Anglican Essentials: Going Deeper–Creation from Nothing

How to read the Scriptures

The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures have an essential place in Christian life:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.  2 Tim. 3:16-17

	The law of the LORD is perfect,
		reviving the soul;
	 the testimony of the LORD is sure,
		making wise the simple; 
         the precepts of the LORD are right,
		rejoicing the heart;
	 the commandment of the LORD is pure,
		enlightening the eye				
                                                     Psalm 19:7-8

An idea that Scripture can only be read in a strictly literal manner was foreign to the early Christians and Church Fathers.  Clement of Alexandria (~150 – 215 AD) suggested a fourfold way of understanding Scripture that was widely used in the church:  literal (text at face value), allegorical (spiritual sense, often pointing to Christ), moral (tropological, ethical guidance), and prophetic (anagogical, pointing to future hope, e.g. the New Jerusalem).   Origin of Alexandria (185-254 AD) used allegorical interpretations of Scripture extensively.  He developed a “criterion of absurdity,” by which a spiritual reading of a passage was required if a reading in the literal sense was impossible or immoral.

In his On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine gives four ways to understand the Scriptures: truths taught, facts narrated, events predicted, counsels given:

In all the sacred books, we should consider the eternal truths that are taught, the facts that are narrated, the future events that are predicted, and the precepts or counsels that are given. In the case of a narrative of events, the question arises as to whether everything must be taken according to the figurative sense only, or whether it must be expounded and defended also as a faithful record of what happened. No Christian will dare say that the narrative must not be taken in a figurative sense. (Book I, 1) 

Concerning literal or figurative readings of Genesis, Augustine asks, for example, what does it mean to say God spoke (“Let there be light”).  Did he speak in time or in eternity?  What language did He use?  To whom did He speak?  Was anyone there to hear it? And on and on.  To Augustine, as to the Church Fathers in general, there was more to Scripture than the literal meaning of the plain text.  The stories in the Bible are more “true,” more revelatory, than merely literal.  That the text could be read in a figurative manner was simply obvious to the Church Fathers, having in mind the words of Jesus to the two disciples in Luke 24:27, “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” In order to see Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures, one must read them in a manner more than literal.

Augustine counsels that we should take great care in interpreting Scripture (from On the Literal Meaning of Genesis):

In matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision, even in such as we may find treated in Holy Scripture, different interpretations are sometimes possible without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such a case, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.  (Book I, 37)

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. (Book 1, 38)

Much later, the Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) spoke of the words of Scripture being accommodated to the weakness of our understanding, according to which not all words are to be taken literally, but rather in this sense of accommodation.  He says in his Commentary on Psalm 49:

The truths of revelation are so high as to exceed our comprehension; but, at the same time, the Holy Spirit has accommodated them so far to our capacity, as to render all Scripture profitable for instruction. None can plead ignorance: for the deepest and most difficult doctrines are made plain to the most simple and unlettered of mankind.

Even the simplest of stories in the Bible have something to say to us, even if they are inevitably couched in language that requires care and understanding to plumb their richest depth.  

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