Orthodox America


  How to Read the Holy Scriptures


From a lecture delivered by Hieromonk Seraphim Rose at the 1979 St. Herman Pilgrimage, Platina, California

(continued from previous issue) 

FOR OUR reading of Scripture to be fruitful, to help save our souls, we must ourselves be leading a spiritual life in accordance with the Gospel. The Scriptures are addressed precisely' to those who are trying to lead a spiritual life. Others will usually read them in vain, and will not even understand much.. St. Paul teaches: The natural [i..e., unspiritual] man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned (I Cor. 2:14). The more one is leading a spiritual life, the more one is capable of understanding the Scripture.

      A second point. Because we are weak and can only boast of our infirmities, we must pray to God to open the eyes of our understanding by His grace Even Christ’s disciples on the road to Emmaus did not understand the Scripture; they did not understand that it was Christ in front of them interpreting the Scripture, until Christ Himself opened their minds (Luke 24:45). So unless we have our minds opened--which comes from the grace of God--we will read Scripture and not understand it; hearing we will not understand, seeing we will not see.

 

The Inspiration of Scripture

      Why do we say that Scripture is the inspired word of God? Among occultists and spiritualists there is a phenomenon known as automatic writing, in which a person is literally possessed by a spirit and writes without using his free will. In fact, the latest fashion in this kind of occultism is to sit in front of a typewriter and let the spirit take over your fingers, and "spirit messages" appear. This is not the way Holy Scripture is inspired. This is the way demons operate. St. Basil, in his introduction to his commentary on the book of Isaiah, writes:

      “Some think that the prophets prophesied in ecstasy, so that the human mind was eclipsed by the Spirit. But it is against the promise of God to give divine inspiration in an ecstatic state, so that when a person is filled with divine teachings he should go out of his normal mind, and when he gives benefit to others he should receive no benefit from his own words....And in general," St. Basil continues, "is it reasonable that the spirit of wisdom should make a man like someone out of his mind, and that the spirit of knowledge should annihilate the power of reason? Light does not produce darkness, but on the contrary awakens the power of sight given by nature. And the spirit does not produce darkness in souls; on the contrary, the mind which has been cleansed of sinful defilements is thereby awakened to mental vision or contemplation.'

      The revelation of Holy Scripture is thus given to pure and holy men who are in an exalted end inspired state but in full possession of their mental faculties. Those who wish to understand the Scriptures must likewise be struggling to lead a pure and holy life, receiving God's grace to understand what the Holy Spirit has revealed. St. Basil, in this same introduction, writes:

      “The first and great gift, which requires that a soul be carefully cleansed, is to contain in oneself divine inspiration and to prophesy of God's mysteries. [This refers to a person who writes the Scripture.] And the second gift after this, which likewise requires great and assiduous care, is to pay heed to the intent of what has been declared by the Spirit. and not to err in understanding it, but to be led up to this understanding by the Spirit." That is, the second great thing is to understand what these prophets, the writers of Holy Scripture--have written in their state of respiration. So we ourselves must be striving to receive God's grace and inspiration to understand the Scripture. Therefore, the labor of interpreting the Scripture is not an easy one. In fact, St. Basil teaches, 'here are many places in Scripture that are deliberately difficult to understand. How can this be? He writes:

      'Just as our Creator did not will that we should be like the animals and that all the conveniences of life should be born together with us [i.e., fur to clothe us horns to defend us, etc], so that the lack of what is ncessary should lead to the use of the mind; so, too, is Scripture He allowed there to be a lack of clarity is [sometimes] for the benefit of the mind, so as to arouse its activity. That which is obtained with labor somehow attaches itself more to us, and what is produced over a long time is more solid, while that which is obtained easily is not so much enjoyed." That is, we see that the Scriptures are deliberately difficult so that we might force our mind to be raised up to a stat~ of understanding and not simply receive on a platter an already obvious meaning.

      All this shows that the reading of Scripture is not to be taken up lightly, and it is not just to gather information which we can take or leave. Rather, it is for the salvation of our souls. And as we read we must be n the process of changing ourselves because this is the purpose of Scripture. If we are not converted: it is to convert us, if we are already converted it is so that we will work on ourselves more, if we are working on ourselves it is so that we will be humble and not think too highly of ourselves. There is no state in which Scripture is not applicable to us.

      All this is quite different from the teachings of those Protestants who regard Scripture as an infallible oracle (which is, in fact, similar to a belief in the infallibility of the Pope of Rome) and that man's common sense can understand its meaning. If you look at the innumerable Protestant sects you will see that they each have different peculiar interpretations of the same passages, and they all say theirs is the 'obvious' meaning. Sometimes they learn Greek, and they say that's 'obviously' what the Greek says, while someone else has exactly the opposite interpretation and he thinks it's just as obvious. How do you know what it really says?

 

How to Interpret Scripture

      First some examples of how to misinterpret Scripture

      There are in Scripture numerous passages which seem to contradict other passages. For example, Whosoever abideth in God sinneth not Whosoever sinneth hath not seen Him, neither knoweth Him (I John 3:9). According to the plain meaning of this passage you would think that a person who becomes a Christian ceases to sin. If this is so, why do we have confession? Why do we look at ourselves and see that we constantly sin? Does this mean that we are not really Christians? But in this same epistle we read: If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (I John 1:8). How can the same writer say two such seemingly contradictory, things? It's obvious that we must have a deeper understanding of both passages. We must understand that while we have the grace of God we do not sin; when we sin it proves we' have lost the grace of God, and we must struggle to regain it. We must recognize that there is a standard a model which we must follow, which is not to sin. We must not deceive ourselves in thinking that we are constantly in a sinless state; rather, we are constantly striving towards it, sometimes reaching it and then falling away That is our Christian lift. These passages must be read with an awareness of what it is to struggle as an Orthodox Christian.

      Again, St. Matthew says, Call no man your father on the earth (23:9). Many Protestants interpret this quite literally and thereby refuse to call any clergyman "Father". But even this same book of St. Matthew calls Abraham the father of us all (4:16). That, of course, concerns a father who is dead; that's one difference. In his epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul speaks of the fathers and prophets of the Old Testament; these are also dead. But he also speaks about living fathers: Though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the Gospel (1 Cor. 4:15). Here he says quite clearly that "I am your spiritual father." He doesn't say this in so many' words, so the Protestants overlook this passage. Nevertheless, he is saying that you have not many fathers, therefore you have some, and I am one of them because I have begotten you in the Gospel". That seems to contradict what the Lord says, Call no man father upon the earth. But here Our Lord is speaking about the One Father; there is One Who is Father in the sense that no one else is father. There are others who are fathers in the limited sense: there are some spiritual fathers, there are fathers in the flesh.., they are all fathers but different types Just as He says, Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, Even Christ (Matt.,23:10).

(To be continued)


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