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Scripture, Icons, and the World We Know

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  • Christopher Orr
    *Scripture, Icons, and the World We Know* *By Fr. Stephen Freeman* *I ask for grace in writing this, lest I go beyond my ability. It seems to me well worth
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 7 6:49 AM
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      *Scripture, Icons, and the World We Know*

      *By Fr. Stephen Freeman*

      *I ask for grace in writing this, lest I go beyond my ability. It seems to
      me well worth saying as discussions of the relationship between Scripture,
      dogma and science have surfaced. I offer this as food for thought as well as
      a ground of discussion.*

      First, I will note an American Protestant tradition (somewhat thin these
      days but still present in plenty of places within our culture). What I have
      in mind was once known as a "Common Sense" reading of Scripture. If was
      built philosophically on Scottish Common Sense philosophy, which held that
      we knew things directly and that any person of common sense was, if without
      prejudice, able to come to agreement with other persons of common sense. It
      was popular in parts of America and at one time (19th century or so) held
      absolute sway at Princeton and a number of other institutions, and was
      associated with such names as B.B. Warfield, et al. With the gradual demise
      of the formal fundamentalist movement after the 1920's, this method became
      more of an interesting bit of historical knowledge, though many parts of it
      remained within the common treatment of Scripture among conservative
      Protestants. Among its assumptions was the "perspecuity" of Scripture - that
      is - it was perfectly understandable and interpretable by a person of common
      sense who approached it with good will and a desire to know the truth.

      Much of this philosophy and theology of Biblical interpretation were a
      necessary part of Protestantism. If the Scriptures did not have such a
      quality of "perspecuity," then some authority would be in charge of
      interpretation - all of which looked like an inevitable return to

      For a history of Fundamentalism in America and its philosophical
      underpinnings as well as its various schools of Biblical interpretation, I
      highly recommend George Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture: the
      Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism,
      Marsden currently teaches at Notre Dame, though he was at Duke at the time I
      studied there. His scholarship on American religion is among the finest

      All of this is stated as a prelude to the Orthodox approach to Scripture.
      First, it is only fair to say that modern Orthodoxy has more than once had
      tremendous influence from both Protestant and Catholic scholarship,
      sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Much twentieth-century
      work has been to firmly build Orthodox scholarship on the foundation of the
      fathers and the Tradition as received within Orthodoxy. I think the study of
      Scripture is one of those areas where much work remains to be done (as do
      many other areas). That's to say (to my dear readers) - just because you
      read a book by somebody who is Orthodox and you like a lot, does not mean
      you are necessarily reading definitive Orthodoxy. It's never that easy.

      I will offer a quote which I have used before:

      "Man," says St. Maximus, "has the absolute need for these two things, if he
      wants to keep the right way to God without error: the spiritual
      understanding of Scripture and the spiritual contemplation of God in

      The spiritual understanding of Scripture is a permanent tradition of
      Eastern spiritual writing. In this context, St. Maximus also has the
      sternest words for those who can't go beyond the literal meaning of
      Scripture. Ignorance, in other words, Hades, dominates those who understand
      Scripture in a fleshly (literal) way:

      *He who doesn't enter into the divine beauty and glory found in the letter
      of the Law falls under the power of the passions and becomes the slave of
      the world, which is subject to corruption� he has no integrity but what is
      subject to corruption.*

      The exact understanding of the words of the Spirit, however, are revealed
      only to those worthy of the Spirit; in other words, only those who by
      prolonged cultivation of the virtues have cleansed their mind of the soot of
      the passions receive the knowledge of things divine; it makes an impression
      and penetrates them at first contact. *This is from Dumitru
      Staniloae's*Orthodox Spirituality

      A "so-called" Common-sense interpretation of Scripture, or even the
      "literal" reading, if you will, though sometimes correct, is in many
      instances not the reading of the Church or of the Fathers and simply leads
      us into incorrect conclusions.

      I think this is particularly the case when treating the early chapters of
      Genesis and seeking to bring them into current scientific dialog. It is
      insufficient to say that the "world is now different than God created it,"
      thereby attempting to rescue a literal reading of Genesis. In terms of the
      creation of the world, St. Maximus tells us that the "Incarnation is the
      cause of all things." This pretty much undermines a literal, chronological
      treatment of Scripture as in the common-sense tradition.

      *Genesis* certainly tells us much about the condition of humanity - of our
      turning away from God - but a spiritual reading of that book is certainly
      required. particularly in the first few chapters, replete as they are with
      messianic reference, etc. To make of those chapters a "common-sense"
      description of the creation of the universe and the precise metaphysics of
      our fall from grace, is probably to miss most of what those chapters have to
      say to us.

      The Fathers (and I think particularly of St. Maximus the Confessor here) in
      the East really began to tackle the questions of human sin, free will, etc.,
      primarily as they thought about Christ and what was revealed to us in Him
      about the truth of being human (Jesus was not only fully God, but also fully
      man, and thus could alone serve as the example of what it means to be "fully
      human"). And this work was not done until the 5th century. Interestingly,
      they started there rather than from some sort of systematic theology of the
      early chapters of Genesis.

      In modern times, Fundamentalists, working within the Common Sense tradition,
      saw Darwin's work as the complete undermining of the authority of Scripture.
      The entire modern battle between science and the Bible has largely been a
      Protestant concern. The terms of that battle have been created largely on
      that playing field. When Orthodox step onto the field they are like David
      wearing Saul's armor. Something just doesn't fit.

      We have interesting verses in Scripture regarding creation. For one, we are
      told by St. Paul,

      For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be
      compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest
      expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of
      God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because
      of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be
      delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the
      children of God (Romans 8:18-21).

      Thus St. Paul makes it quite clear that God made the creation subject to the
      same futility and bondage to corruption which we know as human beings and
      that the creation will take part in the same redemption that is ours in
      Christ Jesus.

      When God looks at what He made in Genesis and says, "It is good," is the
      statement a comment on things as they are, as they were, or as they shall
      be? (or some combination thereof). We know, theologically, that nothing is
      "good" except God alone. How could He describe the universe as "good" except
      as it comes to be in the finality or completion of its creation when it is
      fully united with Him (Ephesians 1:10)?

      It was certainly common among the Eastern fathers to see Adam and Eve as
      "adolescents" rather than fully completed, already having achieved perfect
      image and likeness. St. Irenaeus holds this teaching and it is fairly common
      among the Eastern fathers. They do not tend to focus on Genesis and
      "original sin" to the extent that became common in the West.

      Why do I include icons in the title of this piece? I do so because of the
      marvelous theological hint given us in the Seventh Ecumenical Council:
      "Icons do with color what Scripture does with words." This is a clear
      recognition both of how icons work, but also of how Scripture works. Icons
      are windows - they make it possible to see beyond them to something else.
      They do not necessarily (in fact rarely) depict anything in a strictly *
      historical* manner and yet what they depict is true. I see in Genesis a rich
      icon of the creation. Knowing how to read that icon, how to see what is
      shown us by God, requires far more than common sense. It requires a purer
      heart than I know I have - it requires a relationship with both God and with
      creation that I do not yet have. But I do know that it is pointing me beyond
      myself and further than my "common sense" would ever take me.

      As for science - it has its own rules and ways of reading the universe.
      Sometimes science and the faith cross paths. Inasmuch as we both want to
      know the truth, we share a common journey. Inasmuch as science seeks to
      control the universe, we part ways. But the assumption that there is all one
      big truth to which Bible and science both belong - this is part and parcel
      of Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, not exactly a part of Orthodox
      Tradition. There is much to be discussed by Orthodox in our modern world.
      Some of that discussion requires a deeper appropriation of the Tradition.
      Some of that discussion requires that we speak about things that science is
      making known. But everything requires that we find the Truth at it is
      revealed in Christ - wherever and however that is so. Glory to God.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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