Christ the key to the Scriptures

This Lent I read Hans Boersma’s Scripture As Real Presence. This book is an exploration of the exegesis of the church Fathers, illuminating both their approach/method and the Scriptures at the same time in several chapters devoted to patristic treatment of specific passages. I’ll give a full review later, but one of the central arguments of the book is that spiritual exegesis is not willy-nilly but, in fact, follows a particular logic. That logic is that Christ is the key to the Scriptures. These reflections are my own, partly inspired by Boersma, partly taken from his book. I’m not sure where one begins and the other ends just now.

For Christians reading the Scriptures who take the authority of Scripture seriously, we have to realise that he is the substance of Old Testament teaching, scandalous as that may be for the historical-critical method. First, he himself says that he is the fulfilment of the Law — and the book of Hebrews go to great lengths to show us types, antitypes, and allegories of what that exactly means.

Second, the Gospels, especially Matthew, demonstrate Jesus fulfilling a variety of Old Testament prophecies, some of which, when read in historical or literary context wouldn’t look like they are pointing to the Messiah, some of which may seem, to modern eyes, like random Bible verses. Christ is everywhere present, permeating Scripture and salvation history as God the Word, present at creation and returning on the Day of the Lord. Moreover, Luke makes it plain that Jesus is the antitype of Moses through multiple intertexts with Deuteronomy.

Third, not only Hebrews, but St Paul and one of the letters of Peter, make use of allegory in reading the Old Testament. The realities they bring forth from the Scriptures are either christological or ecclesiological, somehow related to salvation.

The above is just to say: Scripture itself gives us licence to read the Old Testament according to the spiritual sense.

Martin Luther complained that allegorical readings of Scripture made the Scriptures into a wax nose. However, one of the things that Boersma points out is that for a great many passages of Scripture, various exegetes across the tradition make the same readings, a statement that can be borne out on even grander scale by reading Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis. Sometimes this is because they all read the same source. But sometimes it’s because they were all guided by the same conviction: Christ is the main content of Scripture.

They were also guided by the Rule of Faith, itself relatively consistent through time and space long before we started reciting the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in the liturgy in the later sixth century. Thus, no reading that went against the grain of the basic outlines of the faith was valid.

Guided by a similar practice of prayer, seeking how Christ was present in any given passage, ensuring that the Scriptures were interpreted within the framework of tradition, and driving for readings that built up the faithful, it is no surprise that they often said the same things. They also held in common the practice of what some call ‘intertextual’ reading — that is, one passage of Scripture can be interpreted by another, through their use of the same word or phrase or by referring to the same person or event or something similar.

I would call this ‘intratextual’, because the fathers would have considered this valid on the grounds that ultimately, sacred Scripture is one writing; just as the ancient grammarians reading Homer used Homer to interpret Homer, so likewise the fathers with Scripture (this is a concept I first heard from Lewis Ayres at a research seminar in Edinburgh; his paper title was, ‘The Grammarian and the Rise of Scripture’ — I do not know if it has been published).

They were also aware of polysemy, which I suspect Luther would hate (I could be wrong on that). St Gregory of Nyssa, observes Boersma, knows full well that each passage of Scripture is susceptible to multiple interpretations. Multiple valid interpretations, even. Thus, one chooses, with Augustine, charity, as well as seeking Christ and tradition. Thus, Christ could be met in multiple ways in the same passage.

Boersma does a better job at it than I am here, I can assure you. The book is, in the end, a strong critique of the historical-critical school of biblical scholarship and an argument in favour of the spiritual reading of Scripture. He explicitly says that we don’t have to reclaim all of the teachings of the fathers — just their approach to Scripture and method of exegesis.

It makes sense to me — but I believe in a transcendent God who chooses to make Himself intimately known in manifold ways, Scripture being one, second only to Incarnation.

The Double Vision by Northrop Frye

Today I read all but the first eight pages of Northrop Frye’s final work (I read the first eight a few days ago), a slim volume entitled The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion. I started here with Frye rather than, say, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, because the book is short and claims to be a quick version of his main ideas. I guess that being an academic means one wants the long version.

There are some great ideas in this book as well as some passages that pack some punch. Unfortunately, I came away a little disappointed, especially after my head had been swimming with big ideas when I read the first few pages of his much longer book, Words with Power: Being a Second Study of the Bible and Literature. In the introduction to Words with Power, Frye discusses his underlying conviction that all literature is mythology.

The idea of all literature and language being mythological excited me, but I’m pressed for time and intellectual capacity, so thought this series of addresses given to United Church of Canada ministers that distils some of Frye’s ideas would be the ideal place to start. Part of the problem is that his big ideas are often stated evocatively but not argued — understandable for the context; but this is why I need the bigger books, perhaps.

However, I fear that, for all that Frye was trying to recover the Bible for the 20th century and give it back to his faith community as something to be believed in, liberal Christianity and late modernity haunt the background of the pages. Frye was pressing his way into a path beyond any conservative-liberal impasse. Perhaps to someone who was only eight when the book came out, Frye did not pass through far enough?

For example, Frye says that sitting down and deliberating on whether story x in the Bible was historically true in a literal sense as we know it or whether it was just a myth is the wrong question. He rightly wants to push past that, and find the stories of Scripture coming alive and bodying forth God for us. However, in the end, I felt like he was recapitulating liberal doubts about the historicity of Scripture but finding a way to still believe in the Bible.

The parts of the book not about the Bible were interesting but failed to move me — very 1991, talking about the fall of the Soviet Union and an awakening consciousness about our devastation of the natural world.

My exposure to patristic and medieval Christianity has been very different from his, I think, and I think it has indelibly affected my own double vision. To take one example. Frye notes that when we start to ask the awkward question of the historicity of Elijah calling down fire from heaven in his competition with the prophets of Baal, the even more awkward reality of God’s lack of doing such things today comes up. That is — if we stick to historical questions, we have problems with today. But if we look at this story as a story about God’s relationship to Elijah, it takes on a more immediate concern for us. No other Near Eastern deity is as intimate with his people and prophets as YHWH.

Well, fine and good.

I still want it both ways. Elijah on Mount Carmel as history does not bother me, because the lack of miracles in the Canadian church of the 20th century is no failure on God’s part. It is possibly a failure on ours. Mind you, Frye points out that miracles aren’t the point of any of it, given Jesus’ own attitude to his miracle-working.

But Elijah on Mount Carmel as only history is less interesting than Elijah on Mount Carmel being an enacted myth that tells me something either about Christ (if the prophet is a living antitype of Jesus, what does this signify about the Messiah?) or about the church (who are the prophets of Baal in our midst, luring us away from the worship of the true God, and what will He do for us if we only ever ask?).

Somehow something bigger than mere scientifically verifiable history is at play in the Old Testament prophets. Frye would agree.

But that doesn’t mean these things didn’t actually happen.

It’s hard to put into words. This is why I’m neither a professional theologian nor literary critic. 😉

In terms of background, I wish Frye were more steeped in Nouvelle Théologie than Hegel or Kant, quite frankly. Not that his use of German philosophers was bad or wrong or anything. But his lack of de Lubac, Daniélou, Bouyer, in his approach to the Bible, the Fathers, and mediaeval theology has perhaps weakened his reading of the pre-modern. (A bold thing to say about Northrop Frye. For who am I? I am nothing. I’m not even confident enough in my ideas to put my name on this blog.)

For here some balance could be redressed. His brief mention of Thomas Aquinas was heavy on Aristotelianism but outrightly stated that St Thomas was not into Dionysius the Areopagite — this is simply a falsehood. What makes Thomas Aquinas so interesting is his extraordinary synthesis of so much philosophy and theology, not merely Aristotle but the mystical and sacramental traditions of patristic and medieval theology, East and West, as well. This is perhaps quibblillng, although I found his statement to the effect that the best mediaeval theologians were those who found themselves accused of heresy troubling (poor Bonaventure, Albert the Great, Anselm, Hildegard, Catherine of Siena).

He also demonstrates a common misconception about the allegorical reading of the Bible, that it was the same thing as the allegorical reading of Homer and that its main goal was to justify the ways of God to men (oh, wait, that was Milton) — that is, to explain away the awkward bits. While the spiritual reading of Scripture was often used to this effect, the fundamental difference between Christian allegory and its pagan counterpart is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God; therefore, when the Fathers and mediaeval thinkers allegorise the Old Testament, it is not willy-nilly, not the wax nose maligned by Luther, but with a specific intent and often with common content — find Christ and glorify Him. See how the passage fits with the church’s Rule of Faith. This is what ancient and medieval allegory was up to.

Henri de Lubac would save you from that trouble. The problem is, Medieval Exegesis was not translated into English until well after Frye’s death. Frye’s reading of allegory and Origen is on a level with much anglophone scholarship of the last century.

Anyway, if we couple my ongoing Anglican diet, my charismatic-Anglican upbringing, my encounters with Orthodoxy, and my ongoing engagement directly with the Church Fathers and certain strains of thought regarding mediaeval and Byzantine theology, it is perhaps inevitable that a book like The Double Vision would strike me as starting in some right directions but haunted by the spectre of late modern liberal Christianity. I no doubt have a very different reading list from Frye’s.

But there is so much in here that I could find myself interesting in and gravitating towards if only it were more fully articulated and argued that I will return to Frye’s thoughts on the Bible and literature again some day.

Making the Bible ‘possible’: Pre-modern exegesis

When I was doing my PhD, a bunch of my friends (mostly Biblical Studies PhDs) read a book called The Bible Made Impossible by Christian Smith. Smith’s major thrust — from what I recall — was that evangelicals read the Bible as though it is perfectly clear and has one meaning when, in fact, it is possessed of polyvalence, as any glance at the many volumes available at your local Christian bookstore would make clear. I don’t remember if he had a solution internal to evangelicalism or not.

On a related note, Smith himself had converted to Roman Catholicism because, in part, of this issue. In the Roman Church, the Magisterium can help you navigate the polyvalence of Scripture.

I don’t think one needs to convert to the Church of Rome in order to address this problem. Moreover, I suspect that many people who go to Rome seeking authority and absolutes are converting for the wrong reasons, given the fact that the Magisterium leaves many awkward questions unanswered, and a great many Roman Catholics are in open rebellion against the Magisterium on many issues, and priests occasionally utter heresy in the confessional. This is not to characterise all converts to Rome, of course. Some, I suspect, though.

That is to say — you need more than a desire for absolutes if you want to swim the Tiber, because you’ll find fewer than you expect.

Anyway, I am reading Henri de Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis, and here we meet the polyvalence of Scripture head-on. What marks the late antique and medieval approach to polyvalence is the authors’ extreme comfort with it. Time and again, from St Augustine of Hippo onwards, so long as an interpretation does not undermine the Catholic faith, and so long as it builds up charity to God and/or neighbour, any interpretation is a go.

Some of them may be more factually correct, of course. St Jerome, as I recall, is a big fan of at least producing factual and logically valid options, even if multiple ones exist. Some are also to be preferred because they strengthen the Catholic faith more than others.

Moreover, not only are pre-modern exegetes totally comfortable with polyvalence, they expect it and revel in it. Scripture has been given to us as a way for God to reveal Himself to us. God is infinite. Therefore, we should not be surprised that His self-revelation is itself potentially infinite in its interpretation. Furthermore, different people and different times have different needs and different questions. The inexhaustibility of Scripture means that it can and will produce meanings that will help its various readers.

I recall first meeting ideas like this in Augustine’s Confessions, where he talks about Genesis and how any logically valid interpretation that builds up charity is allowable. It was something of a breath of fresh air after the years I spent in the interminable (at times ridiculous) creation-evolution debate. Here was the greatest theologian of Latin Christianity saying that, in Genesis 1, there is no one right answer. And he himself was espousing allegory, of all things! St Augustine, the great propagator of predestination!

So if you’re starting to find the Bible impossible, one pathway to recovery is finding those exegetes who came before western Christendom fractured at the Reformation. Take their inisights alongside those of modern scholars and seek the infinite God in His infinite variety.

‘Let … a two-edged sword be in their hands’ (Ps. 149:6)

Every day at Lauds in the Benedictine tradition, you pray Psalms 148-150; these Psalms, in fact, give this office its name of Laudes. These Psalms begin ‘Alleluia!’ and are filled with exhortations to praise the Lord — Laudate dominum in Latin.

In the midst of the praise, at Psalm 149:6, we meet this:

Let the praises of God be in their mouth, / and a two-edged sword in their hands;

For some reason, this image always sticks in me. Maybe it’s the rhythm of Coverdale’s verse. Arresting as it is, it’s not exactly the sort of thing Christians today are comfortable with, especially when we read that the sword is for vengeance. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the mainline liberal Psalters have quietly expunged it along with the end of Psalm 137 (like Canada’s BCP).

Now, I haven’t checked any of the Fathers or medieval exegetes on this, but — what do we think that two-edged sword is?

The patristic and, therefore, medieval principles of interpreting the Bible are that the Bible is always right. The Bible interprets itself. The Bible is always about Christ and/or His mystical body, the Church. The literal sense is never to be ignored, but we are called to dig deeper through allegory, typology, etc. And, which should be common to all Christian reading of Scripture: Jesus trumps all.

Attempting, then, to think like the Fathers, we should admit that executing vengeance is something many of them would be uncomfortable with. Are there clues in the verse as to what it means for Christians today? Unlike a modern(ist) reading, this verse cannot be left as a historical relic. It speaks today, to our situation.

Well, where else do we see a two-edged sword in Scripture? Hebrews 4:12:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

This immediately draws us to Ephesians 6:17, in the discussion of the full armour of God, where the Sword of Spirit is the Word of God. What we don’t always think on is Ephesians 6:18, which is what we are to do whilst wearing this armour:

Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints

We’ll come back to this.

Revelation has a few relevant sword references:

And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. (Rev. 1:16)

Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (Rev. 2:16)

And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations (Rev. 19:15)

And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, which sword proceeded out of his mouth: and all the fowls were filled with their flesh. (Rev. 19:21)

The Revelation verses are all about the two-edged sword coming out of the mouth of the visionary Christ, the Rider on the White Horse. It is not insignificant that the sword comes from his mouth — Christ is God the Word, after all. And our Ephesians and Hebrews verses refer to the word of God — in this case presumably Scripture — as being a sword.

What, then, is the two-edged sword of Psalm 149:6? It is the Word of God, being wielded by God’s people in battle against the Enemy — not men, but the world, the flesh, and the devil.

St Antony at prayer

And when do we take up this two-edged sword? According to Ephesians 6:18, in prayer. The battle for man’s soul (the Psychomachia) occurs on our knees. Do not forget Saint Antony (fourth-century) when he was confronted with all the denizens of Hell. He proclaimed Psalm 27:3:

Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear

John Cassian (d. c. 435) recommends saying over and over again Psalm 70:1:

O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me.

Let us, then, take up this two-edged sword in our hands, and get on our knees and fight.

Typology As a Way Forward in Bible Reading

I have previously posted about the fourfold sense of Scripture here and here. Among the spiritual senses, we find typology. Typology, as you may recall, is when we see events, items, and persons in the Old Testament as prefigurations of New Testament theology. It is distinguished from allegory as allegory is when we see parallels in events in the Old Testament not only of the New Testament but also of our own spiritual journey. Thus, an allegorical reading of Genesis 3, while not denying the real Fall of humanity, will say that this is the story of Everyman.

Typology, on other hand, sees a moment as a single flash of the greatness of the fulfillment of the promises in Christ and the Church — Melchizedek is a type of Christ; the flashing sword in Eden is a type of Mary; the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of Baptism, Jerusalem is a type of the heavenly city, and so forth. I have already posted on Noah’s Ark as a type of Mary.

This approach to Scripture is never meant to entirely supplant the literal or historical meaning, something even its most famous proponent, Origen, acknowledges. Yet it seeks to see with spiritual eyes a new, different layer of meaning. Since the purpose of Scripture is to reveal to us the things of God and empower us to lead godly lives, I see no difficulty in this way of reading Scripture.

Indeed, many see this way of reading the Bible as a way forward for western biblical interpretation. Sebastian Brock writes:

the typological approach to the Bible as found in the Syriac (and of course other) Fathers is essentially a fluid one, refusing to be contained by dogmatic statements on the one hand, or considerations of modern biblical scholarship and its findings on the other. Indeed, one wonders whether this approach does not offer the openings of a via tertia for twentieth-century western Christianity in its dilemma when faced with the liberal critical approach to the Bible that to many seems purely destructive, on the one side, and a distastefully fundamentalist approach on the other. (p. 188)*

Now, one may argue that there already exists middle ground between liberal criticism and fundamentalism, but the idea of typology as being part of that middle ground is not a bad idea. With typology, we are able to say, “Indeed, the points of the liberal’s modernist critique may be valid, and the doctrinal concerns of the fundamentalist are also worthy of consideration, and with typology I am able to honour both.”

Suddenly, Scripture is not limited to a single, literal meaning at every turn of the page. Through prayerful consideration and the reading of other spiritual books, the Holy Spirit can guide us to spiritual truths about ourselves and the Gospels that perhaps we would never have thought of if shackled to the liberal/fundamentalist approach.

Typology can be beautiful and can stir the thoughts of the reader, as we see in Brock on Ephrem the Syrian:

Ephrem’s highly allusive poetry, shifting almost relentlessly from one set of symbols to another, makes considerable demands on the reader who, above all, if he is to appreciate Ephrem to the full, must know his Bible as well as Ephrem did. Much of this typological exegesis will appear to modern readers as forced, or it may even be described as ‘wrong’, but I think it is misleading to speak of this kind of exegesis in absolute terms of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. The very fact that quite often one finds side by side two pieces of typological exegesis which are logically incompatible when taken together, seems to be an indication that what is being offered was never meant to be the ‘correct exegesis’, such as modern biblical scholarship likes to impose, but possible models which are held up, and whose purpose is to make meaningful, and give insight into, some aspects of a mystery that cannot be fully explained. (185-186)

If we remind ourselves that our doctrine of the Trinity is smaller than the Trinity, that our Christology is a feeble attempt to encapsulate in words the wonders of God Incarnate, if we keep in mind the smallness of ourselves and our doctrines about God in the Face of God Himself, then typology and its difficulties make a certain sense — God is ultimately incomprehensible and a great mystery. Ought not His self-revelation to the world to be filled with wonder and beauty?

Now, most of us probably aren’t reading to do our own typologies, for it is a way of thinking that is foreign to us. Here are some places to begin:

Typology in Action

The Orthodox Study Bible. The NT of this study Bible has been out for a long time, and a couple of years ago they released the entire Bible, Septuagint and NT. Its footnotes provide us with a primarily typological reading of the OT, so it can stand alongside most Protestant study Bibles that give us the literal account and thus bring us deeper into the spiritual world of the Word.

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This series of commentaries gathers together selections from the Fathers on the entirety of Scripture. A great many, though not all, patristic passages herein provide a typological understanding of the Scriptural passage at hand.

Ephrem the Syrian, referenced by Brock in the second passage above, has a number of works translated at the CCEL; there is also a volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality Series from Paulist Press and another of the Hymns on Paradise in the Popular Patristics Series from SVS Press. His hymns on the incarnation are especially beautiful, as I’ve noted on this blog before; he takes your mind in worship to places it has likely never gone before.

Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, mentioned here before, is worth a read, combining both the allegorical and typological readings of Scripture after giving the straight historical reading of the text. The same translation exists in the Classics of Western Spirituality series as well as in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics; the latter has a less extensive introduction but is also cheaper.

Origen of Alexandria is the most famous of the exegetes who apply “spiritual” methods to Scripture. His Commentary on the Gospel of John provides an introduction to his method of reading Scripture. I’m still working on Origen, myself, so I do not know what else of his to recommend.

About Typology

Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. This book deals with the Four Doctors of the Western and the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church and how they read Scripture, including space devoted to Origen and Diodore of Tarsus. Space is thus given to the more spiritual readings of Scripture that lead us to typological understandings. This is a popular level book, geared towards pastors and students.

de Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis: The Fourfold Sense of Scripture. This monumental work, a product of the Ressourcement that began in the 1950s (not ’20s, sorry), taking up three volumes in English, will give you all you want to know about Patristic and western Mediaeval approaches to the reading and interpretation of Scripture. This is a work of scholarship, but the rewards are no doubt hefty for those who persevere to the end (I have yet to do so).

*S. Brock, “Mary in the Syriac Tradition,” in Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue, ed. Alberic Stacpoole. Pp. 182-191.