Behind Every Rock and Tree – An Allegory

How is an allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures possible? In the fourth chapter of Galatians, St. Paul invokes the story of Abraham and his two sons, one born of a bondwoman (Hagar) and the other of a freewoman (Sarah).  As he prepares to draw a lesson from the story he says of it: “These things are an allegory.” He then proceeds to draw a very authoritative (for him) conclusion based on this allegorical reading. Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and the earthly Jerusalem, and is thus bondage. Sarah is the Jerusalem from above and freedom.

It is an interesting way to read the stories in Genesis regarding the Patriarch and his  family – but again – how is this possibly a true reading?

I like allegory, something that is largely synonymous with symbolism (rightly understood). I find it extremely useful in reading many of the texts of the Old Testament. If you attend lots of Orthodox services (as I do), then you’ll hear repeated uses of allegory in every service. For the liturgical texts of the Church, it is indispensable.  There are occasional debates here on the blog about the proper way to read the Scriptures. Some are very insistent on the importance of the “literal” reading and its historical reliability. I am highly doubtful about the historical character of a number of things – a debate that will not likely be resolved for those with a committed point of view. But a question (not a debate) that I pose with this article is simply, “How is it possible for an allegorical reading to be true?” What does St. Paul mean when he calls something an allegory, or a type, or when he and other New Testament writers resort to this way of reading the Old Testament?

In 1Corinthians we have this example of allegory:

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. (1Co 10:1-4)

The peculiar thing about this passage, similar to the Galatians allegory, is that St. Paul does not say that the passing through the sea was like a Baptism, or that the Rock that followed them was like Christ. This would be the modern take on allegory. We think of allegory as a literary technique, a way of reading something in which, through an act of the imagination, we think that one thing is like another and are therefore simply creating an imaginary case. But the New Testament writers do nothing of the sort. They do not suggest in any way whatsoever that they are engaging in an imaginary act, or that the allegorical figures are merely like the point they make. And here true literalism must be taken into account. The Spiritual Rock that followed them (itself a very strange statement) was Christ. Or in Galatians, Hagar is Mount Sinai; she is the earthly Jerusalem.

Our modern thought habits always presume that there is only one way to speak of historic, concrete reality. We believe that such things are, in fact, what is. We may speak of them in symbolic ways, draw meanings from their arrangement, or infer things as we consider them, but we think that such things are only a “manner of speaking.” We are certain that they are but ideas and not the nature of reality itself.

In the modern historical/literal interpretation of Scripture, we carry this same mindset into our reading. We assume that what happened is what happened, and that something is true inasmuch as it rightly and correctly describes what happened. As such there is a great deal of anxiety whenever someone is heard to suggest otherwise. For if the text has a different relationship with this notion of “what happened,” then its trustworthiness is seen to have vanished.

But what if “what happened” is not at all the same thing as a literal eye-witness might have seen? What if reality itself is something quite different?

It is to this that both the writings of the Apostles and the Fathers bear witness. Allegory is not simply a technique of interpretation, a way of speaking – it represents a statement about the true nature of reality. Here I beg the patience of my readers. We need to do some careful thinking.

Fr. A. Schmemann wrote about the nature of symbol and its relationship to reality. He described a change in how reality and symbol were understood. He traces that change to certain ideas within the Carolingian period in the Western Empire (after 800 a.d.). Symbol and reality become separated and even come to be seen as opposites. In his words:

It is clear that in the common theological language as it takes shape between the Carolingian renaissance and the Reformation, and in spite of all controversies between rival theological schools, the “incompatibility between symbol and reality,” between “figura et veritas” is consistently affirmed and accepted. “To the ‘mystice, non vere’ corresponds not less exclusively ‘vere, non mystice.’

 In this new idea, reality and symbol are seen as two different things. One is veritas (truth), the other is figura (a figure). One is vere (true), the other mystice (mystical) and the two are incompatible.

To this, however he contrasts the Fathers of the East and “the whole early tradition.” He says, “[They] not only do not know this distinction and opposition, but to them symbolism is the essential dimension of the sacrament, the proper key to its understanding.

He cites St. Maximus the Confessor, the “sacramental theologian par excellence of the patristic age,” who:

calls the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist symbols (“symbola”), images (“apeikonismata”) and mysteries (“mysteria”). “Symbolical” here is not only not opposed to “real,” but embodies it as its very expression and mode of manifestation.

We could add to this, that the Fathers not only see “symbolism” as the essential dimension of the sacrament, but to be characteristic of reality itself. There is not an opposition between vere (the real) and mystice (the mystical), because the mystical itself belongs to the real and is an essential component of it.

We cannot rightly read the Scriptures by ignoring allegory for the same reason that we cannot rightly understand the Eucharist by only speaking of bread and wine. Reality itself is greater than this.

In my own spiritual journey, I consider this understanding to have been perhaps the most important. It is the understanding that undergirds all that I have written about the “one-storey universe.” The world in which we dwell, the reality we inhabit, contains mysteries, symbols, images and figures – not as mere ideas – but as inherent parts of reality itself.

That Rock that followed the children of Israel was Christ as surely as the bread and wine of the Eucharist is His body and blood. If you affirm one and not the other you have abandoned the understanding of the Fathers.

Some readers are familiar with the idea in the Fathers that everything in creation has its logos, its inner reason, purpose, and meaning, etc. The Fathers speak of the contemplation of the logoi (plural) of created things. This logos is related to symbol, figure, allegory, etc., and is as much a part of the reality of something (indeed it is the ground of its reality) as any easily observable characteristic.

And I will now bring us back to the Scriptures and their right interpretation. Suppose the Scriptures were an absolute one-to-one correspondence with historical events “as they happened.” Suppose the Genesis account of creation were precisely how things were done in the most literal, historical form. Suppose every detail of the gospels were exactly how things actually happened. (And there are any number of believers who indeed believe this to be the nature of the Scriptures).

If the Scriptures were precisely just such an account – they would not reveal the truth nor show us the reality of our salvation. They would obscure the logoi of all created things and hide the symbols, figures and allegories that save us.

St. Peter refers to Holy Baptism as “the antitype which saves us” (1 Peter 3:20). The Flood and the Ark are the type – Holy Baptism is the antitype – the inner symbol of the flood – and it is the antitype that saves. The Manna in the wilderness cannot save, Christ says (John 6:49). But the Bread that He gives (His flesh) is that which gives eternal life. St. Basil describes the bread and the wine in the Eucharist as “antitypes” in the same manner as St. Peter. It is the antitype that saves us.

None of this is meant to devalue historical events themselves or to say that what we see doesn’t matter. But it points to the true character of our salvation and the true character of how we should read the Scriptures. In the event of Christ’s incarnation, the Word becomes flesh. Here we have the situation in which the Logos, the Type, becomes visible and able to be easily seen. Christ is present throughout the Old Testament (truly present), but He is hidden under figures, types, shadows, and mysteries. But all of those figures became flesh and dwelt among us. Some refused to see this at the time and fulfilled the type by putting Him to death.

To see the types, to live within the allegory, we have to slow down and learn to look. The truth of the world does not come with observation (Luke 17:20).

We do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2Co 4:18)

And this is the manner in which we must read the Scriptures – and the manner in which we must live our lives – for these are not mere thoughts about reality – but the very nature of reality itself.

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.



38 responses to “Behind Every Rock and Tree – An Allegory”

  1. James Avatar

    Another great article Fr.Stephen. In my former Evangelical life, I was never a fan of allegory. I visited a few RC masses and traditional mainline Protestant services where it seem allegory was over used. Through allegory any ‘difficult’ scripture could be more palatable or even just reduced to stories about good morals.
    However I recognized St. Paul use allegory and that must have had a proper place. Coming into EO, allegory is used constantly to communicate thru the hymnography and icons seem at times to be allegory thru pictures. Its been a HUGE blessing.
    My question is is the original reference historical ie actual? In other words yes, the Israelites actually historically drank from the Rock which yes, was in reality Christ. Or like when Tertullian sees the creation story as an allegory for baptism with The Spirit of God hovering over the waters of baptism. He believes both, no? Both the Creation narrative as historical and the reality of the Spirit and baptism? Or is it that some OT narritives are completelly allegorical in nature, never intended to be taken as history, but spiritual. Sorry for the rambling questions. God Bless you, Father.

  2. Byron Avatar

    Thank you, Father! I am actually purchasing “Scripture in Tradition” by John Breck as well as Fr. Farley’s “The Christian Old Testament”, both of which speak to this subject (I believe) in the hopes of learning more. It’s a difficult thing to wrap one’s mind about; not in the general concept, but in the application of study.

    Thank you again for your continued instruction concerning this.

  3. davidp Avatar

    Fr….How would you tackle the Book of Revelation by St John? I am reading Dr Jeannie Constantinou`s “Interpretation of the Apocalypse by St Andrew of Caesarea” along with podcasts by Fr Mitilinaios of St Nicodemos. It is very slow going trying to undestand what is written and what is said.

  4. Dino Avatar

    This is most natural in Orthodoxy, yet it must be a crucial new concept for those who find it hard to accept…

    The Lord Himself, the Divine Logos of all logoi, speaks in like manner when he mentions the Sign of Jonah.

    Whether the whale historically-literally swallowed Jonah for three days (or not) does not matter much at all, and like most things, possibly cannot be verified by science as anything other than a probability measurement.
    But the profound and eternal depth of that ‘Symbol’ is unsurpassed. Perhaps we’ll talk about that later.

  5. Eleftheria Avatar

    The 100+ homilies of +Elder Mitilinaois on St. John’s Revelation are slowly appearing in book form. So far, there are 2 volumes available, with the 3rd in the series due out some time this year, from: zoe press. It may be easier for you to read these rather than listen to podcasts of the one and read a different translation of only one saint’s interpretation. The elder uses 3 saints and his own exegesis.
    Hope this helps.


  6. Eleftheria Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,


    An aha moment for me with this wonderful article: “…the mystical itself belongs to the real…” – made me (a lifelong cradle – although perhaps occasionally asleep at the switch) finally see why the sacraments – all of them – are called: mysteries.
    Thank you!

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a very legitimate question and subject to speculation. My own thoughts are that it varies from one thing to another. Obviously some things have a historical weight to them that no amount of allegory should lessen. But always a problem about historical things is establishing a great deal of certainty. What we have in our hands are texts.

  8. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Father Stephen, can you give me the title of the book that you quote Father Alexander Schmemann from? I am not doubting your quote, I want to read the book and preserve the reference. The very drift of understanding in the Carolingian period that you mention is a very important reason that much must change in the Western Churches before they can become Orthodox. As a former Evangelical, I k.nw how much I am having to relearn to be fully Orthodox in thought as well as practice

  9. davidp Avatar

    Eleftheria….Thank you for the follow and the Zoe site. At times, the podcasts seem to skip and go into the next podcast…meaning, I have to back track and try to find where it end and start up again. Blessings,


  10. Davidq Avatar

    Blessings to you Father,

    I was wondering if you could elaborate on the quote from Fr. A. Schmemann. My understanding of this was that until the Great Schism, and in some places after that until reformation, Western Europe was still very traditionnal. To hear that it was already beginning to fail in the understanding of the Christian world in the 9th century is quite crushing to my preconception. I know your task is not to show where we failed, but to show where we fail and what we should do about it; but if you have other readings on the subject, feel free to speak of them.

    Thank you,

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll be adding the reference to the article (I forgot to add it). But it is from For the Life of the World – from the appended articles at the end. Pp. 128-129. It is interesting that this point is stated so clearly in the appendix – I think of it as the most succinct and important point in Schmemann’s work.

    This is a bold side thought. The Neo-Chalcedonian’s (and the Cappadocians before them), worked hard to bring the Church’s language into a common form, such that when we said, “Person,” for the members of the Trinity, and said “Person, with regard to Christology and in the doctrine of man – it means the same thing. Of course, it became a problem in its non-acceptance by the Oriental Orthodox (though much better now).

    In the same manner, for myself, I see a relationship between how we read Scripture and how we understand icon, sacrament, etc. When I wrote my thesis at Duke back in the early 90’s, part of my work was on the question of the doctrine of the 7th council and its meaning for the interpretation of Scripture.

    Many Orthodox hold a kind of Scriptural treatment that is actually quite Western and conservative. It’s on salutary point is its conservatism, but, I think, it often distorts the Patristic witness into a merely conservative point of view, and not properly symbolic in the sense that Schmemann describes. This hermeneutic, I think, is part of our contemporary “Western Captivity.” Orthodox is neither liberal nor conservative in the Western sense. It is something quite different.

  12. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    James, as someone who has studied history most of my adult life I can tell you that even the most rigorously researched deeply sourced history is never wholly literal and the quest for literalism weakens the value of history which is to pass or explore the values and culture of a particular time and place.

    Such efforts can be critical to the point of being destructive or they can be the work of empathetic projection in order to mine and explicate our common humanity.

    The term “empathetic projection” comes from the great historian and biographer of Thomas Jefferson–Dumas Malone.

  13. AndrewT Avatar

    This is one fine piece of writing. People need to at least know of the traditional and Patristic way to read the Bible. In America the market for Patristic literature falls FAR behind the mountains of feel-good contemporary reformed nonsense (“we” buy the books our noetically impoverished souls deserve), yet the Fathers had some of the richest insights ever for Bible study. Who would believe that the early church accepted a reading of the counting of heads in Numbers that was a spiritual allegory? Who would believe they taught Theosis, that it wasn’t blasphemy then or now? Even studious Catholics only want to read Thomas and Augustine.

  14. Phoebe Avatar

    Michael, I would really like to understand your answer to James, but I must confess I don’t have a PhD yet; just an old lady who just became EO. Help! Orthodoxy is hard enough as it is! 🙂

  15. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I understand your point about “emphatic projection” concerning historical accounts. In fact we seem to be living in the times where revelation is blooming all over the place that there is in effect no “just the facts, ma’am” account, that it is always colored by the bias of the historian whether intentionally or not. And that this is the best we can do as limited human beings with only one perspective.

    Sobeit. But there is an honest need (at least for those in the West) to have a gut feeling of truth about some things. For example I’m not overly concerned about the story of laying out the fleeces or even the life of Samson, but for some reason it does seem important to know that Adam & Eve in the garden wasn’t just a children’s bedtime story, or even that Jonah really did survive in a big fish for the sake of typifying Christ and it wasn’t just a whale of a tale to help us swallow the concept of dying in order to be reborn.

    I hyperbolize here but in modern times it’s too easy for everything to seem like a blur or a hazy drug-induced dream that we’re just waiting to be over – one way or the other. It is important to know that some things are real and not just an Aesop’s fable.

    I truly appreciate Fr. Stephen’s work on allegory and am sinking more in every time he lays out the next lesson on it, but just as the Eucharist is Christ’s body and blood, it is also bread and wine. The physical is still part of reality.

    My only real contention here is that we have to be careful about where we wave our hand and say that the historical “does not matter much at all”. It’s true for some things, and it may be true for all things for those who are completely at home in the mystical, but it’s not true for everything, nor for everyone.

  16. Dino Avatar

    by saying “it does not matter much at all” I principally mean that it does not threaten our Faith at all.
    I, for one, find it far less of a stretch to believe in a literal-historical Adam, Noah, Jonah etc, (I personally would pray to them) than believe in multiverses and wormholes.
    ps: It’s funny how some people have the reverse ‘faith’ isn’t it?

  17. Drewster2000 Avatar


    Agreed. It is funny. But it is the reality of our world. That’s why I gently caution consideration for those with a different “faith” than yourself. (grin)

  18. Matth Avatar


    I don’t see a separation between the two, an historical Biblical narrative on the one hand and a universe conforming to the more bizarre physical theories on the other. The universe would surely be a strange place if wormholes and multiverses are, but it would still fall most completely into that which we term Creation.

    Though I may be tipping my hand as a former agnostic and scientific materialist, with a degree in physics.

  19. Byron Avatar

    As a side tangent of sorts, I think one of the reasons Orthodoxy has not taken significant root (for lack of a better phrase on my part) in the U.S. is the rise of a strict materialist mindset in the West. More and more, people are unable to even think along the lines of the coexistence of allegory and the physical world–and I mean “think” quite literally. People literally cannot grasp how the two are not separate in terms of truth.

    I know of so many people, sadly, who would read this article and not even begin to understand it or, worse, discount it as fantasy since it does not cowtow to the notion that the physical world is the final definer of truth.

    I suppose this is a way of saying that the current direction of society (or “societies”) in general very much reinforces the downplay or belittling of allegory in textual critique. It is a parallel issue that directly affects the ability of us to read and study the Bible in the manner explained above.

  20. Dino Avatar


    Popular literature dedicated to theories about multiverses, “many worlds,” and “landscapes” of reality have been a recent reaction to the Christian-friendliness of the Anthropic principle… They restore the atheist-friendliness of lack of any special favoring of humanity.
    Hawking and Mlodinow, for example, state that:

    the fine-tunings in the laws of nature can be explained by the existence of multiple universes. Many people through the ages have attributed to God the beauty and complexity of nature that in their time seemed to have no scientific explanation. But just as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit.

    The multiverse theory holds that there are many different universes, of which ours is just one, and that each has its own system of physical laws. The argument Hawking and Mlodinow offer is essentially one from the laws of probability: If there are enough universes, one or more whose laws are suitable for the evolution of intelligent life is more or less bound to occur. I do not think I am being paranoid here… it really has the overtones of nothing other than an atheist-agenda-driven scientism.

  21. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I agree with you. However I must surpress my knee-jerk reaction of, “Yep, that’s just so true. [said with a long face and followed by a long sigh] But we’ll just keep chiseling away at Mt. Materialist with our toothbrushes because even though it’s a futile effort, we have to at least try!” [wry sad smile of the martyr]

    But things like that aren’t for me to judge. God has ways of effecting His will, even if it includes either blowing away or blowing by all my impressive logic constructs that says some things will never happen. I was reminded recently that ‘never’ and always’ are two words that we should always remember never to use. We just don’t have that large and clear of a perspective to be able to know things like whether not Western people can ever again marry the literal and mystical sides of things.

    Another piece of the puzzle here is that people continually surprise me – if I let them. If I give them a chance. That’s because before they were Western/Eastern, red/black/white, big or small, ancient or modern…….there were and are God’s creation. Their deepest instincts come not from this world but from their Creator.

    This alone should give us hope enough to turn aside from the questionable task of judgement and simply do the work that’s been put in front of us – whether or not we ever see the fruit of it in our lifetime.

  22. Byron Avatar

    Drewster2000, I agree. I did not mean to sound hope-less, only to note that there are larger issues helping to drive the poor understanding concerning the relationship of allegory and truth.

    I do think future generations will recover this understanding at some point (after the Planet of the Apes timeframe, perhaps?); I don’t see it happening within our lifetime(s), although there are lights, such as Father Freeman’s articles and books, that do shine through the murk! Blessings!

  23. Matth Avatar

    I agree to some extent that it could be a theory with an atheist agenda. Many physicists approach the study of their subject precisely because they are inclined towards atheism. Most people I’ve known with the same natural talents, but with a belief in God, become mathematicians or chemists, though that is by no means meant to be a definitive statement. In my course at university, I was constantly surrounded by atheists and agnostics, and my own conversion halfway through my second year brought with it some considerable loss of social prestige among my peers.

    And I have long thought that Hawking is something of a buffoon, much as Einstein became a caricature of himself by the time he died. Most of Hawking’s ideas today are accepted as though from an oracle, but are mostly the sort of imaginary alarmism that one would expect from a paperback sci fi writer. He also draws conclusions from the theoretical limits of physics which do not, in any way, stand upon logical deduction. (This is not to diminish the respect due his mind, his corpus of work, nor some of the real questions he does address.)

    Still, I fail to see how a multiverse reality, robbed of its metaphysical interpretation, would change anything of the nature of the Christian faith? As I already mentioned, the entirety of the multiverse would have to exist in that which we call Creation, and God would still hold absolute dominion over all. Furthermore, to your statement on the special favoring of humanity, while Hawking can comment that this is just one of an infinite number of possible and extant universes, the fact remains that we are graced to live IN THIS PARTICULAR universe. Coincidence is unconvincing to the unbeliever, but can be powerfully symbolic when properly understood and respected.

    As a final note, I would like to state that I do not understand how a multiverse theory could ever be experimentally verified, as to do so would most likely require things of this universe (us and our tools) to transcend this universe, and consequently I generally view such “theories” as philosophy disguised as science.

  24. Dino Avatar

    yes, you reiterated it well with your last sentence.

  25. Matth Avatar

    Yes, very well that my predispositions fit with yours, but that final sentence is merely my opinion and a hasty one at that. I’m not smart enough to judge the merits of the theories, nor am I a gifted enough experimentalist to feel that I can speak authoritatively on the testability of the conjectures.

  26. gaudium Avatar


    Is there a way we can help bring people from the literalistic worldview to the holistic worldview? Or this this purely a work of the Spirt, “Who blows where He wills”?

    By “bring people,” I do not mean to force them to accept it, but just to see that it is an option–to have the capability of accepting or rejecting it. Byron’s words struck me: “More and more, people are unable to even think along the[se] lines…and I mean “think” quite literally. People literally cannot grasp…I know of so many people, sadly, who would read this article and not even begin to understand it or, worse, discount it as fantasy…” When I have tried to explain to certain relatives and friends that just because something is a symbol, it doesn’t mean it isn’t also the reality, they either respond that I am daft, or that I am a sophist. Sometimes I blame myself, that I must be explaining poorly, but sometimes I think it is something deeper–like I am trying to explain color to a man born blind.

    Where do you even start?

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I agree, Matth, about the multiverse theory. It only pushes the question back. David Bentley Hart’s book on the Experience of God is a masterful treatment of this and other such questions.

  28. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Father, Thank you for your quick response. As always, you have given me much to ponder.

  29. Matth Avatar

    Thank you, Father. I’ll have to add it to my very long reading list!

  30. deciusmus Avatar

    Dear Father,

    I have a question to ask about the historicity of the New Testament, one that’s been gnawing at me for quite some time. Paul was wiling to interpret Scripture allegorically, as his treatment of Galatians makes clear. How, then, do we treat 1 Corinthians 10:1-11? As far as I can see, Paul considers the events of the Exodus as literal history, especially in verse 11: “Now these things [the events of the Exodus] happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (NASV). Isn’t Paul implying there was a literal Israel, who literally left Egypt through a parted sea? And what if there was no Exodus, as some scholars maintain? Or even a period of bondage in Egypt? How would this affect the Christian faith?

    This isn’t my field of expertise, but most scholars agree that Jewish writers constructed a ‘mythistory’ around the 6th century BC. Events were reconstructed or even invented to help the Jews understand their current plight. For instance, Shlomo Sand contends the united kingdom of David never existed, that it was a later invention by Jewish writers. Such a theory is is not a problem for me per se; Jewish writers in the 6th century were not doing Oxford history 101! However, Paul seems to believe they did. Do you see the bind I’m in?

    Any advice would be appreciated.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good questions. Indeed, I may lift this conversation later and make it a blog post…

    But, first. St. Paul would have had no reason to question the historical character of an Old Testament story. Those who use such a fact to establish that he “thought” it was historical – therefore it is historical – are making a primary mistake in logic. What counts as “historical” in the mind of the first century and what counts as “historical” in the mind of the 20th or 21st, are very different things. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the first century mind was not capable of conceiving what we think of as “historical.”

    I’ll expand on that.

    We are secularists. We think things are just things and are nothing other than things. We conceive of the world as existing apart from God, even as self-existing. We thing that if things “mean” anything, it’s only because we “think” of them in a certain way, but that “truth” is only a flat, secular, historical thing. It’s “what happened” and nothing more. Protestant (and later modern) thought changes the nature of truth into this secularized notion. It is an objectification of reality, so that it would be independently and scientifically verifiable as true. Thus “historical” means what objectively happened in such a way that it could be proven were there enough evidence. It is true apart from God and is therefore just a “fact.”

    This is not a notion of truth that is older than about the 17th century. It’s a modern version of truth. What this version of truth cannot understand is allegory. St. Paul writes in Galatians:

    23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, 24 which things are an allegory. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar–25 for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children–26 but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all.(Gal 4:23-26)

    Modern readers do not grasp what he is actually saying. All we can hear is that things “mentally symbolize” something else. And that “truth” only exists in the mind of the reader. St. Paul actually means quite the opposite. He means that the truth and reality of Hagar is Mt. Sinai, etc. And he means this in a way that staggers the modern mind.

    In that sense, St. Paul does not think of any “historical” event as “historical” (in our modern way of thinking). He thinks everything actually is allegorical. And he thinks that that is the real truth of things. There is a sense in which the truth is “tabernacling” within, beneath, and in history and events reveal that greater, deeper truth. And it is really doing this. We might say that the allegorical view of reality is a sacramental view of reality.

    Having established this (if you will) let’s move forward. Modern secular thought (and therefore modern Christian thought) is anxious to know about the “historical” character of a Biblical event, but in the modern meaning of “historical.” And it wants to know this because it thinks that’s how truth is known. But that is not how truth is known and never has been. The gospels, for example, make it clear that the disciples do not understand the ministry of Jesus, nor His resurrection (even though they are seeing it with their eyes) until their eyes were opened. However:

    14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1Co 2:14)

    Secular versions of knowledge think that “objective” things are where truth resides and that they are “objectively” known, meaning anybody who looks at something in a disinterested manner can see its truth. That is not the Scriptural witness.
    What we have in the Scriptures, is a “Scriptural” account, rather than a “historical” account. Sometimes “Scriptural” and “historical” coincide, but not always. Frequently, the story has a theological shape in order to reveal its inner meaning (its allegory). The Exodus, as it is written, reveals Pascha (or Christ’s Pascha reveals the true meaning of the Scriptural Exodus). In point of fact, we cannot get behind the Scriptural account of the Exodus to know “exactly” that the modern “historical” events might have been. What we have is an account given us that we might know the truth.
    This kind of thinking makes many people nervous. And that is because they have a modern consciousness. I get attacked, occasionally, by some well-meaning Orthodox who are, in fact, modernists, but don’t know it. They have a modern theory of meaning that they read back into Scripture and into the Fathers, but in doing so they make the Fathers say things they did not mean, nor could not have meant. The Fathers were not modernists.
    The word “literal” is an interesting example. We think “literal” is the same thing as “historical.” But, properly, “literal” means “according to the letter,” that is, “What does the text actually say.” A text, that is fully allegorical, always has a “literal” meaning. But what the letter of the text’s relationship is to what a modern means by a “historical” event is entirely up for grabs. Often the only answer (that is honest) is “we don’t know.”
    A primary case of correlation between allegorical, literal, and historical (in every sense), is the resurrection of Christ. St. Paul, in 1Cor. 15, recites a very “historical” account of the resurrection to which the gospels bear some resemblance. It is clearly a very primitive, creed-like recitation of the historical facts of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The gospels, on the other hand, have a clear literary form with regard to these facts, and those literary forms have their given shape in order to reveal the truth of the resurrection. St. John says, “These things are written so that you might believe,” and he means something far greater than merely believing the “facts.”
    God is a poet. The world is His poem. It often needs to be read poetically in order to be understood. Protestants and modernists want the world (and God) to be prose. It is not.
    My life as an Orthodox believer includes struggling to acquire the mind of the fathers, which includes losing the mind of modernity. In that mind, I would generally say, the “historical” character of the Exodus, in a precise, objective form just doesn’t matter, inasmuch as it’s the wrong question asked by a wrongly shaped mentality. That doesn’t mean nothing happened (I think that sort of assertion is ridiculous – though I am merely saying that I think it is not plausible for such a central thing to be a 6th century BC invention). But “Red Sea” versus “Reed Sea” etc. is interesting but not germane to me as a believer.
    I “believe” the account in Exodus as Scripture – it is the account as I need to know it, so that in the light of Pascha, I might know the truth.
    Everything(!) is about Christ’s Pascha. Everything is relative to Pascha.
    That’s my briefish answer on a Sunday afternoon. Is that helpful?

  32. Emmie Avatar

    Not related but didn’t know where else to leave this:
    Happy Name Day, Fr. Stephen!

  33. Dino Avatar

    I absolutely concur with what you just explained here Father (and admire the intelligibility of your clarification) …
    It also reminded me very much of what Elder Aimilianos articulates concerning the comparison of a rational, non-spiritual/(“psychicos”) person/thinker, answering or trying to provide a solution to any problem (and not just our correct understanding of Scripture as specified above) and the Spiritual answer/ solution of a true saint to the same problem.
    The two might sometimes coincide but often contrast like earth contrasts to heaven. The first might provide an impartial and seemingly ‘wise’ solution to whatever the problem is, but nevertheless the second might, at times, advise the exact opposite, and yet lead to the only true solution, a thing that the rationalised counsel might never have done. We see this in some of the advise given by what we think are clairvoyantly far-sited saints like St Porphyrios. It is an utterly Holy Spirit-guided solution (that might occasionally coincide with the ‘rational’ solution) and is given to those who have emptied themselves. Our modern way of living and thinking is the exact opposite of self-emptying though….
    His analysis of St Maximus is where he really drives this point (which only just appeared in writing in Greek last week).

  34. Nicholas Avatar

    Just wanted to say: Please do make this a blog post, Father.

    And also, I would reiterate my recommendation of the work of Iain McGilchrist, whose writing about metaphor in The Master and His Emissary bears strongly on this subject.

  35. Dino Avatar

    If we continue to function with our rational intellect bereft of God we will fail to such a point that robots will certainly threaten to render us (as we are becoming through this ‘development’) obsolete (as far as modernity’s way of thinking goes). If however our noetic faculty (the attentive, perceptive, non-analyzing power of our soul that sees God without the external senses and without emotive intuitions either) takes once more center-stage, yanking along the heart and soul and body in it’s pursuit of union with the great Nous– God– then we will become what we are called to be.

  36. Byron Avatar

    Secular versions of knowledge think that “objective” things are where truth resides and that they are “objectively” known, meaning anybody who looks at something in a disinterested manner can see its truth.

    This is something that is so strongly held within our society/world that saying otherwise in any public forum is pretty much equivalent to a desire for immediate martyrdom! (I joke–but not that much, sadly).

    Father, I join the others in stating that your explanation is wonderful and I hope that you will expand this into another blog post!

  37. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks, Byron. It is an absolutely essential understanding. Getting there, for me, (some years ago), involved asking the question, “How can allegory possibly be true?” and “What does it mean if allegory actually is true?” My conclusions, following the Fathers, would ultimately be to say that reality, as we know it, is itself allegorical. There is something “hidden” about all things and that hiddenness is its truth. It is spiritually discerned.

  38. Agata Avatar

    This conversation reminds me of a quote I once saw from Nicola Tesla:

    “The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.”

    How interesting, considering what he is most recognized for today:

    “Nikola Tesla was a genius polymath, inventor and a mechanical and electrical engineer. He is frequently cited as one of the most important contributors to the birth of commercial electricity, a man who “shed light over the face of Earth,” and is best known for his many revolutionary developments in the field of electricity and magnetism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tesla’s patents and theoretical work formed the basis of modern alternating current (AC) electric power systems, including the polyphase power distribution systems and the AC motor, with which he helped usher in the Second Industrial Revolution.”

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