Monday, July 11, 2016

Reading the Bible requires faith

Oftentimes reading the bible can be a difficult enterprise. We might come across a passage which simply makes no sense to us, or of which the discernible message seems to be something less than entirely helpful -- to understate it. This happens to me, same as it happens to everyone else who undertakes to search and study the scriptures.

In this respect, I cite here the words of the great theologian Origen of Alexandria:
If at anytime in reading the Scripture you stumble at something which is a fair stone of stumbling, and rock of offence, blame yourself; for you must not despair of finding in this stone of stumbling and rock of offence thoughts to justify the saying, "He that believeth shall not be ashamed." First believe, and thou shalt find beneath what is deemed a stumbling-stone much gain in godliness. For if we really received a commandment to speak no idle word, because we shall give account of it in the day of judgment; and if we must with all our might endeavour to make every word proceeding out of our mouths a working word both in ourselves who speak and in those who hear, must we not conclude that every word spoken through the Prophets was fit for work? and it is no wonder if every word spoken by the Prophets had a work adapted to it. Nay, I suppose that every letter, no matter how strange, which is written in the oracles of God, does its work. And there is not one jot or tittle written in the Scripture, which, when men know how to extract the virtue does not work its own work (Philocalia of Origen X, §1).
I like Origen for a number of reasons, one of which is the unyielding confidence which he has in the Christian scriptures as divine revelation. Precisely because they are the oracles of God, for that reason any apparent problem in the scriptures is really a problem in us. Certainly God is without error and so is his word; and so if anything seems off about some particular passage in the bible, Origen tells us we ought sooner to find fault with ourselves than with the passage in question.  Certainly it is antecedently more plausible that I should be wrong about something than that God should be the one mistaken! But this attitude, of course, requires that I be willing to doubt myself and to put my faith in God, rather than in my own judgment.

That is why Origen's most essential advice is this: First believe. We cannot approach God in any favorable and salutary way except through faith, because without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). If we approach him with trust, and if we ask with sincerity that he enlighten us, then Origen assures us that in the very same words which trouble us, we will find much gain in godliness. That is the beauty of the experience of reading the bible, which almost certainly Origen is describing here on the basis of his own experiences: the very things which were so problematic for us at one point, when we were in ignorance, later become precious and valuable, after God opens our eyes.

Origen justifies his trust in the usefulness of every bit of scripture in the greater consistency of God's message. If God teaches us not to speak vain words which do not edify, then how much less can we accept that he might speak an unedifying word, a message which does not help in any way! No, but here I appeal to the description of the Word of God in the Gospel according to John as being full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Because the Word is full of grace and truth, it both tells us our true state but it also does this for our own good, acting in our favor. Grace and truth are thus reconciled through the doctrine of God as love: because God is love (1 John 4:8), everything he does is aimed at our good; and so when he tells us painful truths about ourselves, he also does this in a way that expresses his grace, because he warns us about our state for the sake of saving us.

But there is something else in Origen's words that ought to be noticed, as well. He compares interpreting the scriptures to the work of an expert in botany and healing:
As every herb has its own virtue whether for the healing of the body, or some other purpose, and it is not given to everybody to know the use of every herb, but certain persons have acquired the knowledge by the systematic study of botany, so that they may understand when a particular herb is to be used, and to what part it is to be applied, and how it is to be prepared, if it is to do the patient good; just so it is in things spiritual; the saint is a sort of spiritual herbalist, who culls from the sacred Scriptures every jot and every common letter, discovers the value of what is written and its use, and finds that there is nothing in the Scriptures superfluous. If you would like another illustration, every member of our body has been designed by God to do some work. But it is not for everybody to know the power and use of all the members, even the meanest, but those physicians who are expert anatomists can tell for what use every part, even the least, was intended by Providence. Just so, you may regard the Scriptures as a collection of herbs, or as one perfect body of reason; but if you are neither a scriptural botanist, nor can dissect the words of the Prophets, you must not suppose that anything written is superfluous, but blame yourself and not the sacred Scriptures when you fail to find the point of what is written. All this by way of general preface, though it may be applied to the whole of Scripture; so that they who will give heed to their reading may beware of passing over a single letter without examination and inquiry (§2; emphasis added).
 If a person comes across difficulties in the scriptures which are too hard to understand or make sense of, he ought to recognize that interpreting the scriptures well is not something which anyone and everyone can do equally well. On the contrary, so long as Paul says that Christ left some pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11), I understand that not everyone is equally capable of the task of profound study of the scriptures. Some are specially equipped for this task, and their job is to help others for whom it comes with greater difficulty. This provides grounds for humility for everyone involved: those who are not gifted to recognize their limited capacity and to trust in the judgment of Christ in leaving others to be teachers; and those who are gifted as teachers to recognize that they have to do with God's words themselves, and that even their own greater understanding is a gift from above to be utilized well in service of others.


Michael J. Gorman said...

Some good thoughts. Thank you. (PS Do you know the source of the art? an illuminated ms. of some kind?)

Steven Nemeș said...

I wouldn't be able to identify it with certainty; I found it doing an image search. This might be helpful:

Michael J. Gorman said...

Thank you.