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Scripture, literally?

J Michael

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This is something that has rattled around in my mind for quite some time and I don't seem able to really come to grips with it.  How much of Scripture (and, for that matter, too, the writings of the Holy Fathers), and which parts of it, are we to take literally?  And how much (and which parts) are we to take either symbolically, metaphorically, or as allegory?

I'm looking forward to your thoughts!
 

Asteriktos

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I think St. Augustine put it well:

"Thus, when one shall say, 'He [Moses] meant as I do,' and another, 'Nay, but as I do,' I suppose that I am speaking more religiously when I say, 'Why not rather as both, if both be true?' And if there be a third truth, or a fourth, and if any one seek any truth altogether different in those words, why may not he be believed to have seen all these, through whom one God has tempered the Holy Scriptures to the senses of many, about to see therein things true but different? I certainly,— and I fearlessly declare it from my heart—were I to write anything to have the highest authority, should prefer so to write, that whatever of truth any one might apprehend concerning these matters, my words should re-echo, rather than that I should set down one true opinion so clearly on this as that I should exclude the rest, that which was false in which could not offend me." (Confessions 12.31)

I think there are probably only a minority of passages which can't be understood correctly (or insightfully) in several ways.
 

sestir

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Asteriktos said:
I think there are probably only a minority of passages which can't be understood correctly (or insightfully) in several ways.
Torah, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings?
I suggest the Law (excluding the toledoths and the exodus-story) came about like other collections of laws and judgements — that Moses received a few chapters and the rest was added as the judges passed judgement. If so, it explains why the laws appear in two and three different versions, much like medieval manuscripts of European law often exist in a handful of versions where sometimes different and sometimes the same cases appear in different order. If so, symbolic language should be rare in the Law.
 

Asteriktos

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Quite the contrary--I am often amazed how not just infamous allegory-promoting figures like Origen, but even beloved true-orthodox like St. Maximus the Confessor, and supposedly literalist people like St. John Chrysostom, can turn the most literal-seeming passage into something quite symbolic/allegorical/spiritual. Admittedly, if anyone did the same tuff today, they would be mocked for making the passage say something it never was meant to, or for committing the sin of eisegesis. For all their talk of merely 'passing on' things and being copyists rather than innovators, in some ways the ancients were much more imaginative and open to new things than most of us moderns.
 

Asteriktos

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I skimmed the Philokalia for some examples:

"If you see growing within yourself a good crop, no longer choked by the tares of the evil one; if you find that the demons have  reluctantly withdrawn, convinced that it is no use making further attacks on your senses; if 'a cloud overshadows your tent' (Ex. 40:34), and 'the sun does not burn you by day, nor the moon by night' (Ps. 121:6); if you find yourself equipped to pitch your tent and keep it as God wishes--if all this has happened, then you have gained the victory with God's help, and henceforward He will Himself overshadow your tent, for it is His." (St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect: Twenty-Seven Texts)

The first reference was of a specific historical event, but is here applied as a spiritual principle as something applicable to everyone.

"As it is written, we should 'early in the morning destroy all the wicked of the earth' (Ps. 101:8), distinguishing in the light of divine knowledge' our sinful thoughts and then eradicating them completely from the earth--our hearts--in accordance with the teaching of the Lord." (St. John Cassian, On the Eight Vices: On the Demon of Unchastity and the Desire of the Flesh)

This understanding of the Psalms as meaning not militant and historical things but spiritual warfare is done frequently. Here's another example of that:

"Again, every monk will be at a loss when he sees the abyss of his evil thoughts and the swarming children of Babylon. But again Christ will resolve this doubt if we always base our mind firmly on Him. By dashing them against this rock we can repulse all the children of Babylon (Ps. 137:9), thus doing what we want with them, in accordance with the sayings: 'Whoever keeps the commandment will know no evil thing’ (Ecl. 8:5. LXX), and 'Without Me you can do nothing' (John 15:5)." (St. Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness)

Another, in which the author specifically comments on giving a 'symbolical' understanding:

"Why do we abandon hope in God and rely on the strength of our own arm, ascribing the gifts of God's providence to the work of our hands? Job considered that his greatest sin was to raise his hand to his mouth and kiss it (cf Job 31:27), but we feel no qualms in doing this. For many people are accustomed to kiss their hands, saying that it is their hands which bring them prosperity. The Law refers to such people symbolically when it says: 'Whatever goes upon its paws is unclean', and 'whatever goes upon all fours or has many feet is always unclean' (Lev. 11:27, 42). Now the phrase 'goes upon its paws'  indicates someone who relies on his own hands and places all his hope in them, while to 'go on all fours' is to trust in sensory things and continually to seduce one's intellect into worrying about them; and to have 'many feet' signifies clinging to material objects." (St. Neilos, The Ascetic Ascetic Discourse)

And:

"How, then, can the monk, who may be compared to the gold of Ophir (1 Kin. 10:11), allow himself to be sluggish or apathetic when singing God's praise? Just as the bush burned with fire but was not consumed (Exod. 3:2), so those who have received the gift of dispassion are not troubled or harmed, either physically or in their intellect, by the heat of their body, however ponderous or fevered it may be. For the voice of the Lord holds back the flames of nature (Ps. 29:7); God's will and His word separate what by nature is united." (St. John of Karpathos, For the Encouragement of the Monks in India who had Written to Him: One Hundred Texts)

Another:

"Our first struggle is this: to reduce the passions and to conquer them entirely. Our second task is to acquire the virtues, and not allow our soul to be empty and idle. The third stage of the spiritual journey is watchfully to preserve the fruits of our virtues and our labors. For we have been commanded not only to work diligently, but also to preserve vigilantly (Gen. 2:15)". (St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, A Century of Spiritual Texts)

And finally, one from St. Maximus:

"'Shun evil and do good' (Ps. 34:14), that is to say, fight the enemy in order to diminish the passions, and then be vigilant lest they increase once more. Again, fight to acquire the virtues and then be vigilant in order to keep them. This is the meaning of ‘cultivating’ and ‘keeping’ (Gen. 2:15)". (St. Maximus the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love, 2.11)
 

Iconodule

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Asteriktos said:
Quite the contrary--I am often amazed how not just infamous allegory-promoting figures like Origen, but even beloved true-orthodox like St. Maximus the Confessor, and supposedly literalist people like St. John Chrysostom, can turn the most literal-seeming passage into something quite symbolic/allegorical/spiritual. Admittedly, if anyone did the same tuff today, they would be mocked for making the passage say something it never was meant to, or for committing the sin of eisegesis. For all their talk of merely 'passing on' things and being copyists rather than innovators, in some ways the ancients were much more imaginative and open to new things than most of us moderns.
+1

We desperately need to rekindle this imagination.
 

Iconodule

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And don't forget, for instance, Saint Paul's discussion of the ark in Hebrews. Allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament can be traced to the New Testament.
 

rakovsky

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J Michael said:
This is something that has rattled around in my mind for quite some time and I don't seem able to really come to grips with it.  How much of Scripture (and, for that matter, too, the writings of the Holy Fathers), and which parts of it, are we to take literally?  And how much (and which parts) are we to take either symbolically, metaphorically, or as allegory?

I'm looking forward to your thoughts!
The Nicene Creed says that the Prophets were inspired, not that every sentence was inerrant.

Augustine however took the view that whatever any Bible writer intended to say was infallible, ie. his intention must have been factually correct. So in Augustine's view, if the Torah writer intended to say the earth is literally only c. 6000 years old by a stopwatch, then that claim must be fact.

Personally I go more with just the Nicene Creed's view.
 

Alkis

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From the epistles of saint Paul and saint Peter, I understand that apostles interpreted the Scriptures not literally. They see foreshadows, types, allegories... Just like most of the Church Fathers. My favourite ones are saint John of Damascus and saint Maximus the Confessor. I was amazed by the interpretation of saint Maximus the Confessor about Saul, Samuel, Amalek and David in Philokalia. Also, the liturgical texts and hymns of our Church indicate allegorical interpretations too. Look at the Salutations of the Most Holy Theotokos (Ark of the Covenant, ladder, etc...).
 

WPM

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Its helpful to also use Allegory and understanding Metaphor.
 

rakovsky

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Alkis said:
From the epistles of saint Paul and saint Peter, I understand that apostles interpreted the Scriptures not literally. They see foreshadows, types, allegories... Just like most of the Church Fathers. My favourite ones are saint John of Damascus and saint Maximus the Confessor. I was amazed by the interpretation of saint Maximus the Confessor about Saul, Samuel, Amalek and David in Philokalia. Also, the liturgical texts and hymns of our Church indicate allegorical interpretations too. Look at the Salutations of the Most Holy Theotokos (Ark of the Covenant, ladder, etc...).
To say all scriptures are only and always literally or for that matter only and always  allegorical would be a mistake. For example, the NT would not accept that David is a purely allegorical, fictional person.
 

Alkis

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Of course not all the scriptures... Or maybe they have both literal and allegorical meaning.
 

Luka

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All Scriptural texts have literal meaning and it is a true meaning of the text, but not necessarily the one that conveys God's revelation. E.g. the story of the forbidden fruit and the expulsion from Eden is quite a silly tale when taken literally, only when meditated upon in the light of Israel's history and of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, we find in it a tale of human condition and calling. It's very difficult to give rules for a truly Christian theological interpretation of the Scripture, because it is easy then to overlook a meaning that is hidden in the text. As all the Fathers would agree, reading and understanding the Scripture is a prayerful and charismatic spiritual task. And full of surprises.
 

Alkis

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Also, Psalm 118 (119):18 says this: "Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law." We know that the river symbolizes the gifts and the grace of the Spirit etc... There are so many types, symbols, scenes... I love reading the Scriptures.
 
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