Reading Scripture

by Fr. John Behr  |  ελληνικά  |  ру́сский  |  српски

There are indeed many ways in which Scripture is read, and there is also great deal of debate about this, both on a general level and also within scholarly circles. But there is a certain feature of the reading of Scripture which is absolutely fundamental to the Christian tradition, from the initial proclamation of the gospel to the creeds propounded by the Councils. This is so important that Paul repeats it twice within a single sentence: ‘I delivered to you, as of first importance, what I also received, that Christ died in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried and rose on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3–4). The Scriptures here are what we (somewhat misleadingly) call the ‘Old Testament’; and it is by reference to these same Scriptures that the Creed of Nicaea also states that Christ died and rose ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’. It is these Scriptures that provided the framework, the terms, the imagery, and the language by which the Apostles and Evangelists understood and proclaimed the revelation of God in Christ. They were and still are (even now we have the writings of the New Testament) the primary Scriptures of the Christian tradition (they are, after all, appealed to as the Scripture by the NT texts themselves), the primary texts by which we are led into the revelation of God in Christ.

Yet, proclaiming Christ ‘in accordance with the Scriptures’ in turn means that the Scriptures are read by Christians in a different manner than they were before the encounter with Christ. We see this most clearly in the encounter with Christ on the road to Emmaus. The disciples, when they were accompanying Christ before his Passion, never fully understood who he is; not even Peter when he made his confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi, but a few verse later gets called ‘satan’ for trying to stop Christ going to the cross (Matt. 16:13–23). They abandoned him at the crucifixion; they did not understand the significance of the empty tomb; they did not even recognize the Risen Christ. Seeing all this did not lead them to understand the mystery of the identity of Christ. It is only when he opened the Scriptures and explained, from the Law and the Prophets, how the Son of Man had to suffer to enter into his glory, that they were ready, finally, to know him in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:13–35). They had read the Law and the Prophets before, of course, but never in this way! A similar example is given in the case of Paul, a Pharisaical Jew who knew the Scriptures thoroughly, but, on their basis, persecuted Christians, until he too was confronted by Christ, leading him to read the Scriptures in a very different way. The Apostle himself reflects on this, and describes it in terms of a ‘veil’ being lifted: the very same veil that Moses placed over his head when descending the mountain now lies over Moses (the text), so that the glory contained therein is not revealed until the veil is removed by turning to Christ (2 Cor. 3:12–18).

Bringing these and other scriptural images together, St Irenaeus describes the Scriptures as a mosaic portraying Christ when seen according to the right ‘hypothesis’ (haer. 1.8.1), so that, in turn, Christ is the treasure hidden in the Scriptures: he was hidden there, ‘indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by human beings prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord’ (haer. 4.26.1). For this reason, Irenaeus continues, it was said to Daniel the prophet: ‘Shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispersion shall be accomplished, they shall know all these things’ (Dan. 12:4, 7); and likewise by Jeremiah: ‘In the last days they shall understand these things’ (Jer. 23:20). So, Irenaeus continues:

For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is nothing but an enigma and ambiguity to human beings; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition [exegesis]. And for this reason, when . . . it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the cross of Christ.

The Scriptures are shut, veiled or sealed, but unveiled and opened by the Cross, so that without this, it reads only as a ‘myth’, but when read in the light of the cross, Christ is revealed and, he concludes, the reader glorified just as was Moses.

Scripture is now read in a different light in a different way than before, just as Christ is now known to be not the son of Joseph but the eternal Word of God. There are, as James Kugel notes, four points regarding Scripture that lie behind such reading, and which were, in fact, common to all ancient biblical interpretation. First, that Scripture is fundamentally cryptic: if it were not cryptic, requiring to be opened or unveiled, it would not be Scripture. Second, that it is ‘a fundamentally relevant text’, written not to inform us about events in the past, but about the present: ‘these things happened to them as a type [τυπικῶς, badly translated by the RSV: ‘as a warning’], but they were written down for our instruction upon whom the end of the ages has come’ (1 Cor. 10:11). Third, that Scripture is harmonious, the Law and the Prophets speak about the one who opens the book and how he has to suffer to enter his glory. Fourth, on basis of the previous three, that it is ‘inspired’, where its inspiration is held together with the opening the Scriptures in an inspired reading, all turning upon Christ himself, who speaks to us in the Scriptures.

The reading of Scripture by the Apostles and Evangelists, and the Fathers following in their tradition, operates in this framework of the ‘unveiling’ or ‘opening’ of the book, and in this sense it is always ‘apocalyptic’ (in the sense of unveiling, which is the basic meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’). Whether we call it ‘allegorical’ or ‘tropological’ does not matter according to St Gregory of Nyssa (Hom. Cant. Pref.). Putting it bluntly, unless one is reading Scripture ‘apocalyptically’ or ‘allegorically’ one is not reading it as Scripture, but as merely as history, or, as Irenaeus put it, as ‘myths’ (even if ‘historically true’, we would add). In the light of this unveiling, we can, of course, read Scripture as a narrative extending from Adam to Christ, what Irenaeus and others spoke of as being the ‘economy’, but which since the eighteenth century has been called, for various reasons and somewhat misleadingly, ‘salvation history’: misleading, for it is not ‘history’ as practiced by the discipline of history, but rather a theological reading of the whole of the Scriptures from the perspective of the end.  We thus have a ‘synchronic’ view of Scripture, seeing it all together, in one snapshot, as it were, as a mosaic portraying Christ himself; this is deployed in an ‘diachronic’ manner, as the one economy of God, viewed from the vantage point of the end, it’s apocalyptic unveiling through the cross; and our own diachronic reading – it takes time to read from one part to another, and, as we take time in such reading, we are always led deeper into the mystery of Christ that the Scriptures open out for us, we mature, from milk to solid food, as we gradually put on Christ.

These points characterize the reading of Scripture from the beginning and through the age of the Councils, shaping the theological reflection that period and leading to its dogmatic definitions. Whereas Arius would take Wisdom’s words about herself in Proverbs 8:22–5 (‘The Lord created me the beginning of his ways… before the hills he begets me’) as all referring to Christ in a single respect, a ‘unitive’ reading, in which Christ is thereby seen as neither fully divine nor human, but a mediating divinity, St Athanasius, on the other hand, following a tradition going back at least to Ignatius (cf. Eph. 7.2), follows a ‘partitive’ reading of Scripture: some texts speak of Christ as divine (‘he begets me’ – in the present tense and with no purpose clause), some as human (‘he created me’, stated with a purpose), so that Christ is a mediator by being both fully divine and fully human: ‘the scope and character of Scripture is this: that there is a double account concerning the Saviour, that he was ever God and is the Son, being the Word and Radiance and Wisdom of the Father, and that afterwards, taking flesh from the Virgin, Mary the God-bearer, he became human’ (C. Ar. 3.29).  This double account corresponds to the distinction between theology and economy: Christ is God become human for our salvation, where the distinction between the ‘is’ and ‘become’ is not that of a temporal narrative (for there is no time in God), but a logical distinction between how he is spoken about throughout the Scriptures, as the Son of God that he is, and what he has become, with a purpose, that is, our salvation (cf. St Gregory the Theologian, Or. 29.18). Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia were the first (after Marcion) to assert that the Scriptures (the ‘Old Testament’) do not speak about Christ, but must only be interpreted according to their own historia, which is distinct from the historia of the New Testament, an exegetical practice that correlates to their ‘dyo-prosopic’ Christology, that is, seeing the Word of God as distinct from the man born of Mary, dwelling in him as in a temple. Chalcedon, following St Cyril of Alexandria, although using the language of two natures, reiterated emphatically the unity of the one subject, Jesus Christ, both fully divine and fully human, spoken of in both ways by the Scriptures: he defines for us both what it is to be God and what it is to be human, in one prosopon and one hypostasis.

This is the reading of the Scriptures that is intrinsic to the theological reflection which led to the central doctrines of Christian theology. The coherence of dogmatic reflection and scriptural exegesis, as practiced the context of a worshipping community and ascetic practices aimed at ‘putting on Christ’, is broken, however, when the ‘dogmas’ are extracted from this setting to be treated ‘systematically’, independently of scriptural exegesis, and set alongside other, primarily historically-oriented, ways of reading Scripture, resulting in a confusion about how it all holds together, with some emphasizing the absolutely historicity of everything that is written, others doing so for parts of Scripture, but neither reading Scripture as Scripture. When read as Scripture, other ways of seeing what it says opens up. For instance, St Gregory of Nyssa in his work On the Making of the Human Being, reads the opening chapter of Genesis as Moses describing an ‘anthropogeny’: first plants appear (animated by a ‘vegetative soul’), then living beings (in whom we also perceive the ability to perceive and move), and then finally the human being (animated, in addition to lower levels, by a rational soul). St Gregory’s conclusion is that Moses teaches us that ‘nature makes an ascent, as it were, by steps—I mean the various properties of life—from the lower to the more perfect form’. This is part of St Gregory’s account of the formation of the human being, not an attempt at ‘doing history’; but it demonstrates the fertility of patristic exegesis, and perhaps indicates for us a way out of our modern problematics.


Fr. John Behr is the Father Georges Florovsky Distinguished Professor of Patristics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

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