How Orthodox don’t (and do) read scripture

All literalisms seek to rid Scripture of its mystery. The “plain sense” in the hands of a modern reader is simply the “modern sense.” And though such literalisms may yield readings that are deeply opposed to certain modern conclusions (such as those common in modern science, etc.), they are not therefore ancient and traditional. Such conclusions yield nothing more than a modern man with odd opinions. They do not transform or transfigure anyone or anything.

The debate about the interpretation of Scripture, particularly on the level of most argumentation, is a strikingly modern debate. At stake are modern issues born of the modern era. But they are not the issues of salvation.

Whether evolution is true or not, whether the earth is young or not, and whether the Scriptures lend any clue to such questions is, frankly, beside the point… No saints will emerge from the debate.

But consider this short hymn (typical of the Orthodox understanding of Scripture):

O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all, O Ark of the Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which Divinity resides (Homily of the Papyrus of Turin).

That Mary is the true Ark, containing the true Manna, is more than a mental exercise in theological exegesis. If truly and rightly perceived, it is the utterance of a heart that is being pierced by the mystery of the gospel. For the gospel is made known to us in a mystery – it is hidden.

(Fr. Stephen Freeman, Making Known the Mystery, emphasis added)

Another Example:

Mother of God of the Unburnt Bush
Mother of God of the Unburnt Bush

As I sat on my bed staring down at the image, the first sight that caught my eye was the Mother of God, surrounded by green leaves and red flames. I realized that this icon was a representation of Moses and the Unburnt Bush from The Book of Exodus. I recalled that Exodus describes the bush as burning, yet unconsumed. Gears turned in my head, and it clicked that the Unburnt Bush was a prefiguring of the Mother of God in the paradox of her virgin motherhood. At that time, I found myself focused on the primary images of the icon rather than those in the background. I noticed Moses, removing his sandals, kneeling below the Mother of God as she holds her infant Son …


Do I contradict myself? Does the Church contradict itself? Which is Mary: Ark or Burning Bush? Stop the double-talk and give an answer!

Very well then: Yes. Ark and Burning Bush and more:

  • Joseph is a Christ figure.
  • Moses in a basket on the Nile is baptism.
  • The sacrifice of Isaac? Christ again.
  • Jonah? Take a guess.
  • Manna? The Eucharist.

And, yes, Sarah (whatever her undisclosed Christian tradition may be) is right about the burning bush and the icon pictured.

Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

(Luke 24: 26-27)

This is not an optional alternative to literalism. Literalism is mistaken. The New Testament doesn’t take the Old “literally” in its countless “that it might be fulfilled that was written by the prophet” asides. The path of literalism is the way to become “a modern man with odd opinions.” 

Indidualism and “soul competency” are mistaken, too:

The trouble with reading Scripture is that almost everybody thinks they can do it … The concept of any intervening authority is anathema to the Protestant project. It is equally unsuitable to the assumptions of the modern world. For the modern world, born in the Protestant milieu, is inherently democratic. The individual, unaided, unbridled, and unsubmitted, is the ultimate authority.

A book that could not have been owned by an individual prior to the printing press in the 15th century (by reason of cost) cannot be used philosophically to support the autonomy of the individual right and competency to read and interpret. With the sole exception of Philemon, the letters of the New Testament are not written to individuals (Timothy and Titus receive letters only by virtue of their position as leaders of a community). They are letters to the Church and the individual is not a Church. The practice of the reading of Scripture for nearly 1400 years was largely that of listening to its being read within the assembly of the Church – and this continued for quite some time even after the printing press’ advent. The doctrine of “soul competency” is a modern invention, contrary to the New Testament itself and the practice of primitive and early Christianity. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy. Every pretender to its throne is a usurper.

(Fr. Stephen, whose Making Known the Mystery and Again – The Sin of Democracy I’ve conflated)

Typology is not an Orthodox exclusive. Some Old Testament types are so obvious, you can’t miss them, and few do. But Orthodox typology runs deeper and broader. And it’s our predominant approach to the Old Testament.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.