You Are Not A Bible Character

KingDavidTripleHarpEvents which receive more than their share of news coverage are not my favorite topics for blog posts. However, this past week’s revelations of yet another politician’s infidelity offered one aspect worthy of comment (or so it seems to me). That is the use of the Bible as a means for reflecting on one’s personal situation in life.

There is a long history of just such usage. The pilgrim fathers who came to America read their situation into the Bible (or the Bible into their situation) with the result that white pilgrims were seen as fulfilling the role of the Israelites in this, the Promised Land, while native Americans were cast in the role of Canaanites. Thus generations of Joshuas arose feeling Biblically justified in the genocide of America’s native population. Some of that Biblical reading continues to echo in the popular imagination to this day. It was Bad theology in the 17th century and it is bad theology today. Stated in a fundamental way: you are not a Bible character.

This past week saw a sitting governor confessing his infidelity, choosing to stay in office, and reflecting out loud to his cabinet members about the story of King David. King David was, of course, guilty of adultery (and in the Biblical account it cost him the life of his child). It is a story of great repentance and internal suffering as well as the mercy of God.

But it is not a pattern story to which individuals are invited for their own comparisons.

The Old Testament is authoritative Scripture for Christians and has a history of interpretation by the Church. Largely, that interpretation is typological in character – its stories are seen as types and foreshadowings of the truth to be revealed in Christ Jesus. Thus Christ is the “second Adam,” and the opening chapters of Genesis are best read with that interpretive fact in mind. Had the pilgrims read the Old Testament correctly (in the light of the new) they might very well have applied the story of the Promised Land, but only as the Kingdom of God to which they might have gently offered as servants of those to whom they preached. The story does not bless a Christian to violate the commandment: thou shalt not kill. Holy war is foreign to Christianity and is heresy plain and simple where it is preached.

Some years ago I recall the story of an Episcopal priest who abandoned his vocation with a great flourish during the course of a Sunday service. The confusing detail for many was his explanation: he saw himself as Jonah – his Church as the sinking ship. The only way to save the sinking ship was to throw Jonah overboard. It seems not unlikely that whatever was the case, he needed to resign his position. But the story of Jonah is not about throwing priests overboard to save “sinking” congregations. It has a different meaning. It is better for a priest with a problem to seek help and repentance and not Biblical drama. The drama is delusion.

The problem with such use of Biblical imagination is that it simply has no controlling story. Nothing tells us which story to use other than our own imagination (which is generally a deluded part of our mind). A governor gets to play King David, and, surprise, he should be forgiven and not resign his office. A group of white settlers get to play conquering Israelites and feel no compunction about murdering men, women and children. A priest, likely in need of therapy, plays the role of Jonah before a crowd who has no idea they are in a play. The gospel is not preached – souls are not saved – the Bible is simply brought into ridicule.

For all of us – Scripture is relevant. However, its relevance should not come as a personal revelation that tells us which character we are within its pages. Such games seem frightfully like the games on Facebook: “Which ancient civilization are you?” or some such nonsense.

You are not a Bible character – other than the one indicated in the New Testament – those who have put their faith in Christ and trusted him for their salvation. Our conversion experiences are whatever they may have been – but the Damascus Road conversion of St. Paul is not required of any but St. Paul.

The behavior of pilgrims, priests and governors should be guided by the same moral teaching that applies to all Christians. There are no special circumstances that, as Bible characters, exempt us from the repentance and responsibility required of all. The words of Christ addressed to each and everyone are the same: “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” If such repentance should cost us a political office or even a continent – so be it. This is the character we were meant to be.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


92 responses to “You Are Not A Bible Character”

  1. Ryan McNamara Avatar
    Ryan McNamara

    Another great article, Father. Curious though as to how you react to literary charcters cast in the typological mold of Scriptural figures.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar


    I would think that literary characters draw on such types for various purposes. But, for instance, when Flannery O’Connor does this with her characters – she allows the weirdness of what they are doing to speak for itself. There is a strong American tradition of this false reading of Scripture (ask any Native American) – indeed, the entire sense that we have inherited that our country is somehow the “Promised Land” is nonsense and nowhere told us by God. Love your country, but do not try to read the Bible into it. Correct by the teachings of Christ with all due humility – but we are not God’s chosen people are unique in any way given by Divine Providence. It is a Protestant fiction.

    As Orthodox we pray for this “God-protected land” but we would pray the same for any land in which we dwell.

  3. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    I see the point, Father Stephen, but might you be throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? For instance, I pray for my son Samuel, that God will give him wisdom to hear his voice. Do you not feel any identification with St. Stephen?

  4. Jason Barker Avatar

    It is, of course, absolutely correct that there is no direct one-to-one correlation between a biblical figure and a contemporary person. Mark Sanford’s spurious relation of the Holy Prophet and King David’s moral and political situation to his own demonstrates the potential fallibility of such linkage. It is also correct that the primary focus of Orthodox Old Testament interpretation is upon how biblical persons and events foreshadow or are types of Christ.

    At the same time, we should avoid extending this point too far by saying that we can never find any relation between a biblical situation and our own, or find in the life of a biblical figure an example that we can at least partially emulate in our own lives. Such a position would not merely be mistaken – it would be unorthodox.

    For example, there are numerous occasions in the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete where biblical figures are presented as examples of either the ways in which we sin, or the ways in which our souls should be purified and dedicated to God. Below are a few lines from Ode 5 of the first portion:


    Like Reuben, wretch that I am, I have planned an unprincipled and lawless act against God Most High, having defiled my bed as he defiled that of his father. (Genesis 35:21; 49:3-4)

    I confess to Thee, O Christ my King: I have sinned, I have sinned, like Joseph’s brothers of old, who sold the fruit of purity and chastity. (Genesis 37)

    Righteous Joseph was given up by his brothers, that sweet soul was sold into slavery, as a type of the Lord; and you, my soul, have sold yourself completely to your vices. (Genesis 37:27-28)

    Imitate, wretched and worthless soul, righteous Joseph and his pure mind, and do not be wanton with irrational desires, ever transgressing. (Genesis 39:7-23)


    It is easy to see the difference between the ways in which Mark Sanford and the “Jonah-esque” priest see parallels between biblical figures and themselves, and the way in which the Orthodox Church engages in life application. A person adhering to a highly individualistic and emotional version of Christianity will too often find an “example” to “justify” a (frequently unchristian) course of action upon which he or she has decided. The Orthodox approach, however, is thoroughly Christian – it focuses on God, and then upon building up our life in Christ.

    I fear that someone doing only a cursory reading of your post would think Orthodox Christian biblical interpretation engages in only the first part (focusing upon God), and does not engage in the second part (providing examples and guidance for the Christian life). Reading the writings of the saints and modern Orthodox biblical teachers shows that they of course see much in the Old Testament about Christ, but they also see in it more than a few examples and “pointers” for the Christian life today.

  5. ochlophobist Avatar

    This is the most powerful and pertinent post I have read in some time. Again, thank you father.

    Jason Barker,

    The examples you use from St. Andrew reflect the Orthodox christological reading of the texts in question. There is a kenotic quality throughout the Great Canon. Gov. Sanford’s use of David conveys no kenotic quality – instead it is used as a paradigm for the maintaining of power after a moral fall. It seems to me that Fr. Stephen’s “You Are Not A Bible Character” is directed toward that insight — if every Bible character is rightly read christologically, then we will not read ourselves as Bible characters first, we will rather read oursevelves in the image of Christ, which tends to lead toward a different posture than the one Gov. Sanford assumes.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Yes, I feel that he prays for me – but not that his story is mine. Lord knows how many men have carried his name without becoming martyrs. God alone knows what the shape of my life should be – and that I carry the good saint’s name has not seemed to me to be a particular clue to the shape of my life. But he is a powerful intercessor before God.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    To say like David I have sinned (in the way of St. Andrew’s Canon) is quite different than the modern reading oneself into the Bible I have described. What you are describing is also called a “moral” reading of the OT (the “tropological”) which, of course, has a venerable place in the tradition. However, I see a subtle and important difference. St. Andrew uses them to urge us to repentance – not to justify a sinful or deluded action. There is, I think, a difference. But your point is well taken.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you for your kind words. The kenotic element is indeed a key.

  9. Thom Avatar

    Outstanding, Father.

  10. Scott Morizot Avatar

    My mother was an eighth Cherokee. The stories of the Trail of Tears persisted at least to my generation. Lately I’ve been listening to the American Orthodox History podcast and reading the site. One thing that struck me was how all those who came from the Church in Alaska stood for the natives and against the manner in which they were often treated by the Russian fur traders. I contrast that to the way representatives of many of the Western Christian churches treated the American natives they encountered. The differences are very striking.

    They even treated the converts differently. In Alaska, they were learning the languages and translating the liturgies and Holy Scriptures into the native languages. Elsewhere, they tried to turn native converts into imitations of the West.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    The first martyr of the Orthodox Church in America was St. Peter the Aleut (a native) who was killed, by non-Orthodox Christians in California, who sought to make him renounce his Orthodox faith. Our priest in Chattanooga is one quarter Cherokee – he receives his medical care through the reservation. I told him, “Welcome home,” when he began his ministry so close to the historic capital of the Cherokee nation.

  12. Kirk Avatar

    Father, another Bible character who many protestants are wont to cast themselves as: Jabez. Perhaps a followup article could be “You Are Not Jabez.”

  13. davidperi Avatar

    It is an interesting time we live in. Just think of the events of today that will question men & women roots…whether these roots are christian or not. Just reflect: crises in the banking & Wall Street bailouts; S.C. governor & the others who were dis-graced; Madoff; Michael Jackson…and the millions who followed after these icons of the modern world. For a many decades I have thought that judgment begins in this life for the actions and behaviors we display whether the roots are christian or not. The scriptures say what the final out-come of this world will be…the burning away of the old and the coming of a new heaven and earth.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar


    That would indeed be appropriate, but do we want to put the prosperity people completely out of business? Where would our poor economy be then?

  15. fatherstephen Avatar


    There are moments that should make us all contemplate just how ephemeral our worldly hopes are, and to instead put our hope in Christ. Instead, we hope in massive infusions of mammon. Lack of mammon is not why we’re sick.

  16. Damaris Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Forgive me if this is a quibble, but I want to make sure that no one has any excuse to condemn this excellent post. The Pilgrims, the first generation of settlers to New England, were not themselves responsible for any genocide. Later generations of European Americans, like the Pilgrims, also saw themselves as God’s chosen people and did use that view as an excuse to cheat, disrespect, and slaughter Native Americans. I don’t take any issue with what you say here, just the use of the word Pilgrim. Forgive me if I presume.


  17. davidperi Avatar

    Father Stephen….Amen! This has been the focus of my life in the last decade or so. Use to be involved in several christian mission activites, but it has changed for me because I wasn´t really focusing on Christ during that time.

  18. Fr. Milovan Katanic Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Beautiful post. Felix Culpa made a comment once about the situation in Serbia in which two liturgical practices appeared among the bishops, one more Slavic while the other, termed the reform, leaned more towards the Greek practice. He wrote:

    “It is interesting to note that Fr Justin’s closest spiritual children have taken varying positions: Bishop Atanasije is one of the more outspoken proponents of certain points of reform, while Bishop Artemije is one of the greatest opponents – and Metropolitan Amphiloje stands somewhere in the middle. This should not be surprising. A true spiritual father, as Fr Justin certainly was, does not seek to turn his spiritual children into replicas of himself, but rather to give them the freedom to invest and multiply their own God-given talents. In the icon of Pentecost we see not one flame descending onto the Apostles as a group, but single, unique flames of the Holy Spirit over each individually.”

    I think, in some way, there is a connection between this and your post.

  19. Angela Avatar

    “Our conversion experiences are whatever they may have been – but the Damascus Road conversion of St. Paul is not required of any but St. Paul.”

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you so much for this post. For years I have lived under the compunction to “be like Paul” or “be like Mary, but not Martha” or some other such impossible task. When I became Orthodox, I found that compunction gone, but the damage it did is still healing. I actually broke into tears when I read the above statement, because I don’t have to be like Paul in his every experience, I just see Christ in Paul and learn from that. As we do with icons, we aren’t trying to be the Saint, but to let that Saint guide us to Christ and see His Work in that Saint.

    In His Peace,

  20. Dustin Avatar

    This is a very helpful word. It is so important that we read the Bible the way it was intended to be read and that we seek the author’s (the inspired human author and God who inspired him) original intention.

    Thank you.

  21. The Scylding Avatar

    Just brilliant. Thank you for posting this. As an Afrikaner (of sorts), my ancestors believed much of the same down in Africa.

    And I also remember churches being destroyed by people suffering from biblical character confuion/delusion disorder (can we define that as a recognised psychosis? 🙂 ) But jokes aside, it is also remarkable that people, even in their sins, compare themselves to the “best” in the Scripture. I have yet to hear somebody say – I’m a real Judas / Rich man (as in rich man and Lazarus) / Cain / Herod / Ahab etc. Though truth be told, I stories are generally much closer to theirs than to the stories of David, Paul etc.

  22. DavidD Avatar

    This tendency to “read” ourselves into particular biblical accounts (the way we tend to identify with the protagonists in a work of literature or film) often reminds me of those who profess to be reincarnated: always a king, princess or some other significant historical character. Where are the stable boys? Why do we not read ourselves into the waiting on tables?

  23. fatherstephen Avatar


    The puritan heritage of which the pilgrims partook, found its place within generations. Perhaps they were more faithful exegetes than their later countrymen, though the exegesis began then – even as their cousins in England used it to justify regicide and a number of other crimes (iconoclasm). But I appreciate the point.

  24. fatherstephen Avatar



  25. Sea of Sin Avatar

    This touches on the very heart of how we are to understand the Scriptures and their usage. One such tradition places the reader as the ultimate arbiter, the resulting abuses all too commonly demonstrated.

    But we like it that way, it is so convenient. Me, my Bible and I. Don’t you mess with it. 🙂

  26. DennisM Avatar

    I seem to remember a professor in a protestant seminary once telling me that Scripture was to identify us and no the other way round. Seems wisdom comes in similar words from different sources. Thanks, Fr. Stephen

  27. bethanytwins Avatar

    The Episcopal Jonah reminds me of an Anglican priest I heard of in London who once preached on the parable of the sheep and the goats at his Parish Mass. He concluded his sermon by going through his entire congregation one by one, and categorising each one, by name, as either sheep or goat. Even imitatio Christi has its limits…

    This side of the pond, we have been mercifully free of the details of sex lives of our politicians for a while, but we are presently mired in a great scandal about politicians’ expenses claims. It hadn’t occurred to me before reading Fr. Stephen’s post, but now I keep thinking of Ananias and Sapphira. Ah well, something else to confess.

    We have just kept the Feast of Ss. Peter & Paul (not sure if it’s the same for you in the Orthodox Church). Every year I am struck by the fact that these two great princes of the faith were, respectively, a man who denied Christ and a man who persecuted Christians. This shouldn’t be a cause for anyone’s self-justification, much less clinging to office, but it should give us hope in the grace and mercy of God. How many people still think they are ‘not good enough’ to go to Church?

    Donatism is a particularly unpleasant mindset, and yet I suspect it lingers on in the hearts of many of us, both towards others and ourselves. I wonder how many of Jonah’s congregation were secretly glad that he jumped ship? I don’t suppose many of them readily self-identified with Job’s comforters…

  28. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    Step back and just contemplate the title of the piece…… I have been laughing myself silly since he posted it thinking of the thousands of worthless analogies I heard while in Protestantdom that were like bad cartoons. It’ll take me a week to stop belly-laughing from the title alone. Ever hear a preacher liken himself to Moses, Joshua, Samuel? LOL!

  29. Steve Avatar

    Wholeheartedly agree with you, Don. The title just gets better and better.

  30. alana Avatar

    Aw shucks! I was hoping to be Queen Esther!

  31. fatherstephen Avatar


    Casting for Queen Esther will be held next week in Baghdad. You’re not too late!

  32. Anam Cara Avatar
    Anam Cara

    Holy war is foreign to Christianity and is heresy plain and simple where it is preached.

    Do you believe that there is a thing such as just war? Are we not to step in to protect the innocent? Was it wrong for us to work to defeat Hitler? Was the Civil War that ended slavery wrong?

  33. Barry (Fin Barr) Avatar
    Barry (Fin Barr)

    Very good. I can understand how someone might identify with a biblical character but to take as pesonna in the context of a “mea culpa” seems shallow at best and perhaps blasphemous at worst. Only God can judge on these matters so I leave the motives and actions to His discernment and grace.

    Glory to God!

  34. fatherstephen Avatar

    I believe that we “may” step in given such cases. But the taking of a human life is never a good thing – it’s sin. The Orthodox understanding of sin (at least in a large part of the Tradition) would find the language of “just” war to be beside the point. War is sin. Living in a fallen world we find ourselves drawn into sin on occasion – in some sense as the “lesser of two evils” but because the world itself and the evil wills driving it have presented us with such a situation. I would have fought in WWII, for instance, and I am the son of a WWII vet. But, had I taken a life, I would still have needed to go to confession and accept whatever penance might have been given for the healing of my soul. I’ve not met men who have killed in battle who did not understand at the same time that it somehow involved them in sin – there is a need for cleansing – plain and simple.

    I appreciate this aspect of Orthodoxy very much. The existential reality of killing is not changed by theories of just war. Just war is for generals, presidents, kings, and prelates. Real people have to do the killing and it’s a lousy business for which we need to find forgiveness and healing. The Church loses its bearing when it ceases to keep its focus on such existential realities and starts speaking like a politician (or professional theologians). The Canons of the Church offer guidance for healing the souls of those who have killed in war. The Canons do not speak of a just war nor does it matter particularly in the healing of a soul.

    The same question can be asked about self-defense on a more personal level. There are many instances in which I do not know how I might respond. But, as a priest, if I took a human life, regardless of the circumstances, I would still be subject to suspension or deposition. But I could imagine circumstance in which I very well might take a life. God help me.

    Everything about slavery was wrong – including the war that ended it. This, it seems to me, was pretty much the experience of everyone involved. I would say that the entire business of slavery – from its inception – drew people into a nightmare of sin – one which finally resulted in the bloodiest war in American history and which yielded not a straightforward victory and reform of the nation – but a long, bitter struggle that had almost as much sin as slavery itself. I was born into the “Jim Crow” South and I remember the tensions and deep fear and hatred. Watching the struggle for civil rights and the slow healing of hearts that took place in some (my parents and many other adults whom I knew as well as my own generation) is something that I carry always in my heart. My high school, finally integrated in 1970, greeted that governmental action with race riots that made network news. There was no lack of sin (we carried the sins of our fathers for many generations before). War does not heal, does not make new. It is not a creative activity of the Divine Energies. Forgiveness heals and makes new. Love creates anew. War does not make us love and forgive our enemies. Sometimes the love and forgiveness come later – after the madness and orgy of war. In some cases the forgiveness has yet to come and another war will make it no closer. Will killing my enemy help me to forgive him?

    Forget just war theory. Fight if you must but do not forget God and flee to Him for forgiveness as soon as possible. David could not build the Temple because he was a “man of war.” It’s one of the paradoxes we get drawn into because of the “mystery of evil.” But we are not drawn there by the will or commandment of God.

  35. Jason Avatar

    Following on DavidD’s comments, I am reminded about a great deal of European painting dating back to the medieval period where important people would have themselves painted into biblical scenes.

  36. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless! Your last comment could be a post in itself. My former pastor (evangelical) preached an apologetic sermon for “just” war in the aftermath of 9/11 and when our troops were invading Afghanistan. Though I am also uncomfortable with a rigid and strident pacifism, given the realities of this fallen world, I always felt his apology to be an unfortunate compromise of the purity of the gospel, coming as it did from the theory proposed (I believe) by St. Augustine, which would seem to infer in some sense that going to war can be good and right. Very helpful comments. Thank you.

  37. fatherstephen Avatar

    Just war theory seems to be such an abstraction to me. I try to be honest about the topic and not theoretical. The canons offer no theory, but do offer healing and penance where needed. I have never heard anyone describ the killing of another human being as an act of righteousness. If they had it to do over they might very well do it again – but not declare it as a righteous deed. I appreciate the existential reality, for instance, of Dostoevsky’s theological vision. Anyone who glamourizes killing through a theological theory is delusional. It’s terrible and the blood cries out to God. And God calls out to us, “Forgive them!” Killing the enemy does not free us from the ultimate existential demand that we forgive them. Between the forgiveness of everyone for everything and Hell there is no third option.

  38. B N Lundell Avatar
    B N Lundell

    Father Stephen, As introduction I will say I am a Lutheran whose political sensibilities lie to the left-of-center and I think this the best piece I’ve read on this dynamic, which I find to be all too prevalent in today’s culture. The Word comes to us, by what I was taught, and for us to inappropriately insert ourselves into the Word really puts things out-of-balance and is, abandoning delicacy here, just flat-out debased.

    As for just war, being Lutheran (and taking it fairly seriously), I subscribe to Luther’s “two kingdoms” framework, where our relationship with the Kingdom of the Right (God) informs our actions in the Kingdom of the Left (man). (You surely know the argument Father Stephen, which I have probably mangled.)

    Where I believe most fall short in the interpretation of this framework is that they contend that it’s basically a free-for-all in the Kingdom of the Left as long as you “feel” you’re “okay” with the Kingdom on the Right. Problem is, many subscribe being “right” with God to a measure of non-contemplative and empty piety.

    Serving the neighbor surely doesn’t mean shooting at him and the average German in WWII was as much a neighbor in the religious sense as the guy down the block. But, as humans, we subscribe to secular structures for a variety of purposes and those secular structures have their dictates. Finding the balance is always the challenge and we use the Word to inform and build that balance without, as Governor Sanford has done, make the story about ourselves.

    Glad I was directed to this site. I thoroughly enjoyed and was informed by your piece.

  39. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thanks for your response. I would probably say that for me, Luther’s 2 kingdoms, was a hastily patched-together response to the Peasant’s Revolt, and was bad theology. It was tragic theology when applied by many (very great minds) in Germany in the 1930’s. It ultimately has weak Scriptural basis, other than maybe Romans 13 – but that is just too thin.

    Better to sell out completely to the Kingdom of God and deal with this world’s kingdoms as best you can. Read lots of Hauerwas (is a recommendation). He’s not Eastern Orthodox, but is one of the most significant voices theologically in America today. Even the small book Resident Aliens is worth the time.

  40. B N Lundell Avatar
    B N Lundell

    I’ve never thought of it that way (obviously being taught in a different tradition), but your viewpoint is clearly relevant and I appreciate the suggested reading.

    I agree that the whole Two Kingdoms framework provides a wide berth for those who, and 1930s Germany is an excellent example, justify their actions, in effect saying, “I’ll just repent later.” There are too many who take the easy way out by separating the two spheres and not realizing, as I think you are implying, that the Kingdom on the Left is created by God and, as such, authorized by him. It is an arena for witness, not a place to knowingly “do wrong and apologize later.” Risking sacrilege, such a theory plays God as a “chump.”

    But I am all about Scripture and contemplation. That’s the whole shootin’ match to me.

    Again, thanks.

  41. Sea of Sin Avatar

    One has to be careful in saying “the Kingdom on the Left is created by God”.

  42. […] I, apparently, am not a Bible character. […]

  43. B N Lundell Avatar
    B N Lundell

    Luther’s kingdom of the left not the modern construct of leftist politics.

  44. Sea of Sin Avatar

    Not just politics, the kingdom of man entirely.

  45. […] Stephen admonishes that You Are Not A Bible Character (hat tip to Rod Dreher). … The problem with such use of Biblical imagination is that it […]

  46. fatherstephen Avatar

    Leo non irritat. 🙂

  47. SteveH Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I am not a Christian, but I found your article to be very thought provoking. I am a history teacher and constantly try to show students to learn from history without drawing direct parallels. I am often troubled by Old Testament references when we have a class discussion on a controversial topic. People tend to take the stories completely out of context, but others in the class give the references a lot of credence. They are, as you say, mostly Protestants, so I doubt they will be that receptive to an Orthodox priest. Nevertheless, I will likely leave a link to this article on my class website this fall in hopes that they will consider your ideas.

    Thank you for a very thoughtful article. I am sure I will be a more frequent reader.

  48. […] Sullivan linked to this post I devoured and loved. The role of the educated, reasonable theologist has been marginalized by […]

  49. Lesley Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I am Jewish and discovered your post from a fellow congregant. I grew up a Protestant and never knew anything about orthodox Christianity, but after reading your posts and the many thoughtful, intelligent and reasoned comments, I wish that I had. I have never read a blog where all the commentators were so respectful and well-informed; a rare pleasure.

    Thanks to you and your followers fro giving me a moment of civility in an uncivilized online world.

  50. […] Are Not a Bible Character” Posted on July 12, 2009 by allusionist Dare I say it? Amen. Money quote: The problem with such use of Biblical imagination is that it simply has no […]

  51. fatherstephen Avatar


    Thank you for your kind comments – it’s a great compliment to the blog and to its readers – theology can get a bit “testy” from time to time. I try to keep things civil and kind (though I violate that rule myself from time to time – may God forgive).

  52. john campbell Avatar
    john campbell

    Father Stephen,

    (ex) President Bush (the second) was wont to let the world know (discreetly and indirectly — through his aide Karen Hughes) that he was a rare man chosen by God for a unique mission at a critical juncture in human history — and she enforced this notion by using the phrase from Esther: “who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” I heard the phrase used repeatedly in the immediate aftermath of the events of 9/11 … and I found it appalling that they would be so arrogant as to posture in such a manner.

    Using the Bible to prop-up one’s political/social/military policies is worse than nonsense — it is utterly dangerous. No politician should posture as if God is whispering foreign policy (or any other matter of polity) in his ear — it is arrogant in the extreme … and yet it is an age-old tradition used by Catholics and Protestants from ancient times.

    You hit the Puritans on the head for such abuse … but you could’ve stayed closer to home and cited examples from Catholic history. If you want to stay inside American shores to search for an example, how about the Catholic conquistidors, and the Catholic princes who funded their pillaging conquests, and the Catholic priests/cardinals/popes who profited by the whole affair?

    Let us be non-partisan in our review of historical abuse of the Bible.

    enjoyed your posting,

  53. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not Catholic – I’m Eastern Orthodox (so they’re not really close to home). There are plenty of religious abuses and scandals anywhere you look (even atheists are not immune to scandal). The particular example in which Scripture is treated in the manner I described is, in American history, mostly a Protestant phenomenon. Catholics have their own approach to scandal. And the Orthodox are not immune. But the pillaging conquests of Rome in America were not based on the same kind of Bible misread. The post was about the unintended consequences attached to such misuse of Scripture. Protestantism, with its tendency to Sola Scriptura, is far more vulnerable to such misuse. Catholicism has other vulnerabilties as do the Orthodox. My sins are greater and lie elsewhere.

  54. […] Are Not A Bible Character Father Stephen Freeman gives a well-deserved epistemological and moral rebuke to the haphazard, self-serving, and […]

  55. […] Entitled You Are Not a Bible Character, Father Stephen uses Mark Sanford’s infidelity-and his apparent likening of himself to King David-as an opportunity to point out that putting yourself in the place of some one or another bible characer doesn’t actually excuse whatever sinful or crappy thing you’ve done. He doesn’t mention any other examples by name, but one imagines that John “Promisekeeper, I never ride in a car alone with a woman who is not my wife” Ensign would also fit into the catagory of men who seek to excuse their behavior by quoting scripture. (And though this came after his post on June 28, Sarah Palin, who quoted Esther’s “If I die, I die” in reference to her political future is similarly self aggrandizing). […]

  56. […] Father Freeman’s Reply Father Stephen Freeman, a Russian Orthodox priest and blogger, fired an excellent rebuke at all those who apply biblical stories to their lives in hermeneutically …While I agreed with Father Freeman’s post, I argued that his criticisms should be extended to […]

  57. Diane Roth Avatar

    good post and comment. I especially like what you say about “just war” and “war is sin.” My fundamentalist relatives once startled me by saying “God created war”, referencing, of course, the wars of the Israelites. In their view, war is not sin, but God-ordained.

    I disagree with you about Luther’s Kingdom on the Left/Right, although I will agree that it has been misinterpreted and is confusing. My theology professors indicated that this doctrine, rightly understood, would be reason, for example, to oppose Hitler rather than acquiesce to him. But the theology reflects on Luther’s distinction between Law and Gospel, the Kingdom on the left reflecting the political implications of the first, or Civil use of the Law.

  58. fatherstephen Avatar


    It’s an interesting construct on Luther’s part – but I’m not sure it’s more than Luther’s construct. As an Orthodox Christian I think there has to be more to something than just an intellectual construct. As interesting as such things may be – they constitute thought exercises, but not theology. But thanks.

  59. Colette Avatar

    What an excellent, thought- provoking and incitful write-up

  60. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    I wonder, Father Stephen, if I might trouble you further on this. What does it mean to you to be given the name of a Saint in baptism? For instance, obviously my son Samuel’s story will be quite different from that of the prophet, but does that mean that one’s name has nothing to do with one’s story? Is it not quite scriptural to look for meaning in one’s name?

  61. fatherstephen Avatar


    I think of the Baptism with the name of a saint is a link to the living saint rather than just the story (again one has to be cautious about the story, except in its most universal applications). But Samuel is a living saint who intercedes for your son. St. Stephen has been my patron saint all my life. I have a sense of his intercession that I don’t know how to describe. But I am aware of the “stories” associated with his intercession (St. Augustine had relics of St. Stephen at his cathedral in Hippo and was incredibly devoted to the saint and wrote wonderfully about the saint’s powerful intercessions in , I believe, the City of God). I have a small relic of St. Stephen at our parish. The Biblical story (if it’s a Biblical saint) or biographical story otherwise is an introduction to the saint – but just that. One should be cautious, for instance, in the naming process not to overdo the saint’s story and an imagined similarity with one’s child – lest it become a kind of “self-fulfilling prophecy” for a child (foisted by the mind of a parent). I have never, for instance, harbored imaginings that my son should or will be a priest (at this time it would not seem likely – only God knows these things). However, two of my daughters are married to priests – something that I again had not imagined. That Samuel was called to serve God is a worthy thing to remember – so long as we remember that serving God means many things. Here I am only concerned that we support God in the freedom of those we love.

    Is that helpful?

  62. reader Steven Clark Avatar

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    I would like permission to repost this essay on the message board of my website with a link back to this website.

    It is a very good article. Thank you for saying what should be obvious, but never the less needs to be said.

  63. fatherstephen Avatar

    That would be fine

    Father Stephen+

    Sent from my iTouch

  64. […] You Are Not A Bible Character 3: On Believing Without Proof Father Stephen has graciously offered another reply to my challenges to him that he should apply to the Bible itself his excellent critique of contemporary figures who presumptuously interpret their experiences as tho… […]

  65. Lou. Avatar

    Father Stephen —

    One prominent application you did not mention is the Liberation Theology approach to Biblical events. The civil rights movement in this country famously self-identified with the Exodus.

    Do you find such understandings to be efficacious, or a form of delusion? (or something else)?

  66. fatherstephen Avatar


    Good example. It certainly belongs in the long tradition of American exegesis -and – was perhaps a turning of the masters’ rhetoric back on him. The book that had been exegeted to justify slavery was now exegeted to reveal the master as Pharoah! It was not a proper exegesis (and may have had lasting side-effects whose results are yet to be manifest) but as exegetical politics goes, it was very apt.

    One difficulty in particular, is the image of the Promised Land. When is it reached and how do you know. Is America to be forever defined by a utopian dream postponed? For it will not come in history.

    The Promised Land continues to morph. The end of Jim Crow was one thing, but universal health care and a host of other agendas is another. What describes the Promised Land – particularly when it is not something God has promised to America.

  67. […] is a great post from Father Stephen.  The title alone is worth it.  I know I’ve seen my fair share of this […]

  68. Chris Avatar

    Damaris, tell it to the Pequots.

  69. Damaris Avatar

    Chris —

    Thanks for your point. I checked on the history of the Pequot tribe and found that indeed, there were open and nasty hostilities between them and the English within a decade of the time the Pilgrims landed, mostly in what is now Connecticut. Presumably some of the Pilgrims were still alive, although the source I read implied that those fighting the Pequot were traders, not Pilgrims. My point was not to whitewash European-Indian relationships but to make sure that the word Pilgrim was correctly used for that first generation of religious travelers. The subsequent descendents would be called Puritans, not Pilgrims. Of course, around the same time, there were traders of various nationalities, fishermen (my own ancestors), and others, all with different motivations for coming to the new land. I disagree with nothing Father Stephen says in this excellent post; I am just concerned that history always be as accurately portrayed as possible, to prevent people from twisting it to their own ends. Forgive me for nit-picking — I’ll stop!

  70. fatherstephen Avatar


    I appreciate your distinction – I had never made a distinction between Pilgrims and Puritans other than to understand that Pilgrims was an American monicker for Puritans who traveled to America to set up shop. Their cousins in England wreaked a bit of havoc there within a generation (regicide, iconoclasm on a massive scale, cultural revolution on a level not repeated until the 20th century).

    It’s an old prejudice of mine – probably a left-over from my Anglican days. I have difficulty with the Puritans of every generation that I’ve studied (and suspect they would have returned the favor).

    But I understand the distinction you’re making. I wonder – whether anything happened within a short span of years that would separate the Pilgrims and the Puritans theologically – or whether the first Pilgrims were simply so starved and needy that they welcomed friendly overtures from the natives as a weak and besieged people would. Is Thanksgiving an accurate reflection of Pilgrim theology and its assessment of native Americans?

    I contrast this to the theological assessment of the Russian monastic missionaries who began the work in Alaska – where Scripture and liturgies were quickly translated into newly created native alphabets – native Americans trained and ordained and an indigenous Church established that remains the primary indigenous Church of native Americans in Alaska (despite numerous interventions sponsored by the American government from time to time to disrupt Orthodoxy)?

    I share the Russian experience simply to note that the kind of relationships that obtained in the early American experience were not inherent to Christian missions of earlier centuries but were a product of bad theology.

    The history of missions is fraught with temptations to serve political ends rather than the kingdom of God (a temptation that is no stranger to Orthodoxy either). The failures in the face of that temptation (by Orthodox and others) should be a constant reminder before us as we seek to serve the Kingdom.

    I’ll quit nit-picking, too. 🙂

  71. Damaris Avatar

    Thank you for your response, Father Stephen. I don’t suppose there was any theological difference between the first arrivals and their descendents. I had never thought about the fact that there were no Indian Puritan churches or pastors in the East. That’s a telling proof that they did see the Native Americans as the Canaanites, to be destroyed, not to be converted.

    Thank you for your patience with all of us on this blog.

  72. […] Father Stephen: You Are Not A Bible Character [T[he use of the Bible as a means for reflecting on one’s personal situation in life…. The problem with such use of Biblical imagination is that it simply has no controlling story. Nothing tells us which story to use other than our own imagination (which is generally a deluded part of our mind). A governor gets to play King David, and, surprise, he should be forgiven and not resign his office. A group of white settlers get to play conquering Israelites and feel no compunction about murdering men, women and children. A priest, likely in need of therapy, plays the role of Jonah before a crowd who has no idea they are in a play. The gospel is not preached… the Bible is simply brought into ridicule… There are no special circumstances that, as Bible characters, exempt us from… repentance and responsibility…. The words of Christ… are… “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” If such repentance should cost us a political office or even a continent – so be it. […]

  73. David Speyer Avatar

    In regard to the priest who saw himself as Jonah: did he recall that, after Jonah jumped ship, the sea calmed and the sailors lives improved?

  74. Marilyn Manter Avatar
    Marilyn Manter

    I received this from my 24-year-old son who up until now had rejected Jesus. I take this as a hopeful sign – that he is at least reading what you have to say !! I continue to pray for his salvation and think this is a wonderful article, especially in that he thought enough to foward it to me.

  75. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think that one of the problems is “no controlling story,” that is, which part of the story do you pick? It all becomes a sort of gnosticism – similar to the use that Jungians make of mythology. Take a story and use it to explain things but there is no way to know that the explanation and reality have any bearing on one another.

  76. fatherstephen Avatar


    May God use it to his salvation. May he find other articles that direct his heart to Christ. The mystery of salvation and the lives of our children are a great weight on the heart. In the Orthodox marriage service there is a statement: “the prayers of parents for their children is the foundation of a home.” May God grant your son a foundation of grace in His kingdom.

  77. Steve Avatar

    Fr. Hopko is right when he says that we need to divest ourselves of all knowledge if we are to become anything.

    The spirit of wisdom, understanding, power, knowledge and reverence of God — this one is key — is not dependent on externalities i.e. on what we can normally see and hear (Isaiah 11: 2–3).

    I have heard God speak only once but it was with an exceedingly loud voice, much like thunder. I have encountered The Glory on a number of occasions, always timeless yet standing for all time.

    The control mechanisms we know and often cherish are often delusion. At best they are a guide for the perplexed. The best place in the world is flat on one’s face!

  78. fatherstephen Avatar

    Such things are best left unspoken if they are true. To be on one’s face is always good.

  79. […] You are not a Bible character. That goes double for you, Mark Sanford. […]

  80. Ryan Toyota Avatar

    Well put. At the risk of repeating someone else’s comment (I didn’t have time to read through them all) I wanted to add a thought:

    I think one main point that we often miss is that the characters in the bible are not heroes that we are to emulate. In each character’s story, while their faith and deeds were in many cases commendable, they each were human and had their flaws. It’s God who plays the role of the hero throughout the Biblical narrative, and it’s His Son whom we should be using as a role model. The stories are there to teach us lessons, and in some places encourage us in our walk, but not for us to mirror in our own lives.

  81. Carlos Avatar


    I rather enjoyed the post. I do have a question concerning one of the applications. As previously mentioned during the civil rights struggle certain theological parallels were made between the Hebrews and African-Americans. I’m of the the mind that certain principals can be theologically extracted from the Exodus account and applied to issues of social justice. I agree that for Chrisitans there is only one “promised land”. However, we still have an obligation to peacefully live out of the presence. Do you think I’m off base?

  82. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think such parallels will always be drawn and are probably apt. There is a residual problem with the language of the Civil Rights movement. It won’t go away. Thus everything leaders of the African-American community in America support tend to get stated in those terms – which means that legitimate civil discourse about some things that are properly debated become raised to the level of a struggle of “biblical” proportions. The rhetoric becomes overdrawn.

    At present, the rhetoric of the Apocalypse is being used in the midst of political discussions viz. the environment (though by a different community). It’s a very serious abuse of Biblical imagery. We’re talking about possible climate change, not the end of the world. Even if it changes as bad as the worst predictions – it is not the end of the world – just a very inconvenient climate.

  83. Micah Avatar

    “Such things are best left unspoken if they are true. To be on one’s face is always good.” – Fr. Stephen

    Utterly profound Fr. Stephen, thank you!

  84. […] You Are Not A Bible Character « Glory to God for All ThingsThe pilgrim fathers who came to America read their situation into the Bible (or the Bible into their situation) with the result that white pilgrims were seen as fulfilling the role of the Israelites in this, the Promised Land, while native Americans were cast in the role of Canaanites. […]

  85. SEO…

    You Are Not A Bible Character « Glory to God for All Things…

  86. D. Keith Avatar
    D. Keith

    An interesting post. I’m not sure I agree with the interpretation, or that it’s altogether a bad thing to see ourselves in the lives of others – biblical characters or otherwise. Of course it can go too far. But it may be an acceptable thing, and at times, even a humbling thing.

    Also, historically speaking, we should be careful about assigning blame so broadly, and using terms too loosely. There is scholarly debate about whether the injustices visited on the American Indians constitute genocide, since many claim it was a war of conquest, and at times the European immigrants (for that was what many were) paid dearly at the hands of Native American reprisals. Unlike other more well known genocides of victims and no real chance for reprisal.

    Likewise, to blame unjust policies and brutal conquest on the ideals of people centuries earlier is a dangerous game. Truth be told, the Pilgrims forged an alliance with the local Natives that lasted almost a half century. Not bad. Sometimes I think it would demonstrate our sensibilities more if we celebrated them for that, rather than assume their culpability based on their religion, race, ethnicity, or the flaws of their posterity.

    Certainly as a Catholic (and the same goes for Orthodoxy), I’m sensitive about guilt by later association. I read an introduction to philosophy a couple years ago that had no problem laying all the ills of the world at the feet of the early Christian Church. Fair? Perhaps, but what does that say about the interpretative failings of the church if blame is to be assigned in such ways. And if it isn’t, should we then do the same to others?

    Just a couple first thoughts. A good piece, don’t get me wrong. Made me think, and that’s not a bad thing. But a few things maybe to think about from a different POV.

  87. NSP Avatar

    Dear Fr. Freeman,

    A Blessed Easter to you and all readers!

    (Sorry to resurrect an old topic, but this seemed like the appropriate place to ask this.)

    I’ve been reflecting on the life of the righteous King David the past few weeks.

    I understand what you say here that God leads each Christian by a distinct road of repentance.

    However, since King David has been held up as a model of repentance by many Saints, I look at his life and find something that tempts me to discouragement:

    After the Prophet Nathan revealed King David’s sin to him, he repented wholeheartedly, and hence he is called “a man after God’s own heart.”

    God forgave King David and even gave him the grace of prophesies after that which Christ alluded to during His preaching, and that is a great grace.

    But it seems that, subsequent to his sin for which Prophet Nathan rebuked him, he was a broken man as a King and as the patriarch of his family.

    His son Amnon rapes his step-sister and on being told of it, King David is indecisive. So finally another son Absalom takes things into his hands and murders his half-brother, and then subsequently revolts against his own father King David.

    His mighty commander Joab offers his allegiance to Adonijah. At the King’s deathbed when he is blessing Solomon, uncertainty seems to hang over everything.

    Everything he rules over seems to be falling apart, he is unable to repair the damage, and he never seems to recover his glory as a king for which he was lauded in the songs of his land in his youth.

    However, posthumously he is glorified for all time by becoming an ancestor of Our Lord.

    So, what I was wondering was, since the righteous King David is considered to be a kind of typological image of every repentant sinner, is this general outline what we can expect in our lives?

    i.e., we sin mess up our lives, and even if by God’s grace we repent and humble ourselves, we cannot realistically hope for much visible repairing in our lifetimes of the damage our sins have caused to ourselves and others. The best we can hope for is to be seen as an instance of humility and repentance after our death by others who come after us.

    If that’s what the Christian life is supposed to be like, I can accept it; strictly speaking even an opportunity for repentance is a great grace and more than what I deserve by my own merits, but I can’t help feeling that it’s somewhat a bleak picture, at least as far as this mortal time-frame is concerned. (No doubt those who learn to love God with perfect humility and die a holy death and stand before God, in the society of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints in heaven will have much joy and happiness in the afterlife, but till then, it seems we have only the burden of shame and frustration at our brokenness.)


  88. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Think about it this way. All that you describe after David’s repentance doesn’t happen because of repentance. It just happens. They are the sins of others. The difference is that David is now able to walk within those tragedies as a “man after God’s own heart.” Had that not been the case, the other stuff would have destroyed him. It would seem to me that God saved him in the nick of time.

  89. NSP Avatar

    Dear Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you very much for your reply. Yes, I hadn’t thought of that angle, and it is indeed helpful to think of it that way. “The difference is that David is now able to walk within those tragedies as a “man after God’s own heart.” ” is an especially illuminating expression.

    It’s just that, based on the prophetic words of Nathan, “Therefore the sword shall never depart from thy house, because thou hast despised me,….” I had been till now under the impression that the moral disintegration of the household of King David was the consequence of a sort of “loss of grace,” – grace which they had all received through the patriarchal mediating role of King David, and which they now were deprived of because of King David’s fall. (And thus, as a corollary, I had assumed that the subsequent failings of King David’s family members would not have occurred if King David had stayed on the straight and narrow path and “kept the connection open,” so to speak, for grace to flow into his household.)

    Is that an unhelpful way to look at this?


  90. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think it is unhelpful. It is the kind of thought that crushes.

  91. NSP Avatar

    Dear Father,

    Yes, you’re right, it’s a thought that crushes.

    I’d be grateful to read an expanded teaching on this event from the Christian Tradition, that comforts and doesn’t crush. If you could direct me to one, it would be great. It would be even better if you could write an article on this theme when your schedule permits. It seems to me that many of the themes you return to in your writing are very much present here: brokenness, contrition, humility, futility of “moral improvement,” etc…

    I looked at the Orthodox Study Bible translation of the LXX and didn’t find much explanation or notes in this area. The Douay Rheims translation of the Vulgate has as its title of 2 Samuel 12, “Nathan’s parable. David confesseth his sin, and is forgiven: yet so as to be sentenced to most severe temporal punishments….” and, in spite of the good the intentions of the translators, that somehow that inspires more thoughts of the crushing kind in my mind.

    Once again, thanks for your replies.


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