This is a paper I wrote as a requirement for a Diaconate training course within the OCA (Orthodox Church in America) under Fr. Silviu Buntu. The topic of the course was traditional Orthodox interpretation of Scripture.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The goal of this paper will be to illustrate traditional interpretation of Scripture as practiced by the Jews and early Christians and continued primarily in the Eastern Church.
In the West there is a recent movement to treat the scriptures as a piece of literature. Dead words on a dead page to be dissected and picked apart, its organs harvested and distilled, at best down to medicine or tools, and at worst mere entertainment.
Contrast this with historical understanding and practices, where Scripture is alive and timeless.
The fundamental lens through which its authors and early audiences looked at scripture is the bifocal lens of:
- God is speaking to and about you.
- When God speaks, it is for your edification (it is useful to you).
Let us turn to, and examine, a sermon of our Father among the saints, St. John Chrysostom, in order to see how this lens might help transmit the light of God into our souls.
I chose this scripture, and the sermon on it, as a test and a proof. If this lens is a useful lens, it will be able to be used to examine literally any passage of scripture. So why not the very first passage? I also happened to have St. John Chrysostom Eight Sermons on the Book of Genesis translated by Robert Charles Hill from Holy Cross Orthodox Press sitting on my shelf just calling me to read it. So to prove this point I decided (without having read a single word of the first sermon) to simply use the very first sermon and whatever scripture it happened to focus on as the subject of my paper. I was in no way disappointed, and in fact delighted with what I found. I read both this sermon and the scriptural topic of it more deeply than most sermons or scriptures I’ve read before. The scriptures are truly a mine rich with veins of precious stones and ore beyond counting or comprehension.
Let us begin our examination of Chrysostom’s sermon with the very question we are attempting to prove is the foundation of the traditional lens of interpretation:
What relevance to us, you ask, has the account of Creation? Well, it does have relevance to us, dearly beloved: if “the creator is perceived by analogy in the immensity and beauty of created things,” we are guided to the creator to the extent that we dwell upon the beauty and immensity of created things.
It is a great good to know, on the one hand what a created thing is and, on the other, what the creator is, what an artifact is and what the artificer: if the enemies of truth knew how to make a precise distinction between them, they would not confuse everything, putting below what is above – not that they bring stars and heaven down or elevate the earth, but that they thrust down the king of heaven from his royal throne, placed him with creation, and dignified creation with the ranking of divinity.
Turning to our lens through which we are to prove the Fathers look at scripture, we see that Chrysostom is indeed immediately explicitly asking both of the questions that comprise this lens. Again, this lens is that: God is speaking to and about you in a useful way.
Chrysostom’s explanation for these things has to do with those heretics who say that God is emergent from the universe, making God subservient to the universe. These heretics survive to this day although they know not their fathers the Manicheans (although the modern heretics may know the Greeks). As Chrysostom says, if God emerged from the universe –as did we– then He is no more God than we are, and creation itself is the Creator.
This is great, and true! But what does it say about us exactly? How does this prove our lens? He comes back to answer this:
The sky is beautiful, but the reason it was made was for you to adore its maker; the sun is brilliant, but it is for you to worship its creator. If, on the contrary, you are bent on stopping at the wonder of creation, and becoming attached to the beauty of the works, light has become darkness for you – or, rather, you have turned light into darkness.
Do you see how great a good it is to know the doctrine of creation?
Chrysostom’s argument here seems to be that all of creation points towards, and should draw you into, the worship of the creator. Looking at our scripture through our lens, Chrysostom seems to indicate that what the Bible is actually saying is, “In the beginning, God made heaven and earth for you. He filled it with beauty to delight you; to show you how special you are, how worthy of all good things you are, and through this immense numinous inspiring greatness point with but a glimmer towards how deserving of your worship God is.”
Chrysostom then turns to examine why God would speak of the origin of all things in the way that He did. Not only why use the words He used, but why written? Chrysostom points out that the accounts of Genesis show that God at first spoke directly to man, but that
since our nature took a turn for evil, and separated itself by a lengthy exile, as it were, at long last He sent us letters as though we were absent for a long time and He intended to reestablish the former friendship through an epistle. While it was God who sent the letters, it was Moses who brought them.
Again we see the lens revealed. “In the beginning God made heaven and earth” is the overture of a lengthy and carefully worded love ballad to woo our hearts and draw us back to him. This isn’t “history” or “scientific records” or “documentation”. It’s not put there to disprove evolution, or even (as he is somewhat using it) to argue against Greek philosophy or Manicheanism. It’s a love letter. To you.
So, that’s why written. You are in a far off country, and God is seeking to call you home to Him. But, what about the words? Why those words?
why did He not speak to us about the angels, or about the archangels? After all, if the creator is discerned in created things, much more does He become visible through them. Heaven is beautiful, but not as beautiful as an angel; the sun is brilliant, but not as brilliant as an archangel; so why did He reject the higher way to lead us by the lower? […] It was not possible to guide [the jews Moses was speaking to] to the creator by the higher way: high though that way is, it is more rugged, steep and rather direct for the weaker kind. Hence He leads [the Jews] by the easier route, through heaven and earth and sea and the whole of visible creation. […]
Just as with teachers, you see, the teacher who receives the child from the mother teaches it the elements first, whereas the one who receives it from another teacher leads the pupil to a higher level of teaching, so too was it in the case of Moses and Paul and John: Moses came upon our nature when it was just weaned and knew nothing, and so he taught it the elements of the knowledge of God, whereas John and Paul, receiving them from master Moses, as it were, led them on to the higher level of teaching, reminding them in brief of what had preceded.
This quote was excerpted from two pages in which he went to some lengths to show that throughout the scripture the case God is making becomes more and more advanced, but that God, through Moses, begins at the most basic and easily understood place. Not that it is any less true, but for infants with no teeth, this milk is all that can yet be consumed.
This speaks to the second aspect of our lens, that is, that all scripture is useful to us. God is teaching us about ourselves and about himself and he starts at the most basic starting point of all. “I made everything.” No matter where you are on your spiritual journey, this is the easiest and most basic definition of God. “Creator of all”.
Soon he will move on to more advanced things, such as “I AM”, which in itself is incomprehensible, but still meaningful for us. But he has to take us by the hand as we toddle along and take those baby steps to get there. So, again, this proves the point that traditional interpretation of scripture sees all scripture as being somehow useful to us, and in this case part of that usefulness is that it is immediately usable.
The opening lines of the Bible are not placed there for historical purposes (although they are historically accurate in that God did indeed create all) but rather there to teach us about Him and our relation to Him, namely that we are dust and He is God.
Chrysostom spends the next two pages showing that this single opening line is of great value and use to you in refuting Manicheanism (a dualistic –light vs dark, good vs evil– religion which does not consider God omnipotent, but rather a force locked in an eternal conflict with an opposite) and Manicheanism’s children both externally, but also in yourself. He points out how little we know about even how the food we are eating becomes our body, or really how any other things actually work. If we can’t even understand basic physical created things, how could we dare to question God’s method or ability to create:
if He is infinitely different from us and surpasses us incomparably, how would it not be a mark of utter madness to confess both His wisdom and His power as divine and incomprehensible, and yet call Him to account in the same fashion for each of the things that happen as one would some human skill?
“The reasoning of mortals is worthless, and their designs insecure.” So do not forsake what is reliable by entrusting the salvation of your soul to what is unsteady and insecure; instead, stay firm in what you learned and to which you are committed, and say, In the beginning God made heaven and earth.
You understand, in comparison to all that there is to understand, closer to nothing than everything. Your knowledge is so limited as to be laughable on the grand scale. But God knows, because He made it all. Do you fear? Do you doubt? Do you worry? Say to yourself, “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth”. This scripture is useful to you in that it is pragmatically usable by you. God made everything. God knows everything. You are dust, and completely in His power and knowledge. Trust Him over you.
In the midst of this Chrysostom takes a slight, but meaningful, diversion to show the continuity between the Old and New Testament:
Do you see the relationship of both Testaments? Do you see the harmony of the teaching? Did you hear of the creation of material things in the Old and David speaking of spiritual things, “Because He spoke, and they were created”? Likewise in turn in the New, they spoke of the invisible powers, and spoke also of material creation.
He is touching on a heresy that has long plagued the church (and never will go away in all probability). That is, that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God of the New. However, the Orthodox understanding is that He is the same God. This speaks to the usefulness of the text to you. If you don’t have it firmly established in your mind that this God who made all things is the same God who loved you so much that he gave His very life for you, then it is possible you won’t see this opening line of much use other than as some sort of “Just So” story. No more relevant to you than “How the Elephant Got its Trunk”.
Near the end of the sermon, Chrysostom turns towards a call to charity:
Now, God is glorified not only through right teachings but also through a blameless life; in the words of Scripture, “let your light shine in people’s sight so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” I intended to add words about almsgiving; but it seems superfluous for me to instruct you by word when there is one seated in your midst who is capable of teaching you by deed, the father and teacher of us all1. He has always made available to those hounded on all quarters for the sake of truth […] our possessions then become most of all ours when our possession of them is not for ourselves but always for the poor.
Chrysostom here shows that the Earth and all within it belongs to God. That which you can give away is the only thing you truly own. Otherwise it owns you, you are the servant and beneficiary of it. So, since God has given all to us, it shows that He is the true owner of all. He is the creator, and the owner. He existed prior to it, and thus does not rely on it for His existence. He is not dependent upon it for his survival. He can give it away and be harmed not at all.
The way that Chrysostom makes this point though is brilliant because for those that miss the point, it doesn’t matter at all that they missed it, because what they certainly do get is that he is exhorting them to almsgiving. He states that giving to the poor is the best possible investment you can make.
And how do we know? Because God Himself sets this example for us. The widow gave all she had (her two mites). What use is two mites when it is all you have? God gave all He had to us. But to Him it was less than two mites. It was nothing, because he relied on it not at all, and could in no way be sustained by it. Yet it was everything because it was all that is, and indeed He went even further and gave His very Self to us. This investment in “the poor” (us –for we have nothing and are utterly impoverished) was the investment He chose to make because it gained Him all he desired. That is, it gained Him us which though He Himself made of dust he treasures above all else. Likewise, if we but give our two mites, which aren’t even ours to begin with, we gain2 all our hearts desire, and incalculable wealth –in that we gain Him.
- I misread this portion of the text to assume Chrysostom was literally referring to God when he said “There is one seated in your midst…”, when in actuality he was seemingly referring to Bishop Flavion. That said, even if Chrysostom himself never intended to make the point I saw in his words, I like to think it is possible that it was a hidden meaning in his words, even if purely accidental.
- This is not to be taken in a “transactional” way. This isn’t “Simony”. You can’t “buy” God, anymore than He can “buy” us. It’s more like… If you’re in a hot air balloon, trying to get altitude, and you’re weighed down by a ton of “stuff”, it would be the dumping off of that stuff that would “gain” you the altitude you desire. You’re not buying it, it isn’t transactional, but it is still necessary (to your ability to gain altitude) that you dump the extraneous weight. So, giving away the “two mites” might seem like you’re “buying” something, but it isn’t. There’s no guarantee. It’s not transactional. So many other things have to be correct (environment, wind, and weather, fuel, flame, basket, ropes, canvas, etc). Throw all the money and sandbags you want on the ground and it isn’t going to make you float up into the air.