Audio length: 57:30 minutes
Transcript published: November 27, 2013
In his continuing series on Charles Darwin, Fr. Thomas reflects on the Darwinian revolution and Christian theology having to do with the Bible. How do the Scriptures relate to the scientific world in which we live especially following the 19th century?
Continuing our rambling reflections about the Darwinian revolution and the modern, contemporary natural science generally and the Christian faith—the Christian Gospel, Christian theology—we want to reflect today about the Bible, the holy Scriptures, and what we can possibly say about the Bible and holy Scriptures relative to the scientific and the scientistic world in which we live, following the 19th century and having to do with natural science, studying the created order—geology, zoology, biology, physics—studying things the way they are by what can be seen and weighed and measured and observed, and what kind of formulas and what kind of, even, mathematical formulas could be made to try to understand the physical activities that we see in the universe, of space and time.
We had this, indeed, not only Darwinian revolution, [but also] we have the scientific revolution, particularly after the 19th and 20th centuries, and it continues to grow; it continues to develop, and there’s more and more discussion about it, and there are those who say that that very revolution has simply led inexorably to atheism, or, at best, to agnosticism, that we cannot really know ultimate realities, but all the evidence seems to point against ultimate realities that are generally called religious.
There can be some spiritual realities, a kind of a god of Einstein or Spinoza or some kind of a god as a force or whatever you want to call it, but really attacking what is understood to be certainly the Judeo-Christian-Islamic view of reality. Perhaps, even, we can say Buddhism, in some sense, in the natural philosophies that have to do with living in time and space of human beings with their qualities of intelligence and morality and wisdom and insight and poetry and music, some people think are better served and there’s a better chance of some kind of cohesion between science and [an] Asian type of view of reality.
That may be; people definitely hold that, but what we are interested in here is Christian theology: Christian theology, Christian faith, Orthodox Christian faith, the Gospel and the Scripture as understood by Orthodox Christians vis-à-vis natural science and things like evolution and the doctrine of evolution and genetics and embryology and even modern physics, all the things that are studied now and that we know and really can claim to know that the theories are so well-founded and so well-argued that you can hardly say that they are not true; you have to say, “Really, all evidence points that this is the truth,” when you study things scientifically.
But the question, then, is: how does all that relate to the Bible? Or even more exactly, for us Orthodox Christians: how does all that relate to Orthodox Christian theology, Orthodox Christian faith, and Orthodox Christian understanding and interpretation and use of the Bible? How do Orthodox Christians understand what the Bible is, what the Scriptures are for, how they came to be, what is their purpose, how are they to be read, how are they to be understood?—because the answers to those questions are absolutely crucial if we’re going to relate holy Scripture to natural science. It really would help immensely, if you’re going to deal with science, to know what science teaches, but it certainly would help immensely, if we’re going to relate science to the Bible…
And now we can just speak of the Bible as a book, with writings in it, which contents is even disputed, not only in what those contents mean and what their purpose is, but even what the contents are, because, as you may know, the listeners to Ancient Faith Radio, the Eastern Orthodox Bible is different from the Western Roman Catholic; it’s closer, and [it’s] certainly different from the 66 books of the Protestant tradition. In the Orthodox Scripture, of the Hebrew Scriptures, Orthodox include within the canon of Scripture books which are not in, if you read a King James Bible, those books are not there, like, for example, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, the Esdras, the Maccabees, the Prayer of Manasseh, the Hymn of the Three Youths. These are, according to Orthodoxy, part of the holy Scripture. Some of them are read in church when we have church services, in worship, as being inspired holy Scripture.
But then that begs the question: what is inspired holy Scripture? How do we understand what that means? What is that for? What is that all about? If there is going to be an engagement of Orthodox Christian faith with natural science, then it is absolutely necessary to have understanding, at least the most cursory understanding, simplistic understanding, of the Orthodox Christian understanding of the Bible and relation to the Bible and use of the Bible, about what it is and what it says and how it is to be interpreted, if it is going to be related to the assured results of critical scientific study, in all scientific realms, be they natural science, like biology or geology or paleontology, zoology, or sciences like history or sciences like anthropology—what does it mean to be human; how do you study human culture, human history, on the planet? what do you see when you look at it “objectively,” just looking at the sources, at the activities, and trying to draw conclusions from that?—how would all that relate to Orthodox Christian faith and Orthodox Christian interpretation of holy Scripture?
This has to be somehow worked out, and I would even dare say it has to be worked out in advance. I believe any kind of dialogue between science and Scripture or science and the Bible or science and Christian faith will depend on what that Christian faith is, how it’s understood, and how it’s understood relative to what we now have in human life, in relatively recent time, by the way, a book called the Bible, which actually, ta Biblia in Greek, means “the Books.” It’s more… It’s graphoi; it’s the writings. In a sense, it’s made up of many books.
I can’t resist saying how once when I was young I read a review of the Bible in The Village Voice newspaper in New York City, which was a kind of very off-beat type of newspaper of hippie-dom in those days, or what we would call beatniks or hippies or whatever, way back when I was young. But this review was wonderful. It said the Bible is a book that now that the people debate about what its contents are and how it’s to be understood, but basically, it’s made up of two parts. There’s one part that Christians call the Old Testament; the Jews called Hebrew Scriptures. There’s another part that Christians call the New Testament. The old part is much longer than the new part, and the old part is made up of various interesting writings, filled with incredible repetition, saying the same story over and again many different times.
But it begins with some kind of a mystical insight about how things all [began], kind of creation narratives, and there are two of them, right side-by-side in the very first chapter of the Bible that seem to contradict each other. But then you have in that first book of the Bible called Genesis, which is part of a Torah, which means “instruction,” and it’s five books, that in that particular Genesis you have the stories of all this terrible stuff that happened after the creation of the world. The first thing you have is one brother killing the other brother, who are the sons of Adam and Eve, who are allegedly the first creatures, the first human creatures. Then you have the Babel tower; and then you have God even saying that he should have never created it, and he sends a big flood and wipes everybody out except Noah and some animals that he brings in, and even then were they two by two or seven by seven, because one version has two, the other has seven, and so on.
Then you have these terrible stories of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of carnality and lack of hospitality and sexual depravity and all kinds of stuff. The first eleven chapters are just nothing but terrible stuff if you read it. Then all of a sudden there appears this guy, Abram, and then God calls him and he changed his name to Abraham, and he promises that through him all the people of the world will be blessed. This Abraham himself is an unsavory character. He lies about his wife and he says, “[She’s] my sister,” and he gives her to the harem of the Egyptians and all this kind of stuff. Then Abraham has children: Isaac is finally born of Sarah, who’s barren, and it’s considered to be a great wonder of God that he is born, but then the first-born, Ishmael, gets cast out and his mother, Hagar, gets cast out. We should know that modern Arabs and the Muslim people think that they come from Ishmael and Hagar.
But then you have all these stories in Genesis about all these activities of what happens, and then these Israelite people, the sons of Jacob, get sold into Egypt and then they’re saved by their young brother, Joseph, who’s betrayed and they think he’s dead but he’s really alive, and then he takes care of them. Then God raises up this Moses, and he brings them out of Egypt after all these kind of plagues. What happens then is they’re out in the desert and they think they’re going to get smashed, but God keeps fighting for them, and he feeds them with miraculous bread from heaven, called manna, and he gives them water from a rock, he brings them to the Jordan. Moses himself is not allowed to cross because he didn’t kill all the women and children in one place where God told him to murder them all. And it’s filled with violence and blood, and then this Joshua and Caleb, they cross in and they get the land that God gives them.
Then you have all this history about the judges and the kings, and they’re terrible. They’re all worshiping the idols. They’re not serving God. God is smashing them. They’re dying. Only a couple of them seem to be keeping the rules that Moses gave, because Moses gave this huge law code, so a big part of this part of this Bible is a whole bunch of law codes, repeated and given in different ways backwards and forwards, seem to be written by different authors.
Then you finally go through the whole thing, and then you have all these things. You have prophetic writings, you have these men and some women being raised up and prophesying against the people, that God is angry with them and he’s going to smash them and give them in the hands of the enemy, but he remains faithful to them, and he promises that through them the whole world will be blessed.
Then you have another beautiful parts of poetic psalms and songs and hymns. Then you have wisdom literature, philosophy, codes of behavior. You have all this kind of writing in these books. Then you have some of the writings that are really way out! Guys have visions of chariots and fires and wheels and wheels and animals and going up and coming down and going here and going there, and all of this is supposedly revealed by God. And then finally you come to the end of all of this and you have all this kind of different writings written: law codes and stories and poems and claims of historical writings like about Solomon and David and all those kings of Israel, and then you have these prophetic writings filled with social justice and anger against the people who are not [righteous] with God. So you have all these different kind of writings, very different, very repetitious, some very difficult to understand and so on.
Then the claim is made that you have the second part, and the second part’s called the New Testament. That’s the writings of people who claimed that the whole first part existed to bring into the world a guy named Jesus of Nazareth, and that this Jesus is God’s own Son and he’s the last Prophet and he’s the great High Priest and he’s the King over all creation, and he gets nailed to a cross and they beat him up and spit on him and kill him and put him in prison, and then finally they take him out and they nail him to a cross, and the Gentiles do it, the Romans, and the leaders of the people are against him, but he has some of his own people [who] are for him, but one betrays him, one denies him.
And then, lo and behold, the claim is made that God has raised him from the dead, that he was crucified and buried, but some people said he was raised from the dead. And you have four different versions, short stories about this Jesus’ life while he was alive. The first three of them, who are claimed to be by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they tell basically the story in the very same way, often in the very same words although there are significant differences. Then in John you have the same story being told in a completely different way, and that story starts up in heaven and claims he’s the divine Son of God on the first page, and when he’s risen from the dead one of his disciples, named Thomas, calls him God. So you have these four stories about the life of Jesus.
Then you have the second volume of one of them; the gospel according to Luke has a second volume called Acts, which tells the story of the early Christians, the people who believed that this Jesus was the Christ and the Son of God and raised from the dead. The big figure in that story to begin with is Peter, the denier who is still the leader of the Apostles, and he preaches, but then you have another guy named Saul, Paul, who was a Pharisee and a Jew and learned and a Hellenistic Jew and from Tarsus, and he goes to Jerusalem and he kills the first Christian martyr, Stephen, for what he teaches, and then this Paul gets converted. And then he reads these Scriptures, and then he claims they’re all about Jesus, and he goes around preaching from these Scriptures that this is all about Jesus.
And then you have this Paul writing letters, and there are 14 of them attributed to him. Scholars say they’re not all by him; half of them are, half of them are probably from some of his disciples. Then you have other correspondence. You have this correspondence of Paul with these various churches and people, various communities and various people, people like Timothy and Titus and communities like Corinth and Galatia and Philippi and so on. Then you have three letters attributed to John, allegedly the same one who wrote that strange gospel, called the gospel according to St. John, which is different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Then you have two letters attributed to Peter, which most likely people didn’t think he wrote with his own hand, because it doesn’t seem that he could have. Then there were James and then Jude.
And then there’s an apocalyptic book at the end, called the Apocalypse, way out again, very much like Ezekiel and Daniel in the old Scripture, quoting a lot from Genesis, a lot from Isaiah the Prophet, all brought together that gives a kind of a vision of reality, of a clash between those who believe in this Jesus who was this Lamb of God who was slain and is alive again, and those who don’t. Then you have these incredibly poetic passages with strange numbers and numerology and cryptic statements and all this stuff that nobody could possibly figure out. And then the whole thing ends where it says that this Christ will come from heaven and the Spirit and the Bride will come and God’s kingdom will be established and those who are the virgins, that is, who don’t commit idolatry and fornication with the idols, they will enter into the kingdom and they will reign with this Christ, and others will get their punishment for not surrendering to the truth of God that allegedly is fulfilled in this Jesus who fulfills all these writings that these Christians call the Old Testament.
Of course, a lot of Jewish people think the Christian thing is just not true, and then, of course, you later have Islam who have their own take on how to relate the Bible to their holy book, called the Quran.
So in this review, that went more or less like I just told you, the final line was unforgettable. It said: So we have this book, which is many different writings of very different kinds. There’s a big, long first part; there’s a shorter second part. Some of it is the same; some of it is different. It’s incredibly interesting. Some of it is of very high literary caliber, like this gospel of St. John is one of the most beautifully crafted things that’s ever [been] written, but, all in all, it is really an interesting book, very recommended to be read. Then he ended with the words, or she, whoever wrote this review ended with the words: “And we are looking for another work by the same author.” And that’s how this review ended in The Village Voice that I read years ago.
I loved that, I must say, because it’s pretty accurate, actually. I’m doing it now from memory, but basically it’s pretty accurate what that person wrote. That’s exactly what the Bible is. It’s a collection of different writings from different times and different places, in different forms in different styles for different purposes, filled with repetition, filled with contradictions, filled with stories being told differently, sometimes right next to each other in the same book, stressing different things, and it really is a wonder how you could interpret this and what this is all for and what it is all supposed to be.
But, by and large, it’s still a very interesting book, and even in universities today you can take courses on it taught by people who don’t believe a word of it, and you still have all kinds of people interpreting it all over the place, trying to say all kinds of things in very different manner. And then you have, in our time, those who hold different understandings of this book engaging natural science and trying to say, “Well, how does natural science relate to this book?” which is not even a book; it’s a collection of books. It’s a bunch of writings, all different kind of writings: legal writings, legal codes, prophetic writings, apocalyptic writings, poetic writings, wisdom writings, historical writings, chronicle writings. A lot of the book are genealogies, just lists of people and so on, names of people that nobody even [knows] who they were, but very important, even that little book that forms the second part—in Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s gospel, you have the genealogy of Jesus himself, which is considered very important.
What kind of book is this anyway? What is it for? And therefore: how would you relate it to science? Because you’ve got to answer that question first, if you’re going to relate it to science. Or let’s put it another way: how you will relate it to science will be how you understand it, how you interpret it. That will be the way that you relate it to natural science.
Very simplistically—again, I repeat, this is all very simplistic; this is all very like a stream of consciousness, as you can see. I’m not answering any questions here; I’m just trying to raise questions. I’m just trying to get people to see what’s at stake here, if you’re going to try to relate, for example, the Bible and evolution, the theory of evolution of the Darwinian and post-Darwinian evolutionists to what the Bible says. Then you’ve got to know what the Bible is, what it’s trying to say, and how it might be related to what natural scientists are doing and what they are trying to say.
Very simplistically, I think that if Orthodox Christians, ancient Christians, and if you take the Church Fathers and earliest Christians who were reading these Scriptures, and they were relating them to the science of their day, there’s no doubt about it… Ambrose of Milan in the fourth century, Basil the Great in the fourth century, John Chrysostom in the end of the fourth century, beginning of the fifth century, they wrote interpretations, for example, of the Hexaemeron, the six days of creation in Genesis, and in doing that they were definitely dealing with the scientific understandings of creation of their time and trying to relate the Bible, what the Scripture was saying, to what the natural scientists of their day were saying.
We know that that happened all through history, and sometimes, we realize now, it was incredibly embarrassing for those who were “defending the Bible,” because we know that it happened in history that, lots of time, particularly in the West, in Western Europe, particularly with the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, not so much with the Orthodox, but certainly in the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, certain scientific teachings were just condemned and the people that held them were sometimes imprisoned or put in jail and excommunicated when they said the world was round and not flat, and it wasn’t simply a flat thing with pillars holding waters up above and waters underneath that kind of escape and create deluges like in the time of Noah, that God separated in creation according to Genesis. And then people who said that the earth is not the center of the universe, and that the sun is not going around the earth, but the earth is itself spinning on its axis, and it is moving around the sun. Then you have other constellations of stars and moons, and all these kind of things that have to be understood in some way, because they are the things that natural sciences are dealing with.
So how are they to be dealt with and why are they even dealt with in the holy Scriptures, and how would they be dealt with by believers and, very specifically for us now, how would they be dealt with by believers who believe in Jesus Christ, who believe in the Scriptures of the New Testament, those 27 books that form the shorter second half of the Bible, as the review from The Village Voice said? And then, if you’re reading those 27 writings that make up the New Testament and you interpret them a certain way, how does your interpretation then color or determine how you interpret the big first part that are called the Hebrew Scriptures or, by Christians, the Old Testament? In other words, the second part of the book is interpreting the first part of the book; the New Testament is interpreting the Old Testament. But how are you interpreting the New Testament in order to understand the Old Testament?
And then how are you doing all that and relating it to natural science? such as the Darwin’s Origin of the Species or the Theory of Evolution or Einstein’s relativity theory or whatever it might be, astronomy, the universe, the 100,000 billion galaxies with 100,000 billion stars that we know is not a theory; we know that that exists. And I would say, very clearly, we know that the planet Earth is way older than 1,000 or 10,000 years. It’s millions and billions of years old, most likely, and that’s pretty much a fact. It’s not just a theory; it’s a fact.
And it would be pretty factual also—certainly most scientists would hold today, even those who are believers in God and those who are believers in Christ and Christ crucified—they would definitely hold that some type of development of life kinds from primitive forms through amphibian forms, or water forms, amphibian forms, plants and animals and so on, are definitely connected to each other and come from each other by some type of actions upon them that cause changes that make different kinds of their beings come into existence, which they usually call different kinds of species, different kinds of genuses, different kinds of types of realities: plant realities, animal realities, fish realities, bird realities, and then ultimately the human reality.
And how that human reality is to be understood, too, because we should never forget that many people who held the Bible believed that black people, people with dark skin, were not really human; they were created with the sign of Ham or something, to be other people’s slaves. That was even held. Or class societies were defended by holy Scripture, and so on.
All of this raises these incredible problems, and there’s an explosion of those problems in the last 100, 150 years; I would say in the last 200 years, there’s just an explosion. Christians have to deal with issues that the Church Fathers and the saints and Christians up to that time never had to deal with, the kind that we have to deal with today.
But if we did just very, very simplistically, very superficially just try to say today in this little meditation how, basically, do Orthodox Christians approach the Bible? How do we understand what the Bible is? How do we use it? How is it exegeted? How do we come to understand it in a way that we think is the proper way that it should be understood? Well, it seems to me that there are certain things that can certainly be said, and I’ll just list them right now. I’ll just try to list some things that I think can certainly be said that are really not negotiable. I mean, if anybody is an honest person and they try to speak the truth and to do so, of course, with love, the way we’re supposed to, that these are some of the things that we would say.
First of all, we would say that it is true, what that review in The Village Voice says, namely that the Bible is a collection of books. Yes, it’s one book now, and it certainly does have a kind of a literary form as a whole. I mean, it begins in the Garden of Eden and it ends in the Garden of Eden. The first words of Genesis are picked up in the very last words of the Apocalypse, the 27th book of the New Testament that Christians think is inspired. So it is a whole; in some sense it’s a whole, and it has to be read as a whole. We Christians would certainly affirm that you can’t understand the Old Testament at all unless you also have the New. Here this would be a clear teaching of the New Testament itself.
One of the main teachings of the New Testament itself is that these various different kinds of books and writings that are found in the Hebrew Scriptures that have been brought together under one cover in recent times since these books were printed… Because in the old days, of course, you didn’t have printing; you had only manuscripts, and you had scrolls, and then you had folios that were written by hand. Very few people even had the whole thing. They had parts of it. Other people had other parts. And while it was developing, certain people had parts that the other people didn’t have. For example, I think it’s pretty clear to say that the writer who wrote the gospel according to St. John most likely did not have Matthew, Mark, and Luke as texts. He certainly had a similar tradition and probably knew about them, but he didn’t have them as texts.
So I think Christians would say, and certainly the New Testament Scriptures would say, that the Old Testament is a compilation of Scriptures. They’re even called that way in the New Testament. Very often they’re called Law, Psalms, and Prophets, which means: Law stands for the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible; Psalms stands for the Psalms and then generally the wisdom literature; and then the Prophets stand for the prophetic books. But there’s also the chronicles and the history books that are also there. Again, if you read Kings and then you read Chronicles, you’ll see that the same stories are repeated in both of them in different ways, substantially the same, but quite different, actually. Just like in the New Testament you have differences, for example, in the infancy narrative about Jesus’ birth in Luke as opposed to what is said in the story in Matthew.
So you have these differences, and these are faced by the holy Scripture. They’re not an embarrassment or anything else. There’s no reason why there’s anything wrong with that. The collection of the sayings and the traditions are put together in writing, and now we have the writings. Then, of course, there had to be a decision: which writings should be read and which writings should be burned, which writings are true and dependable and help us to understand the faith and God’s activity and who God is and what God does, and what books are not. So there are apocryphal books, both of the Old Testament and the New. Some of the books that are called apocryphal in the Old, some Christians put in the canon, like the books I mentioned earlier: Wisdom of Solomon, Prayer of Manassah, Esdras. Some Protestants say, “These don’t belong in the Bible.” Eastern Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholic, usually, will say, “Oh, yes, they do, and they’re good for reading and they’re inspired by God.” So you have [these] differences in the number of books.
I think that what we would say is, yeah, you’ve got a book called the Bible, but that Bible is a compilation of writings that were written over a period of time by people who were sometimes reading and rereading what was written and then writing something new on the basis of something old in order to interpret and to explain the activity of God of what was going on in their time on the basis of what God was allegedly doing before their time, as was written in these writings that refer to earlier periods. In other words, you have a development in the Scripture. You have a development in understanding.
For example, you just have a development in the name of God. In the first pages of Genesis, for example, in chapter one, God is called Elohim, which is usually translated “God”; it’s a plural word in Hebrew which is translated in English as “God,” in Greek as “Theos,” in Latin as “Deus.” But then, already in [Genesis] 2:4, second chapter, fourth verse, you have “the Lord God”: Adonai Elohim, or Yahweh, and that is the name that was given to Moses in the burning bush later, but now that word is used already in the second chapter of Genesis, and God is called Yahweh, “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be,” and even in… It says right in the Scripture, “You used to call me El Shaddai, the Most High God, but now you’re going to call me Yahweh.” So the name of God is even changed in Scripture.
Then how God acts, how God behaves, what he does: that keeps changing through Scripture, too. Not essentially changing, but it’s growing, it’s developing, it’s working itself out. And then Christians would say that the whole thing works its way out when finally you have the birth of Christ of the Virgin Mary, his life on earth, his crucifixion, his resurrection, his glorification. And Christians would say that’s the fulfillment of the whole story. And then Christians would say you can’t even understand the old story until Christ comes.
Here I will just read to you from the gospel according to St. Luke, because the gospel of St. Luke claims very, very clearly that the risen Christ opens the minds of his disciples to understand what all those other writings are really all about, what [they] are really all about. So I would say, if you’re interested in this, read the 24th chapter of Luke’s gospel, where Jesus is walking with his disciples; after he’s risen, they don’t recognize him. They say that we thought that this Jesus of Nazareth was the Prophet, he was going to be the one to redeem Israel, but he was put to death. The chief priests and rulers delivered him to the Gentiles, they crucified him, and now it’s the third day since that happened and some people claimed that his tomb is empty and that he’s raised from the dead. And then Jesus responds in St. Luke’s gospel, and he says:
“O foolish men, slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
So Jesus is now interpreting all of that to his disciples, being raised from the dead. Then they go in to the table, and they eat. They eat at a table, at the breaking of the bread, which Christians consider very important, because Christians believe that the Scriptures are properly interpreted when we eat the broken body and spilled blood in the holy Eucharistic meal, when Christ is present with us and we are with him in heaven, and the Holy Spirit is opening our minds to understand the Scripture.
When he’s sitting at that table in Luke’s gospel, and then he speaks to them and then he vanishes from their sight… He can’t stay in this world as Jesus in his body. He’s raised, he’s glorified, he’s on the throne in heaven. People now have to come to terms with those Scriptures, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that will be given to them from the resurrected and glorified Christ so they could understand the Scripture. Then, when these people go back and they’re traditionally called Luke and Cleopas—one is named Cleopas, the other is considered to be Luke but it doesn’t say his name, and that’s usually because the author doesn’t put his name—but in any case they said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” So these Scriptures have to be opened. And then they run back to Jerusalem, they go back to the Apostles and to Simon Peter, they hear that the Lord has appeared also there, that he has appeared to Peter, and then you have another appearance of the risen Christ who says, “I’m not a ghost; it’s really me. Handle me, touch me. You see a spirit has not flesh and blood,” and they still disbelieved for joy and they wondered what the heck’s going on here. Then he eats with them again, and then he said to them these words, according to Luke’s gospel:
“These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds (you have the same verb: opened) to understand the Scriptures and said to them, “Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem, and you are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you. Stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
And then the second volume of Luke will say that’s the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Now, the Apostle Paul makes exactly the same teaching that you find in Luke. In the letter to the Colossians, for example, the Apostle Paul, speaking about the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, speaking about what we call the Old Testament, what the Jews call the Hebrew Scriptures, he says very, very clearly that only Christ, the risen Christ, and the Holy Spirit of Christ [allow] us to understand the Scriptures in the proper way; that only he does that.
When one is not in Christ and believing in Christ and baptized into Christ and inspired with the Holy Spirit of Christ, they cannot understand the Bible. The Bible remains a closed book, no matter how scholarly you are, no matter how much you’ve studied Canaanite myths and literary styles of the antique world and compare the Judeo with the Egyptian or with the Sumerian or with the Syriac or whatever you’re doing, no matter how much you compare Hebrew to Aramaic and to Coptic and whatever, no matter how many studies you do, no matter how many historical, literary, archeological, paleontological [studies] you do, it still remains a closed book to you unless your mind is open so that you can understand these things through the illumination of the risen Christ.
This is why, by the way, in the Orthodox Church, during Great Lent when the Old Testament is read in the services, in the middle of the reading of the Old Testament, there’s a part where the priest lights a candle in a darkened church, comes out on the solea in front of the New Testament altar in the New Testament Church, and says, “The Light of Christ illumines all things.” The light of Christ illumines all men, all things, all reality, because it’s the light of Christ that allows and illumines us to understand the holy Scriptures.
This is what is written in the letter to the Colossians. This is how the Apostle Paul put it. He says this gospel is given to us in the beloved Son, and he’s the image of the invisible God; all things are made through him, in him, and for him; that in him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge; and that no one should be made prey of philosophy, empty deceit according to human traditions, according to elemental teachings, because the fullness of deity dwells bodily in Christ and we have come to fullness of life in him; we’ve been buried with him in baptism; we’ve been delivered from all foolishness with him; our sensuous mind is replaced with the mind of Christ; we have died to the elemental spirits of the universe; we begin to understand all things; and that we are actually renewed according to the image of the Christ who created us. And then he is saying this is how we understand all things.
Here we can take that Colossian letter, Ephesian letter, or anything, and then go back to the other letters of St. Paul. And the text that we really want to hear is not in Colossians, but it’s in II Corinthians, where he writes to the Corinthians the very same gospel, and he says we have the written code of the Old Testament, but we are the ministers of the New Covenant in the Spirit, not by the written code alone; it’s the Spirit that gives life. Then it says this new dispensation so far surpasses that of Moses, as he’ll say in the letter to the Hebrews, as the Son of God is way beyond the workmen who build the house of God; the owner of the house, he says, that’s Christ. It’s created with even greater splendor. Then he says this:
Since we have this hope, we are very bold. Not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not see the end of his fading splendor, but their minds were hardened, for to this day when they read the Old Covenant (which means the Old Covenant Scriptures), the same veil remains unlifted (because only through Christ is it taken away). Yes, even to this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds, but when a man turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from degree of glory to another. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
It’s interesting that in [the] Greek language, the term for “truth” is “unveiling”: a-letheia, which means “truth,” means to disclose, to to open, to unveil, to make clear. So the New Testament Scriptures will say unless you read them through the cross of Christ and his resurrection and glorification by the power of the Holy Spirit, your mind is still veiled. You can’t understand it. You can’t see what it’s really for.
Then in Colossians and then in Hebrews, the Apostle will say, the Scriptures will say that the Old Testament is a prefiguration that is fulfilled in Christ; that the Old Testament is a typos that is fulfilled in Christ, a type. The Old Testament is a skia, a shadow, that is fulfilled in Christ.
Then the New Testament will interpret everything in the Old Testament in terms of Christ. The real Adam will not be the earth-creature of Genesis but will be the man from heaven who is Christ. The real Passover will not be the Passover exodus of Moses, but will be the Passover of Christ from death to life when he’s raised from the dead. The real twelve tribes of God will not be the sons of Jacob but will be those built upon the twelve Apostles. The real manna that feeds is not going to be some bread in the wilderness; it’s going to be the bread of life who is Christ himself. The real tabernacle will be in [the] heavens, and we will go there with the risen Christ, who will be the real high priest according to Melchizedek. The real lamb of God will be Christ himself. The real blood that saves us will be his blood, not that of beasts and goats.
Everything will be fulfilled. Every word of the Old Testament, every word of the [psalms] will be seen to be about Christ, and Christ as the Messiah, Christ the final Prophet, Christ as the final Teacher, Christ as the final High Priest, Christ as the final King. And also, Christ as the poor one, the needy one, the afflicted one, the outcast one, the rejected one, the beaten one, the spit-upon one, the reviled one. All of this is all about Christ. That is how the interpretation of Scripture is in orthodox, ancient Christian tradition.
First of all, it is many books, the old prefiguring the new, very repetitious, not written at all for natural scientistic purposes. It is not about natural science at all; it has nothing to do with it. As a matter of fact, it gives the meaning of it; it shows the meaning of it all. It shows the purpose. It shows the origin and the end, as they say in fancy language, it shows the etiology and the teleology. It’s why it came to be in the beginning, but not necessarily in what manner it was actually done.
But we will speak about Genesis next time particularly; we’ll just take the Genesis account next meditation, but here we want to place Genesis in the midst of the whole Bible, and it is part of the whole Bible. The Adam and Eve story is part of the whole Bible. I should say Adam and Eve stories, because there’s more than one of them; there’s two of them. And how are they interpreted?
But here there is this order of interpretation, there’s the development of teaching, and we would say definitely that its purpose is not to teach archeology, paleontology, zoology, biology, anthropology in the naturalistic sense. It is not about that at all, not at all, at all. No part of it is about that at all. But it’s got to deal with that, and it can deal with it in a proper manner, but it is not about it.
Certainly the Genesis story is not about natural science, but the problem is: nowadays especially, when you say it’s not natural science, then anyone will say, “Of course not; it’s mythology.” It’s just myths. It’s just fables. It’s myths like any other myths. It’s poetry. It’s religion. It’s human beings trying to make sense of the things of God and the things of nature. It’s just one among many, many, many, many, many human phenomena of the nature of mystical or poetic or religious or symbolical or whatever you want to call it, trying to make sense of reality. Basically, this is the Judeo-Christian, maybe even Islamic, way of trying to make sense of reality, and of course they differ among themselves radically. Jews differ with Jews, Christians differ with Christians. Muslims differ with Muslims. Jews differ from Christians and Muslims, and everybody’s differing with everybody. So you still have the real issue of how to understand all of this.
But in the ancient Christian, Orthodox Christian way, we would say that it is not a choice between saying that the Bible teaches the truth about everything including natural science and that every word of the Bible was directly inspired by God and that there’s no mistakes or errors in the Bible whatsoever and that there’s a total consistency in what is said that can be easily harmonized—that is simply not true, and you don’t study natural science to see that that’s not true. You study the Bible to see that that’s not true.
You can say that the Bible is not about everything, but it is not about mythology, either, according to the Christian understanding and the Jewish understanding as well. It’s not mythology. In fact, if anything, as we’ll see next time when we speak about Genesis, the Bible is a demythologizing book; it is a dereligionizing book. It is, in fact, a polemic against false understandings of God, not false understandings of nature or science or birds and bees and animals and fish and plants, but about God and about the divine powers and how God is and who God is and how God acts and what God does and why he does it. That’s [what] it’s about.
We would say, Orthodox Christians would say: It is not a choice between fundamentalistic interpretation, where every word is about everything and it’s about science, too, or simply what is usually called “critical,” which I don’t like, because I think we should read the Bible very critically. We’ve got to make a judgment about it. “Crisis” means “judgment.” We’ve got to use our brain, our mind, our understanding. But sometimes fundamentalist interpretation is called “literal.”
And how many times in these books on science and religion, or tapes on science and religion, they’ll say about “the literal interpretation of the Bible”? Well, here I’m to say today this: we should not use that expression, because when people say “the literal interpretation of the Bible,” they usually mean “fundamentalistic.” They usually mean reading the Bible like a Quran, and the Bible is not a Quran. It did not fall from heaven intact. It was not dictated by God. It can be translated. The Quran can only be in Arabic, and you can’t translate it, and it’s a direct, whole book dropped from heaven by God himself. That is not how Christians, certainly ancient Christians, understood the holy Scriptures of the Bible, and it seems to me that anyone in their right mind cannot understand the Bible that way. It did not fall from heaven; it developed in human history.
But we also have to say, today, that the Bible is not history in the sense of modern history. It’s historical, to be sure, and it involves history, to be sure, and it’s basically dealing with God’s interventions and actions within history, to be sure, certainly the history of Israel for the sake of history of the whole of humanity, to be sure. And we could say more than anything else, the Scriptures are historical in their intention; they have to do with real acts in real human history, but they have to do with the acts of God interacting with real human beings in human history. And the Bible is basically about the interaction of God with the Jews and Jesus. It’s the Jews and Jesus, for the sake of understanding human history as a whole.
Sometimes, in fancy language, they say: The narratives in Scripture are the meta-narrative, the super-narrative, in which all other narratives and myths and traditions and religions are to be understood, to be criticized, to be discerned, that what is good and true in them to be affirmed and what is wrong in them and ungodly in them to be rejected. But here, also, the ancient Christian understanding [is] unlike certain modern understandings of so-called scientific study of Scripture as mythologies, of Jewish-Christian mythologies that are no different, no better than any other mythologies because they’re simply human understandings of things that are made up by humans.
Well, here the Orthodox Christians would firmly say, “That is not true.” As C.S. Lewis would say, “Just read the Bible. Just read the gospels, and you’ll see: this is not myth.” And if it is myth, it’s the myth that’s true; it’s the myth that’s historical; it’s the myth that happened. There’s also a modern writer named René Girard, who deals with myths, and he says, “The Bible is the key to understanding all the myths.” C.S. Lewis will say, “If you say the Bible is simply mythological, I’d like to ask you: How many myths have you read? I’ve spent my whole life studying myths,” he said, “and this ain’t myth.” In fact, it’s an attack against myths. It’s history, but history in the ancient sense, not in the modern sense. It’s history in man’s interaction, human interaction, with God, and the one true God, the God of gods, the Lord of lords, the King of kings, who is the God over all the other gods, who are not gods at all—it’s the action of this God in human history with real human beings, culminating in the incarnation of God as a human being named Jesus of Nazareth.
So, the Bible is not a Quran. It didn’t fall from heaven intact. It is not about everything. It is certainly not about natural science. It is not about history in the modern sense, of simply facts and data of what really happened. It is not without its errors in those particular regions, and it doesn’t really care about them much because it’s not really interested in them. What it is really interested in? It’s interested in God’s wonders and mighty acts with human beings on the planet Earth for the sake of the salvation of the whole of creation, beginning with human beings on the planet Earth, with humanity. That’s what it’s about.
As one great Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said, “The Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures,” and then I dare say he might say the New Testament; I don’t know; he’s not with us any longer, but I would say, quoting him and putting his teaching into our meditation today, we would have to agree with him when he said, “The Bible, the Scriptures, are not man’s version of God. They’re God’s version of man.”
The anthropomorphisms in the Scripture, because you’ve got to speak in a human form if you’re going to speak about God, are basically telling us not that we understand God according to ourselves, but that we have to understand ourselves according to God. As Karl Stern said in one of his writings (he was a converted Jew who became a Christian), “The Bible gives us a vision of humanity as theomorphic. It does not give us a vision of God as anthropomorphic.” It used anthropomorphisms: it speaks about God’s eyes or hands or souls or God’s soul or God’s eyes or God’s hand or God walks in the garden, especially the Yahweh Scriptures are very much “God is walking around all the time, talking to everybody” so it sounds like a human being.
That’s what makes some atheists say, “Oh, well, this is just a projection of humanity into God.” Feuerbach said, “The Christian God or the Judeo-Christian God is just the perfect human being as these people imagine it, and then they say it exists forever and they call it God.” We would say that’s absolutely not true, but what is true is that we can only understand ourselves in terms of the activity of God as recorded in the pages of holy Scripture in the various different kind of Scriptures that exist: law codes, stories, myths, fables, poems, historical events, all the different kind of literature that you have there, apocalyptic writings, imaginative fantasies, using strange type of language. Yeah, that is the truth.
All of that is inspired by God, but then it’s got to be read literally, which means literarily. It’s got to be [read] according to the kind of writing that it actually is. Until that happens, we’re not going to know how to dialogue with Darwin or Einstein or Kepler or Copernicus or Galileo or Stephen Jay Gould or those two guys who understood the DNA, Crick and Watson or something. We’re not going to be able to dialogue with any of those people.
My conviction is that’s why Christianity until now has been very poor in the dialogue with natural science, because the Christians themselves were doing one or two things. They were reading the Scripture like a Quran, thinking it was a book that fell from heaven, thinking that it told the truth about everything including natural science, and then screwed up the whole Bible in the process and then made a complete laughing-stock of believers in the face of natural scientists, who study the natural world and draw certain conclusions and simply say, “The Bible is nonsense. The Bible is ridiculous. The Bible’s not true,” because they themselves would say this science that the Bible is allegedly giving is not true.
But if you had answered and [said], “Hey, it ain’t about science!” Even Genesis is not about science, although it used the science of its day, which we’ll see next time. Then maybe you’ll have a different dialogue completely. And then you’ll have a different dialogue also with those people who would say, “The Bible is nothing but a bunch of myths and fables. It’s just a human invention. It’s stupid, basically. It’s ridiculous. It might be nice literature. Maybe they will review it in The Village Voice and say it’s a good thing to read, and maybe you can’t even understand Western European literature without knowing something about the Bible…” Can’t read Moby Dick without knowing something about the Bible. It begins, “Call me Ishmael, for I am an outcast.” Well, there you go. You’ve got Genesis right there. But a lot of literature, certainly European and American literature, you have to know the Bible.
But you can read it like living literature if you like, and it’s very interesting, but ancient Christians would say, “It ain’t living literature. It’s the Word of God.” It’s God’s Word in words. It’s the Scriptures by which you can understand the most important thing in the world, namely, that the Christian Gospel is true, that Jesus really is the Son of God, that all things are really fulfilled in him. He’s the fulfillment of Israel, and he’s the fulfillment of humanity. He is the perfect Jew; he is the perfect Adam. He is the perfect perfect everything. And that his crucifixion was essential, and his being raised was essential, and you can’t make sense of reality without him.
But then you still have the question: How does all of that relate to natural science? How should those who believe that interact with those who study the world, who study rocks, who study plants, who study trees, who study stars, who study the moon, who study energy, who study time, who study space, who study light? How is that interaction taking place? My opinion is: We haven’t even begun to start to do it properly, certainly from the Christian side, because if the Bible is either a bunch of fables and myths to be critically studied that’s no better or worse than any other human literature or if the Bible is considered like a Quranic book that fell from heaven that tells the truth about everything including science, then there is no way that ancient Christians and believing Christians and those who believe in the Scripture properly will be able to fit into the debate and to debate with natural science.
In other words, we’ve got to have the proper understanding of holy Scripture, and the proper understanding is neither fundamentalistic nor what you might call… I don’t know what you’d call it. I don’t want to call it “historical-critical” because I think we must read it historically critically and [literarily critically] and [with informed] criticism. All those things are important for understanding it, but the real understanding is given by the Holy Spirit coming from the risen Christ that removes the veil and we can understand how this really is God’s word and really does give us the insight into the reality of all things.
Then we can even understand how natural science, in its own realm, by its own methods, would relate to this particular metaphysical understanding, theological understanding of reality that’s revealed to us by God in Christ by the Holy Spirit, that is witnessed to in the Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament—the various Scriptures, the different kinds of Scriptures, which all come together as a witness to Christ and to the God of Christ, who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the God who inspired the writing of these Scriptures by his own Holy Spirit in the first place. So God help us to proceed, and next time we’ll talk specifically about the book of Genesis.