There is one experience (at least) of reading Scripture, there is another altogether different of being “read by Scripture.” Both are quite valid but very different things. Reading Scripture is, of course, something we do all the time – perhaps so much so that we rarely stop to think about what we are doing. It is never a simple gathering of facts (like reading a newspaper article), nor is it like reading a novel in which we are simply entertaining ourselves. Scripture exists as a peculiar writing and not because of theories that are frequently put forward in fundamentalist circles.
In those circles we can be told that the Scriptures are what they are because the writers were simply taking passive dictation. This would be a strange thing indeed and would make almost no sense of any of the Epistles. The Gospels demonstrate a clear shaping that is more than accident. The writers seem to know what they are doing.
Several postings back I noted that the Seventh Council stated that “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” In the theological writings that surrounded that council the “do with” was largely explained in terms of “representation.” When St. Theodore the Studite wrote about the Holy Icons he referred to them as “hypostatic representations,” that is, of representations of the “person,” rather than representations of the “substance” portrayed. That is, when we paint an icon we cannot portray the “Divinity” of someone (such as Christ), nor for that matter can we portray the “humanity” of someone, such as you or me.
Imagine if you will a painting entitled, “Humanity.” I suspect what you would get would be something only a committee spending someone else’s money could love. Humanity, as the substance, or being, that we all share together cannot be portrayed – only when it is actually presented in concrete form as “Peter,” or “Paul,” or someone else, are we able to see it.
Thus the icons were defended not because Christ became man, but because He became a man. There is a difference. By the same token it is not possible to speak in the abstract about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, without having said something that becomes dangerously general. St. Paul was quite clear about what he meant by “the Gospel of Christ.” Thus when we read the Gospel in the Church it is always, “The Gospel of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ according to ….” The witness of the Church is that we find the same Gospel in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and other New Testament writers. One and the same gospel presented to us – though its presentation is neither photographic nor like a news account. The Gospel does with words what icons do with color (if I may flip the saying of the Fathers).
Learning to read the Scriptures as we would view an icon can be most helpful, particularly if you are trying to read them in a manner similar to the Church and not in a manner similar to the average televangelist. Listening to the Old Testament, we learn, in colors of slaughtered Amalekites to see the representation of Christ’s defeat of the hosts of evil (and so forth). Much more could and should be said about this in a later post.
But there is also the experience of “being read by the Scriptures.” This happens to us when we cease to be the master of the text, and the text seems to be the master of us. This is a reading in which the Scriptures are speaking the truth of my life, and not just about someone else. Before such a reading we fall down. I believe that this is just as important a reading as any other, perhaps more important than how we ourselves read.
There are portions of Scripture that were always meant to be heard in this manner. Thus the telling of the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea is not just about what God did for our fathers, but what God did for us.
I will sing unto the Lord for He hath triumphed gloriously the horse and rider thrown into the sea. The Lord is my God and I will praise Him, my Fathers’ God, and I will exalt Him!
When these verses are read on Holy Saturday I always feel a deep stirring within me. I know that this song is not about Egyptians but about death and hell and everything that Christ has drowned in the waters of baptism. I hear in them of my former slavery and of my present liberty, and thus of the uncompromising love of God.
Reading and being read. Both have their place – but I confess to preferring Scripture to read me – to read me completely out of the bondage of my life and into the glorious company of the saints in light.