Abraham at the End of the World

hospitalityThis is an exercise in the Orthodox reading of the Scriptures. My thoughts frequently return to this story and this line of thought. This article is greatly expanded from an earlier version.

The habits of modern Christians run towards history: it is a lens through which we see the world. We see a world of cause and effect, and, because the past is older than the present, we look to the past to find the source of our present. Some cultures have longer memories than others (America’s memory usually extends only to the beginning of the present news cycle). This same habit of mind governs the reading of Scripture. For many, the Scriptures are a divinely inspired account of the history of God’s people. That history is read as history, believed as history, and applied to the present by drawing out the lessons of history. Any challenge to the historical character of an account is seen, therefore, as an assault on the authority and integrity of the Scriptures themselves. But this radical historicization of the Scriptures is relatively new: there are other ways of reading that often reveal far more content of the mystery of God. There is an excellent example in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He establishes a point of doctrine through an allegorical or typological reading of the story of Sarah and Hagar. We might ask, “How can you say that Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia? Where did you get all this?”

His points are clearly not found within the historical account. Their meaning lies in the shape of the story itself, Christ’s Pascha being the primary interpretative element. Christ is the Child of Promise, the first-born son who is offered, and the ram who replaced him. Abraham’s efforts to create his own version of a fulfilled covenant (having a child by Hagar), is thus seen as unfaithfulness, the rejection of Christ.

I am here offering a similar meditation on the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah – a non-historical reading that offers insight into the mystery of Christ and the way of salvation.

Remove Sodom and Gomorrah from the realm of historical speculation. Instead see with me, Genesis 18 as a parable of the end of the age (which includes our time as well). For, as Christ Himself notes, the end of the age will be “like the days of Sodom and Gomorrah.”  God appears to Abraham as three angels (the account moves strangely between singular and plural references – the Fathers saw this as a foreshadowing of the Trinity). In the course of His visit God speaks:

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him.” And the LORD said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know.” Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the LORD.

Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah begins:

And Abraham came near and said, “Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? So the LORD said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.” Then Abraham answered and said, “Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five?” So He said, “If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it.” (Gen 18:17-28)

The conversation continues until the Lord promises to spare the cities even if only ten righteous are found.

The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are the world in which we live. They are very similar to the description of the world in the Genesis account of Noah:

Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the LORD said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Gen 6:5-7)

Just as Christ compares the world of Noah to the world at the end of the age (Luke 17), so he also compares the end of the age to the days of Sodom and Gomorrah. But in the story of this Divine visitation we not only see the Trinity pre-figured, but the Church as well. There are the Oaks at Mamre, always understood as a type of the Cross. There is a Eucharistic meal, in which three loaves of bread and a calf (cf. the “fatted calf”) are prepared and set before these Divine visitors. There is also the Mother of God, prefigured in Sarah, who will bear a child even though she is beyond the years for such a thing. So, gathered there beneath the Tree, God sits down with man and sups with him (Rev. 3:20).

As the mystery continues to unfold, two of the three strangers go on towards Sodom (which represents the world in its fallen state). Historical interpreters laugh at the “primitive” character of the story when they hear God saying that He is going to Sodom to see for Himself whether what He has heard is true. But we see a deeper mystery. The Father sends the Son and the Spirit into the world for judgment:

And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: (John 16:8)

Modern critics see this visit as primitive. It is more accurately seen as an expression of the inherently personal work of God. He does not see and judge us from afar, but comes among us as His own.

And we see the nature of the Church in its relationship with God. For the Lord says to Himself:

Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation…

The Church is not ignorant of God’s work in the world and His hidden purposes. Rather, He leads us into all truth (John 16:13).

But the greatest mystery in this story unfolds as Abraham takes up the priestly ministry of the Church and intercedes before God. This is by far the most astounding manifestation of the righteousness of the great Patriarch.

Though two of the angels have turned away, Abraham “stands before the Lord” (the essential work of the priesthood). And there he begins his prayers. While he prays, the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah waits – it hangs in a balance. Will the Lord spare the cities for the sake of 50 righteous? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10? It is with fear and trembling that Abraham is bold to bargain with God. It is with fear and trembling that he asks, “Will the Lord destroy the righteous with the wicked?” In this intercession, Abraham takes up the role of mediator, something that Job longed to see as recorded in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX):

‘Would that our mediator were present, and a reprover, and one who should hear the cause between both.’ (Job 9:33)

The Elder Sophrony saw in this verse the description of the essential work of the priestly Christ, the very work that is given to us in our priesthood.

Abraham’s intercession reveals the very heart of the Church’s prayer. The righteous man lives side-by-side with the wicked, but he doesn’t despise them or pray for their destruction. Instead, he recognizes the coinherence and communion of all humanity – “Will the Lord destroy the righteous with the wicked?” We are with the wicked. We do not have a life apart from them, for we are with them. And this presence becomes the fulcrum for the salvation of the world. “I will be with you,” Christ promises (Matt. 28:20). Or as we remember in the services of the Church:

God is with us! Understand you nations and submit yourselves for God is with us!

It is interesting in our day and time that many Christians number themselves among those who call for the destruction of the wicked. Surrounded by evil, our fears lash out with violent thoughts. We refuse to be with the wicked. And though Abraham and Lot had gone their separate ways, Abraham didn’t set himself as being above him – nor even above the wicked who dwelt in the cities. For though his prayer is for the righteous – he pleads through them for the wicked.

This is not only the prayer of the Church, it is the ministry of the Church as well. We are called to be the righteous-with-the-wicked. Our lives in their midst are for their salvation. This principle can be extended. For the wicked is something of a relative category. Even within the Church, some of us must always admit that our lives are more like those of the wicked than the righteous. But the principle is that the wicked are always being saved by the righteous. This “pyramid of salvation” extends throughout the world up to the supreme and primary example in which Christ, the only righteous One, saves the wicked, which is us all. We are taught to pray for our enemies not as a moral requirement, but so that we might be like our heavenly Father, or in this case, like our father Abraham, who was like our heavenly Father

But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: (Luke 6:35)

This patterned principle is essential to a right understanding of the faith and our life in the world. Like the account of Abraham and God in Genesis 18, the Church is a Eucharistic Community. Gathered under the healing shadow of the Cross, in union with the most Holy Mother of God, the Church shares in the banquet that is our very life. And there we learn God’s most intimate plans, and by union with His compassion, we learn to pray for the whole world and share in the mediating priesthood of Christ. This is what love looks like.

Many Orthodox services conclude with the petition: O Lord, through the prayers of our holy fathers, have mercy on us, and save us! May God number us among such holy fathers!

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.


50 responses to “Abraham at the End of the World”

  1. William Gall Avatar
    William Gall

    A Scriptural exposition under-girding St. Siluoan’s conclusions in regard to our bottom line, the love of enemies. Lord, have mercy. Grant us the grace to actualize this!

  2. Dino Avatar

    wondrously beautiful Father…

  3. AndrewT Avatar

    One might say to detractors: if this method of inquiring meaning from the Bible is good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good enough for me!

  4. Theodosia Avatar

    Thank you Father. This is an eye-opener!!!

  5. Randi Avatar


    Does this mean that my prayers help my unbelieving husband?

  6. Randi Avatar


    Does this mean that my prayers help my unbelieving husband?

  7. Caroline Shepherd Avatar
    Caroline Shepherd

    Thank you for your words -I am blessed through them

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    They certainly do.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I really have no idea if this sort of article is of interest to many – but it is of interest to me – just hovering over this chapter in Genesis with careful attention (which writing helps me do) is a joy. It is so rich.

  10. Dimitry Avatar


    Greatly enjoyed reading this article! If you have more like this, keep them coming. Personally I really struggle to read Scripture at the moment with any consistency, because after a while, I find that I lose sight and begin to drift. Reading this is like putting on glasses and seeing the actual words and not something blurred.

    In Christ.

  11. Dean Avatar

    Thank God that he is personally involved in our salvation and invites us not only to know him, but to join with him in the ministry of reconciliation… through the Eucharistic community. So much of modern Christianity reminds me of this country’s early diests who saw God as the one who wound the watch and now let’s it run on its own (creation). Father, your hermeneutic for understanding scripture had given me the lens I need to see what I’d never seen before. So don’t worry over just writing about what fascinates you. Your insights provide help and hope to countless thirsting hearts.

  12. Dean Avatar

    Should read… has given me….

  13. Karen Avatar

    This is wonderful. Would love to see more. Even some non-Orthodox are waking up to a more patristic and apostolic approach to the interpretation of the Scriptures (see here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/04/05/patristics-and-the-bible/) even while it seems some Orthodox are working to accommodate and validate modern Western approaches to their interpretation.

  14. Allen Long Avatar
    Allen Long

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen. Articles like this blog are refreshing and liberating for me.

    I have completely stopped reading the Scriptures. I was trained in a Evangelical Seminary whose main emphasis was exegesis of the Bible from the original languages. I am a recent convert to Orthodoxy. My 7 years in the Church are toppling the dominoes the deep seated Protestant interpretive lens. But I have a long way to go to undo 35 years of being in pastoral leadership roles in Evangelical Protestant Churches. When I go to the Scriptures, the Protestant thinking and mindset rises up. I don’t want to strengthen it all.

    I most heartily welcome more articles like this one.

  15. Kathy Avatar

    I love this type of Scripture interpretation. I would like to see more of it from you, Fa. Stephen, but I would also love to see a learned Orthodox woman’s take on the instances of apparent woman-hating in the Bible. One of the worst instances follows the passages you discussed here, when Lot offers his daughters to be gang raped by the mob, but I don’t want to talk with you about that — this is for reasons of feminism on my left hand and for reasons of modesty on my right hand (and together I am just another woman). I have struggled to phrase this in a not-hateful way, but please, please forgive me if I failed in my struggle.

  16. MdQ Mathematician Avatar
    MdQ Mathematician

    « I really have no idea if this sort of article is of interest to many »
    I think this sort of article is of GREAT interest, and certainly a blessing.
    Thank you, Fr. Stephen!

  17. Ann Avatar

    Thank you for sharing your gift with us. It has been many years since I have been “washed and watered” by your teaching gift and I thank God for the opportunity to do so again.

  18. Jeff Avatar


    I have followed your blog, including almost all of the comments on them, since July of last year. This is my first comment. I will be bold and say that this is akin to, “Long time listener, first time caller.”

    I have nothing unique to add to this conversation. Ditto to what everyon else stated.

    However, I am especially intrigued by Kathy’s post. What do we do with Lot’s decision to sacrifice his daughters?

    God bless,

  19. Michelle Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    First, I want to say I loved this article, I find the interpretation to be true…However, you left out the hardest part of the story to grasp when considering Christ’s inexhaustible love for His enemies, namely when Lot and his family leave the city (I gather they are the “10 righteous” for whom God spared the city) and then God proceeds to wipe everyone out by allowing fire and brimstone to fall from the sky and obliterate everyone. Abraham indeed interceded for the wicked through his prayer for the righteous, but it only worked for a short time, that is until the righteous left the city at the advice of God’s Holy Angels. I am very, very curious how that part of the story should be interpreted according to the hermuetic you rightfully use in this article, which is God’s Love revealed to us in Christ?

  20. Karen Avatar


    re: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah

    I venture a guess this is a parallel prefiguring for us to the destruction of Pharoah’s army in the Red Sea at the deliverance of the children of Israel in the Passover. It foreshadows for us in a similar manner the Lord’s destruction of sin, death and the demons. I also see a parallel between Lot’s wife “looking back” in longing for her life in Sodom (note: this, in spite of its citizens’ rape of her daughters!) and the children of Israel whining in the desert for the goods of Egypt, for water, then meat, and then their lack of courage to take possession of the Promised Land with its population of “giants”, which resulted in forty years of additional wandering in the desert including the death of that generation, and, for Lot’s wife, her turning into a pillar of salt. Both the wandering in the wilderness and turning into a pillar of salt are “icons” of the meaning and nature of sin and how (as a natural consequence of its very nature) it disfigures our lives bringing with it privation and death. The focus in Orthodox exegesis does not seem to be on the presumed historical destruction of the wicked (which we are told in St. Basil’s prayer of preparation to participate in the Eucharist, “God takes no pleasure in, . . . but rather that he turn from his wicked way and live.”), but the deeper spiritual meaning of these “figures” in the historical narratives–the deeper spiritual Truth, which as Fr. Stephen has frequently observed “has the shape of Pascha.” Modern exegesis puts the spiritual significance on the literal level of the narrative, leading to the types of problems anyone of moral sensibility (not just feminists) would struggle with: Orthodox sees the historical narrative as important and inspired, but not so much for the literahistoric content as for what this content and its “types” prefigure for us. Thus Orthodox (and NT) exegesis puts the real spiritual meaning of the inspired narratives on what the narratives prefigure, found only in its fullness in the Pascha of Christ. Do any feminists have a problem with the Jesus of the Gospels and the story of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection? Probably a few, but far less than with other elements found in the Scriptures (as interpreted through a modern hermeneutical lens–which I would point out is frequently not that of the Church).

  21. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Many of the Fathers would agree that there are truly morally reprehensible things on occasion that take place in the OT, some of them attributed to God as well. It is why we read the Scriptures through the lens of Christ. The modern Christian practice of reading the Scriptures in a historical/literal manner (which began for some during the Reformation), gave rise to some truly reprehensible practices on the part of some Christians, including genocide.

    Orthodoxy insists on the absolute necessity of Holy Tradition when reading and interpreting. So, that said, the gang rape (which does not take place) of Lot’s daughters would be a deep tragedy. And, to be fair, that would have been the author’s point of view as well. It is included as a perfectly desperate attempt on the part of Lot to prevent the proposed rape of his visitors. But it does not present it as an ok thing or an acceptable thing. Only as a terrible thing that God prevented. It would be like someone saying, “No! Kill my child instead, or kill me, but don’t do that other terrible thing!” It’s a morally impossible situation. The text never justifies this, nor does the text say that it took place. Only that Lot made a gesture that would be the most desperate imaginable thing. It points to the wickedness of the inhabitants of the city, not to any lack of understanding on Lot’s part.

    This passage has been a favorite among some feminist assaults on the OT. But, much of that ethos is born of a false mindset and does not help women or society.

  22. chad Avatar

    your blog is a breath of fresh air in the evangelical world in which i live!

  23. Flyover Pilgrim Avatar
    Flyover Pilgrim

    Father, bless.

    “I really have no idea if this sort of article is of interest to many – ”
    Yes, please, more.

    Thank you for all your writings, Father, but especially the last dozen or so. They have helped this pilgrim.

    God’s good blessings on you.

  24. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    Even more, I think God is testing Abraham to see if he is ready to have the promised son, after so many years of repeatedly being promised and still waiting. He shows lavish hospitality to the three strangers (in contrast to their reception in Sodom) and then intercedes for the wicked, and then there’s only one more episode in his narrative before Isaac is born at last.

  25. Joseph W Avatar
    Joseph W

    I wish to add my voice to the chorus of appreciation, Father. More, please!

  26. Eleftheria Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Yes, I agree with the other comments! Finally, an American Orthodox priest that speaks about the same things we here in Cyprus (and Greece) listen to and learn about daily! Indeed, Glory to God for All Things!
    Thank you!
    In Christ,

  27. PJ Avatar


    The text intentionally portrays Lot in a morally ambiguous light. It contrasts his earnest but ultimately inept efforts at hospitality with Abraham’s winsome graciousness. The editors of Genesis clearly meant to juxtapose these two accounts of hospitality — one praiseworthy (Gen. 18), one blameworthy (Gen. 19) — in order to demonstrate Abraham’s superior character, and thus justify his priority over Lot. This demonstrates the necessity of reading Scripture critically, with an eye toward authorial intent: we can contextualize many bizarre episodes when we are able to recognize the motivations of the writers and editors.

    Many of the worst actions attributed to God in the Old Testament likely did not occur, at least not on the magnitude described in Scripture. Rather, they were ‘written back into history’ in order to justify the agendas of their authors. For instance, it’s unlikely that Israel conquered the promised land in the fashion recorded in Joshua (i.e. through ‘holy’ war ordained by God). However, during the time of that book’s composition, King Josiah was conducting a campaign of violent religious reform throughout his kingdom: the temple was purged, the local sanctuaries razed, pagan priests executed (cf. II Kings 23). In effect, he was engaged in a holy war, so the sages of his court envisioned holy war as the ‘primordial experience’ of Israel in the promised land. Josiah becomes the new Joshua, who was himself the new Moses.

    I don’t mean to open a can of worms. I simply wish to demonstrate why a naive reading of Scripture will necessarily lead to distorted visions of God and his people. The primarily lens is Christ, as Father Stephen said, but we should also make ample use of critical tools, which can help separate fact from fiction.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I fully agree. The faith of the Church is not in a blind “the literal text is absolute right way to read.” Rather, it is that the text is Scripture and is given us as a means of knowing God. That struggle of knowing includes critical examination, pushing beneath the text, drawing everything into the light of Christ, employing the Tradition as we have received it as a means of understanding sometimes difficult things. We do this with no other book. Nothing else is Scripture for us. But because the text is Scripture, we then read it in unique and probing ways. We must not treat this like any other book, least of all like a straight-forward historical narrative. That is the reduction of Scripture to something else. It is the complete loss of what “the Scriptures” mean.

    Thanks for the comment.

  29. AR Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, I would love to read your take on the last few chapters of Revelation.

  30. PJ Avatar

    Might we say that ‘the Scriptures’ are precisely those texts which illumine the mystery of God in Jesus Christ? That is to say, one could theoretically read Genesis, or Job, or Malachi, or Luke, or Romans, or Revelations as ‘non-Scripture,’ if one read them without the intention of contemplating God-in-Christ. Perhaps this is pushing the envelope, but …

  31. Karen Avatar

    Father, what would you say to someone who might view your approbation of the perspective in PJ’s comment to Kathy as a denial of the Orthodox belief in the “infallibility and inerrancy” of Scripture?

    Here’s a pertinent quote as an example of such an Orthodox view:

    We believe that Scripture does not contain any error in anything that it intends to convey. I think St. Augustine put it about as well as anyone has:

    “For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it” (Letter to St. Jerome, 1:3).

    St. Gregory Nazianzus also wrote;

    “We however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazard by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind down to the present day: on the contrary, their purpose has been to supply memorials and instructions for our consideration under similar circumstances, should such befall us, and that the examples of the past might serve as rules and models, for our warning and imitation” (NPNF2-07 St.Gregory Nazianzen, Oration II: In Defence of His Flight to Pontus, and His Return, After His Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office , ch. 105, NPNF2, p.225).

    St. John Chrysostom wrote: “Don’t worry, dearly beloved, don’t think sacred Scripture ever contradicts itself, learn instead the truth of what it says, hold fast what it teaches in truth, and close your ears to those who speak against it” (Homily 4:8 on Genesis, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 1-17, trans. Robert C. Hill (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1986), p. 56).

    St. Clement of Rome wrote: “Ye have searched the scriptures, which are true, which were given through the Holy Ghost; and ye know that nothing unrighteous or counterfeit is written in them” (1 Clement 45:2-3).

    The Fathers would never attribute error to Scripture, but unlike the Fundamentalist Protestants, they did not feel the need to be able to explain everything in Scripture. There are questions one can ask about Scripture, particularly with reference to apparent contradictions, and affirm that the Scriptures are without error, but not claim to know with any certainty how to explain a given problem.

    Now, when all is said and done there may be no real conflict here (I trust not), and in that case I suspect that phrase in the first sentence of the excerpt I have quoted , “in anything it intends to convey” is critical.

  32. Karen Avatar

    Further to my comment, I suspect there is room for some differences of opinion as to, to what degree what we can surmise of the probable intent of the Scriptures’ human authors and editors from our scholarly studies (and therein is a large question in and of itself) must coincide with the Spirit’s intent for us to affirm, as I believe Orthodox must, God’s “infallible and inerrant” inspiration and oversight of the inclusion of particular material in the Scriptural narratives. I believe you have discussed this elsewhere.

  33. Bruce Newman Avatar
    Bruce Newman

    I found the article more than of interest. I was edified.

  34. AR Avatar

    Karen, my dad is a strict Fundamentalist Protestant and he would fully agree with everything in the comment you quote. In fact, having grown up among fundamentalists, I can witness to the fact that their favorite way to answer such difficulties is exactly as you have done: to insist that one need not be able to understand and explain – that it is enough to hold seemingly contradictory truths “in tension” without seeking to resolve them through foolish human explanations. I’m not trying to answer your question for Fr. Stephen. I have no idea what is the “correct” way to look at this issue. I just want to say that Fundamentalists are not anywhere near as unsophisticated as people seem to think, and that it is actually quite easy to be both Orthodox in loyalty and Fundamentalist in methodology and I see lots of people doing it without any trouble at all.

    The central characteristic of Fundamentalism is a specific religious anxiety, the one that says, “We are in constant danger of witnessing the destruction of true belief.” Everything else flows from that.

  35. AJ Avatar

    I would find it helpful to have an explanation of the daily psalms that are read for the morning and evening prayers. I hardly understand what I am reading…sometimes I think the psalm is about us and then I read the few study notes and it’s written about Christ.
    Your blog is always helpful…a lightbulb turns on in my brain when I read it Thanks!

  36. Karen Avatar

    AR, good points about the sophistication of a Fundamentalist hermeneutic and your observation of the central characteristic of Fundamentalism (i.e., fear). All I can say is it is so comforting to not have to take my picture of “God” from the literal level of so many of those contradictory (at the literal level) OT historical narratives because that is manifestly not the level at which so much of the apostolic (NT) and patristic hermeneutic identifies the real “inspired” message to the Church (except insofar as the literal text supplies the figures and shadows of Christ and His Pascha). This is another difference I see between a fundamentalist hermeneutic–whether set forth by Orthodox appeals to the Fathers or Protestant ones to “Sola Scriptura”. Fundamentalism is impoverished, where it is not, in fact, false, in its particular beliefs insofar as it fails to discern the same infallibility and inspiration in this “typological” and spiritual hermeneutic (especially as it has been retained and carried on–ruling out what the Tradition has judged to be occasional historical excesses–beyond the NT in the hermeneutical tradition of the Church and in the lives of her Saints). I always come back to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:16. In an ineffable way, the truth of Scripture/Tradition must be first demonstrated to us by the Holy Spirit and spiritually (not rationally) discerned, and that is a matter of the heart (which then must inform our rational processes). Neither Orthodox nor Protestant Fundamentalism can protect us from error. Only God protects us when abandon confidence in ourselves (usually our discursive intellect and/or some external source that is not, itself, God, to instead, like children, trust God to purify our hearts through the working of His Holy Spirit (and also to have so purified the Church throughout the ages to preserve the true faith to this day) and then examine Scripture and Tradition with that kind of faithful and hopeful expectation (that He will indeed do so).

    When I look back at how I traversed each critical juncture of my spiritual journey to come to a relatively more whole and healthy spiritual place (which process ultimately led me all the way home to the Orthodox Church), this childlike willingness to trust God to be speaking through the deepest convictions/longings/hopes in my heart of what is “true and beautiful” as well as to have left Himself a discernible continuous witness in the Church throughout history is what has made that possible. In short, it has been critical to allow fear to give way to trust. Thoughts?

  37. AR Avatar

    Thoughts… mainly that yes, it would be a relief to believe only what is good of God, and not to have to bend the definition of goodness to include atrocities, brutality, eternal punishment, a hand-shaking relationship with evil, and everyone’s favorite, big strong men hitting defenseless little children to instill goodness in them. It would be a relief to finally and fully go over to that belief, even if I have to shrug off scriptural statements to do so; even if I have to shrug off the statements of saints to do so. I’ve felt that way since I was a child.

    On the other hand, there’s almost a whole religion that has to be given up in order to really cross over into that territory. I think you correctly identified the necessary attitude: concluding that true knowledge of God comes through the Spirit in our hearts, not through anything external, even the institutional Church. Even our fellow Christians, however sainted.

    At this point I realize that what I’m really talking about is being a Christian, not being Orthodox. I just want a humane religion. I don’t really care any more where I find it.

    Which brings me back to the point I was at when I was converting, only now I’m facing the opposite direction. Back then, everyone was yelling about the necessity of Tradition and how it’s not just Jesus-and-Me, it’s Jesus and the Church, with me and everyone else cradled safely in between. It’s disconcerting and I feel that I haven’t been dealt with quite honestly, because now that I’m safely within the Orthodox fold, apparently it’s Jesus and me again.

  38. AR Avatar

    The adolescence of conversion…

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Karen (and AR),
    The quotes seem to come from a source that would cite the Fathers in support of an inerrancy view of the Scriptures (probably pulled together by someone arguing for the modernist inerrancy of certain conservative Protestants). But they’re genuine quotes. As such, they have to be read in the context of the whole of a Father’s work, in the whole of the Church’s life, etc. Not even the Fathers are “inerrant,” despite their treatment as such by some within Orthodoxy. Their really, good, and certainly good enough, but not inerrant the way that term gets used in Modern debate.

    But first, the Scriptures are Scriptures. That sounds like a silly thing to say, but it’s not. The are Holy Writings which we regard as in a unique relationship to God. They are given as one of the means by which we come to the knowledge of the Truth. But they obviously have to be interpreted – no Father of the Church has ever asserted that they do not. And it is the reading of the Scriptures in the context of the Church’s interpretation that is important for us. I think it’s quite a question about “how” inspiration works. Just how much does a writer understand of what he says? Does Isaiah see everything, the full important of what he wrote. Or, since these same Fathers say that the OT is “shadow,” did Isaiah only see what he wrote with a “shadow knowledge?” I personally think it is the latter. We have no evidence of the former. Not that the “shadow” is less than glorious – but it is not yet the glory.

    There is some early “historical-critical” work that was done, particularly in the 3rd century by Origen (though he was not the only one). And lest someone start shouting about Origen’s heresies, he was certainly never condemned for being a lousy scholar. Indeed, he was held in such great esteem that St. Basil and St. Gregory the Theologian assembled the first collection called the “Philokalia” that were excerpts from Origen’s writings. Neither Father (nor St. Gregory of Nyssa) could have done their magnificent work had they not been standing on the shoulders of Origen (despite his failings).

    The difference was that these Fathers weren’t idiots. They were capable of reading someone critically – able to extract the good from the bad and able to avoid mechanical choices driven by rote formulas – and all this because they actually knew what they were doing – they knew God.

    And they didn’t know God only in order to leave us with mechanical formulas. No Father who has children wants them to be less than himself. We have the teaching of the Fathers both to lead us into all truth and also that some might become teachers. There must be teachers in every generation or even the Fathers would be lost to us.

    There are, necessarily, within our generation (and those to come), certain historical questions that never arose in the time of the Fathers. Those questions are both due to certain developments in science, as well as certain developments in culture. And though the Tradition is but One thing, it will have to be stated in ways that sometimes sound different. The Cappadocians in the 4th century, used a term that was judged heretical in the 3rd century (homoousios as used by Paul of Samosata). But they added a nuance that he did not have and made it work for giving expression to the One Tradition that the Church has always believed.

    In order to articulate the One Tradition in the face of some questions, we may very well say some things that sound different, occasionally contradictory. The abuse of Scripture, for example, in which it has been used by “Christian” states and others to justify genocide and the like, requires a clear response. It is an error with regard to the Scriptures that cannot be overlooked. Some will have to give voice with a clear, certain condemnation of Scripturally-based violence because of these egregious errors. And this is to safeguard the Tradition and to be faithful.

    The anxiety (and fear) that drive some on these questions is, I think, accurately described by AR. I am criticized from time to time (people forward these things to me) on certain things that I write. I hear fear in most of those criticisms. There seems to be a fear that if moral positions are not stated in a form that is so uncompromising that it borders on hate, then the faith is somehow being watered down. I frequently hear that I don’t quote Scripture or the Fathers enough. My defense is that this is because I “digest” them rather than regurgitate them. That, I believe, is the ministry God has given me.

    AR, it always about knowing Jesus. It never was about anything else. Anytime Orthodoxy becomes about something else, it is in the process of losing its way. And the path is so tortuous, so surrounded with pitfalls and temptations, it is little wonder that we lose our way from time to time. We have to be called back. I am troubled, quite deeply, by what I sometimes see (and read). Internet Orthodoxy has improved a little since I began writing – in that there are far more reliable things out there – but the democracy of the internet also lifts up such a multitude of nonsense. We will all drown in it before long. Some of us a trying to construct an Ark – but there are so many boats out there – most of which are leaky little things indeed.

    My favorite patristic statement regarding the Scriptures is from the 7th Council – pretty much the only conciliar statement on the topic. That one says, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I think that icons, when painted according to the received Tradition of the Church, are infallible and inerrant as well. But they do all kinds of things with history, time, etc. So do the Scriptures.

  40. Dino Avatar

    as Father Stephen said, a profound digestion of the Patristic mind is required, in order to pay the right kind of attention to these quotes. The same Fathers who trust to the merest ‘stroke and tittle’ of the scriptures also write that the ‘jewellery of silver and of gold’, stolen by the Jews on their departure from Egypt should “only” be allegorically interpreted (Gregory of Nyssa) as being the wealth of pagan learning which Christians must borrow from the Greeks…
    Furthermore, to truly “pay” the right kind of attention to these quotes, one needs a certain “balance in their bank”. In other words, one’s (intellectual) ‘check’ bounces back if they don’t have the necessary (spiritual) balance in their heart and their minds’ rationalisations lose their value. And that spiritual ‘equipoise’ is acquired through the combination of communal and private spiritual time.
    I keep coming back to this same notion but, as Pascal rightly exclaimed: “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” And even the most clear and robust rational mind of the world will never reach its potential without this equipoise of stillness; if anything, a person who comes to the end of his life like this will suddenly realize he has not even really lived! even if he has been philosophising correctly in his mind.

  41. Corvus Marinus Avatar

    I, too, very much appreciated this article, and would be happy to see more like it. How to put into practice this method of interpretation is still very foreign to me.

  42. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father,
    Thank you for the long and thoughtful response. I, for one, have always appreciated that you have attempted to truly “digest” the Tradition and let it become a part of you before you try to speak of it to others. I appreciate this is also why you admit to being somewhat of a “one-note” musician (if I can use music as a metaphor)–I’m thinking of your post on being “An Ignorant Man”–that is, sticking only to those themes in the Tradition which touch your own experience and which you can speak to on that level, so being rather narrow in your range of topics.

    So many seem to be handing out (on the Internet and likely often from the pulpit as well) what they have rationally analyzed and “accepted” as authoritative from an external source, but which has never fully entered or been digested deep in the heart where that person truly lives and then spoken by the Spirit (Matt. 7:29, Mark 1:22, Luke 4:32, & 1 Cor. 2:4-5).

    Just for the record, I believe there is a place for falling back on another authority within the Tradition from which to offer counsel when one has no experience of one’s own to draw from (and where one is in a position where it is required to offer guidance), but to find someone who can speak from a deeper experience of God and from real discernment on an issue and from prayer, even in a small way–that is rare and life-giving.

    Good words, dear brother. Pray for me–I need to take them to heart more and follow through (i.e., do much more praying than trying to figure everything out through philosophizing!).

    Yes, not everyone needs the same spiritual prescription, and the medicine that cures one can kill another (even one who has the same external “symptoms”). We cannot indiscriminately listen to just any Saint (even very holy people are not experts on every subject). I have bought a book by a Saint after reading a glowing recommendation, and just had to set it aside because I was being tempted by its language to unbelief and despair–it was playing into my perfectionism in a big way.

    I have been impacted in only a very small way by a specifically religious authoritarianism/legalism/perfectionism (my neurotic and perfectionistic tendencies come from something more general in my background, not under the guise of what God commands–thank God!). Yet even having had such a very small taste, there is no spiritual poison that I dread and despise more. Nothing else has quite that capacity to suck all the joy and the very life out of us (and everyone around us). The enemy can even use the forms of “Orthodoxy” to try to place us in bondage. I pray you can find a safe place (physical, relational and/or interior/spiritual) to continue to heal. I take a great deal of comfort in the fact the only people in the Gospels Jesus really had to yell at were the super-religious nit(gnat)-pickers and know-it-alls. I’ve been so very blessed to have a parish and Rector that are the antithesis of religious perfectionism. My Rector has an extremely low tolerance for legalism, perfectionism, and hypocrisy of any kind and isn’t at all shy about making that (or any other of his opinions) clear when necessary. I’m sure there are many times he’s taken flack for that, but he’s one tough cookie (with a very tender heart).

  43. PJ Avatar


    It would be worth reading those quotes in context. Also, the fathers often spoke in lofty terms about the truthfulness of Scripture, but their concept of “truth” was much broader, deeper, and fuller than that of modern man, with his dreadful unidimensionality. Finally, although the fathers abound with spiritual insights, they lacked some important critical tools, which we have developed especially over the last few centuries through painstaking trial and error. These tools can be abused, but they can also yield wonderful spiritual fruit. I didn’t really appreciate the creation stories until I read them as polemics against the Enuma Elish, and similar ancient near eastern pagan cosmogonies/theogonies. We shouldn’t simply learn from the fathers’ beliefs, but from their methodology. They made ample use of the philosophy of their day, including the “natural philosophy” (science). If you haven’t read St. Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine,” I highly recommend it. His consideration of the value of secular learning vis-a-vis Christian faith is highly edifying and quite enlightening.

  44. Karen Avatar

    PJ, thanks!

  45. Jonathan Avatar

    I fear I’m late to the discussion here, but I do have one question that’s been nagging at me for a while.

    I really appreciate your work dealing with non-literal interpretation of scripture, and I think you’re right on the mark. However, I’ve been wondering how this can be reconciled to the Orthodox understanding of communion with the saints (and by extension, namesdays, patron saints, etc.)

    For example, who was Jonah? Many scholars would say the story is some kind of parable or allegory, which works well for Biblical interpretation. But where does that leave those who have Jonah as a patron saint? Same could be said for some of the new testament saints as well, like St. George – who was he, actually, where did he live, what did he do? Do we need a deeper understanding of the concept of patron saints? What might this look like?

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think there are some things that God has to work out for us. It’s messy.

  47. Karen Avatar

    Regarding Jonathan’s question, I read the story once about two monks, who ridiculed one of their brother monks behind his back because he was simple and had confused the Feast of the Ascension with the name of a saint, so he was always found faithfully honoring “St. Ascension”, to whom he was greatly devoted. The two more knowledgable monks laughed at his ignorance until one day they saw him come across a dead bird and pray to “St. Ascension” for its healing. To their astonishment, the bird came to life and flew from his hands. When they saw how the Lord honored their simple brother’s faith and love, the two monks were greatly humbled and ashamed at how they had prided themselves on their greater “knowledge,” concluding the faithful devotion of their simple brother was by far the greater virtue.

    There was also a story I read some time ago about one of our contemporary Orthodox Elders who was discovered to have been in more than one place at once (both at his monastery and at a dependency of the monastery too far away to travel to within the timeframe he was seen and interacted with in both places). When asked about how he could be in two places at once, he answered that one appearance was not him, but rather the Holy Spirit taking his form to meet the needs of his spiritual children!

    Regardless of how the communion of Saints may be thought of or may manifest itself, it is always ultimately God, who sees our hearts and knows our needs, who is at work through all by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

  48. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    I am also late to the post (and a long time reader, first time commenter who frequents Pithless Thoughts, though it’s not been so active lately), as I wanted to spend time re-reading St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses cover-to-cover and praying about some of what I’ve read here and in another thread a few weeks back before I commented. I follow very well most of the posts here and find the content to be both timely and Patristic, whether or not that be in the sense of direct quotations or simply a thoroughly Orthodox theology focused upon the confusing (and confused) times in which we live. But some of the recent comments have not felt right to me. As I think about it, it may very well be because, despite the great work done here in debunking the idea of the two-storey universe, another one is being created—just *in reverse*.

    In my reading of the Fathers, I also see a strong use of allegory and symbolism. Some of them, like Ss. Gregory of Nyssa and Ephraim the Syrian, interpret events in a way that is particularly mystical and removed from how the “modern mind” thinks. But, at the very same time, I do not see them bifurcating the historical and the mystical. St. Gregory seems to go through great pains throughout his work to emphasize the historical nature of the events, even to the point that he is concerned when his particular spiritual understanding merely hints at conflicting with the historical. In his aside on Aaron (2:42–53), he says that “what falls outside our purpose is not to overthrow the agreement which exists elsewhere” (v. 52) and skips some sequences merely “not to interrupt the guidance to virtue at such points” (v. 50). He actually has to warn the reader, which is apparently an Orthodox young man seeking “some counsel concerning the perfect life” (1:2), that “if, while trying to parallel completely the historical account to the sequence of such intellectual contemplation, someone should somehow discover something in the account which does not coincide with our understanding, he should not reject the whole enterprise” (2:48). I see not only a strong respect for the historical events (so much that the young man, apparently very pious and not being “called out” for holding any opinions about history or theology that were against what was common in the Church, would need to be warned not to immediately flee from a particular symbolic interpretation as a distortion of truth if even one detail should seem to conflict), but an amazing faith that, in the end, they do not truly conflict and are part of the same whole (for he said, “if…someone should somehow discover…”, as if this were a difficult or impossible thing to do). Similarly, while it has been a long time since I did a study on the OT story of Jephthah, I believe it was St. Ephraim who, even while clearly interpreting the sacrifice of Jephthan’s daughter in a spiritual way, did so while maintaining the overall historicity of the event and maybe even feeling compelled to speak about this (as opposed to the many other OT topics available) precisely because of the [heart-wrenching] historical character of the act. Here again, while I see the strong mystical interpretive tradition of the Church applied to the Old Testament, it is from *within the context of a real, actual history*.

    Now, I agree that we cannot project modern ideas like literalism and materialism (which want to turn the stories into written *photographs*, not *icons*) onto the Old Testament, the New Testament, or any reality. But does this mean we can separate the God of the symbol from the God of history? We are to interpret Scripture as an icon, but which icon does not have an actual, historical prototype to which the veneration flows? Is this not a false dichotomy, another version of the same two-storey universe we’ve already rejected? Perhaps I am reading too much into these comments and no one is really saying these things? Perhaps the comments are hyperbolic simply to show how wrong a purely physical understanding of the world is? I do not know how else to understand them, though; forgive me.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Context matters a great deal. The context for Nyssa, and his fellow Cappadocian fathers, was the writing of Origen. They loved his stuff, as I’ve noted elsewhere. But Origen was not only a proponent of the allegorical, he did so rather famously at the expense of the literal, interpreting even many passages in the gospel in an allegorical manner. And you’ll find some of that elsewhere in the Fathers. But it was becoming suspect. Origen’s condemnation was still another 100 years away, and he wasn’t condemned for a misuse of allegory – though it got him into trouble.

    But part of the work of the Cappadocians was pulling Origen’s pendulum back towards the middle.

    For us, we have a very different context – one in which a modernized historical/literalism has taken center stage, at least in more or less conservative Protestant treatment of Scripture. And it has taken a modernized historical/critical swing in the liberal Protestant treatment.

    I tend to emphasize in my writing here, something of allegory, partly because it has such a supreme place in the liturgical hymns, etc., of the Church, and is thus very important, and also because both of the other “historical” approaches lead to error or at least misunderstanding of the Scriptures.

    Both the historical/literal and the historical/critical approach can be appropriate and quite useful. But we should say that the Church as a “doctrinally ruled” reading of Scripture. The Church knew and knows the doctrine of Christ, etc., even before the writing of the NT. The NT confirms that doctrine, and the OT is only rightly read through that lens. Sometimes that lens requires any one of the three treatments I’ve noted – or an combination of them.

    What I have done, in addition, that not many others do, is to ask the question, “How an allegory possibly be true?” That it is true is beyond Orthodox doubt. I think the answer is quite important.

    Good reading on the topic is Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery. He is Professor Emeritus of Patristics and Byzantine Studies at Durham University, and a priest of the Moscow Patriarchate. Very solid man.

    All icons reflect, or make present eternal realities. That’s sort of hard to think about. Take the crucifixion. It is a historical event – and we honor as a historical event – but it is also somehow transcendent – and present iconically long before it happened – and still present in the many iconic presentations in the world.

    To use the tricky problem of Jonah. Some historical/critical folks would suggest that Jonah is a purely literary creation. Of course there is/was a grave of St. Jonah in Ninevah, etc. It’s not something that we can know the answer to (is it history or not?), but the icon of Jonah is, for example, also an iconic presentation of the resurrection.

    History doesn’t disappear or become of no importance by any means. But the pure literal march of historical events as the source of salvation lacks any place for allegory or icon. Icons are not paintings of historical events. Even when the event is historical (like the crucifixion), the icon presents it in a way that is “iconic” rather than “historical.” There are elements in the icon that may be symbolic (such as the skull and the small cave at the foot of the Cross), etc. Frequently, the title on the Cross is “The King of Glory” rather than the historical “Jesus of Nazareth, etc.”

    I would say that history (rightly understood and told) is iconic. And even the events on a photographic level bear the iconic, though a photograph would tend to obscure that fact.

    Icons of events in the life of Christ, for example, are much more revealing than a photograph would be. They clearly show Him as God and Savior, something a photograph would not.

    If it puzzles you – then welcome to the club I live in. I have thought about this aspect of things for about 25 years. I did my thesis back in the early 90’s on “The Icon as Theology,” and began serious consideration of this. I’m still pondering it.

  50. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    History as icon–yes. Before the late 19th century that is mostly how it was written. Not very consciously but before the advent of the industrial revolution and the philosophical triumph of materialism, history was not just about “the facts”.

    From 1848 on, everything began to change. The German critical method attacked and largely overwhelmed the writing of history.

    The old approach remains in historically based fiction and biography.

    As in theology the more literal approach can be helpful, but it can also strip the life and soul out of our stories and even become anti-human.

    We have become so used to the literal approach that it is easy to think of any historical presentation as factual when it often is not

    Hollywood takes advantage of that.

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