From the Beginning – True Authorial Intent

kastilometes4I read a discussion concerning my earlier article on allegory in which someone identified himself as a writer. He stated that if a reader saw something in his writing that he had not intended, then either he or his reader had failed. His statement is an extreme example of what is called “authorial intent”: what the author intends for the reader to see is indeed what the reader sees. Of course, no author can ever have such control. He writes a text, but he is no longer part of the conversation. The text speaks for itself. Were the author in an actual conversation, then, like all speakers, he can engage in the give-and-take of communication. I speak, you speak. I adjust. You adjust. Eventually, if successful, we agree on a meaning.

JRR Tolkien gave considerable thought to the nature of fiction, particularly fiction in the form of faerie. He went so far as to speak of the author as “sub-creator.” He disliked the notion of allegory – by which he meant a straight-forward “this-represents-that” sort of thing (he cited Edmund Spenser as an example). He, and others around him, preferred the term “symbol” and “myth.” But in the language of the Fathers, “allegory” was the generic term for symbolic uses of language and story, and, more importantly, for a meaning that lies beneath and within a narrative or object (cf. Gal. 4:24 where St. Paul uses ἀλληγορούμενα, often translated as “figure”).

The first hurdle in understanding any of this is to agree that true symbolism actually exists. Symbol, in its primary meaning, refers to something that makes something else present or that contains something else within it. It is sym-bole, a “throwing-together” of things. In our modern world, we believe a symbol is something that makes us think of another thing that is not there. Such a symbol is a sign of absence. The older and original meaning is like that of a sacrament (the Fathers had no problem calling the Eucharist a “symbol” in this older meaning). A symbol carries within it the reality of the other thing.

Owen Barfield, friend of Tolkien and CS Lewis, offered very significant reflection on the symbolic aspect of language. For him, the oldest form of language represented a very unified world in which object and word, thing and meaning were encountered in something he described as “original participation.” An example can be found in St. John’s gospel, chapter 3. There Christ speaks of the pneuma. Our modern loss of original participation makes it impossible to translate the passage. We render the word as “spirit,” but it also has the meaning of “wind” and “breath,” as well as the “Holy Spirit.” And Christ uses the single word pneuma to carry all of these meanings. For the modern reader, wind is not breath. The one word does not contain the other. As we translate the passage, we squint at the word and wonder, “Which meaning did He mean at this point?” What we cannot seem to do, however, is to hear all of the meanings at the same time. The world, for us, has been “disenchanted,” its words pressed into ever more distinct and discrete meanings. The sacramentality of the world has become opaque to us.

I will press this one step further. We are not only deaf to a variety of simultaneous meanings, we also cannot hear the direct connection between word and object. Pneuma, like the Hebrew, ruach, not only means breath, wind, spirit; it is itself breath, wind, spirit. This is present in the word spirit, but we cannot hear it.

This brings us to the notion of authorial intent. For modern readers, everything is about ideas. The mind of the writer is the only reality that concerns us. The world itself has lost its meaning. Meaning is only something that occurs in the mind and language is only a means to share what is in my mind. If the world were only a digital projection, nothing would be different. The idea is the thing. It is not surprising to hear a modern writer concern himself only with communicating his own intentions. My mind wants your mind to understand.

We do not live in a world of minds. The modern fascination with its own mind actually alienates us from what is real and true. We perceive knowledge as thinking – the Fathers perceived knowledge as participation. We know things through communion. If a man builds a house, can he insist that everyone think of the house as he does? We recognize (with apologies to Ayn Rand) that the house is one thing, and the one who built it, another. The same is true for language.

Writing, in such an understanding, is not a form of self-expression: it is a service to the word (and thus to reality). The author, like a poet, labors over words and mines them for what is already there. Their combination (including as narrative) reveals. Ideas are almost never truly original, or their origin is not within our own minds. We cannot conceive apart from language and the language already carries within it a reality that refuses to be silent.

An author may voice his intent, but he is not the master of his language nor the inventor of his culture. Even at the extremes of fiction, the world that is “sub-created” must be recognizable as a world. Tolkien went so far as to invent new languages in his fantasy novels. But having done so, he must then conform his story to that language. To some degree, he intended that it be necessary to learn Qenya in order to understand Middle Earth.

Deeper than authorial intent is what I will call “original” intent (following Barfield’s lead in speaking of “original participation”). The words we speak recognize that something is there, and they recognize that what is there is even greater than you might know. Spirit is wind and breath, and cannot be known unless and until it is also known as wind and breath.

And the intent goes deeper still. This intention is reflected in the New Testament notion of revealing what is “hidden.” What is “hidden” is also synonymous with “that which was from the beginning.” The meaning, purpose, and direction have always been there. They are given to us, to be discerned and revealed. They are not the product of our own minds. Listen carefully to this dynamic in the Scriptures:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life–the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us–that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1Jo 1:1-3)


But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, (2Th 2:13)


To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the communion of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; (Eph 3:8-9)

It is this “communion of the mystery” that represents the content of the gospel and of our salvation. Our true life that is “hidden with Christ in God,” is often revealed in allegory (in its original sense) within and beneath the words. In such a case, it is the obvious, day-to-day business of our lives that constitutes a shadow existence. The true, the real, the solid is that which was from the beginning, That which chose us from the beginning. All of which is what is now being made known to us in Christ through the Church. (Eph. 3:10)

Glory to God!

Next: The Hidden Word of the Prophets

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

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


81 responses to “From the Beginning – True Authorial Intent”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father somehow, I know not how your words create a great peace in my heart. I am relieved to hear them and rejoice at the same time. I can neither articulate the reason nor do I really care.

    Thank you.

  2. Michelle Avatar

    So the wind, as well as breathing, is a Sacrament that makes the Holy Spirit present to us? Sorry if this is a dumb question, but this article is really hard to understand.

  3. Sally Iloff Avatar
    Sally Iloff

    The reader before me pointed very good question Father. Is the Sacrament that brings the Holy Ghost with us or something other? I personally believe that not exactly the Sacrament itself does, but the purpose it is performed it for. If we follow what Lord Jesus ordered us – Love God your Lord and seek Him with all your heart – that explains why the Sacrament or Liturgy brings us close to God. I enjoy so much all the seminars published by you on the pages of this site! Probably because my soul needs more of God!

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Blessed Theophany to all. Joyous feast.

  5. Byron Avatar

    The modern fascination with its own mind actually alienates us from what is real and true. We perceive knowledge as thinking – the Fathers perceived knowledge as participation. We know things through communion.

    This, among all the wisdom in this article, leaps out at me. What a wonderful observation and picture of life!

    So much here to digest. Many thanks, Father!

  6. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H

    Thanks for a thoughtful series thus far Father.

    I guess I don’t understand why “authorial intent” need be a stumbling block to communion, an inconvenience to be overcome in the search for a truth beyond mere “ideas”, or as being opposed to “participation”. Perhaps such a participation is found right in the midst of what people actually do intend to say – even when there is error, historical inaccuracy, etc.

  7. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H

    Origen stated (about the Canaanite genocidal narratives):

    “unless those carnal wars were a symbol of spiritual wars, I do not think that the Jewish historical books would ever have been passed down by the apostles to be read by Christ’s followers in their churches” (Hom. Ios. 15.1).

    So it’s not that a “historical” reading was simply incomprehensible to the ancient mind. Allegory seems to be, in this specific case and others, a response to violent historical conquest (historical considerations aside) that is counter to the message of Christ and the nature of his kingdom.

    Psalm 139 offers a blessing for “dashing Babylonian baby heads against rocks”. It really does say that.

    I’ve seen some Christians need to defend the “inerrancy” of the plain sense of this verse (the arguments getting incredibly dark) out of fear of being “liberal” or that the whole Bible will otherwise collapse like a house of cards. (And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t struggle with this sort of thing at times). Allegorizing it away as being about “destroying sin before it grows” (true as that may be), is but another approach (a reactionary one) born of that same need.

    Lately though, I’ve felt more content to just acknowledge the existence of the “baby smashing verse” in the history of my own tradition – recognizing the tribal beginnings, narrative structure and dynamic nature of the OT canon rather than flattening it all out (allegorically or otherwise) as if nothing has ever changed in the history of the Christian faith – admit that it’s wrong, and move on. No hermeneutical gymnastics.

    None of this rules out allegorical readings of course, not all of which are defensive in nature. Allegory need not be a “hermeneutic of convenience”. Clearly Jesus, Paul, and other NT writers didn’t feel bound by “original meaning” (ironically, a historical-critical analysis demonstrates this).

  8. Eleftheria Avatar

    But, of course!
    Try looking at it this way: The Holy Spirit is present in the Eucharist, a Sacrament. Why should it not also be present in all creation…the wind, a breath?
    It was God who made a wind to blow over the waters of the flood so that they subsided, so just consider…that same “wind” is with us today!
    Glory to God!

  9. Mark Avatar

    Father Stephen, I got into trouble with a priest, an archemandrite, for bringing up what I thought (I hope innocently) was a discussion of the word “Word” as it was applied by St. John to Jesus. It has bothered me for some time and I wish I could be corrected, but the priest has moved to Europe and I have no means to contact him for correction.

    I was trying to say the “Word” was more than it seemed. At best it was what St. Paul wrote in Colossians, “For in Him the fullness of the Godhead dwells in bodily form.” (Col2:9), or in Hebrews “He is the radiance of His glory, the exact representation of His nature” (Heb 1:3). At least this is what I was aiming at. What I think I started to say was that “Word” was the idea behind the word (i.e. what it represented) and that brought a sharp rebuke.

    I can see from this current writing where I may have erred, for our Lord is not an idea in our minds. In fact I’m beginning to wonder if the words we use so easily don’t sometimes represent realities greater than we can comprehend.

  10. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Excellent article Father. Can you comment on how the concept in modernity that the meaning lies in the reader plays out in understanding scripture?

  11. EPG Avatar

    “The modern fascination with its own mind actually alienates us from what is real and true. We perceive knowledge as thinking – the Fathers perceived knowledge as participation.”

    Excellent. It’s easy to forget that thinking is only one aspect of knowledge, but we really shouldn’t. After all, when, in the Bible, it says that a man knew his wife, he wasn’t simply _thinking_ about her.

    I don’t know if you know this, sir, but in a book called “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” Matthew Crawford makes parallel points about modernity’s incomplete appreciation of the nature of knowledge. In his view, modernity, and in particular, our current “educational regime” and much of the world of employment, values thinking or “learning about” to the virtual exclusion of “learning to” (which may correspond to “participation”). Although, at least at that point in the book, Crawford appears to draw more from Anaxagoras and Aristotle than from Christianity, he appears to share your conviction that modernity has seriously lost its way.

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not necessarily pushing that idea. What I am saying is that St. John, in writing the gospel, heard pneuma as “breath, wind, spirit” in a way that we do not. There is a deeper connection. For one, I want to suggest that those who argue so strongly for a historical, literal reading (which has value), are themselves incapable of hearing the Scriptures as they ought. We’ve lost a relationship with the words themselves in the evolution of language.

    This is a hard article. It will, I hope get clearer as the series goes on. I limit articles to no more than 1500 words, which is some times too few (and sometimes to many!). Stay with it for a while.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ll be working with it. The comments and questions are providing ample fuel for the series!

  14. Lisa A Avatar

    Joy of the Feast!

    Thank you, Father, for these words. I am a homeschooling mother who has been thinking much about educational philosophy and how to apply it in our home and I have been struggling lately with the fact that education as it is generally understood is all about the mind and not about the whole person. Your post here has helped me to clarify my thoughts and I so appreciate that!

  15. Byron Avatar

    I guess I don’t understand why “authorial intent” need be a stumbling block to communion, an inconvenience to be overcome in the search for a truth beyond mere “ideas”, or as being opposed to “participation”. Perhaps such a participation is found right in the midst of what people actually do intend to say – even when there is error, historical inaccuracy, etc.

    I think the “stumbling block” is in the deification of the individual in the process itself. There is not a sense of “participation” or “communion” but of individual ownership and drive. Our society, with its immense focus on the Self, Control, and Ownership (in the legal sense), reinforces this focus in every manner it possibly can. Our society does not know Truth and is left only with authorship for context. Just my thoughts.

  16. Jessica M Avatar
    Jessica M

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for this article. I am a (young) literature professor. Being immersed in literary theory during my graduate work – as someone who grew up Baptist – well, you can imagine the struggles. I have spent a lot of time pondering the relationship between language, text, symbol, truth, and Christ as the Word of God, though never so profoundly as this. Reading your words, so faithful to the truth in its essential simplicity and endless complexity, is very humbling, in a life-giving way. As though I’d spent years digging a rather muddy well in the desert, and look! There was a spring there all along!

    I am a relatively new reader of your blog, and Mike H’s comment struck me because I too have been troubled for many years by the Canaanite genocide narratives. It would be a particular blessing to me to hear your thoughts on how to approach this.

  17. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H


    Well, if that sort of “deification” were to happen I can see why you’d call it a “stumbling block”. And I can see how “truth” as a sort of possession or weapon could lead to something like that – I’m thinking of certain “cultish” type things, perhaps even certain views of scripture.

    The argument you’re making against “authorial intent” is that attention to what people intend to say necessarily = individual ownership, a process which = deification of the individual?

    I don’t think that “authorial intent” inevitably leads to this sort of thing though. Nor do I think that dismissing “original intent” in favor of “allegorical truth” is somehow immune to that “deification”.

    I don’t think that by examining your “original intent” in this specific comment (for example) that I am deifying you. Nor does your examining mine.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I want to return to your question now that I have more time (just finished the morning’s liturgy, etc.). I do not mean to push a precise, single idea about word and sacrament. But I want first to draw our attention to the words we use. The focus of this series is on meaning, allegory, sacrament, etc. What I am getting at in this article is that words are much more than we think they are and that our modern consciousness has developed in a way that alienates us from the very words we use.

    I use the words for spirit as an example. The word spiritus in Latin, had the same meanings as pneuma in Greek. Its meaning of “breathing” can be found in many of the words that contain it: respiration, perspiration, inspiration, etc. But we no longer hear this. Our consciousness has changed and our perception of words is very abstract and mental, when the words were themselves once very concrete and particular.

    Here’s an example from older English. The is an old English word “wit” that means “to know.” The King James uses it this way (I think Scottish dialect still does). It’s past tense is “wot.” It’s related to the German word “wissen” (to know).

    The early English word for conscience was “inwit,” meaning “to know something within myself.” Or “inner knowing.” It’s very suggestive about what a conscience is. We use the word conscience now, and we can’t hear that it has anything to do with knowing, though its Latin root is “scio” (to know). “Conscience” is an abstraction. We have gradually made our language into a collection of abstractions, and in doing so, have lost an earlier, even original direct participation with the things around us.

    Why this is important, or even interesting, is that it describes how we feel about sacraments in general. We say, “This is Christ’s Body and Blood,” but we’re actually alienated from all objects. We can “think” about Christ’s Body and Blood, but we have a hard time actually believing that we eat and drink it. For modern people, ideas are what is real. I would say that this is wrong. Ideas are abstractions. Things are real, and their deeper levels are yet more real. As believers, Christ has invited us into that yet more real world. But to get there, we might first have to get to the words themselves.

    This also seems important because those who attempt to teach and speak about the Scriptures too often fail to see how abstracted they have become when compared to the Biblical writers (and thus the meaning of any passage). When St. John wrote “pneuma,” it certainly meant something like what we mean by “spirit.” But it also meant breath and wind. In John 20:22, when we read, “And He breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit,” we don’t see the connection between breath and spirit (or the mighty wind in Acts) that John and the original readers did. It would be more like us saying, “Jesus spirited on them and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.” Or Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Breath.” And if I am John, I hear all of those things at one and the same time.

    It matters when we are studying, thinking, trying to understand Scripture. Some of my argument is with people who champion the “literal” interpretation of Scripture. It is almost impossible for a modern person to understand the “literal” meaning in the way a first century Christian would, because we have made our language so abstract.

    Much of what I write is about the journey of acquiring an Orthodox mind. This is part of it. It will come in time.

  19. Sharon Joy Avatar
    Sharon Joy

    Lisa A –

    I am also a home schooling mother. Our son attended what is called a “classical” home school group for quite a while where there is much attention given to using “classical” words to describe the curriculum: the quadrivium, trivium etc etc. Latin is taught and the younger children are encouraged to first memorize facts by rote. This was a lovely community with a lot of well-meaning parents, however, we stopped attending because I came to see that this “classical” method was really just a thin veneer that hid an essentially modernist approach to education.

    I think what enabled me to see this is that I am also trained as a Montessori teacher. In the Montessori classroom children experience first. There is always a move from the concrete to the abstract. Children manipulate physical triangles made out of metal or wood in a pattern before they learn what the abstraction “triangle” means. They are constantly encouraged to see, smell, taste, touch before they think, think, think. As they get older, adolescents, for example, are educated at an Erdkinder – essentially (ideally) running a small farm/business and learning math, science, etc via experience.

    Its my thought – and Fr. Stephen – this may not be your area of expertise but please weigh in, that a classical education should “look” Montessori-an. Learning Latin and the specific content is negotiable.

  20. Byron Avatar

    The argument you’re making against “authorial intent” is that attention to what people intend to say necessarily = individual ownership, a process which = deification of the individual?

    Forgive me, Mike! I do sometimes make rather opaque comments.

    I did not mean to make an argument directly against authorial intent. Rather, I was commenting about a large-picture view of how I believe our Society views this subject. My thinking is not that we deify each other at the micro-level but that our Society deifies the author simply because it recognizes no other authority in the creative process. That strongly contributes to our own difficulty in understanding what Father is stating.

  21. Dante Alighieri Avatar
    Dante Alighieri

    Jessica M,

    Yes. And it gets even more complicated when textual-historical criticism gets thrown into the mix. We are not dealing with the intent of one author but rather multiple intents of multiple authors, some of whom are reinterpreting the others over centuries – some of whom disagreed with one another – for example, about whether monarchy was a divine institution or not.

    To take the conquest, the genocide against the Canaanites probably never happened, and the conflict depicted therein reflected, at first, tension between the displaced habiru, “Hebrews,” parasocial outlaws basically, who were disaffected Canaanites, in the highlands, who worshipped Creator and Warrior El as patron of their defensive league Israel, and lowland Canaanites in the payroll of Egyptians. Outside the authoritarian city-state system, the habiru could be violent mercenaries, albeit not genocidal, such as when they fought on behalf of Shechem against other city-states. Sometime later, these displaced peoples met other displaced people, Arabians and Egyptian escapees led by Moses and the Creator YHWH, who came out of arid northwestern Arabia, coming out of Egypt who were in a Yahwistic league of Midianites, Kenites, and Edomites. “Hebrew” originally was probably a social description, not an ethnic group, akin to those described in Psalm 68.

    And the Conquest injunctions, in part because of this author’s special intransigence against “Canaanite” idolatry, transformed habiru into an ethnic term set against another ethnic term, “Canaanite,” when we know there were Yahwists among those peoples who were allegedly marked for destruction – Uriah the Hittite, for example.

    While the Conquest narrative should never be palatable, and Jews also had problems with it (Maimonides tried to say, for example, that even Canaanite cities needed to be offered peace and a chance to reject idolatry), I think it’s helpful to remember that the early Hebrews were not a monolithic ethnic group but ethnically diverse members of multiple leagues of displaced peoples caught between major imperial powers, at first Egypt and her colonies. You might want to check out Ron Hendel, who is a Baptist but also a Near Eastern scholar, in his article “The Exodus in Biblical Memory.” Basically, Egypt and her client states in Canaan were involved in state terror against the Canaanite population by taking annual tributes of slaves well into the thousands, and Canaanite “Hebrews” took up the Exodus from a band of escaped slaves as their story of liberation.

    Seeking vengeance against one’s oppressors is a natural outcry, especially in ancient prayers and stories such as these, but I think this is where one might say that the Scriptures talk with one another, and Jesus’ command to forgive one’s enemies and to not seek vengeance which belongs to the merciful Father who shines on all, as he himself said, trumps the Law of Moses.

    What’s interesting about the Hebrew Bible, in my opinion, is that all of these multiple voices have been preserved and brought into the canon together with the NT which frames how we read the whole story, which the individual authors did not necessarily see.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mike H and Jessica,
    First, it should be stated that any Christian theologian who suggested a divinely inspired genocide would properly be denounced as a heretic and mistaken. Murder is contrary to the Orthodox faith. Wars of conquest are contrary to the Orthodox faith.

    Christ Himself rebukes his disciples (Luke 9:55) when they suggest calling down fire to destroy a village. He says, “You do not know what manner of Spirit you are of.”

    The question also goes to the heart of so-called authorial intent. The Christian reading of the OT asserts that only the Christian reading of the OT is authoritative. The OT, taken out of the hands of the authentic Christian reading is neither authoritative nor true. Just because someone quotes the Bible doesn’t mean their words should carry any weight whatsoever.

    The reason there is a “canon” of Scripture, is not to establish a separate authority. It instead is the Church saying, “These writings are read in the Church and can be rightly interpreted.” The Church predates Scripture, both Old and New Testament.

    The NT declares Christ ministry, etc., to be “according to the Scriptures,” but that only means according to the reading that has been given to the Church by the risen Christ. It is declaring that in the Scriptures of the OT, Christ may be found and He is their true meaning. It does not mean that the Scriptures can or do judge Christ.

    As to the genocide. Does God order such a thing? He does it that story and there are things to be learned from that story (obedience, etc.). But we may not declare that God blesses or orders the genocide of any people. There are boundaries to what we can say. Christ is Himself that boundary. We may not say anything that is contrary to Christ.

    I become very troubled by Christians who willfully blind themselves to the evil of such a genocide, and seek to justify it (believing they are somehow protecting God and the integrity of the Scriptures). They have gone mad and their madness reveals that their hearts are governed by fear.

    Among the reasons the Fathers resorted to various forms of allegory are dealing with just such passages. In this matter, Origen is right.

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sharon, Lisa,
    I’m a fan of homeschooling, we have many in my parish. What little I’ve seen of “classical approaches” has seemed fairly weak. Here in the South, homeschooling is heavily evangelical, and politically conservative. What some call “classical” is often nothing more than mere conservatism.

    I welcome Latin education – but most often the homeschool teachers don’t know any Latin themselves. The blind lead the blind and much of the wealth that could be had is simply unknown and not going to be known in that setting. America has very, very few classicists. My own department, in the 70’s at my university, only graduated 3 majors on average every 5 years.

    I personally associate being an educated English speaker with a thorough knowledge of Greek and Latin, good literature, solid history, and foundations in Philosophy. Therefore, I think there are very, very few educated people in America. It’s beginning to show.

    Although right now, I’d settle for high school graduates who can read and write and do basic math. The pictures of a trucker who destroyed an old bridge because they didn’t know how many pounds there were in 6 tons is an example of an increasing problem in the country. Our infrastructure is crumbling. The human infrastructure is in far worse shape than our roads and bridges and their are not remotely under repair.

  24. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Your discussion of pneuma, spirit, etc. really tied together some things I’ve been reading from Hans Boersma, an evangelical scholar who is deeply invested in bringing the evangelical church under the influence of the Great Tradition (whether this is possible or a fools errand, I do not know.) In his writing, he discusses the three-fold meaning of Christ’s “body”: the human body born of Mary, the church, and the Eucharistic body. I won’t rehash all of his explanation (though well worth it, and, I think, ultimately very Orthodox), but one of his points was that whereas Catholics had overly focused on the technical aspects of the Eucharistic body (e.g. transubstantiation) and evangelicals had explained away the ecclesial body (e.g. “invisible church”), the purpose–telos–of the Eucharistic body was finally to “realize” the ecclesial body through sacramental participation.

    What is just hitting me now is the simple fact that to be faithful to the Scriptures, I must be able to say that all three meanings (flesh-and-bones, Eucharist, Church) are present within the word “body.” There is not one real body (flesh-and-bones) and two metaphorical bodies, as I have for so long assumed. Rather all three meanings are bound up together in the word “body”, in the same way as you describe the multiple meanings of “pneuma.” If I am to believe the writings of the New Testament, each “body” is truly (or, better, participates truly in) Christ’s body. There is no reason, except my own prejudice, to privilege one meaning above the other. On the one hand, this new perception is so simple that I can’t believe I needed three decades to finally get it; on the other hand, it makes my head hurt as it upends three decades of mental ruts.

    Am I on the right track?

  25. Sharon Joy Avatar
    Sharon Joy

    Fr. Stephen –

    Thanks for your response. I think my point is that what we consider a classical approach to education/interpretation of scriptures etc usually ends up being a modern interpretation of a classical approach (at best). When I read, for example, about Benedict Option communities – I hear people talk about their preferred *conservative* (or progressive) approaches to societal institutions – rather than the fact that a community of shared virtue in which people learn those virtues via experience *not* by possessing a certain canon of knowledge or shared biases per se.

    As you said: “We perceive knowledge as thinking – the Fathers perceived knowledge as participation. “

  26. Dino Avatar

    Concerning any ‘literal’ interpretation of killings, genocides, smashings on the stone etc, which one rarely, if ever, takes literally when reading the Psalms, and certainly never when hearing a mention of them in the Church hymnology, yet might conjecture about it when reading other Old Testament books describing these, I think that it would be sensible to be extremely mindful of the historical context too.
    For instance: the preventative measure of exceptionally authorizing one barbaric tradition of those times in order to deter a far more barbaric other tradition of the times being espoused, seems to often escape modern readers and is how most literalists I have come across make (‘literal’) sense of these passages. Especially since it is explained as just such a ‘measure’ in the passages themselves.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very much on track. “Body” is a very good example.

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re very right about the Benedict Option. First, one would have to ask whether there exist any Christians who possess the virtue and set of practices worth passing on to the next generation. I think the “Benedict Option” communities fail to remember that it was monastics who “saved civilization.” American Christians would have to give up divorce, adultery and fornication in order to even have the conversation, and I do not actually see us anywhere near such a thing.

    God will preserve the Church. But unless the Lord builds the House they labor in vain who build it.

    My”Benedict Option” (I do not use the term), is simply to encourage people to live near their parish and slowly begin to form and shape their life in and around the liturgical life of the Church. Frankly, only the liturgical life of the Church remembers any form of Christianity worth saving. Protestantism is what Christianity looks like when civilization has started to crumble.

  29. Timothy Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, is this along the lines of a C. S. Lewis quote from his book Miracles that came to mind as I read: “In Science we have been reading only the notes to a poem; in Christianity we find the poem itself.”

    He also uses the image of a sunbeam that one examines as it lights up a shed and then following that same beam of light back to the source. He says: As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the “true” or
    “valid” experience? (Meditation in a Toolshed)

    Although I agree with your basic critique of Lutherans, I would say that Luther himself read the Old Testament in a way much more like yours and less like many Lutherans do today.

  30. Michelle Avatar

    Tim said, “Rather all three meanings are bound up together in the word “body”, in the same way as you describe the multiple meanings of “pneuma.”

    I can totally see how the the three meanings all coincide together in the word “body.” When we speak of Christ’s body all three are invoked as being true. But Tim seems to be suggesting that “breath,” “wind,” and the “Holy Spirit” all interrelate in the exact same way in the word “pneuma.” So, when we speak of “pneuma” all three meanings are invoked as true. So my question is what does the cold wind I feel when I step outside into the winter air, freezing my lungs when I breath it in, have to do with the Holy Spirit?

    Modern atheist would say that the reason why people in Jesus’ time invoked all three meanings when speaking of “pneuma” is because they were unaware of the scientific, physical properties of air, its biological uses when we breath it into our lungs, and its atmospheric patterns when it shifts from place to place (the wind). The air around them was an invisible mystery that was necessary for staying alive, and is more than likely where the idea of spirit developed in the first place. To them that is why the word pneuma invokes all three meanings.

    Modern Christians would disagree with what the atheist says concerning the idea of the “development” of spirit. However, they would probably agree that breath and wind really only amount to scientific and physical properties of air, but just so happen to be really useful when developing analogies to help us understand the supernatural properties of Spirit. In other words, the physical and the spiritual are unrelated, but the physical can help us understand the spiritual through analogy and metaphor.

    But Tim seems to suggest a real, indivisible bond between the three meanings under the one word “pneuma” when he compares it to the other example of “body.” And Father Stephen said he was on track. For the word “body” the indivisible bond between the three meanings (which, again, are Eucharist, physical body, and Church) is Christ’s actual presence. So again, could we elaborate on the bond that the wind, breath, and the Holy Spirit share? Why was it that Jesus chose the word pneuma, invoking all three meanings, in John ch. 3?

  31. Michelle Avatar

    The other day I was walking outside with my daughter when I noticed a small, golden leaf bouncing across the top of the snow in the wind. I picked it up to examine it because it seemed quite beautiful its own humble way. Holding it in my hand I became aware of the contradiction it presented me; it was a beautiful golden specimen precisely because it was dead. It was dry and withered, with small holes eating away its center; it was decaying and turning into dust. But it was beautiful, not despite its death, but because of it! A true contradiction of terms made alive and real in this natural object. And this made me think of how Christ transforms death; how He heals and changes death itself. How He brings Life to death by His own death on the Cross. Was the beauty of this dead leaf just a good analogy of Christ’s transformation of death, with no real bond or relation between the two events? Or was Christ, who is the ultimate Truth of the universe, the Logos, shining through in a very real way, presenting His gospel to me through this beautiful, withering, little leaf?

    This article (that I am trying so hard to understand) made me look back and ponder that little leaf and the correlation I had seen between it and Christ’s transformation of death on the Cross. Am I just projecting my mind’s ideas onto that little dead leaf, or is the natural world projecting the Truth to me through that little dead leaf?

  32. Mike H Avatar
    Mike H


    Yes, to “deter” (a gentler word for “kill every living thing” in this instance) is certainly one of the common justifications that’s put forth, and there are several others.

    I recognize that you (probably) don’t buy into a hermeneutic that makes the sort of claims that you’re commenting on, but it’s worth addressing because religious violence was and is a real thing.

    The “preventative measure” explanation inevitably fails though just by looking at the narratives themselves (no need to appeal to “modern sensibilities” or address the idea of “knowing better than God”). It gets quite dark.

    Perhaps this is just an allegory about “conquered vices” though, and doesn’t speak to the fact that people believed that God wanted them to kill someone else in His name (and still do). I think, however, that there is a benefit to acknowledging the tribal war god mentality that permeated ancient culture. Then we can acknowledge it and work through how it has been overcome in Christ, even if acknowledging it messes with assumptions about the Bible.

    That’s a much larger conversation about conquest, historicity and genre, “divine accommodation”, the human/divine authorship of scripture, etc, and I don’t wish to focus solely on violence and “texts of terror” and thereby take away from what Fr Freeman is getting at here, which I appreciated and found challenging.

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You put your finger on it when you described the atheist’s position. He thinks that wind and breath are just things and that they have only a mental relationship with anything else. In fact, in the modern world, we think that “mental” is the only thing that anything has in common with something else. But I am saying this is not true. That something is a metaphor – is more than saying that it only bears a mental resemblance. Think of these things:

    God breathes in Adam. Christ breathes on the Apostles. A priest breathes on the waters of Baptism. Or Ezekiel and the dry bones:

    So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them. Also He said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath,`Thus says the Lord GOD: “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.”‘”So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army. (Eze 37:7-10)

    The cold wind that blows on you – indeed, that is not the Holy Spirit. But it is not unrelated. The exact nature of that relationship will often be a mystery – but it is there.

    That we see things as extremely distinct and having only mental relationships is also a function of our language that has come to make finer and finer distinctions in words. There are reasons that bread and wine are what we use for communion. Some moderns, completely given over to their mental ideas, think that hotdog buns and coke would be fine. And they won’t. Coke can never be the blood of Jesus. And bread can never be just bread. Even the hotdog bun (because it is bread) has some relationship with the body of Christ. And this, too, is a mystery.

    The next time you step through your door and a cold wind burns your lungs, say, “Speak, Lord, for you servant listens.” Then, perhaps, He might tell you what they have in common.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Christ entered death – and trampled down death. And all creation groans as it shares in our death (cf. Romans 8). So, yes. The leaf has a share in the death of Christ, and if you stop and look and pay attention (as you did), it can yield its sermon up to you. All of creation rejoices. Learning to hear it is an important part of our life.

  35. Michelle Avatar

    “The next time you step through your door and a cold wind burns your lungs, say, “Speak, Lord, for you servant listens.” Then, perhaps, He might tell you what they have in common.”

    Thank you for this, Father. This last statement actually brought tears to my eyes (of joy), and I am not even entirely sure why. I can’t express it.
    God is with us. I am in awe.
    Thank you again, Father

  36. Matt Avatar

    Thank you for that meditation, Michelle!


    I am troubled by the following two statements you have presented as non-contradictory:


    First, it should be stated that any Christian theologian who suggested a divinely inspired genocide would properly be denounced as a heretic and mistaken. Murder is contrary to the Orthodox faith. Wars of conquest are contrary to the Orthodox faith.


    As to the genocide. Does God order such a thing? He does it [in] that story and there are things to be learned from that story (obedience, etc.). But we may not declare that God blesses or orders the genocide of any people. There are boundaries to what we can say. Christ is Himself that boundary. We may not say anything that is contrary to Christ.

    They seem to present the following two problems:

    A. If God never ordered any actual war of conquest, then we’ve got a very substantial part of the OT account that has a whole lot of stuff backfilled in with what appears (however it may be resolved by allegory) to be a terrible slander against God.

    B. If God *did* give such orders, then building the faith around an axiom that He must not have done so is unworkable.

    “A” seems closer to what you’re saying here with the “that story”. But why would such a thing appear in a divinely inspired work? Are we to understand these things as part of the not-yet-perfected revelation of God? Is it then correct to simply accept that the factual, historial reading of the literal text is clearly, unequivocally inaccurate as to the facts and carry on anyway? I can see this with the shape or age of the earth, who was king at a given point in time, exactly how many chariots were deployed in a given battle, etc., but these are direct explicit statements about what God said and did.

    If so, where do we stop… or am I incorrectly assuming that we must stop at any point short of the crucified and resurrected Christ? (And if so, could we have had a Christianity with Christ but a completely different (Indian, Chinese, Musqueam, Norse) canon of OT Scriptures, and if not then what part of the real OT is necessary?)

  37. Lynne Avatar

    I am returning to the topic in the title–True Authorial Intent.
    In the past two days we have been celebrating the Theophany. There are many familiar stories from the OT that prefigure baptism: crossing the Red Sea, Joshua and the Israelites crossing the Jordan. In the hymns of the Feast, I found references to many waters, and to the Jordan turning back, that were familiar from my readings of the Psalms.
    But what a change when these Psalm verses were presented in reference to the Baptism of Christ! To me it was a more full understanding, about Christ’s being baptized into death in his descent into the waters.
    Psalm 28(29) vs 3: The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; The God of glory thundered; The voice is upon the many waters.
    Psalm 76 (77) vs 17: The waters saw You, O God; The waters saw You and were afraid, and the depths were troubled, A multitude like the sound of the waters.
    Psalm 113 (114,115) vs 3-5: The sea saw them and fled, the Jordan turned back; The mountains skipped like rams, The hills like flocks of lambs. What is it to you, O sea, that you fled, and to you, O Jordan, that you turned back?
    The authors may have been writing about events in Israel’s history, but these events also give meaning to Christ’s baptism.
    Is this part of what you mean, Father Stephen, about a meaning that lies beneath or within a narrative?

  38. Jennifer Avatar

    Thank you so much for this article. The themes you discuss have been coming up everywhere for me. In discussions, study, articles, and time with friends. I have been resisting creating art because I was afraid I would not communicate what I thought ought to be communicated.
    Your words have helped me see some of the error in my thinking. Thank you!

  39. Thomas Viejo Avatar

    I hope I am not too simplistic in my approach to “understanding,” “Truth,” or “Meaning. If I am reading anything I believe to be worth while, my attitude is that the author said what he meant, and meant what he said. If I believe I understand what I have read, then I also believe that my understanding is, or at least approaches, the intended interpretation that originally proceeded from the mind/spirit of the author. As I think/meditate about the material, and as I encounter tangible and intangible examples of the author’s message, then I have to frequently adjust my understanding to either accept further or reject more authoritatively the author’s perceived meaning. If the material I am accepting is Orthodox dogma or essential tenets of the faith, then I rejoice at my new closeness to truth. If I find my thoughts and collateral encounters draw me away from the faith, I have learned to ask for help from a trusted and wise mentor.

  40. Justin Avatar

    “We perceive knowledge as thinking – the Fathers perceived knowledge as participation.”

    I often comically observe this feature when tagging sharks from the beach.
    Query virtually anyone on the beach, and he will verify that he “knows” that sharks live in the ocean. Yet, almost invariably EVERYONE who encounters me extracting a shark from the surf expresses heavy disbelief at what he is witnessing, often with quite forceful exclamations that he is having a hard time accepting that sharks exist “in there” (pointing to the ocean). Remember, a few seconds ago these folks emphatically “knew” beyond all shadow of doubt that sharks dwell in the sea. And yet simultaneously express extreme surprise and disbelief upon “participation” in that reality.

    I recently saw an ad for a Mairine Biology program at a major state university, actually bragging that their new marine computer programs made encounter with the oceans virtually unnecessary for acquiring a PhD in various marine sciences. Do these folks actually believe that nature (reality) will conform to the narrow limits of a computer program?!? On the bright side, you can easily identify them if they ever do wander onto that messy reality called the “sea” – they’ll be the extremely sunburned ones (the necessity of wearing sunblock wasn’t part of the computer program…) LOL.

  41. Eric Avatar

    Father Stephen

    Thank you for this most edifying post. My study looks out on several bushes and trees – I must admit the movement of the leaves and branches speaks a little more clearly to me thanks to your words

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re making lots of assumptions about what it means that it’s a divinely inspired work. It is divinely inspired – God breathed – but in what way? Is it in its writing, in its reading, in its interpretation? Somewhere in all three, I think. In its interpretation carries more weight with that story than with some others. I can think of not a single father (though that’s a silly statement) who would treat the verse of “dashing the little one’s head against a stone,” in a literal way. No doubt, the author meant what he said. I was not inspired in his intention, I think. But it has become part of the canon, and is a valued verse when read as “smashing certain thoughts early in the day (young) against the rock of Christ.”

    The historicizing of Christian interpretation is, I believe, largely a modern thing – certainly driven by a Western style of reading (I don’t mean to bash the West but it’s true). It’s rooted ultimately in Nominalism, which never gained traction in the East but did in the West (cf. William of Ockham). There are Orthodox out there with a collection of quotes from the Fathers on the historical reading, ready to pounce on me, I fear. But I think they don’t know what they are reading.

    Frankly, most contemporary Christians read their Bibles in no way different than a Jew and would argue about it on the same level. I think the Christian reading of the OT is a radical departure from Jewish tradition and that it was clearly instituted by Jesus Himself. Note, He taught by parables, without apology. Perhaps He’s been speaking in parables for a long time before that as well.

  43. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, it is. The liturgy speaks with an eloquence that I can’t manage. But it shouts what I am saying.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Do art! People will not only see what you did not intend, you yourself will see things you didn’t know. The writer should be the servant of the word. The artist should serve Beauty (or something like that). If you seek to serve yourself, you won’t get even that much. If you lose yourself, you’ll gain the world.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I encountered sharks when I was 16 and swimming along the Florida coast (Melbourne). The life guard blew the whistle and everyone was running out of the water. I thought to myself, “This is the ocean. There’s no adult swim!” I ignored the life guard. Shortly, I saw the problem, about 10 feet from me, accompanied by others of his ilk. They were sand sharks, about 8-10 feet. They can take a nasty hunk out of your leg (from which you can die). It was the first time I ever walked on water (or certainly tried to). There’s nothing like participation for really knowing. I’m glad the shark and I were able to limit our communion.

  46. Lindsey Avatar

    Thank you so much, Father. Your blog has been a true blessing, and these last two posts really pieced things together for me again. The nature of Communion and Sacrament seem to be critical in understanding Christ as correctly understood by the Orthodox Faith. And by “understand” I mean as much as I am able to now, as I begin to enter into the Mystery. As a former Protestant, this seems to be perhaps a hinging point. In considering the nature of Sacrament and Communion as you have described them, so many aspects of the Faith just fall into place-icons, fasting, liturgy… I wonder if in rejecting the real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we in the West consequently lost this real, participatory understanding. I’ve just noticed that bad things seem to follow Christian heresies, which only goes to show that all of history revolves around Christ…
    Following off of Tim’s example, I sat down and was able to come up with many associations for several prominent Christian symbols.

    Water: Christ (as the living water), Baptism, birth (water breaks), tears, rain, Holy Water, the Red Sea, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan, the Pool of Siloam, being “cleansed” (because water cleans), the Great Flood, the waters of Creation, the water that flowed from Christ’s side. Then I noticed that the opposite of water is of course dryness, which reminded me of the desert and Christ’s temptation…

    Light: Christ (“I am the light of the world); connecting this with the prayers for “illumination” before reading the Scriptures, Light= Christ= Truth; candles; the sun (moon and stars); dawn (praying towards the East); the Burning Bush; the pillar of fire before the Israelites; the fire that burnt up Elijah’s sacrifice; lightning; fire; the Holy Fire; the burning fire/flames of Hades; Pre-Communion prayer which refer to “being burnt as by a fire; references to God as “an all-consuming fire.” Then the opposite of light is of course darkness, cold, and so on.

    Those were just two of many possible symbols. And it’s all so beautiful.

  47. Sharon Joy Avatar
    Sharon Joy

    Thanks Fr. Freeman for the shark story – had a great shared laugh with my 14 year old son as I read it out loud. 😊

  48. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Recent history clearly shown that the reality of those who live by ideas is the death and destruction of everyone and everything around them especially their own humanity.

  49. Jennifer Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen, I will.

  50. Fotina Avatar

    Regarding breath, wind, spirit…at Orthodox baptisms, the priest actually breathes, (blows his breath), on the candidate’s face. And, then turn and actually ‘spit’ on the devil.


    The Priest divests him (her) that comes to be illuminated of robes and shoes and faces him (her) eastward, barefoot and clad in a single garment, hands down. Then, breathing thrice on his (her) face and signing him (her) thrice on the forehead and breast, the Priest says:

    In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Blessed is our God always, both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

    Laying his hand upon his (her) head, the Priest says:

    Priest: Let us pray to the Lord.

    Choir: Lord have mercy.

    Again the Priest asks him (her) that is to be baptized:

    (3 times) Have you renounced Satan?

    And the Catechumen or the Sponsor answers (3 times):

    I have renounced him.

    After the third time, the Priest says:

    Then blow and spit upon him.

  51. Mike B Avatar
    Mike B

    Vladimir Lossky writes at length about cataphaticism and apophaticism in his book, Mystical Theology.

    As an example early in the book, he refers to the biblical names of God as God “condescending toward us” with cataphaticism (affirmative) theology. We, in turn, “mount toward Him in the ‘unions’ in which He remains incomprehensible by nature” as we are drawn toward the “apophatic attitude” (negative theology)…into the darkness of the ignorance beyond knowledge.

    Using Lossky’s ( Dionysius’s) language, is modernity radically cataphatic? Is post-modernity, with its inability to free itself from the centrality of the mind yet existing in a world created by an incomprehensible God, experiencing a “psychotic break”?

    Fr, having taken a MA in Chrisitan Apologetics from a prominent evangelical school and working as a Protestant pastor for a number of years, my own “break” led me to the apophaticism of Orthodoxy (as much as one take credit for such a thing). Perhaps you can say a few explicit words in a future article in this series on cataphaticism and apophaticism in Scripture.

    Forgive me.

  52. Jessica M Avatar
    Jessica M

    Thank you, Father Stephen and Dante! Much to think about. I will find and read that article.

  53. Joanne Jamis Cain Avatar

    Father, your opening words say it all for me, “Of course, no author can ever have such control. He writes a text, but he is no longer part of the conversation. The text speaks for itself.” I am an author as well and I know that once I release my written words, I do not have control. As authors, we must know that our words go out and (hopefully) inspire others to think and embrace.
    Bravo for a beautiful post.

  54. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m also suggesting that authors/writers of any sort, have a right regard for words. I phrased it “servants of the word.” Our secularized culture leads us to think in very controlling, powerful terms. We abuse language repeatedly. Finding the right words is a very difficult thing.

    Not infrequently, someone will post a quote from me on social media. Taken out of context, it often brings me up short. I have to say, “Did I write that?” The words have a life of their own. I reread things from time to time, or even listen to a recording of a talk, and I learn things.

  55. juliania Avatar

    Father, thank you for this lovely essay. When – long, long ago – I was a college student, I was fascinated to read many different authors exploring the origins of words, the ones in the English language mostly and the few other languages I was studying then. And as you point out, each word is so charged with its own history that no mortal author can truly say “this is what my words mean”. I do believe only God can keep it all straight, even for non-Scriptural works! It’s good to find out what an author thinks he has said, but if a reader has found something else as well – it’s probably there.

    I imagine a playwright, for instance, might be impressed with an actor’s interpretation of the lines he has written, seeing a depth of meaning coming forward he may not have seen himself when he wrote the lines down. (Heh, in-spir-ation?)

    One ‘play’ of this sort I have loved since discovering it (it is always such a gift when we discover these things for ourselves) is the use of the word ‘poem’ in Scripture – there’s a place (I apologize for not knowing where it is) where Paul says ‘we’ (or ‘you’) ‘are God’s poem’ – at least that is the greek root word. And in the beginning, where we say ‘God created the heavens and the earth’ the root word for ‘created’ is the same as for

    Then too, when God takes Eve from the flesh of Adam, the word for the fashioning of her is related to ‘economia’, house-building. I don’t know if it is so in the Hebrew, but it is in the Greek.

    Just those two depths of meaning have entranced me since I discovered them – I am sure there are an infinite number continually enriching us all as somehow they allow themselves to be glimpsed or in the case of a church service, heard.

    I am an old-calendar follower, so for those who tread that path, a joyous Christmas!

  56. Albert Avatar

    Very interesting note about the Greek root words for poem and house-building: “those two depths of meaning have entranced me” – me too, Juliania; just now, as I read your comment. Thank you. I look forward to glimpsing many more.

  57. Fr. Mark Haas Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Glory to God! Thank you for all of the great writing. It is a blessing and help. In my own little life experience, this topic – the dis-integration of participation and mind – is perhaps the greatest contemporary limitation on my/our spiritual life and salvation. The most problematic aspect is that the problem itself limits our ability to perceive and then fix the issue. Your thoughts and reflections are very helpful in clarifying and specifying many of the various components connected with this work.

    Please do not accept this simple note merely as praise, which we know is not beneficial for neither the giver nor the receiver. What allows me to feel free to write this is, as you help teach, that essential unity of mind/thought and participation. I am blessed to commune in the truth with you through your writing and I simply wish to extend this communion back to you a tiny bit through this thanks.

    May the Good Lord of all continue to bless and be present in your words!

  58. Peter Avatar

    Father, please forgive me, I’m confused. You write

    “As to the genocide. Does God order such a thing? He does it (sic) that story and there are things to be learned from that story (obedience, etc.). But we may not declare that God blesses or orders the genocide of any people.”

    Yet “He doesin that story.” How are we to tell this story, say, to our children.

    I take accept this corrective: “There are boundaries to what we can say. Christ is Himself that boundary. We may not say anything that is contrary to Christ.”

    But again I wonder how to tell this story and others like it (e.g. God killing the Egyptian first-born in Exodus) to children. I read the Exodus story the other night to my five-yr old and she got hung up on this.

  59. Peter Avatar

    Re: please forgive the typos in previous comment: juggling baby and phone. 🙂

  60. Peter Avatar

    Shorter comment abovet:
    1) OT story says, God did x.
    2) Fathers say, we are not to say that God does x.
    3) So how do we tell the story of God doing x?


  61. Nicholas Avatar

    Father, I am surprised not to hear more use of the term “metaphor” in this series. (Perhaps this is what you mean by “allegory”?) You do hint at it in your comment here: “That something is a metaphor – is more than saying that it only bears a mental resemblance.”

    Exactly! I think the problem is that “metaphor” in modernism has been reduced to “simile.” That is, when we say something like “your very flesh shall be a great poem” we think “okay, our flesh is like a poem in some way.” But Whitman is saying more than that, I think. He’s making the flesh and the poem both present for us and uniting them in a way that expands the meaning of both. Our very flesh SHALL BE a great poem! One and the very same. There is no need to equivocate on that.

    Rowan Williams did a very good job insisting on the full meaning of “metaphor” in his recent Gifford Lectures (on YouTube and published as a book.)

    And metaphor is also the basis of our connection with the world. I also like how Iain McGilchrist puts it in his book: “Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself. It is what links language to life.” Metaphor, etymologically, means “carry (phor) across (meta).” The gap between language and life is bridged by metaphor, and so all language, if it means anything at all, is neceessarily metaphorical.

    Seeing this, the literal, “historical” interpretations of Scripture just don’t seem very interesting anymore.

  62. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I’m using “allegory” in its ancient sense – where it is the catch-all term for metaphor, symbol, etc.

  63. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Children are not at all ready to hear and think about everything in the Scriptures. We give milk to children, meat to the mature. Understand the true meaning of the violence in the OT is meat. Children cannot understand it very well, if at all.

  64. Karen Avatar

    Nicholas, thanks for your comment with the definition of “metaphor”. Well said (and you answered a question I had while reading this thread)!

  65. Dino Avatar

    My guess is that telling the story to a child ought to –as I already mentioned in a comment ahead– take the historical context explicitly into consideration. We can do this through bringing attention to the crudeness that was the order of the day and with which God had to work ; this is not that difficult to ‘implement’ with just a few words which help with the youngsters’ misgivings.
    We can also clarify that God, in His infinite mercy and omniscience, consents for a sentence to come to pass (a punishment, which in truth is brought on through human decisions and unrepentance) only because He knows the good that will come out of it. As time-bound beings, we lack the knowledge of how a ‘punishment’ can eventually help all involved, including even those who might benefit from it only in the afterlife. It can never make any sense that this is not exactly so.

  66. Dino Avatar

    The literal approach is the first step because the profound depths of allegory, shadows, types and symbols require a certain conceptualisation which little ones have little patience for. But we can ‘radiate’ it without words.

  67. Nicholas Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Griswold

    Dino, I think you are on to something here. We look at physical death as a terrible thing, but Bios, the Greek for biological life is really a counterfeit and mostly a series of chemical reactions. Zoe, spiritual life, is what really matters and when we are freed from Death, we are freed from spiritual death. Perhaps our perspective is a bit different than the Lord’s on the matters of life and death. As Paul says of physical death: “To live is Christ, to die is gain….”
    Perhaps, in the Big Picture, (the one we do not see) physical death is not what we make it to be in our fear. We shy from the idea of God taking physical life from those Canaanites, but we often hear in the Synaxarion and other places that God takes people to Himself. We see that as a blessing….but…they died.
    The Lord Himself said that He would separate the sheep from the goats and that those that are goats on the left will go to everlasting fire. That is to be feared far more than slipping the surely bonds of physical life on this earth. I just celebrated my 67 birthday and I know the Psalm says “three score and ten mayhap in strength four score years.” I have a daily reminder that my body very well may quit on me soon, but I fear most, not the parting from this life, but as the Bard says: “what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.

  68. Fr Vincent Avatar
    Fr Vincent

    Several of the early Church writers and Fathers considered the killing of Egypt’s firstborn children (btw, not just the human firstborn were slaughtered, but those of all the animals as well) as a non-historical event, and is to only be interpreted and understood in a typological sense. The phrase they often use is “worthy of God”. In other words, if something recorded in the Old Testament was not “worthy of God” (as He was now revealed and understood through the perfect revelation of Jesus Christ), then it was to be understood only in a allegorical sense.

    In his book on the Life of Moses, St. Gregory of Nyssa writes:

    91. It does not seem good to me to pass this interpretation by without further contemplation. How would a concept worthy of God be preserved in the description of what happened if one looked only to the history? The Egyptian acts unjustly, and in his place is punished his newborn child, who in his infancy cannot discern what is good and what is not. His life has no experience of evil, for infancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains
    anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who
    cries: The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? How can the history so contradict reason?
    92. Therefore, as we look for the true spiritual meaning, seeking to determine whether the events took place typologically, we should be prepared to believe that the lawgiver has taught through the things said. The teaching is this: When through virtue one comes to grips with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginnings of evil.

  69. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Vincent,
    Thank you for that timely and most apt quote. And thanks be to God for the wisdom of the Fathers! St. Gregory’s feast day is this Sunday. I will serve his memory with even greater joy!

  70. Justin Avatar

    It occurs to me that some of the debate on this topic is engendered by the two predominant ethos’ related to words (life): East and West. The Eastern sees life, and hence words, as communal, unitive and inclusivistic in nature; hence pnevma = spirit, wind, breath, etc. all at once. The Western one, (born, like much else, of the Bubonic Plague) sees life (words) as individual and exclusivistic in nature: hence spirit, wind, breath are segregated; never the twain shall meet.
    The Eastern takes it for granted that a given word’s meaning is PLURAL, the Western assumes the meaning to be SINGULAR. Even the preferred term for the object in question reveals this: West = “The Bible” (singular); East = “The Scriptures” (Plural). Orthodoxy could hardly have produced the term “the bible”; it took humanist individualism emerging from the crucible of the Plague to accomplish that. In addition, note that having them bound together into a single volume fits well with the average Western Christian worship any given Sunday; but that would be impossible in the Divine Liturgy – the prophecy, the old testament reading, the psalms, the espistle reading, the gospel reading – having one volume would press the codex into a liturgical hockey puck.
    The Scriptures are, after all, an Eastern set of writings. This will doubtless perpetually vex Westerners. And the more, ahem, “educated” the more vexed. Our words, like our technology, function as veneers perpetuating our self-sufficiency myth. In the benighted old days, it took 5 or 6 people to do a single load of laundry; in our enlightened technological age, one person can accomplish it themselves without the aid of a single other. The washing machine itself is a clever set of blinders obscuring those hundreds of “others” on whom we depend for water, electricity, etc. They don’t “count” (out of sight out of mind) I have “done it myself.” This attitude toward words has us looking for the one person at the washing machine (the one meaning of the word), such that when we use words we Westerners are generally as much saying what we do NOT mean (those other folks at the power/water plant) as what we do mean. The East, by contrast, uses words as the old washing party – the 5 or 6 folks (meanings) are all together, chatting each other up.
    And finally, in the immortal words of Cat Stevens:
    “Know what you say;
    Say what you mean;
    Mean what you think;
    And think anything.”
    (Sorry, couldn’t resist. Inherently jocular by nature, you know.)

  71. Justin Avatar

    Here’s a couple specific Scriptural examples of the above. When Westerners read Christ’s Genealogy, they get hold of certain manuscripts and assume non-western features are “mistakes” which the translators have an obligation to “correct.” Thus, Righteous Psalmist Asaph becomes wicked king Asa; righteous prophet Amos becomes wicked king Amon. God forbid, Christ’s righteous is showing; that’s not supposed to happen; what kind of a book do you think this is? [Don’t answer that.] No, the authors (or copyists, or SOMEONE) has engaged in a rather elementary error that must be corrected, lest we embarrass ourselves by resting our faith upon such sloppiness. Scientific pharisee-ism is far weightier than the comparatively paltry righteousness of Christ.
    Again: knowing Solomon apostasized for 666 talents of gold is pregnantly enlightening. Reading that Solomon did so for X number of pounds is useless information, which leaves one scratching ones head at the mark of the beast, completely obscuring the original author’s intended meaning [How’s THAT for your daily dose of irony?] when he wrote the Apocalypse. By the way, “X number of pounds” tells your average idiot nothing he can’t easily glean for himself from “666 talents” (shockingly, without knowing to the 127th decimal the exact gravitational pull required to constitute a talent).
    Anyway, I’m done rambling. And I haven’t even had a pint yet.

  72. Justin Avatar

    OK, apparently I’m NOT done rambling. [But I still haven’t imbibed the pint. Get to that shortly.]

    “The Scriptures do with words what Icons do with color”

    My wife is a painter (and a darn good one). One thing I have learned from her is that, to accurately capture and re-present a scene on a canvas, you need to use colors NOT in the scene you are painting. For example, to give a “scientific” camera accurate representation on canvas of the blue sky, or a green tree, you will need to add a touch of red. Now, there’s no red scientifically discernible in the blue sky or green tree. But if you simply mixed a scientifically accurate color, it would look NOTHING like the object you are painting.
    The canvases of the Scriptures are like that. In order to accurately convey what is actually there, the medium of written words requires that you add a touch of “red” when the scientist can find none. Otherwise, even the scientist himself will turn his eyes from the finished product as a tortured distortion.

    And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must console a pint which is sorrowing from having been too long neglected.

  73. Peter Avatar

    Fr Stephen, Nicholas, Dino, and Fr Vincent: thank you all. Such a blessing.

  74. Byron Avatar

    Wonderful ramblings, Justin! Having a background in graphic arts, I much appreciate your wife’s insight. Blessings!

  75. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I really appreciate these articles and the enlightening comments, but I can also appreciate how hard it is to wrap our minds around the content. It’s a bit like 2D characters being introduced to the basic concepts of 3D. I think part of the problem is that we are trying to do everything with our mind and not involving our heart. But that’s another topic…

    I wanted to add another aspect which might help things come together: everything has life. Using TimOfTheNorth’s example, Christ’s body has a life of its own. We don’t wonder that a woman can be daughter, mother, and employee all at the same time, but we scratch our head at the ability for a body (even Christ’s) to be bread, Church and Eucharist simultaneously. We understand that we are dynamic, complex and multi-faceted but are bewildered that mere things would be. We don’t give everything around us enough credit. The fact is that they have lives of their own.

    One of my former pastors lost a daughter at a young age. Years later he had a very vivid dream where he met her in Heaven (which incidentally looked a lot like Earth but was quite pure and innocent). Most of their conversation consisted in her proclaiming that everything is alive. “The trees are live, Dad! The grass is alive! The river over there is alive!”

    This would extend to concepts as well. Authorial intent is of course real; every author intends certain things. However those words and concepts have lives of their own. Your example of your own excerpts being used in social media is perfect here. The need to read things in context notwithstanding, once the words leave the author’s pen they continue on on their own.

    Many of us marvel, “How in the word does Fr. Stephen come up with such brilliant ideas – and at such a rapid pace!?” You yourself would acknowledge that you don’t “come up” with anything, that you are simply repeating the wisdom of tradition. However the point is that you are able to make clear what is blurry to most and make known to us many things that seem hidden. The answer to our question is that the thoughts make themselves known to you.

    Obviously God’s will is involved in this process, but is it so far fetched to imagine that these particular thoughts are attracted to you? We imagine God placing the ideas in our minds, but it’s probably more like Him asking them to come visit you.

    And I’m speaking not of pantheism, but Panentheism. It is not that everything IS God but that everything has His life within them and is cooperating with Him.

    hope this helps…

  76. Justin Avatar

    Drewster: Yes. Everything is alive. Everything.
    We encounter the trees bowing to St Irene Chrysovalantou and imagine that God has thrust His hand down from the “second story” to force down lifeless trees. We simply cannot fathom the trees wilfully bowing of their own accord (“green herb for the service of man” vespers Psalm).
    We cannot see that the wind and waves obey, we fantasize that God forces dead water to part (Moses), or calm down (Christ in the boat). “Even the wind and the waves obey Him.” “Wind and waves, snow and ice, things that do His word” (Psalms).
    “The trees of the field clap their hands.” “The stones cry out.” “Ask the rocks and they will tell you.” Elder Porphyrios spoke of rocks communicating with him. Elder Paisios also spoke of plants speaking to him. St Gerasimos’ Lion, St Seraphim’s bear. “The heavenly intelligences praise You, sun moon, and stars” (Theophany prayer). “The heavens declare the glory of God.”
    “Moving mountains” is not in the Holy Scriptures, instead we are told of the mountains “they will move.”
    Scripture knows nothing of folks wishing in their minds that rocks would crush them; nay, they “say to the rocks, ‘fall on us.”
    The wisest people on earth risked life and limb, by the perilous travel of the day, to hear Solomon’s wisdom. Scripture identifies the content of that wisdom as, get this, “he spoke of trees.” You can bet your arse it weren’t no botany lesson the wisest humans alive were imperiling their earthly existences for the sake of encountering.
    Everything is alive because HE is alive, indeed, He IS life. The Logos has given logoi to ALL things which He has created. Earth, wind, water, fire, plants, animals, men and angels ALL are sentient, all praise the Lord, all can communicate, both with God and all creation. Every tree is the cross, every river the Jordan. All creation cries out, we have become deaf. The 3d creation of the Logos has become the 2d flatland of modernity. The cosmos is technicolor, and we are blind. There is only one Way out: as He passes by; “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us!”

  77. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I loved this. Thanks. Made my morning.

  78. Chris Avatar

    Father Stephen, is there a sense in which all wind that we experience is breath, or the Spirit? In other words, I see God’s particular actions with wind/breath/spirit in the scriptures, but how are we to conceive of the wind experienced by all?

  79. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You could say that such examples are icons of the breath of God.

  80. Justin Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen. Your gratitude has made my evening!
    I’m humbled that anyone would want to read anything I write; I’m a bit shy about posting. Thanks for the encouragement. And thanks again for writing these blogs.
    Also thanks to all of you who comment, I greatly enjoy reading them.

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