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.

Advertisements

Authority and the Latter Day Saints (Mormons)

One of the trickiest things to try to deal with these days, especially with the wide multitude of Christian denominations out there, is where you can find authority residing. This was something that came up in the aforementioned conversation with Mormon missionaries. As you may guess, this conversation provided me with a lot of food for thought.

When asked about authority and where it resides in the Church today, I moved into the episcopal/Irenaean line on Apostolic Succession. I said that the authority resides with the bishops within Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy (possibly Lutheranism as well). When asked where the bishops derive their authority, I said that they stand in direct line of succession from the Apostles. The elder who did all the talking kept trying to trip me up with how do I know who has authority, so I recall repeating that the Archbishop of Canterbury stands in direct succession from St Augustine of Canterbury in the 600s who was in succession from the Bishop of Rome, who stands in direct succession from St Peter.

He asked how the authority is transmitted, and I said through the laying on of hands, but that there is also a succession of the teaching ministry of the apostles — the teaching ministry being what was most important for our earliest, second-century apologist for Apostolic Succession, Irenaeus of Lyons. The authority of the apostolic successors such as Clement in Rome (whose First Letter to the Corinthians was treated as Scripture by some!) consisted in maintaining the unwritten rule of faith and transmitting the faith to the next generation of believers. This coinherence of personal authority with the rule of faith and the growing canon of Scripture is part of the messy story of how orthodox Christianity got itself a Bible as well as a set of doctrines and an episcopal structure.

I said most of that — at least, about the coinherence of the teaching ministry of the apostolic successors with the discernment of the Holy Spirit to produce both Trinitarian faith and the New Testament canon.

He still asked where ultimate authority sits, and I said that it resides in the collegiality of the bishops. He then wanted to know about the Reformation, and I explained that it had to do with the failure of the Bishop of Rome in his pastoral duties, as well as a belief that the Bishop of Rome does not have universal jurisdiction, but that I still see him as standing in apostolic succession and an orthodox, Trinitarian Christian with jurisdiction at least in Italy if not further.

I guess he had a script, because he moved on to how wouldn’t it be nice if there was one person in whom authority still resided, as in Mormonism. I asked about Mormon schisms, and he said he didn’t know what I was talking about. I mentioned the groups that broke away that still accept polygamy as well as some others that don’t — what about them? Why doesn’t authority reside with them? He said that the true prophets are the ones that reside in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I didn’t press the issue (see more below, however).

He then said that it just makes sense that God would have a person who held authority and was a prophet leading his people. I proceeded to list off orthodox Christians who also are recorded to have had visions and words from God — and some of them have been bishops, in fact. He sort of looked at me like he had no clue who/what I was talking about.

I think their script is designed for free church/dissenting/American evangelicals who are cessationists (don’t believe in the gifts of the Spirit after the death of St John the Evangelist) and who believe in some sort of similar apostasy. The number of times this poor elder had to ignore me or change tack or laugh awkwardly was probably disconcerting for him.

Had I been on script, I wouldn’t have believed in Apostolic Succession, nor would I have believed any of the stories of saints and prophets from the sub-apostolic age (such as St Ignatius of Antioch) to the mainstream Patristic era (St Cyprian of Carthage, St Martin of Tours) to the Middle Ages (St Francis of Assisi, St Bernard of Clairvaux) to today (Elder St Porphyrios) who have had visions and words from God. Instead, I believe that there is to this day an unbroken sacramental, teaching, apostolic ministry alive in the church as well as prophetic and ‘charismatic’ gifts that never left.

The informed Christian, however, will not be deceived by the Mormon Missionary script, because they, too, have a multiplicity of sects. At the moment of Joseph Smith’s death, there was a schism with some saying Brigham Young was the true successor and others Smith’s son, Joseph Smith III; the former are the mainstream Mormons we meet everywhere, the latter are mostly in Missouri and call themselves the Community of Christ. Later, people rejected Young’s successors when they rejected polygamy; the largest polygamist Mormon group is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (given that Joseph Smith had 33 wives, of whom 10 were still married to other men, and given that celestial marriage means people are still married in heaven and that widowed Mormons can remarry, the polygamists are maybe the truest successors to Joseph Smith).

There’s a nice, clear article at Wikipedia about sects in the Latter Day Saint movement. If you have trouble deciding where God’s real church is found and where authority lies, the Mormon should be just as troubled, if not more so. How could God restore his Church through Joseph Smith only to have what amounts to a Second Great Apostasy immediately following Smith’s death? Why trust Brigham Young more than Joseph Smith III?

I realise that even for the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian, Apostolic Succession is not as cut-and-dried an argument as I made it out to be. If these groups stand in Apostolic Succession to derive authority, why are they in schism? And aren’t Copts, Ethiopians, Syrian Orthodox, and Armenians also within Apostolic Succession? And the Charismatic Episcopal Church? What about them? I concede that we are divided, and that Apostolic Succession leaves outside of it a multitude of Baptist and Presbyterian types. Nonetheless, Mormons are fractured, too.

However, throughout the Old Testament we see periods when the prophets and priests were unholy and turned away from God, yet the people were still held to God by God’s faithfulness to them, and bound by their authority in some way — there was always a remnant, let alone a belief that God could work through the office of the priests even when they were corrupt. The Gospel of John even mentions Caiaphas prophesying Jesus’ redemptive death through the office of High Priest. What this says to me is that however divided we may be now, and however corrupt ecclesiastical institutions may become at times, God is still with His people, and He will always be driving the Church to reform itself and enter into deeper knowledge of Him both corporately and individually, just as he did with the undivided church before 1053. It is this use of broken, fragile vessels that speaks volumes to me of the power and compassionate love of God, not his abandonment of the Church for 1800 years. Such a God is callous and uncaring. End excursus.

I didn’t bring up the weaknesses in my position, mind you, and the conversation moved on to another topic after that. While I enjoy explaining my beliefs to others, it felt a bit-onesided, anyway. Repeatedly, I was told that if I asked God if the Book of Mormon was true, I would feel the Holy Ghost and realise that it is true while reading it. Objections such as the lack of archaeological evidence were ignored.** The question of where God and Jesus came from was also basically ignored. After being told that God has flesh and blood (which would discount the elder’s earlier agreement with me that God is simple in essence), when I asked again where God came from I was told that spirit and intellect have always existed; this says nothing about the person of God if God is flesh. FYI, God used be a man on another planet; Jesus is his biological son by the Blessed Virgin Mary — Joseph Smith and Brigham Young both taught this.

Anyway, suffice it to say that no proper rebuttals of my arguments were made; either Mormon doctrine was quoted, or issues were sidestepped. I have no doubt that some Mormons have some arguments, but I did not meet them two days ago. He did, in his defence, say that he didn’t think he could convince me by argument, but simply wanted to invite me to read the Book of Mormon with an open mind.

When we consider how difficult it can be simply to believe these days, I don’t think I could ever be convinced by the Mormons — I’d be more likely to chuck Christianity altogether and become a Buddhist than to become a Mormon.

**The alleged Hebrew inscriptions in the USA are, in fact, in a palaeo-Hebrew script that did not exist until the Hellenistic Age, and so, if written by Hebrew immigrants to the ancient Americas, they could not have been written by the people discussed in the Book of Mormon. Chances are, then, they are a forgery made by someone trying to use an ancient form of Hebrew who had insufficient knowledge. Like those alleged Viking inscriptions in the northern USA.

St. Columba Revisited

Two years ago, I published the first Saint of the Week, St. Columba. At the time, I focused on St. Columba’s missionary excursions which were primarily centred upon Pictland north of the Grampians (hence his sighting of the Loch Ness Monster). I have extolled the great goodness of missionaries on this blog often and feel no need to do so at present.

St. Columba, however, besides being a missionary, monastic founder, and first-recorded sighter of the Loch Ness monster was also a wonderworker. In Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, we read a whole host of tales about St. Columba’s miracles.

Indeed, Adomnán’s Life is unlike any other saint’s life I have yet encountered. It consists entirely of miracle stories divided up thematically into three books: prophecies, miracles of power, and visions of angels. Within these categories there is no attempt at being chronological — indeed, he begins the prophecies with a posthumous vision of St. Columba had by King Oswald before Heavenfield Battle.

Most hagiographies contain an abundance of miracle stories — or at least a few. They take their cue from our dear friend St. Antony as a literary inspiration. But they also set events out in some sort of chronological order — usually. So, for example, Cyril of Scythopolis’ Life of Savvas contains its share of miracle stories, but these are interspersed throughout a coherent narrative that tells us of Savvas’ monastic profession and monastic foundations.

This coherent narrative is of no concern for Adomnán. He’s here for the miracles, pure and simple.

The prophecies at times help people. Sometimes they are foretelling the future, but also they at times tell the truth about something happening elsewhere from wherever St. Columba happened to be at the time. They also come accompanied by the odd miracle of power or two. These are miracles of knowledge whereby God demonstrated His own omniscience, His abiding presence with St. Columba, and his concern for people who may otherwise have fared poorly.

The second category of miracles is more familiar, being miracles of power. Miracles of power are what we tend to think of when we hear “miracle”. In the course of Book II, St. Columba turns water into wine for the Eucharist, he purifies a well for drinking, scares the Loch Ness Monster, brings good winds to friends, heals the sick, resuscitates the dead, and more.

Book III contains the category of miracles I did not expect — visions of angels. These actually are relatively few, and are often visions other people had of Columba interacting with angels (vs. Shenoute hanging out with Jesus on a regular basis). This book also includes visions of light — visions of St. Columba shining with light from his face. While not unheard-of, this sort of phenomenon is not par-for-the-course hagiographic fare. It makes me think of Moses’ shining face at his descent from Mt. Sinai and St. Seraphim of Sarov who, himself, is reported to have had a shining face.

Whenever people discuss hagiography, the admission that this stuff is not necessarily all true comes out. The Bollandists, since the seventeenth century, have been at the fore of the movement to extract the legends from saints’ lives and provide us with the genuine article.

The path of Bollandist may be futile.

The trouble is that, if we admit miracles, even a miracle that seems to be a literary topos could turn out being true. There is no way of being 100% certain which miracle stories are true, and which are false.

When we look at St. Columba, we have to accept the fact that all three varieties of miracle gathered by Adomnán are present in the biblical record, in the Old Testament historical and prophetic books and in the Gospels and Acts. We have to admit, as well, that they abound throughout hagiographical literature from the third through the sixteenth centuries. And we have to admit that they are part of the charismatic and Pentecostal worlds, especially as seen in Africa and South America.

So, if St. Columba is said to have been able to prophesy like St. Shenoute, or can raise the dead like the Prophet Elijah, or can calm a storm like our Lord Christ, or still the jaws of a fierce creature like Abba Bes, who are we to argue with Admonán?

Instead, let us think upon these miracles. What do they tell us?

Adomnán tells us that St. Columba turned water into wine for the Eucharist. This tells us two things: Christ’s followers can do deeds like unto his, and Holy Communion is an integral part of the Christian life.

St. Columba raised the dead. Well, in this instance, it was the child of a recent convert from paganism. This tells us that God looks after His own and is the King of All, holding the keys to life and death.

St. Columba prophesied the deaths of men, violent for the violent, peaceful for the peacemakers. This reminds us that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, and that the kingdom of heaven belongs peacemakers (as well as the cheesemakers, I suppose).

St. Columba calmed storms. Christ is the Lord of Creation, and His power runs through the lives of His followers. We need not fear destruction as Columba’s fellow-passengers did — for, even if we perish from this earthly world, God will not allow his holy ones to taste destruction.

St. Columba closed the jaws of the Loch Ness Monster. Now, the Monster is a thing of great speculation, but a miracle concerning the closing of the jaws of a fierce beast was performed by Abba Bes in fourth-century Egypt once regarding a marauding hippopotamus, another time against a crocodile (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto 4.2). I have also seen a photograph of Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain with a sparrow perched on his finger. These miracles concerning animals are a reminder that Christ reverses the curse from the Garden, that humanity was made to be master over the animal kingdom.

These are the lessons we can learn from Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba, although we shall never be certain which miracles are true.