The Meaning of Scripture

What is the meaning of Scripture? Where do we look for it and how is it found?

It is interesting to listen to the disarray of voices on this subject. My early training, in college and later in a liberal protestant seminary, was to look, first, to “authorial intent” (to use a constitutional interpretive phrase), and to the “Sitz im Leben” (the “life situation” or “context”) and through a host of various critical matrixes to break a section down in various ways. Often unacknowledged was the range of meaning that was simply “not allowed.” Most miracles, etc., were simply out of bounds, as miracles.

Of great importance was the fact that the Scriptures consisted of a collection of books, written at different times in different places by different authors. And, of course, with a basic historical orientation to the “meaning” of Scripture, the “meaning” sort of falls apart.

I found a small statement in Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery that I liked:

This, perhaps, enables us to bring into sharper focus…the point, referred to earlier, that the spiritual meaning of the New Testament is the literal meaning…. The spiritual meaning of the New Testament is the history of the Incarnate One, a history which is ‘a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh’ (Heb. 10:20) – a way which we are all to enter upon and tread.

The difficulty with the modernist approach (and many of the historicized approaches of evangelical protestantism) is the failure to understand what the Canon of Scripture means. The Canon is not simply a collection of books authorized for use in the Church. The Canon is not simply those books which the Church considered “inspired of God” (though both statements are true). Instead, the Canon is a collection of books in which the Church finds the witness of Jesus Christ (both Old and New Testament), and its only purpose as Canon, is to reveal Christ.

Some, even conservative readers, have detached the proper meaning of the Canon from the Scriptures, and simply see them as a collection of “inspired” Scripture. The key (Christ) is forgotten and the “authoritative” writings are used for all sorts of things for which the Church never had any particular concern. The Bible is not the book with all the answers to any question – it is the book, which when read rightly – points both to the right questions to ask, as well as the right answer.

Genesis, properly read, is not a science text book. It is about Christ and reveals Him as the very meaning and purpose of creation – as well as explicating His Pascha. If you don’t see that when you read the first chapter of Genesis, then no one ever taught you how to read Scripture as the primitive Church read Scripture (which according to the New Testament was taught by the Risen Lord).

The quote from Louth was not to say that the “literal meaning is the spiritual meaning” but that the “spiritual meaning is the literal meaning.” Only when the Scriptures are read in their spiritual meaning – that which is witnessed to by the Church – are they read in their proper meaning and as Canon.

Those who misuse the Canon as simply a stamp of “authority,” turn the Bible into a Christianized Koran, which is as serious a distortion as is possible. The failure of many generations of Christian teachers to know and understand the spiritual meaning of Scripture has also resulted in a distorted Christianity – one which is moving further away from Christian Orthodoxy and gradually becoming something entirely new.

To say that the “spiritual meaning is the literal meaning” (a play on words) is to understand that Scripture functions as a verbal icon – and like an icon requires an understanding of its spiritual grammar to see it correctly. Probably the most important element of that grammar is the dynamic of Holy Week and Pascha, the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. Of equal importance and informing the Paschal meaning is Christ as the revelation of God and the revelation of God as Trinity made known to us through Christ.

Even the structure of the stories in the New Testament have this character about them. There are “iconic” similarities between the New Testament account of Christ’s Nativity and his Decent into Hades, just as there are similarities between the icons of those two events. And this is not accidental – one informs and explicates the other.

The use of Scripture in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church frequently brings these elements together. It is in such moments (for me) that “mental epiphanies” occur – when I suddenly see a connection and a meaning that had never been clear before.

Those who “Canonized” the Scripture are also those who gave us the liturgies and preserved in the life of the Church a living liturgical dynamic that is the spiritual meaning of Scripture. Much of this is missed if the only liturgical experience of an Orthodox Christian is the Sunday liturgy. Ultimately the fullness is found in the liturgical experience of the monasteries where the most complete round of the services are prayed.

But by faithfully attending feast days and vigils, much of this “spiritual meaning” will become increasingly evident. Good teaching also helps. But nothing substitutes for those moments in which the risen Christ is made known to us in the Scriptures and in the breaking of the bread.

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.



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35 responses to “The Meaning of Scripture”

  1. Jake Belder Avatar

    Amen. Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen.

  2. Ioannis Freeman Avatar

    Reading all the law and prophets (not only the first book of Torah), as Jesus taught his followers, makes sense if one prays with the progeny of the ancient community of followers. Ironic enough, that should have been been what was meant by ‘Sitz und Leben’ in its 19th-century rendition, if context and text were viewed in harmony and not oppositional. Such harmony would affirm the community in and by faith in every age.

    Some might consider “pray and listen” as an “Orthodox” hermeneutics. Certainly the meaning of Holy Scripture that comes to one with faith cannot be explained by rules of hermeneutics that I know from outside institutional Orthodoxy except among Carthusians and a community of Trappists from which I sprang, among a handful of other exceptions.

    Linguists using any critical method to interpret contexts and texts view meaning that arises out of faithful listening as ignorant. I guess that some of us have been called worse than ignorant. It might be ignorant to deny another source of knowledge would be my counter-claim.

    I’ll take my chances on faith in the schema that the ancient community handed succeeding generations. For this reason, we must stick together to listen with a collective heart. May God answer ths prayer.

  3. luciasclay Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    This is a completely correct and terribly important post. Its one that hits so close to home for me.

    As a protestant I came to where I realized that the meaning of scripture, ultimately, was whatever one wanted it to say. Without any boundaries there was no end to what someone would conclude was the message of it. Ultimately it seemed even among those I agreed with the meaning of scripture was determined by who could formulate the best arguments. The similarity to arguing minute points in court and arguing theology was striking.

    Every error I saw as a protestant, most sects commonly referred to as cultic, arose because someone figured out yet another new way to interpret scripture and convinced enough people. Ultimately though, it became apparent that pattern is the same that was used at every step along the way from the beginning of the reformation onwards. Someone would decide they had a new way to interpret scripture, convince enough people and off they went. Once free from tradition and authority it turned into every man for himself. Even Luther in his day was trying to get the various branches of the protestant church to meet and agree on a common view of things. He failed for the obvious reasons.

    Scripture cannot be rightfully interpreted without a boundary and a guide. Even protestants admit that implicitly though not explicitly within their own factions.

    You say, “Instead, the Canon is a collection of books in which the Church finds the witness of Jesus Christ (both Old and New Testament), and its only purpose as Canon, is to reveal Christ.”

    Amen amen amen.

    The following point is so dear to my heart when you say, “Those who “Canonized” the Scripture are also those who gave us the liturgies and preserved in the life of the Church a living liturgical dynamic that is the spiritual meaning of Scripture.”

    The scriptures existence depends completely upon tradition. The study of the origin of scripture is not for the faint of faith. I know I ventured into it and was severely challenged. But God ultimately strengthened my faith because of it. The disputes between protestants and Orthodox or Romans over the OT canon ( realizing there is a slight variance between east and west with the OT ) is ultimately a dispute about which tradition one accepts. Does one accept the canon of a pre Christ Israel, inherited by the Church, or one of a post Christ Israel that consisted only of those who did not accept the teaching of the Christ Risen. The protestants favor the latter. The Church accepted the former and maintained it over centuries.

    The Church existed w/o the New Testament scriptures a time, then the writings and finally their canonization. There was an oral tradition handed down from the Apostles. The fact that the same people determined which books we accept, over time, as also preserved the liturgies etc is huge. If we cannot trust the tradition, the liturgies etc. we cannot trust the canon either. In that case we’d have to reopen all the alleged heretical texts and try and figure out on our own which is valid. God Forbid.

    The point that I cannot accept the conclusions of the Church with respect to the Canon of Scripture and at the same time claim reject their conclusions on the traditions, especially when Scripture clearly commands me to accept tradition ( 2 Thess 2:15 ), has startled me in no small way.

    That is a life changing conclusion. I seem to have reached it intellectually. Now I need to decide to reach it in practical life. That is no small change. A decision I am continuing to pray over. I cannot change my mind very often as a parent lest I unsettle the mind of my children.

    I am continuing in prayer and study and contemplation until I muster the courage of my convictions. I have been a silent observer at two liturgies so far. One with my entire family one alone. I need to take the time to start talking with the local Father.

    Forgive my extremely long winded comment. This is just such an important point to me. So very important as its the key to all things.

    Thank you Father.

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  5. Jonathan Avatar

    “The fact that the same people determined which books we accept, over time, as also preserved the liturgies etc is huge. If we cannot trust the tradition, the liturgies etc. we cannot trust the canon either. In that case we’d have to reopen all the alleged heretical texts and try and figure out on our own which is valid. God Forbid.”

    This thought never crossed my mind before now. Reading it nearly made me shiver.

  6. C L Avatar
    C L

    Thanks for another great post. It corresponds with the Gospel reading of “the Sower” two weeks ago, especially when you speak of the liturgical teachings. To me that is one of the most amazing differences from what I came out of. The Emphasis on Christ in the Liturgy. Everything points to Christ. The morning of my Christmation I woke up with an overwhelming sense of finally being in the place where I come face to face with Christ—The Creator, The Eucharist, The Word–Himself!
    Very few of us, especially in the U.S. have access to a monastary, but many of us can participate in vespers and (oh its so early) matins. Also each of us should get a copy of the hours of the church, these are all helpful.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think the wonder that the text of Scripture is, has been largely lost and obscured by centuries of mishandling, and, in many ways, is only now being more largely recovered as Orthodoxy understands yet more widely the fullness of its inheritance. You can find these things in the fathers, and many of the holy elders, but until fairly recently you did not hear much of this from the academic world of Orthodoxy. People like Louth, Behr and many others (I just mention two that I’m more familiar with) are training generations of priests in a fuller understanding of how Scripture should be understood in an Orthodox setting. I am very hopeful and grateful.

  8. Robert Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I can recommend to your readers this essay by Christoper Orr (via Orrologion). It was instrumental in my conversion from Protestantism to Orthodoxy.

    Luciasclay – converting to Orthodoxy was one of the best things my wife and I did for (and with) our children. Far from unsettling, it has been life confirming for our family.

  9. William Avatar

    When using the word “canon” in reference to scripture, it is also worth pointing out something important, along with Behr and others (including St. Irenaeus). “Canon,” which means a rule or measure by which you align something else, didn’t originally refer to a list of acceptable scriptural writings, but to the Church’s faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and in the saving death and resurrection of Christ who was God become man. This standard was the heart of Tradition and was expressed in the liturgy, and it was by this standard that the works that became the New Testament were judged “canonical” by the Church.

    In many quarters, this order is reversed, where many seem to believe they can judge was is “canonical” in doctrine by how it lines up with this or that interpretation of the “canon” of scripture. Really, it was the canon of the Church’s faith, found in apostolic Tradition, that determined the canonical New Testament. In the same way, the canon of the Church’s faith, found in apostolic Tradition, must also be how one discovers a “canonical” reading and interpretation of scripture.

  10. david p Avatar

    Many of my former pastor friends thought that the written word in the NT meant something else. Thank you posting the article Fr Stephen.

  11. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    William’s insight I have never heard before: that “canonical” doctrine of the Trinity and the death and resurrection of Christ was what was used by the Church to determine which books were “canonical.”

    It seems we got the cart before the horse.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    William is quite right. Most often, St. Irenaeus, 2nd century, referred to what he called the “Apostolic Hypothesis” which would have been somewhat similar to the Apostles’ Creed, perhaps more expanded. It was the fundamental understanding of our salvation in Christ, in the Trinity, in the death and resurrection of Christ – of the meaning of Pascha. This he cited against the gnostics, saying that they failed to read the Scriptures (OT) according to the Apostolic Hypothesis and therefore misread it.

    There are, in certain places within the NT itself, such as the opening of 1 Corinthians 15, examples of embedded pieces of the Apostolic Hypothesis, times when St. Paul invokes the “paradosis” the Tradition, “that which was delivered to me I also delivered unto you.” “Delivered” is the verb for Tradition. In that sense, I would suggest that it is proper to say that “Creeds” in their primal form, are older than the NT. The New Testament is the Creed in its expanded form, and provides the matrix by which we must read the OT.

    Not the order usually taught these days – but that’s the facts.

  13. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Dear Father, bless! Regarding the “Apostolic Hypothesis” of St. Irenaeus, is this also what is meant by the “kyrgma?” Not sure if I’m spelling it right, but I seem to remember studying this in one of my Bible classes at Wheaton College, this being one of the key criteria for how the books of the NT were selected as “canonical” by the Church, and being itself a summary of the gospel.

  14. shevaberakhot Avatar

    The context may be different, but the message is always the same. Persevere. Repent, and “I” Jesus will come to you.

    The spiritual meaning of Holy Scripture is the literal meaning. It has always been this way.

    Another brilliant post, thank you!!

  15. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is a modern distinction that was made between the “kerygma” (preaching) and the “dogma” (doctrine), but both are in accordance with the Apostolic Hypothesis.

    The de-coupling of Scripture from the Apostolic Hypothesis (preserved consistently in the liturgies of the Orthodox Church) results in Scripture being interpreted according to various “rational” schemes. And, although the plain sense of Scripture is enough to keep most groups from going completely off the rails (most understand that Christ died for us, regardless of how they explain the atonement), it still has been a means for inventing new and novel doctrines, not at all in keeping with the dogma and kerygma of the Church. I hesitate to use the word “heresy” but there are more than a few false teachings that are widely preached and accepted outside the Orthodox Church. It is sad.

  16. shevaberakhot Avatar

    Father, I find myself comparing the role of canon and tradition in fostering holy unity. Can it really be that “simple”?

    Is the focus on doctrinal unity symptomatic of the way the church has “evolved” from small faith communities to larger groups with at least some political aspirations? Can we really divorce Jesus’ “authorial intent” from our “Sitz im Leben”.

    Jesus’ words in “he who is born again is like the wind….” suggests that we may not.

  17. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Thank you, Father, for the clarification. My godmother’s husband, in describing the difference in approach to the Scriptures in moving from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy, said that he went from studying about the context of Holy Scripture (like I did at an evangelical college), to living within it in the Orthodox Church. I, too, experienced it as moving from studying the content of the Scriptures to into the very flow of their Life in the Liturgy and spirituality of the Church.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would suggest that you are discribing doctine, canon and tradition in a manner that is relatively foreign to Orthodoxy. There is no real distinction to be made between the three. The Church has doctrinal unity because it is one in Christ and knows the same Father through the Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. The Church rightly understood is a unity (there can only be one Church) and it manifests the same faith because it is the One Church.

    I also don’t think that Christ’s “authorial intent” is in any way different than what we know as the Apostolic Canon (or Hypothesis to use Irenaeus’ term). The faith of the Apostles is nothing other than the faith of Christ.

    Here the problem of ecumenism arises. The “faith” cannot be separated from the Church in order to be dissected and discussed as though it were an independent entity. The sin of schism is terrible because it severs someone from the fullness of the truth – but it does not diminish the truth as it dwells in the One Church. Orthodoxy is not “one lung” of the Church (we consider that incorrect) nor is it a “branch” of the One Church (I had to formally renounce that heresy when I converted from Anglicanism).

    I’ve stated this in probably quite strong Orthodox terms. It is often stated in a much more muted form, particular in ecumenical conversation. But it is the actual Orthodox understanding of the matter.

  19. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    It is well, I suppose, that such language is said much more carefully in ecumenical dialogue. For this, to my ears, sounds only like the eye saying to the hand “I have no need of thee”.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar


    I know it does. But Orthodox doctrine is that the Church is One, not 20,000 or even 2. The Body of Christ is not two but one. I pray for unity, but not a unity that is not Orthodox. The Church is the Pillar and Ground of Truth (according to Scripture) and “The Fullness of Him that filleth all in all.” It does not exist as less than that. The fracture of Christianity into its thousands of sects has generated an ecclesiology that is not Scriptural or in accordance with the Creeds. It invented the notion of an “invisible Church” and other ideas.

    I would say, in meeker tones, that there is an obvious relation between Christians who are not Orthodox and the Orthodox Church, though that relationship is nowhere defined or entirely clear. We do not say that are not Christians. But essentially, we would say they are in schism – though that’s a technicality of sorts because most Christians never really made any decision regarding themselves and the Orthodox Church – they are where they are for various reasons. And the Orthodox Church extends a great deal of economy (to use an Orthodox canon law term) of how we treat this matter. But the Fullness does not exist as an idea or a disincarnate notion. It exists as the Church. If someone doesn’t believe that the Orthodox Church is “that” Church, well and good. It just means that they are not Orthodox (at least in some “full” sense). But for “that” Church to exist as scattered bands of believers who don’t believe the same thing is to deny that the Church is One. As much as it breaks all of our hearts, and it does, we still have to confess that the Church is One and wrestle with the substance of what that means.

    As an aside, I think the problem of a fractured ecclesiology is one of the culprits in creating the fiction of a two-storey universe. We have to put God somewhere, since we can’t put Him in the Church without some sort of distortion to Scripture and the Tradition. He becomes the separated God. It is one of the reasons that most protestant churches are weakest in the area of ecclesiology. The price of a Biblical ecclesiology is the One Church.

    Within Orthodoxy itself, the substance of what that means is a daily struggle. Unity is not institutional, but organic (or a word very much like that). It is lived through repentance and maintained in love (given to us by grace) and this is about as hard as anything we are ever asked to do.

    As to “I have no need of thee,” were I to become an apostate tomorrow, Orthodoxy would not be diminished. I would be diminished. But the Church abides as the Fullness. At most “I am an unprofitable servant.”

  21. coldfire Avatar

    I love the way that you refer to the bible as an icon.

    I don’t fully appreciate this because I do not come from an Eastern Orthodox background, but to image the Bible as a picture simliar to those powerful icons I saw in my travels in Europe is a very powerful and mystical thing.

  22. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    Father Stephen,

    I am of the opinion that the difficulty of believing in One Orthodox Church is the offense attached to saying the others are not part of the “true” church. They are offended that we would say certain folks are “in” and others are “out.”

    I know this is true regarding my own family members.

    However, I am struck by the inconsistency or short sightedness. Evangelicals certainly hold that large parts of the globe are “outside.” Nearly all Christians would say Abraham was about the only one on the “inside” in his day (you could maybe add the elusive Melchizadek.)

    So, it has always been “like God” to have those on the inside and outside. God hasn’t changed, just our own position regarding being in or out.

    At the risk of being un-humble (likely), I don’t think the matter is usually decided on the merits of the argument. I think it boils down to an issue of humility.

  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s a hard subject to discuss and sound humble at all. All I can say is that an ecclesiology is impossible without it. It was a factor in my own conversion – not intellectually – but the realization of being out of communion with the Church broke my heart. I “came home” weeping – ashamed I had waited so long and aware that only the kindness and mercy of God made salvation possible. I am not proud to be Orthodox – but most aware of how poor an example I am of an Orthodox priest. I am an ignorant man.

  24. Raphael Avatar

    The Church is One just as the Lord is One. All who seek to enter into a true state of Holy Communion cannot deny this fundamental tenet of faith.

  25. Robert Avatar


    You said, “The Church is One just as the Lord is One.”

    This is true, however it appears a tautology and posed as such it is meaningless in the modern religious arena. No doubt the case for Orthodox ecclesiology needs to be made; but we will need to do so by engaging those around us.

  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    Tautologies are not meaningless if they are true. However, there is a more nuanced discussion that I referred to. The precise relationship to the One Church by those who are outside its communion is not precisely defined, and certainly, on some level, exists. Holy Orthodoxy does not deny this. We would only pray and work for a more true, and complete union that does not present nuance or subtlety. We cannot invent a new ecclesiology just to make ourselves feel better. It is God we want in His fullness, nothing less, nothing comfortable.

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    In brief, I would say that Orthodoxy exists as a thorn in the side of all other Christians. It is our calling and our humble mission for which we are not worthy. And I ask your prayers for me, I am unworthy in all this discusssion. May God have mercy on my soul.

  28. Robert Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    To clarify, the meaninglessness I refer to is not because it is not true, but because we are failing to bring the Gospel’s message (the Apostolic Hypothesis!) and the magnitude of its implications to fully bear upon the falsities we have erected.

    We are not called to invent yet another ecclesiology, but rather to further explain and demonstrate in our persons individually and corporately, and thus make relevant, in synergy with the Holy Spirit, the ecclesiology once and for all delivered to us by Christ. This ecclesiology is none other than the very habitation of God dwelling in His people in space and time. Thus, we can only explain, and be a living witness, to the extend that we experience the Living God. To them that much is given, much is required.

    If this is not at all helpful, or if I am wrong or have strayed from the current topic, please forgive and disregard this comment and pray for my soul. Please forgive.

  29. Raphael Avatar


    There should have been less nuance in my post. Holy Communion is Holy Orthodoxy*, Holy Unity, Christ in our midst and God with us.

    I didn’t feel I had the right to impose Truth on those who have not yet ventured past the threshold. They will in time. I just didn’t want to unbalance them, to run ahead of the Holy Spirit.

    Is is no longer possible to deny what the Lord has revealed regarding the Orthodox Church but I can say that there are pockets of Holy Orthodoxy everywhere. Exactly how this will play out in my own life is less of an issue in a one-story universe.

    * Father Stephen thank you for your comments, I will find time to pray for your needs and the needs of the Communion. Please also remember me in your prayers.

  30. fatherstephen Avatar


    You are on the mark.


    There are many such mysteries and I pray for them, too. I think of Elisha, there are many who have not bowed their knees to Baal. They are also part of us in a mystery I do not know and I do not want to discourage them.

  31. Raphael Avatar

    Thank you Father.

  32. Ioannis Freeman Avatar

    In addition to these mysteries of God is communion among human beings and animals. For example, as Balaam approached Jerusalem, on orders of the Moabite king Balak, the donkey on which Balaam rode spotted the angel blocking the path, stopped in his tracks, and after having been beaten enough, the donkey spoke to Balaam.

    It was the donkey’s verbal report of the angel that convinced Balaam of the power of the God of Israel. Apocryphal accounts of one of the very same donkey’s descendants having sired the donkey or borne the donkey on whose back our Savior Christ ride into Jerusalem just days before His Passion, carry an oral tradition that connects human beings to other mammals, never to discredit the mystery that God might speak in the least probable manner possible.

    I speculate that is why the Elders caution silence on our parts, in hopes that we might hear and then listen. My gut also says, in response to Robert’s comment on 28 Oct: “…the ecclesiology once and for all delivered to us by Christ,” the Church has been revealed by Christ and the Apostles, and Christians of all makes and models having been initiated by Trinitarian baptism continue to dialogue about how to speak of Church, much less how to study the object of inquiry (ecclesio-“logy”).

    In deference and respect to Robert’s conclusion about the end to revelation (“…once and for all…”) as to what Church is, I agree in principle that Church has been revealed. The Nicene and Athanasian creeds make this clear, not to mention the Magnum Opus of the ancient Fathers.

    However, it remains our joint task as Orthodox Christians to learn, digest, and deliver what Holy Orthodoxy contributes by its Communion to the prayer of Jesus that “…they may all be one” (John 17). If we are to make a strong contribution, as God alone can decide, then we should remain standing alongside the Publican. Perhaps, there, we can hear the meaning in the Holy Words of Christ. Kyrie eleison.

  33. Michele Langford Avatar

    Father, please explain the meaning of the scripture in Genesis 9:14 and the use of the word “bow” used therin. What significance does this have? It is inportant, as my friend is trying to understand God’s word. Thank you so very much for your time.

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    It refers to the “rainbow” the colors that bear the shape of a bow as in “bow and arrow”.

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  35. […] in reading several of your posts on Scriptural meaning and on hermeneutics after writing the comments I reproduced above, I see a rejection of […]

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