint of evolutionary science). Thus the earth must be young, the flood must be literal (with perhaps a still existing Ark on Mt. Ararat). Science has an answer that it must prove, rather than a question to be answered. The agenda of such fundamentalist science is set by the need to refute anything that possibly undermines a peculiar view of Scripture. One flaw and the entire house of cards comes tumbling down.

It makes for bad science and even worse Biblical interpretation.

I am no friend of liberal Biblical studies. I suffered under such oppression for a number of years and can say that fundamentalism also has a liberal form. I was punished (intellectually) for believing all of the articles of the Nicene Creed as much as a Darwinist would suffer at Bob Jones. But that is its own story.

The history of literalism is a checkered affair. Some of the early fathers leaned in a literalist direction for many parts of Scripture, though leaving room for other, more symbolic approaches, where appropriate. The great battles over the historical literalism of Scripture arose in the 18th and 18th centuries in Europe and America (battles over certain scientific matters versus literalism began even earlier).

Part of the tragedy in these battles was that the battlefield itself was a fairly newly-defined area and failed to take into account the full history of Biblical interpretation. For a young believer in the midst of America’s own intellectual religious wars in the late 20th century – my question was whether the choices presented were the only choices available.

I should preface my remaining remarks with the simple affirmation: I believe the Bible is true.

Having said that, I must add that the Scriptures do not stand as an independent work of literature or a self-contained Holy Book. The Bible is not God’s revelation to man: Jesus Christ is God’s revelation to man. The Scriptures bear witness to Him and are thus “true” as a true witness to the God/Man Jesus Christ.

As others have noted, the Scriptures are true as they are accepted and understood by the Church that received them. They are Scripture as recognized by the Church and cannot be removed from the Church only to turn them against the Church. They are unique writings, and must be read in a unique way. That way is found in the liturgies of the Church and the commentaries of the Fathers.

It is also true that within the writings of the Fathers there can be a variety of opinion on a number of Scriptural matters. The essential agreement is their testimony to Christ. Genesis is about Christ. Exodus is about Christ, and so forth. Read any other way, the books are interesting, but they will not be read in a manner that has been received by the Orthodox Christian Church.

Of course, the historical method (whether literal or historical critical) represents only two possibly ways of reading the text of Scripture. There are assumptions behind both that are problematic from an Orthodox perspective. For many, the notion of “salvation history” has become so dominant that they cannot think about history in any manner other than that which they have been taught. I can think of a number of problems:

First – the traditional modern view (whether fundamentalist or otherwise) of history, is a matter of chronology. It sees a beginning at some point in the past and a progression to some point in the future. This same chain of events is generally viewed as reality, or the ground of reality, and championed above all other things. God acts in history, they will argue, but history is somehow the reality with which God has to deal.

This is highly problematic for an Orthodox theological understanding. Not only does Scripture treat history as quite relative (Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, He is also the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth”), it in fact makes history subject to the end of things – making history simply one aspect of lived eschatology.

Thus time and chronology do not govern reality – God governs reality.

By the same token, Holy Scripture is a Divine account of reality, not itself explained by chronology nor subject to historical validation, but subject to the Truth as it is made known to us in Jesus Christ. Thus the New Testament is Scripture, though the writings of Josephus or Tacitus are mere history.

There is a nervousness that runs through the body fundamentalist when phrases such as “mere history” are uttered. It is a nervousness that is born of the attempts of liberal modernists to dismiss as “myth and fiction” what are seen as events essential to our salvation in Christ. No one who is a believer could treat such anxiety with anything but sympathy. In many ways, with the tools at hand, conservatives in Western Christianity have fought a valiant fight to defend the faith against a serious contender. But that fight does not justify every argument advanced by fundamentalism. Orthodoxy offers a different approach.

I recognize a nervousness that occurs among many conservatives if “truth” is approached in any manner other than literal. Liberals have played games with words for so many years that believers are rightly wary of word-games. On the other hand, for theological accuracy, it is necessary to speak of truth and its character in Christian revelation. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ Himself is the Truth. This is not to say that He is the Truth as compared to some external criterion of truth, but rather that He Himself is the criterion and definition of what is true. Things are true and false only as they are compared to Him. He may be compared to nothing else.

By that token, it is problematic to define “truth” by some particular standard of “historicity.” I understand the importance of saying, “This is really true,” and would never want to deny such a thing. The tomb on Pascha was empty, Christ is truly raised from the dead by every standard and then transcending every standard. His resurrection is the true ground of all reality.

Having said that, it must also be said that the Scriptures are true (as Scriptures) only inasmuch as they reveal Christ as the risen Lord and what that means for all creation. The witness of the Church is that these writings do precisely that and are thus Scripture. But it is the resurrection of Christ that undergirds the Scriptures and not vice versa. The disciples did not understand the Scriptures until they understood the risen Lord. And this remains the case.

Thus the import of Noah’s flood is to be found in Holy Baptism and not the other way around. Creation as shared in the first chapter of Genesis is an unfolding of the Paschal mystery and it is from that mystery that it derives its value. I could multiply such examples. When this principle is forgotten, Christians find themselves arguing over points of geology or archaeology and not over the triumphant resurrection of Christ. If Christ is risen from the dead, everything else becomes moot. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then all Christian statements become moot.

Christ is risen from the dead.

What can we say to these things? The Scriptures are true because Christ is risen from the dead and this is their message. The faith of the Orthodox is that all things find their beginning and their end – their meaning and their fulfillment in the Pascha of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the good news. What other good news could there be?

The Mystery of the Mother of God

The 15th of August is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (her death). Orthodox Christians fast for two weeks prior to this great feast and celebrate it with great solemnity. A question was recently placed by a reader about the “perpetual virginity” of Mary. I am offering this small post to address that question and to look at the place of the Most Holy Theotokos in Orthodox faith and life.

I am always hesitant to write about the mystery of the Mother of God. There are few things within the Orthodox Church that are held more dearly while at the same time being misunderstood and occasionally vilified by those outside the Church.  Originally these doctrines and devotions were not part of the most common kerygma (public preaching of the Church). Mark and John have no narratives of the birth of Christ (even though John contains some of  the most deeply significant material with regard to the Mother of God). St. Paul seems to have but a single reference to Mary (Galatians 4:4).

The early Church made a clear distinction between its kerygma (public preaching) and those things which were held as mysteries. The mysteries were largely unspoken – though accepted as true and embodied in the life, prayer and liturgy of the Church. The reason for the mysteries as mysteries were varied. In some cases, certain teachings were held quietly lest they cause too much of a scandal in the preaching of the gospel. In other cases, some teachings were unspoken because they were very hard to speak – they were beyond words. Among these latter teachings would be the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. While absolutely foundational to the Christian faith, this teaching was implied frequently throughout the writings of the New Testament, but never declared in a forthright and definitive manner until the 4th century. Orthodoxy holds that the doctrine was not the product of development nor of evolution, but was known from the beginning, even if the language in which it was expressed was as yet unknown. The Church could not have recognized Arianism as a heresy had it not already known the truth as found in Orthodoxy, nor could it have recognized the truth as spoken in the Nicene Creed and by saints such as Athanasius had the truth not already and always been known.

Having said this, I offer some cautious observations on the Orthodox dogmas and devotional understandings concerning the Mother of God. A question was posted earlier today on the Orthodox doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary and the problems raised by Matthew 1:25 “[and Joseph] did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn child.”

The doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity (that she remained a virgin throughout her life), interestingly, was almost universal in its acceptance within the early Church, and was defended even by John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli, and Martin Luther. The key word [heos] in Matthew 1:25 is generally translated as “until” in English – which many modern readers take to mean that “after she brought forth her firstborn child she had relations with Joseph.” However, the same Greek word is used in Matthew 22:44 “Sit Thou at my right hand until I make thine enemies Thy footstool.” There it clearly does not mean that Christ will cease to be at His father’s right hand after His enemies are defeated. The word has the clear sense that Mary had no relations with Joseph before the child was born (the issue in the passage is His virginal conception) and is consistent with the Church’s belief that she had no relations with Joseph at any time thereafter.

That Mary remained a virgin for her entire life, as noted above, was a generally accepted teaching of the Church, found in the writings of the fathers, and consistently proclaimed in the liturgical and iconographic life of the Church.

The liturgical life of the Church makes frequent use of Old Testament images as prefiguring Christ’s virginal conception and birth. The bush which is on fire and yet not burned is a frequent image of Mary. The passing through the Red Sea on dry foot is another such image; Aaron’s rod that budded; the fleece of Gideon, etc. Indeed, the space needed to list all of the Old Testament images used as such prefigurements exceed the space I generally use for a posting.

The sense of all these images is of God being born into the world without a human father. The barrenness of Mary’s virginity is the human counterpart of the fruitfulness of God. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. The manner of her  birthgiving is synonymous with the manner of our own salvation. It is the work of God from Whom life alone can come. Our role is like her role, “Be it unto me according to Thy word.”

That Mary remained a virgin both before, during and after the birth of Christ is the common understanding of the Orthodox fathers and of the liturgical and iconographic life of the Church. The Theotokos is always presented with three stars on her veil in her icons. They represent her virginity “before, during, and after the birth of Christ.”

There is also a “common sense” argument for Mary’s perpetual virginity (or so it has always seemed to me). Joseph understood what was to take place within Mary according to the witness of Scripture. It strains every Biblical understanding of piety to believe that Joseph having such knowledge would then take Mary into the common practices of marriage. The Orthodox tradition is that the “brothers and sisters” of Christ mentioned in Scripture are children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.

But the Biblical witness is extremely important within Orthodoxy. However, it is a witness that is not readily apparent to the eye of literalism. As noted by the fathers in their use of Biblical imagery: Mary is the “Gate which no man shall open.”

And the LORD said unto me: ‘This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, neither shall any man enter in by it, for the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it; therefore it shall be shut” (Ezekiel 44:2).

Such verses are not used as “proof-texts,” just as many of the verses traditionally cited by Christians for Christ’s messiahship are not proof-texts. The reality of who Christ is and His death and resurrection are known to the disciples before they understood the Scriptures (Luke 24:45). In the same manner, the Church knows of these matters within Holy Tradition and finds that Tradition upheld and revealed within the Scriptures.

Those who argue for various positions of “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone) abandon the pattern of the New Testament itself. The mystical life of the Church is confirmed repeatedly – but in a manner which is known within the heart and not in the manner of hard science. God is not a passive object such that He can be studied like a lump of dirt. The truth of the faith is living and active and makes itself known (rather than being the object of our discovery).

The mystery of the Mother of God can be known and becomes the source of rich understanding in the life of grace. But it is not a subject for argument (certainly not for me). Were someone to erase the entirety of tradition and begin with the bare text of Scripture, it is quite likely that the result of their thought would be something other than the thought of early Christians and the Orthodox faith as it has been taught and received.  The multitude of interpretations that would result from such an experiment are readily apparent in the modern chaos of Sola Scriptura Christianity. Indeed, the role and function of Tradition are often rapidly replaced by various streams of modern culture.

The mystery of the Mother of God is at the very heart of Scripture – but only the heart would know that. And the mystery goes much deeper than the questions of virginal conception, birth and the like. Far too few Christians take the time to ponder the mystery of grace and our salvation.

Our salvation is not an afterthought: “The Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth” (Rev. 13:8).

St. Maximus the Confessor writes of the Incarnation of Christ: “It is the cause of all things and caused by none of them” (Epistle to Thalassius, PG 90, 620-621). There is no incarnation of Christ apart from the womb of the virgin. It is from her that He took flesh. Thus, though Mary is a creature born into history, she is nevertheless present in the eternal counsels of God.

The Lord said to my Lord…I have begotten Thee from the womb before the morning (Psalm 110:1,3).

The statement, according to the Fathers, refers both to Christ’s eternal begetting from the Father, but also contains reference to His incarnation (“from the womb before the morning”). All of this refers to that which is prior to creation.

Just as Adam is understood as the “first man,” so Christ is understood as the “Second Adam” – the one who is the true “image of the invisible God.” In the same manner, the Fathers refer to Mary as the “Second Eve,” for the life which is made ours in the Incarnation of Christ is a life that is also “bone of her bone and flesh of her flesh.”

In the Incarnation, the Uncreated is united to the created. Heaven is united to earth. And all of such statements begin with Christ took flesh of the Virgin.

There is a cosmic dimension to our salvation. Those who confine their thoughts only to the historical moment of Christ’s sacrifice, do neither justice to Scripture nor to reality. Regardless of the fact that literalists may quibble over misinterpretations of Scripture, the reality of our salvation and its greatness, cannot be considered without reference to the Mother of God.

Orthodoxy does not, and will not accept modern language such as co-redemptorix, put forward by some zealous Roman Catholics: Christ alone is our redemption. But neither can we tell the story of redemption without reference to her. She is indeed, our most holy, most pure, most glorious and ever-blessed, Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary.  This is a great mystery. May God make it known to all His children!

Within a Mandorla

There is a small class of events within the gospels that are treated in a special manner by iconographers. This special treatment reflects the language of Scripture as well. In the icons of the Transfiguration, Pascha and the Ascension, there is a particular artistic device used called a Mandorla. Sometimes circular, sometimes almost star-shaped, it serves as something of a “parenthesis” within an icon. What is being set in the parenthesis is an event which somehow transcends what most of us think of as normal. Revealed in the context of a mandorla is that which we know by the revelation of Scripture but which might not have been witnessed by the human eye – or – if witnessed – somehow transcended the normal bounds of vision.

In the icon of the Transfiguration, the transfigured Christ stands within the mandorla. The Church’s hymns remark on this in their own manner:

You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.
Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners,
through the prayers of the Theotokos.
O Giver of Light, glory to You!

In this text for the Troparion (Hymn) for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Christ’s glory is described as having been revealed to his disciples “as far as they could bear it.”

The Kontakion of the Feast carries the same message:

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!

The disciples are described in the Scriptures as having been “afraid.” St. Peter speaks of building three tabernacles, “because he did not know what to say.” The experience is more than even the words of Scripture can express.

The depiction of the Ascension in iconography has this same artistic device. Some would perhaps wonder why an event that is described in a prosaic manner “a cloud received him from their sight” should need to be framed within the parentheses of a mandorla. Of course, this description is given only in the book of Acts. Mark and Luke simply say that he was “carried up into heaven.” We are at a place where language has a limit. Indeed, Mark says that he was “carried up into heaven and seated at the right hand of God.” This last formula is a creedal confession – but not an eyewitness description. That Christ was taken up and that He is seated at the right hand of the Father is the faith and dogma of the Church. But the Church knows this in a mystical manner and not in the manner of a newspaper reporter.

To acknowledge this is not to weaken the witness of Scripture or to make a concession to the historical uncertainty of liberalism. It is simply to recognize the nature of the Biblical witness. The iconographic witness of the Church affirms this – placing the Ascension of Christ within a mandorla – recognizing that this will only be known and understood by the mystical knowledge of faith (and by faith I do not mean an intellectual leap of judgment). I will return to this matter of faith shortly.

Very similar to this event is Christ’s Descent into Hades, the traditional icon of Christ’s Pascha. In this icon we see what is referenced in several places within the Scriptures and upheld in the Church’s dogma – that Christ descended into Hades and “trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” But when we confess this cornerstone of our faith we are not reciting what is known by eyewitness account. Eyewitnesses see Christ’s crucifixion and eyewitnesses place Him in the tomb. Eyewitnesses return to the tomb on early Sunday morning and find the tomb open and empty.

The resurrected Christ appears to his disciples. In St. Paul’s recitation of the “tradition” (for that is the word he uses to describe his recitation, we hear:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

There are interesting descriptions that accompany the Scriptural witness of Christ’s resurrection appearances. St. Mark says:

After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them (Mark 16:12-13).

This, of course, is St. Mark’s brief account of the encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus, described in detail in St. Luke’s gospel. We could add to that St. Mary Magdalen’s mistaking the resurrected Christ for “the gardener” until he speaks her name.

Such statements are not accidental “slips of the tongue” in which the gospel writers leave clues that indicate doubts about the reality of the resurrection. This is a silly conclusion drawn by some modern, liberal scholars. The gospels are carefully written. It is absurd to assume anything accidental within their pages.

What we have instead is a “verbal mandorla,” a description that points to a reality that impinges upon our reality but which has a depth that transcends anything we could imagine. This is the manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

This brings me back to the question of faith. There is a form of Christian literalism which belongs to a secular culture. The world is rendered only in a secularized, objective manner. Nothing is ever set within a mandorla. There is no perception of the mystery which has come among us in our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. In such a form of Christianity, faith is simply a description of what someone accepts as a set of “facts” in the same manner that we accept or reject what we read in a newspaper, etc. The facts are as static and empty as our perception. No change need happen in the witness of such facts. Either it happened and you saw it, or it did not happen. But the Scriptures themselves indicate that the nature of the witness has a radically different character:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17).

If Christ appears to them, how is it that some doubted? The Biblical witness would never have allowed such a statement if it was trying to defend the modern literalism of secularized Christianity. Instead, the witness of Christ points us towards the depth of the mystery that is the truth of our relationship with risen Christ. We know Him and perceive Him not simply through a set of intellectual arguments, or even simply through our trust in reliability of historical witness. A “faith” which is founded on argument, no matter how sound the argument, still fails to change the one who accepts it. The result of such “faith” is opinion, not true faith.

True faith ultimately requires a union, a participation, in the very life of the risen Christ. Thus, we are not Baptized into opinions, but into the very death and resurrection of Christ. To use the language of icons, our life is plunged into a mandorla which is nothing other than the Kingdom of God. We are called to live within that parenthetical state – where our lives constant refer and point to the reality which has now filled us. Such a life transcends the literalism of doubt and opinion and enters into a union with God that is itself a witness to the coming of the Kingdom. It is the banishment of secularism and affirmation of the living truth of Christ.

I would not dare to shake the faith of any nor suggest an element of doubt with regard to the events of Christ’s Transfiguration, Ascension or His Descent into Hades. Instead I want to push us towards a deeper perception and participation in those realities – for this is the very root of the Christian life.

The Fathers taught us: “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” The iconic grammar of the mandorla, points us to the great mysteries made known to us in Scripture and make it clear that such mysteries may be known and entered into. Glory to God!

Is The Bible True?

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There is a fundamentalist anxiety that I hold in great sympathy. My sympathy is driven by the fact that I lived for many years under the burden of that very anxiety. It is the hidden fear that possibly, despite all faith exercised in the opposite direction, the Bible may not, in fact, be true. A great deal of energy is spent in maintaining the integrity of the dike that withstands this anxiety.

I grew in the shadow of Bob Jones University, one of the most prominent bastions of American fundamentalism. The ideas of that university permeate not only the students who study there, but in many ways the surrounding culture of Christianity in the area. The fear is pointed towards Darwin and any possibility of his evolutionary theory. It drives biology students at the university to reach strange conclusions, regardless of the science. I was taught at age ten by a biology student from Bob Jones, in a Baptist summer camp, that blacks were simply biological inferior to whites based on false information that he shared with a group of young, impressionable kids. Perhaps his biology was not the product of his university classes. But it was as baseless as much of the science that was done there.

The same fear drives the concern for the Flood of Noah and the age of the planet (not to mention any possible hint of evolutionary science). Thus the earth must be young, the flood must be literal (with perhaps a still existing Ark on Mt. Ararat). Science has an answer that it must prove, rather than a question to be answered. The agenda of such fundamentalist science is set by the need to refute anything that possibly undermines a peculiar view of Scripture. One flaw and the entire house of cards comes tumbling down.

It makes for bad science and even worse Biblical interpretation.

I am no friend of liberal Biblical studies. I suffered under such oppression for a number of years and can say that fundamentalism also has a liberal form. I was punished (intellectually) for believing all of the articles of the Nicene Creed as much as a Darwinist would suffer at Bob Jones. But that is its own story.

The history of literalism is a checkered affair. Some of the early fathers leaned in a literalist direction for many parts of Scripture, though leaving room for other, more symbolic approaches, where appropriate. The great battles over the historical literalism of Scripture arose in the 18th and 18th centuries in Europe and America (battles over certain scientific matters versus literalism began even earlier).

Part of the tragedy in these battles was that the battlefield itself was a fairly newly-defined area and failed to take into account the full history of Biblical interpretation. For a young believer in the midst of America’s own intellectual religious wars in the late 20th century – my question was whether the choices presented were the only choices available.

I should preface my remaining remarks with the simple affirmation: I believe the Bible is true.

Having said that, I must add that the Scriptures do not stand as an independent work of literature or a self-contained Holy Book. The Bible is not God’s revelation to man: Jesus Christ is God’s revelation to man. The Scriptures bear witness to Him and are thus “true” as a true witness to the God/Man Jesus Christ.

As others have noted, the Scriptures are true as they are accepted and understood by the Church that received them. They are Scripture as recognized by the Church and cannot be removed from the Church only to turn them against the Church. They are unique writings, and must be read in a unique way. That way is found in the liturgies of the Church and the commentaries of the Fathers.

It is also true that within the writings of the Fathers there can be a variety of opinion on a number of Scriptural matters. The essential agreement is their testimony to Christ. Genesis is about Christ. Exodus is about Christ, and so forth. Read any other way, the books are interesting, but they will not be read in a manner that has been received by the Orthodox Christian Church.

Of course, the historical method (whether literal or historical critical) represents only two possibly ways of reading the text of Scripture. There are assumptions behind both that are problematic from an Orthodox perspective. For many, the notion of “salvation history” has become so dominant that they cannot think about history in any manner other than that which they have been taught. I can think of a number of problems:

First – the traditional modern view (whether fundamentalist or otherwise) of history, is a matter of chronology. It sees a beginning at some point in the past and a progression to some point in the future. This same chain of events is generally viewed as reality, or the ground of reality, and championed above all other things. God acts in history, they will argue, but history is somehow the reality with which God has to deal.

This is highly problematic for an Orthodox theological understanding. Not only does Scripture treat history as quite relative (Christ is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, He is also the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the earth”), it in fact makes history subject to the end of things – making history simply one aspect of lived eschatology.

Thus time and chronology do not govern reality – God governs reality.

By the same token, Holy Scripture is a Divine account of reality, not itself explained by chronology nor subject to historical validation, but subject to the Truth as it is made known to us in Jesus Christ. Thus the New Testament is Scripture, though the writings of Josephus or Tacitus are mere history.

There is a nervousness that runs through the body fundamentalist when phrases such as “mere history” are uttered. It is a nervousness that is born of the attempts of liberal modernists to dismiss as “myth and fiction” what are seen as events essential to our salvation in Christ. No one who is a believer could treat such anxiety with anything but sympathy. In many ways, with the tools at hand, conservatives in Western Christianity have fought a valiant fight to defend the faith against a serious contender. But that fight does not justify every argument advanced by fundamentalism. Orthodoxy offers a different approach.

I recognize a nervousness that occurs among many conservatives if “truth” is approached in any manner other than literal. Liberals have played games with words for so many years that believers are rightly wary of word-games. On the other hand, for theological accuracy, it is necessary to speak of truth and its character in Christian revelation. The Scriptures tell us that Jesus Christ Himself is the Truth. This is not to say that He is the Truth as compared to some external criterion of truth, but rather that He Himself is the criterion and definition of what is true. Things are true and false only as they are compared to Him. He may be compared to nothing else.

By that token, it is problematic to define “truth” by some particular standard of “historicity.” I understand the importance of saying, “This is really true,” and would never want to deny such a thing. The tomb on Pascha was empty, Christ is truly raised from the dead by every standard and then transcending every standard. His resurrection is the true ground of all reality.

Having said that, it must also be said that the Scriptures are true (as Scriptures) only inasmuch as they reveal Christ as the risen Lord and what that means for all creation. The witness of the Church is that these writings do precisely that and are thus Scripture. But it is the resurrection of Christ that undergirds the Scriptures and not vice versa. The disciples did not understand the Scriptures until they understood the risen Lord. And this remains the case.

Thus the import of Noah’s flood is to be found in Holy Baptism and not the other way around. Creation as shared in the first chapter of Genesis is an unfolding of the Paschal mystery and it is from that mystery that it derives its value. I could multiply such examples. When this principle is forgotten, Christians find themselves arguing over points of geology or archaeology and not over the triumphant resurrection of Christ. If Christ is risen from the dead, everything else becomes moot. If Christ is not risen from the dead, then all Christian statements become moot.

Christ is risen from the dead.

What can we say to these things? The Scriptures are true because Christ is risen from the dead and this is their message. The faith of the Orthodox is that all things find their beginning and their end – their meaning and their fulfillment in the Pascha of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the good news. What other good news could there be?

The God of the Old Testament

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Old habits are hard to break. For years as an Anglican Christian, and a conservative, I battled with academics in the Anglican world whose primary agenda seemed to me (at the time) to be the destruction of Scripture. Their historical method generally resulted in students being told that this that and the other thing didn’t happen. This was most disturbing, particularly for those who chose to extend their scepticism to the very resurrection of Christ.

It was in such a context that I took up the defense of Scripture. But, of course, it is always the case that if you set yourself in a position of reaction, whatever it is that you are reacting against has already set the parameters of the argument – in some cases distorting all of the fundamental issues.

As years went by I became more and more familiar with the early Church Fathers and later with the use of Scripture in Orthodox liturgical settings. It was pointed out to me, when I was a graduate student at Duke, that Liberal Historical Critical Studies and Fundamentalist Literalism, were actually two sides of the same coin. Both agreed on the triumph of the historical. Both sought the meaning of the text within its historical original. History was their agreed upon battleground. To enter that battleground is already, from my later Orthodox perspective, to have surrendered the Truth as received by the Church. They are both profoundly wrong.

Learning to read the Old Testament with the mind of the Fathers, is learning to read the Old Testament not so much as historical prelude to Christ, but as Scripture, received as inspired, but seen as largely typological and always interpreted through Christ. God is as He is revealed in Christ and always has been. Thus, the NT reveals the Old and the right way for it to be read.

I offer a quote from St. Irenaeus:

If anyone, therefore, reads the scriptures this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the “treasure which was hidden in the field” [Mat. 13:44] [a treasure] hidden in the scriptures, for he was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by human beings prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet, “Shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispersion shall be accomplihsed, they shall know all these things” [Dan. 12:4, 7]. And Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things ” [Jer. 23:20]. For every prophecy, before its fulfillment, is nothing but an enigma and amibiguity to human beings; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition [exegesis]. And for this reason, when at this present time the Law is read by the Jews, it is like a myth, for they do not possess the explanation [exegesis] of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God: but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the Cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of humans, and showing forth the wisdom of God, and making known his dispensations with regard to human beings, and prefiguring the kingdom of Christ, and preaching in anticipation the good news of the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the one who loves God shall advance so far as even to see God, and hear his Word, and be glorified, from hearing his speech, to such an extent, that others will not be able to behod his glorious countenance [cf. 2 Cor. 3:7], as was said by Daniel, “Those who understand shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever” [Dan. 12:3]. In this manner, then, I have show it to be, if anyone read the scriptures.

What so many moderns find difficult is leaving behind the presumptions of either modernist Biblical Criticism or fundamentalist literalism. They are deeply married to a historical paradigm. Whereas, the paradigm of the Church is Christ Himself. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is not judged by history but is the truth of history.

There are many passages in the OT that if read literally would lead us to believe in a God far removed from the one revealed to us in Christ. This is a false reading. But many are more married to their literal historical method (of whichever form) than to Christ. Unless the OT is literal, they reason, then everything else is not true.

This is not the beginning place of the Church. Truth was only ever vindicated for us in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and that alone is our Alpha and Omega. It troubles some to begin “in the middle” though Christ resurrected is not the middle but also the beginning and the ending, if we know how to read in an Apostolic manner. Many coming to Orthodoxy think it offers another historical proof of the faith, since it is the first foundation of Christ and has an impeccable historical pedigree. This is simply fundamentalism looking for another straw to erect in its support and not a true conversion to Orthodoxy.

Christ is risen from the dead and His resurrection becomes the center of all things. Only through His resurrection may the Old Testament be read. It’s historical claims (though many are quite strong) are not the issue. Christ is the only issue and the only Truth that matters. This is frightening to fundamentalists, for any loosening of their grip on historical literalism feels like failure and capitulation to modernism. But before either fundamentalist or modernist existed, the Church existed, and has always known how to read the Scriptures. Thus it behooves us not to look for Orthodoxy to support some other structure as the nature of Truth, but as witness to that which we have accepted as the Truth. Let the dead bury the dead. Read the Scriptures with the living.

Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

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Nothing has greater importance in the Christian life than the place of Holy Scripture. On this, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant can agree. Even if one places emphasis on the role of Holy Tradition, they still have to admit that the most prominent manifestation of Holy Tradition in the Church are the Scriptures themselves.

But, of course, having said a few kind words about the Holy Scriptures is not to have said very much. For the trouble begins not with the Scriptures, but with what we do with them. Invariably, they must be read and understood – and to be understood, they must be interpreted. This is where the trouble begins, and where it has always begun.

The earliest heresies that challenged the Christian faith quoted the Scriptures, and had yet more Scriptures of their own. The Church’s response to these heresies (most particularly the Gnostics) is probably the best demonstration of how the Scriptures are to be handled at all times.

I have recently been enjoying Fr. John Behr’s latest offering, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death. I have been reading it with frequent accompanying sighs of relief. Not that I expected anything other than excellence from Fr. John, but with a great relief that says, “At last!” There has been a great need for precisely such a treatment by an Orthodox author. Fr. John takes the reader into the realm of Biblical interpretation within the context of the early Church and masterfully demonstrates both how Scripture was used, and how it should be used by those living in the Orthodox Christian Tradition.

With ample quotations from the early Fathers, with particular attention to St. Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century), we see the framework understood by the Church and a framework in which we can both live and flourish. My own opinion is that the modern Church has lived for far too long under the yoke of various historical methods, none of which are inherent parts of classic Christian Tradition, and some of which have led to their own sad history of Scriptural abuse. The modern world exalted the historical reading of Scripture above all others giving us both fundamentalism, with its historical literalism, and liberalism, with its historical-critical method. Both are opposite sides of the same coin and have their own set of errors and problems.

Fr. John is careful to note that, for the Church, the Scriptures are read “backwards,” to use an image. All of the New Testament presumes the experience of the Crucified and Risen Christ. No one was taking notes during Jesus’ ministry and keeping a careful historical record. The writings of the New Testament, which were long enough in coming, were the writings of a community that saw something in a radically new way in the Crucified and Risen Christ. The Gospels themselves make it quite clear that no one understood Christ during the course of His ministry. In the synoptic gospels all the disciples ran away at the Crucifixion. In John’s Gospel, Mary, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary the wife of Cleopas, remain.

But it isn’t until the risen Lord begins to appear to His disciples that we hear such phrases as, “Did not our hearts burn within us as He opened the Scriptures!” Jesus’ most radical claim, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life; but these are they which testify of me” (John 5:30), provide a key for Christians in understanding God’s word. Here Jesus plainly states that the Scriptures (the Old Testament) are about Him. It means that when we read those writings correctly, what we are looking for is not arguments of evolution and creation (to use a local Tennessee favorite) but Christ. The opening chapters of Genesis are about Christ. Indeed, those particular chapters scream of Christ if we have the ears to hear.

On occasion (such as the Vesperal Liturgies of Holy Saturday, or the Eve of Theophany or Christmas Eve) the service will have as many as 15 readings from the Old Testament. This is a marvelous liturgical example of the very process of interpretation that Fr. John describes so masterfully. Why, on Holy Saturday, is the entire book of Jonah read in the service as one of 15 readings? It is because the book is, in Christian terms, profoundly about Christ and His descent into Hades. Jonah in the belly of the whale prays:

I called to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, `I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?’ The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.

Is this a prayer from the belly of a fish, or from the depths of Hades? For Christian ears, the prayer is the prayer of Christ and the setting is given by the Liturgy: the day of Christ’s descent into Hades. The book, for us, is not about a big fish. It is wasted energy for a Christian to argue with someone over whether there was a prophet Jonah swallowed by a big fish. It simply is not our concern. It is Christ whom we seek and we find Him where He said we would.

The History of Biblical interpretation has had its sad occasions. Some of those occurred in our own land where the descendents of Puritans (and others), welcomed a quasi-historical interpretation of the Old Testament where America gets to be the promised land and we (Europeans) get to be the Israelites. The natives who dwelt here, of course, got to play the role of Canaanites and Philistines. And with careful historical accuracy, Christians who were commanded to love their enemies, justified an American holocaust. Similar exegetical skill helped support the practice of American slavery. Bad exegesis is more than just heretical – it’s dangerous.

Christ is the revelation to us of God. We cannot get behind Him or around Him in our quest to know God. “No one comes to the Father except by me,” Christ says (John 14:6). We could also add to that passage Matthew 11:27 and Luke 10:22. They make the same point. Thus we do not move from an Old Testament presentation of God the Father to a New Testament presentation of God the Son. We do not read the Old Testament except through the Son and He is the object of our reading.

Thus a Christian will not use the Old Testament as a justification to act contrary to the commandments of Christ. For example, Orthodox canon law certainly envisions Christians taking the life of someone in defensive situations, but even then will offer penance. The taking of a human life is contrary to the commandments of Christ and always entangles us in the web of sin. Careful reading of the canons would readily reveal that such defensive actions are not treated in the same manner that murder is treated and I am not trying to make such an equation here.

Rather, rightly reading Scripture, the Orthodox Church never gave its blessing to a Crusade, i.e., promising spiritual blessings for actions that are contrary to the teachings of Christ. There can be no Christian jihad.

The reading of Scripture is as important for the Church today as it has ever been. But it is vitally important that Scripture be read within the Tradition of the Church and not within the grips of those who would wrest it to some other use. The bottom line of both strains of historical methodology, is a claim that the Scriptures can be read by anyone as they would any historical document. This is not the claim of the Fathers. The Scriptures, of course, can be read in such a manner and will yield any amount of information – but they will not yield Christ in such a manner.

I heartily commend Fr. John’s newest book and apologize for any failings in my short article to do his work justice (I have my own issues that may or may not be the same as his). I have made many of the same points for years in my own teaching as a priest and rejoice that someone with the competency and learning of Fr. Behr has given us such a useful work. May God bless it and may it yield much fruit in our lives!