Interpreting Scripture

Interpreting Scripture November 26, 2019

Anonymous: Old Bible / pxhere

St. John of the Cross, with great wisdom, warned people against following simple explanations of any visions or locutions they (or others) might have. Even if they are authentic, which is not certain, their meaning would likely be different from what they seem to say because they express truths which transcends our comprehension, as they come from God:

Clearly, in regard to the first, not all revelations turn out according to what we understand by the words. The cause is that, since God is immense and profound, he usually includes in his prophecies, locutions, and revelations other ways, concepts, and ideas remarkably different from the meaning we generally find in them. [1]

This is especially true in regards anything which can be said to be prophetic: “We must not consider a prophecy from the perspective of our perception and language, for God’s language is another one, according to the spirit, very different from what we understand, and difficult.” [2] We must note that prophesy is not necessarily predictions about the future; rather, prophesy is anything spoken in behalf of or for God, with God’s inspiration.

The greatest prophecies can be said to be found in the divine oracles given to us in Holy Scripture. For the Christian, the authenticity of Scripture is beyond dispute. But we must not presume the meaning of Scripture is clear. It is not. The simple reading is often a distorted reading because it tries to capture the fullness of God’s truth in and through the letter of the text. Instead, taking what St. John of the Cross said, we can should accept that not even the writers of Scripture understood the full meaning of what they wrote:  “We see this at every step in Sacred Scripture. With a number of ancients, many of God’s prophecies and locutions did not turn out as had been expected, because they understood them in their own way, in another very literal manner.”[3]

To be clear, the value of Scripture is not to be denied. It is central to the church’s presentation of its own beliefs. It is inspired. The writers are inspired. Contained within it are many levels of truth which can be and should be discerned. But because it is inspired, because it is prophetic (in that the writers are speaking on behalf of God), the meaning contained in it transcends the intentions and understandings of the various writers who wrote the texts contained within Scripture. We must keep this in mind when we try to interpret Scripture for our own benefit. We must be very humble, for if God could inspire the authors to write texts which have a meaning that transcends what the authors themselves intended, we must be careful and not assume that what ascertain from Scripture is either one of its authentic messages or the full intended meaning God wants us to have from Scripture.

This cannot be emphasized enough. More than any simple locution, more than any simple vision, Scripture is filled with inspired meanings which the authors themselves did not always understand. We can, and should, try to find out what the author of any particular text in Scripture wanted to explain with their words, but we must understand that the inspiration goes beyond their original intent. What each particular writer intended to write and say with their words has value; it is filled with grace, but it is of a derivative nature, so that if we try to stand on it alone, we will have only a partial understanding of the intent the Holy Spirit had when inspiring various authors to write Scripture.

Each particular author wrote from their own particular time and circumstance. Based upon the context from which they wrote, we can then begin to discern what it is they wanted to say, and see the relative truth value contained behind their intent.  For they wrote according to their limited knowledge and understanding, with some having greater insight than others. What they wrote had value, and is not to be simply dismissed, but that value came from the historical reference point from which they wrote. Their text helped in the ongoing development of revelation, with each text pointing out something which needed to be stated in their time and place. Each author helped lead their audience closer to the fullness of the truth. Revelation was progressive, and so earlier forms of revelation could be seen as true, while subsequent revelation demonstrated a greater, keener insight towards the truth which can sometimes seem to contradict earlier revelation. But if we understand the intent properly we will see how they come together to point out the same truth, the same way people pointing the direction to a particular location will point differently according to where they are in relation to the location in question.What seems like contradictions must be seen as points to to used for a spiritual kind of triangulation. Christians believe that such triangulation should  lead to and point to Jesus Christ, for it is in the incarnation we have the complete and perfect revelation of God to humanity.

In this way, we can understand why we can see Scripture as being inspired, pointing out a great truth which we should believe, while not accepting all the beliefs that particular authors of Scripture might have had.  We are not expected to hold onto a fundamentalistic reading of Scripture, accepting without question various cultural and historical beliefs about the world which have since been overturned.

This is exactly what Paul was trying to get us to see when he discussed the relationship between the letter and spirit (cf. 2 Cor: 3:4-6). The letter is the original context of the text, with the author’s own understanding and message; the spirit is the prophetic inspiration which lay behind the author’s writing of the text. The spirit does not force the author to write in particular ways, but allows them to write according to their own understanding; the texts come out in a perfectly human form, with human thoughts and words, but those thoughts and words, the author’s intent, are all the casing for the inspiration and the transcendent message God wants us to have from Scripture.  Thus, Origen tells us, the Spirit of God, working in and through human authors, gives as teachings which go beyond what we first think they mean, that is, beyond the letter and all such externals:

Then, finally, that the Scriptures were written by the Spirit of God, and have a meaning, not such only as is apparent at first sight, but also another, which escapes the notice of most. For those (words) which are written are the forms of certain mysteries, and the images of divine things. Respecting which there is one opinion throughout the whole Church, that the whole law is indeed spiritual; but that the spiritual meaning which the law conveys is not known to all, but to those only on whom the grace of the Holy Spirit is bestowed in the word of wisdom and knowledge. [4]

For this reason, when we read various viewpoints coming from different authors of Scripture which seem to contradict each other, we should have no problem. We can easily recognize that it is because the authors differed from each other based upon their own human limitations. So long as we focus on the letter of the text, we will find contradiction after contradiction develop in Scripture. But if we go beyond the letter, to the spirit which inspired the text, to the greater truth which the various authors all point to, we can see how they reconcile with each other and share with each other a truth which transcends all human attempts to delineate it through written texts.

This is not to say all Scripture is to be seen merely as a collection of riddles which offers little to nothing to the ordinary reader. The simple meaning of the text has value; it is just that we must not limit ourselves to that simple reading, nor assume that it contains the full meaning intended for us to receive; rather, it is the foundation by which we begin our journey in trying to ascertain the wisdom God would have us learn by inspiring authors with grace to write Scripture for us.

The point of all this is to help us understand why we can discern many ideas in Scripture, coming from the various authors of the texts themselves, which can be said to be Scriptural because they are found within the contents of Scripture, which we do not have to believe or accept as being the fullness of the truth. If some authors view Israel as the center of the world, and they hold an almost exclusivist view of Israel so Israel alone has a relationship with God, though there is value to this (which can be found when Israel is spiritualized), we do not have to hold this viewpoint. Similarly, if  many (if not most) of the authors of Scripture view God in his relationship with humanity as a kind of exclusive relationship, we can understand this is also a part of the letter of the text, coming from the limited understanding of the authors who, being human, focus on humanity and God’s relationship with humanity. It is easy to confuse a particular relationship between God and someone else as being exclusive if that is all one knows and understands, which explains how this often finds itself in the letter of the text. Nonetheless, as we are not limited to the letter text, but seek the spiritual content which lies beyond it, we can begin to go beyond such exclusivity and into an inclusive interpretation: Israel is special, but God is not bound to that special relationship and so is also a God over all the earth, caring for and loving all  humanity (which, to be sure, is hinted at in the letter of many texts within Scripture). Likewise, God cares for humanity, and has a special relationship with humanity because of the incarnation, but we must not see that as implying an exclusive relationship between God and humanity.  And, if we discern carefully, even Scripture, on the literal level of interpretation, we can see implied by various texts that God is concerned not just with humanity, but all living things (is this not what we should learn from the way God covenants with all creation after the great deluge?). The exclusive viewpoint is derivative in nature, and when reified, becomes a letter that kills, but when it is understood within its context, we find we do not have to be limited to it; we can understand the sentiment while looking beyond it. This does not say Scripture is false, but it does point out how Scripture can easily be misinterpreted and lead to falsehood. For when the spirit is neglected, Origen warned, heresy develops: “Many, not understanding the Scriptures in a spiritual sense, but incorrectly, have fallen into heresies.” [5]

How, then, are we to understand the spiritual meaning of Scripture? This is not easy. The more we study, the more we learn from others, the more we will hopefully begin to discern it and be able to engage it in our own walk with God. However, as a foundation, what St. Augustine wrote is very useful: all Scripture, all interpretation of Scripture, should flow from the two-fold law of love, and not contradict it. This way, Augustine says, even if we interpret it wrong, even if we get something wrong, we are still on the right track:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception. [6]

If we try to discern Scripture within the pattern and dictates of love, which is the whole of the law, we can use this to lead us to the second point, which is that Christ said that all Scripture leads to and points to him. How so? God is love, and in the incarnation, in Christ, we are given the revelation of that love. He is, in a way, the heart of God showing to us the very depth of God’s love. When we build upon love as our foundation, we build upon the revelation of love shown to us in Christ. Scripture represents that love in various ways, in the various ways God, as Trinity, interacts with creation, purifying it, lifting it up, and taking it back into himself as he deifies all creation with his love. This is the point of Scripture. This is the point Christ came to reveal to us. This is what the Spirit reveals to us through its inspiration of the prophets, the writers of Scripture. This is what we should strive for. And when we truly realize this, we can then go back to the letter of the text and begin to see how the Spirit moved the writers in that love to direct and guide people in their time and place to transcend themselves and slowly move closer to God and receive that love for themselves. In this way even in the letter of the text, the truth is revealed; and if the truth is revealed, then the text cannot be said to be  “false,” even if the fullness of the truth transcends what can be learned and believed by following only the letter of the text itself.

[1] St. John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. Trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991), 213.

[2] St. John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” 216.

[3] St. John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” 213.

[4] Origen, De Principiis in ANF(4): 241.

[5] Origen, De Principiis, 355.

[6] St. Augustine, “On Christian Doctrine,” in NPNF1(2):533.


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