A Proper Understanding of Scripture
A proper understanding of Scriptures -
by Righteous Seraphim (Rose) of Platina - 20th c.
It is well known that Protestants spend a great deal of time on Holy Scripture, because for them it is everything. For us Orthodox Christians the Scripture also holds an essential place. Often, however, we do not take advantage of it, and do not realize what importance it has for us; or if we do, we often do not approach it in the right spirit because the Protestant approach and Protestant books about the Scriptures are widespread, while our Orthodox approach is quite different.
The fact that Scripture is an essential part of our Faith can be seen in our Orthodox services. There are daily readings from the New Testament from both the Epistles and Gospels. In one year we read through almost the entire New Testament. In the first three days of the week before Pascha—the feast of Christ’s Resurrection, the four Gospels are read in church, and on Thursday night of Passion Week twelve long selections from the Gospels are read concerning the Passion of our Lord, with verses sung in between, commenting on these passages. The Old Testament is also used in the services. In the vespers for every great feast three parables are read prefiguring the feast. And the Divine services themselves are filled with Scriptural quotations, Scriptural allusions and inspiration coming directly from Holy Scripture. Orthodox Christians also read the Scripture outside the services. St. Seraphim, in his monastic life, read the entire New Testament every week. Perhaps it is because we have such a richness of Scripture in our Orthodox tradition that we are often guilty of taking them for granted, of not valuing and making use of the Scriptures.
One of the leading interpreters of Holy Scripture for us is St. John Chrysostom, an early 5th century Holy Father. He wrote commentaries on practically the whole of the New Testament, including all of St. Paul’s epistles and also many Old Testament books. In one sermon concerning Scripture, he addresses his flock: “I exhort you, and I will not cease to exhort you to pay heed not only to what is said here, but when you are home also you should occupy yourselves attentively with the reading of Holy Scripture. Let no one say to me such cold words—worthy of judgment—as these: ‘I am occupied with a trial, I have obligations in the city, I have a wife, I have to feed my children, and it is not my duty to read the Scripture but the duty of those who have renounced everything.’ What are you saying?! It is not your duty to read Scripture because you are distracted by innumerable cares? On the contrary, it is your duty more than those others, more than the monks; they do not have such need of help as do you who live in the midst of such cares. You need treatment all the more, because you are constantly under such blows and are wounded so often.
The reading of Scripture is a great defense against sin. Ignorance of the Scripture is a great misfortune, a great abyss. Not to know anything from the word of God is a disaster. This is what has given rise to heresies, to immorality; it has turned everything upside down.” Here we see that the reading of Holy Scripture provides us with a great weapon in the fight against the worldly temptations surrounding us—and we do not do enough of it. The Orthodox Church, far from being against the reading of Scripture, greatly encourages it. The Church is only against the misreading of Scripture, against reading one’s own private opinions and passions, even sins into the sacred text. When we hear that the Protestants are all excited about something that they say is in the Scripture—the rapture, for example, or the millennium—we are not against their reading the Scripture but against their misinterpretation of the Scripture. To avoid this pitfall ourselves we must understand what this sacred text is and how we should approach it.
The Bible—the Holy Scripture, the Old and New Testaments—is not an ordinary book. It is one that contains not human but divinely revealed truths. It is the word of God. Therefore, we must approach it with reverence and contrition of heart, not with mere idle curiosity and academic coldness. Nowadays one cannot expect a person who has no sympathy for Christianity, no sympathy for the Scriptures to have a proper attitude of reverence. There is, however, such power in the words of Scripture—especially in the Gospels—that it can convert a person even without this proper attitude We have heard of cases in communist countries; the police go out in special squads to persecute believers and break up their meetings; they confiscate all their literature: Bibles, hymn books, patristic texts—many written out by hand. They’re supposed to burn them, but sometimes either the person who is assigned to bum them or the person collecting them gets curious and begins reading the condemned materials. And there have been cases where this has changed the person’s life.
All of a sudden he meets Jesus Christ. And he’s shocked, especially if he has been raised with the notion that this is a great evil; here he discovers that there is no evil here but rather something quite fantastic.
Many modern scholars approach the Scriptures with a cold, academic spirit; they do not wish to save their souls by reading Scripture: they only want to prove what great scholars they are, what new ideas they can come up with; they want to make a name for themselves. But we who are Orthodox Christians must have utmost reverence and contrition of heart; i.e., we must approach the word of God with a desire to change our hearts. We read the Scripture in order to gain salvation, not, as some Protestants believe, because we are already saved without the possibility of falling away, but rather as those desperately trying to keep the salvation which Christ has given us, fully aware of our spiritual poverty. For us, reading Scripture is literally a matter of life and death. As King David wrote in the Psalms: Because of Thy words my heart hath bee, afraid. I will rejoice in Thy sayings as one that hath found great spoil.
The Scripture contains truth, and nothing else. Therefore, we must study the Scripture believing in its truth, without doubt or criticism. If we have this latter attitude we shall receive no benefit from reading Scripture but only find ourselves with those “wise” men who think they know more than God’s revelation. In fact, the wise of this world often miss the meaning of Scripture. Our Lord prayed: I thank Thee, O Father…that Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes (Luke 10:21). In our approach we must not be sophisticated, complicated scholars; we must be simple. And if we are simple the words will have meaning for us.
For our reading of Scripture to be fruitful, to help save our souls, we must ourselves be leading a spiritual life in accordance with the Gospel. The Scriptures are addressed precisely' to those who are trying to lead a spiritual life. Others will usually read them in vain, and will not even understand much. St. Paul teaches: The natural [i.e., unspiritual] man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (I Cor. 2:14). The more one is leading a spiritual life, the more one is capable of understanding the Scripture.
A second point. Because we are weak and can only boast of our infirmities, we must pray to God to open the eyes of our understanding by His grace Even Christ’s disciples on the road to Emmaus did not understand the Scripture; they did not understand that it was Christ in front of them interpreting the Scripture, until Christ Himself opened their minds (Luke 24:45). So unless we have our minds opened—which comes from the grace of God—we will read Scripture and not understand it; hearing we will not understand, seeing we will not see.
The Inspiration of Scripture
Why do we say that Scripture is the inspired word of God? Among occultists and spiritualists there is a phenomenon known as automatic writing, in which a person is literally possessed by a spirit and writes without using his free will. In fact, the latest fashion in this kind of occultism is to sit in front of a typewriter and let the spirit take over your fingers, and “spirit messages” appear. This is not the way Holy Scripture is inspired. This is the way demons operate. St. Basil, in his introduction to his commentary on the book of Isaiah, writes: “Some think that the prophets prophesied in ecstasy, so that the human mind was eclipsed by the Spirit. But it is against the promise of God to give divine inspiration in an ecstatic state, so that when a person is filled with divine teachings he should go out of his normal mind, and when he gives benefit to others he should receive no benefit from his own words… And in general," St. Basil continues, “is it reasonable that the spirit of wisdom should make a man like someone out of his mind, and that the spirit of knowledge should annihilate the power of reason? Light does not produce darkness, but on the contrary awakens the power of sight given by nature. And the spirit does not produce darkness in souls; on the contrary, the mind which has been cleansed of sinful defilements is thereby awakened to mental vision or contemplation.'
The revelation of Holy Scripture is thus given to pure and holy men who are in an exalted end inspired state but in full possession of their mental faculties. Those who wish to understand the Scriptures must likewise be struggling to lead a pure and holy life, receiving God’s grace to understand what the Holy Spirit has revealed. St. Basil, in this same introduction, writes: “The first and great gift, which requires that a soul be carefully cleansed, is to contain in oneself divine inspiration and to prophesy of God’s mysteries [This refers to a person who writes the Scripture]. And the second gift after this, which likewise requires great and assiduous care, is to pay heed to the intent of what has been declared by the Spirit, and not to err in understanding it, but to be led up to this understanding by the Spirit.” That is, the second great thing is to understand what these prophets, the writers of Holy Scripture have written in their state of respiration. So we ourselves must be striving to receive God’s grace and inspiration to understand the Scripture. Therefore, the labor of interpreting the Scripture is not an easy one. In fact, St. Basil teaches, ‘there are many places in Scripture that are deliberately difficult to understand.’ How can this be? He writes:
“Just as our Creator did not will that we should be like the animals and that all the conveniences of life should be born together with us [i.e., fur to clothe us, horns to defend us, etc], so that the lack of what is ncessary should lead to the use of the mind; so too is Scripture, He allowed there to be a lack of clarity is [sometimes] for the benefit of the mind, so as to arouse its activity. That which is obtained with labor somehow attaches itself more to us, and what is produced over a long time is more solid, while that which is obtained easily is not so much enjoyed.” That is, we see that the Scriptures are deliberately difficult so that we might force our mind to be raised up to a state of understanding and not simply received on a platter an already obvious meaning.
All this shows that the reading of Scripture is not to be taken up lightly, and it is not just to gather information which we can take or leave. Rather, it is for the salvation of our souls. And as we read we must be n the process of changing ourselves because this is the purpose of Scripture. If we are not converted: it is to convert us, if we are already converted it is so that we will work on ourselves more, if we are working on ourselves it is so that we will be humble and not think too highly of ourselves. There is no state in which Scripture is not applicable to us.
All this is quite different from the teachings of those Protestants who regard Scripture as an infallible oracle (which is, in fact, similar to a belief in the infallibility of the Pope of Rome) and that man’s common sense can understand its meaning. If you look at the innumerable Protestant sects you will see that they each have different peculiar interpretations of the same passages, and they all say theirs is the ‘obvious’ meaning. Sometimes they learn Greek, and they say that’s ‘obviously’ what the Greek says, while someone else has exactly the opposite interpretation and he thinks it’s just as obvious. How do you know what it really says?
How to Interpret Scripture
First some examples of how to misinterpret Scripture. There are in Scripture numerous passages which seem to contradict other passages. For example, ‘Whosoever abideth in God sinneth not, and Whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither knoweth Him’ (I John 3:9). According to the plain meaning of this passage you would think that a person who becomes a Christian ceases to sin. If this is so, why do we have confession? Why do we look at ourselves and see that we constantly sin? Does this mean that we are not really Christians? But in this same epistle we read: ‘If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us’ (I John 1:8). How can the same writer say two such seemingly contradictory, things? It’s obvious that we must have a deeper understanding of both passages. We must understand that while we have the grace of God we do not sin; when we sin it proves we have lost the grace of God, and we must struggle to regain it. We must recognize that there is a standard, a model which we must follow, which is not to sin. We must not deceive ourselves in thinking that we are constantly in a sinless state; rather, we are constantly striving towards it, sometimes reaching it and then falling away. That is our Christian lift. These passages must be read with an awareness of what it is to struggle as an Orthodox Christian.
Again, St. Matthew says, ‘Call no man your father on the earth’ (Matthew 23:9). Many Protestants interpret this quite literally and thereby refuse to call any clergyman “Father”. But even this same book of St. Matthew calls Abraham the father of us all (Matthew 4:16). That, of course, concerns a father who is dead; that’s one difference. In his epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul speaks of the fathers and prophets of the Old Testament; these are also dead. But he also speaks about living fathers: ‘Though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel’ (1 Cor. 4:15). Here he says quite clearly that “I am your spiritual father.” He doesn’t say this in so many words, so the Protestants overlook this passage. Nevertheless, he is saying, “that you have not many fathers, therefore you have some, and I am one of them because I have begotten you in the Gospel”. That seems to contradict what the Lord says, “Call no man father upon the earth”. But here Our Lord is speaking about the One Father; there is One Who is Father in the sense that no one else is father. There are others who are fathers in the limited sense: there are some spiritual fathers, there are fathers in the flesh…, they are all fathers but different types Just as He says, Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, Even Christ (Matthew 23:10).
Literal vs. Non-literal
Once we were visited by some Protestants who told us that they interpreted the Bible absolutely literally. I asked them about the passage, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you”' (John 6:53). And the first thing they said was, “Well, that is not literal.” Immediately they contradicted themselves. They think that they accept everything literally, but they make excuses for not accepting literally those passages which do not agree with their beliefs.
Many passages in Scripture can only by understood in the context of dogmatic teaching—which a person receives either from other scriptures or from some other source, either from the authority of the Church or the private opinions of some particular teacher. Some Seventh-Day Adventists, commenting on the Lord’s promise to the wise thief, “Verily I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43), claim that it is mispunctuated, that it should read: “Verily, I say unto thee today, thou shalt…”, because they believe that when a person dies his soul goes to sleep, and therefore the thief could not be with Christ in Paradise today. Here is an example of changing the meaning of Scripture to conform with one’s beliefs. And because their dogmatic teaching is wrong on this subject, their interpretation of Scripture is also wrong.
There are many such seeming problems which can be seen if one looks at separate verses of Scripture. Some Protestants argue for hours, even years, over such questions. It is important for us not to get bogged down in such problems. We must understand the principles of correctly interpreting Scripture. About this St. John Chrysostom writes in his homily in Philippians:
“One must not simply seize the words of Scripture and tear them out of their connection and context. One must not take bare words, depriving them of support from what precedes and what follows in order then simply to ridicule and make clever tricks. For if in criminal trials, where we examine worldly matters, we set forth everything which serves for justification—the place and time, the causes, the persons and much else—would it not be absurd when we have before us the struggle for eternal life to quote the words of Scripture simply, just as they occur.” This is precisely what many Protestants do; not having the whole context, not having the whole, reasoned theological dogma, they quote the Scriptures just as they occur: “It’s obvious that’s what it means.” But Scripture must be placed in context, in the complete picture both of the book in which they occur, in the rest of Holy Scripture, and in the whole teaching of Christ as handed down in His Church. A difficult question concerns what in Holy Scripture is to be interpreted literally and what is not to be interpreted literally. We cannot answer this question by “common sense” because this only causes new sects to arise. St. Simeon the New Theologian, the great Orthodox Father of the 11th century, explains this in concise form:
“Christ the Master of all daily teaches us through the Holy Gospel, where some things He speaks in a hidden way so that not many might understand, when He speaks in parables. And some of these things He later explains alone to his disciples, saying: ‘Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, but to the rest in parables’ (Luke 8:10). But other things He speaks plainly, clearly to everyone, as the Apostle said to him, ‘Lo, now speakest Thou plainly and speakest no parable’ (John 16:29). Therefore, it is our duty to investigate and find out in which words the Lord taught plainly and clearly, and in which He taught in a hidden manner and in parables.”
St. Simeon gives examples of when our Lord speaks plainly. For instance," Love your enemies" (Matt. 5:44). We are to understand that literally. Or again, in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are they that weep for they shall laugh, etc.” We must understand this as it is written; now is a time for weeping. And again, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2); or “He that loveth his own soul will lose it” (John 3:25); or “If any would follow Me, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24).
Some of these things are very hard to do. And some are even quite difficult for our worldly minds to grasp. But, with knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven and the spiritual life, they become clear and they are interpreted literally, even though sometimes also by the use of metaphors. As examples of parables, St. Simeon speaks of “faith being like a mustard seed” (Luke 13), or of “the Kingdom of Heaven being like the pearl of great price” (Matt. 13:45) or “leaven” (Matt. 13:33). St. Simeon continues: “Therefore, reflect, I beg you, on how great is God’s wisdom, that by means of such sensuous examples, which seem to us to be lowly, He depicts for us and like an artist sketches out in our mind that which is unthinkable and unapproachable. He does this so that unbelievers might remain blind, deprived of knowledge of those good things of heaven, since they have become unworthy of this by reason of unbelief. But believers, on the other hand, hearing and receiving with faith the word of the parable, might see the truth and clearly know the reality in the things which are shown by the parables, for parables are the images of spiritual things.” (Homily 53)
St. Simeon teaches that the epistles of the apostles also contain many hidden things, in addition to the things which are said plainly. Closely related to the literal vs. the mystical meaning of texts are cases in which a particular text has many meanings, where material objects are spoken of in order to raise our minds to spiritual realities. This is not to say that we should deliberately search the Scriptures for symbols, as if whatever is said means something else; rather, it is a matter of raising ourselves to a spiritual level where we can begin to understand the spiritual reality about which the inspired writers often speak. Thus, when David says, “Thou has broken my bonds asunder” (Ps. 115), he is not merely speaking of physical bonds and using this as a symbol of deliverance from corruption and death. This is the mystical meaning. But he is not using this worldly image of “bonds” in order only to express the mystical meaning, the lack of corruption or immortality; he is also speaking at the same time on a second level of meaning, using the physical image as an opportunity to express the spiritual truth of deliverance from corruption. If we already know the Christian teaching of Adam’s fall, the corruption of the world, and our redemption by Jesus Christ, and if we are struggling to raise ourselves to this spiritual level, we do not need a commentary to explain the words; that is, the Holy Fathers will help us, but we don’t need a commentary to tell us that “x=y.” The words themselves express the spiritual meaning. Anyone who reads and prays with the psalms has experienced this. Especially in times of sorrow, the words of psalms acquire a new and deeper meaning; we find that physical things refer to our own sorrows and dejection and our need to receive deliverance from Christ.
The Orthodox services are full of this same kind of language, which we call sacred poetry. The key to understanding this poetry is the leading of a spiritual life, which is what Scripture speaks about.
In a word, the understanding of Scripture requires God’s grace. St. Simeon the New Theologian gives an excellent image of this: “Spiritual knowledge is like a house built in the midst of Greek and worldly wisdom, in which house, like a tightly locked trunk, there is the knowledge of the divine Scriptures, and the unutterable treasure hidden in this knowledge of the Scriptures, that is, Divine grace. Those who enter this house cannot see this treasure if the trunk is not opened for them, but this trunk cannot be opened by any human wisdom. This is why people who think in a worldly way do not know the spiritual treasure which lies in the trunk of spiritual knowledge, and just as someone who lifts this trunk on his shoulders cannot by this alone see the treasure which is inside, so also even if someone were to read and learn by heart the divine Scriptures, and could read them all like a single psalm, he cannot by this alone acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is hidden in them. For just as what is hidden in the trunk cannot be revealed by the trunk itself, so also what is concealed in the divine Scriptures cannot be revealed by the Scriptures themselves.” (Homily 39)
This is a very interesting passage; is shows that the Protestants are clearly wrong—for Scripture itself does not reveal the meaning of Scripture. Rather, it is revealed by God’s grace. St. Simeon continues: “When God comes to dwell in us and reveals Himself to us consciously, then we awaken to knowledge, i.e., we understand in reality those mysteries which are concealed in the divine Scriptures. But it is impossible to attain this in any other way. Those who do not know what I have spoken about and have not experienced it in reality have not yet tasted of the sweetness of the immortal life which the divine words have, and they boast only of their knowledge; they place the hope for their salvation on the knowledge of the divine Scripture alone and in the fact that they know it by heart. Such ones, after death, will be judged more than those who have not heard the Scripture at all. Especially do those who have gone astray in ignorance corrupt the meaning of divine Scripture and interpret it according to their lusts. For them the power of divine Scripture is inaccessible. One who has the whole of Divine Scripture on his lips cannot understand and attain to the mystical divine glory and power concealed in it if he will not fulfill the commandments of God and be vouchsafed to receive the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who might open to him the words of Divine Scripture as a book, and show him the mystical glory which is within them and might at the same time show the power and glory of God; which good things are concealed in them, together with eternal life overflowing with those good things. But these things are concealed and unknown to all those who are careless disdainers of God’s commandments.”
Thus, in order to read and understand the Scriptures we must be leading a life according to the commandments, receiving the grace of the Holy Spirit, even as the authors of the sacred books were doing. And we must be eager and zealous in our reading. St. John Damascene, the great Orthodox Father of the 8th century, who summed up the teaching of the earlier Fathers in his book, On the Orthodox Faith, says, “Let us not knock casually, but with eagerness and persistence, and let us not lose heart while knocking, for so it will be opened to us. If we should read once and then a second time and still not understand what we are reading, let us not be discouraged. Rather, let us persist, let us reflect and inquire, for it is written: ‘Ask thy father and he will declare it to thee, thy elders and they will tell it thee’ (Deut. 32:7). For not all have knowledge. From the fountain of paradise let us draw ever flowing and most pure waters springing up into life everlasting; let us revel in them; let us revel greedily in them to satiety, for they contain the grace which cannot be exhausted.”
Another important point in approaching Scriptures is that we should approach them with humility, i.e., we should not expect to read just once and immediately “understand”; we should not expect to read and use our common sense and think that we really understand; but we should have a very humble idea that there is probably a great deal that we missed, even in the most seemingly “obvious” passages. We must have this basic humility because the underlying cause of all these Protestant sects, which are based on different interpretations of Scriptures, is precisely pride. They read and they think, “I understand what it says.” And that is wrong. When we read the Scriptures we must think to ourselves: “I understand a little, my fathers have taught me, I’ve read commentaries and heard sermons in Church, and my understanding is in accordance with what I’ve been taught by Church Tradition; but still, I don’t trust entirely that I know what it means.” We cannot simply take the first idea that comes into our minds—or even the second or third idea; we must go deeper and see what the Fathers teach us, what the Church teaches us, how this fits in with other books of the Bible, always thinking that our knowledge of Scripture—no matter how much we know—is always deficient; we never know enough; we must always be willing to learn more.
“Blessed to me is the law of thy mouth” (Ps. 118:72) “There is sweetness in the Holy Writ. It is like a letter from a king, it is a consolation, a thing to be admired, reread, discussed: it is like the joy of a son away from his father—and even more than that—for in the Word of God we find God as our Father…” — St. Tikhon of Zadonsk
From a lecture delivered by Hieromonk Seraphim Rose at the 1979 St. Herman Pilgrimage, Platina, CA