Had a fundamentalist attack me this morning because I did not follow biblical principles when reading the Bible. When I asked him what those principles were he said he did not have a list he just “knew it when he saw it.”
So it got me to thinking, “What ARE my general principles when reading the Bible?” So this morning over coffee I put together a list of ten principles I have learned from the ancient Christians as to how to read the Bible properly.
When reading ancient texts it is best to read them as ancient people wrote and understood them and not in the way a 21st century post-scientific revolution, post-enlightenment, modern North American Christian takes in and processes information because we start with a whole different set of cultural, historical, and literary presuppositions and data points than the ancients did.
1. Before I begin reading, I pray as St. Gregory the Theologian suggests, “O Lord, show me the power that is contained herein.”
2. As I read I look for the three levels of interpretation Origen outlines as the Body-Soul-and Spirit of Scripture in the Literal-Moral-and Allegorical/Analogical meanings of each passage. To use St. John Cassian’s example in his Conferences 14:8, I can read “Jerusalem” in a passage and meditate on its literal meaning as a city of the Jews, allegorically as an image of the Church, tropologically/ morally as the individual human soul, and anagogically as the heavenly City of God.
3. If I come across a passage that seems to contain a contradiction with other parts of the Scripture’s doctrinal or moral teachings I follow Blessed Augustine’s bullet points which he gave in On Christian Doctrine, “If we are perplexed by any apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, the author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”
4. If I come across a passage that seems to contain a contradiction with other parts of the Scripture’s details such as the many discrepancies at the literal level among the four Gospels I follow Origen who in his Commentary on John said, “On the basis of numerous other passages also, if someone should examine the Gospels carefully to check the disagreement so far as the historical sense is concerned . . . he would grow dizzy, and would either shrink from really confirming the Gospels, and would agree with one of them at random because he would not dare reject completely the faith related to our Lord, or, he would admit that there are four and would say that their truth is not in their literal features.” In other words, when the literal meaning is wrong or changed by the human author for literary purposes I focus on the spiritual intent of the text.
5. If I come across a passage that seems to contain a contradiction with other parts of the Scripture’s details such as those between the Hebrew Masoretic Text and the Greek Septuagint like we find in Jonah who foretold Nineveh’s destruction in forty days in the Hebrew and in three days in the Greek, I affirm the inspiration and authority of both texts with Blessed Augustine who said in his City of God, “So if I am asked which of these Jonah said, I suppose that it was rather what we read in the Hebrew.” Nevertheless, continues Augustine, the Spirit inspired the Greek translators to write “three days” in order to convey a symbolic meaning, namely, that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day. As far as the facts are concerned, Jonah did not say “three days,” but the Holy Spirit still inspired “three days” in order to point spiritually to Jesus.”
6. If I come across a passage of violence or terror in Scripture I follow Origen’s teaching that we must interpret all the books of the Bible in light of the last book of the Bible, particularly Revelation chapter 5 where the Gentle Slain Lamb alone is worthy to open the seven seals of God’s revelation in the scroll. Whether events like the Canaanite “genocide” or the Flood or “dashing babies against the stones” literally happened as a single not-to-be-repeated event is secondary to the moral meaning of such texts for us today. Today they mean we should be merciless in rooting out our own sins, uprooting them all the way down. It is also very helpful to ask these three questions when faced with a terrible text of Scripture:
a) Did God really command this? Is it a prescriptive passage or merely a descriptive passage of what humans did?
b) If God did command it, was it really wrong for Him to do so- was He going beyond His rights as the One to whom all being and life ultimately belong? Aquinas said it neatly, “Whatever is taken by the command of God, to Whom all things belong, is not taken against the will of its owner, whereas it is in this that theft consists.” S.T. I-II.94.5 ad.2
c) If God did command something, and it was not wrong for Him to do so given who He is, and if I still do not like it I need to remember: Some aspects of the Old Testament ethic were inferior. The moral code of ancient Israel was not God’s ideal. Jesus himself gives us an example. Jesus said divorce was permitted by Moses because of their hardness of heart (Mark 10:5). So, even Jesus says that the OT ethic was imperfect in some respects. God has temporarily permitted immorality for some reason. We could say the same about many things like that. “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses (God) permitted wars and slavery…”
d) The reality is that ancient Israel had a lot of moral problems and God didn’t wipe out all of the social problems at once. God allowed for some things because of their own moral depravity. He accommodates the hard heartedness of sin and He leads them, gradually, step by step, out of their moral inferiority (see point 8 below for more).
7. If I come across a passage such as God slaying of all the firstborn Egyptians, I tend to treat the text less literally following St. Gregory of Nyssa who in his Life of Moses contends that the slaughter of Egypt’s firstborn, if taken literally, would be morally intolerable. He therefore interprets the killing of the firstborn as the Christian’s killing of personal vices early, before they can blossom into serious sins. It is the same with verses like Psalm 137:9, “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones”which was universally interpreted by the holy fathers in a spiritual sense. St. Ambrose, for example, in On Repentance gives this understanding, “And David, pitying her, says, “O wretched daughter of Babylon.” Wretched indeed, as being the daughter of Babylon, when she ceased to be the daughter of Jerusalem. And yet he calls for a healer for her and says, “Blessed is he who shall take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” That is to say, shall dash all corrupt and filthy thoughts against Christ, who by his fear and his rebuke will break down all actions against reason, so as, if any one is seized by an adulterous love, to extinguish the fire, that he may by his zeal put away the love of a harlot and deny himself that he may gain Christ.” Although the author of Psalm 137 was writing in the white hot heat of pain at the Babylonians having dashed the Israelite infants against the rock, the message for us is to dash our own sins against the Rock which is Christ.
8. If I come across passages which seem to prescribe a less enlightened form of justice than we hold today such as the treatment of women or slavery then I remember that the Bible greatly improved the lot of these people as opposed to other ancient cultures and started a trajectory of change as much as and as quickly as we humans could comprehend. In this I follow St. Gregory the Theologian who spoke of God’s wise condescension to humanity as an Instructor in his Fifth Oration, “And therefore like a Tutor or Physician [God] partly removes and partly condones ancestral habits, conceding some little of what tended to pleasure, just as medical men do with their patients, that their medicine may be taken, being artfully blended with what is instance, in the first [dispensation] he cut off the idol, but left the sacrifices; the second, while it destroyed sacrifices did not forbid circumcision. Then, when once men had submitted to the curtailment, they also yielded that which had been conceded to them: in the first instance the sacrifices, in the second circumcision, and became instead of Gentiles, Jews, and instead of Jews, Christians, being beguiled into the Gospel by gradual changes.’ Like some other Christian fathers, Gregory believed that God consented to inferior and errant practices in Scripture because humanity was not prepared to manage their sudden elimination.” In other words, God met these ancient people where they were and moved them out gradually. As we progress in scripture and revelation the moral code of God becomes clarified over time. The OT laws move in the right moral direction. However its worthy of note that even with the inferior morality of ancient Israel, it was still a dramatic moral improvement over what other ancient cultures were doing.
9. If I come across passages which seem to contradict what has been well-established in the natural sciences I remember the principle of accommodationism which St. Gregory the Theologian gave just above and realize the Bible accommodates itself to the knowledge of the human audience in such matters and also Origen’s way of handling discrepancies above by dropping a strict literal meaning in favor of the spiritual meaning and follow up with Blessed Augustine’s words in his Literal Interpretation of Genesis, “Often, a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, … and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant person is laughed at, but rather that people outside the faith believe that we hold such opinions, and thus our teachings are rejected as ignorant and unlearned. If they find a Christian mistaken in a subject that they know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions as based on our teachings, how are they going to believe these teachings in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think these teachings are filled with fallacies about facts which they have learnt from experience and reason.”
10. If I come across a passage describing God as “jealous” or “angry” or “wrathful” or having some other human emotion then I follow Origen who in his Commentary on Jeremiah reminds us that God is such a Being beyond other beings that any word we use to describe Him will be merely a homonym for our emotions for His Nature is completely without sin or any fault, “Everything recorded about God, even if it may be immediately unsuitable, must be understood worthy of a good God. For who will not say that what is brought up regarding God, that he has anger, that he uses wrath, that he regrets, and that he even now sleeps, does not seem unsuitable? But each of these qualities, with the knowledge to hear dark words, will be found worthy of God.” When we speak of od’ love or justice or “God got angry” or “jealous” or whatever we should remember we are only speaking by analogy. If I get mad or jealous then it is imperfect and mixed with sin most of the time but God has these perfectly without any impurities. So when we describe God as “jealous” we should remember it is not like a person being jealous but the word is just a homonym. It sounds the same but is fundamentally different. We just use such words because of our own limitations in understanding.