Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth


Learning to read the Bible (since we now have them so readily available) is a difficult thing. We pray always for the Bishops of the Church that God will “grant them to the Churches, long lived…rightly dividing the word of Truth.” Rightly dividing the word of Truth, or properly interpreting the Scriptures is quite difficult.

The modernist approach of the historical critical method can be useful for some things, but has never been used for the purpose of creating doctrine. In many cases that I know of here in the West so-called “higher criticism” has robbed people of their faith. No longer feeling secure about what is found in the Scriptures, they declare themselves agnostic or worse.

Many modernists are beginning to show their hand, simply attacking the Scriptures as “culturally biased” and in some cases to be “evil.” Those are the words of modern scholars (not Orthodox) and show how far many Christians have drifted from the Truth.

At the same time we have fundamentalists (of many varying hues) who insist on the “plenary verbal inspiration” and proceed to read the Bible in a literal, historical manner. They create doubt in believers as well leaving people thinking, “If that’s what I must believe in order to be a Christian, then I can’t be a Christian.”

Virtually unknown in our day is the proper reading of the Scriptures. We hear this “proper reading” all the time in the Orthodox liturgical cycle, hearing how scripture is used and what sense is made of it.

As I noted in my previous article, the Seventh Ecumenical Council declared that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” We could turn this saying around and say that what the Scriptures does with words it does “iconicly.” When we read the Scriptures we are reading more than an historical narrative (as in the gospels or many other books) we are instead reading the Good News of Jesus Christ which is presented to us in an icon-like form.

This method of reading can only be done as part of a community where we are initiated into a reading of Scripture by hearing it over and over again, presented in its proper form. The key to this form is the “Apostolic Hypothesis” as described by St. Irenaeus. This is simply the belief we can find generally summed up in such things as the “Apostles’ Creed.” These short summaries of Christ’s work reveal the framework on which all New Testament writing is built, and by which all the Old Testament is read properly.

If we are reading the Old Testament properly, then we are looking for Christ (not that there isn’t much other kinds of information to be found there). Other information in the Old Testament might be of interest to us, but it is not “saving” information. It does not lead to Christ.

We must also learn to “read backwards,” that is, to see everything in the light of “that which is to come.” The Scriptures are, like icons, also eschatological. The One who is born in Bethlehem, is also the One “through whom all things were made.” And He is also the One who is to come. Indeed, it is in knowing Him as the “One who is to come” that we begin to be able to rightly divide the word of Truth.

The Christian community, when it exists and lives as it has been taught, is itself a witness and testament to the last things. We literally live as though there were no tomorrow, for the Truth is, there is no tomorrow. There is ever only today, and this day is the day of salvation. People who know the End of all things can begin to live in that End (which is Christ). Because He is the end (and He will be my end as well), I do not have to live as if I were in charge of history. I do not have to see to it that everything turns out fine. To do so usually means that we have to agree to do violence in order to bring about a just society (in then those societies are never just).

I can turn the other cheek, because it doesn’t matter, in light of the End of all things, that I should be insulted.

I can forgive my enemies because the End of all things means to reconcile them to Himself.

My life is not being formed and shaped by my past (except where I am still an inveterate sinner). Instead, my life is being shaped by Him Who is to come. I am being changed, from glory to glory, into the image of Christ, the coming One.

The gospels are clearly written “backwards.” The gospels know from the very beginning that Christ would be crucified and that this was the fulfillment of Scripture. But the apostles did not know this, not at the time of the resurrection itself (John 20:9). “They did not yet know the Scriptures how he must rise again on the third day.” But the gospels know this throughout and do not keep it secret. It presumes the reader knows the One who is to come already. Thus the telling of the story of Jesus, like a good icon, is arranged in such a way that we will see what it means. In these “icons” we see the Truth of who Jesus is, was, and is to be.

By the same token, the Old Testament, which is a “shadow” of the New, is read backwards. We read Christ in writings by people who never knew Him. But these are not ordinary people, but people whose role as the chosen is to represent Christ incarnate, crucified, ascended and seated at the right hand of the Father and sending us the Holy Spirit. Whether any of those who were writing/acting in that setting knew what they were writing is doubtful and not necessary. The meaning of the Old Testament as Scripture is not to be found in the intent of the author, but is to be found in Christ Himself, for He is its meaning.

Thus Christ in the belly of the whale prays:

The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!

This is not Jonah praying from the belly of a whale (except in some sense) but Christ praying from the Pit of Hades. It is Christ who is the perfect image of the Father, not Adam. Adam and Eve never fulfill their creation as image and likeness of God, until that created promise was fulfilled in Christ. He is the Second Adam, the True Adam, for He is the beginning and the End.

I heard some “preacher” on television today say that 75% of prophecy in the Old Testament has already been fulfilled. Of course he was a Darbyite fundamentalist who is reading his newspaper everyday believing that Biblical prophecy is being fulfilled before our very eyes.

Far more the 75% have been fulfilled – but virtually nothing that this man would think of as a fulfilled prophecy is actually any such thing. He is looking for Armegeddon, not Christ.

God give us grace, under our Holy Bishops, to rightly divide the word of Truth.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





25 responses to “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth”

  1. November In My Soul Avatar

    Thank you Father for such words of wisdom. As with so many things the Orthodox approach to reading and understanding scripture seems so simple and yet so wise.

  2. Phil Avatar

    An astounding piece. Thank you, Father.

  3. Kevin P. Edgecomb Avatar

    Thank you, Father. Perfect timing.

  4. handmaidleah Avatar

    This is from the March 22, Dynamis Daily Bible Study on Isaiah 42: 5-16 LXX,:
    “Whereas the old covenant was carved on tablets of stone, the New
    Covenant is personalized, coming as a man to men, to enlighten all
    nations and peoples.
    God’s purpose in the advent of the Son of God is “to open the eyes of the blind, to bring the bound and them that sit in darkness out of bonds and the prison-house” (vs. 7). How exquisitely God describes the human predicament and His Salvation offered in Christ that opens “the eyes of our understanding, that the light of [His] Gospel may shine brightly in us.” For “although [we] knew God, [we] did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in [our] thoughts, and [our] foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21).
    When God the Father declares, “I will not give My glory to another, nor My praises to graven images” (vs. 8), He is establishing the ground for understanding the unity in essence of the Father and the Son, One God in distinct Persons Who share equally in Divine glory and in the rightful worship of men. Here truly are “new things” which He declares, “before they spring forth” (vs. 9). Let us be confident in God’s declarations, for He causes “ancient things” to “come to pass” which He announced beforehand, so they may be known as the “new things”(vs. 9).”
    I often feel like the Ethiopian Eunuch grateful and needing the Apostle Philip to explain the Scriptures to me. I thought the above to be timely to what you have written, because although [we] know God, [we] do not glorify Him as God, nor are thankful, but become futile in [our] thoughts, and [our] foolish hearts are darkened” (Rom. 1:21). (present tense intended and mine)
    Christ is on our midst!
    the handmaid,

  5. Roland Avatar

    One summer when I was in graduate school (ca. 1984), I remember attending a small ecumenical gathering at which clergy from my own United Methodist congregation, an Evangelical church, and the local Roman Catholic parish spoke about interpreting the Bible. Their respective points of view were expressed frankly, but without unnecessary provocation, in order to highlight differences without turning it into a debate. During the question and answer period, one of the speakers (probably the Catholic priest) noted that they shared more common ground than might be immediately apparent. In the past, he said, it would have been usual to interpret the Old Testament typologically, in light of the New Testament, but no one this evening had even suggested that outmoded approach to Scriptural interpretation. He saw this as a sign of progress towards both truth and concord.

    I don’t know if I had even heard of typological interpretation before that evening. It certainly had not been taught in my undergraduate OT class! In disparaging it, the priest had inadvertently planted a seed in my mind, and I began looking for ways my ancestors might have applied this discredited method of interpretation.

    Around that time I was also attending a Bible study in which we were reading the Wisdom Literature. We were all amused by the KJV’s annotations, which stressed that Song of Solomon was to be interpreted as an allegory of Christ and the Church, the literal interpretation apparently being unthinkable to a church-going Englishmen of bygone centuries.

    It was thanks to these brief exposures to the strange idea of interpreting the OT in light of the NT that I was not taken aback by the idea when I later encountered it as a standard approach to the OT in both Anglo-Catholic and Orthodox contexts.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar


    I think that the convergence of Biblical interpretation around the historical method has been a disaster for Rome, for Protestants, and for the Orthodox. Except for the fact that Orthodox services and hymnography are treasure troves of typological interpretation, keeping it alive and well.

    I honestly think that the historical critical method is dead or at least dying and think that those who are married to it as sort of dinosaurs of the modern age.

    Interestingly, listening to a lot of the postmodernists when I was in grad school at Duke helped me be bolder about the integrity of the literary methods of Classical Christianity (Orthodoxy). I’m perfectly shameless about it now.

  7. Joel Avatar

    If the Bible is not to be read literally, what is the difference between a “proper” and “critical” reading?

    Did God create heaven and Earth, Adam and Eve? Apparently the Catholics have been told that we can’t believe Genesis 1-11, nor should we believe the book of Revelation.


  8. […] Traducere și adaptare de Pr. Drd. Picioruș Dorin Octavian, cf. Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, https://glory2godforallthings.com/2007/03/19/398/ […]

  9. bastrix Avatar

    For translation in Romania
    With all our consideration, Father Stephen.

    Father Dorin.

  10. Fatherstephen Avatar


    The choice is not between literal, proper or critical, the choice is between reading it as the Church has read it, and reading according to some other manner. Reading it “ecclesiologically” if you will, or reading it according to one’s own light.

    Frequently false choices are established by asking “Did Adam and Eve exist?” It wasn’t the point of the story in the first place. And reading it in such a manner can lead to false conclusions. The story is Christological not etiological, if I can be technical for a minute.

    I think it’s possible to read the story literally, so long as you don’t make the mistake of think that is its main point.

  11. Kevin P. Edgecomb Avatar

    Father Stephen and others,

    There is an increasing interest in what is called “reception history” among Biblical scholars, best demonstrated by the new Blackwell Bible Commentary Series (see the link to samples below), of which several volumes are currently finished, the first being on the book of Revelation. Each volume collects commentary (in English translation) on various passages from throughout the past. Even the typological interpretation of the Old Testament is beginning to come into vogue, I’ve noticed, if only in the typical academic standoffish, “let’s study what they said,” approach. That a method of interpretation so central to the New Testament and the Early Church itself is being belatedly, begrudgingly recognized doesn’t lend much credit to the academy, I think. Still, at least the collections are being made, for those of us who enjoy them!


  12. Dale Avatar

    Thankyou for this post. I am a Latin-rite Catholic and share your views

  13. David Mckenna Avatar

    Well done Father

  14. Rod Olson Avatar
    Rod Olson

    Please, we need to talk more. I put in a search for reading the bible as icon and came to your site. The reason is that I am interested in studying this further. I teach intro to the OT at the Bible College level and this notion of an iconographic reading has continually interupted my consciousness. Thus to find that you are speaking the very same thing is …miraculous…I would be very interested to read your dissertation.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    You can find contact information for me on the St. Anne Orthodox Church website (it’s link is on the blogroll). I’d be glad to talk and share the thesis from Duke – it may not have as much as you’d want – but I think the area is ripe for development. Fr. John Behr has done a little work on this as well. God bless!

  16. […] FR. STEPHEN: “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth”; “The Truth of an Icon“; […]

  17. Rudy Avatar

    God Bless….

  18. Dr Denis O'Callaghan Avatar

    Dear Brother,
    I was searching and found you wee site. As a former Roman Catholic who left the “church” to find Christ It pleases me to see some who actually take the time to “Rightly Divide” as Paul wrote in 2 Tim 2:15. It is a shame that more of the ‘common people” don’t spent time in searching the scriptures daily. After 35+ years in the ministry I still delight in finding new “truths’ hidden in plain sight.
    My warmest regards In His matchless Name,
    I am just one beggar showing another beggar where to find Bread
    Rev. Dr. Denis O’Callaghan Ph.D., Th.D., D.D., Litt.D.

  19. Barbara Avatar

    I read your journal all the time as a feed into my live journal friends page, but havn’t ever commented.

    But this time, I happened across this article from searching for the phrase “rightly dividing…” on google, and when the page first came up there were two links superimposed over your site–one something like “seven questions your pastor doesn’t want you to ask” and another from some church group.

    Always a troublemaker at heart, I guess, I clicked on the “seven questions” link first, found it inconsistent with orthodoxy in denying the Trinity, and then I was puzzled that it would have been linked to from an orthodox site. I came back intending to follow the other link to the church to see if I could figure out why they were advertising here, but when I came back, both links were gone.

    I’ve tried “refreshing” the page to see if they might reappear, tried coming back to this page again by the same link, but nothing I can do will make the foreign links come back again.

    I don’t know if this sort of hijacking is common or not, or if there is anything you might be able to do about it, but I found it curious and thought I would mention it. The church advertised in the link I didn’t follow was listed as being in anchorage (which is near me) and had “journey” in the address, I think… but I can’t tell you anything more about it, I’m afraid.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Computer stuff gets scary sometimes. Hackers and spammers can do all sorts of things. We do a fairly good job of blocking spam on this site but that’s all thanks to the good folks behind the scene at WordPress. My one piece of advice is not to be “troublemaker” on the internet. Too much trouble is always barely more than a click away. Google is a favorite target of spammers, etc., because it is large and does amazing things.

  21. barbara Avatar

    coming back again from another computer–I see it is “ads by google” which get added to the site and then disappear, so yes it is google that is responsible.

    I was joking–I’m not a troublemaker, just tend to be curious as to what people are saying about religion, either pro or con.

  22. PJ Avatar

    Louis Vuitton!

  23. PJ Avatar


    I’ve tried to find this quote — “icons do with color what Scripture does with words” — but have not been able to. Can you please direct me to it? Thanks.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar

    PJ, it’s hard to track down. I’ll make it harder. Looked back at my 20 some-odd year-old thesis for an authoritative citation. The quote as I have it, “That which the narrative declares in writing is the same as that which the icon does [in colours]” (Mansi, 13:232C). Mansi is the Sacrorum Conciliorum nova et amplissima collectio, the definitive text of the Councils. If you need more of a citation I can get you that as well.

    Good luck tracking stuff down in the popular editions of the Councils (I couldn’t find it). But “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words,” is a popular, oft-quoted version of the statement. Years back, when there was no internet and we actually had to use libraries, I spent a few days in the stacks tracking that down, since I had to have a definitive source for my thesis. If I come up with something better, or more accessible, I’ll send it along!

  25. PJ Avatar

    Thanks. I’ve been trying to figure this out for a long time.

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