The Passions and the Reading of Scripture


The following comes from Dumitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality. It underscores the need for the struggle against the passions if we are to read Scripture rightly.

“Man,” says St. Maximus, “has the absolute need for these two things, if he wants to keep the right way to God without error: the spiritual understanding of Scripture and the spiritual contemplation of God in nature.”

In his interpretation of the transfiguration of the Lord, Jesus’ shining face means the law of grace, which the veil no longer hides, while the white and glowing vestments means at the same time the letter of Scripture and nature, which both become transparent in the light of spiritual understanding full of grace. From the human face of the Logos light flows over the old Law and nature.

The spiritual understanding of Scripture is a permanent tradition of Eastern spiritual writing. In this context, St. Maximus also has the sternest words for those who can’t go beyond the literal meaning of Scripture. Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way:

He who doesn’t enter into the divine beauty and glory found in the letter of the Law falls under the power of the passions and becomes the slave of the world, which is subject to corruption… he has no integrity but what is subject to corruption.

The exact understanding of the words of the Spirit, however, are revealed only to those worthy of the Spirit; in other words, only those who by prolonged cultivation of the virtues have cleansed their mind of the soot of the passions receive the knowledge of things divine; it makes an impression and penetrates them at first contact.

So the spiritual understanding of Scripture or the entering into a relationship, by its words, with “the words” of the living meanings and with the deliberate energies of God, requires preparation as well as the knowledge of the logoi or of the living words and present workings of God by things. Those who are full of passions, to the extent that they are glued to the visible surface of things, are also glued to the letter of Scripture and its history; both nature and the letter of Scripture are for them the wall which blocks the road to God, rather than being transparent for them or a guide to Him.

So Scripture and nature too must be considered as a symbol, in the sense already discussed [in a previous chapter], as a medium by which the infinite depths of the spiritual meanings communicated by God as a person, shine through. He who isn’t submerged in them, he who doesn’t have this capacity, but limits himself to the letter on the surface, such a person cuts the ties of Scripture to the depths of God. If it contains the divine thoughts and intentions addressed to us and if these thoughts and intentions are eternally valid, Scripture must have an unending depth and a permanent validity, valid for every age and person. To understand Scripture in this way means to leave the confines of the letter and of the moment in time when a divine word was spoken for the first time and to understand it as referring to me personally, and to my generation, to our time, to our future; it means that when I read the letter I hear God Himself speaking to me and to us today, or about me and us, and about our duties. To understand Scripture in the “spirit” means to see the constant relationship between God and us, and to live it in the way it affects me, at the present moment, because I am living the present moment.

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.


13 responses to “The Passions and the Reading of Scripture”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: Priest and Theologian Dumitru Staniloae (Romanian)

  2. Matthew Redard Avatar
    Matthew Redard

    Father, excellent post. A very good reminder for me, as I am in the midst of preparing a curriculum on the Scriptures for my soon-to-be 6 year old son.

    A theologian is one who prays . . .

  3. AR Avatar

    The demands of Christ’s religion are so terrifying.

    It is easier to succumb to the tyrrany of this world, which takes the control and the responsibility out of our hands. But it leads to personal destruction, while Christ seeks only our Good.

    Christ will not control us. He demands that we act, that we discipline ourselves and submit to discipline, that we acheive heights beyond our present capacity. Everything can be to our salvation but everything can become a way of death, even reading scripture the wrong way.

    For me this is very frightening.

    “To whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

  4. artisticmisfit Avatar

    I really appreciate this quote. I have a real aversion to people who proof text and to people who quote the scripture out of context, especially to abuse other people, and especially when they aren’t a member of our religion. I didn’t receive my first bible until I was a junior college student and then it was a NIV kid’s bible from a Chinese evangelical house church member who was trying to convert me. I resisted.
    I don’t like reading the scriptures outside the church calendar unless I am studying a specific train in thought in scripture, to combat people who assail me with scripture, and to clarify things for my own mind. I find concordances really helpful…
    In my opinion, and to my understanding, scripture was meant to be heard within the context of church services, and with the commentary of the holy fathers.
    I think the Sola Scriptura approach to Christianity is an abomination. And please forgive me if my words are too strong.

  5. artisticmisfit Avatar

    Sorry, that should read a specific train of thought, for example regarding a specific keyword. Sometimes I miss things when I proof read, because my mind is usually elsewhere as I am writing.

  6. tyrporter Avatar

    In reference to artisticmisfit:

    Would it not be right to append to the stipulation of the reading of Scripture within the context of services and commentaries, to also read it within the context of obedience, asking a spiritual father/mother when and how and of what quantity to read it since even reading it along with the Church calendar can lead to pride if not done under obedience?

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have written numerous times already about the importance of the Traditional Christian reading of the OT, which is not anything like the literalism that some use to teach about a vengeful God, etc. and use it to construct a distorted account of Christ’s sacrifice and any number of other things. What I found fascinating in the quote, particularly the stuff from St. Maximus was his adamant assertion of the need for a spiritual reading of Scripture, without which, he says, we are in Hades. Very strong language indeed. But when the reading of Scripture is used to justify anger, or abuse of discipline with children, much less the uses I heard as a child where it was used to justify racism in the South, etc., these are very sad results indeed and demonstrate the problems of a “carnal” reading of Scripture. Of course, I will readily agree that it was Evangelical Anglicans of such caliber as William Wilberforce who helped end slavery in its modern, Western form. Interestingly, the generation following Wilberforce (of Anglican Evangelicals) was also the generation that gave the Anglo-Catholic movement in England that was moving towards a more Patristic understanding of all things. The book: The Parting of Friends: The Wilberforces and Henry Manning by David Newsome, is a deeply moving account of the interplay of those movements in England. Sorry for the rabbit trail…

  8. fatherstephen Avatar


    It’s not bad advice, but not everyone has access to a spiritual father/ mother. Reading it with the Church is, generally, always a good practice.

    A monastic can do pretty much everything under obedience, but this would be highly unusual in most parishes and for most Orthodox. It can easily be abused outside of a monastic setting.

  9. Sera Avatar

    I agree totally. And with AR as well. The demands of Christianity are terrifying….
    Happy Easter

  10. Peter Avatar

    Google provides substantial scanned excerpts of the Newsome volume you recommend. It reads wonderfully. Thanks for the tip! I’ve just ordered an inexpensive used copy through Amazon.

  11. artisticmisfit Avatar

    tyrporter, not every body has a good easy or even viable relationship with their parish priest, who is their spiritual father. Why not be in obedience to the church calender? That is the standard, normal, regular Orthodox way. I am sorry, I disagree with you. Even some spiritual fathers can slander their spiritual children saying they are proud when they are not. We must be very careful not to point the finger, especially if we are spiritual fathers.

  12. Micah Avatar

    “Just as the physical world does not owe its existence to the power of man –it is simply there– so does the spirit not owe its existence to the mind of man. The Sabbath is not holy by the grace of man. It was God who sanctified the seventh day.”

    This beautiful quote by Abraham Joshua Heschel (The Sabbath, p. 76) makes me realise why this present generation is so much like the reader, who, in C.S. Lewis’ estimation enters a conversation at the 11th hour but thinks he has grasped the intent of those who were there at the beginning.

    Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy.

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