Showing posts with label Reading the Scriptures. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reading the Scriptures. Show all posts

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Where is Christ in the Sodom Narrative?

If he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard) — if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. (2 Peter 2:6-9)

In recent years, I have learned the importance of reading all the Scriptures as being about Christ, since that is who Christ himself taught they are about. If we are reading them as being about anything other than Christ, we are not yet reading them as Scripture, and it is only in their testimony concerning Jesus Christ that they bear trustworthy witness (see my article, Intention and Inerrancy). 

As I have written about this, some have asked about where and how we may find Christ in various Scripture passages. Recently, I was asked about where Christ is in the story of Lot and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, in Genesis 19? 

One of the important features of this narrative is that it follows after the narrative of Abraham’s hospitality (xenophilia, love for the stranger) to the three mysterious, angelic figures who represent the Lord in Genesis 18. Both narratives are about hospitality, and in them, both Abraham and Lot show hospitality to angels without realizing who they are. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

It is for Lot’s hospitality that Second Peter 2:7-8 deems Lot a righteous man. That certainly seems strange, even offensive, to us when we recall that Lot offered his daughters to the men of Sodom, so to protect the strangers from the mob. In the light of Christ, it is an act for which there is no excuse, and neither Second Peter nor the Church Fathers defend it. But it is not that particular act for which Lot was considered “righteous.” Rather, it was because of the anguish and vexation he felt over the debauched and lawless behavior of the city’s inhabitants toward the strangers, his guests.

Lot’s righteousness is seen in his reception of the strangers. He sat outside the gate at evening, watching for them, then watched out for them once they were in the city, defending them as best he knew (though that was woefully inadequate). In the end, however, it was these two angelic strangers who rescued Lot and his daughters, leading them out of the city before destruction came.

But where is Christ in all this? Well, for one thing, Second Peter uses Lot as an example of the righteous, for he was “a righteous man,” in anguish over the debauched, depraved behavior of the wicked, and “tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard.” The argument here is that if the Lord rescued Lot, “then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials” (2 Peter 2:9). Christ is not only the Righteous One but is also the Rescuing One.

We may also see Christ as the Hospitable One. Hospitality has always been an important matter with God. To receive the stranger in the land was to receive the Lord; to turn away the stranger was to turn away the Lord. Lot showed hospitality to the two angelic strangers, and so towards the Lord; the men of Sodom failed to show any hospitality but only depraved hostility toward them. Christ has come into the world to reveal the hospitality of God toward us.

At this point, we might think of our Lord’s “Parable of the Sheep and the Goats,” in Matthew 25:31-46, where Christ commended the nations that showed hospitality to the stranger, because in receiving with kindness the “least of these,” they were actually, by their kindness, receiving Christ himself. And those who neglected the stranger were rejecting Christ himself.

Even more, we see that Christ himself showed the hospitality of God even to the publicans and prostitutes, sitting and eating with sinners. This was much to the consternation of the Scribes and Pharisees, and it was in response to this that Christ told the parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost Son (Luke 15).

As for Sodom itself, this was not the end of their story, for there is an interesting passage in Ezekiel that shows what would become of them:

Your older sister was Samaria, who lived north of you with her daughters, and your younger sister, who lived south of you, was Sodom with her daughters. Have you not copied their behavior and practiced their abominable deeds? In a short time you became even more depraved in all your conduct than they were! As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, your sister Sodom and her daughters never behaved as wickedly as you and your daughters have behaved.

See here – this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and practiced abominable deeds before me. Therefore when I saw it I removed them. Samaria has not committed half the sins you have; you have done more abominable deeds than they did. You have made your sisters appear righteous with all the abominable things you have done.

So now, bear your disgrace, because you have given your sisters reason to justify their behavior. Because the sins you have committed were more abominable than those of your sisters; they have become more righteous than you. So now, be ashamed and bear the disgrace of making your sisters appear righteous.

I will restore their fortunes, the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters, and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters (along with your fortunes among them), so that you may bear your disgrace and be ashamed of all you have done in consoling them.

As for your sisters, Sodom and her daughters will be restored to their former status, Samaria and her daughters will be restored to their former status, and you and your daughters will be restored to your former status. (Ezekiel 16:46-55 NET)

The surprising thing here is that Sodom is to be restored. And so we see that God’s judgment on them was not final but penultimate, and that God’s ultimate purpose was restoration. As it so often goes in the Old Testament Prophets, the word of divine judgment is presented, but with it also is the promise of divine restoration afterwards. Here in Ezekiel, the people of Judah were facing the judgment of God, but there was also the promise of reconciliation. God would be restoring them, just as he would be restoring Sodom.

Ultimately, then, Christ is not only the rescuer of Lot, but even of Sodom. His hospitality is not only toward the righteous (Lot) but also toward the wicked sinners (Sodom).

Since Christ taught that the Scriptures are about him, we should always continue to seek until we find him in them. What I have offered above is not the one and only interpretation; I do not think there is necessarily only one true interpretation — there may be many true interpretations of a passage. The way we can tell a true one from a false one is that a true one is Christ-centered, cross-shaped and gospel-patterned. In considering how the Scriptures treat Sodom, I see Christ who rescues all by the hospitality of the Cross.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Christ is the Meaning of All the Scriptures

They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

In Luke 24, Jesus does not speak about the Scriptures merely as bits and pieces, some of which are about him, with the rest being about other things, so that we must decide which ones concern Christ and which ones do not.

In verse 32, Christ “opened” (Greek, dianoigo) the Scriptures to the Emmaus disciples. Why did he “open” them? It was because they were closed — cryptic. But of course, Jesus was not carrying around the Old Testament scrolls, which he then literally unrolled before them. Yet the word for “opened” does mean to open, and not just a little, but thoroughly. Christ opened the Scriptures to the Emmaus disciples because they had been closed. The disciples did not understand what the Scriptures have always been about because they had been veiled to them, though they had not realized it. But now Christ was opening the Scriptures thoroughly to them, unveiling them to reveal that they are about him  — not just in part, but the whole of them.

In verse 45, Jesus is with the Eleven disciples in Jerusalem. “Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” Here, it is their nous, their understanding that he “opened” (dianoigo, to open thoroughly), that they might understand the Scriptures. Both things need to happen: The Scriptures must be opened thoroughly to us, and our minds must be opened thoroughly to understand the Scriptures. It is the Lord Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, who must both the Scriptures and our understanding.

Jesus did not teach them, “Just read it literally.” He did not advise them to employ the grammatical-historical method of interpretation. Rather, he taught them that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms are about him. In speaking of these three sections together like that, Jesus was referring to the whole of the Scriptures, indicating their prophetic unity, that they are all about the same thing, Jesus, and not about a diversity of other things.

In John 5, Jesus tells the Jewish leaders, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me” (v. 39). Then a few verses later, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?” (vv. 46-47). There is no parsing out here that only some of the things Moses wrote concern Jesus while other portions do not. What Moses wrote is a prophetic unity, not a compilation on various topics, and its unified meaning is Christ. “Moses wrote about me.” Not, “Scattered among Moses’ writings are some things about me.” What Moses wrote was thoroughly about Christ.

In the book of Hebrews, the author quotes Psalm 40:7 and understands that it is about Jesus. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come — in the volume of the book it is written of me — to do your will, O God.’” (quoted in Hebrews 10:7, NKJV). The “book” here is the scroll of the Law, that is, the Torah. The phrase “volume of the book” does not mean that only some of it, bits and pieces here and there, are about Christ, but that the entire scroll has to do with Lord Jesus.

Christ and the gospel are the interpretive key of the Old Testament Scriptures. All of them are about Christ, but we will not find him there by literal interpretation, nor did he ever give us literalism as an interpretive principle. As we go on to consider how the apostles and New Testament authors treated the Old Testament Scriptures, we quickly discover that they did not read them literally but, following what Jesus showed the disciples, figuratively and spiritually. 

For example, when Paul speaks of Sarah and Hagar, in Galatians 4:21-31, he does not offer a literal interpretation, but says, “These things may be treated as an allegory” (v. 24). Likewise, when Paul speaks of the children of Israel crossing the wilderness, in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, it is not a literal interpretation he gives us but a spiritual one.

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.

The crossing of the Rea Sea, and the divine cloud that covered them, he calls  “baptism.” It is baptism into Moses, but by it, Paul see reference to baptism in Christ. Likewise, when Paul speaks of the Rock that accompanied them in the wilderness, he understands that to be about Christ. He speaks of the Manna they ate and the water they drank from the Rock as spiritual food and spiritual drink, and by it, Paul means to show us Holy Communion, in which Lord Jesus is our food and drink. Christ is the meaning of those Scriptures.

So, Paul speaks of these events from the Torah very differently from what a literal interpretation of them would yield. By the literal method, we would never see that the crossing of the Red Sea, and the cloud that accompanied them, is baptism into Christ. Or that the Manna that came down from heaven is Christ, our spiritual food. Or that the Rock that followed them in the wilderness is Christ, our spiritual drink. 

Paul understood very well what Christ taught both the disciples and the Jewish leaders, that what Moses wrote is about Christ. Paul says, “These things occurred as examples.” The word for “example” here is typos. Paul expressly identifies them as types, and that what stands behind them is our Lord Jesus Christ.

It was not only the New Testament authors who treated all the Scriptures this way, but so did the early Church Fathers. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, for example, wrote Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in which he shows how the Apostles and the Fathers preached Christ. The remarkable thing about it is that it shows how the the early preaching about Christ was not drawn from the New Testament Gospels or epistles but from the Old Testament Scriptures, thoroughly and throughout — they did not arrive at this by literal interpretation. Another example is St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his Life of Moses. He goes through the Moses narratives and shows, in considerable detail, that they are about Christ, the gospel of Christ and the body of Christ.

But here is a counter-example: There was one early figure in the Church who interpreted the Old Testament Scriptures literally, and that was Marcion. What Marcion saw by interpreting the Old Testament literally was a portrayal of God that is quite contradictory to the revelation of God given to us in Jesus Christ. What he saw by literal interpretation was a petty, hateful deity not worthy of our worship — and indeed, such a deity found by such literal interpretations is a moral monster, hateful and petty, and not at all worthy of our worship. So, Marcion pitched out the Old Testament Scriptures altogether. 

But where Marcion dismissed them, the early Church Fathers did not. For they understood something very important about them that Marcion did not, that Christ is the meaning of all the Scriptures.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

God in the Old Testament Scriptures

There are passages in the Old Testament which, if interpreted literally, would portray God as a Zeus-like, retributive deity. But to read them that way would be to read them very differently from how Jesus taught us to read them, and would contradict the revelation of God we have been given in Jesus Christ, who is the perfect expression of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3).

Jesus taught the disciples that the Scriptures (the Old Testament) are about him (see Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures). So, if we read them as being about anything other than Jesus, we are reading them differently from the way Jesus taught us to read them, with the result that our “understanding” (Greek, nous) has not yet been opened (Luke 24:44-45) and a veil still covers our heart (2 Corinthians 3:13-16).

So the disciples and the New Testament authors read the Old Testament Scriptures as being about Christ and the gospel. Of course, Christ is not found in the Old Testament by a literal reading, and so they looked for him there in spiritual, allegorical and figurative readings, which was an ancient practice of Jews and non-Jews alike. The only difference is that they read the Scriptures with Christ as the interpretive key — they read them Christologically, that is, in a Christ-focused, Christ-centered way.

This is also how the early Church Fathers interpreted the Scriptures. The only early Church figure who took them in a manner like modern fundamentalist or evangelical literalism, threw the Old Testament Scriptures out altogether — because, taken literally, they present a very different portrait of God than the one presented in Jesus Christ.

The early Church Fathers, on the other hand, did not pitch the Old Testament but cherished them as being full of the gospel, because they interpreted them through Christ, with Christ as their meaning. I have written a brief series of articles about this:
That last one (Part 3) may be of special interest to many because it demonstrates how the Fathers, particularly Origen, approached the “terror texts” in the book of Joshua.

It would also be instructive to see how St. Gregory of Nyssa read the Moses narrative in his Life of Moses. And St. Irenaeus of Lyon shows how the gospel was preached from the Old Testament Scriptures, in his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. What is very interesting in this work is that Irenaeus does not quote the Gospels, or any of the New Testament, but demonstrates the apostolic preaching of the gospel entirely from the Old Testament Scriptures. Reading it spiritually, through the  Spirit, and understanding it through Christ — reading the Old Testament with new eyes.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Cryptic, Coherent and Contemporary

The Scriptures are about Christ. This is what he said to the Pharisees (John 5:49). It is what he taught the disciples (Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures). The Scriptures are centered on Christ, the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. He is their source, their theme and the end for which they are given. That being so, there are at least three things that follow (forgive me as I indulge in a bit of alliteration):
  • The Scriptures are cryptic. They must be opened to us by Christ, just as Christ opened them to the disciples (Luke 24:24-27, 31-32). Our understanding must be opened up to the Scriptures, just as Christ opened the minds of the disciples to understand them (Luke 24:45). They must be unveiled to us, so that we, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, may be “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:15-18).
  • The Scriptures are coherent. They all hold together around one person, the crucified and risen Christ. Jesus said to the Emmaus disciples, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26).
  • The Scriptures are contemporary. They are not about who Christ was but who Christ is. For Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). They are about the crucified and risen Lord, the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world, so that (Revelation 13:8).

Friday, May 15, 2020

Christ Is the Meaning of the Scriptures

What does it say? What does it mean? How does it apply? Those were the questions I was taught, in my earlier years, to ask when reading the Scriptures. But I have since come to believe that there really is no difference between the interpretation of a text and the application of it. The act of interpretation is the act of discovering meaning in a text; application is the act of discovering meaning in a text. They are both concerned with discovering meaning in the text. Application and interpretation of the text are really but two different ways of describing the same function.

In 1 Corinthians 10, when Paul speaks of Moses and the children of Israel in the wilderness, he says, “These things happened to them as types written for our instruction” (v. 11). What are they? They are types. Why are they written? For our instruction. They have meaning for us, and that meaning instructs us. Some would call that application, and so it is; but there is really no difference between that and interpretation.

We cannot know for certain what the ancient Scriptures (the Old Testament) meant to ancient readers. We cannot even know for certain what the human authors of the Scriptures understood their own writings to mean. Did the author of Exodus and Numbers understand that the crossing of the Red Sea is about Christ and baptism? Did he realize that the Rock that followed them in the wilderness is Jesus Christ, and that the water that flowed from that Rock is spiritual drink? Did he understand that the One the children of Israel rebelled against in the wilderness is Jesus Christ? It is doubtful. Did the author of the book of Jonah recognize that the sign of Jonah is about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, as Christ said it is? Again, doubtful. We could bring many more similar examples.

There is also no reason to suppose that there is only one correct interpretation of a passage. There may be many true interpretations (and there are also many interpretations that are not true). This is especially so when we consider that, though the Scriptures have many human authors, the author whose meaning matters most is God, and there is no reason to suppose that God cannot communicate any number of things to us through the divinely inspired Scriptures — but they will always be about the crucified and risen Christ.

Choosing an interpretation as the one and only interpretation and then calling the rest “applications” simply disguises the matter. The truth is that whether we call it “interpretation” or “application,” we are talking about what a text means, and that is always a matter of interpretation.

What this means when we are reading the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament, is that we are not applying them to Christ, as if Christ were not already inherently present in them — we are not imposing Christ upon them. It is one thing to say that an interpretation is imposed upon the Scriptures; it is quite another to say that Christ is imposed upon them. Christ is neither imposed upon them nor applied to them, but the Scriptures are about him. He is always the One of whom they speak. He is the One they present to us and give witness to. For Christ, who is the Word, the Logos, the divine author of Scripture has said that they are about him.
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me. (John 5:39)
Likewise, in Luke 24, Christ opens the Scriptures to the disciples, and opens the minds of the disciples to see that what Moses and the Prophets wrote are about him, and thus to understand them properly (see Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures). Christ himself is the meaning of the Scriptures. So we do not apply the Scriptures to Christ, or impose Christ upon the Scriptures, as if he were external to them. Rather, we discover Christ in them as their inherent meaning.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Consuming Fire of Divine Love

The Scriptures teach us that God is love and that God is a consuming fire. That is not saying two different things but saying the same thing in two different ways. For God is simple, not a being of parts that must be held in tension or played off one against another.

To speak of God as love and as consuming fire is to say that the love of God is the consuming fire of God, and the consuming fire of God is the love of God. So, however the consuming fire of God is manifest, it has everything to do with the love of God, and has no expression apart from that love.

The consuming fire of God’s love is a refiner’s fire, purging away the dross and purifying the precious elements. It may be like the doctor’s laser burning away a cancer in the patient’s body. The doctor’s purpose is not to harm but to heal. Likewise, the purpose of the consuming fire of God’s love is not to harm but to heal and restore.

Christ is the perfect expression of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3), which is to say that God is exactly like the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, any interpretation of the Scriptures that portrays God in any way that is contrary to the revelation of God we have in Jesus Christ is an interpretation we must reject as being unworthy of Christ and the Scriptures.

In the New Testament, we learn the gospel-shaped truth that God is love. Love is not a possession, an item in God’s divine toolbox to be brought out as the occasion arises. Nor is love a choice God makes, extending it to some while withholding it from others. Nor is it an attribute that must be held in tension with or balanced out by other divine attributes. No, it is much deeper than all that: God is love (1 John 4:8). It is the nature of God to love — always. So, any interpretation of Scripture that portrays God as in any way contrary to Christ’s self-giving, other-centered love, or the New Testament teaching about love, is an interpretation we must reject as unworthy of Christ, of the gospel and of love.

God has always been the way he is revealed in Christ. He has not changed from the Old Testament to the New; he has always been the way Christ has revealed him in the New Testament. The understanding the Old Testament writers and prophets had about God was not full and complete. But Christ has now come, and he is the full and complete revelation of God, the perfect expression of God’s being.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. (Hebrews 1:1-3)
That really is a night and day difference, but it does not mean we ought to dismiss the Old Testament Scriptures, as if the revelation of God given to us in Jesus Christ has done away with them. Quite the opposite, for Christ said that the Scriptures are about him:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me. (John 5:39)
We ought to read the Scriptures, then, but we ought to read them through Christ and the gospel, with a Christ-centered, cross-shaped understanding. Otherwise, we are liable to end up with ideas about God that are simply unworthy of Christ and therefore unworthy of God.

The idea, then, that God should ever act in any way that is retributive or intends harm to anyone is thoroughly unworthy of Christ, and ought to be rejected — love simply does not act that way. Rather, we ought to see the consuming fire of God as the expression of God’s love, intended not for harm but for healing, not to destroy but to restore.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Christ-Centered, Cross-Shaped Interpretation of Revelation 19

In a previous post, Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures, I made the point that we ought always interpret the Scriptures in a Christ-centered, cross-shaped way. In this post, I seek to apply that to the interpretation of Revelation 19.

There are several things to note about reading the book of Revelation in general. First, the book is, by its nature as apocalyptic literature (the title in Greek is Apocalypsis), a highly figurative, highly symbolic literature with high hyperbole. It is not given as a literal exposition of anything but is given to John the Revelator through signs and visions.

Second, interpretation of Revelation is famously controversial and has been subject to all kinds of interpretation — some preteristic, some futuristic, some historistic, some spiritual — and the Church has never settled on how it should be approached, let alone what it means. Indeed, the Church did not receive it into the canon without great difficulty. It was not generally accepted in the East, just as the book of Hebrews was not generally accepted in the West. But in the end, both books were finally received by both East and West and are deemed authoritative for the Christian faith.

Third, because of the highly figurative nature of the book, and because of the extreme difficulty of coming to any agreement about what it is about and how it should be read, the book of Revelation should not be used to establish doctrine.

So, fourth, the book of Revelation becomes something of a Rorschach test. That is, what people often find in it is what they bring to it to begin with. For example, some who see God as retributive, see Revelation 19 as showing Christ in a retributive mode. Others, such as myself, do not.

But here is what I do see about Revelation 19: I see Jesus coming to judge injustice and to wage war by his justice. The nature of divine justice is that it comes to set things right in the world. We see the justice of God most clearly in the Cross and the Resurrection, where Christ destroyed death and the power of the one who held the power of death — that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14-15).

In Revelation 19, Jesus shows up on the scene with his robes dipped in blood. But whose blood is it? Has Jesus suddenly become a killer, a shedder of other people’s blood? No, that would be quite opposite to how Christ is revealed in the Gospel, as other-centered, self-giving love. But the blood that stains his robes is his own. For the Lion of Judah is the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world for the sins of the world. So the blood on his robes has been there from the beginning of the world — his own blood, shed for us.

His name is the Word of God, and out of his mouth comes a sword. It is not a literal sword; it is the Word of God that is quick and powerful and sharper than any double-edged sword, and it comes to discern the thoughts and dispositions of the heart (Hebrews 4:14). He comes to judge the motives and purposes of the heart, to eliminate those motives that do not belong so as to properly establish those that do. The judgment of God that comes to remove wickedness is not pleasant to endure. But it comes to heal, not to harm, for it is God purging evil from his good creation, so as to restore it to God’s original intention.

So the nations and kings of the earth are dispatched, in Revelation 19, in a very drastic and seemingly final way. The language is highly symbolic. Evil is being destroyed from God’s creatures, and it is a very serious business. But it is not intended to harm or destroy any of God’s creatures; it is intended to purge the poison of evil out of them and heal them.

Whatever happens to the nations and kings of the earth in Revelation 19-20 is not God’s final word about them. For in Revelation 21, we meet them once again, and in a very surprising way. Throughout the book of Revelation, they have been at enmity with God, embracing wickedness and making war against the Lamb and his faithful ones. But in Revelation 21, where do you suppose it is we meet them? In the Holy City, the heavenly Jerusalem that joins together heaven and earth. The City where the Lamb of God is himself the temple, the meeting place of God and humankind. The City where there is no darkness and no night, for the Lamb of God is its lamp and light. The city whose gates are never shut — never shut!

And into this City come the nations and kings of the earth, bringing their tribute with them (Revelation 21:24-26). They have been purified, for nothing impure can enter the City (v. 27). Throughout Revelation, they have been spoken of in the worst terms, but now they come into the City, purified, purged of evil. So, whatever happened to them in Revelation 19-20 is not the final word on them. Whatever happened to them was not to harm them but to heal and cleanse and purify them. (See After the Lake of Fire and Fire, Brimstone and Torment.)

Now, my interpretation is no more determinative of the meaning of Revelation 19 than yours or anyone else’s. But it is the one I see: Christ in his glory and goodness rescuing the world, even the most vile in it, for whom he has shed his own blood. In a word, what I see here is the gospel — I can only bear witness to it. And I am content that it is a Christ-centered, cross-shaped interpretation, which is as it should be.

Friday, April 24, 2020

A Christ-Centered, Cross-Shaped Interpretation of Isaiah 10:5-20

In a previous post, Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures, I made the point that we ought always interpret the Scriptures in a Christ-centered, cross-shaped way. In this post, I seek to apply that to the interpretation of Isaiah 10.

In a literal reading of Isaiah 10:5-20, we see that God allows Assyria to come against God’s arrogant and oppressive people. Then he punishes Assyria for the willful pride and haughty eyes of Assyria and the king of Assyria. The “Light of Israel” will become a fire, the Holy One will be a flame that burns away proud Assyria. Then the remnant of Israel will return to God and rely on the “Holy One of Israel.”

Knowing Christ’s teaching, that the Scriptures are about him, and thus having the veil lifted from our heart, it is not difficult to identify Christ in this passage: He is the Light of Israel, the Holy One of Israel. And knowing that the Lord Jesus is the perfect expression of God’s being, in whom all the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form, we must therefore reject any interpretation of Scripture that portrays God in any way that contradicts the revelation of God we have been given in Jesus Christ. God will not act in any way that contradicts how Christ acts and what Christ teaches, or else we should have to conclude that Christ is not really the full and perfect expression of God after all.

So if we read this passage as being about God taking retribution on his enemies, we are reading counter to Christ, who teaches us to love our enemies and do good to those spitefully use us. It is also counter to what Paul teaches us in Romans 12. Does God repay evil with evil? No! But God overcomes evil with good, which is precisely what Paul teaches us to do. So any idea of God doing harm to anyone runs counter to Christ and the gospel, and so, simply will not do. Otherwise, we end up worshiping a false god, a petty, Zeus-like deity. But the true God is like Christ.

But if we can only see in Isaiah 10 a god who does harm to anyone, then we are seeing a god who is not worth worshiping, but a petty, jealous, self-centered, self-seeking deity who is quite different from Christ. For Christ loves his enemies, and love simply does not intend harm. Indeed, in the New Testament, we see, through Christ, that God is love. And harming others is nowhere to be found in Christ’s example of love or in Paul’s description of it in 1 Corinthians 13. Christ does not overcome evil by hate or by harm but by the humility of the cross, and it is in the humility of the cross the we see the glory of God, grace of God, and love of God most fully revealed.

There may be several spiritual, Christ-centered interpretations about what is happening in Isaiah 10 and what Christ is doing there. But here is one that strongly impresses itself upon me: I see that there is a persistent theme of pride and arrogance, not only in the behavior of Israel but even moreso in the behavior of Assyria and the king of Assyria.

Willful pride and arrogance are spiritual enemies of the soul, and so enemies of the people of God. But God allows these spiritual enemies to test his people in order to break them of their own pride and arrogance so that they might return to God in reliance upon him. Then God deals with pride and arrogance itself through the one who is the Light, the Holy One of Israel. This is Christ, who is humble and lowly in heart, and who has conquered the pride and arrogance of the world through the humility of death on the cross.

I am reminded of Luke 22, where the disciples are arguing over which of them should be considered the greatest — they are behaving proudly and arrogantly. In verses 31-32, Jesus says, “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

Satan wants to have at all the disciples, to “sift” and test them. Jesus does not prevent this, but he tells Simon Peter in particular that he has prayed for him that his faith will not be completely overthrown, so that when Simon recovers in his faith, he will be able to strengthen and stabilize the others in their faith.

This was on the night before the cross, and Jesus saw that pride and arrogance were testing his disciples. But, of course, through the humility of the cross, Christ destroyed the power of satan, the power of pride and arrogance.

In broad strokes, what I find in Isaiah 10 is God’s people are being sifted by pride and arrogance, but then pride and arrogance are destroyed by Christ, and the people of God return and trust in him. Spiritual enemies test them; the enemies are themselves destroyed; the people turn back to Christ; the people rely on Christ. The progression we see here is the progression we find in the Gospel.

This, then, is an interpretation that takes Isaiah 10 as being about Christ and is shaped by the contours of the gospel — it is Christ-shaped and cross-shaped, which is as it should be. And it does not portray God in a way that contradicts the way of Christ.

This way of interpreting is not a novel approach. The early Church Fathers approached texts like this in the same way I have done above. See, for example, how Origen interpreted the genocide texts in the book of Joshua (Reading With the Church Fathers (Part 3/3)). See also St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “Life of Moses” (it is not very long, and it can be found online).

Of course, no one is obliged to accept my interpretation of Isaiah 10, and I make no claim that it is the only legitimate one. In fact, I noted above that there may be many other legitimate interpretations. But any interpretation of Isaiah 10, or any other Old Testament Scripture, that portrays God in any way that contradicts the way and teaching of Christ ought to be rejected as unworthy of the Christian faith. That is because Jesus Christ is the perfect expression of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3). He is the one in whom all the fullness of divinity dwells in bodily form, so that whoever has seen Christ has seen the Father.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)
Luke 24 records two encounters that took place on the evening of the Resurrection, two encounters that are important for how we read the Scriptures (the Old Testament). The first was when Jesus came upon the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The second was after the Emmaus disciples came and found the Eleven disciples huddled in Jerusalem and told them what had happened; suddenly and inexplicably, Jesus was standing among them.

The Emmaus disciples had been downcast about what had happened. They had believed Jesus was a great prophet but were now very confused. Jesus had been crucified and was buried, and just that morning the tomb was found empty — and they didn’t know what to think. Now here was Jesus standing before them, though they did not realize it was him. Jesus told them how foolish they were not to believe all the prophets have spoken, about how Messiah must “suffer these things and then enter his glory.” It had all been in the Scriptures, but they had not recognized it. So Jesus interpreted Moses and the Prophets for them concerning all these things. This was no mere recital about bits and pieces scattered here and there; Jesus showed them that the Scriptures are about him, especially how he must suffer and enter into his glory — he showed them the Cross and Resurrection.

When they reached their destination, they invited Jesus to stay with them. Jesus accepted, and at table with them he took bread, gave thanks for it, broke it and gave it to them. In that eucharistic action, their eyes were “opened” (the Greek word is dienoigen, which means to open thoroughly) and they immediately recognized Jesus.
Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened [dienoigen] the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:31-32)
Jesus vanished from their sight. They had not recognized him when he first encountered them, though he was clearly visible to their physical sight. But now they could see him clearly in the Scriptures and in the Eucharistic action. Notice the two movements here: Jesus “opened” (dienoigen) the Scriptures to them. Second, their eyes were “opened” (dienoigen) at the Breaking of the Bread.

Why did Jesus open the Scriptures to them? It was because they were closed. Was Jesus carrying around all the Old Testament scrolls and then he literally unrolled them? Of course not. Yet he opened thoroughly the Scriptures to them — not a little, but thoroughly — so they could see that they are about Jesus the Messiah. Before, they had not understood them. Now they did, and now they could see Jesus clearly in them. Before, the Scriptures had been veiled to them, though they had not realized it. But now Christ thoroughly opened them, and the veil was lifted.

In the second encounter, the two Emmaus disciples were with the Eleven in Jerusalem when Jesus suddenly appeared, standing in their midst.
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened [dienoigen] their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:44-47)
Up until now, the Eleven had not understood the Scriptures. They knew them, they heard them read, but they had not understood them who they are about. They had been with Jesus for three years, hearing his parables and teachings, witnessing his miracles, but they had not understood the Christ-centered, cross-shaped nature of the Scriptures. But now Jesus thoroughly opened their minds to understand them and see they are about Jesus.

Christ thoroughly opened the Scriptures to them. He thoroughly opened their eyes to see him in the Breaking of Bread. He thoroughly opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. He taught them that the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms — the whole of the Scriptures — are about him, about his death and resurrection and glory. And so Jesus teaches us, as well, about how to read the Scriptures: we look for Jesus in them because they are about him. But we will not find Christ in them by literal interpretation; Christ did not give us literalism as an interpretive principle, but he gave us himself as the interpretation of the Scriptures.

As we consider how the apostles and New Testament authors treated the Old Testament Scriptures, we see that they did not read them literally. When Paul speaks of Sarah and Hagar (Galatians 4), he is not giving a literal interpretation. When he speaks of the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10), he is not giving a literal interpretation. Or when he speaks of the Rock in the wilderness (1 Corinthians 10:40). No, he speaks of them all very differently from what a literal interpretation of the corresponding Old Testament Scriptures would yield. By the literal method, we would never see that the crossing of the Red Sea is about baptism, or that the Rock followed them in the wilderness, and that this Rock is Christ. Paul understood what Christ taught both the disciples and the Jewish leaders, that what Moses wrote was about Christ. “These things happened to them as ensamples,” Paul tells us. The word for “ensample” is typos. Paul expressly identifies them for us as types, which indicates that their meaning is about something else — and that something else is Christ. A type is

In Hebrews 10:7, the author observes that what is said in Psalm 40:7 is about Jesus the Messiah. Then he quotes the passage: “Then I said, “Behold, I have come — in the volume of the book [scroll] it is written of me — to do your will, O God.” The “scroll” here is the scroll of the Law, that is, the Torah. The phrase “volume of the scroll” does not merely mean there are bits here and there in the scroll of the Law that are about Christ, but it indicates that the whole of the scroll, everything wrapped around the spindle post of the Scripture scroll, is about Jesus.

It was not only the New Testament authors who treated the Scriptures as being about Christ, but so did the early Church Fathers. St. Irenaeus, for example, wrote Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in which he shows how the Apostles and the Fathers preached Christ. The stunning thing about it is that the early apostolic preaching about Christ was not from the New Testament Gospels or epistles but from the Old Testament Scriptures. The Fathers did not arrive at this by literal interpretation but by spiritual interpretation shaped by Christ and the gospel.

Another example is St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his Life of Moses. In this book, Gregory goes through the Moses narratives in the Torah and shows that they are about Christ, the gospel of Christ and the body of Christ.

But here is a counter-example: There was one early Church figure who interpreted the Old Testament Scriptures literally, and that was Marcion. Are you familiar with him? What Marcion saw by interpreting the Old Testament literally was a portrayal of God that is quite contradictory to the revelation of God given to us in Jesus Christ. What he saw by a literal interpretation was a petty, hateful deity not worthy of our worship — and indeed, such a deity found by literal interpretation is a moral monster, hateful and petty, and not worthy of worship. So, Marcion pitched out the Old Testament Scriptures altogether.

But the early Church Fathers did not do as Marcion did. They did not abandon the Scriptures, because they understood something very important about the Scriptures that Marcion did not: the Scriptures are about Christ, through and through. So any interpretation that did not align with the revelation of God in Jesus Christ was rejected.

In Luke 24, we learn that the Old Testament Scriptures are about Christ, and until we read them in a Christ-centered, cross-shaped way, our understanding has yet to be opened to them; they remain veiled to us. But when we learn to read them as testimony to Jesus Christ, the Cross and the Gospel, we will learn to understand them the way the New Testament authors and the early Church understood them.

Below are a couple of examples of what a Christ-centered, cross-shaped interpretation of the Scriptures might look like.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Reading the Old Testament with the Early Church

There are three things we should understand about the Old Testament and the early Church if we want to read the Scriptures the way the first Christians did. First is that, for the early Church, the Old Testament constituted the Scriptures. The Gospels and Epistles had not yet been written. It was not until about the AD 50s that the epistles began to be written, and the 60s that the Gospel writers began their work. But the Church had the Old Testament, and their faith was that it was all about Jesus, because that is what Jesus had taught his disciples, and they found Jesus and the gospel all throughout. Even when the New Testament writings came along, the Old Testament remained indispensable for the Church in her understanding of Christ.

The second thing to realize is that the Old Testament the early Church used was not the Hebrew version but the Septuagint, also known as the LXX, an ancient translation of the Hebrew text into Greek. This was the common form of the Scriptures used among the scattered Jews because, in their exile, a great many of them did not know Hebrew. It was natural then for the early Church, even though the first Christians were Jewish, to read and study and incorporate this Greek version into their liturgies. And whenever the New Testament writers cited or quoted the Old Testament Scriptures, as they very often did, it was the Greek version that they used. The Septuagint deserves much more respect than many evangelicals have been willing to give it.

The third thing we need to recognize is that, though the early Church found Christ everywhere in the Old Testament, they did not do so by a literal or grammatical method of interpretation but by allegorical or figurative readings of the Scriptures. We can observe this in how the New Testament writers handled the Old Testament. Whenever they cited, quoted or alluded to the Scriptures, the take-away for them was always about Christ and the gospel, even when a literal reading of those Scriptures would have shown no evidence of such — indeed, there are several Old Testament passages which, if taken literally, would be a contradiction of Christ and the gospel. For several centuries, the early Church followed the exegetical pattern of the apostles and New Testament writers. They did not go to the Old Testament Scriptures for history lessons but for spiritual nourishment, the testimony of Christ they contained — and they did not lack for food.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

All God’s Promises are “Yes” in Christ
But as surely as God is faithful, our message to you is not “Yes” and “No.” For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was preached among you by us — by me and Silas and Timothy — was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 1:18-22)
There are several things that stand out for me about this passage. First is that Paul is speaking of all the promises of God. “No matter how many promises God has made” is a statement that includes every one of God’s promises. But when were these promises made, and where? Surely, Paul has in mind everything God promised in the Old Testament Scriptures. These promises are not just a few scattered here and there in the Scriptures. The whole movement of the Old Testament is one of promise, and is summed up in God’s big promise to bless all the nations and families of the earth through Abraham.

Every one of God’s promises in the Old Testament is answered in Christ. If that is so, then it seems to me that they must all be about Christ. And if that is so, then I find in that one more indication of how we ought to read the Old Testament: it is about Christ. Indeed, Christ taught his disciples that the Scriptures are about him, and this is how Paul and the other New Testament authors understood them.

All these promises are answered in Christ with a big, fat “Yes.” People waffle. People qualify their “yes” with “no.” People say “maybe.” And with people, it is often hard to know where you stand. No so with God. In Christ, he has made it very clear where we stand with him, and it is an unqualified, unconditional “Yes.”

Christ is God’s “Yes” to us all, for by his Incarnation, Christ joined himself to us all and became one with us all. Christ is God’s faithfulness to his promise to Abraham to bless all the earth. God’s “Yes” redounds to us all not because of anything that we have done but because of Christ’s union with us.

Paul says that it is God who makes us stand firm in Christ. This is nothing of our own doing; it is the faithfulness of God in Christ. It is God who has anointed us, even as he anointed Christ with his Spirit. It is God who has put his Spirit in our hearts. And it is God who has set his seal on us, demonstrating that, Yes, we are his people. We contributed nothing at all to this, not even our faith, but it is Christ’s faithfulness that has done this for us.

Not only is Christ God’s “Yes” to us but he is also our “Yes” to God. “Through him the ‘Amen’ is spoken by us to the glory of God.” It is through our union with Christ, and the Spirit of Christ within us, that we can say “Yes” and “Amen” to God.

This “Amen” is not what has caused us to be union with Christ. We are in union with Christ not because of our faith but because of his Incarnation. But by our “Amen,” we say “Yes” to this union. It is the faith by which we embrace this union, recognizing the truth of it and giving ourselves over to it. The “Amen” we speak is the echo of God’s “Yes” to us through Christ and his Spirit, and is offered to God through Christ and the Spirit.

Both God’s “Yes” and our “Amen” are the work of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — bringing to pass what God promised long ages ago. This is the divine fellowship we have been brought into through Christ, and God in his love is graciously waking us up to it.

Friday, June 9, 2017

God and a Christ-Shaped Theology

The way we worship is the way we believe. Back in the fourth century, Evagrius of Ponticus said, “The one who prays is a theologian; the one who is a theologian, prays.” I have discovered that the more I consider Christ, the more my theology changes in conformity to Him. One of the changes this has meant for me is in how I understand the portrayal of God in the Old Testament.

I take all the Scriptures to be true, but I take them all to be about Christ. Because that is what Christ taught us they are about. I take their witness of him to be trustworthy, authoritative and infallible — because that is the purpose God has intended for them (see Intention and Inerrancy). However, I do not take them to be infallible in regard to whatever other purpose we might wish to put them to.

I have a very great problem with an interpretation of the Scriptures that depicts God as destroying a whole world of people, or of commanding genocide. Such depictions seem to me to be ungodly, because they are unChristlike. The New Testament teaches us that Jesus is the perfect expression of God. Jesus himself said that anyone who has seen him has seen the Father. So we should expect that God behaves like Jesus and not in a way contradictory to Christ and his teaching. We should expect that God practices what Jesus preached.

And what did Jesus preach? He taught us to love our enemies. And how does love behave, or what does love look like? Like genocide? Of course not! The New Testament shows us very clearly what love looks like and how it behaves. We can see this in the Gospels. We can see it in the cross. We can find it in the epistles: for example, in First John, in 1 Corinthians 13, in Philippians 2 and elsewhere.

We find in First John that God is love. Love is not just something God has, something God does or something God chooses. No, love is what God is. Love is his nature, so everything God does is the manifestation of his love. That being so, we should expect that God always acts in love towards all, even towards the wicked and all who have considered God their enemy.

How does God deal with his enemies? By wiping them out? No! But we can see in Jesus Christ what God does: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). How does God deal with his enemies? Not by killing them but by humbling himself for our sake. By pouring himself out on our behalf. By uniting himself with us, and by shedding his own blood on the cross for us, to free us from the power of sin and death.

So I reject any interpretation of the Scriptures that portrays God in such a way that contradicts the revelation of God we have in Jesus Christ, and in what Christ and his apostles have taught us about love. Though my discipleship may be weak, erratic and poorly lived, I take the Christ-centered hermeneutic very seriously, and I am challenged by the Christ-shaped, cross-shaped theology in the Scriptures.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Reading the Scriptures with Unveiled Heart
But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. (2 Corinthians 3:16)
For the Church, the Old Testament is a theological book that reveals the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus himself showed us that the Law and the Prophets are about him and that he is their fulfillment (see Luke 24:25-27, Matthew 5:17 and John 5:39-40, 46). Jesus also showed us that the Old Testament cannot be understood properly apart from him. On the night of his resurrection, he came to his disciples and said, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then, Luke says, “he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45).

The disciples had been with Jesus for three years — following him, watching him, listening to him, learning from him — yet there was still something vitally important they were missing about the Scriptures. What they needed was for Jesus to “open their minds.” The Greek word for “opened” is an intensive one and means to open thoroughly and completely. The word for “mind” is nous, which encompasses not only the intellect but also heart and soul. Jesus helped them put it all together, to understand it not only in their brain pan but deep in the core of their being, in the realm of the spirit. This is revelation from the Spirit of God communicated to the human spirit, something Paul talks about in his letter to the Church at Corinth.
What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind [nous] of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:12-14)
Christ opened the nous of the disciples, imparting by the Spirit something of Christ’s own nous to them, and they gained a new understanding that had up till now eluded them. And now they could see the Scriptures for what they had been all along: a testimony to Christ.

In another letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul spoke of a dullness and a veil that hindered a good understanding of the “old covenant” (that is, the Old Testament). But in Christ, he says, that veil is lifted.
We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory into glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:14-18)
We do not really understand the Old Testament until we read it with the veil removed and discover the glory of Christ there. The revelation of Jesus Christ changes how we see everything. He is the lens through which we read the Scriptures and the context by which we understand the world. His glory is a light by which we can see what we could not see before but was there all along, that it is all about Christ and has ever been so. This same glory that illuminates and reveals Christ to us in the Scriptures also illuminates us and reveals the image of Christ in us, transforming us in ever-increasing glory.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reading with the Church Fathers (Part 3)

Jesus taught that the Law and the Prophets are about him. That is how the early Church Fathers understood the Old Testament, rejecting interpretations that were inconsistent with the revelation of God in Christ, as presented in the New Testament and the sacraments. This often entailed setting aside literal interpretations as unworthy of Christ.

An important and often disturbing issue that regularly comes up concerns the violent passages in the Old Testament. Though there have been several strategies to mitigate the magnitude of physical violence indicated by a literal reading of these passages, there remains much that does not square with the revelation of Jesus Christ. The Church Fathers, therefore, found Christ in the Old Testament Scriptures through non-literal interpretations, as did the New Testament writers. In this post, we will see how they understood two of the most prominent scenarios: the violence texts found in the book of Joshua, and the instruction given to Saul to slay all of the Amalekites.

There are several scenes in the book of Joshua that indicate divinely-sanctioned violence. By a literal reading, it sounds like genocide, the total destruction of a people. Origen addresses these in his Homilies on Joshua. He does not take them literally but as Christ defeating our spiritual enemies. Concerning the violence done to the cities of Lachish, Libnah, and Hebron (Joshua 10), Origen says:
But one who is “a Jew secretly,” that is, a Christian, who follows Jesus, not as the son of Nun but as the Son of God, understands all these things are mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. He affirms that even now my Lord Jesus Christ wars against opposing powers and casts out of their cities, that is, out of our souls, those who used to occupy them. And he destroys the kings who were rulers in our souls “that sin may no longer reign in us,” so that, after he abolishes the king of sin from the city of our soul, our soul may become the city of God and God may reign in it, and it may be proclaimed to us, “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Homilies on Joshua, by Origen. Translated by Barbara J. Bruce. Homily 13, p. 125)
Concerning the things that followed after Jabin, in Joshua 11, Origen says:
Unless those physical wars bore the figure of spiritual wars, I do not think the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciples of Christ, who came to teach peace, so that they could be read in the churches. For what good was that description of wars to those to whom Jesus says, “My peace I give to you; my peace I leave to you,” and to whom it is commanded and said through the Apostle, “Not avenging your own selves,” and, “Rather, you receive injury,” and, “You suffer offense”? In short, knowing that we do not have to wage physical wars, but that the struggles of the should have to be exerted against spiritual adversaries, the Apostle, just as a military leader, gives an order to the soldiers of Christ, says, “Put on the armor of God, so that you may be able to stand firm against the cunning devices of the Devil.” And in order for us to have examples of these spiritual wars from deeds of old, he wanted those narratives of exploits to be recited to us in the church, so that, if we are spiritual — hearing that “the Law is spiritual” — “we may compare spiritual things with spiritual” in the things we hear. (Homily 15, p. 138)
1 Samuel 15
Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:1-3)
This was the word Samuel brought to King Saul. By a literal reading, Saul was to completely destroy the Amalekites. There was to be no mercy. Every man, woman, all the children, including infants, were to be slaughtered along with all the cattle, sheep, camels and donkeys. Saul carried out this command. Mostly. But he left alive King Agag. And he took some of the choice sheep and cattle and offered them in sacrifice before the Lord, though it was not his place to do so.

When Samuel came and discovered Saul’s failure to obey completely, he was very displeased and said to him, “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams ... You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!” (1 Samuel 15:22, 26). Then Samuel had Agag brought before him, “and Samuel put Agag to death before the LORD at Gilgal” (v. 33).

How very different this sounds from the image of God that is perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ. But how did the Church Fathers understand this passage through Christ? Most of them did not address the question of violence but focused on the spiritual issue of obedience to the Lord. There is, however, this from Maximus the Confessor, in his second hundred of his Two Hundred Texts on Theology:
53. Saul is the natural law originally established by the Lord to rule over nature. But Saul was disobedient: he spared Agag, king of Amalek [cf. 1 Sam 15.8-16, 13], that is, the body, and slipped downward into the sphere of the passions. He was therefore deposed so that David might take over Israel. David is the law of the Spirit — the law engendering that peace which so excellently builds for God the temple of contemplation.

54. Samuel signifies obedience to God. So long as the principle of obedience exercises its priestlike office within us, even though Saul spares Agag — that is, the earthly will — yet that principle in its zeal will put him to death [cf. 1 Sam 15. 33]: it strikes the sin-incited intellect and puts it to shame for having transgressed the divine ordinances. (from The Philokalia, translated by Palmer, Sherrard and Ware, Vol 2, p. 150)
Notice that Maximus does not take this as a literal slaughter of Agag but as controlling the passions between of body and soul. Agag is a symbol of “the earthly will” as opposed to obedience to the will of God.

The Church Fathers repeatedly took the meaning of these kinds of passages to be spiritual in nature, not about physical slaughters but about Christ and the conflicts of the soul.

Part 1 | Part 2

Friday, June 17, 2016

Reading with the Church Fathers (Part 2)

We have been looking at how the early Church Fathers understood various Old Testament passages. A literal or historical reading often presented a portrait of God that contradicts the revelation of God presented in Jesus Christ, who is the “exact representation” of God (Hebrews 1:3). This creates a tremendous theological problem, and some early Christians, following the lead of Marcion, rejected the Old Testament altogether.

The early Church Fathers were well aware of the problem but were unwilling to resolve it by rejecting the Old Testament as Marcion had done. Instead, they read the Scriptures through the revelation of Christ and the gospel, as presented in the New Testament. It was Christ himself who said that the Old Testament Scriptures are about him. But Christ is not plainly presented in the Old Testament as he is in the New, so a plain reading simply will not do — it does not conform to the intended purpose of the Old Testament, which is to present Christ.

The Fathers, then, understood the Old Testament through metaphorical, symbolic and allegorical readings. Now we will look at a few more examples.

Deuteronomy 7:1-2
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you — and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
By a literal reading, this prescribes what sounds very much like a genocide — not just the defeat of an enemy but the total destruction of an entire people. No treaty, no quarter, no mercy. But is this how God is portrayed in Christ, or how Christ is portrayed in the New Testament? The Church Fathers certainly did not think so. John Cassian, in his Conferences, reads this passage in a figurative way and understands the seven nations not as seven actual nations to be annihilated but as vices to be completely eliminated.
These are the seven nations whose lands the Lord promised to give to the children of Israel when they left Egypt. We must accept the fact that, according to the apostle, all the things that happened to them in a figure were written for our instruction. The reason that they are said to be much more numerous is that there are more vices than virtues. Therefore in the list they are counted as seven nations, to be sure, but when it is a question of destroying them they are said to be innumerable. (Conference 5)
Psalm 137:8-9
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
By a literal reading, this sounds like God blesses the wanton and calloused destruction of Edom (the “daughter” of Edom) and even the brutal killing of infants (or children, or perhaps young men). But a literal reading contradicts what Christ teaches us: to love our enemies. So a literal reading was set aside by the early Church Fathers, who interpreted this text along these lines:
And David, pitying her, says, “O wretched daughter of Babylon.” Wretched indeed, as being the daughter of Babylon, when she ceased to be the daughter of Jerusalem. And yet he calls for a healer for her and says, “Blessed is he who shall take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” That is to say, shall dash all corrupt and filthy thoughts against Christ, who by his fear and his rebuke will break down all actions against reason, so as, if any one is seized by an adulterous love, to extinguish the fire, that he may by his zeal put away the love of a harlot and deny himself that he may gain Christ. (Ambrose, Concerning Repentance)

For “the little ones” of Babylon (which signifies confusion) are those troublesome sinful thoughts that arise in the soul, and one who subdues them by striking, as it were, their heads against the firm and solid strength of reason and truth, is the person who “dashes the little ones against the stones”; and he is therefore truly blessed. God may therefore have commanded people to destroy all their vices utterly, even at their birth, without having enjoined anything contrary to the teaching of Christ. And he may himself have destroyed before the eyes of those who were “Jews inwardly” all the offspring of evil as his enemies. (Origen, Against Celsus)
Isaiah 63:1-6
Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah, with his garments stained crimson? Who is this, robed in splendor, striding forward in the greatness of his strength? “It is I, proclaiming victory, mighty to save.” Why are your garments red, like those of one treading the winepress? “I have trodden the winepress alone; from the nations no one was with me. I trampled them in my anger and trod them down in my wrath; their blood spattered my garments, and I stained all my clothing. It was for me the day of vengeance; the year for me to redeem had come. I looked, but there was no one to help, I was appalled that no one gave support; so my own arm achieved salvation for me, and my own wrath sustained me. I trampled the nations in my anger; in my wrath I made them drunk and poured their blood on the ground.”
Again, by a literal reading, this sounds like God rejoicing to destroy Edom in a rage of revenge and blood-lust. But again, this is not at all like God as portrayed by Christ and the gospel. But see how very differently the Fathers understood this passage by a Christ-shaped reading.
The only-begotten Word of God ascended in the heavens with his flesh united to him, and this was a new sight in the heavens. The multitude of holy angels was astounded seeing the king of glory and the Lord of hosts in a form similar to ours. And they said, “Who is this that comes from Edom [that is, from earth], in crimsoned garments, from Bosor.” But “Bosor” is to be interpreted as “flesh” or “anguish and affliction.” (Cyril of Alexandria, Letter 41)

And does not also the Holy Spirit, speaking in Isaiah, testify the same thing concerning the passion of the Lord, saying, “Why are your vestments red and your garments as from treading the wine press full and well-trodden?” For can water make vestments red, or is it water that is trodden by the feet in the winepress or forced out by the press? The mention of wine is placed there, indeed, that in the wine the blood of the Lord may be known and that which was afterward manifested in the chalice of the Lord might be foretold by the prophets who announced it. The treading and pressing of the winepress are also spoken of, since wine cannot be prepared for drinking in any other way unless the cluster of grapes is first trodden and pressed. Thus, we could not drink the blood of Christ unless Christ had first been trodden on and pressed, and unless he had first drunk the chalice of which he should also give believers to drink. (Cyprian, Letter 63)

And, if they marvel and say, as in Isaiah’s drama, “Who is this that comes from Edom and from the things of the earth?” or “How are the garments red when he is without blood or body, as of one that treads in the full winepress?” — if they say this, then set forth the beauty of the array of the body that suffered, adorned by the passion and made splendid by the Godhead. Nothing can be lovelier or more beautiful than that. Will you think little of him because he humbled himself for your sake? Do you conceive of him as less because he girds himself with a towel and washes his disciples and shows that humiliation is the best road to exaltation? (Gregory of Nazianzus, On Holy Easter, Oration 45)

They call the red land “Edom,” and “Bosor” to the flesh; they were amazed at the ineffable beauty of the one wrapped in earthly and fleshly apparel, such as to drive those who looked to love. The blessed David is mindful of this beauty: “Fair and beautiful among the sons of humankind.” That Edom means flame-colored is affirmed in the Song of Songs by the bride, who cries, “My beloved is red and white.” Christ’s nature is twofold. Therefore, white means the inaccessible light of divinity, red the human appearance. For this is the time for these who were brazen to receive retribution and for those unjustly enslaved by them to get their freedom. He calls “arm” the power of righteousness, for he guarded spotless and free from sin the nature that he assumed. We who have benefited from this good work and have been delivered from that bitter slavery, let us sing praises to the author of these things. He was the one who underwent the battle and provided us with the gift of victory and peace. Let us hope that we can enjoy this victory until the end, by the grace of the one who has conquered. (Theodoret of Cyr, Commentary on Isaiah)

In order, however, that you might discover how anciently wine is used as a figure for blood, turn to Isaiah, who asks, “Who is this that comes from Edom, from Bosor with garments dyed in red, so glorious in his apparel, in the greatness of his might? Why are your garments red, and your clothing as his who comes from the treading of the full winepress?” The prophetic Spirit contemplates the Lord as if he were already on his way to his passion, clad in his fleshly nature; and as he was to suffer therein, he represents the bleeding condition of his flesh under the metaphor of garments dyed in red, as if reddened in the treading and crushing process of the winepress, from which the laborers descend reddened with the wine juice, like men stained in blood. (Tertullian, Against Marcion)
For the Fathers, this was not the blood of physical enemies but of Christ. This is the passion and humility of the cross; not Christ taking the life of the Edomites in a bloody rampage but Christ giving his own life, shedding his own blood for our sakes. Some also saw, in the opening lines, a depiction of Christ ascending into heaven, risen and victorious.

Of course, the Fathers were not infallible in their interpretations. But the point is that they were reading the Old Testament in ways that are consistent with Christ instead of in literal ways that contradict him.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Reading with the Church Fathers

As we saw in the last post, the New Testament authors found Jesus throughout the Old Testament — not by a plain, literal reading of the text but by figurative, metaphorical and allegorical readings. The early Church Fathers followed this same pattern of interpretation. The examples of this are as numerous as the Old Testament Scriptures themselves, over the next few posts, we will focus on a few of them. We will first consider them from a literal or historical reading, then we will look at how the early Fathers understood them through a Christ-centered, gospel-centered reading.

Psalm 41
This psalm came up in my devotional reading this morning. By a plain, historical reading, it is about David and his experience of God. But the Church Fathers understood it as about Christ and the gospel. Theodoret of Cyr makes an observation in this psalm that is generally applicable to all the psalms: “Since the Lord says, ‘for the Scripture to be fulfilled,’ and shows the present psalm applies to him and no one else, I consider it rash and presumptuous to develop another explanation not applicable to him” (Commentary on the Psalms).

Ambrose comments on the superscription as it is found in the Septuagint version of this psalm. “He who had perished in Adam had to be restored in Christ. That is why we have, at the head of the psalm, ‘To the end,’ because Christ is the end to which all our hope is directed” (Commentary on Twelve Psalms).
Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the LORD delivers them in times of trouble. (Psalm 41:1)
Gregory of Nyssa says of this: “The Word defines blessedness for us in another way than at the beginning. For in the first psalms, to depart from evil was blessed, but here to know the good more fully is pronounced blessed. Now the nature of the good is the ‘only-begotten God,’ ‘who, though he was rich, for our sake became poor.’ The Word here predicts his ‘poverty’ in the flesh, which is pointed out to us through the Gospel account, pronouncing the one who has recognized that ‘poverty’ with understanding blessed” (Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms).
I said, “Have mercy on me, LORD; heal me, for I have sinned against you.” (Psalm 41:4)
Theodoret of Cyr understands this as Christ identifying with us in our poverty, suffering and sin: “I am the one who is poor, he is saying, who embraced voluntary poverty, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who makes my own the sufferings of human beings, who though having committed no sin offers the prayer for human nature as nature’s firstfruits” (Commentary on the Psalms).
My enemies say of me in malice, “When will he die and his name perish?” (Psalm 41:5)
Here, Augustine says: “He died, but his name did not disappear; far from it. Rather was his name sown like seed. As the grain was dead, the harvest sprang up. No sooner had our Lord Jesus Christ been glorified than people came to believe in him far more strongly and in much greater numbers; and then his members began to hear the same mutterings that their Head had heard” (Expositions of the Psalms).
When one of them comes to see me, he speaks falsely, while his heart gathers slander; then he goes out and spreads it around. All my enemies whisper together against me; they imagine the worst for me, saying, ‘A vile disease has afflicted him; he will never get up from the place where he lies.’ Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me. (Psalm 41:6-9)
Theodoret sees in this the false charges brought against Christ as he stood before Pilate. Ambrose and Augustine see Christ’s betrayal by Judas, as do Arnobius the Younger and Diodore of Tarsus.
But may you have mercy on me, LORD; raise me up, that I may repay them. I know that you are pleased with me, for my enemy does not triumph over me. Because of my integrity you uphold me and set me in your presence forever. (Psalm 41:10-12)
Theodoret says: “All this was said on the part of the nature assumed, which was involved also in the passion. Since, then, the assumed nature remained free of all wickedness, it was right for him to say, ‘But you supported me for my innocence and confirmed me in your presence forever’” (Commentary on the Psalms).

Second Kings 2:8-14
This passage also came up in my devotional reading this morning. By a literal, historical reading, it is about the prophets Elijah and Elisha.
Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and the to left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied. “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours — otherwise, it will not.” As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two. (2 Kings 2:9-14)
The simple narrative is that Elijah parts the Jordan River by striking it with his mantle, then they both passed between the waters to the other side. There is a brief conversation about Elisha receiving Elijah’s spirit. Then a chariot of fire suddenly appears and Elijah is conveyed to heaven in a whirlwind. Reading through the lens of Christ and the gospel, however, the Fathers see that there is much more at work in this account.

Origen understands the parting of the Jordan and crossing to the other side as baptism, just as Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10:2, understood Moses leading the children of Israel between the waters of the Red Sea as baptism:
We must note in addition that when Elijah was about to be taken up in a whirlwind as into heaven, he took his sheepskin and rolled it up and struck the water, and it was divided on this side and that, and both crossed, that is to say, himself and Elisha. He was better prepared to be taken up after he was baptized in the Jordan, since Paul, as we explained previously, called the more incredible passage through water a baptism. (Commentary on the Gospel of John)
He understands the “spirit” of Elijah in regard to John the Baptist as a precursor of Christ:
And this also we have brought forward, because of John having come before Christ “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” in order that the saying “Elijah has already come” may be referred to the spirit of Elijah that was in John; as also the three disciples who had gone up with him understood that he spoke to them about John the Baptist ... And likewise, by Elijah, in this place, I do not understand the soul of that prophet but his spirit and his power; for these it is by which all things shall be restored, so that when they have been restored, and, as a result of that restoration, become capable of receiving the glory of Christ, the Son of God who shall appear in glory may sojourn with them.” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew)
Bede the Venerable, in his Homilies on the Gospels, understands the whole narrative as a rich typology of the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, the imparting of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the institution of the sacraments of the Church. This is a longer passage but provides a very good example of a Christ-centered reading of the Old Testament.
The prophets proclaimed the mystery of the Lord’s ascension not only by their words but also by their actions. Both Enoch, the seventh from Adam, who was transported from the world, and Elijah, who was taken up into heaven, gave evidence that the Lord would ascend above all the heavens …

Let your love take note, my brothers, how the symbolic event agrees point by point with its fulfillment. Elijah came to the river Jordan, and having laid aside his cloak, he struck the waters and divided them. The Lord came to the stream of death, in which the human race ordinarily was immersed, and laying aside from himself for a time the clothing of flesh that he had assumed, struck down death by dying and opened up for us the way to life by rising. The change and decline of our mortal life is properly represented by the river Jordan, since the meaning of Jordan in Latin is “their descent,” and since as the river flows into the Dead Sea, it loses its praiseworthy waters.

After Jordan was divided, Elijah and Elisha crossed over on dry land; by his rising from the dead the Savior bestowed on his faithful ones the hope of rising too. After they had crossed over the river Jordan, Elijah gave Elisha the option of asking for what he wanted. The Lord too, after the glory of his resurrection had been fulfilled, implanted in his disciples a fuller comprehension of what he had promised previously, that “whatever you ask in my name, I will do.”

Elisha asked that the spirit of Elijah might become double in him. The disciples, thoroughly instructed by the Lord, desired to receive the promised gift of the Spirit, which would make them capable of preaching not only to the single nation of Judah, which he himself taught when he was present in the flesh, but to all countries throughout the globe as well. Did he not pledge the double grace of his Spirit when he said, “A person who believes in me will himself also do the works that I do, and he will do even greater ones than these”?

As Elijah and Elisha were conversing together, a chariot with fiery horses suddenly snatched Elijah as if into heaven. By the chariot and fiery horses we are to understand the angelic powers, of whom it is written, “He makes the angels his spirits and his ministers a burning fire” (Elijah, being an ordinary human being, had need of them to be raised up from the earth). The Lord too was suddenly taken up as he was speaking with his apostles and as they were looking on; although he was not assisted by the help of angels, he was served by an angelic band of companions. He was truly assumed into heaven with the angels also bearing witness to it, for they said, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven.”

When Elijah was raised up to the heavens, he let the cloak with which he had been clothed fall to Elisha. When our Lord ascended into heaven, he left the mysteries of the humanity he had assumed to his disciples, to the entire church in fact, so that it could be sanctified by them and warmed by the power of his love. Elisha took up Elijah’s cloak and struck the waters of the river Jordan with it; and when he called on the God of Elijah, were divided, and he crossed over. The apostles and the entire church took up the sacraments of their Redeemer that had been instituted through the apostles, so that, spiritually guided by them and cleansed and consecrated by them, they too learned to overcome death’s assaults by calling on the name of God the Father and to cross over to undying life, spurning the obstacles of death.
Though we may not be accustomed to reading the Old Testament in this fashion, the Church Fathers were. But it is important to note that they were not undisciplined or unlimited in their approach. Their understanding of the Old Testament did not venture outside the boundaries of Christ and the gospel. All was understood within that framework.

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