In my Protestant years, I dabbled in a subculture of hip, intellectual Christians. They knew a bit of Greek, a dash of Hebrew, Jewish customs of the New Testament era, and history and culture of the Judea region during the Roman rule. When studying the Bible, we would ask, What are the underlying Greek/Hebrew words used here? What is the sociological and political context? Who is speaking and who is the audience? What are modern scholars saying about this passage?
TWO UNSPOKEN CONFESSIONS
Now that I am Orthodox, I do not engage in such activities quite as often. It is not that those things are wrong. In fact, when one looks past the intellectual pride of unlocking and parading some unknown meaning in the text, these questions truly reveal an unspoken confession. Namely that we realize a literal, straight-forward reading of the biblical text only reveals partial meanings. When one’s entire faith relies on the right understanding of a book, that can be problematic.
I heard that in order to understand the New Testament properly, one must understand the Old Testament. Since both were mostly written by Jews, one must understand Judaism. Therefore, as one can easily see in some Protestant theological writings, there is an emphasis on the question, “How would an ancient Jew understand this passage?”
Of course, what we didn’t want to admit was that the question posed is very subjective, even with a great amount of education. How can a 21st century American honestly think that he can enter into the mindset of a Palestinian man living 2,000+ years ago? There was an assumption, at least on my part, that if I could enter into the mindset of an ancient Jew, many of the scriptures would have greater depth and meaning.
Of course this reveals the other unspoken confession: we long for something deeper than the shallow explanations to which we have grown accustomed. We feel dissatisfied and we know there has to be something more.
In short, we don’t really understand scripture, we are longing for depth, and we therefore turn to the oldest things we can think of: sociological, political, and linguistic studies.
CHASING THE WIND
All of these intellectual pursuits reveal an honest desire to know the deeper things of the Bible, yet they lead to frustration because they are all intellectual answers to spiritual issues. Therefore, no matter how deep one digs, they will never find complete satisfaction.
When Christians ignore the author of the Bible (the Orthodox Church) in favor of scholastic studies, they will find intelligent sounding ideas, but it will not nurture much spiritual growth. The Church wrote the Bible and it best interprets it as well. Church fathers have provided commentary on the scriptures since the earliest days. I was naïve enough during my Protestant years, in all of my research, to never consider turning to ancient Christians in order to find a fuller understanding of scripture. I was aware that there were ancient writings floating around, but I figured they would be inaccessible due to being written during a different era and that they would lack the enlightenment of modern scholars.
MY TURNING POINT
Eventually, I came to the realization that there are deep truths in scripture that will not be understood by learning facts and through scholarly endeavors in the sociological and political scene of ancient Palestine. Rather, the Bible must first and foremost be understood through Christ and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. Scripture contains spiritual truth that must be discerned in a spiritual manner, otherwise it remains hidden.
Many spiritual people in the Church throughout the ages have walked with Christ and been enlightened by the Holy Spirit to understand the deep truth of scripture. For those of us who have not achieved such purity of heart, we rely heavily on the inspired writings of Christians. Similarly though, those who are pure of heart are humble enough to turn to the holy fathers first in understanding scripture rather than placing primary trust in their private interpretations.
THE COSMIC SHADOW
In understanding the Old Testament, I have realized it must be seen through the lens of the New Testament, which is understood through Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Church; otherwise we will be no different than the scribes and Pharisees who judged Christ by their flawed understanding of the very scriptures that proclaim Him.
I think of it this way: imagine Christ standing on a line that represents time, in a place roughly 2,000 years ago. A light is shining upon him that represents the fullness of time, his shadow stretches into the BC era. This shadow is Judaism, the law, and the prophets. They were of God, but they were shadows of what was to come and not its fullness. One does not attempt to know a person intimately by studying their shadow, rather they look to the person casting the shadow, which reveals fullness and details.
In the same manner, we Christians should look to Christ and His Body. The New Testament interprets the Old Testament, not the other way around. We see that the apostles didn’t understand the scriptures. They were ancient Hebrews in the very sociological and political structure that modern day Christians are trying to intellectually replicate and yet the apostles still could not understand Christ’s death and resurrection. He had to open their minds and hearts to the meaning of their own scriptures (Luke 24) because He Himself is the very interpretation of all scripture and of all truth.
Taking this approach, and with the guidance of the holy fathers, the Old Testament has taken on a new life for me. I now see it under a completely different light and it is no longer a collection of Jewish history, songs, prophecies, and rules.
HOW IT LOOKS TODAY
Nowadays, when I desire deeper understanding of biblical passages, I find it is most effective to pray first and then study the writings of the fathers. There are some passages I have not seen commentary on; for those things I simply allow them to be a mystery. The entire book of Revelations was considered a mystery to the early Church shortly after it was written. Many Church fathers did not reject it (see St Dionysius’ commentary below), but they did not make vain attempts to fabricate interpretations of it like so many today.
Often times though, through prayer and continual reading of the Church fathers, I find that the Holy Spirit grants me an understanding of a passage that is adequate for where I am on my spiritual journey toward the Kingdom with Christ. Additionally, my faith is in Christ and my life is in His ancient and eternal Body, the Church. So, I am relieved of the need to desperately decipher answers from a book for Christ Himself is my eternal Answer, which He is making known to me through the Holy Spirit in the Church.
The commentary of St Dionysius The Great (Bishop of Alexandria and disciple of the renown Origen) had this to say about the book of The Revelation of John:
Certain people therefore before now discredited and altogether repudiated the book, both examining it chapter by chapter and declaring it unintelligible and inconclusive and that it makes a false statement in its title. For they say it is not John’s, no nor yet a “Revelation,” because of the heavy, thick veil of obscurity which covers it…
I should not myself venture to reject the book, seeing that many brethren hold it in high esteem, but, reckoning the decision about it to be beyond my powers of mind, I consider the interpreting of its various contents to be recondite and matter for much wonder. For without fully understanding, I yet surmise that some deeper meaning underlies the words, not measuring and judging them by calculations of my own; but giving the preference to faith, I have come to the conclusion that they are too high for me to comprehend, and so I do not reject what I have not taken in, but can only wonder at these visions which I have not even seen (much less understood).
Besides this, after examining the book as a whole and showing that it is impossible to understand it in its literal sense…
Source, “On The Promises”