The Hidden Gospel

There is a genre of Scriptural writings that are described as “apocalyptic.” The book of Revelation, in Greek, is called “The Apocalypse.” Ezekiel and Daniel also have very strong passages described as apocalyptic. The term is very straightforward: it means “revealing what is hidden.” These books are described as “making known hidden things,” because their message is disguised under rather outlandish descriptions: beasts with ten horns, heavenly cities, and buildings that come down to earth, plagues and angels and solemn warnings. Over the centuries, these books have been the playground for those who claim to understand their “secrets.” Indeed, speculation in apocalyptic literature is a booming industry in contemporary Christianity. But these books are only “apocalyptic” in the most extreme way. It is correct to say that the Christian faith is inherently apocalyptic and that all that went before it was hidden. Understanding this will help make sense, in particular, of how the New Testament treats the Old.

Consider these statements by St. Paul:

But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But as it is written, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. (1Co 2:7-10)


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 fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, (Eph 3:8-11)

St. Paul characterizes the gospel of Christ as something that has been “hidden from ages and from generations” but is now being made known. He also notes both that the gospel has been purposely hidden from the “rulers of this world” (meaning the demonic rulers of the age) but is now, expressly being made known by the Church “to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” He is not saying that the gospel is hard to understand, but that has been hidden on purpose by God. How has the gospel been hidden?

Generally speaking, the reality of the gospel was hidden beneath the life of Israel and beneath the figures of Scripture. The rulers of Israel, in Jesus’ day, had an expectation of a Messiah. However, they very much expected a Messiah whose coming was of a piece with Israel’s history and direct march through time. As such, they expected a warrior king who would deliver the nation from the Gentiles and set up a kingdom of righteousness in this world. They had no expectation of a hidden Messiah, nor did they expect a Crucified and Risen Messiah. Christ’s own disciples seem to have shared Israel’s expectation until they were corrected by Christ Himself after the resurrection.

These are clear facts, without contradiction.

The prophetic witness to Christ in the Old Testament is characterized primarily by its hiddenness. Christians have become so familiar with the traditional interpretation of certain prophetic passages that they have become unable to hear how they sound(ed) to Jewish ears. The famous Servant Songs of Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 53): we hear in them, prophecies of the very details of Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross and the promise of His victory. But we must remember that we see these things in hindsight. To this day, these passages are interpreted in Judaism as referring to the Jewish people as a whole. They were not verses of unfulfilled Messianic hope that hung over the consciousness of Israel as it longed for its deliverance.

Christ Himself spoke in parables and was berated for it. Moreover, He specifically characterized the Kingdom of God as hidden.

Another parable He spoke to them: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened. (Mat 13:33)

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Mat 13:44 NKJ)

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Mat 13:44-46 NKJ)

This hidden aspect of God’s work (the mystery from before the ages) is enshrined in parables, allegories, types, shadows, figures, etc. St. Ambrose, writing in the 5th century said: “The Old Testament is shadow; the New is icon, while the ‘heavenly things’ [the age to come] is the truth.’ (Off. 1.238) St. Maximus later repeated this description. The New Testament is not the historical unfolding of the historical Old Testament. It is the revelation in this world of that which was hidden in the Old Testament, but now made known through the Church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.

This approach to the Scriptures came to be dismissed and even despised in more modern times. One strain of thought that clearly fueled this attitude was the rise of Nominalism in the West. Nominalism rejects “inner meanings,” certainly as anything more than ideas in our heads. Things are simply things, and words nothing more than the names we call them. Straightforward moral examples and historical events, interpreted largely in their own historical context, became the preferred way of seeing the Scriptures. Prophetic statements began to be seen as flatly predictive rather than possessed of irony, allegory and paradox. Historical-critical studies that dismantled various historical claims of other Christians, would be unthinkable without the assumptions of Nominalism. The battles between conservative historicists and liberal historical critics, however, take place on a battleground foreign to the world of the Fathers.

The New Testament’s treatment of the Old, and the proclamation of a “hidden” gospel, proclaims as well that reality itself has a “hidden” quality. Only if the truth can be made known in shadow and icon is the world, in fact, as the Orthodox Christian faith says it is. This is also the character of a truly sacramental worldview. Catechesis in the Orthodox Church, as well as the continuing education of its people, should be grounded in the worldview of the Fathers. If the gospel is hidden, then we must know how to find it. This is the path that leads to the Kingdom of God.

It is also the case, I think, that the Kingdom of God is “hidden” within our own lives. We frequently make the mistake of see ourselves only in an outward sense – ignoring the mystery of our lives. When St. John says that “it does not yet appear what we shall be” (1 Jn. 3:2) he is directing our attention beyond or beneath the obvious. The pattern of sacraments (outward things whose inner reality is the Kingdom of God) is also the pattern of our own lives. St. Pauls declares, “Christ within us, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27) The Kingdom of God, the mystery hidden from all the ages, is presently being made known to the “principalities and powers. You and I are being observed. May God give us grace that all might see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven – and may the principalities and powers see and tremble.

Photo by Stefan Steinbauer on Unsplash

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.



42 responses to “The Hidden Gospel”

  1. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father, thank you for this post. Your article reveals what lacks in most treatments of the Gospel we hear, especially in the west. In reference to your theme and point, as Christ says, let him who has ears hear.

    I have learned much from you dear Father.

  2. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    The New Testament’s treatment of the Old, and the proclamation of a “hidden” gospel, proclaims as well that reality itself has a “hidden” quality.

    This truth dawned on me slowly. I began Christian life in a small dispensational Bible church. We were encouraged to read the Bible over and again. I began to realize the NT writers didn’t read the Old as literally as some believed. The apostles’ writings are chock full of typology and allegory. We moved to an Anglican church, knowing we needed something more ancient, more sacramental, since church worship should match how the testaments hang together. Reading the fathers helped as well. They saw the world and the scriptures just how you say, Fr Stephen. We saw the Mystery was more profound still. After visiting the Divine Liturgy several times, there was no going back. Orthodoxy is true to life. It keeps the hidden mystery woven tightly with its material manifestation. No separation: the new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed. Christ in you… The best book I’ve read on this is Henri de Lubac’s Scripture in the Tradition. That book is an inspired work of art, i think. he shows from the fathers, East and West, how perceiving the inner relation between the dual testaments awakens a symbolic and contemplative imagination.

    Thank you, Father, for an enlightening post.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you. Learning to “grow some ears” is difficult from time to time.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Something that I have seen among the Fathers and in the lives of numerous saints – is the fact that, just as the gospel is hidden in the OT, so it is also hidden in our lives. There is a way of living in which we rightly pay attention to that which is hidden. It is easy, for example, to have an enemy. To love an enemy is to make manifest something which is hidden – both witin the enemy and within one’s self. It can be a saving revelation (sometimes).

    In my early Christian years – I found myself stuck between two poles – the fundamentalist Protestants (of various sorts) on one side, and the liberal revisionist-critics on the other. It seemed to me then and now that they were two sides of the same coin – both stuck in perceptions of the nature of the world and of God – that would not reveal the gospel.

    It was in seminary, where I began to read the Fathers, and made my early forays into reading Orthodox thought (though there was very little available in English at the time), that I began to see that there was “another way.” I often had no words for it. I could see it in the Desert Fathers. I could see it in some of the patristic writings. I saw it from time to time in Russian novelists (like Dostoevsky).

    Today, I see it in certain lives – it’s a way of living. It’s a way of living, that when seen, makes the gospel seem clear. This, I think, is essential in the life of the Church. We see it boldly in the lives of the martyrs.

    I still struggle to find words to describe it – but I return to it again and again. May God give us grace.

  5. Janine Avatar

    Father, thank you for this. I think my spiritual “journey” has been nothing but mystery, and I fully expect that my future is something I can’t predict in terms of where God will take me. And all of that is indeed apocalyptic, revealing. “Mystery” is the word.

    I love also Romans 8:18-25 in terms of the things you write here. St. Paul focuses on what will be revealed, that redemption itself is a hope to be revealed. That “we were saved in this hope” really indicates that ongoing future implied in salvation (kind of like the lamb standing who “was” slain). Even our adoption is a future that is in that hope in Romans 8

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In my experience, the Sacraments of the Holy Orthodox Church are revelatory. Attendance on the Holy Sacraments with prayer and thanksgiving reveals God with us. Through the icons, the song, the Holy Scripture, the prostrations, the various opportunities for contrition, The whole pageantry touches different aspects of our soul call us to wholeness in Christ Jesus.
    Also revealed is the Holy Mother Mary, our saints, and our capacity to rejoice in the Holy Spirit.
    One obvious expression is the continuity with the life revealed in the Sacraments and in the writings of faithful Orthodox priests…especially when read with prayers..

    “Submit yourselves all ye nations for God is with us”

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. That is my experience.

  8. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fr Stephen,
    I suppose that’s why the deepest, most powerful truths come to us in metaphors and symbols. There’s a carrying over (meta-phor) and a throwing together (symballo) of “deep to deep” when we read scripture and it resonates. Whatever that hidden meaning is, it makes us one.
    In Christ,

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I don’t want to give the impression that the message of the gospel is unclear or obscure. What is ultimately hidden about it is the utter force of its power. It is one thing, for example, when you simply read a text. It’s quite another thing when the text reads you,when Christ Himself is revealing Himself to you in the text, and at the same time revealing the truth of who you are as well.

  10. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    I completely agree.

  11. Simon Avatar

    But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

  12. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    The Old Testament is shadow; the New is icon, while the ‘heavenly things’ [the age to come] is the truth.

    Father, I’m still considering what you said about the gospel message not being made obscure. I do agree, but I had several more thoughts. I mentioned metaphor and symbol because, in my understanding, the hidden mystery remains ineffable — even after its manifestation in Jesus Christ. The Kingdom is an unplumbable wellspring. I think that’s why Jesus spoke so often in parables. Literal statements are narrow, restrictive, and precise, whereas metaphors leave open a range of relationships and possibilities. Metaphors give us a wider window on the unseen realm; literal language defines an object within finite bounds (de-fine). In this sense, metaphors are truer.

    I see the NT as symbolic and not the truth itself. It is an icon with a meaning expressed in the text, at one level, while at another level containing a hidden, inexpressible meaning, one that remains implicit, yet more potent because of that fact. Explicit statements occlude much, while implicit statements — like those communicated through iconography — speak powerfully about unspeakable truths. I’m not saying we don’t need the literal and explicit. I only mean that such levels of communication conceal more than they reveal. Poetry, parables, and myth employ a metaphorical mode, evoking the tacit dimension, implying that larger facet of reality — of infinite fecundity — which literal language tends to make thin and brittle.

    Given your insight into iconography, I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

  13. Chase Avatar

    Yes, I like to think of this as “revelation in reverse.”

  14. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Indeed, Father, western culture, particularly the drive toward reductionism and the ever presence of Occam’s Razor in all of its manifestations (including other influences) are applied in the reading of scripture. Such approaches are usually invisible to the reader. The reader reads in the way they are taught to read. It is indeed difficult to get one’s mind and heart out of such a box when it is so pervasive and consequently invisible in the culture.

    In my youth I had a heartfelt chat with a catholic university chaplain. I felt somewhat oppressed by the fact that at that time and place I had no one to talk to regarding my perception of our material reality revealed in chemistry. She was the person who introduced me to Teilhard De Chardin. I read his work. I believed he too was dissatisfied with the treatment science gave to our reality. But I also had the sense that he didn’t go down far enough in. His constraints I believe, once again was the culture he was in. At the time I had heard of Orthodoxy. But I believed it was just another brand of Christianity.

    It would be many years later when I got tripped up on the revelation of the resurrection in the Higgs Field, that I sought out Orthodox theology. But still had no plans to become Orthodox and actually feared to become Christian. I knew it would mean death to the life I knew. But after such revelation there was no way I could turn away from Truth, Reality, Love, God, Himself. This was whom my heart, mind and soul had sought all my life. It was a difficult path that brought many tears. May God help us all in His mercy.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, the parts of your story you have told her really encourage me going forward. May God continue to bless your journey. Some days I feel as Odysseus must.
    Thank you.

  16. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, it seems to me that repentance is a doorway that is revealed in Holy Scripture as best described in Matthew.

    Repentance seems essential to really recognizing Jesus and understanding the parables of Holy Scripture. A joyful repentance almost an offering before God.

  17. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Michael,
    Thank you for your kind words. I’m grateful for this community and your participation in it too! Your description of your experience with the Native American culture in your area has provided me a sense of welcome on this blog. I have always sincerely appreciated that.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    My mother work with the Chief here to better understand the dances. When I went to theater school, my theater history class was taught by a cultural anthropologist. We spent the year studying The Dancing Gods (not the current popular series) The nature of Native American Dance as cooperate prayer, liturgy actually, was fascinating and touched my heart deeply.

  19. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Regarding ‘Western captivity’:
    Fr Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory says this (from the Life of the World):

    But it was precisely this relationship between the A and the B, between the sign and the signified, that was changed. Because of the reduction of knowledge to rational or discursive knowledge there appears between A and B a hiatus. The symbol may still mean knowledge, but it is about not of……A can mean B, or represent it, or even in certain instances, be the “cause” of its presence; but A is no longer viewed as the very means of “participation” in B. Knowledge and participation are now two different realities, two different orders……For sacramental theology this “dissolution” of symbol had truly disastrous consequences. By changing the very notion of sacrament it radically transformed also that of theology, provoking finally a crisis whose real scope and depth we are beginning to realize only today.

    Icons, whether made by human hands or not, reveal and enable communion/participation in whom and what is real. Revealing continuity between Christ and creation. This is intrinsic to the icon itself. The mutual participation is its fulfillment.

    I beg forgiveness, I’m not so good at expressing this.

  20. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thank you for sharing that helpful quote. I think you summarized it well. I share Fr Alexander’s understanding of the symbol (to the extent I can) and lament its modern dissolution.
    In Christ,

  21. Stephen Taylor Avatar

    Thank you once again Fr Stephen. Excellent and thought providing as usual. Wonderful for further contemplation.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee, Owen, et al
    I’ve been out of town this week (at our diocesan assembly) and on the road today and unable to get involved in the conversation. Dee’s quote from Schmemann is very apt and important. A symbol does not point to something that is absent (thus a symbol would only be about something that is not there). A symbol participates in what is symbolized – making, or showing the actual presence of what is symbolized. It’s very much the point of his account of the sacraments (and I could never improve on that).

    That said, there was a possible weakness in Owen’s comment at 8:41 a.m. He wrote:

    I see the NT as symbolic and not the truth itself. It is an icon with a meaning expressed in the text, at one level, while at another level containing a hidden, inexpressible meaning, one that remains implicit, yet more potent because of that fact. Explicit statements occlude much, while implicit statements — like those communicated through iconography — speak powerfully about unspeakable truths. I’m not saying we don’t need the literal and explicit. I only mean that such levels of communication conceal more than they reveal. Poetry, parables, and myth employ a metaphorical mode, evoking the tacit dimension, implying that larger facet of reality — of infinite fecundity — which literal language tends to make thin and brittle.

    The NT is icon but it is, nevertheles, true. When, for example, the NT describes the Crucifixion, it is describing a historical event (without which nothing we said about the Cross would matter). But what is said or described (the Crucifixion, e.g.) is both what we read and utterly more than what we read (in that the “Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth” or that we are crucified with Christ, nevertheles we live, etc.). Everything that the Crucifixion is – is already there and is made present in that historical moment. But, it is possible for some (many) to read the text and not see all that the Cross is and reduce it to only that moment in time.

    But, to ignore the moment in time (the historical event described) would be a sort of gnosticism in which only the “hidden thing” is considered important.

    In Matthew 23:23, Christ says:

    “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”

    He does not undo the Law (the tithing of mint, anise, and cumin, etc.) – but if the letter of the Law is seen as somehow the thing in itself (and not also as a revelation of the “weightier matters” – like justice, mercy, and faith – something “hidden” in the Law – then what is left is pretty useless.

    On a personal level, it is where we always have an eye towards our heart whenever we hear and obey the commandments of Christ. It is not just that I do what the letter says, it is also discerning my heart in the stuff of my doing. For example, in feeding the poor, am I also discerning that I am feeding Christ? There’s a world of difference between feeding a man because he’s poor, and feeding a man because he’s Christ. The old noblesse oblige is fine in its actions – but can easily despise the object of its charity.

    The gospel (in its hiddenness) calls for us to empty ourselves that we might be filled with Christ.

    Everything (I think) is always about union with Christ. We work with Him, by Him, through Him, etc.

    Owen might have had all that in mind, but it would also have been possible to read his comment as only valuing the hidden. I say that because I’ve been accused of that myself from time to time across the years. I fear that I’ve probably not been very clear about this.

  23. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Yes, Father, that’s fair to say. Thank you. I believe I contradicted myself, since I mentioned above the importance of keeping the “hidden mystery woven together with the material manifestation.” That is what I believe. My last comment (unsuccessfully) tried to describe the breakdown of the subjective/objective division inherent in the symbol, as a kind of incarnational knowledge. I think that’s what Schmemann was after. God’s energies flow *through* the sacrament of creation — his presence planted *in* us and we in him: He is the vine, we are the branches. Thanks again for your comment. I should have been more clear about that.

  24. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Indeed, the phrase “vine and branches” is a metaphor. It “carries us over” (meta-phor) from a material (in this case agricultural) reality we readily know to a hidden mystery. Schmemann’s point, I think, is that vines and branches, when seen by the sanctified mind, already are symbolic. We don’t impose a meaning upon them; rather, they inherently, already contain what is seen when one is enlightened. I believe the same is true of the historical sense of scripture and the Crucifixion. They are symbols which draw us into participation, specifically because they are symbols. They “carry us over” to an inner meaning which exists in us. Thus I don’t think the “literal” statements of the NT are dispensable. They show us the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Because they do so, however, they all become metaphorical in the sense I describe here. I think it was Jonathan Pagaeu who say there is no literal interpretation. I agree. Scripture is true but not the truth itself, like the icon. It reveals God — the deepest reality of our life and the way of Christ to realize it. I hope that further clarifies what I said above.

  25. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Here are the Pageau videos, for anyone interested. I find them quite helpful.

    There is no literal meaning:

    Symbolic vs. literal interpretation of the Bible:

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I understand your point – but (in my experience) – it is easily misunderstood. Of course, one problem is that Schmemann was pushing back against about 800 years of misuse of the term “symbol.” One of the reasons I wound up using the language and illustration of a “one-storey universe” was to pull the conversation out of misunderstood terms and into a place where it was more easily discussed (it seemed to me). The language of “metaphor” and “symbol” in our culture mean “less than real.” It’s frustrating in that it is not their original meaning (nor the meaning used in Eastern Patristic settings). “Icon” is not quite as loaded.

    So, forgive me for pushing back about particular words. Readers of the blog and comments come from a wide-variety of backgrounds with a wide-variety of questions. I just want to keep it clear. I think that every time I introduce the subject of mystery, or hiddenness, etc., I get activity (not all of which is posted in comments – some are private,etc.) that tells me that either I am not doing a clear job of writing, or that I should learn better and let it be.

    St. Maximos (as I noted in a recent article) has Scripture as one of the 3 “incarnations” of Christ (the others being nature and the historical incarnation as the God/Man, Jesus of Nazareth). That, I think, is a very, very “high” view of Scripture (and I accept it and embrace it). Having said that, he also describes the OT as “shadow,” and the NT as “icon.” I don’t think he’s reflecting on the “historical reliability” question at all (it wasn’t the question of his day and age). But, it’s also very hard for the modern ear not to hear that question when reading what St. Maximos says – because that has been a huge question of the modern period – indeed, almost the only question for many.

    Fr. Thomas Hopko, I recall, once commented in a talk that he did not see a literal Adam and Eve figure as historical, etc. He didn’t elaborate on it (I suspect it was simply answering someone’s question in the matter). But, I’ve seen some who, to this day, blast him as a “heretic” for that single statement. It’s sad in that he’s probably the most “orthodox” man we’ve had in our generation.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thanks for the links to Pageau’s work. He is a good friend and I’m grateful for the work he’s doing. He’s also doing something quite different.

    His audience (which is huge), is largely non-religious, non-Orthodox, inquirers, young, etc. He’s doing a very amazing job of introducing many to a way of thinking and seeing that has been utterly foreign to them. It’s good work. I’m not sure that I would want to parse all of it or push it too far.

  28. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father, I understand and appreciate your desire to use in-house terms with in-house meanings. I’m sorry if I caused a disruption. And I’ll keep this in mind moving forward.

    I certainly agree with St. Maximus re: creation as Incarnation — with scripture as a locus of divine revelation within that reality. I agree with Fr. Thomas too. Seems like he was a brave man to say what he said.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Fr. Thomas was pretty fearless – but I do not think he was speaking in a carefully thought-out manner at the time. It’s sort of “trick” when such questions come up. I grew up surrounded by Biblical fundamentalism (the real thing – Bob Jones University – “self-described” fundamentalists). There, the question, and I mean THE question, was, “Do you believe every word of the Bible is literally true?” If you said no at any point, if you questioned that language at any point, then, for them, you were not a Christian and you were guilty of denying the whole of Christian revelation, the authority of Scripture, the truth of Christ, etc. All of it. As for themselves, as long as they could say “yes,” then everything was great. Of course, the same people attempted to teach biological racism (for example). I was “literally” taught such racism as part of Baptist summer camp. So, their abuse of the Bible was not actually a loyalty to Christ, but simply a tool in the hands of bad hearts looking for tools to bludgeon other people – even whole races of people. If that was what was offered to me – the only thing offered to me – I would have become a non-believer. But I think it’s not the truth, and is a betrayal of Christ.

    During my later spiritual journey, I encountered the liberal, historical-critical studies and methods of mainline Protestantism. What I met there were people who were reacting to fundamentalism, but doing so by mostly methodically deconstruting the literalist position. They put nothing in its place. One of my Anglican seminary professors, for example, a priest and a New Testament scholar (Harvard Phd) did not believe that Jesus was God. He was quite open about it. That was an emptiness that I rejected.

    For a certain amount of time, I was uncertain how to move forward in my life. It was like being offered to choices – both of which were cliffs I could jump off of. And neither of which seemed to actually be true.

    It was in that context that I began to read the Fathers and early Church writings, and some small amount of Orthodox theology. It seemed like a very different way of handling the Scriptures and the faith. It was not a rejection of Scriptural authority, but a different way of speaking and understanding.

    The Scriptures are true – and a means of accessing what is true. But, to follow St. Maximus and St. Ambrose, the manner of presenting that truth has some shape to it that requires more than just materialist fact-statements. There are all kinds of ways of speaking and writing in the Scriptures. There is not just one way of reading and interpreting.

    Saying that would make everything seem like it was up for grabs if there were no “measuring stick” or guidance in how to read and understand. It was in reflecting on that question that the reality of the Church came to the fore. The Scriptures are “the Church’s book.” It’s what the word “Scripture” ultimately means. The Church precedes Scripture. They are written for us and are to be used by us as we seek to know God.

    If we read them in the context of the Church’s life (through the ages), with an honest heart and a willingness to be taught, we can find Christ in them. So, a question for me isn’t ever, “What does this mean, etc.” as a thing in itself, standing alone. It’s always, “What does this mean in the life of the Church?” “How has the Church read/used this text?” etc.

    Those, for example, who (these days) are attempting to change the moral teaching of the Church through a deconstruction of the Scriptures (basically the same historical-critical project as the mainline Protestants), are simply demonstrating that they have left the Church – that their hearts are alienated from the Tradition and are seeking to import liberal Protestantism into the faith. I have no sympathy for their work. I’ve seen its destructive fruit elsewhere.

    So, there’s a different path, I think. That path recognizes the authority of the Scriptures as read by the Church through the centuries. It’s a faithfulness that leads us towards union with Christ. Over the years, I’ve worked at avoiding the arguments of the fundamentalists of my childhood and the historical-critical scholars of my college/seminary years and sought to follow the path of faithful Orthodoxy. It’s not surprising that those arguments keep spilling over and demanding that everything be stated according to their grammar. It is, as far as I can see, the grammar of dead men. I’m learning a different language.

    Thanks for patiently letting me run-on with this set of thoughts. All of that’s to say, that Fr. Thomas’ lapse was to speak, for a moment, in the grammar of a language I would prefer not to use. He wasn’t intending to speak historical-critical liberalism. The people who accused him of heresy were assuming that he was. The world’s a dangerous place.

  30. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for these comments, Fr. Stephen! I really appreciate your “run-on with this set of thoughts” and I believe your words are important and necessary. These comments of yours help me tremendously.

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you. The circumstances of the world these days are crazy in a way that I would never have imagined in the early years of my ministry. I do what I can to make a sane path for myself (and pray that it is of use to others). I daily think of the providence of God and work at trusting that He is at work for our salvation.

  32. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar


    You said that you agree with St. Maximus “re: creation as Incarnation — with scripture as a locus of divine revelation within that reality.” I don’t think St. Maximus said that. He said that the Scriptures are an “Incarnation” just as we can say of creation. I think that this is not quite the same thing as what you are saying.

    St. Maximus’ could be translated as saying that the Scriptures are a sacrament, and that the creation is a sacrament, which is also true. Though, having said such things, it takes a lot of thought and meditation to explicate what all of that means. On the one hand, there is “natural contemplation” (theoria physike), and there is the contemplation of Scripture, both of which have as their goal the perception of Christ and union with Him by those means. Of course, it’s all so large (it’s pretty much the whole of our life in Christ) that it cannot easily be reduced to conversation.

  33. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I have never read much theology. “On the Incarnation” being an exception. I do not have the kind of education or mind set to do so profitably. What my training in history taught me was to “smell rats’ I have also found, by Grace, that Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God” works pretty well if one is actually seeking Him and not some idol of one’s imagination..
    I have seen people get too caught up in “theology” and forget Jesus Christ.
    I have seen some go wild with “experience” that has no basis in the teaching of the Church.
    Yet Jesus is who He said He is. Our Sacraments help to make Him present to each of us in our communities.

  34. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Dear Father,
    You said

    I get activity (not all of which is posted in comments – some are private,etc.) that tells me that either I am not doing a clear job of writing, or that I should learn better and let it be.

    You are doing a clear job of writing. Please don’t let it be. Rather, what I see in this conversation is the effects of how Orthodoxy is taught or understood outside of the Church. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work very well with respect to living the Orthodoxy Way. The consequences involve a convolution of language that appears on the surface to be commonly held.

    To conduct a conversation with those who have been inculcated in a different culture (Orthodoxy is culture too) is indeed tricky. This is especially true for attempting to communicate from the heart of Orthodox tradition into another cultural context that favors argumentation and persuasion as a form of theological development. Learning the deeper meanings of Orthodox writings absolutely requires living within the culture of the Orthodox Church for a goodly amount of time. If one is not born into the Church, one needs to come to terms with that, they enter it as a babe, regardless of their supposed training and lives lived in other traditions and cultures.

    In other confessions, scripture is unequivocally treated as a document separate from the living the mundane life of the Orthodox Church. It is something of an object, subject to the activity of hypothesizing or philosophizing , a document used for a variety of endeavors, where such endeavors are experienced as more interesting than the mundane activity of living it. It is also treated as a juridical document and a support for a “so help me God” statement in courts. All of this is inculcated in western culture, particularly in the US.

    In all of these examples (of how other confessions view the scripture) the life of the Orthodox Church is a separate entity, ie not a organismal Body of which the scripture is its breath. To read it properly one needs to be in the Body and for a significant amount of time for the inculturation to begin, let alone take effect.

    Please forgive me. I’m supposed to be grading and not doing this. I pray for us all.

  35. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee, et al
    I had the joy this past week of attending my Diocese’ annual assembly. Gathering with my brother clergy here in the South is a great joy. Our primary speaker for the event was Fr. Bogdan Bucur, professor of patristics at St. Vladimir’s. We also had a presentation from Fr. Alexander Rentel, who is the Chancellor of the OCA, and an authority on the canon law of the Church. All of that was in the context of our bishops (Abp. Alexander Golitsyn, and Bp. Gerasim Eliel both of whom are true monastics). There were two liturgies served in the week, and much engagement with everyone present.

    I was particularly struck in listening to our lecturers – especially how they placed their topics directly into the life of the Church. From Fr. Bogdan, we heard about the experience of the Divine Light (Theophanies), but not as an abstraction. He spoke of it particularly in the context of individuals who had suffered under the communist oppression last century in Romania.

    What I gathered in the whole of it – was a renewed sense of Orthodox academics – rightly done – they serve the life of the Church and nurture the faithful. I came away greatly encouraged.

  36. Catherine Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    I can’t thank you enough for your “run-on” comments. Sometimes they are easier for me to understand than your posts which, I must confess, I have to reread to begin to understand. But as life has thrown a few curve balls my way and really meshed up participation in the life of the Church in person, your posts, Ancient Faith and online services have been a life saver.
    As a fellow convert, I am always interested in your journey to Orthodoxy, much more intellectual than my own journey.
    I am at home in the Orthodox faith. There is no other. I walk into Church, take a deep breath and know that this is truth.
    This probably makes absolutely no sense, but I wanted you to know how grateful I am for your continued posts. They are saving my life.

  37. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I would have loved to hear those talks, Father!

  38. Leah Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    Thank you for this post and all of your comments! What specific texts of the church fathers and early Church writings would you suggest reading to begin to see and understand this different way of handling the scriptures and the faith?

  39. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The foremost writings are actually right there in front of us – the liturgical texts that we use all the time. How do the prayers of the Church “read” the Scriptures? The use of the Psalms is the most dominant part of “Scripture-reading” in our liturgical experience. Sometimes, we simply miss what is being said because it passes right over us. For example, on Saturday evenings at Vespers, the Prokeimenon verse begins “The Lord is King, He is robed in majesty…” That verse and those that follow are specifically describing the resurrection. In doing so, they take a verse that is “literally” saying one thing, but seeing Christ within it. This is typical of the Church’s use of Psalms. Fr. Patrick Reardon’s book, Christ in the Psalms, is an excellent read and touches a lot on this.

    This way of seeing is not so much “technique” as “mindset” and “assumptions” about the very way the Scriptures (and the world) works. Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s book, For the Life of the World, is a wonderful introduction to the sacramentality of the world. My very modest book, Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, does something of the same thing in a variety of ways.

    Most especially, this is about immersing ourselves in the liturgical/prayer life of the Church and allowing that to form and shape our understanding.

    This is common in many of the Fathers. A good example is St Gregory of Nyssa’s classic, The Life of Moses.

    For me, a lot of this began to become apparent when, while reading or praying, I stopped and asked, “How can they say that? How must they be seeing things in order to make such statements?” And (the next step), “What does this say about the nature of reality if what they are saying is true?”

    Other readers might have some helpful suggestions.

  40. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Your comment above: “I walk into Church, take a deep breathe and know this is truth.” makes perfect sense to me.

  41. juliania Avatar

    Father Stephen, forgive me for jumping around with my comments – I still have much to learn. And please delete any that don’t pertain; I won’t mind. My childhood was in the care at first of my maternal grandmother who was raised maori in New Zealand. She told me as a child that to read the Apocalypse of Saint John would give one a blessing. So, I did, because I wanted that blessing; of course, I did not understand it. Now I think that blessing was to come into the Orthodox church, which felt like coming home to me.
    On the way, I have thought about the maori respect for the land which is only uncovered at low tide around the shores of New Zealand – it is called ‘paramoana’, moana meaning sea. And having studied the Greeks in college, that put me in mind of the island of Calypso where Odysseus begins his journey homeward. So, before I came to the church I thought of ‘apocalypse’ as meaning ‘from the island’ (“apo Calypso”), just as the maori feel the paramoana is sacred land, only revealed as the sea draws back(“from the sea”). Which can be dreadful also in the case of a tsunami. I’ve never thought of it as prophecy of things to come, just as you say, a revelation of things hidden.

    Thank you so much for your explanation here, and the unfolding of depth I am finding in what you say about Saint Paul’s writings. Our departed priest said to me once that more and more, late in life, he loved Saint Paul. (Our priest was a happy man of few words, leaving much unspoken.) I think it must be that Paul himself found affinity with the Greeks through his own perilous journeys in their seas.

    Also, you have helped me with the puzzle as to why Saint John would write in this manner, so difficult for a child to understand. Thank you!

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You’re most welcome. What an interesting journey! God is revealing all things – and us as well.

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