The God of the Old Testament


Old habits are hard to break. For years as an Anglican Christian, and a conservative, I battled with academics in the Anglican world whose primary agenda seemed to me (at the time) to be the destruction of Scripture. Their historical method generally resulted in students being told that this that and the other thing didn’t happen. This was most disturbing, particularly for those who chose to extend their scepticism to the very resurrection of Christ.

It was in such a context that I took up the defense of Scripture. But, of course, it is always the case that if you set yourself in a position of reaction, whatever it is that you are reacting against has already set the parameters of the argument – in some cases distorting all of the fundamental issues.

As years went by I became more and more familiar with the early Church Fathers and later with the use of Scripture in Orthodox liturgical settings. It was pointed out to me, when I was a graduate student at Duke, that Liberal Historical Critical Studies and Fundamentalist Literalism, were actually two sides of the same coin. Both agreed on the triumph of the historical. Both sought the meaning of the text within its historical original. History was their agreed upon battleground. To enter that battleground is already, from my later Orthodox perspective, to have surrendered the Truth as received by the Church. They are both profoundly wrong.

Learning to read the Old Testament with the mind of the Fathers, is learning to read the Old Testament not so much as historical prelude to Christ, but as Scripture, received as inspired, but seen as largely typological and always interpreted through Christ. God is as He is revealed in Christ and always has been. Thus, the NT reveals the Old and the right way for it to be read.

I offer a quote from St. Irenaeus:

If anyone, therefore, reads the scriptures this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ is the “treasure which was hidden in the field” [Mat. 13:44] [a treasure] hidden in the scriptures, for he was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by human beings prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet, “Shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispersion shall be accomplihsed, they shall know all these things” [Dan. 12:4, 7]. And Jeremiah also says, “In the last days they shall understand these things ” [Jer. 23:20]. For every prophecy, before its fulfillment, is nothing but an enigma and amibiguity to human beings; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition [exegesis]. And for this reason, when at this present time the Law is read by the Jews, it is like a myth, for they do not possess the explanation [exegesis] of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God: but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the Cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of humans, and showing forth the wisdom of God, and making known his dispensations with regard to human beings, and prefiguring the kingdom of Christ, and preaching in anticipation the good news of the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the one who loves God shall advance so far as even to see God, and hear his Word, and be glorified, from hearing his speech, to such an extent, that others will not be able to behod his glorious countenance [cf. 2 Cor. 3:7], as was said by Daniel, “Those who understand shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever” [Dan. 12:3]. In this manner, then, I have show it to be, if anyone read the scriptures.

What so many moderns find difficult is leaving behind the presumptions of either modernist Biblical Criticism or fundamentalist literalism. They are deeply married to a historical paradigm. Whereas, the paradigm of the Church is Christ Himself. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He is not judged by history but is the truth of history.

There are many passages in the OT that if read literally would lead us to believe in a God far removed from the one revealed to us in Christ. This is a false reading. But many are more married to their literal historical method (of whichever form) than to Christ. Unless the OT is literal, they reason, then everything else is not true.

This is not the beginning place of the Church. Truth was only ever vindicated for us in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and that alone is our Alpha and Omega. It troubles some to begin “in the middle” though Christ resurrected is not the middle but also the beginning and the ending, if we know how to read in an Apostolic manner. Many coming to Orthodoxy think it offers another historical proof of the faith, since it is the first foundation of Christ and has an impeccable historical pedigree. This is simply fundamentalism looking for another straw to erect in its support and not a true conversion to Orthodoxy.

Christ is risen from the dead and His resurrection becomes the center of all things. Only through His resurrection may the Old Testament be read. It’s historical claims (though many are quite strong) are not the issue. Christ is the only issue and the only Truth that matters. This is frightening to fundamentalists, for any loosening of their grip on historical literalism feels like failure and capitulation to modernism. But before either fundamentalist or modernist existed, the Church existed, and has always known how to read the Scriptures. Thus it behooves us not to look for Orthodoxy to support some other structure as the nature of Truth, but as witness to that which we have accepted as the Truth. Let the dead bury the dead. Read the Scriptures with the living.

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.



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105 responses to “The God of the Old Testament”

  1. Judith Avatar

    I thought that I ought to touch base as I read your blog on a daily basis. Today’s blog said what I have often thought in a particularly articulate manner. I would become Orthodox, however I depend on my livlihood, which I would lose if I converted. So I stand on the sidelines, wondering.

  2. Nathaniel McCallum Avatar

    Photo is Fr. Justin Patterson at St. Athanasius Orthodox Church in Nicholasville, KY. Anyone visiting the Lexington, KY area, please come join us. Fr. Steven, you can come too if you’d like. 🙂

  3. Nathaniel McCallum Avatar

    Judith, losing one’s livelihood is not always a reality. Though, truth be told, it is a possibility. Have you spoken to a local Orthodox priest about this?

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    I lost my livelihood when I converted and God made a way. The Truth will always provide a way, as difficult as it may be. But do not be deterred from the Truth. Simply say to God, “I believe this to be the Truth, help me get there.” He is a good God and is indeed faithul to help us. We just need to ask. There really is a God. And that is all that matters in the end.

  5. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    Fr. Stephen, Thank you. At least for me, that clears up a few things. I think that in time and with further studies, some of the details of the biblical narratives will begin to make more sense. Does Fr. Behr’s book “The Mystery of Christ- Life in Death” explain some of the things that you are writing about here?

  6. luciasclay Avatar

    That is an interesting observation regarding historical critical and fundamentalist literalism.

  7. David Avatar

    I don’t mean to press, but I’d love to see someone offer up an extremely challenging passage (pick a favorite time where Israel is told to commit genocide or something equally offensive to a modern mind like the destruction of Sodom) and view it in it’s liturgical and/or Christ prefiguring context.

    I’m not trying to be argumentative (hey, I just entered the boat, I’m not trying to rock it).

    But it would be helpful to see this thought process. Particularly when some of these events have a historical presence. That is some of the scriptures sure “appear” as history and have non-biblical evidence as well. Perhaps there is there some much later (post-Davidian maybe) historically meaningful text that’s uncomfortable as historical, but salvific as Christological and/or liturgical?

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I see the problem for many – but have no problems myself. Sodom and Gomorrah are the destruction of sin, and God’s willingness to save the many for the sake of the few. But as for the fire and brimstone, I’m not in the least concerned. God is as He is revealed in Christ.

  9. luciasclay Avatar


    For me, it took a long time to see the OT acts you speak of as Love. But I do now and I see it this way.

    The mission of salvation is more important than all else. God had to create and maintain Israel and its traditions in this world so that the coming of the Christ would make sense to us. He has to do it in the middle of a world that would, due to its nature, destroy the people of Israel. That some must die to achieve this is not as terrible as it sounds unless we view life on this earth as all there is. We all die someday, God is a just God. He will judge each appropriately.

    The willingness of God to create and maintain Israel so Christ could be understood by us is to me an act of the most exceeding Love and Mercy that I can imagine.

    I start with the acceptance of the fact God is Love. I then accept that if what God does doesn’t seem loving it is that I do not understand Love and not that God is not Loving.

    From personal experience I have learned that Love doesn’t mean letting everyone you love do whatever they want, because sometimes what one you love wants to do is hurt someone else you also love and who has done nothing to deserve it. In those cases you must choose to hurt one, against your hearts desire, and protect another. I do not presume to know the mind of God but I imagine his dillema is often similar. He loves us all but those who don’t accept him force him to do things, not that man controls God though.

    I have no idea if this is Orthodox thinking but its how I presently understand it.

  10. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W


    I am not disagreeing but wouldn’t this view see history from only the general sense and therefore God would only be concerned for the greater good and not be interested in particular people? If we carry this logic through to today than we could justify abortion since surely these babies will be saved since they have committed no sins. In this case are they not the more fortunate ones that bi-pass this suffering and sinful world?

    Fr. Stephen, I don’t know if you saw my question about Fr. Behr above? I tried the same question on the previous post but did not get an answer there either. Sorry to pester you.

  11. William Avatar

    Stephen W

    Fr. Behr’s book does deal with this topic. It’s really a great book.

  12. Chris Jones Avatar

    Let me echo what William says: Fr Behr’s book deals with precisely these ideas, in great depth and with great power. It is a great, great book.

  13. Lord Peter Avatar
    Lord Peter

    What we mean by Scripture as a term of art in the Orthodox Catholic Church is a certain set of writings adopt by the Church IN THE SENSE CORRESPONDING TO THE CHURCHES (as witnessed in the writings of the Fathers and symbolized in the Creeds and the Liturgy, etc.) because the Church believed that these writings, when read in the sense that the Church read them when choosing to adopt them, contained the historical Special Revelation of God, which has already been revealed in time.

    Whether the intent of the authors, or even perhaps the “historically fairest” meaning of these writings, corresponds to the sense of the writings that the Church had in mind when ratifying the writings is of no moment. What is of moment is memorialization of the Church’s understanding of what it had already witnessed. Thus, it is the Scriptures IN THE SENSE THAT CHURCH RATIFIED AND ADOPTED THEM that count to a Christian or a historian of Christianity. In any other sense, these writing has little if any significance, even if the other sense is in some sense more faithful to the author or secular history!

  14. david peri Avatar

    One of the reasons I joined the Orthodox Church was their approach to Scripture. My former church, the pastors and educatiors were watering down the Scriptures into other meanings

    Judith…I hope your livlihood does not depend upon your faith in Christ. Of course in today´s economic times, this may be one way that, our Heavenly Father, may test your tender heart to chose between Him or a career. From my point-of-view, our Heavenly Father will not abandon you and it may be a better job is at hand. Something to think about.

  15. […] and I learn from him far more than I disagree with him. His recent post entitled “The God of the Old Testament“, though, did give me something to push against, and I hope that in pushing against it here […]

  16. damaris Avatar

    An interesting insight into how we look at history, and God’s revelation of Himself through history, comes from C.S. Lewis’ article “Historicism,” which appears in the collection called Christian Reflections. He cautions us to avoid presuming we know God’s purposes through our study of history and recommends humility. I found it very challenging.

  17. Mark Epstein Avatar

    Although a neophyte to the Orthodox Church’s view on Scripture, I am somewhat versed on Protestant presuppositional thinking regarding orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Unfortunately, the Protestant church loses the foundational basis for interpretation because it completely ignores the oral tradition referenced throughout the OT and NT. Additionally, Protestant interpretation also relies on what it views as the different genres found in the biblical text. Wether we accept this view of genres is not necessarily that important. For, if we take the text at its face concerning God ordering the Jews to annihilate every life in its path, we still must view this from the foundational “reason” that is clearly articulated in Scripture, but even I missed throughout my Protestant upbringing (despite being indoctrinated by Protestant theology as to its meaning). Specifically, what are God’s “reasons” for such an order to the Israelites? Just as I missed the repetitive scriptural outlining of Jewish “confession” to a Priest before any sacrifice (whether grain, animal, etc.), I also missed what God’s intent was concerning the process–an inner change. We can see this in this difference between Protestant and Orthodox views of sin. In the world of Protestantism, one will oft hear “God hates sin, but loves the sinner.” From my limited understanding of the Orthodox church, “God hates the sin dwelling within us.” This is a HUGE difference and the ontological ramifications are significant, as the difference impacts viewpoints regarding salvation, eschatology, communion, and other areas inherent to the respective systematic theologies.

    Another interesting point Fr. Stephen makes is found in the second paragraph to this post. In essence, he alludes to the juridical worldview articulated in “he who defines wins.” In other words, entrenched systems of theology are very hard to overcome–even with God’s revealed Truth.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for this enlightening glimpse into the OT.

  18. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    I lost my livelihood, my home, and suffered months of hate mail when I left the Episcopal ministry, denounced Gene Robinson’s consecration, and became Orthodox. God has restored all that I lost and ten fold!

  19. Alice C. Linsley Avatar


    This is a wonderful explanation of how we should understand the God of the Old Testament. It is in the Church Fathers that I have found clarification of what the Scriptures reveal about God’s justice and correction of the false notions that I’d picked up from Reformed preachers and commentators.

    Genesis, which is foundational to the whole Bible, only makes sense when we read it through God’s promises fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ. That’s the point I make here:

    and here:

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    And welcome you are among us. Your example was and is a brave testimony to the Truth. May God help us all!

  21. Judith Avatar

    In response to Alice – yes, I am a woman in the Protestant ministry – so where to go from here? I would most certainly lose my livlihood. I would come to the Orthodox for the theology, and definitely not in response to any of the current issues, including the ordination/consecration of homosexuals etc., which I actually support.

  22. Isaac Avatar

    Father and all,

    I think I “get” what you’re saying (and I’ve exchanged several productive emails with Fr. John Behr regarding his books, too)… that the depth of the meaning of Holy Writ is not primarily in the historical events they are recording, but in the Crucified– for Moses wrote of Him, and all the Law, Prophets, and Psalms are fulfilled in Him.

    This is all wonderful and we can all congratulate ourselves for being “in the know” about what the Scriptures “really” mean or why they are “really” important… but I don’t think we can simply wash our hands of the historical events and ideas upon which the Scriptures are based. Torn Notebook’s response is worth reading– as I read it, he argues that the God Who descended into history and “suffered under Pontius Pilate” is the one who had been constantly revealing Himself in the history of Israel.

    The fathers, far from being dismissive of the historical nature of the events recorded in Scripture, simply refused to remain there. Do any of the Scriptures meet the standards of modern historiography? Of course not, but let’s not relegate them all to the status of fables– albeit mystical ones– either.

  23. William Avatar

    It’s good of you to point that out, Isaac. I know that sometimes the conversation can come across as though we are saying, “It doesn’t matter whether this or that really happened the way Scripture says it did.” But there aren’t many Orthodox who I know who actually think that way. I think, though, that the emphasis is on the fact that the meaning for the Christian of many Scriptural accounts is not rooted in the history itself, but in the prophecy, typology, etc. that is contained in that history. This, however, doesn’t mean a dismissal of the presence of Christ (the crucified, resurrected and glorified Jesus!) in actual historical events that preceded the historical moment of incarnation.

    I think the Antiochian fathers and others helped pull the reins on the Alexandrian eagerness to turn so much in the Old Testament into little more than typology.

  24. Lord Peter Avatar
    Lord Peter

    We must remember that all senses of the Special Revelation — whether historical, typological, moral, etc., — pre-existed the ratification of the New Testament by the Church. Hence, the sense or construction of the NT that counts for the Church is that in the which the Church had in mind when making the canon. And, this is true for the historical, typological, moral, and other senses or constructions of the texts — all of which were contemporaneously witnessed by the early Church and handed down (tradition). Thus, we are assured of a certain degree of material literal accuracy — to the extent the texts were chosen with the intent to reflect it. Finally, of course, we are given a lens (Christ) for truly and fully understanding the OT, which sometimes indicates that not every part is meant to be taken in a strict literal sense,

  25. fatherstephen Avatar

    There is no dismissal of the historical, but a recognition that the Paschal meaning of the text takes the primary place. The historical is frequently less of a concern.

  26. Daniel Avatar

    One thing to remember when thinking about reading the OT in the mode that Irenaeus is talking about is that it is vitally important to read it according to your baptismal confession. This confession (the Nicene creed for us, it was a little different in his time) provides the hypothesis that the Christian uses to understand the scriptures and gives unity to them all. This is why only an enlightened and baptized Christian can truly understands scripture in his thinking.

    When I was pondering the validity of Irenaeus manner of reading scripture it struck me that typological interpretations can have many valid applications in history but only one ultimate. There can be only one incarnation and one Alpha and Omega thus only one true and valid typological interpretation that replaces all others. No event in the history of the world can rival that of the incarnation, so all true typology points to Christ. The church fathers where not engaging in baseless typological speculation when they searched the scripture for Christ, rather then understood something that the historical-critical method can never reach.

  27. PastorS Avatar

    Hi Judith. I, too, am a woman pastor in one of the Reformation churches. I’m happy to remain remain where I am but I think I have a pretty good idea of what you’re saying. It’s difficult. You have my prayers.

    On the topic of the post: this typology stuff is extremely difficult for “the Western mind” to grasp. But that was a helpful post.

  28. Collator Avatar

    Two disconnected replies to some of the things that have been mentioned above:

    Firstly, I haven’t read Fr. Behr’s _The Mystery of Christ_, but he introduces the “Irenaean” teaching on reading Scripture in Christ in his book _The Way to Nicaea_. The whole book is a study of selected pre-Nicene Fathers in the light of these Irenaean principles.

    Secondly (and this relates a bit to the last entry on the Wrath of God): one thing that has always given me some comfort when reflecting on Sodom and Gomorrah, the massacre of the Midianites, etc. is St. Peter’s teaching that Christ preached to the souls in prison. Who knows if, in God’s mercy, those people were able to grasp the opportunity of repentance when first the Holy Forerunner, then the Messiah himself, appeared in Hades and drew up Adam and Eve, as we see in our beautiful Resurrection/Harrowing of Hell icon. Note that in the icon Solomon, who “died in sin” (or so it appears from the account in Scripture), stands in the company of his father David and the other righteous prophets.

    (This is just my personal opinion. I’d be interested to hear from anyone if you’ve found something similar in the writings of the Holy Fathers.)

  29. Isaac Avatar

    These are good thoughts, especially Fr. Stephen who clarified by saying that the Orthodox Church doesn’t dismiss the historical– it’s simply that the focus and food of the Scriptures is in Christ, Himself the Word of God, the Logos of both Eternity and History.

    I agree with Fr. Stephen’s point and his clarification. However, as Torn Notebook says, we’ve got a real problem if those typologies don’t have some anchor in history, since it is precisely this history we claim to have found all fulfillment in the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    When it comes to historical events mentioned in the Scriptures, I think we Orthodox should shun both German higher-criticism and fundamentalist insistence upon absolute literalism. But whatever we do, we should– as Fr. Lawrence Farley has put it– read Scripture on our knees. We should wish to accept, I think, even their essential historical veracity out of humility and faith.

  30. Edward Hunter Avatar

    Yay Fr. Justin! I miss him!

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    We miss him here too. He’s a good man and a good friend.

  32. Nathaniel McCallum Avatar

    Yay Ed Hunter! I miss him! 🙂 Good to see you Ed…

  33. jim Avatar

    Forgive me father for I admit that I am a bit slow on the uptake, but are you Implying here that the O.T. is historical or that it is not, or that some of it is and that some of it is not, but that in either case it is not important as far as its meaning goes, and does this interpretation also apply to the N.T., that it too is largely symbolic or is the N.T. totally grounded in history?

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    Some of it is, some is not, some is realtively mixed. The claim of the Orthodox Christian Church is that the events in the New Testament are historical, though they have frequently been shaped in their telling for a particular purpose. Nonetheless there are many geographical details and the like that support the contention of the historical character of the New Testament (of course Revelations belongs to the “Apocalyptic” style of writing and would not be called “literal” or “historical” though it was written by one of the twelve apostles.The Scriptures are “the book of the Church” and have a very special function in the life of the Church. They cannot be removed from that context and be properly understood. This is a Protestant heresy rejected by the Church.

    Because the Scriptures are th Church’s book, the Church knows and has always known how to read them. We were taught by Christ Himself. And that reading is their true meaning. History and historical meaning were an attempt by Protestants to make the Bible independent of the Church so they would have no need for a Church in order to understand the Scriptures. The madness of 20,000 different protestant denominations proves they were simply wrong.

  35. jim Avatar

    When we read the O.T. how then do we decipher which is real and historic and which is as you call it typological? For instance is the story of adam and eve true in an historic sense or is evolution true? What about Noah’s ark,because it is written as though it was meant to be true,there are no cheribum with flaming swords or trees of knowledge or talking snakes or anything like that with a mythological bent to it except all of a sudden in the middle of the story it states, if I remember correctly, that angels came down from heaven and took as many of the daughters of men as they wanted for their wives and had children with them. Should things like this be ignored as if they are mistakes or do they have some hidden meaning. Is it that we should not attempt to understand such things except through the church because without the churches interpretation it doesn’t make sense?

    God have mercy on me, I think I shall never understand.

  36. fatherstephen Avatar

    I would say that part of the confusion comes from asking the wrong questions. It’s not about history versus myth, real versus fantasy. The Orthodox Christian understanding of Scripture, particularly of the Old Testament is not terribly concerned with those questions. The teaching of Jesus was that He Himself was the meaning of everything in the Old Testament. That’s a very bold claim, but he also claimed to be the Incarnate Son of God. Thus, when we read those stories correctly (from an Orthodox perspective) it is Christ that we are looking for in the story (and there are amazing layers upon layers of Christ revealed in the stories). There are some among the Fathers who held that the stories had a literal, historical basis, while others held otherwise – which is to say that there is a difference on some of these matters, that apparently doesn’t matter. There is an article on the sidebar – Six Days of Creation by Kalomiros, which is an extremely interesting treatment of Genesis, rooted mostly in the writings of St. Basil the Great. It’s a good example of some of the insights of Orthodox reading of the Old Testament.

    Protestant fundamentalism created the problem of myth versus fact, versus science, etc., because it had a flawed world view, a flawed understanding of Scripture, a flawed understanding of God and of salvation itself. But its legacy in American culture has been huge. Thus many people take the questions that were created by modern fundamentalism and think that they are the important questions about the Scriptures, while they are mostly red herrings.

    To read the Bible as a fundamentalist is to miss most of its meaning, and to spend time either trying to guard the rear, fighting off science and liberalism, or wasting time trying to guess what’s happening next in the Middle East. All of this is modern fundamentalist invention and has nothing to do with the Tradition of the Christian Faith as once and for all delivered to the saints and the martyrs of the Church – a faith which is living and continues unchanged in the life of the Orthodox faith.

    Your statement that we should not attempt to understand such things except through the church because without the church’s interpretation it doesn’t make sense, is actually quite correct. It’s not a private book, but a collection of writings that uniquely belongs to a community – the Christian Church. I would even be so bold as to say that it uniquely belongs to the Orthodox Christian Church, though some might want to argue that I’m being too narrow. When when the floodgates are opened to the insanity of modern do-it-yourself Christianity, the book becomes useless or worse.

    But it’s also true that many writings belong uniquely to a community. I would never dream of understanding the Bagavhadgita unless I were a Hindu. I would never presume such a thing.

    By the same token, there is a language and grammar of many professions, that make law hard to understand if you are not a lawyer, medicine hard to read if you are not a doctor, etc. These are weak examples – and yet they provide a certain analogy. Part of being an Orthodox believer is learnig how to read the Scriptures in such a way that they reveal to you what they have revealed to the saints through the ages. It is our only need in reading them.

  37. guy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    i find myself very challenged by this. What do i do if in my heart of hearts i just plain am one of these fundamentalists?

    i left my former denomination, and i am pursuing Orthodoxy simply because i see the veracity in its historical claims and theology. And i guess i got the impression from listening to a lot of podcasts on ancient faith radio (like those of Father Andrew Dimick or those of Steve Robinson) that concerns about evidence showing whether such claims are true are perfectly legitimate. Are they not?

    And i’m puzzled about what to think about the Bible altogether if i can’t read bits of the OT that seem prima facie to present themselves as accounts of history as though they are more or less just that. i’m not saying i don’t see the additional layer of typology. But it seems like some of what is being said here (and on the other post in which you suggest i read this one) is that the historical layer is being disdained or discarded. If so, then i’m not even sure what it means for the words of the OT to be “true.” If any historical view of the OT is to be discarded, i don’t even know what an epistemological framework would look like in which a person could see the reasonable-ness of their confidence in the words of the OT.

    i mean, doesn’t it matter whether or not there existed an historical individual named Elijah (my parish’s patron saint)? Doesn’t it matter that the events or features of his life for which he is sainted actually occurred? If it doesn’t matter, then what’s the difference in honoring Elijah in song every liturgy versus honoring some fairy tale or mythological creature?

    Now, perhaps, i’m just grossly misunderstanding the position which you are critiquing. My understanding so far has been that an author can take historical events and since he aims not to give a record of history like unto modern methodology, but because he aims to make a theological point, that author can deliberately arrange or describe those events a certain way. Or an author may simply not have the motivation of precision that we heirs of modernity and science might be concerned with (perhaps estimates would suffice in their world, whereas we’re deeply concerned about firm numbers).

    Also, i guess i just always understood that, yes, God commanded some things in the OT that offend my modern sensibilities–that is, God did, in fact, deliver such commands to Moses. And if that puzzles me, then perhaps it says far more about my modern sensibilities than it does about God or His character. i guess i don’t see the motivation to try and discard such things just because they don’t “fit” into my conception of God or what character i would be willing to accept. Again, don’t those reactions on my part reveal more about *me* than they do about the God i’m trying to understand?

    i could go on, but i’d probably be just rambling at this point. i’m hoping you can continue to offer some helpful thoughts though. i understand you mean to critique fundamentalism or a concern for the historical/literal as harmful, but what am i to do if i’m one of those people? i’m sincerely not trying to bicker, Father, but i am very challenged by this because if all the concerns of historical literalism are thrown by the wayside, i really don’t see why i’d be a Christian in the first place.


  38. PJ Avatar

    I don’t think that Father means to totally deny the historicity of Scripture, nor to denigrate the importance of history. But I’ll let him make his point clear.

  39. dinoship Avatar

    you said:
    “i’m puzzled about what to think about the Bible altogether if i can’t read bits of the OT that seem prima facie to present themselves as accounts of history as though they are more or less just that. i’m not saying i don’t see the additional layer of typology.”
    but I see Father agreeing with you already in his article here:
    “It’s (the OT’s) historical claims (though many are quite strong) are not the issue. Christ is the only issue and the only Truth that matters.”
    There are tons of bits of the OT that are accounts of history, it simply is not the main issue…

  40. PJ Avatar

    The historicity of the OT is not unimportant. God works in history. This is one of the unique aspects of Christianity. He elects certain people and certain nations to fulfill His will. We can’t totally surrender the accuracy of OT without undermining the NT. However, the all-or-nothing approach of fundamentalism is not just uncalled for but actually quite absurd. The fathers were selective in their reading of the OT. Some parts were — and are — much more important than others. We needn’t approach the text mechanically: we must use our heads.

  41. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks for the response – and excellent questions. For one, you put your response in the form of real questions (and from the heart) and not arguments – which will be useful for us both.

    First off, I do not at all disagree with the statement that reading “bits of the OT that seem prima facie to present themselves as accounts of history as though they are more or less just that…” isn’t legitimate. Indeed it is. I also do not want to disdain history (I’ll come back to what it is that I mean to critique about the historical approach). The NT and vast amounts of the OT are clearly historical in character. The central claims of the faith, the Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension, etc. are obviously historically true and believed and taught as such. The same applies to much of the material in the OT.

    The historical claims of Orthodoxy – its continuity and faithfulness to itself, the original Church – is true and historically verifiable. Again, this is crucial in the life of the Church. Examining those claims is perfectly legitimate.

    In fact, your paragraph describing the work of an author in Scripture pretty much sums up what I would say as well.

    So what’s my beef? And this is the primary point in the article (the God of the OT).

    It is the placing of history as the privileged point in theology and in the study of Scripture. Thus, in the case of fundamentalists (as I use the term) what is true is the same thing as what is historically the case. It is an effort to rationalize the truth and subject it to a form of reason (these are the claims of various forms of fundamentalist theologies – as I’ve seen them). It is that sense that I would call fundamentalism a form of modernism, because that position with regard to history is a modern (Reformation forward) approach.

    Modern liberal theology and Scripture studies do the same, although they are very sceptical about the historical veracity of Scripture. Thus, they dismiss its authority, because they believe that history is the arbiter of truth.

    History is always problematic and always will be. For many things, there is simply no way to judge the “veracity” of a historical account. If we’re honest about such things, then, if pressed, we’ll admit what we don’t know.

    (Example) I believe that Elijah and Elisha are historical characters and that they lived and carried out their ministries in the times and places recorded, I have no reason to think otherwise. If someone challenged me on a point in the record (I can’t think of any in particular in those stories), I would have to say that all I have is the testimony of Scripture. At that point I am at a crossroad. Is history (verifiable or otherwise) the arbiter of truth? If someone can show me that there is a historical problem with the Elijah and Elisha stories (I know of none), does that suddenly undermine the entire corpus of the Scriptures? Or does that happen elsewhere? Do we claim the kind of inspiration that means that everything that seems historical in Scripture must be true because the Bible says so?

    Is the story of Noah subject to competing claims of geology? I know many Christians (especially here in East TN) who think that either the claims of modern geology or true or Noah is true. Many of them think the modern geology is flawed and have an alternative geology. Some geologists think their work proves that Noah’s story is not true and therefore the Bible is not true. You know how the battle goes…

    I think there are central claims of Christianity that require the kind of historical claims (incarnation, resurrection, etc.) with which we’re both familiar. No doubt.

    But, in the light of the fact that a number of Church fathers, treated as perfectly acceptable in the Church, were not terribly concerned with historical claims, or for whom the “liturgical” reading was clearly the authoritative reading, then I do not feel the need to go to the mat defending the historical claims of certain Biblical stories as though the faith rose or fell with those historical claims.

    In many cases (particularly in the OT), there are schools of interpretation within the fathers in which the text of Scripture operates more like a literary text than a history text. I find that interesting. What I have found interesting about it (and stunning) was that they do so while at the same time affirming its authority. That was new for me. As noted in the article, in earlier years where the battleground was over the historical character of Scripture, historical veracity was the ultimate criterion of truth.

    When the locus of authority is moved from a central location in a historical text, and placed within the historical, living community of the Church (which is itself a community of interpretation taught by Christ), then it is possible to have a story that is primarily “literary” in character and still be authoritative.

    An example. The book of Jonah. There is debate within the Protestant community over its historical character. There is nothing in the book that gives a historical link. When did Jonah live? etc. Who was king in Ninevah, etc. Some historical fundamentalist treat the book’s truth as residing in the historical details of the story – complete with the historical details of the fish. Some liberals critique on the same ground, both spending time arguing over whether such a thing could have happened.

    Christ takes the story and uses it authoritatively, but takes its meaning to in fact be the resurrection of the messiah – something not even vaguely alluded to in the text of Jonah. the “sign of the prophet Jonah” is how the text is authoritatively handled in Orthodox liturgical use (where it plays a prominent role in Holy Week/Pascha).

    My contention is that Jonah is one of those cases in which its historical character is of no necessary interest. The story is authoritative even if it is only literature (in which case it would be a prophetic parable of sorts). It’s value cannot be judged on the basis of studying fish. Nor need we insist on salvage its historical character by noting that “God caused a great fish…” saying that this is a special case, etc. It simply doesn’t matter. It’s historical character is not intrinsic to the faith. This is not something that I would lift out and say that the entire OT is like that. I don’t think that. But I do think it is a challenge to the modernist contention of fundamentalism/liberalism that history is the primary criterion of truth.

    Christ is the Truth. Things have their value and meaning with regard to Him. Ultimately the OT has its truth in the fact that in it, Christ is found – prefigured, in types, shadows, images, etc. It is also the historical record in many places of the people of God in whom Christ became incarnate. That history is sanctified and itself points towards Christ and God’s work of salvation.

    As to questions of “did God command the slaughter, etc.” Here I may come up in the minority (just not sure). I know that Fr. Thomas Hopko has recently come down strongly on the side of “God said kill…” etc. My take on that is largely rooted in Luke 9:54-56 – in which Christ rebukes James and John for the suggestion that they call down fire to consume the village that rejected Him. “You do not know what Spirit you are of.” There are some among the fathers who would tend towards the sort of reading I take from that – one in which we may draw lessons from the OT stories, but still question whether what we see should be used the theologize about the nature and character of God. Many using OT stories as their primary source, tend to favor a justice model of atonement and a wrathful God, contrary, I believe, to what is revealed to us in Christ. I believe that Christ is the revelation of God and that other things are interpreted according to that. Thus Christ corrects Moses’ commandment on divorce, etc.

    Concluding. I’m not an enemy of a historical reading. I’m a world away from being a liberal protestant. But I am a world away from declaring that if the Bible says it – it inherently makes something to be true historically. I do not think that is faithful to what the bulk of the fathers of the Church say is the case. Though you and I would agree – with the bulk of the fathers as well – that most of what we see indeed has historical veracity and should be read and handled in that manner and that it matters.

    It means that we read the Scriptures in the bosom of the Church, as one of the faithful who read in the manner of the fathers listening to them while we are in the act of reading and teaching.

    A very good book (far more authoritative and useful than the stuff I write) is Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ. It’s not so much about historical method, but uses St. Irenaeus extensively in looking at how we understand the faith.

    I would add, that I probably push this point of understanding more than any contemporary Orthodox priest that I know (with perhaps a couple of exceptions). My private conversations with Met. Kallistos Ware, Fr. John Behr and a few others whose judgment and grounding in the Tradition I trust, help me have a sense that I’m not alone or floating out here in a crazy position. But having said that – there are those who would insist on a much stronger case for the authoritative role of history and would say that I’m on the edge. I accept that.

    So what if you’re “that sort of fundamentalist?” If you make the authority of Scripture (or the Christian faith) hostage to history at every point, you’ll run into trouble. If you grant that the Scriptures have a mix (history and literature) you’re on more solid ground – and the life of the Church and its handling of Scripture provide a safe haven for understanding that mix. Sometimes you’ll be puzzled (I know I am).

    If I understand you correctly, and your statements with regard to how authors work, I don’t think what I’ve said is particularly different. I have had a ministry of helping “recovering liberals” come to faith in Christ – or helping “recovering fundamentalists” not run away from a Church that acknowledges itself as the Truth. That ministry has largely shaped how I publicly write about these things. It’s a ministry to Gentiles. 🙂

  42. dinoship Avatar

    Father said that “I would add, that I probably push this point of understanding more than any contemporary Orthodox priest that I know” to which I would add (Bishop Nicholaos Hatzinicholaou’s words) that “the authentic Christian is compatible with tradition and doctrine, yet also has something new and original, something of his own. His diversity unites and beautifies…”

  43. PJ Avatar

    It’s interesting that some prominent early Christians, such as Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr, were very comfortable with drawing on non-Hebrew scriptures and oracles to shape their understanding of Christ. They knew who Christ was through the testimony of the Church, and when they saw His likeness in the religious or philosophical works of other cultures and schools, they were fine with utilizing them. This speaks to the incredible importance of the Church and its living apostolic tradition. The ancient Hebrew Scriptures are used to illuminate the mystery of Christ, but where they contradict the very clear image of the Pierced One delivered by the faith, they must be treated with real caution. Some of the first critics of Christianity, such as Celsus, picked up on the Church’s nuanced approach to the OT and tried to use it as a club against the gospel. But the fathers did not accept the criticism then and we should not accept it now.

  44. fatherstephen Avatar

    Many modern Christians are not familiar with the uncomfortable past of the Old Testament and the Church. Much history colors how we think about it. There are anti-semitic reasons some dislike it (not an Orthodox position); there are those who dislike some of its imagery of God – but don’t really like any particularly traditional Christian understanding. The caution in the early Church centered around how, precisely to treat it. The Jewish “canon” isn’t set until the council of Jamnia, a council of rabbi’s meeting in the 90’s AD, and their decisions were fairly anti-Christian. There was clear disagreement about what was authoritative (between Sadducees and Pharisees for example). There is increasing evidence that St. Justin Martyr’s charge that the text had been tampered with by the rabbis to make it anti-Christian may, in fact, be true (recent lectures by Fr. John Behr touch on this). But modern Christians have inherited a “book,” and a reverence for the book that has some strains of Islam within the attitude. There is a kind of historical “objectivity” behind some reverence of the OT that insists that something “must” be true because it is referred to in the book. The book makes something true. This was not apparently one of the options in the time of Christ, nor held by any of the early fathers. That they held it to be inspired, even authoritative seems clear, but differing from the various modern approaches to its authority. One way of stating the problem from an Orthodox perspective is the difficulty in having a 1st century Church with an 18-19th century Bible. There may be conflicts.

  45. guy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Thanks for the lengthy treatment. This was very helpful and encouraging. i’ll probably need to read through a couple more times for it to soak in.



  46. guy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    i wanted to ask particularly about you (and others) saying Christ “contradicted” the law. Perhaps you might not take that to be as strong a term as i understand it to be.

    Concerning the Mosaic divorce regulations: i’ve always understood the passage in Deut 24 that the Pharisees were referring to in the gospels when discussing this point with Jesus (Matt 19:1ff) to be concessionary in nature. So the Deut passage functions the way the regulation concerning kings does. God didn’t really want Israel to have a human king. When they eventually did, this still represented their refusal to comply with God’s ideal for them. It still resulted from sin in their hearts. Nevertheless, God gave them regulations for such kings.

    Isn’t this puzzling? Perhaps the regulations for kings functioned as guidelines for damage control after the Israelites had already made sinful choices. i always figured that the ‘bill of divorce’ passage in Deuteronomy was more or less the same thing. Divorce was not what God wanted out of the Israelites. But it was already happening. God decided to regulate what was already happening for damage control-type purposes.

    i’ve been reading Cyril Richardson’s Early Church Fathers. And in the Anonymous Letter to Diognetus, there is this passage:

    “And so, when he had planned everything by himself in union with his Child, he still allowed us, through the former time, to be carried away by undisciplined impulses, captivated by pleasures and lusts, just as we pleased. That does not mean that he took any delight in our sins, but only that he showed patience.He did not approve at all of that season of wickedness, but on the contrary, all the time he was creating the present age of righteousness…” (9:1)

    This passage expresses a similar idea–perhaps God shows patience toward the sins of men for ‘big picture’ reasons.

    Anyway, if that were the case, it would explain why Christ said that Moses gave the Israelites the Deuteronomy 24 regulations “because of the hardness of your hearts.” Christ wouldn’t be contradicting the OT in the sense of teaching something contrary to what God willed for the Israelites even then. Rather, Christ expressed the very thing God wanted from those Israelites even in the days of Deuteronomy, and he acknowledged the concessionary nature of the law.

    My understanding is that the Orthodox Church went on to recognize more legitimate reasons for divorce than Christ taught. (Am i wrong about this?) Did the Church do so for similar concessionary reasons? If so, would we really be inclined to say that the Church later “contradicted” Christ’s teaching? If not, then maybe this is a strong term to describe Christ’s treatment of the OT.

    What do you think, Father?


  47. fatherstephen Avatar

    “Contradicted” is indeed too strong a word. Christ “contradicts” the understanding of the Pharisees. He never sets the Law aside (and as St. Paul said the Law is good). Indeed, I think Christ is the Law – the Law foreshadows His coming and somehow participates in Him. He does seem to handle it with a freedom that you don’t see in the Pharisees. I do not see anything in Deut. 24 to support the notion of its character as a compromise, or second best. It is only Christ’s saying that makes it possible to see that. Thus his comments on Deut. are quite strong.

    It’s interesting, too, that the Kingship which God provides for Israel becomes eventually an important aspect of Messiahship.

    Orthodoxy never abandons the notion of one wife in a lifetime and the problems of divorce. But, like Christ and Moses, recognizes the problems created by the hardness of our hearts (and other circumstances). It thus provides for remarriage (2 possible times) under certain circumstances. There is no remarriage for priests and deacons.

  48. PJ Avatar

    ” I do not see anything in Deut. 24 to support the notion of its character as a compromise, or second best. ”

    I believe that I read that Gregory of Nyssa proposed a similar theory. He suggested that God only saddled Israel with the Law after their idolatry at Sinai. Similarly, God originally planned to clear the Promised Land with hornets rather than bloodshed, but this too had to be abandoned, at least in part, on account of Israel’s disobedience. I will try to find the passage.

  49. guy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    You wrote:
    ““Contradicted” is indeed too strong a word. Christ “contradicts” the understanding of the Pharisees.”

    Yes, thanks. That there clears up a ton of specifics in these articles for me. Christ refuting Pharisaical interpretations of the Law of Moses has been my understanding of a great deal of what Christ seems to say about the Law directly–especially the Sermon on the Mount.

    About Deut 24–Well, it’s been over a decade now since i studied this issue in particular, but i seem to recall from the little Hebrew i took in my protestant seminary days that in the Hebrew language, “if” and “then” are basically the same word. So where you understand that word to be an “if” or a “then” will depend largely on context. In the Deuteronomy 24 passage, i don’t think it’s hard to see that whether you understand a (or at least one of) “then” to occur in verse 1 makes a big difference as to what the passage enjoins. If the “then” doesn’t even occur til verse 4 (as the NIV translates), then the first 3 verses would read as though the events described are assumed to have already happened. In this way, the passage may parallel the king-regulation passages which seem to speak as though Israel having a king (at some point) is a given.


  50. Jeremy Avatar

    Perhaps, and forgive me if my supposition is incorrect, another way to state the same is that there are layers to the scripture. There is the surface layer that is indicative of events and order of events, and then beyond that there is a revelation (such as with Jonah pointing to the Messiah, or the sign of Elijah) and then beyond that there is Christ. As Father Steven has wrote in another post:

    “The Cross is both event in history and also the truest event of the Great Myth. Its power is such that it draws other things to itself. It is the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, Isaac on Mt. Moriah, the staff of Moses with the snake, the outstretched arms of Moses at the battle with the Amalekites, the Tree that Moses cast into the bitter water, the Footstool of God. ”

    Beyond the ‘simply’ historical writing downs and recordings of events, there is Christ incarnate. Yes historically, but once beyond the historical side, there is the mystery side of the lamb who was slain before the foundations of the world. Beyond history, beyond these physical meanderings through the fog of our comprehension there is the solidity that is Christ. If we cling only to the historical veracity of every event which has to be proven for anything to be true, then we are always at the mercy of the latest skeptic with a new theory at their side. If, on the other hand, we cling to the rock of truth who is Christ, and allow Him to interpret all of the rest-then regardless of the changing winds of modern times we are holding on to the root of truth. While I am in both heart and head a ‘fundamentalist’, meaning that I certainly have no reason to doubt 6 literal days of creation or the actual physical reality of the flood (for modern science has no convincing arguments against it and the Fathers had no reason to doubt it and for the most part confirmed it-what reason do I have to doubt it? that God isn’t powerful enough? absurd), I am deeper than that holding to Christ. For if I chiefly cling to 6 days of creation and then Christ, what happens if I am wrong about creation? My very reason for belief in Christ is then destroyed. First Christ and through Him interpretation, such as that is it leads me to be able to say: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Christ, not the law, Christ, not the histories-is the the way the truth and the life.

    As point and case of this, the Israelite’s were expecting the coming of Elijah in the flesh before the Messiah. They hinged at the point of the literal, and as such turned away from the truth because they could not break away from their presupposed self interpretation of what was the inspired word from the mouth of Malachi the prophet.

  51. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I found your conversation with Jim and Guy to be incredibly instructive concerning how to view the OT. But I would ask for help on one more bit. Similar to questions above, I still want to know more about how to reconcile the OT God who told the Israelites to totally kill everyone in the town, to the God who knows and loves me better than I do.

    I don’t doubt that there is an answer and someone has spoken or written about it, but I was hoping you could at least point me to someone. Your long answer to Guy only gave one paragraph about this.

    Would Fr. Behr’s book apply here as well? Or another source of widsom?

    P.S. I agree with another commenter that with the new format, the font seems smaller and harder for older eyes.

  52. drewster2000 Avatar


    Well said. Thanks for adding that comment.

  53. PJ Avatar

    Worth keeping in mind that the “God of the Old Testament” (so to speak) inspired these words:

    “Forgive thy neighbor the hurt that he hath done unto thee, so shall thy sins also be forgiven when thou prayest.

    One man beareth hatred against another, and doth he seek pardon from the Lord?

    He sheweth no mercy to a man, which is like himself: and doth he ask forgiveness of his own sins?

    If he that is but flesh nourish hatred, who will intreat for pardon of his sins?

    Remember thy end, and let enmity cease; remember corruption and death, and abide in the commandments.

    Remember the commandments, and bear no malice to thy neighbor: remember the covenant of the Highest, and overlook ignorance.”

    –Ecclesiasticus 27:2-7

  54. fatherstephen Avatar

    PJ, et al
    One of the great crises of the early Church, particularly in the 2nd century, was to decisively proclaim and affirm that the “God of the Old Testament” and the God of the Christians was one and the same God. Of course, the things that made this a question are still obvious questions. The wrath vs. mercy was and is the most obvious of these. The “problem” was not easily solved. Primarily the Church simply affirmed the identity and unity of God without exactly offering theories to explain away the problems. Marcionism (a form of Gnosticism) was the primary opponent. The life of the Church in that century set a boundary for Christians of all times. We cannot disavow the “God of the Old Testament.” But it does not make the “problem” go away or reconcile certain discrepancies.

    I am drawn towards the fathers who tended to use literary understandings to reconcile the differences (such as allegory, types, etc.). I also have a place within me that is quite accepting of the problem (in the mode of Fr. Thomas Hopko). I do not want a God who is so encumbered by the demands of my “boundaries” that He has to obey my concepts of Him. Thus I readily allow for God to do whatever He pleases. However, I will not draw conclusions from that that lessen or alter the clear teachings of Christ. I do not trust the word “justice” when it is on the lips of men.

  55. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    That’s a good solution to this “problem”. I accept and understand your use of quotes. Here is the perspective behind my question:

    I teach adult Sunday School and was challenged with this question. I was giving a Worldview course about the Muslim faith and explaining how they tend to serve an arbitrary and seemingly merciless God whose mercy is fickle. Someone asked me, if our God is so different, then how do I explain his acts in the OT?

    While I start from the truths I know – He is a good God and He loves mankind – and approach the problem until I have to stop and say “I don’t know”, I was hoping to have something more illuminating, more explanatory for my “students”.

    As with Guy or Jim, I was hoping someone could take an example where God ordered the decimation of a whole city or people, and show me the God of today, how it was in fact mercy to all involved, how it wasn’t just a random act of a moody God.

    I realize that someone intimate with OT studies would have a better chance of seeing the inside story and understanding this point of view. I’m not asking anyone to make me an OT scholar overnight, just to give me 1 or 2 good examples that would help me see what that perspective would look like and how the connections might be made between that God and the one we serve today. I don’t doubt that the connections are there to be made; I simply don’t have the insight to make them from where I sit.

  56. PJ Avatar

    Of course, Father. I certainly don’t meant to draw some sort of dichotomy, which is why I said, “so to speak.” All I meant is that the mercy and love for which the New Testament is so famous is also manifest in the Old Testament.

    As for justice and mercy: I’ve come to think that the two are not so easily distinguished. For instance, jailing a murderer is just, but it is also merciful, for it confronts the criminal with his transgression, thus presenting an opportunity for repentance and conversion. It also protects the innocent from his sinister intentions and so furthers the flourishing of all.

    Similarly, God chastises those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6), that they may be purified, and so enter more deeply into His life. Thus Jesus ben Sirach writes:

    “Mercy and wrath belong to the Lord,
    And He is mighty to forgive,
    And He pours out wrath,
    As great as His mercy, so also great is His rebuke” (16:11-12).

    Or consider the Great Flood. The punishment for man’s evil deeds was just, but its justice was corrective rather than retributive. Man would have consumed himself entirely in wickedness had God not intervened. The cleansing was merciful in its justice.

    This is the mystery of the Living God who declared through Moses, “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand” (Deuteronomy 32:39).

    You are right to be suspicious of calls for justice. But justice is not necessarily mutually exclusive with mercy. Pope John Paul II forgave his would-be assassin, but he also recognized that it was proper that the man spend time in the penitentiary. For if crime went unpunished, the innocent would suffer — and that is not mercy.

  57. PJ Avatar

    “As with Guy or Jim, I was hoping someone could take an example where God ordered the decimation of a whole city or people, and show me the God of today, how it was in fact mercy to all involved, how it wasn’t just a random act of a moody God.”

    Archaeology suggests that some of those events did not happen. Or, if they did happen, they did not happen to the extent recorded in Scripture. Is it any surprise that the Israelites, given their special relationship with God, saw the hand of providence in everything they did? Even today we say during times of war, “God is on our side.”

    Then again, in certain circumstances Israel was backed into a corner. The Amelkites, for instance, attacked Israel without reason when it was weak and wandering. They were vicious and unrelenting:

    “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).

    Given the primitive nature of the Semitic peoples, the desperate situation of Israel, and the tendency of all people to believe that God is on their side, it is not surprising that the Bible contains a few accounts that do not “match up” with the God revealed by and in Christ.

    Just some very rough thoughts from an amateur Scripture sleuth.

  58. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes. I very much like “justice and mercy” not easily distinguished. There are no dichotomies in God – no tension – no balance – no opposition. His mercy and His justice are one and the same. Yes. Indeed.

  59. fatherstephen Avatar

    Like PJ, I think it is quite possible to affirm “God fights for us,” without having said much more (or without inferring everything we could imagine it to infer). I am satisfied with the mystery. It can become problematic to press the mystery into a place we cannot go. Those who speak of God “hating” etc. and thinking they know what that means is highly problematic. If I cannot fathom His love, how do I understand His hate? I have no problem even with the language of punishment, so long as it is nuanced to mean that God acts to save me, including by means I would not prefer. In our deeply neurotic world, and in the face of deeply disordered theologies, we may have to speak more forcefully to assure the teaching of God’s mercy and the assurance of His goodness and His will for the salvation of all.

  60. drewster2000 Avatar


    Thanks for your comments. What I’m looking for may not readily exist. I may have to simply leave this as a mystery and stumbling block for the masses – weeding them out like Chemistry 101 does – and rest on what I know to be true about God for myself.

  61. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I very much agree with your last comment. I could have written it myself! (grin) I even look at events like Nazi concentration camps or 9/11 in this same light. I was just hoping for something a bit more flashy and detailed for those I speak to. But I realize it’s far more important to accept reality and speak it to the best of our ability, than to pacify the masses.

    Thanks again for your work.

  62. Scott Avatar

    To Judith and all who stand to lose their livelihood,

    Greetings. I have no idea whether Judith is still following Fr. Stephen’s blog but I thought I’d comment on her situation (i.e. losing one’s livelihood upon conversion to Orthodoxy). I’m sure there are others like her out there and so I pray that my situation may be of some encouragement to them.

    My family and I converted last year to Orthodoxy. We lost our livelihood, many friends, and the educational institution and community for all 5 of our children (I was a co-founder and teacher of a classical and Reformed Calvinist school which my kids attended). It was the most difficult time of our lives. Everything got upended. It continues to be hard especially for my kids as they continue to try to settle into their new school situations – not to mention the changes taking place in our spiritual lives.

    And you know what? I wouldn’t trade it for the world. We found the Pearl of Great Price. We have received the heavenly Spirit. God provided for us in amazing ways – the most surprising one (at the time) was the community of brothers and sisters that we gained. They came to our rescue in some unbelievable ways.

    But, anyone who thinks they are in a similar position, don’t ever think that it a certainty that you will lose your livelihood. You just don’t know what God will do. And if you do? He will provide. Guaranteed. Surprises? Yes, those too are guaranteed.

    Your brother in Christ,


  63. Burckhardtfan Avatar

    Father Stephen, you cannot know the magnitude of the service you have done for me! I have been grappling with the issues of ‘inerrancy’ and ‘historicity’ for nearly ten years now, and in a single stroke you have unlocked the mystery to the riddles that that bedeviled me all this time! I come from a fundamentalist baptist background, so these issues were always been a burden for me. When I went to university I had a miserable time, so miserable, in fact, that I felt like the prophet Elijah when he despaired of life itself. I accepted the theory of evolution less than two years ago, and only now have I been able to solve the “problem” of Biblical historicity.

    Also, as a lapsed fundamentalist I can say that your depiction of fundamentalism is correct. It IS overly anxious of historical matters, and its overly literal reading of Scripture has made fundamentalists a laughing stock amongst everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike. I can fill a book with such examples, but I think a few salient examples will suffice (all of them concern my pastor). In a sermon, he once said that if we take the Millennium of Revelation 20 figuratively, then there’s nothing to stop you from treating the death, burial and resurrection figuratively (obviously he doesn’t understand genre and context. Apocalyptic literature is not historical biography like the Gospels. I suggest he read Erich Auerbach’s “Mimesis” to understand what ‘literary context’ is all about). Second example: he believes that Jeremiah 31 is NOT a prophecy about the Messiah, but about the restoration of Jewish Israel in the future (he’s a Dispensationalist). Why? Because, he reasons, if we take Jeremiah 31 as a prophecy concerning Jesus, then we are ‘spiritualising’ Scripture, and all Scripture must be taken literally unless it’s ‘obvious’ the context is figurative (‘but how to you draw the line…?’) After all, the Catholics ‘spiritualise’ Scripture, and good evangelicals don’t have anything to do with Catholics, right? But what of Hebrews 8 and 10? Well, I didn’t completely understand his ‘explanation’ for this, but basically he said that Hebrews 8 never said Jesus fulfilled Jeremiah 31, but was simply making reference to it. I didn’t mention Hebrews 10, which is even more direct, saying that Jeremiah was fulfilled in Jesus, proceeding to quote verbatim the relevant portions. But even if I had, it wouldn’t have swayed his mind: fundamentalists have a mind which seems impervious to rational argument (after all, it’s the same mindset that goes in for King James-Onlyism!)

    Sorry for the rant, father, but it does show the kind of mind the fundamentalist possesses.

    Anyway, father, may God bless you immensely for all the help you have given me.

  64. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thanks for the note – it’s very encouraging. I have never been a fundamentalist, though I was around enough of it that it was a major question for me some years ago. I studied in a liberal Anglican seminary (though not utterly radical) and had been greatly exposed to the hist-crit stuff in college as well. Neither satisfied me. In time, reading the fathers, I began to be more comfortable with the “third way” that is amply present in Orthodoxy. More recent work by Fr. John Behr and Fr. Andrew Louth confirmed positions that had become well-formed, giving me increased confidence – enough to write boldly on these things, both to challenge the various guises of the historical method as well as to give the hope that is found in much of the patristic witness. All in all, it became the only path to faith for me – the other stuff is simply unworkable – at least in my conscience. Glad to have you reading! Your thoughts will be most welcome!

  65. Jamie Avatar

    Am I correct in guessing that the manner in which we read the OT is also how we read the lives of the saints? There are an awful lot of springs welling up out of nowhere in these accounts, not to mention people plucking out their own eyes and flinging them at their tormentors. I mean no disrespect. But when I read such accounts, my western mind asks, “Okay, but what really happened?” Should I just look for Christ revealed and not worry about the rest?

  66. fatherstephen Avatar

    “Hagiography,” the writings about lives of the saints, has a number of styles. Some are quite graphic and full of wonders and miracles. I certainly believe in wonders and miracles, but the Church does not make a claim about the detailed veracity of the written account. Some are far more trustworthy than others. The Ven. Bede’s account of the early Sts. in Britain are down right sober. Others “strain credulity.” Your formula sounds like a good idea.

  67. Andrew Avatar

    “Okay, but what really happened?” Should I just look for Christ revealed and not worry about the rest?

    Impossible to decipher the true meaning of scripture (or anything else) without the hermeneutical key (“Pascha”). In the patristic tradition, mankind is rightly held to contain within himself the undistorted image of God. Anything less is likely to disappoint.

  68. fatherstephen Avatar

    “What really happened?” In many cases “really” is unreachable. What we have is a theological account – or even an account of the history through a theological lens. A “time-machine” would be needed, I suppose, to arrive at the “what really happened” kind of answer. That doesn’t mean we know nothing – it means that the basis of our faith and belief is not exactly time-machine generated. Some want to use the Scripture as a sort of time-machine, but that would seem unfaithful to what it is actually doing.
    I believe the waters of the Red Sea parted – but if you pressed me to describe what I think that looked like – how could I answer? Ultimately, God delivered Israel from Egypt, “through the Red Sea on dry land.” And the event shaped the very existence as God’s people. What we can do, is enter into the experience of that deliverance through the life of Christ in the Church as we are delivered from the bondage of death and hell ourselves.

    This kind of approach creates an anxiety in us, I think, because we have had a long habit of thinking in a literal-historical manner about everything. And so we fight others on behalf of the literal nature of every detail – finally being more concerned with that fight than with the life that is revealed to us in the story itself.

    My own intuition about these things is fairly historical. I have a confidence about much of the historical character of what has been given to us. But I don’t want to spend the bulk of my Christian life (and the few years I have left) worrying about it.

    I want to live it – for this I know is possible. And become Israel crossing the Red Sea on Dry Land.

  69. drewster2000 Avatar

    Wow! Extremely well said, Fr. Stephen, concerning “what really happened”. This puts into words much of what I believe on that issue and corrects the rest of it. It gets to the heart of the matter instead of getting sidetracked by the details.

  70. fatherstephen Avatar


  71. Silouan Avatar

    Thank you Father.

    That is an incredible response and most helpful for me.

    I’m a memember of a Buddhist forum, and if you don’t mind I would like to quote your comment in response to a similar type of discussion occuring. Though it is about the authenticy of Buddhist scripture I think it might be helpful for them too.

  72. guy Avatar


    Just wanted to say, i love this quote from you:

    “I do not trust the word “justice” when it is on the lips of men.”

  73. fatherstephen Avatar

    Sure, Silouan

  74. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Father Stephen & others,

    I agree, very well said. I have the experience of doing marital counseling and sometimes, when I first meet with a couple where I anticipate contention, I say: I have time to hear from both of you. I don’t expect either of you to tell me the truth…”

    After a brief moment of shocked silence, I explain that we cannot know objective truth because all that we remember is filtered through our own perceptions, moods, etc. Thus, one spouse might say the other is lying – but it is very possible to have honestly different recollections of what happened. What is important is not so much what REALLY happened, but the dynamic between the two people and what it meant to them.

    I think of this in relation to what you wrote because, the “facts” of the scripture are fully knowable but the relationship between God and His people is the essential truth we need. As came up on another post recently, in the New Testament, it is not so important whether Jesus cast out a demon or cured epilepsy; what is important is that He healed people with the truth of His love.

  75. Andy Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I am a presbyterian looking east. I have benefited from reading your blog posts. I even link to your blog from my own, but reading this one gives rise to a question:

    How do we know which texts/stories in the Old Testament are historical accounts, and which are really allegorical. Certainly, many of the stories are historical. The people of Israel are even called to remember all the things the Lord had done for them—in real time, in real space. And Jesus refers to a number of them specifically, in a way that seems to underscore their historicity.

    A word or two more of explanation would be appreciated.

    God Bless.


  76. fatherstephen Avatar

    I don’t think there is a choice between which are really one thing and which are really the other. Some things are obvious – indeed most of the material in the OT has a historical basis. Even the material on Creation and the Garden are written in something of a historical style. The point of allegory, or the various forms of it used by the fathers, is that even historical events (such as King David) have an allegorical or typological shape to them. God’s universe, if you will, has a “Paschal” shape to it. And the point of the OT, and of the whole universe, is Christ and His Pascha. I don’t think about having to choose whether or not to see something historically. But to understand, instead, that regardless of its historical character, its Paschal character (or Christological character) remain intact.

    Is that helpful? Would more detail or examples be useful?

  77. Scott Avatar


    I chimed in above on Sept. 6th – I just wanted to welcome you to this wonderful blog…before becoming Orthodox I was Presbyterian, so your good questions hit close to home (this is a good thread, eh?). We are praying for you.

    Your brother,


  78. dinoship Avatar

    Father’s response above is -as far as I can remember of the top of my head – identical to an answer on that same question provided by the great St Maximus the Confessor, who also retains the historical as well as the allegorical (on multiple levels) understanding of scripture.
    On his explanations of what Jonah, Jopa and the Ninevites symbolise, for instance he has around ten different “types” (“εἰκονισμούς”) for each…
    It is not unknown for Fathers to point to the basic, simple meaning of parables too, while also indicating more hidden ones. eg: the parable of the lost drachma out of the 10 can amongst other things symbolise the 9 angelic orders, and Mankind, “the lost drachma” which the Woman (Christ) seeks…
    The examples are numerous.

  79. Jamie Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for helping me to rightly read hagiography. Can I ask for a specific example? Choose a saint, maybe St. Catherine or St. George, and describe how you read him or her. What do you see in that life when viewed through the lens of Pascha?

    The more ancient saints especially seem to have details added to their stories with time. St. George, for example, evolves from a soldier martyred for being a Christian to (according to one version) slaying the dragon that required a daily human sacrifice in order to allow to the residents of a certain city access to their local water supply.

    Do you ignore the dragon as an add-on? It seems so central to icons of St. George. Or do you try to see the dragon in the light of Pascha?

    Thank you, again, for your help.

  80. fatherstephen Avatar

    The credence we give to a saints’ story probably has to do with our own internal understandings. Those of us raised in the secular West probably have a very difficult time with any number of the “wonders” in these stories. If anything, we’re more likely to err on the side of doubt. It’s also true that we’re so “married” to “historical” equals “real” equals “true,” that we would discount the allegorical the symbolic to the point of not taking it seriously.

    Many times I hear stories of lives of a saint. St. George, for example. I respect on the one hand the place the story has held within simple piety for many centuries. For myself, if I’m in a secularized mood, I think of his struggle against the passions or the demons and Christ’s victory. When I was in the holy land, every Orthodox Christian home had a ceramic icon of St. George over the door. It was there for protection against their many enemies, but it was also a bold proclamation, “I’m an Orthodox Christian!”

    I would remember that through the centuries his prayers have been sought for protection. And I ask him for the same. That protection, I readily trust, dragons or no.

  81. PJ Avatar

    To think of the dragon as an “add-on” is, I think, to miss entirely the point. The faithful of yesteryear lived in a thoroughly Christianized cosmos. Nothing existed apart from Christ, not even the creative impulses which yield stories of knights and dragons. What I mean is: There have always been master storytellers, those knitters of epic yarns who speak to the human soul with archetypal images.

    During the height of “Christendom,” these masters — like everyone else — were so saturated in the Paschal Mystery that they could only understand good and evil in terms of Christ and His Church. There was no such thing as literature or art apart from Christ. There was *nothing* apart from Christ.

  82. Silouan Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen. Your comment was nicely received, and appreciated.

  83. Dorthea Avatar

    The interview part of Inside the Actors Studio ends with Lipton asking some
    questions from French journalist Bernard Pivot.
    This show is more edgy and busy, without crossing
    over inside the radical crudeness of South Park. It’s possible that my attitude around it came, on some level, from understanding that I still liked boys.

  84. Burckhardtfan Avatar

    But what about 1 Corinthians 10:6, where it says: ‘Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did (ESV).’ In this passage, St. Paul is referring to the parting of the Red Sea and Israel’s wanderings in the Wilderness. Doesn’t the abovementioned verse give credence to the historical paradigm? Doesn’t this verse imply that the Red Sea crossing MUST have happened, otherwise the Bible – inspired by the Holy Spirit – is incorrect? Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

  85. Dino Avatar

    Have you missed these very words of Father Stephen replying to Jamie above perhaps?
    To me they are answering your very question here…:

    I believe the waters of the Red Sea parted – but if you pressed me to describe what I think that looked like – how could I answer? Ultimately, God delivered Israel from Egypt, “through the Red Sea on dry land.” And the event shaped the very existence as God’s people. What we can do, is enter into the experience of that deliverance through the life of Christ in the Church as we are delivered from the bondage of death and hell ourselves.

    This kind of approach creates an anxiety in us, I think, because we have had a long habit of thinking in a literal-historical manner about everything. And so we fight others on behalf of the literal nature of every detail – finally being more concerned with that fight than with the life that is revealed to us in the story itself.

    My own intuition about these things is fairly historical. I have a confidence about much of the historical character of what has been given to us. But I don’t want to spend the bulk of my Christian life (and the few years I have left) worrying about it.

    I want to live it – for this I know is possible. And become Israel crossing the Red Sea on Dry Land.

  86. fatherstephen Avatar

    “inspired by the Holy Spirit,” so – the inspiration of the Holy Spirit can be judged by historical accuracy? I personally have no problems with the Red Sea, etc., though the account we have in Exodus is clearly a “literary account,” complete with poetry. Again, I have no problem with that. It’s the paradigm that says history/fact/truth that gives me problems. That model was invented by Protestants in order to use the Bible to avoid the Church and Tradition – and ultimately – any need for the Holy Spirit as well. For me, “these things happened,” is equivalent to “the record of these things,” etc. St. Paul clearly makes “these things happening,” relative to us – for they are not for their own sakes but for ours.

    I have no interest in pursuing the project of liberal Christianity and question the historical nature of every story and utterance in Scripture. Frankly, you can’t know or certify such a thing. Christians read these things, as we were taught to read them – and St. Paul’s teaching is they are “for us.” It is the fact that they are “for us,” that makes them Scripture and inspired by the Holy Spirit.

    I do not mean to jettison history – only to move its imaginary force from it. And the force is imaginary. You cannot prove anything about the nature of the Red Sea parting, but some would insist that we must argue and make assertions about its nature or else the Scriptures are not inspired. It’s seriously faulty reading. We make “history” the judge and necessity of all things. It marries the Scriptures either to complete emptiness (because we can prove very little history), or to a complete fideistic approach, since they will only be considered true historically because we say they are true. And you only wait for the next unexpected archeologist’s spade to debunk your whole faith.

    Since this does not seem to have been necessary to the fathers, why should we insist on it for ourselves?

  87. Burckhardtfan Avatar

    Thank you Father for your response. Growing up in a Fundamentalist home makes it difficult to abandon the historical paradigm. I think I understand what you’re saying: basically, we shouldn’t hang our entire faith on the veracity of Old Testament events. This has been my thinking for a while, but that verse from Paul threw me off.

    By the way, I encountered this article. I think you might find it interesting:

    I think the article does a really good job of cutting through the anxieties surrounding Evangelical wranglings over issues of ‘inerrancy’ and textual criticism.

  88. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Random thoughts: St George slaying the dragon so people could get to the water supply — Jesus Christ is the living water. The dragon that keeps us from drinking of that water is very real. So is St. George’s help.

    Before the battle of El Allemain in WWII there were many reports from British soldiers about St. George (the patron saint of England) walking amongst the men and encouraging them for the battle to come.

    Which story is “real” both but in different ways. Ultimately they are true.

    History is not an empirical science. It is balanced empathy with as much verification as possible. Add to that the reality of the Incarnation changing everything and what was “real” has no meaning. By asking the question “What is true?” we avoid both the relativist error and the positivist error and we can by God’s grace arrive at an understanding that satisfies both mind and heart and lessens our confusion.

  89. fatherstephen Avatar

    Somewhat autobiographical: I found that the historical paradigm simply wasn’t working for me. I was fighting a “rear-guard” action for a number of years, working with a decreasing number of historical issues while yielding others, but clinging to the model of history/fact/truth.

    Somewhere along the line as I read more Orthodox thought and patristic stuff, I started asking other questions. For one, and a very primary question, was “What kind of world do we live in for sacraments to actually be true and real?” They really don’t fit a historical model. A corollary was the frequent use of allegory when treating historical events. Thus the question was “What’s the nature of reality if allegory can be true?”

    One thought leads to another…

  90. […] wonderful thought from Father Freeman.  More or less perfectly sums up my own […]

  91. fr Chris Moody Avatar
    fr Chris Moody

    Dear father, I appreciate the perspective you are bringing, Though you did not mention these events in particular, the tenor you showed toward scripture was it does not really matter if it is historical or not, only Christ matters. But I think it ultimately will lead to disregard of the testimony of scripture and the testimony of the apostles themselves. According to St. Jude, the genealogies in Genesis are literal. So also Adam and his fall, according toPaul. According to the Apostle Peter, he did not follow μυθοις, myths, but the events of the gospel were accurately recorded. He even holds to the biblical account of creation and the flood. I understand the perils of fundamentalism, but stating a literal hermeneutic is not necessary (at least you implied history does not matter)is arguably hetorodox.Would it not have been easier to say accept the literal teaching of the scripture( am I wiser than the Lord or the apostles?) and let it be grounded in Christ? Lastly, all father’s prior to modernism upheld a verbal inspiration of scripture. I am translating St. Gregory Palamas right now on the procession of the Holy Spirit. His argument Is the very words are accurate and we cannot change them. I would not say this father was tinged by a mohammedan view of inspiration. God blessnus this nativity season where His incarnation undid the historical fall.

  92. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Chris,
    I do not think it is quite as straightforward as you describe – that is – whether the use of the flood, etc., should imply something about a historical world-wide flood. The Scriptures are cited – absolutely – and for a point – absolutely. But the point is not the historical arguments that dog us in our present time.

    I utterly agree that the Scriptures are inspired. But that inspiration is not, I think, a statement about precise historical accuracy in every instance. They are inspired in that they are God-breathed and reveal Christ.

    There are, indeed, modern questions, raised by modern scientific practices. I am not interested in arguing with a geologist about the geological evidence of a world-wide flood. It is beside the point, I think, or, at least, not necessary.

    One can assert certain “historical” events to be the case, purely and solely because they are described in Scripture. That, I think, is a sort of fideism that is itself open to plenty of abuse – I’ve seen far more than a little of it. The primary drive, prior to modernity, for a historical approach is found in Protestantism, in which using the historical approach was a means to make the Scriptures stand on their own apart from the Church’s reading in order to oppose the Catholic Church with an independent Bible.

    I think the matter is much more complex. No doubt, many, even most of the Fathers, if asked a question about the history of a certain Scriptural event (in the OT), would not likely have questioned it – simply because there was no reason to question it. But that’s not the same thing as saying that it was its “historicity” that drew his sense of its truth and inspiration. I don’t want to sound like I’m quibbling – but the question, it seems, is “What role does history play in the authority of Scripture?”

    On the resurrection and details concerning Christ – history plays a huge role – it is essential. And I would not doubt it. But, St. Paul, when he says that Christ died, “in accordance with the Scriptures,” is also making a theological statement – because none of the OT Scriptures he is referring to are historical accounts of Christ’s resurrection. Their authority is different. He appeals to eyewitnesses on the direct historical matter of Christ’s resurrection – and 1Cor. 15 remains the single most important historical witness to the resurrection. I like Gary Habermas’ videos on this, by the way.

    A purely literal hermeneutic (of the OT) is not utterly necessary – and I think my point is that it is not to the OT, read literally, that the disciples refer when they say, “In accordance with the Scriptures.” They have to be read in a manner that is beyond the literal in order to see Christ. That is blatantly in the Fathers – I just read it in St. Maximos today.

    Their status as “literal” accounts viz. history, is, for me, a secondary question. It’s not unimportant or uninteresting – it’s just not the primary way they are treated in the Church’s use of them.

    I have not written and said, “There was no Adam.” I would be foolish to say such a thing. I have suggested that there are more important questions of the Creation account and its doctrinal teaching in the Church. What I am saying is not heterodox – certainly not according to my teachers and those under whom I serve.

    May God indeed give us the joy of His Nativity! Thank you for the comment. Obviously, I need to write with more care and precision in treating this topic. BTW, this is an article from 2009. I’ve written more extensively since then.

    In response to a different comment today, I found a quote from Van Balthasar on St. Maximos that was useful and expounded shortly on it:

    Pseudo – Dionysius and John [ of Scythopolis ], too, discovered in the truth of Scripture many similarities to the forms of poetic truth: “The Scripture ( as the latter remarks ) makes use of certain poetic fictions in order to educate the human mind, which is not yet capable of grasping higher teaching. Heavenly similes are in fact like the fantastic images of the poets — take, for example, those whom the Greeks admire, such as Homer, Hesiod, and the rest — or like certain sculptural images. God’s love for us seems to recognize, in its wisdom, that our mind is not ready for lofty insights, so he has prepared for it a way to the heights that suits its nature.

    This is the reason, according to Maximus, “for the multiple senses of symbolism in Scripture, which is not at all free from ambiguity; this, too, is the reason for those contradictions [ in Scripture ] which can only be reconciled through a spiritual exegesis. And it is the reason for the pleasure we feel in tasting the delicious meaning hidden under its bitter skin.”

    Perhaps it would be more accurate for me to say that it’s not a matter of whether the event is purely historical, because it’s meaning and understanding are not found precisely in the historical setting of cause and effect. The account we have in the OT would, in some cases, be this “bitter skin” to which Maximus refers. Though, I think the accounts are absolutely essential, every “jot and tittle.” But not because every jot and tittle has preserved a perfect relating of a historical event, but because the account itself is inspired, regardless of its precise connection with what might or might not have happened.

    We cannot get behind the text to find “what happened.” That’s the goal of historical-critical work. We can, however, get beneath the text to find that sweetness that God is giving to the Church through Christ.

    Fr. Chris, writing to a frequently large number of Protestants, who have only ever know a historical approach (whether liberal or conservative) I have found it appropriate to write about this in the manner that I have. I’ve had some long conversations, particularly with Fr. John Behr on the topic, and feel confident of what I’m doing. But, I’ll ask some more. Thank you ever so much.

  93. Christopher Harmon Avatar
    Christopher Harmon

    “It’s (the Old Testament’s) historical claims (though many are quite strong)” Father are you saying some of the Old Testament historical claims are false? If so which ones, and what is our guide to parsing out the true and false historical claims of the Old Testament?

  94. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that what I am saying is that the judgment that everything that appears to be historical in the OT is pure, accurate history is not correct. What we have in all cases is a theological presentation of historical material. When we ask questions that are sort of “newspaper” style treatment of history – we are asking questions that either cannot be answered (you cannot independently verify the “facts”) or simply taken at face value because it is Scripture – which begs the question. It begs the question because, of the material in the OT, things do not come labeled as “pure history,” etc.

    The strictly historical approach is, I think, largely a modern, Protestant problem – an attempt to have a Scripture that can stand independent of the community of the Church. Protestantism wanted Scripture to be independent of tradition. That’s just not the case.

    How can we tell about something?

    Many times we can’t – or there’s a lively discussion about a particular passage. There’s evidence for such discussion among the fathers even in the first few centuries of the Church. It’s normal. We read in the community and bosom of the Church and it’s in that context that the Scripture yields its treasure.

    I would not say that any “historical” claims of the OT are false. I would say that some readers make false claims about certain points in history because they are misusing the Scriptures to do so. I trust the Scriptures. I do not trust all readers.

  95. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Christopher, ‘historical claims” are difficult. History is neither linear nor scientific despite attempts to make it such since the late 19th century. History is the cultural memory of a people. The core virtues, the struggles, the victories and defeats. It is entered into, not studied from afar, not seen as some sort of of dialectic. That is utterly false.

    For Christians that means entering into the stories of the Old Testament looking for Christ. No other way will suffice. Any claims are the claims Christ has on our hearts.
    We must humbly recognize the providential nature of God’s gifts to us.

    The Fathers of the Church were masters at entering into the revelations of Christ in the Old Testament and explicating them from a profound awareness of God’s providence. As Father says, anything else is dubious.

  96. Dean Avatar

    One of the most freeing things for me, from having read this blog over the years, has been Father’s explanation of how the OT should be read. “The Scriptures
    (OT) speak of me,” Christ says. I have been listening to podcasts by Fr. Reardon on Christ in the Psalms. His teaching on Psalm 7 was most helpful. This is why the OT must be read and interpreted by the Church…and that theologically, “getting beneath the text and finding the sweetness of Christ.”

  97. Christopher Harmon Avatar
    Christopher Harmon

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for your thoughtful reply and also to Michael Bauman and Dean. I think I understand what you are saying, but I’m not sure I can fully go along with it. I understand that the OT speaks of Christ and that for us as Christians this is the main purpose of them. (I attended Fr. Reardon’s church for several years and have read his Christ in the Psalms book.)

    I am not really concerned now with Genesis 1 & 2 and things like whether or not Noah lived over 900 years. I’m talking from more historical times, like for example King David. I think perhaps there has recently been found some archaeological evidence of David but I know for a very long time many scholars did not think David was historical. Abraham too of course, Moses. Are the historical (actual) existences of these figures “up for a lively discussion” or do we take on faith that they are historically accurate people? Is the authorship of the Pentateuch also open for debate? Don’t we need answers on these if we are to understand how to find Christ in the OT? If these questions are left to be determined by secular academics (who historically have often been interested in tearing down Christianity) then where do we draw the line as to where their authority ends?

    To answer the question by saying “the historicity is uncertain and the only important thing is the search for Christ in the OT” does not seem right to me. Isn’t this opening the OT to personal interpretation and even Christ to personal interpretation? It seems much more simple and in line with the history of the Church to require that the historicity of the OT be taken on faith. I also can’t agree that the material of the OT does not come labeled as pure history. Of course the discipline of history as we know it didn’t exist then ( and I hope we’re not beating around the bush about different shades of the meaning of “history”) but I think the Jews took the historical parts of their scriptures to be literal history and I think the Orthodox Church did as well. Besides bowing to modern scholarship, I don’t even understand where the impulse to doubt the actual historicity of the OT comes from. You may be able to search for Christ in a historically uncertain OT but it just seems a lot better to search for Him in a historically certain OT. Of course we can’t “independently verify the facts” but why would we even need to? We may just need to agree to disagree on this one….

  98. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christopher Harmon,
    When I say that the historicity of something is uncertain – it’s because there’s some fuzziness in various accounts – they are theological accounts rather than careful, historically-based writings. There is, for me, no doubt that we are speaking of historical personages such as Abraham, David, etc. But, when, in our modern world, we speak of “historicity,” we do not really mean something that is known or discovered theologically. It is meant just the same as the question would be asked of Homer’s Odyssey. Everybody, including secular scholars, can take a crack at such questions. That was the original point of the invention of this kind of “historicity” within Protestant scholarship. It was an intent to create a basis of authority that was outside the Pope – and, more or less, independent of the observer. Of course, it didn’t work.

    Whether a particular father viewed something as historical or not is often a moot point. Is the passage in which they cite something specifically about its historicity, or is that father only citing the story in a manner that sounds like he has a very historical view of the passage? What I think is that this question is a modern question – and, largely, a Protestant question. I do not resist it in order to argue that something or other is not “historical.” I just think it’s the wrong question, built on wrong assumptions about the nature of the Scriptures and how we read them.

    For example, when the Fathers spoke about a “literal” reading of a text – they had nothing about its historical nature in mind. “Literal” means – what the actual letter says. If it says, “Bush,” it means, “Bush,” not “envy,” or “pride,” or some such thing – examples of the worst abuses of allegory. However, consistently, the Fathers taught that there is a meaning and reality “beneath” the letters and that this is what they most sought.

    You can ask someone to “take the historicity of the OT” on faith – but, that is not done in the Creeds or any dogmatic proclamation of the Church. Again, I think it’s a modern question, and largely a Protestant question.

    I might read a passage – let’s pick Genesis 18, with the visit of the angels to Abraham. That story has some historical-sounding components. It also has accounts of God speaking to Himself that Abraham would not have heard. What is the status of that dialog?

    The answer is, for me, in terms of “historicity” I not only have no idea, but I cannot have an idea. It’s impossible to determine it. I can assert that “by faith I believe this is pure history.” That’s nice, but it only has use if I’m talking to a believer who agrees with me. Are people supposed to take it on faith because my faith asserts it? Frankly, I think it’s asking something of the text that is not there.

    Now, in 1Cor. 15, St. Paul gives a very careful account of the resurrection, so factual that it numbers specific eyewitnesses. The Bible knows how to be quite “historical” when it wants to. Of course, St. Paul said that Mt. Sinai is Hagar and Sarah is Jerusalem, and makes not even the slightest apology for a sudden assertion of a doctrinal point based on an allegorical reading.

    For myself (back to Gen. 18), I read the text as it stands. I see what it says, and I accept it. I also see more than the text says. The three angels prefigure the Trinity, the Eucharist is prefigured, etc. If I wring my hands and ask questions that I cannot answer, what good will that do? I just don’t do it. I don’t know the answer – and I’ve long since given up making fideistic proclamations about things that are not required of me. That’s just the stuff of arguments.

    Is the story authoritative. That, for me, is the question. Yes, it’s authoritative, because its the Scriptures. The Scriptures, all of them, are authoritative for the life of the Church – the plain sense, as well as the moral and allegorical senses. I read them in the context of the Church’s readings. I do not import secular speculations, even if I’m interested in them from time to time. They are not part of my hermeneutic – or that of the Orthodox Church.

    What happens to those who assert a “accept them as historical by faith” is that there is a need to defend that “by faith” position against all comers – and the slightest waver is likely to make the whole house of cards fall down. I want something greater than a House of Cards – it’s why I’m Orthodox. The Church is the “pillar and ground of truth.” Ask a Protestant evangelical what is the pillar and ground of truth – and he’ll likely say “Scripture,” because he has ignored the verse (they don’t notice “church” verses). They are shocked to find out what the Scripture actually says.

    What many converts seek to do, is use the Orthodox Church, and her Fathers, as an outside source of verifying their Protestant historicism, and then think that they are reading the Scriptures in a Orthodox manner. They’re not. They’re just trying to turn the inner life of Orthodoxy into something it is not – a guarantee for “the facts” so that, on the basis of “independent facts,” an individual can pursue their independent reading.

    I get hammered about this from time to time. I’ve given it a lot of thought. I think that there are many who simply cannot imagine anything other than the modern literalism/historicism of a Protestant reading. They insist on asking modern questions of an ancient text.

    An individual Orthodox Christian is free, of course, to think what they want about this matter. However, I do not think that anyone should assert this as the “Orthodox view.” Of course, I’ve seen long lists trotted out by some to make precisely this point. It is highly selective, usually taken out of context, and assembled by people whose knowledge of the Fathers doesn’t go beyond reading bad English translations of a tiny bit of material that is extant. The same folks will sometimes blast actual Orthodox scholars who disagree with them. It’s quite frustrating.

    “Why would we need to independently verify the facts”? Well, I speak and write with lots on non-believers. Telling them, “The Bible says,” is pretty darned useless. If I’m speaking with another believer, I don’t mind saying “the Bible teaches, or says, etc.” because we have agreed that the Scriptures are authoritative. But if I say to another believer “x or y” about a Scripture as a “fact” like any other “fact” – that is – removed from its place within the Scriptural narrative – I’m requiring of them an assent that is simply arguable. I cannot require that of them.

    I cannot say, “Every detail of Gen. 18 is historical fact.” I can say, “Gen. 18 is Scripture,” and on that basis teaching doctrine, discipline and reproof, etc.

    I do not think history is unimportant. Obviously, the history of Israel was real. What we have are the stories they told about that history – and those stories are Scripture. That the history was real is utterly necessary – that is undeniable as a Christian. But, still, what we have are the stories. I am comfortable with that because I accept the authority of the Scriptures in the life of the Church. It is how we think and read and believe.

    The “historically-minded” actually only accept Scripture because they think, for one reason or another, that these things are factually true in every instance. What is authoritative for them are “facts” and “history.” That is modernism. I do not want to think that way because I think it leads to a dead end (actually, several dead ends).

    When it comes to the secular academy – they can be trusted in no way whatsoever. They have always been governed by fashion and opinion – not by the Church or the believing community. The most bizarre departments in any university these days are their religion departments (where they exist). I have no use for them.

    Just a few thoughts…

  99. Dino Avatar

    I have to copy and keep this answer, it’s pure gold.

  100. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Christopher Harmon, if I may add to what Fr. Stephan says: The question of what is “historical” is very important to consider. As Fr. Stephan says, those who are anti-Christian will say stuff like: “Can you cite any independent historical evidence that Jesus actually existed? Oh, and before you say Josepheus, I consider Josephus to be a forgery….” That is a direct quote from some debate I wandered onto on YouTube. Evidence is demanded, but any evidence that is contrary to what they have decided is “historical” is automatically rejected as invalid. Hardly honest.

    Such people are simply unwilling to consider the actual facts before them that are amazing in their richness and veracity. Their approach is to simply deny as evidence anything that disagrees with their bias that Jesus and God are not real. Even if Jesus Himself came to them, they would likely not believe. They have locked themselves into an epistemological prison from which there is No Exit and make Sartre look like a prophet.

    Just remember history is not a set of facts describing what actually happened. That is an impossibility. Real history is the unfolding and interaction with other human beings over time. There is no such thing as objective history because each of us is always a part of history in surprising, intimate and confounding ways.

    The great biographer of Thomas Jefferson, Dumas Malone, once said that to write a good biography of anyone, the biographer had to go and live with the person they were writing about until the biography was done. He called the process empathic projection. An apt phrase. If you want an example of how American history was written prior to the question of “historicity” being an issue, read Francis Parkman.

    In a real sense all history is now and each of us is history. Linear causality is not history, at best that is chronology. History is made to serve man, not man to serve history. Truthfulness is a more important virtue and being factually correct. That is why good historical novels often tell more of the truth of history and academic monographs that are rigorously researched and verified and impeccably sourced.

    So, if we are to understand the history of Israel, we have to live with them at least for a small while. To understand Christian history is impossible unless one is willing to have a living encounter with Jesus Christ. Dangerous.

    Thus as Fr. Stephan and others have repeatedly said, the Scriptures cannot be understood outside the Church in and for whom they were written down, even the Old Testament.

    I found a really good little book by Fr. Lawrence Farley a Canadian Orthodox priest called simply, The Christian Old Testament. Direct, simple yet quite deep too if you let it savor in your brain and heart a little while.

    It is a bit like the great early line in the musical Man of La Mancha. The character of Cervantes, thrown in jail, is about to tell his story of Don Quixote to the other prisoners. He begins the story by inviting them: “Come enter into my imagination, and see him!

    Jesus Christ challenges us in much the same way but as St. Paul tells us it is in Him we live and move and have our being. So we must enter into Him and allow Him to enter into us in order to know Him right now and in that process, all that we need shall be revealed to us in Scripture, in Divine Liturgy, in icons, in the homeless person we meet on the street, in those who hate us, those that love us, each and everything we read or encounter and that is history. What is put down in writing is small snippets, bread crumbs that we may follow to the source of all life. It always starts thus: “And in the beginning….” and always ends in the mystery of what is yet to come.

    At least that has been my experience as I have read, studied, cussed and discussed history starting when I was 16-55 years or so ago. So much more to learn and know with so many unexpected treasures to uncover. It does begin however, by disciplining one’s mind to put aside as much as possible of one’s own bias and prepare your heart to hear, see and experience the unfolding human experience that is history with the intent to discover the truth. Never fear to ask any question but do your best not to pre-judge the answer. Work to find the right questions.

    To actually realize that history is not in any way separate from you or you from it as God’s Providence is unfurled and revealed before you takes a little longer but in that there is joy.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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