Imagine you are standing in the middle of a vast plain. It is pitch black out, a cloudy night leaves no starlight and the moon is absent from the sky. The darkness is such that even your hand is unseen when held before your eyes. You have but a single light, a small candle that barely illuminates the ground for a few feet around you. If you move too fast, or the wind blows too hard, the candle extinguishes itself and leaves you in the darkness again. You relight the candle each time, but still, the light is barely sufficient. Somewhere out in the distance is your destination, you don’t know how far, or the path, only that it is there. The plain you walk on is covered with paths, with rivers and groves of trees, so you must find a path, follow it in darkness and hope that somehow you reach your destination.
Eventually perhaps you are lucky enough to meet a pilgrim in the darkness. This person holds a lantern, a light brighter than your own that lights up a larger area. The pilgrim seems to know what your destination is, and seems to have a better idea of how to get there. You talk to the pilgrim and eventually decide to follow this person’s advice to reach your destination. The pilgrim hands you a lantern of your own and places you on the correct path, then leaves you to find your way. While the going is easier, eventually you find that you still have to navigate treacherous cliffs and rapid waters. It is not always easy to determine if the path you follow is the correct one as it splits off often, and many paths seem equally worn.
But after walking what seems many years (though the darkness makes the time impossible to determine) a light begins to rise in the East. Slowly the plain around you begins to be visible, for a few hours you are able to make out shapes, trees, how the path you are on is meandering through light woods. You begin to be more certain of your journey, to walk more surely, faster; you begin to feel confident that your destination is reachable.
Finally the Sun breaks free of its constraining horizon, you find your way fully illuminated. Clouds, mist, fog all burn off leaving you with perfect clarity. And you see it at last, you destination lies before you. A vast golden spire which reaches up into the sky. All you have to do is look up at the spire, keep your eyes fixated on its brilliant sheen, and walk or run straight for it. Look up and you have no need to look down at the path to find your way. You might occasionally stumble, trip and fall, but keep your eyes on the prize and the brilliance of your destination makes it impossible to lose your way.
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There are so many different ways to approach and read the Holy Scriptures. In the west we are often led by that famous Protestant dictum of Sola Scriptura which has led to a literalist interpretation of God’s Word to us, a hermeneutic of interpretation that did not exist until after Martin Luther and his famous Reformation. This manner of reading the Scripture literally has led to some bad habits, such as giving equal weight to the various portions of Scripture, particularly between the Old and New Testaments. Let’s briefly examine why.
Consider that the Holy Scripture, all of it, was written by men, inspired by God certainly- as Paul says, theopneustos, God-breathed. But still, written through the human experience. Consider my parable above and compare it to the Bible. In the Old Testament the Israelites are walking in the darkness. They know that there is a destination, they know about God, they have the law given to them to help guide them through the darkness. but still they can only see small parts of the big picture at any one time. But the rising of the sun comes with the Son whom we call Christ. It is only with Jesus as Lord, as Savior, that we can truly see clearly.
When we sit down to read the Old Testament, we look back with the knowledge that Christ has come, that He has fulfilled the Messianic prophecies of Israel. But when the Israelites were writing the Old Testament they were looking forward to an unknown Messiah. One they did not, indeed could not, imagine. God had revealed He would send a Messiah to Israel, and in their inability to understand God’s future plan the Jews assumed He would be a human king like David. It was a limitation due to their inability to see the big plan of salvation that our Father had set in motion.
Consider also the moral law and how it applies to us. Adultery is clearly a sin, the prophets and apostles are very clear in their teaching. However, in the Torah, we read that the adulterer is to be stoned to death along with the adulterous partner. There is no room for mercy, no room for leeway in the law. But in the New Testament we are witness to the merciful actions of God incarnate, as our Lord, in John 8, turns the law back on those who would stone the adulterous woman by asking which among them was without sin. Go read John 8 very carefully, and remember our Lord’s statement that He did not come to do away with the law but to fulfill the law. Note that Jesus does not say that her actions were okay, He does not say that adultery is permissible as some radical interpreters have attempted to claim, rather Christ offers to us a visible picture of our forgiveness in Him at this moment. It is a forgiveness rooted in action, as the woman is not told by Christ that she is forgiven, go ahead and leave; rather she is told no one accuses her, go and sin no more.
Clearly, if Jesus meant to uphold the Mosaic law perfectly, He would have stoned the woman himself. If the Old Testament and the New Testament bear equal weight under the auspices of Sola Scriptura, even if the national and ceremonial laws of Israel no longer apply, as most Protestants agree, the moral law of God is unbending and unyielding. Given that truth, it would actually be a failure on the part of Jesus not to uphold the law as given in Leviticus. But that is not what He did, rather he told her to go and sin no more, It is the mercy offered to sinners who are repentant. It is the moral law seen through the clear lens of the redemptive sacrifice of the Lamb.
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Sacred Scripture should not, indeed cannot, be read properly, or interpreted properly on its own. The Bible does not stand apart from all other creation, something the Protestant church has attempted to make it do. Indeed, the Sacred Scripture is but one leg of a triad composed equally of Sacred Tradition and the Sacred Church. History, and the Word of God, demonstrate this quite lucidly. When we look back two millennia to the beginnings of Christianity, we do not find a Bible at all, we have the Old Testament, which was the only writing that some Christians had. Others may have had access to one, or a few, of the early letters of the New Testament, or other non-canonical writing that was held in high esteem by the early Church, but no one had a Bible, as we do today until several hundred years after Christ. So how did the Church grow and expand as it did without the Scripture?
When St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians he wrote that they were to “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or epistle”. The oral traditions of the early Church were just as important as any written communication since that was the predominant form of transmitting teachings. This oral tradition becomes the ‘deposit of faith’ given to the apostles by our Lord and then passed down within the Church. And it is not until St Athanasius gives us the first codified form of the New Testament in the fourth century that we actually have a full Bible.
Equally important though is the place of the Church in our discussion. If the Bible were the sole source of knowledge for the Church as the Reformers claimed, than it would be truth and it would refer to itself as the truth, but nowhere does it do so- quite the opposite in fact. When Scripture talks about the truth it talks about the Church, such as 1 Timothy 3:15 where St. Paul writes “the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the Truth”, but Scripture never refers to itself as the truth. Holy Scripture of course is true, there is no question about that. It is the kerygma as St. Basil referred to it, the preaching that contains all we need for salvation. But the fullness of truth is found in the living Church within which the fullness of Tradition lives and from which the truth of Scripture springs.
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So then, how do we approach Scripture? First it is important to understand that there is no understanding of the Word of God outside of the Church. All the scholars in the world can study the words of the Bible, experts in literary analysis, Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew linguists can spend lifetimes analyzing structure and composition, divinity students seek to apply its teachings, but unless they are a part of the Church, they will never be able to understand the Gospel message that is the heart of Scripture. No one can come to an understanding without the Holy Spirit. Scripture was inspired by the Spirit and it is through the Spirit that we perceive truth. The only interpretations of Scripture that matter are those that come from believers, from within the Church. When people attempt to create new meaning, or bring ‘fresh’ interpretations, those new meanings should be very closely examined to insure that they do not step outside the Tradition of the Church. We should always measure our interpretations, our conclusions against those who have gone before us. Heresies always begin with new interpretations, with original ideas that are not part of the Sacred Tradition.
When approaching the Bible, especially for those who are new to reading it, remember that it is not a single book. One should not sit down and read the Bible front to back like a novel, or worse like a history text from a college class where the objective is to memorize as many facts as possible. That type of reading, which we refer to as literalism (taking the Bible literally) arose during the 1700’s as a result of the European Enlightenment and the newfound fascination with applying scientific principles to everything.
If the Bible is read this way, we lose a lot of the meaning, but more importantly, it leads to more questions and doubts among the faithful as we pit science against religion in ways we shouldn’t. Take the Genesis account of creation for example. The literal reading has led to all sorts of nonsense, a belief that God actually created the universe in seven days, or that Eden might be a literal spot of land somewhere in the Middle East. But our early Church Fathers did not read the Bible this way (nor did their Jewish forebears). Origen wrote:
Now what intelligent person would believe that the first, second, and third day took place without a sun, moon, or stars-indeed the first day, as it were, without a heaven? Who could be so childish as to think God was like a human gardner and planted a paradise in Eden facing the east, and in it made a real visible tree, so that one could acquire life by eating its fruit with real teeth, or again, could participate in good and evil by eating what he took from the other tree?
And if the text says that God walked in the garden in the evening, or Adam hid himself under the tree, I cannot think that anyone would dispute that these things are said in a figurative sense, in an effort to reveal certain mysteries by means of an apparent historical tale and not by something that actually took place.
The purpose of these inspired texts is not to teach us historical, scientific facts, but rather to teach us principles, the why not the how. God created all things is what Genesis teaches, not the actual mechanics of the process.
This in no way implies that there are no historical truths, or that everything in the Bible is meant to be taken figuratively. The Word is replete with historically verifiable facts. It is about men and women who lived in real history. It is about a God who works in the real world. Christ was born in a real manger, in a real location, at a very real moment in time. His crucifixion, death, and resurrection were not fables that teach through symbolism, they were very real historic acts that changed or fulfilled redemptive history.
The Bible is a living Word that constantly speaks to us. Ultimately, we need to prayerfully approach Scripture, allow ourselves to be led into understanding by the Holy Spirit, balance our reading with some common sense, and verify our conclusions, our interpretations, by comparing them with the Church and Holy Tradition.