Old Testament as Icon

Old Testament as Icon

When I was in seminary, I focused for my STM on the study of the Old Testament (OT).  My thesis was on understanding the census numbers in the book of Numbers, so that they could be read as Christian Scripture (and not mere ‘history’).

Passages such as those are often ignored in preaching and catechesis, as they seem like good history (maybe), but not much else.  My answer, after surveying all the possible English (and some German and French) arguments, was that scholars didn’t have an answer.  No extant theory can be plausibly sustained: some got close, but all left interpretive lacunae.  Nothing answered all the problems.  I knew, at the time, that some sort of hermeneutical ‘paradigm shift’ was necessary.  But I didn’t have one.

Going to the New Testament, I saw that, strangely, St Paul ignores the OT in his evangelism in Acts 17.  In front of diaspora Jews, sure, there’s lots of OT history and Psalms.  On the Areopagus, none.  To these Gentiles it would have been irrelevant.  Just like the census lists (alas).  So, if an understanding of the OT is not necessary for salvation, what good is it?  What, for the Christian, is the utility of the Old Testament?

Here’s where the paradigm started to shift: the Old Testament is mystagogy.

The Lord Christ tells us, in Luke 24, that the whole of the OT (summarized as Law, Prophets, and Psalms) is about Him.  How can that be so?  If we read it straightforwardly as history, as I’d been taught in good Calvinist, redemptive-historical fashion, then it is hard to see this, except to say that the OT gives us the necessary historical conditions for the appearance of the Messiah.  The prophecies point forward, some of the more cryptic Psalms do as well, but once the set has been set, it is hard to see how to apply the OT to the Christian life. (As a side-note, I think this is why Theonomy/Christian Reconstruction became so popular amongst many Reformed in the late 80s through the early 2000s: it made the OT real). But this, truly, isn’t satisfying: Marcion could probably jive with such a reading of the OT, as it sets the proper evolutionary tone for its own vestigial obsolescence.

So, what? How is the OT mystagogical?  If the OT historical background was so necessary, the Apostle would have started with at least a brief introduction.  But he didn’t: he started (and finished) with Christ.  The Messiah is the framework and substance of our salvation, not the history of Israel.  However, as we can see from his letters, mostly written to those who were former Gentiles, the OT has a role yet to play, one that goes beyond history, without ever forgetting its historical truth.  It is the witness, on every page, to Christ and His work.  However, until we have been brought to Christ, and died with Him in baptism, we cannot even begin to read it that way.  It will be so much history, some of which is hard for us moderns to swallow (kill every living human in Canaan?!). If it is pointing to Christ, that means it is also pointing to His Body, which means Mary, the Eucharist, and the Church. In other words, what the Fathers call the allegorical or symbolic level of interpretation, leading to the anagogical (in which we, like St Palamas, behold the heavenly glory of the incarnate Christ and are transfigured by Him).

The allegorical, which some are generally allergic to because of perceived Medieval abuse thereof, is strictly bounded.  The touchstone, as in all things, is Christ.  Hence the early regula fidei, which remind us of the essentials of faith (the purpose of which, may we remind ourselves, goes to Christification or theosis), and therefore call us to greater intimacy and knowledge of our Creator and Redeemer.  St Paul lays is out in 1 Corinthians 10, where the OT stories of the Exodus and Wanderings (including, then, the census lists!) are shown to be typos, examples, for us “upon whom the completion of the ages has come” (v. 11).  This completion, often unhelpfully translated ‘ends,’ is shown to be Christ Himself, gathering up everything in heaven and on earth to Himself (Eph. 1:10, cp. Dt. 30:3-4), so that the Father might be “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). The OT, more than just mere history, can become what it was always supposed to be: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17), so that we might be “wise unto salvation by faith” as was St Timothy.

(Reflecting on this, here is why Jews have the advantage in Romans: while both Jew and Gentile come to Christ on equal terms — faith in the faithfulness of Christ — the Jews had been entrusted with the “oracles of God” (3:1-2) and so could grasp the mystagogical meaning of their Scriptures much more easily, especially if they were faithful in practice of the Torah, which would render them purified and ready for deeper revelation.  Sts Athanasius, Cassian, and Gregory of Nazianzus all speak in this way about the necessity of purification before Scriptural interpretation, so I will refer the curious reader to them.)

What does this look like in practice?

Let’s take the theme of the Tabernacle/Temple as our (necessarily cursory) example:  all sorts of legislation and historical narrative surround the planning, building, operation, and maintenance of the Hebrew cultus. Since Christ, of course, it is passing away and has become obsolete (Heb. 8:13).  So what good does it do us, apart from antiquarian interest to study the purity regulations?  As St Paul might say, much in every way. For, “the Word dwelt (lit. tabernacles) among us and we beheld His glory” (Jn. 1:14, so much could be said here, as this passage is pointing us right back to Ex. 40). The Word of God came among us as in the tabernacle.  What does this tell us?  First, it means that wherever the Word dwelt, there must be holiness, for the true God called for this over and over again,  in fact, once the Temple had been hideously defiled, the glory left it, as shown in Ezekiel 8-10. What does this, then tell us about the Virgin Mary?  First, she truly is Theotokos, for she has given birth to the tabernacling Word.  Second, it is theologically necessary that she be holy, free from sin and defilement (some might say, how could she do this? “Hail! Mary, full of grace…”).  More, of course, could be said.  I refer the curious reader to the Fathers for more.

What does our (brief) look into the OT tell us about Jesus? The Temple was the site of cleansing (Lk. 8:43-48), of the forgiveness of sins (Mt. 9:4-6), of the manifestation of God’s uncreated glory (Mk. 9:2-7).  Jesus, as the incarnate God-man, is the fullness of what the Temple was.  To understand Him, we must look back through Him to the OT Temple.  At one point, He says that the Jews could destroy this Temple and in three days He would raise it up, referring, as John tells us, “of the Temple of His Body” (2:21).  St Paul remind us that we are His Body, the Church (Eph. 1:22-23, etc.), so all the OT language about the purity of the Tabernacle/Temple (1 Cor. 6) and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2, cp. Ex. 40 and 1 Chron. 5) are for, and about, our ascetic lives “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).

The OT has everlasting value, then, as it speaks in a fullness about Christ that can only be brought out and experienced by the Church, the “pillar and ground of the Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). 

Part 1: OT and History

One of the great difficulties attendant upon interpretation of the Old Testament is its ostensible status as history.  Quickly, though, we find many problems in this, not least that ‘history’ and ‘historiography’ mean something different post-Enlightenment.  We read, fundamentally and almost by necessity, the OT differently than it was intended.  Argument abound, then, as to how much of the OT passes our modern canons of history, with predictable “liberal” and “conservative” results — neither actually giving much knowledge (again, predictable).  Each side goes back and forth about the historical utility of, say, archaeology in determining whether or not some biblical event or another really happened, as if our interpretation of long-past events, whether found in strata of tells or lines of text, will give us an objective peek into this reality.

Part of the problem, possibly, is that we have confused literal meaning with historical accuracy (whatever that, in itself, might mean).  To read the Bible literally (in this framework) means to read it as a telling of history, of “what really happened” at certain points in time.  No doubt, the Scriptures do present history, a “what happened,” but to claim that they are objective, post-Enlightenment historiography is to miss the point.  At the same time, to claim that since they come out of a certain nation’s collective experience and confirm their deeply held beliefs that the Scriptures must therefore be either relativistic or propagandistic, separated from any historical mooring, is also to miss the point.  Both rely on a sense of history that the Bible, or her authors, seem to not be interested in.

Literal meaning, in the original sense of the term, has to do with the literary meaning: that is, how the story or narrative works.  But, to fully get to that meaning, another context needs to be taken into account.  St John Cassian, in the Conferences, details what Dante will later call the “Allegory of the Theologians” or the fourfold method of Scriptural interpretation: literal, symbolic/allegory, moral, and anagogical.  The impression built, not necessarily by Cassian or others, is that this interpretive scheme function as a ladder, each rung leading (hopefully) to the next until theosis or the beatific vision is achieved.  However, this would be to ignore the more circular, or helical, nature of this schema.  All of the senses rely on the Spirit of God, on union with Christ, therefore all of this senses are liturgical and ecclesial: the Scriptures cannot be understood without participation in the life of the Church and her sacraments.  Evidence for this can be found all over the Patristic writings, from Cassian to Athanasius to Augustine and so on.  The context for the literal sense is the anagogical sense, in other words; the same for the moral and symbolic senses as well.  They depend on each other, and more importantly, they depend on the “pillar and ground of the Truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) that is the Church, who has received the “Deposit” of Faith from the Apostles (2 Tim. 1:4).

This turns our attention, interpretively speaking, to the telos of the Scriptures, specifically of the Old Testament.  Why do we have these books?  What is the point?  It is only when we grasp the ecclesially anagogical underpinnings of the texts, that is, their intended to be used in the life of the Church to bring people to theosis or the beatific vision, that the literal meaning can become clear.  When our Lord Jesus says in Luke 24 that “everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms,” He is grounding all Christian interpretation of the OT in the reality of Himself, which includes the Church and the Theotokos.  All the Scriptures, in some way, shape, and form, point beyond themselves — at the literary level and most importantly at the historical level — to the Christ, the Logos of God the Father, for the salvation of the hearer and the reader alike.  In seeing the literal and the historical meaning as iconic, instead of as straight forward post-Enlightenment narrative or history, these senses become clearer.  First, they were not intended to bear the weight, historically speaking, that we have placed on them: the texts themselves are theological interpretation of the events “as they really happened.”  We cannot, due to how history works, access the past in any sort of certain way — historiography always involves a certain amount of educated guesswork and reconstruction.  Any history is a more or less tendentious and partial interpretation of events that are themselves enmeshed in an infinite number of contexts, all of which are necessary to grasp and ascertain for their full sense to objectively emerge.  If we clear away our expectation of objective history being conveyed by the texts, many (but by no means all) of the discrepancies between “liberal/critical” and “conservative/fundamentalist” interpretations disappear.

Second on the list of of iconic corrections, the texts can be freed from the suffocating restraints that some versions of “inspiration” put on the Scriptures.  We would do well to remind ourselves of what St Paul actually says about inspiration in II Timothy: “All Scripture is inspired and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”  Notably absent is utility towards scientific endeavors and ancient historiography.  Could it be possible that, without losing the utility of the Scriptures to do exactly what Paul said they could do, the stories of Creation might be written in forms conducive to, not only the time in which they were composed, but also in a form that remains conducive to our salvation today, without necessarily being a point-by-point breakdown of “what really happened”?  One objection that is often raised about this is that if Genesis 1-3 were written in a mytho-poetic style, then why didn’t God just write (or have written) propositions which we are supposed to believe, i.e. what we should learn about God from this narrative, the moral of the story as it were?  To do so, though, is to mistake a certain understanding of what truth is for truth itself.  As Alasdair MacIntyre, among many others, asserts, we are storied creatures.  We generally do not learn by propositions, unless those propositions are themselves couched in a larger, sometimes hidden or subconscious, narrative.  To reduce the Creation stories, whether in explication or in preaching, to a series of talking points and “lessons,” is to rob them of their power.  Salvation is not composed of aphorisms, although as Proverbs shows, aphorisms do have their place.  Rather, it is the indwelling of the story, in the life and sacraments of the Church, that fully mature the believer towards salvation.

Part 2: Literary Patterns and OT Iconicity

In Genesis 1, many commentators (most famously Meredith Kline) have noticed a literary pattern of forming and filling:

Day 1: Creation of Light Day 4: Creation of Luminaries (Sun, Moon, Stars)
Day 2: Division of Waters (Upper/Lower and Sky) Day 5: Creation of Birds and Sea Creatures
Day 3: Division of Waters and Land (Creation of Vegetation) Day 6: Creation of Land Creatures and Humans

Day 1 is the forming of the habitat and conditions necessary for the creatures of Day 4 to exist and flourish (in this case, flourishing means the luminaries’ ability to “divide the day from the night and [to be] for signs and seasons, for days and years, and [to be] lights in the division of the skies to give light on the earth”).  The same holds with Day 2 and Day 5, Day 3 and Day 6, respectively.  The first three days are collectively formation, with the subsequent days filling, finished off with the Sabbath day of rest.  By the seventh day, the earth is habitable and furnished, as it were, ready for the divine dwelling.

This pattern of forming-filling-dwelling is all over the Old Testament: Exodus 25-31 describe how the Tabernacle is to be formed, while 35-40 detail how it is completed and furnished, ending with the dwelling of the Lord in its courts (v. 34ff.).  Joshua 1-13 describe the Conquest of Canaan (making it inhabitable for the Israelites) with 14-24 detailing the filling of that land.  There is no dwelling narrative here, as the Tabernacle is among them.  The pattern appears elsewhere in the Old Testament, but this is sufficient for now.

As we come to the New Testament, we quickly run into the concept of the “fulfillment” of not only Old Testament prophecy, but also the recapitulation of its narratives: the Israelites go to the wilderness for a period of 40 after passing through waters, are tested by the enemy, and fail.  Jesus goes into the wilderness after baptism for a period of 40, is tested by the enemy, and succeeds (using the book of Deuteronomy no less!).  He reverses the failures and problems of Old Testament history, bringing them to completion and perfection in Himself, so that the oikonomia of God through Abraham’s seed might be fulfilled.  St Paul discusses this principle in 1 Corinthians 10, using the Rock in the Wilderness as his guide: “Now all these things [the whole OT history and institutions] happened to them as types, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (v. 11).

One of the famous problems with this sort of interpretation is that it can seem to have no boundaries, the well-known example being St Augustine’s interpretation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  It has also seemingly led some modern interpreters to say that there is no real historical content to the OT stories themselves: if Adam or Abraham or David were just types, why do they need to have actually existed?  They can be understood as myths or founding legends.  Both of these, though, are false trails: the former since there is a very clear boundary that guides all such interpretation — the regula fidei, the rule of faith, that is the Life of Jesus Christ as found in the Gospels and Tradition of the Church (the Creeds being understood as horos, guide rails, of the Faith).  Within those boundaries, though, there is plenty of room to breathe and pastorally apply the Scriptures (remembering that the point of the Bible is not information, but formation into Christ by the skilled hands of the Church’s “apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers” (Eph. 4:11)).  The second trail is harder to deal with, and is beside my present point: we have not yet come to an understanding of history in modern biblical studies that corresponds to how the ancients understood the stories of the passage of their times (neither ‘objective’ nor ‘fictional’ as we understand myth): history is apocalyptic, showing the truth of, behind, and shot through reality, rather than a bare description of events (more on this later).

When reading the OT Christologically (or Christotelically), the forming-filling-dwelling pattern becomes helpful, and a possible way to minimize the dangers of the first problem listed above.  The OT histories, narratives, persons, and institutions are the formation of salvation within history so that the Son of God might fill the whole world with His Presence and come to dwell among it. If the OT is the forming, that means that the whole of it can be “profitable for doctrine [teaching], for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16): it has been “breathed by God” for such a purpose, much like the Spirit indwelt the builders of the Tabernacle or the Spirit hovered over the waters of the primordial “welter and waste” (Gen. 1:2).  This means that the New Testament (at least) is the filling, or furnishing, of this reality for the dwelling of the King.  Here we see the construction of the Temple of God (1 Cor. 6:19 individually; Eph. 4:15-16 corporately, among many others), patterned out by the OT, filled by the Pascha of Christ, lived by the people of God: this will be finished when the Body reaches its terminus or telos: perfect love (1 Cor. 13:8-13, understanding the “perfect” of be God’s Love, poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit).  We live, in other words, in the filling time, recapitulating in our own existence the filling of Christ of the OT forms: His Cross and death become ours in baptism, renewed in repentance, and completed in Eucharist.  As we move forward into history (the progression of time from one moment to the next), we see that the linear feel it has is more complicated: all events resolve in the Cross of Golgotha, awaiting their full share in the Resurrection, which we only take part in via first fruits now.


This is only an opening salvo into reading the Old Testament as an icon.

Her iconic and mystagogical character allows us to take her seriously as she is – this identity in no way being separated from the Spirit or the Christ.


  1. Thanks for a very helpful article. I particularly appreciated your distinction between “literal meaning” and “historical accuracy”. Perhaps we could say that the meaning of the Bible is in the Bible, and not in something that most people have never had access to and likely never will, like 19th-21st century archaeology. If we say that the purpose of the Bible is to convey history as such, then that leads inevitably to the question as to whether it’s accurate, and ultimately that either places the “rule of faith” outside the Bible in scientific historical research, or forbids historical research by insisting that the Bible is true (i.e., scientifically accurate), evidence be damned! Neither approach is correct, or helpful, for a person interested in the “literal”— that is, “literary”— meaning of the Bible.

    I suspect, though, that you may need to take this a little farther than to point to the availability of the text for patristic-style allegoresis. When you say, “the Old Testament is an icon”, this usually works out in practice (not intentionally, of course) more like “fragments of the Old Testament can be used as icons”.

    I say that, because typically we can and do usefully allegorize the story of Moses, Israel and the Red Sea (for example), or of manna in the wilderness, or if you’re really into it, perhaps even the more recondite story of Nehemiah and the Torah— but only as relatively independent bits, lifted out of and quite disconnected from the books they’re part of. We pay little or no attention to the function of those stories within the books they’re part of, as a whole; we never really ask whether Exodus, or Kings, or Daniel is actually “about” anything, as a whole and in its own right.

    We’re all familiar with St John Chrysostom’s famous allegory of the Good Samaritan. I’ve heard it from the pulpit literally every single time that reading has come up for my entire life. But can anyone tell me why Luke puts that particular story at that particular point in the long “Journey to Jerusalem” (wherein Jesus has an ascending series of confrontations), which comprises the middle third of his gospel? Why does Luke tell this story, when Matthew and Mark don’t? In other words, what story is Luke telling, in particular? I have never heard that sermon, and I doubt I ever will.

    For what Orthodox Christian— or indeed, what Christian of any kind— can actually talk, especially in some detail, about the actual plot, structure, and action of Luke, or of Exodus, or of the entire Torah, as one continuous work with an integrity and a message of its own? Who, for that matter, is able to tell the specific story in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, with particular attention to how it differs from the others? Who can take us through Isaiah as a book? No, in our use, it’s not really a book at all— it’s a resource we can mine for “predictions” and “typologies”. From the historical books we mine “typologies” and “allegories”.

    I happen to be giving a retreat on the gospel of Mark at the end of September, and was talking to a 3rd-year seminarian about it the other day. Now, you’d think by your 3rd year, you’d know your way around. But he said, Why Mark?— What’s the difference between him and Matthew and Luke, which are so much richer? Well, to him, there is no difference, because we don’t read the Bible in the way it was written— as “books”; rather, for us, the “books” are only an antique and somewhat inconvenient of finding our way around in the 2400 pages or so that press so heavily in our hand.

    In fact we don’t treat any other book as shabbily as we treat the Bible and the individual books in it. If I ask you, What is War and Peace about? You won’t say, “It’s about Russia” (unless you remember Woody Allen telling a joke probably most people have forgotten by now). You’ll tell me about Napoleon and Austerlitz, Pierre Bezhukov and Natasha Rostov, Borodino, and so forth. But my seminarian friend, the not-quite-finished product of one of our Orthodox priestly training programs— actually said that: “Matthew, Mark, and John are all just about Jesus, aren’t they?” Well, and I guess the same would be true of Kings and Chronicles, eh?— they’re both just about “Israel”. But then why have both of them in the Bible? If we think such things, don’t we accuse the Holy Spirit of redundancy, prolixity, and manufacturing words purely for words’ sake?

    When we read any literary work like War and Peace, or Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, or even some Harlequin Romance, we pay attention to the action as a whole, in which the plot, characters, drama, climax, resolution and other features of this specific text gradually unfurl. That’s how we get the “story”. And the author’s “message”, if we can speak of one, is conveyed in the unfolding of the story itself— not in allegories that can be built on episodes abstracted from the story, however valid or true such allegories may be in their own right.

    Mystagogical allegoresis is a time-honored way of teaching mystagogy, which is an important function of the Church. And somewhere St Maximos says that when you get to a certain point in your spiritual development, your mystical insight deepens and your ability to read the Scriptures allegorically becomes an ever-ready help in understanding them, both for your own journey and for teaching others. I suspect what he leaves unsaid, though, is that by that point you’ve also read the Bible so many times that you’ve actually begun to see it whole to start with, and having gotten an intuitive grasp of the full sweep of the narrative, you readily grasp the wider implications of specific episodes for any particular existential situation you’re thinking about, because you know their meaning in the context of the whole. We do that all the time, though usually without mystical insight— “Oh that’s like when Natasha and Pierre…!”

    That “context as a whole” would be what the “rule of faith” is— otherwise, any proposal of a “rule of faith” to which allegoresis has to adhere would amount to little more than an ecclesiastical imposition of arbitrary limits. “Unless your allegory yields XYZ, it’s illegitimate!” But allegory can also be a function of insight into a story as a whole, as it comes into contact with the issues of everyday life.

    So I think mystical allegoresis, a time-honored way of teaching mystagogy, is not really a good way to teach the Bible as such. For that, your distinction between “literal meaning” and “historical accuracy” is very useful, especially as you later say, “Literal meaning, in the original sense of the term, has to do with the literary meaning: that is, how the story or narrative works.” But i disagree that we need to resort to Cassian (and others’) fourfold method of Scriptural interpretation (literal, symbolic/allegory, moral, and anagogical). We need to pay attention to the plot, characters, drama, climax, resolution and other features of each book as a whole (and to longer-range trajectories of the Torah, the Former and Latter Prophets, and the Writings as a whole as well. As I said, the meaning of the Bible is in the Bible, and not in any type of analogy we might derive from it or construct with it— and especially with discrete pieces of it abstracted from the whole.

    I’m interested in your work on the census numbers; I did mine on the genealogies, which also contain a lot of numbers, mostly relating to the ages of the patriarchs. You’re right that the numbers are hard to understand. But even there, i suspect part of the problem is that we tend to look at them in isolation from everything else. I discovered that there are certain “number games” going on in the ages of the patriarchs. This by itself suggests that the authors were using the numbers to convey an interest in something other than the reportage of mere history— especially since we know the numbers were revised at least three times in the history of the text. What we lack is the interpretive key. A friend of mine, unfortunately recently deceased, was convinced that the numbers had something to do with the mathematics of music and had made some progress in that direction— but even there, one has to look at whole books to see how the particulars fit in.

    So yes. Let’s stop using the Bible as a mere (and rather problematic) history book— but let’s also stop using it as a mine for prediction, typology, and allegory. Let’s start teaching it as books, and indeed as a book, which discloses the mighty acts of God which culminated in Jesus, Israel’s messiah and God’s own son— but which discloses them by a series of (actually quite stunningly brilliant and subtle) literary works that have their own integrity and their own tale to tell.

    1. Mr. Burnett,

      Thank you for your reply. When writing for the public forum that is the internet, the fear I often have is that I’ll receive only trolling or red herring argumentation: you’ve gifted me with a cogent response. Again, I thank you.

      I track quite well with your comments, especially that our understanding of the holy texts – even in mystagogy – will improve greatly with steady, thoughtful reading. The versification of the Scriptures, particularly when each verse is formatted to look like its own paragraph, has greatly contributed to the piecemeal readings we encounter. That, and the fact that we often come to the Bible to “get something” (a word of wisdom, a solution to some spiritual or intellectual problem, etc.), instead of going to them as a means of communion with the Triune God. Here is where, I think, the connection between icons and the text of the Old Testament comes into its own: we don’t (normally) focus on only one aspect of an icon, but seek to take in the whole along with the details. Once we grasp that, yes, indeed, this is a depiction of the Dormition of the Theotokos, can we proceed to go deeper into the details. To view it this way would be to honor the “literary” (or “storied”) character of the icon, as a means of further communion with Christ. The same goes for the literary/narrative character of the Scriptural texts: we can only grasp the details as we grasp the whole.

      Where I would disagree with you is where you say: “But I disagree that we need to resort to Cassian (and others’) fourfold method of Scriptural interpretation (literal, symbolic/allegory, moral, and anagogical). We need to pay attention to the plot, characters, drama, climax, resolution and other features of each book as a whole (and to longer-range trajectories of the Torah, the Former and Latter Prophets, and the Writings as a whole as well.)” St John Cassian’s “literal” sense is exactly (but not limited to) “the plot, characters, drama, climax, resolution, and other features of each book as a whole.” The difference, though, is that all these things are to be held in dynamic relationship with the symbolic, moral, and anagogical senses. They are co-inherent (dare I say perichoretic?), which means each is vital in their own right, but cannot ultimately be separated from the others. They are meant to flow one into the other. This is where, though, we’ve often messed up the whole method: we want to move from one step to another, as if Scriptural interpretation was a forward motion in which we get to leave behind what we’ve started with. In other words, once we get the broad brush strokes of the story (in my context, this is shorthanded often as “creation – fall – redemption”), we assume we’ve “got it” and can move on to the “meat.” As experienced interpreters of any text would tell us, though (and Cassian is no exception here), it is only by returning to our foundations – again and again and again – that we can deepen our understanding of the texts and the communion with their Author.

      One of the beautiful aspects of this is that the Scriptures are freed from being historically bound, even in their historical situatedness. Let’s look at the Good Samaritan parable as an example (Luke 10, starting at verse 25, for others reading along). The literary context, you are right to point out, is exclusively Lucan. We know, from a close reading of his account of the Gospel, that he is concerned with those who are often societally on the “outside” (women, children, the ‘unclean’, the Gentiles). From this, we can start to ponder the question posed by the Lord Jesus’ interlocutor: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus had asked him about his “reading of the Law” (v. 26): this should send us back to the Law as well. The Law, as St Paul would remind us, was to Israel: it was her ascesis given by God on Mt. Sinai so that she could fulfill the promise to Abraham, “through you shall all families in the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3, cp. Dt. 4:7-8). In that Law, the question of the neighbor comes up, especially in Leviticus 19:17-18, where we see “neighbor” set in synonymous parallelism with “brother” (that is, Israelite). When the lawyer asks Jesus “who is my neighbor?” the technical answer, according to a strict reading of the Law, is “fellow Israelites.” This unlocks the key of “[the questioner] wanted to justify himself” (v. 29): it would be very easy to remind Jesus that the Samaritans had just rejected Him (9:51-56), even easier to write them off as not neighbors and therefore not fulfill Leviticus 19 concerning them. However, in keeping with our Lord’s compassion, and the whole thrust of the account of St Luke, the tables are turned and we find that “neighbor” is not to be defined according to the letter of the Law, but rather the Spirit. Here the literary meaning forces us to look deeper, pondering how these things might be: doesn’t God act in well-defined ways (for Israel, against her enemies, etc.) Didn’t Jesus already get in trouble in Nazareth for implying similar things (the verse He leaves out of His inaugural sermon are as important as the ones He quotes)? Yet don’t our hearts burn within us as He opens the Scriptures and breaks the bread (Lk. 24:32)? Now we find ourselves needing to return to the whole scope of the Scriptures to see the story again: what was the point of Adam’s creation? Why Abraham? How does Israel fit into this story of a God “dwelling among us” to make of the human race “one seed”?

      How, though, will we be able to get the fullness of the literary meaning (and I’ve only but scratched the surface here – Hallelujah!), without both the Scriptures in their wholeness and the breaking of bread (taken here as their place in the drama/story/narrative of the Liturgy, culminating in the Eucharist)? I cannot seem, here, to separate literary/literal from the anagogical; from here we can look helpful as St John Chrysostom’s sermon, or St Augustine’s, but we must always keep in mind the other senses and return to them. I think we will find that, just as looking at a beloved icon gives us access to Heaven, we will never grow tired of the Scriptures, nor fully plumb their depths.

      I realize, as I’m writing this, that I probably haven’t fully answered your questions – I’m still working through them myself (I have no concrete answers as to how to read the census numbers as Christian Scripture, alas). I do hope you can see, though, that I’m not attempting to use the OT (or the NT or the Fathers) as “a mine for prediction, typology, and allegory.” To do so, as you rightly note, misses the point: rather we must press on to the fullness of the reading of Scripture, which does justice to her multiple layers and senses, all with the goal of theosis and union with Christ.


  2. Hi Russ,

    I think it was at Fr. Stephen Freeman’s site where I read the Fathers spoke of the OT as “shadow” and “type” and the NT as “icon” of the Reality which is the Person of Christ Himself. This makes a sort of intuitive sense to me. Is this familiar to you? If it is, are there also Fathers who spoke of the OT as icon?

    1. Karen,

      Thanks for the reply.

      The Epistle to the Hebrews definitely does call the OT “shadows” and St Paul elsewhere says it is/contains “types”, so the language is certainly justified. The difficulty, as Mr. Burnett points out, is when we let typology become the only way we view the OT; hence the reason for the Fourfold Senses (the “Allegory of the Theologians”) as discussed in the piece.

      As far as calling the OT an icon, I admit that I don’t know of any Father calling it that (although I don’t have the ability to look it up, either: someone with Logos could do it fairly easily). It is, in the end, a metaphor: I think it is helpful in establishing what we are dealing with, but the analogy can only be pressed so far.

      The OT can be called the “shadow,” which is something that points to the substance, who is Christ. The same language can be used of icons. The mystery of the Trinity is that Christ, who is the substance, is Himself the icon of the Father. Hallelujah!


Comments are closed.