Literally Wrong

I have written on a number of occasions about the interpretation of the Scriptures and particularly about the problems of Biblical literalism. I have also, on occasion, made a link between Biblical literalism and a sort of “literalism” about the world and the universe about us. I believe that both are deeply connected and share a world-view which is, ultimately, grounded in ideas of the modern world (rather than historic, traditional ideas of the Christian faith). As such, both will yield a false picture – both of Scripture and its meaning and of the world and the nature of its being.

The Scriptures, particularly those of the Old Testament, are frequently misread (from a classical Christian point of view) in a literal manner, on the simple evidence that the New Testament does not read the Old Testament in such a manner. Rather, as is clearly taught by Christ Himself, the Old Testament is “re-read” from a Christological point-of-view. Thus Jonah-in-the-belly-of-the-whale is read by the Church as Christ in Hades. The first Adam in the Garden is but a shadow and antitype of the Second Adam – the One who truly fulfills existence in the “image and likeness” of God. The Passover and the deliverance from Egypt are read as icons of the true Passover, Christ’s Pascha and the deliverance of all creation from its bondage to death and decay. Such a list could be lengthened until the whole of the Old Testament is retold in meanings that reveal Christ, or rather are revealed by Christ in His coming.

Of course, this is a peculiar claim of Christianity – one which accepts the identity of Christ as the Only-Begotten Son of God, who, emptying Himself, becomes man and in this humility destroys death and Hades and unites man to God. Having accepted that Identity, the ability to read the Scriptures according to that Identity becomes possible.

A “literal” reading of the Old Testament would never yield such a treasure. Instead, it becomes flattened, and rewoven into an historical rendering of Christ’s story in which creative inventions such as “Dispensationalism” are required in order to make all the pieces fit into a single, literal narrative. Such a rendering has created as well a cardboard target for modern historical-critical studies, which delights itself only in poking holes in absurdities created by such a flattened reading.

In the same manner, modernity has succeeded in re-reading space and time, creating an historical narrative of the universe, absent God (for some), or at least with an isolated God (for others). Religion becomes subjectivized, a choice or a “lifestyle.” It is little wonder that it has also become synonymous with various political points-of-view, since such a secularized universe can only be affected by the common will of those who inhabit it. Thus, in the name of God, secularized Christianity must rescue the world, even if it must kill in the effort (easily justified by a wrong-reading of the Old Testament).

These renderings of Scripture and the Universe are literally wrong – at least from a classical Orthodox understanding of both.

Scripture is far more than literally true (though in the sense that many people use the word, it certainly teaches what is literally true of God and the universe.) But it does so in a way that is itself Christocentric. In the prologue of St. John’s gospel he writes:

No man has seen God at any time – the only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.

Interestingly, St. John’s choice of words here is that the only-begotten Son has exegesato the Father (rendered as declared in the KJV, and interestingly as enarravit  in the Vulgate (Latin). Christ has “exegeted” the Father or “narrated” the Father to us – far more than simply “told” us about the Father. The Incarnation of Christ, His ministry, His death and resurrection, provide the primary narration of God, by which we read and interpret everything else. Christ Himself is not interpreted – but is the One Who Interprets. He is God the Logos.

But Christ must not be isolated as an event among other historical events (as would be done in many literal accounts -even though these accounts would readily agree that He is the most important historical event). Though Christ is God become man in such a way that He may be circumscribed (thus we may make icons of Him), He nevertheless deifies the humanity which He takes unto Himself (in a neo-Chalcedonian sense for those of you who are wary of incipient monophysitism). The man, Christ Jesus, walks on water and raises the dead. He stills the storm and pays His taxes with a coin drawn from the mouth of a fish. He raises harlots to the place of sainthood and promises immediate entrance into paradise to a dying thief.

Such a One cannot be confined within the bounds of “literal” for the word is not meant to describe the indescribable. The very coming of Christ into the world declares the world to be a place far different than we might imagine. As was settled in the debates with Apollinarianism in the 4th century – the world is capable of bearing God. Were this not so, the Incarnation would not be possible. We are created in the image and likeness of God and thus, though fallen, are capable of being raised up to that image.

And not only we ourselves, but all of creation is made in such a way that it bears a relationship to the Logos, the Fathers teaching us that everything created has its own logos which bears a unique relationship to the Logos. Or as St. Paul would say, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” Creation, far from being a neutral, natural, self-existing, secular event – is instead something which “groans and travails” in anticipation of the liberty that awaits it when all things are fulfilled (cf. Romans 8).

Thus neither we nor the world should be thought of as “literal,” if by that one means what the modern world thinks of the term. As St. Nikolai Velimirovich is quoted: “A man is not that which can be put into a grave, but is rather that which the universe cannot contain.” I would add to that – that the universe itself is not the sort of thing that can be “contained” by the universe (in the literal sense) but has layers upon layers of meaning and possibility that are only revealed in the presence of Christ.

We are meant for more than we can “literally” imagine. Dumitru Staniloae cites St. Maximus the Confessor when he says:

Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way.

Thus, we pray to understand more – and not be literally wrong.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



85 responses to “Literally Wrong”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Picture: Easter Procession by Ilarion Pryanishnikov, 1893.

  2. sulochanosho Avatar

    A good point is made there. Many times in the name of ‘literal’ interpreation, we understand the things ‘literally’ wrong. Especially it’s more than true with holy scriptures pertaining to our religions and saints.
    In the journey from one mouth to another mouth, form one generation to another generation, it could be no wonder a ‘cow’ turns into a ‘crow’ or the vice versa. Intellectual hawkers are at there liberty to interpret the things just to fit their vested fancy and mode.

    The spiritual and certain mystical and subtle and such other things not necessarily come under the objective vocabulary like in the lab based sciences. The infinite beauty, freedom, bliss and actualization things just can not be put or presented through our finite utility devise called ‘language’ – it has it’s limitation. Here comes the need for debate over ‘literal’ vs. ‘lateral’ understanding of the things.

    Even in the writing and recording process of the scriptures, one could see there various deliberate or otherwise censors or filtering. Ultimately what we get may not necessarily the ‘essence or truth’ that the ‘saint’ wanted it to be conveyed. People do have very poor memory or may be they do not need it.

  3. Carl Avatar

    One thing I noticed in the Paschal reading this year:

    Just as Eve was made from the rib taken from Adam’s side, Christ remakes the world with the Blood (Eucharist) and Water (Baptism) from His side on the cross.

    A “literal” reading would never produce such a wonderful image. Moreover, we must say that Eve’s creation was an icon of Christ’s recreation of the world, and not the other way around.

  4. E (aka Jacob) Avatar

    Fr. Stephen:

    It seems to me that you are more (or at least) taking issue with the historical-grammatical method/hermeneutic, which seeks to limit and define a passage’s “true” meaning to what it meant to the writer/speaker/hearer, than you are with “literalism” when it comes to the Scriptures. I.e., I don’t think you would reject there having been a literal Jonah who was literally in the belly of a fish or whale (depending on whether you are reading the Hebrew or the Greek OT), or there having been a literal Adam in a literal Garden.

    (In fact, if there had been no such Jonah and no such Adam and Garden, I think the reliability of the Evangelists’ and St. Paul’s soteriology and Christology would be seriously weakened.)

    Or do you in fact think that the literalness of the “types” and “shadows” is unimportant such that Jesus could just as well have said, “And just as True Love’s Kiss awakened Sleeping Beauty from the sleep into which the Enemy had caused her to fall, so will the Holy Spirit raise Me up after I have been crucified.”?

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not think the reliability of the Evangelists and St. Paul’s soteriology and Christology are effected by how the Jonah or Genesis accounts are read – in that I think those accounts are read after the resurrection and through the resurrection of Christ rather than the other way around. I have no fuss with either, but I think we start with the crucified and risen Christ and go from there to interpret and read everything else. Christ explains Genesis, not the other way around, as is true of Jonah. The reliability of the Evangelists is underwritten by the reality of the risen Christ, as is St. Paul’s Christology and soteriology.

    Indeed, none of them would have written anything except for the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. None of them understood the Scriptures until after the Resurrection, which is clear in the NT itself. Christ Himself is the “anchor” event, if you will. That reality does not rely on the historical or non-historical character of any particular OT story.

  6. E Avatar

    I guess the point I was hinting at was that it seems to me that if there were no literal Adam, then St. Paul’s Christ-Adam analogies in Romans and 1 Corinthians, as well as his comments about women in 1 Timothy 2, lose their basis and validity. And that, to me, impacts his soteriology and Christology. If he is wrong about Adam, why should I trust what he says about Christ?

  7. Дејан Avatar

    Father, I found a quotation that can be related to literalism and I am inspired to share it here.

    Факта, закони и Истина

    Деца досежу до факата, обични људи досежу до закона, духовни људи једини досежу до Истине.
    Факт се не да измерити, закон се не да описати, Истина се не да ни измерити ни описати.
    Онај, ко стоји у Истини, може Истину осетити, но не може је речима саопштити онима, који стоје ван Истине, у кругу факата и закона.
    Факта и закони скривају и ограничавају Истину, и не дозвољавају, да се о Истини говори друкчије него кроз њих. Зато се духовни људи спуштају на ниво деце и обичних људи, када говоре о Истини.

    Свети Николај Велимировић

    In my translation:

    Facts, laws and the Truth.

    Chidren reach out to facts, ordinary people reach out to laws, spiritual people alone reach out to the Truth.
    Fact cannot be measured, law cannot be described, Truth cannot be either measured or described.
    He, who stands in Truth, can feel the Truth, but he cannot tell it in words to those, who stand outside Truth, inside the circle of facts and laws.
    Facts and laws hide and limit the Truth, and do not allow, that the Truth could be spoken of differently except through them. Therefore spiritual people lower themselves to the level of children and ordinary people, when they talk about Truth.

    St. Nikolai Velimirovich

    I hope I translated correctly. Досежу means they reach out, in context that they cannot grasp something beyond it. Једини here means “only” or “solely”, but I used word “alone” which has the same meaning. Would it be more in spirit of the English language if I translated like this – “Truth can be neither measured nor described”? I am not sure because in Serbian there is double negation – so such dilemmas do not arise.

  8. E Avatar

    IMO, if there was no Adam as portrayed in Genesis, then Paul’s Adam-Christ analogy in 1 Corinthians and Romans, and his comments about women in 1 Timothy 2, lose their validity. Which is why I suggest that his Christology and soteriology are impacted by a non-literal reading of Genesis 2-4.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    I understand the point, and am sympathetic with your concern. It’s just that I think it is a concern created by the Protestant-historical model in which if any of the historical narrative is damaged everything falls apart and I do not think the Fathers, or at least not all of them, including some significant ones, saw the Scriptures in such a way. I trust St. Paul on Christ far more than I do on any question about Adam, because Paul saw the risen Lord and knew many others (cf. Corinthians 15) who had as well. Christ’s death and resurrection and the fullness of what He reveals to us is not dependent upon something else – everything else is dependent upon Him. That St. Paul makes use of the Genesis material is obvious. That he would have subscribed to a modern (post 16th century) theory of historical narrative, etc., I do not know, but highly doubt. I’m not certain he would understand some of the arguments that Protestants have today. The Scriptures are God’s Word to the Church and are useful for doctrine, instruction, etc. But we do the Church a disservice when we remove the Scriptures from the believing Church and make them subject to objectification by the outside world (which was part of the object of Protestant historicization). The Protestants argued for such an historical approach because it did away with the need for authoritative interpretation by the Church and Tradition, which they hated and wanted to destroy. The Fathers taught us that “icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” Interestingly, icons are almost never written in what one would call a “literal” manner. And yet they are quite useful for teaching, etc.

    Christ says, “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life, but these are they which testify of me.” And the opinion of the Fathers was not simply that occasional prophesies make reference to Christ, but that He is to be found in every word as the Scriptures open themselves to us – and it is Christ we are seeking – not an explanation of science, etc.

    If you want to argue for a literal account of Adam in the garden, well and good, but the dogma of the Church does not rise or fall on such a question. It creates a false dilemma.

    I know that what I am saying may sound wrong, or new. It’s not liberalism or any form of modernism, however. It is rooted in the Patristic reading of the Scriptures and a rejection of various modern (since the 1500’s) schemes created by Protestants and others that need have no particular place within the Orthodox faith. They have created battles that we don’t need to fight.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar


    A few further thoughts. The conclusions I’ve offered here have been slow in coming – mostly over the past 15 or so years – particularly the more time I’ve spent in the theology and life of the Church. In some of these thoughts, the writings (and some conversation) of Fr. John Behr and Andrew Louth have been useful and occasionally catalytic. That, and a healthy dose of stuff when I was at Duke in grad school in the late 80’s, particularly thoughts on how the “historical” method came into existence and its formation of various kinds of modern Protestantism and subsequent theological debate. I think it very important that Orthodoxy be both aware of that development and consider its own relationship to that debate and whether we need be involved at all. I’m not arguing a hard and fast position here – but mean to put it forward forcefully. I take no insult at critique or useful observations. It seems a conversation worth having.

  11. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    I know evangelicals who are constantly caught up in the science – Creationism debates. It seems every time some new wave of naturalistic criticism of Intelligent Design swells, and a literal reading of Genesis 1 & 2 is challenged, their faith is rattled. I was rattled for a while as an evangelical wondering if I was missing something in that I did not automatically see the same kind of historicity being proclaimed from the Genesis accounts that I did in the Gospels (though I considered Genesis’ teaching of God as Creator of all and Orderer of His creation true). By contrast, a reading of the Gospels always leaves me with the impression that the bodily Resurrection of Christ from the dead is defensible as history and belief in its reality critical to a truly Christian faith as Fr. Stephen has described. I believed in and experienced Christ’s living Presence in my life long before I ever suspected there might be a problem with evolutionary theory as an explanation for the variety found in nature. Whatever one thinks Genesis 1 & 2 really means to teach, the Christian faith rests in a far more foundational way on the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, and the testimony of the Gospels regarding this event and the Person of Christ is a far more stable place to rest your faith than a reading of Genesis 1 & 2 as the same kind of historical account. My experience as an Orthodox Christian (and indeed my Christian pre-Orthodox experience) tends to corroberrate the Patristic perspective Fr. Stephen is advocating.

    The most tragic and disturbing thing for me to think about is how often the kind of debate that arises as a result of typical modern Protestant methods of reading and interpreting Scripture (whether Liberal or Conservative) distract us as Christians in this culture from examination of our own heart and walk of repentance before Christ in light of His clear teachings and the urging of His Living Holy Spirit in our consciences. Were we all to invest the kind of energy there that we do in defending our reading of Scripture against assaults from unbelievers (or other believers who are heterodox from our perspective), there would perhaps soon be no more such unbelievers, for they would see the radiance of Christ’s supernatural life and love shining from our lives!

  12. Sue Ann Edwards Avatar

    Most of our interpretations, are based upon perceiving an “absolute”, that’s limited when it comes to absolute-ness…an image of “God” that is limited in both Understanding and Compassion and this is not what Christ exemplified.

  13. E Avatar


    Sorry for the double and somewhat repetitive posting. A glitch with WordPress, I assume.

    I may have to read Behr and Louth on these things. I know Evangelical Protestant John Sailhamer in THE PENTATEUCH AS NARRATIVE alluded to the Garden, etc., as being a pre-pattern for the Tabernacle, and that it should be read in that light.

  14. Jay Avatar

    I wish God made it easier, instead of all this subtlety and semantics, and all the ambiguity about what should be interpreted figuratively, what should be interpreted literally, and indeed, what “literal” means in a specifically Christian context. You’ve written over a thousand words in an effort to qualify the term “literal” –it just seems a shame that we are not allowed a simple understanding, beautiful and self-evident.

    Oh well. Above all else, God is not simple.

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    A priest who is rightly trained spends several years (and longer) learning to rightly divide the word of truth and even then it is a matter to be referred to Tradition, etc. The myth of a simple Bible that everyone can read without instruction is also a modern invention.

    I prefer the fact that the Church’s teaching is rich – because reality is rich. Simplification is something to strive for in our hearts – but we achieve this by becoming guileless, which is a long, spiritual struggle.

    Schemes that want to simplify the Bible generally rob people of the fullness of Christian truth.

    God is not simple (in the sense of easily comprehended – He is beyond comprehension).

    Considering how many volumes have been written teaching the literalist view, and the fact that it has a sort of cultural dominance, a thousand words seems incredibly brief to me.

    Try reading Louth. My stuff will seem refreshingly simple.

  16. […] 1, 2008 by Rebecca Trotter I came across a blog post today by Father Stephen, an Orthodox Catholic priest about the problems with taking scriptures literally.  On this blog, I […]

  17. Michael P Bauman Avatar
    Michael P Bauman

    Wow, literalism, evolutionism, and the nature of God’s revelation to us and our apprehension of Him; quite a lot of ground to cover in a very short space. Some observations:

    God is simple. He is so simple that we cannot comprehend Him; caught as we are in our multiplicity of senses our falleness and our finite being. He speaks and life springs forth, or as it says in Psalm 104, 27-30

    27 These all wait for You,
    That You may give them their food in due season.
    28 What You give them they gather in;
    You open Your hand, they are filled with good.
    29 You hide Your face, they are troubled;
    You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
    30 You send forth Your Spirit, they are created;
    And You renew the face of the earth.

    Facts out of context are meaningless at best, lies at worst. History means nothing without the Alpha & Omega Who is revealed on and through the Cross. The context of the Holy Bible is the Church.

    The battle against evolutionism is neither about science nor about any interpretation of Genesis or any other Scripture. A material universe without a loving Creator who is present in all things is cold and meaningless; full of death and destruction. It is a vision of the Nietzchean triumph of Will and the Transvaluation of all Values. Such a vision destroys humanity and must never be accepted.

    Acceptance of a loving creator God, His Divine Will and hierarchy of being does not make one “un-scientific”. In fact, such acceptance is the only way for the discipline of science to bear genuine fruit

    Simplicity of thought and understanding does not come easily. Simplicity of action is even more difficult. Simplicity does not mean being simplistic or legalistic, in fact just the opposite.

    I fear I find Fr. Andrew Louth a man of great learning and little understanding; more conformed to the modern academic mind than the mind of Christ. Personally, I approach his interpretations with hearty skepticism, while being enlightened by the efforts of his scholarship.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    He’s an academic. It’s not my ministry.

    Atheism in any form (whether in the guise of science, etc.) is fruitless, indeed.

  19. Carl Avatar

    “icons are almost never written in what one would call a ‘literal’ manner.”

    Moreover, an icon that’s written as an attempt to be a “literal” record of the visual impression of the person is a worse icon! If our icons just showed us Mary the sixteen year old girl cradling her (seemingly illegitimate) baby, we would miss the point entirely. We would look at the hair between her eyebrows or the dirt on her hands. Think of Jesus’ reception in Nazareth. They knew His surface features so well that they could not see His limitless depth. The icon must be flat in order to invite the viewer to look *beyond* the icon to what the icon points to. (This is also why statuary is prohibited. Not that statues are all bad, but they invite us to get caught on the object rather than the prototype.) It’s the same reason that Jesus told parables. If He tried to speak the Truth, we would get caught on the words. By speaking in parables, He’s telling us to go beyond the words to what gives them meaning.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good points. I would not say that icons are “flat” – technically they are written in “inverse perspective” which draws us into the image and unites us. But I’m being technical, forgive. Your point is well made and stands. Thanks!

  21. Boyd Avatar

    I like your use of the word “Flat” instead of just “Literal” I have observed that so-called literalists are not above using figurative interpretations when it serves their purposes, even for events that are plainly literal!
    What appeals to me about Orthodox hermeneutics, and what I hear you explaining in this discourse, is that it is not one person’s reading of the Scripture that counts, but the reading of the whole church, a reading that can only mature over time, and which is formed by the direction of the Holy Spirit. Protestant hermeneutics, in contrast, under the guise of “Sola Scriptura” quickly become “Sola-just-what-I-think.” It reminds me of that line in the classic movie, Time Bandits, “I thought we all agreed to be a democracy, so everybody do just what I tell you.” (Remembered dimly.) Some of the modern evangelicals will say they are telling you exactly what the Bible means, literally, and then come up with the most off-the-wall ideas ever expounded, such as this Word-Faith business.

  22. irishanglican Avatar

    I would challenge you Fr. Stephan to read: Future Israel, Why Christian Anti-Judaism Must Be Challenged, by Barry E. Horner (ISBN 978 – 080544627-2)

    Fr. Robert (Anglican)

  23. irishanglican Avatar

    This is a friendly challenge! I will not go to task with the many “straw men” arguments on here. Just make this challenge to read this important book!

  24. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Hold it right there, IrishAnglican. Father Stephan isn’t allowed to read any non-Orthodox author until he reads N. T. Wright. Doctor’s orders!

  25. irishanglican Avatar

    Well NT is from my world, not sure about the doctor?

  26. Ksenia Avatar

    I remember St. Silouan’s portrayal of Adam as weeping his whole life for the vision of God he had lost. He had learned the purpose of man, to see Him, know and love Him. He kept to the narrow way, even through the centuries of waiting for Christ to appear in His glorious Light to smash open the bonds of Hades, and to destroy death by His Resurrection. Through Christ, he is both a type and a living saint, who sees Him continually “as an arrow fixed in a wall”…
    It is ironic that to reach the unlimited openness of the Truth, we are completely bound in our limitations as sinners, as ones condemned to die (bound by time) with our days numbered. We are the ones with the problem, of not being able to see Him. He appears to the whole world, uncontainable, as the writer has said. We have to be painfully aware of our limits before Him, in His Presence, and this makes us humble and repent. The saints are so down to earth, that often they are misunderstood and hidden.
    I read the second post before this one, so my comment is informed by both posts. I appreciate these posts, because there is something very deadening to my spirit about the world-view which presents this interpretaion of the scripture blown apart here. The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life. This world view, as one comment suggests, would turn the Orthodox Church into a group of enthusiastic reenactors of an admirable tradition, curators of a curious and interesting living museum. A reduction of life to materialism and money also fills me with deadness. Thank you for presenting an alternative, for me the only alternative to this death-in-life. A true philosophy has a great value– but to live it out, and actually to experience the Truth suggested in shadows by the philosophy– well that is a whole ‘nuther story, as we say where I am from. In short, the Truth is limitless, but to reach Him is a narrow way, constrained by the knowledge and sorrow over one’s own limits.

  27. Robert Avatar

    What do we do with the many references Christ Himself makes to OT accounts, such as Jonah, Noah & the flood, Lot & Sodom, Moses & the burning bush? No sign from Him that these scriptures are to be understood as mere “stories” – figurative or non-historical.

    Before we get too far down picking on our Protestant brethren and create a wedge of contention, we Orthodox must understand that this attempt to root scripture in history by and large is done in defense to those attacks on the veracity and trustworthiness of the Biblical account itself. The type of assault that claims there was no Jonah, no Moses, no burning bush, no Adam and no Eden, no Abraham, and no Jesus in history — merely figuratively.

    How, for instance, as Orthodox are we to understand Christ’s words when He said “many widows were in Israel in the days of Elisha, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months” (Luke 4:25)?

    Furthermore we must not make the mistake that a historical event in time can have only one meaning. This is certainly not what a true historical exegesis necessitates nor should be reduced to.

  28. Robert Avatar

    About Icons

    CARL said ” If our icons just showed us Mary the sixteen year old girl cradling her (seemingly illegitimate) baby, we would miss the point entirely. We would look at the hair between her eyebrows or the dirt on her hands. ”

    While not disagreeing with you, to me there is another way of looking at this.
    If I can see “the point” inspite of her humanity -the dirt on her hands, the apparent scandal, the hair between her eyebrows- I would be the better for it! Didn’t her and His contemporaries have to face this very difficult choice? To see the Son of God in the humble carpenter boy? To see the Theotokos inspite of the Mary we knew from the next village over who appeared
    to have scandalously given birth to Joseph’s son.

    I do agree with you about the Icons, they should not be photographs. All I am saying there is more to the story. Would we recognize a Saint in flesh and bone? No halo, no stylistic inverse perspective, but humanity, warts and all, hair between the eyebrows? Would we? We should not lose sight of the fact that these Saints were real (albeit special) people. A true challenge I hope and pray we will measure up to it by God’s grace and mercy.

  29. Carl Avatar

    I concede the point.

  30. Robert Avatar

    Father Bless!

    Fr. Stephen, for the sake of clarity, would you be so kind and define “literal” as you use it in your fine post? Undefined it leaves room for confusion, as I know at least one defintion of “literal” which certainly does not exclude the poetic, the figurative or the metaphorical –when these are indeed in the primary meaning of a text. As you so well point out, simplification can do harm. But we must not make that same mistake here.

  31. Isaac the Syrian Avatar
    Isaac the Syrian


    I wouldn’t read a book that confused issues with the state of Israel with anti-Semitism. Needless to say, the real issue seems to be the wholly uncritical view with which dispensationalist evangelicals and fundamentalists support the state of Israel no matter her crimes.

    You come across as rude and frankly a bit of a blog stalker.

  32. Basil Avatar

    Christ is risen!

    This is so tangential, but because it hurt to read the last comment I’ll just say that the ‘irishanglican’ actually is not rude, if you see his history on this blog.
    he was commended in past postings in fact for his irenic tone!
    reading his comments *just here*, he seems abrupt and ‘pushy’.
    this, i think, is because he recognizes Fr Gregory is a deeply good man, and he (perhaps desperately?) hopes to win such a good man over to a whole other worldview. thinking if he would just read this other book from within that paradigm and see how cogent it all is, then just maybe the good man would ‘switch over’.
    perhaps I read too much into the motives. forgive me!

    however regardless, i would just like to say that the irishanglican is not rude but quite respectful, given how radically he disagrees with our Orthodox Faith ‘worldview’. He is using much restraint!

    -Mark Basil

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    Irish Anglican – I do not see where anything in this post refers to Israel or is anti-Israel. It’s beside the point here.

  34. fatherstephen Avatar


    My use of literal is in reference to a view that sees every Biblical account as interpreted as the “author” intended, and as comparable to newspaper accounts, etc.

    The Church has not so treated them. There must not be an insistence that if Christ cites a story He is therefore subscribing to a literalism. Perhaps so, perhaps not. It’s not really the issue.

    I understand the defense that modern conservative Protestant have mounted on behalf of the veracity of Scripture. But they set up the straw man by defining Scripture as a literal (at all times) writing. It is Holy Writing, the Word of God and reveals to us what God wants to make known. It does this in many ways – and is the Church’s book, not the world’s book, not man’s book, but the book that is rightly read by and in the Church. We cannot remove it and subject it to some so-called scientific, historical analysis.

    The Church clearly has never had a problem accepting the 4 gospels, despite discrepancies. Indeed Marcion’s attempt to make them into one gospel (another attempt at a literalism) was condemned by the Church who insisted that the 4 stay as they are.

    There may be differing icons of Christ, but they are all icons of Christ. The central point for us as Orthodox Christians is the Incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ. They happened in history and also transcend history and all “history” must be read from them. They dictate the meaning and right understanding of all things. We cannot read the Bible independent of Christ and His coming, or use it to “confirm” Him. He confirms Scripture, when it is read in a manner in which His life, death and resurrection are the central point of everything.

    Christ is the veracity of Scripture – indeed He is the veracity of the whole universe. He alone is the Truth and all truth is true only in relation to Him.

    Thus, by literal, I would mean an independent, historical account that can be read apart from Christ. Just like some think there is an independent nature when can be approached apart from Christ (this is the heart of secularism). Thus I compare both to one another.

    I am arguing for a true integration and refusing to grant to secularism the right to dictate the terms for the interpretation of Scripture. Several of the early Fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian – in his pre-heretical days) argued that non-Christians could not use Scripture for it was impossible for them to read it correctly.

    Literalism tends to define existence as something somehow independent of God and the text as independent of Him, even if they believe it is His Word. It’s like the notion of a Church as a fellowship, rather than seeing the Church as the Body of Christ, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, etc.

    We stand within Christ when we do anything and everything. It’s meaning comes from Him and for Him. We use texts in the liturgical life of the Church as they relate to that liturgical life, frequently removing them from their “historical” setting and applying them as the mind of the Church has seen them.

    I’m not trying to anti-historical, but rather arguing that Christ redefines what we mean by historical. He is the Alpha and the Omega and yet comes among us. That changes history.

    Perhaps you think I’m taking this too far. Though what I’ve done is only minor in comparison to some of the Fathers such as St. Maximus the Confessor and some others.

    I believe there is such a thing as an Orthodox hermeneutic and it is not the same as a Protestant hermeneutic, etc. I believe the Church must seek to recover this hermeneutic into its life and thought. Thus the postings…

  35. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Hi Robert,

    If we see them as icons, then we do in fact have a third option. We see something that does indeed encompass the history and intentions of the author, but has a different character to it.

    Take Homer, for a non-biblical example. Say I went back in time to Troy, and took a video camera. I brought it back to Homer, and said that my camera recorded a very different picture of his account of the siege of Troy. I saw no gods, the timetable was different, the events played out differently, etc. I honestly doubt Homer (if he rightly understood what I meant) would skip a beat – of COURSE I didn’t see what he saw. He was given his version of the story from the Muses themselves. Would I expect to see the truth with mortal eyes and a mechanical device? It’s not that Homer spoke “figuratively” of Troy – he would say he spoke truly.

    In the same sense, Genesis speaks truly of our origins, and truly about Christ. But it may not be the same picture as we would have seen had we been there with a video camera. Nevertheless, it is how God wants us to see our origins and understand himself.

    Remember Dostoyevski:

    What a book is the Holy Scripture, what miracle, what power are given to man with it! Like a carven image of the world, and of man, and of human characters, and everything is named and set forth unto ages of ages.

    Notice he doesn’t say: like an unbiased journalistic account, where everything is observed and documented unto ages of ages. That doesn’t mean the stories cannot be appealed to as having happened, but it does mean that it might look different.

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    I notice that many people, in speaking of heaven and hell, do not hesitate to use Christ’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus, though it is a parable. The literalness with which the “gulf fixed between us and you” is a matter of dogma for some, though it is probably a misuse of the parable.

    I grew up in a Protestant world of literalism. I became an Anglican and was trained in historical-critical methods. Neither seemed satisfactory. What I have seen in the Fathers is a third and more excellent way. For some Orthodoxy is simply another way to try and support the Protestant fundamentalist contentions, viz. history, enlisting Tradition as one more argument. But this is a misuse of the Fathers, who read Scripture frequently in a manner like none of the above. Chrysostom tends to be the most literal – as a good son of Antioch. But there are many others to be read as well.

  37. irishanglican Avatar

    Wow, I am impressed with so many of you Orthodox, least from the blogs that Fr. Stephen creates. I have taken my share of “welts” (lol) from the so-called Greco-Russian Orthodox, with them I am fully heterodox..just to show up and not fully agree, but that is another place thank God.
    Isaac the Syrian, I am not really much of a hard blogger, and no stalker, so you can relax. I am only seeking to dialog and interface with your beloved Father Stephen some. If I did not respect him, I would be somewhere else. I taught both philosophy and theology in Jerusalem, so I know a bit about a very different culture. My position on Israel is not just academia, as I have come to love the Jewish people very much. If I have any presupposition here, it is the love for the Jewish people, and their struggle in both their history, and now almost 60 year old homeland. But yes, I love modern Israel! Though I do not give them any blank check either!

    As to the book, it is just an offer…if you want to see and understand what many believe about biblical Israel, past and present (for them, and yes me anyway). It is always good to read what the other positions are, before one goes into a diatribe. My thoughts at least. I did not write the book remember, but believe in its overall positions and idea. But I am not one who follows the “pop” prophetic culture either.

    Mark Basil, thank you my dear brother to give me your brotherhood and open heart. It is very much appreciated! And really, if I have any desperation here, it is for my beloved friends in Isrsel. They are surrounded by many enemies, who really hate them, and want their destruction, quite literally! I was in Gulf War 1 myself, a Royal Marine officer (we had some deep op mssions with or toward the bad guys, and they were really bad! Plus, I did get to work with some Israeli military later – not in Gulf 1 however. So I guess this is another presupposition.)

    Finally, I have not shared this, but for what its worth, I will now. I am an auxiliary bishop (Anglican). So I hope I am not grinding any theological axe, but just seeking some true dialog. I am at present, on holiday visiting my baby brother (45)

    Peace of Christ,
    Fr. Robert

  38. fatherstephen Avatar


    Are you in communion with the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Church in England?

  39. Phil Avatar

    irishanglican, if I may do some supposing myself, I think the objections to your post stem from a) its insinuation of anti-Semitism on the part of others and b) its near-total irrelevance to anything mentioned in this post or its comments.

  40. Robert Avatar

    Father Bless!

    Thank you for your response and the clarification. Fr Stephen I believe you are getting to the heart of the issue when you state: “I believe there is such a thing as an Orthodox hermeneutic and it is not the same as a Protestant hermeneutic…” Let me start off by saying that I wholeheartedly agree and that the recovery of the Orthodox hermeneutic is a cause I share (son of Antioch I am, it must run in my blood!).

    I believe it is important to understand, as you do, that the Scriptures are an interpretation, indeed the Church’s interpretation (this is sometimes referred to as the Apostolic Hermeneutic and/or the Patristic Hermeneutic). I believe this AH/PH is the Orthodox Hermeneutic. Inasmuch as any understanding of Scripture endeavors to determine the primary meaning of a Biblical text (i.e. utilizing AH/PH) it can be considered “literal” in the primary definition of this term – being faithful to the primary meaning of the text as the author intended. But this makes sense from an Orthodox perspective only when we see the Scriptures as an interpretation – not reduced to a journalistical neutral (if there is even such) account of events in history. As you point out correctly Fr Stephen, such a pure historical/grammatical approach, as many Protestants have taken, misses the meaning of Scripture. And thus the Orthodox Hermeneutic can only be understood in context of the life of the Church (and thus from Christ).

    It must also be noted, for the sake of clarification, that the Scriptures consist of and utilize a wide variety of literary styles and methods. As such we should not approach every biblical text in the same manner. The Gospels and the book of Acts, for instance, are much more concerned with historical events than for instance the Psalms are. This is not to say that the Gospels are purely concerned with historical events. A quick glance at the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of the Gospel of St. John illustrates my point. It is after all an Apostolic intepretation as pointed out earlier. However, we see in chapter 2 a shift to a historical accounting, but even as such by its very inclusion into the narrative, St. John is “interpreting” historical events for us.

    All this to say that an Orthodox Hermeneutic has to take all these (and other) things into consideration. And this is far from simple, but necessary.

  41. Robert Avatar

    Dear Wonders for Oyarsa,

    Yes I agree with your comments about the Icons and Scripture.

    Icons provide us with a perspective, and as such are an intepretation. A faithful, Orthodox interpretation.

  42. irishanglican Avatar

    Check me if I’m wrong (I know someone will)…Are no Icons like a little window to heaven, for the Orthodox?

  43. fatherstephen Avatar

    Icons are described as “Windows to Heaven,” but it is a heavily laden theological phrase. St. Theodore the Studite is probably the best writing on the subject of how icons are icons.

  44. irishanglican Avatar

    Thanks for this, I am on this subject only one that enjoys the Icon, and my feeble but real look into God’s mystery here!

  45. tduffie Avatar

    When is “literal” literal? Based on the teachings that I’ve received: God literally created the human beings (as opposed to having evolved); Christ literally resurrected from the dead and He proclaimed that bread and wine are literally His body and blood.
    I understand and comply with the original post and the Christocentric understanding of Scripture, but these are sincere questions.
    I recall discussing with a religious person the issue of evolution vs creation. When spoke of the Biblical account, he said that the creating of man in the image and likeness of God was ‘spiritual’. I understood his intended meaning, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there is a sort of union of ‘literal’ and ‘symbolic’ understanding that can be received from Scriptures. And where, if anywhere, is the line drawn.


  46. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think that “literally” is a word that has been coopted by a school of interpretation that makes it problematic in Orthodox theology. It becomes confused with truly, thus only those things that are considered “literal” are considered true, and it tends to place a secularized, i.e. autonomous character to creation, as the criterion of reality, whereas Christ is the criterion.

    For instance, we confess: I believe and I confess that this is truly thine own most pure body and this is truly thine own most precious blood, etc.

    Of course this is so. But would someone saying “literally” not mean that they no longer would see bread and wine? I’m not sure. The holy sacrament is truly and really the Body and Blood of Christ, though we still bread and wine and taste bread and wine. Thus truly has some sort of meaning different than the common usage of literally, or so it would seem.

    I certainly believe Christ was raised from the dead, and whether we use literally or any other adjective matters nothing to me – it really and truly happened.

    Symbolic is actually a strong word, that has only been weakened through modern usage, particular through the philosophy of nominalism.

    The Fathers frequently used words like the Symbols of Christ Body and Blood and meant by that that they truly were His Body and Blood and not something that stood in its place. The word has changed in its meaning.

    God created man, and everything that exists. This is the dogma of the Church. How God has done so remains largely unknown. All that is came into existence from nothing (ultimately) by His word. But this does not describe any science, etc.

    But much of the argument about literal and Scripture, etc., are rooted in 19th century Protestant anxieties when their historical-literal method of Scriptural interpretation came under attack from certain areas of science.

    Both of them were engaged in an argument that Orthodox need not have. Bad science and bad Scripture interpretation are not a battle that belongs to us. Better to let it rest. And to study how it is that we are not part of that conversation.

  47. E (aka Jacob) Avatar

    I certainly believe Christ was raised from the dead, and whether we use literally or any other adjective matters nothing to me – it really and truly happened.

    Since we’re not talking simply about a resuscitated corpse – which is what being literally raised from the dead would mean when talking about any other person coming back to life after having died – and since who/what was raised is connected to but not identical to what died and was buried (1 Corinthians 15:42ff), to say that Christ was “literally” raised from the dead seems to me to first require some basic definitions re: what and who was raised and in what form, and what relationship (physically, spiritually and temporally) the raised one had to the one who died, and what one means by that in terms of nature, ousia, hypostasis, etc.

    I suspect it might require a Church Council, if the literature hasn’t already settled these questions and/or determined that nothing more should be said than that He died and was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven. :^)

    Forgive me if I wrote any error.

  48. irishanglican Avatar

    Amen there Fr. Stephen…as to bad science and bad Scripture interpretation! Indeed too many (but not all) in the West, went off first happily with Darwin, and both bad science and bad theology incurred. Now hopefully many are waking up to this fact. (For what it’s worth, after the RAF, my father was a physicist. I learned much from him and his honest search! He followed much of Einstein, and even his sort of mystical Theism).

  49. irishanglican Avatar

    E (aka Jacob),
    I understand what you are saying, but this can be a very slippery slope, many so-called Christians..Roman and Protestant, have turned the Resurrection into a subjective, again, so-called theological myth. We must be very careful to maintain the Resurrection Body of our Lord rose from the dead! It’s definition is “spiritual” ..St. Paul, but the real dead body of Christ was risen, changed and then really ascended. He is even now still incarnate at the Right Hand of God, on the throne of God! This may not be an issue with the Orthodox, but in the West..we must state that our Lord rose again…reality!

  50. fatherstephen Avatar

    In movement away from Christ being truly and really resurrected would be heresy to the Orthodox. He certainly was far more resuscitated, indeed. He is the first-born of a new creation (though He is God). The Orthodox have no movements or hesitancy about the reality of all this. In that sense, Western liberalism has left us untouched. Indeed, it’s part of what Florovsky called the “religious tragedy” of the West.

    But this is why the Orthodox are the Orthodox (not that we do not have our constant struggles as well. Were there no struggles, how would we be saved?)

  51. Lucian Avatar

    Irish Anglican,

    not only that “literalism” is a concept foreign to Orthodoxy (Islamic and Talmudic influence), but “political correctness” is likewise one. Just because we treat different portions of the Bible differently and view them through different lenses, using different methodes or techniques of interpretation, doesn’t mean we’re breakin’ any laws here. >:) So, if I treat -say- the beginning of Genesis up ’till the time of Abraham more metaphorically, and the rest more literally, there’s no harm done. 😐

  52. irishanglican Avatar

    Not sure what ya are driv’in at? Even Calvin took a more “metaphorical” interpretation of Genesis 1-3.
    As to modern Israel, I am anything but “politically correct”! And I do NOT believe that the Church inherited all the privileges of Israel. The modern Jewish State established in the Holy Land in 1948 (60 years this month), and that bears the name of Israel, is certainly a providence of God! (Rom. 11: 28)

    Finally, one cannot do away with the grammar of scripture! Nor the historical. For me as an Anglican evangelical the primary principle of authority is in God’s own self-disclosure – and produces the immediate principle of authority – the Spirit speaking in the Scripture. As a result, final authority lies neither in the book itself, nor the Spirit (alone), but in the revelation to Christ Jesus, to which the Bible witnesses as the Spirit effects illumination. Again finally, this means that the NT is authoritative because it is the apostlic witness to the revelation of God in Christ!

  53. irishanglican Avatar

    “apostolic”..sorry again poor type!

  54. BV Avatar

    Of course this is so. But would someone saying “literally” not mean that they no longer would see bread and wine? I’m not sure. The holy sacrament is truly and really the Body and Blood of Christ, though we still bread and wine and taste bread and wine. Thus truly has some sort of meaning different than the common usage of literally, or so it would seem.

    Interesting Fr. Stephen would bring up the Eucharist. In a Western, transubstantiation context, such a belief on the “Real Presence” has consequences on how one “reads” the Scriptures. Passages such as John 6 are therefore interpreted in a “literal” meaning. Same thing for those who read in presuppositions with regard to the Creation of the world-the Young Earth Creationist bring that presupposition to bear on Genesis 1 and 2.

    But honestly I’m a little confused. Clearly the Orthodox hold some presuppositions that require a certain reading of the texts of Scripture. The Real Presence would seem to emerge as an example. Perhaps Fr. Stephen could clarify this point.

  55. Robert Avatar

    Dear BV,

    The first and foremost presupposition is that the Scriptures can only be rightly understood in the context of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Hermeneutic can also be defined as the Apostolic or Patristic Hermeneutic. In other words, we approach a particular biblical passage in the context of Apostolic Teaching and Tradition. Scripture in fact is part of Tradition.

    I hope that helps – or at it at least will tie you over until Fr Stephen gets a chance to respond : )

  56. Michael Avatar

    “I trust St. Paul on Christ far more than I do on any question about Adam, because Paul saw the risen Lord and knew many others (cf. Corinthians 15) who had as well. Christ’s death and resurrection and the fullness of what He reveals to us is not dependent upon something else – everything else is dependent upon Him.”

    I find the above problematic. Why couldn’t we trust St. Paul on questions about Adam as much as we trust him on the risen Lord? After all, at the end of the day, aren’t we really trusting the Holy Spirit? Isn’t Holy Tradition, of which Scripture is a part, the “life of the Spirit in the Church?” Just as God can “guide” St. Paul as he writes of the risen Lord, can’t he just as easily “guide” St. Paul as he writes of things that are outside his immediate experience?

    It seems to me there is a false and unnecessary dichotomy that is being made here in an attempt to avoid the hermeutical follies and excesses of some elements of Protestantism. It seems that some Orthodox are suggesting we **must** have a spirit of agnosticsm when it comes to the historicity of many OT texts, otherwise we **undeniably** fall into the error(s) of the heterodox.

    From my vantage point the aforementioned Protestants err not because they seek a single interpretation, but because they seek a single meaning, and they do so because they are outside the Orthodox Church, not because they have fallen for some modern form of “literalism.”

    Anyway, just my .02

  57. Robert Avatar

    Hi Michael,

    That is a good .02 cents worth!

    I share your concern and you make some excellent points.

    I would say that indeed yes we can trust the Holy Spirit to guide St Paul in writing about Adam. But that is just it, Michael, Paul’s mission and writing was of Christ – not Adam. In Paul’s writing there is indeed relatively little we learn about Adam; we believe this to be for good reasons and in this we must trust the Holy Spirit. It was after all the Holy Spirit that guided St Paul (so we believe).

    On the other hand:

    As far as your concern about “a spirit of agnosticsm when it comes to the historicity of many OT texts” I would like to refer to my post above in defense of the use of a “literal” interpretation – in the classical sense of “literal” (as in “primary meaning intended by author”). Yes! We cannot claim this agnosticism in cases when historicity is the literal interpretation of a text.

    So it is we agree: the Scriptures are to be rightly understood by the power of the Holy Spirit in context of the life of the Church, the Body of Christ.

    I would like to repeat this quote from Fr Meyendorff, as it is so relevant to these matters:
    “The witness of the Apostles would have been valueless without the miracle of Pentecost, unless the Spirit had come not merely to the Twelve but to the entire Church. The Church is thus founded not only by the Apostles but on them, as well as in the Holy Spirit . . . . It is the Spirit who defines the canon of Scripture in the Church and preserves the Church through the centuries in truth and faithfulness to its Head. . . . Scripture includes the totality of the apostolic witness and nothing can be added by way of completing our knowledge of the person of Jesus, his work, and the salvation which he brought us; but this written witness regarding Christ was not launched in a void . . . it was given to a community which had been founded by these Apostles and which had received the same Spirit. This community is the Church, which has received the Scripture and acknowledges in it the Truth . . . and interprets this corpus of writings with the help of the Spirit.” — from his book “the Orthodox Church”

  58. fatherstephen Avatar

    I do not arge one way or another about the “literal nature of the Genesis texts – and their quoting by St. Paul or Christ is not proof of “literalness” but a proof of the trustworthiness for doctrine, etc. What I do not want to do is tie the trustworthiness of Scripture to a secular standard (such as accuracy in all historical detail). The Word of God does not require this standard. The Church knows the difference between was is true and what is not and we have no doubt about such things. But the Church never spoke definitively or found it necessary to marry itself to a standard or test of some non-Church criterion (such as historical accuracy). Indeed, in some cases it seems to have embraced and defended variations (as between the gospels) without blinking an eye.

    St. Paul does many things with OT texts but he treats a text as a Holy Writing, not as a pure history book. There is a huge difference. If one believes in the historical veracity of every detail, that’s fine, but that is not the criterion of what makes it Scripture. Obviously some things must be true on a “literal” level or else the faith would be in vain (resurrection and the like), but the Church is clear on these and there is no danger of their loss.

    Biblical exegesis has included both Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia, et al, though both extremes led to problems.

    But we need not embrace B.B. Warfield as an Orthodox interpreter of Scripture.

  59. Lucian Avatar

    Irish Anglican,

    All I’m sayin’ is that, as Orthodox, I’m not obliged by anyone or anything to be “politically correct” with the Bible-verses, treatin’ them all as equal … because this modern and Western-European concepts (literalism, textual criticism, political correctness), which are no older than 500 yrs tops (and others no older than 200 yrs), had no influence on the ancient Semites that lived 3,500 yrs ago (which I really doubt penned their Holy Books with an eye to “science” — another modern concept … if they would’ve wanted to be more poetical-allegorical-mystical-metaphorical in their history-tellin’, then I can honestly think of NO possible reason for them NOT to be such); or on Jesus and His Holy Apostles and the Church Fathers (which are only interested in spiritual and typological Scripture-readings: John 5:39).

    As to the modern state of Israel … where did THAT part come from? :-

    To treat the Resurrection in the same vein as “Anything Else” is not conceivable, let alone even possible: Christ is the [ultimate] reality; everything else is a type of the reality, pointing to it (OT Scriptures especially). Types may or may not be literally “real” … but the Reality towards which they are pointing is always as literally “real” as can be. What safeguards us against disbelief is our understanding of the OT as primarily typological in essence … and the fact that the A.N.E. guys in the third millennium BC had no such concept of ‘political correctness’ : just ’cause SOME things were more metaphorical than others does not mean that ALL things HAVE TO be so (due to the un-Biblical yet Orwellian and constitutional “golden rule”: “all verses are [created] equal”). Just ’cause Genesis up til Abraham might be more allegorical does not mean that the Gospels are that way also. (Nor the otehr way around: just because later parts are more historical does not implicitely mean that what precedes them HAS TO be so also).

    Creedal statements precede the writing of the first books of the New Testaments by decades … and the developement of the NT and OT Canons by centuries. That Christ existed and is God and the Son of God and was born of a Virgin and died for our sins and came back to life to rise up to the right hand of Power and come back again to judge the quick and the dead is indisputable; … that Genesis 1-11 is literal or not is not a dogmatical statement (neither one way, nor the other).

    SO: from the ancient Jewish-Semitic-A.N.E. P.O.V., neither literalism nor scientism nor political correctness nor scientifical accuracy are the norm … and from the Chr. P.O.V., all we care about is the spiritual and Christocentrical meaning (the later showing forth Christ; the former showing us how to follow Him).

    And sorry (Fr. Stephen and Irish Anglican) for writing entire novels here … 🙁 (Phew!).

  60. fatherstephen Avatar

    Lucian, well put.

    I think it might be helpful to some were I to say that I think the Genesis accounts are composed “iconically” and present us the truth of Creation, in iconic form. We could not have had a scientific description and it would have been of no use.

    Even the gospels frequently use “iconic” forms for structuring the telling of a story or the organization of the gospel itself. This should not trouble Orthodox Christians.

    We simple do not need to subscribe to conservative and fundamentalist Protestant methods of interpretation.

  61. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    Thank you all for finally getting down to my poor cognitive level. After 60 posts I am just starting to understand what you are talking about.
    Christ is Risen!

  62. tduffie Avatar

    Fr Stephen,
    Those of us in a transitional period (from evangelical/reformed to Orthodox) often find ourselves perplexed by a ‘new way of seeing’. From our education in both schools and churches, we’ve developed a rigid view of ‘literal’, ‘figurative’, etc. One Orthodox priest recently spoke of the human brain being an icon of our relationship with God: left brain and right brain. I understood this can refer to our Western perceptions of science and faith. For instance, would it be correct to assume that light on the 1st day of Creation and as Einstein perceived it to be a sort of ‘icon’ of that True Light, the Light of the World, who is Christ?


  63. irishanglican Avatar

    Dear Handmaid Anna…in reality we are all on poor cognitive levels. And this is not some false humility, but the sad fact. Perhaps purity of heart is to will one thing…our relationship to God. Show us the way dear woman! But on our part, we properly do not control HIM, but He us, if we are seeking Him. But graciously and tenderly. Thanks to hang in there with me, a poor Western man…remember I am really Irish! lol

    tduffie…you have said it well. I am in fact drawn toward Orthodoxy. But the whole left-right brain thing is itself Western. Did somebody say Freud, I hope not? lol Please not the subconscious and psychoanalysis!
    Again, to me a real “evangelical” is someone who has met God in His own self-disclosure. Note, how many evangelicals are going over to Orthodoxy. The need to deepen the reality of the mystic Christ, or even really find it?

    Fr. Stephen, well said about Genesis. As one great Anglican said: “Can we rescue a word, and discover a universe? Can we study a language, and awake to truth? Can we bury ourselves in a lexicon, and arise in the presence of God? (Sir Edwyn Hoskyns) I am still not sure about the depth of an Orthodox hermeneutic alone? It seems we need to consider all Christian resources and experiences. I read also people like Martin Buber (Jewish), and find deep truth. Is not this still part of the Judeo-Christian reality?

    Peace of Christ
    Fr. Robert…Irish

  64. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think it makes sense to refer to that light of creation as an “icon” of the True Light, certainly. Light in many circumstances serves as such an icon. The way we use light in the liturgies and services, for example.

  65. fatherstephen Avatar


    I suspect you’re being humble or our writing has been truly obscure. The latter may be possible. 60 posts is questionable anyway. I used to say anything beyond 50 and light ceases to be shed. I’m glad you’ve corrected that for me. 🙂

  66. irishanglican Avatar

    Also, St. John the Apostle said: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:4) St. John says, “God IS light!” No metaphor here! The whole reality of the light/darkness contrast is redemptive! “IN him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not OVERCOME IT.” (St. John 1:4-5) And, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet THE WORLD did not know him.” (St. John 1: 9-10) Wow, the incarnate God coming into His own creation, His own things, that is His own domain…His own people (Israel). But they as a nation, and whole people, did not recieve Him. But, those that did “receive him”, who “believed in his name”, “HE gave the right to become children of God”…”born” (alone) by/of God! (St. John 1: 12-13)

    Bow down my soul! The grace, the glory and wonder and power of God In Christ!

  67. William Avatar

    Sorry to lengthen the comments with what is perhaps just redundancy, but I thought I’d add on the topic of Paul’s references to Adam: Those references don’t force us into reading the Genesis passages “literally” or “allegorically.” We can assume that Paul meant in his mentions of Adam the same thing that the writer(s) of Genesis meant, and so Paul does not pose a conundrum for us. We can assume the same things with Jesus’ references to Jonah and so on. Such references are not about how “historical” the Old Testament stories are but about what they mean in the light of Christ.

  68. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    Father Bless,
    Robert, Michael, and Fr. Meyendorff, thankfully, were the ones that helped me understand the discussion a little better.

  69. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have to admit that the relationship between how Scripture “means” and how an icon “means” was part of my thesis at Duke – thus I get tempted to get a little obscure when I get on the topic. I suppose it’s why comments can be as helpful as they often are.

  70. irishanglican Avatar

    If I said this already? Forgive me, but St. Paul uses and quotes Gen. 1:3 in 2 Cor. 4:6…”For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts..etc.” Here again, the contrast is spiritual, redemptive and points to our new creation In Christ. And then St. Paul can be also typological, as in 1 Cor. 10, but this is another subject.

  71. irishanglican Avatar

    Fr. Stephen…I have enjoyed your blogs immensely, as most of the Orthodox here also. Thank you, all of you!
    Duke, sounds great. I was a Manchester guy.

  72. irishanglican Avatar

    Lot’s of us Irish in Liverpool ya know…not so far is Manchester, city & port in Lancashire. The University has many RC ‘s. Is not Duke Methodist?

  73. irishanglican Avatar

    Sorry to get off track a bit, I could brag about Manchester (which I miss right now). It is famous for its great libraries! The John Rylands library, etc. Many private, public and specialized libraries. Who likes books here? lol

  74. William Avatar

    Yes, I think I misstated things when I said that Paul meant by his references to Adam “the same thing” that the writer(s) of Genesis meant, as though the original writer’s intent is what had to be preserved. What I mean is that, as Christians, we can see the same thing in Paul’s references to Genesis as we see when we’re reading Genesis, without having to wonder whether one makes the other “literal” or not. The two are in harmony however they are read. Not sure if I’m making sense. Sorry.

  75. irishanglican Avatar

    Do the Orthodox believe in the study of the the Text in its original language..Hebrew & Greek, etc.? And how can we not have the “historical approach” to the text, according to the original writer or speaker? Must not this be first place? As my mind sees it exegesis before interpretation. As some one has said: “A paticular passage does not yield its full meaning except in the context of a whole book, and the larger context of the whole Bible.” I just don’t see an Orthodox hermeneutic alone? And I am trying!

  76. irishanglican Avatar

    Perhaps there is a certain Orthodox theological deposit or background? Does not each Christian, and especially each preacher have his own sanctified individuality? As “truth through Personality”! But within the context of the Orthodox theology and deposit?

    Perhaps these are questions beyond a blog?

  77. fatherstephen Avatar

    The Orthodox deposit is the Living Church itself, in the fullness of its faith, sacraments, the whole of its life, which includes not only its life in the present but its life throughout the ages. We do not lose our personhood in this, of course, but through each of us it is the one life of Christ that is made manifest (if it is the Truth that is made manifest). What I am saying is that exegesis and hermeneutic, though they involve texts, and study, etc., are not intellecutal exercises, but rather are exercises in living obedience to Christ. The text is not finished in its interpretation until it is lived and made manifest in the life of the Church.

    The Orthodox Church is a hermeneutic – it is the living interpretation of the Holy Scripture in its fullness (though there are failures in each individual member). The interpretation of Scripture is not something done by an individual (“no private interpretation) but is something made manifest in the fullness of the life of the Church.

    The fragmentation of interpretation outside the Orthodox Church is a manifestation of the fragmentation of Christianity, the loss of a proper understanding of ecclesiology, and the substitution of individualism for the proper corporate life of a Christian. Today, outside of Orthodoxy, there is simply opinions – one man’s thoughts compared to another man’s. There is no common faith, no common life. The result has been the loss of a proper understanding of salvation and the work of Christ. God is merciful and gives His grace to all – but that does not validate the permutations of Christianity outside the Orthodox faith. It simply means that God is good and is kind to all.

  78. Robert Avatar

    Dear Handmaid Anna – so glad to be of help. I would like to underline that I have the same perspective as Fr. Stephen, we are not in disagreement but we are using slightly different words to essentially say the same thing (he is much more eloquent!).

    Dear IrishAnglican – yes we Orthodox do indeed use a historical and grammatical approach. However, this is never done out of context of the Orthodox Church, her life, her witness. We do not share the assumptions of those outside the Church – assumptions such as starting with the Bible to arrive at the truth; that the Bible stands above the Church; that the Bible is simple, clear, and to be understood through pure textual criticism.
    You mention “A particular passage does not yield its full meaning except in the context of a whole book, and the larger context of the whole Bible.” We cannot subscribe to such an approach, as the underlying assumption of this approach is that the Bible stands alone, and above the Church.

    Fr. Stephen – the result of positioning the Scriptures above the Church (through constructs such as Sola Scriptura or the Perpescuity of the Scriptures) is exactly what you say: “The fragmentation of interpretation outside the Orthodox Church is a manifestation of the fragmentation of Christianity, the loss of a proper understanding of ecclesiology, and the substitution of individualism for the proper corporate life of a Christian. Today, outside of Orthodoxy, there is simply opinions – one man’s thoughts compared to another man’s. There is no common faith, no common life.”

  79. irishanglican Avatar

    Thanks every one for your good dialog and thoughts! Perhaps we have somewhat saturated this subject, at least from your perspective. I am gonna take a bit of a break, to pray, read and think. Always good after so many voices going. And really I don’t feel there has been much level thought from my Anglican positions however! This has not been a debate or even an apologetic for me, as a more search.
    So with my old copy of Manual of the Eastern Orthodox Prayers (1945, the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius), and my new copy of the Orthodox Study Bible, with the Septuagint. And yes my own ESV Bible and BCP, I am off to it! I will be back..Lord willing? lol

    Peace of Christ

  80. William Avatar

    May the lord bless you, Irish Anglican.

  81. AsinusSpinasMasticans Avatar

    IrishAnglican –

    I too have a 1928 BCP. It is a garden of prayer.

  82. Pastor Jeff Tomlinson Avatar
    Pastor Jeff Tomlinson

    Fr. Stephen,

    You write above, “The Incarnation of Christ, His ministry, His death and resurrection, provide the primary narration of God, by which we read and interpret everything else. Christ Himself is not interpreted – but is the One Who Interprets. He is God the Logos.” While reading your article here the conversation between Jesus and the two on the road to Emmaus came to mind. In Luke 24:27, “And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” (NKJV) Oh, to have been privy to such a conversation!

    Thanks for challenging us to think,

    Pastor Jeff

  83. fatherstephen Avatar

    From an Orthodox perspective, I would say that daily life in the Church is indeed being privy to that conversation! Daily the Church expounds to us everything in Scriptures concerning Christ.

  84. […] confident enough to just declare that he has to be wrong, I turned back to Father Freeman and found an earlier post that I need to share […]

  85. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    For me, the problem is always with the word “literal,” because it carries some baggage that I think is false. I would absolutely say that Christ walked on the water (as did St. Peter). The shaping of the story is another matter – much like the painting of an icon. But the subject of the icon, and the subject of the gospel, Christ walking on the water, is true and happened.

    I would want to say that “literal” is a word that is too small.

    But, when someone says that Christ walking on the water is “not literally true,” generally they are only asserting what can only be an opinion – which itself is based in the assumptions of the historical-critical method that often reigns supreme in the seminaries. The problem (among many) with such Biblical studies, is that they pretend to be scientific. They are not. They are, in fact, making unexamined theological claims.

    My old Professor at Duke, Stanley Hauerwas, said he had a goal of “putting the Bible boys out of business,” meaning that he thought they should quit pretending that they are not doing theology and instead learn to examine their theological assumptions. But seminary students are taught this stuff, and do not have the theological tools to ask the right questions. Fundamentalist questions will go no where and they’re the wrong questions.

    But there are much more serious ways to talk about these things. What I’ve done in speaking about literalism, about sacramentalism, etc., is to expose the theological assumptions so they can be discussed and seen for what they are.

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